Introducing Doherty: his preliminary observations on ‘A Heavenly Christ’

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by Neil Godfrey

Cosmic Christ
Cosmic Christ by Alex Grey: Image by eworm via Flickr

In between (re-)reading at least half a dozen other works I have had a chance to catch up again with Earl Doherty’s new book, Jesus: neither God nor man: the case for a mythical Jesus. My last post with reference to Doherty was my response to the introduction to this work. Here are some comments on my reading of his first chapter.

My notes do not by any means represent the extent and depth of Doherty’s work. I am merely picking out tidbits that I find easy and interesting enough to share in a few words.

The natural way to preach the message

Doherty refers to Peter’s speech in Acts 2:22-36 as being the sort of message that one might expect the early Christian evangelists to preach among new audiences. He talks about Jesus the man, his astonishing deeds on earth, and though crucified, how he was exalted to heaven where he was made Lord and Christ.

This would surely have been the most natural and inevitable way Christian discussion and preaching would proceed. The movement had supposedly begun as a response to a human man. (p.19)

It was the man Jesus who had had such a profound impact on his followers and that led them to abandon their homes and families, their old customs and livelihoods.

But it’s not how the evidence tells us it happened

But what do we find in the letters of Paul and other early writers? They start with the divine Christ, the figure of the Son in heaven, and make their faith statements about him. And there is no equation with an historical man, a human preacher and prophet who had recently lived. Paul believes in a Son of God, not that anyone was the Son of God. (p. 19)

Paul summed up the core of the message he had passed on to the Corinthians:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor.15:3-4)

Doherty wonders why the identity of the human incarnation of this Christ was not part of the central message — even why the incarnation itself is not central. But he grants that we may suspect Paul omitted such “preliminaries” in a summary like this. So he turns to Paul’s “definition” of Father and Son:

yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (I Cor.8:6)

Doherty opines:

This is language very reminiscent of Greek philosophy. But it would seem that a fundamental description of the Son is not to include the fact that he was incarnated in the person of a human Jesus, the man through whom information about the Son was presumably derived. Such an idea Paul never mentions. (p. 20)

Faith is very important in Paul’s writings:

  • Faith in Jesus as the way to life
  • Faith God raised Jesus from the dead
  • (Faith that Jesus died, apparently from some passages)
  • Faith God has revealed the mystery about Christ now
  • But no reference to faith that the man Jesus of Nazareth had been incarnation of this Son, etc.

Other epistles contain “quite fantastic” descriptions of this Son:

He is the image of the invisible God, his is the primacy over all created things. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created. . . In him the complete being of God, by God’s own choice, came to dwell. Through him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself. . . . (Col.1:15-20 NEB)

Here is a being who is the very reflection of God, the very agent through whom God created the universe, the same one through whom he holds it all together, yet there is not a single mention in the entire letter that this same supremely exalted being was once a man on earth who had died the death of a criminal and had been exalted to become part of the Godhead. Was not faith in such a man able to find any place any such writings? Compare also the book of Hebrews.

The question that scholarship has never asked, yet is the most natural one of all

In Paul, “Christ appears to have significance only as a transcendent divine being.” (Doherty cites Herman Ridderbos, Paul and Jesus, p.3) The “historical and human traits” of Jesus in the Gospels disappear. It appears that the Gospels and Paul are “moving in two entirely different spheres”.

But the question which New Testament scholarship has never asked is the most natural one of all: suppose Paul made no such leap? If all we find in Paul’s presentation of Christ is this transcendent divine being whose activities are never linked to history or an earthly location, is there any justification for assuming that Paul’s Christ arose out of Jesus of Nazareth, out of the human figure who appears for the first time only in Gospels that were written some time after Paul? (p.21)

The traditional view of Christian origins means that someone or some group decided to apply all of the following sorts of things to a human being and to go out and preach them for the first time:

  • a pre-existent being, existing for all time with the Father, before the world
  • the world was made through him
  • the world is sustained and held together by his ongoing energy and power
  • he is the redeeming agent in God’s plan of salvation
  • he reconciles the entire universe to God
  • he has subjugated demon powers
  • he is lord over all angelic powers

This level of elevation of a mortal far surpasses anything like the Roman emperors being designated divine “sons of God”. It is “virtually unprecedented in the entire history of religion.” (p.22)

Yet we are to believe not only that Jews were led to identify a crucified criminal with [a divine being exalted as above], but that they went about the empire and practically overnight converted huge numbers of other Jews to the same outrageous — and thoroughly blasphemous — proposition. Within a handful of years of Jesus’ death, we know of Christian communities in many major cities of the empire, all presumably having accepted that a man they had never met or in most cases even previously heard of, crucified as a political rebel on a hill outside Jerusalem, had risen from the dead and was in fact the Son of God and redeemer of the world. (p.22)

We have no record of who might have carried out such a missionary activity (the communities existed before Paul got to them). We cannot expect fishermen to have grasped the philosophical concepts of the Greek Logos and Jewish personified Wisdom that lay behind these divine images of Jesus. Besides, Paul’s letters contradict the idea that there was any such missionary activity throughout such a widespread area from the Peter and James of Jerusalem.

More remarkable is that there is no record of any attempt to justify such a belief. No record of any opposition to it. Circumcision and the cross were issues that needed justification, but never the exaltation of a mortal to such a supremely divine status.

Though scholars suggest that such exalted concepts were applied to a historical Jesus. But Doherty’s reply is worth considering:

But this scenario runs into problems. Such groups, being distant from the places of Jesus’ ministry and forming after his death, would have had no contact with the man himself. One has to wonder  how anyone, gentile or Jew, would have been impelled to create such a cosmic product out of someone they had never laid eyes on. There is no question that what was allegedly made of Jesus owes much to Hellenistic (Greek) ideas, but these ideas not even gentiles had ever applied to an historical person. (p.23)

And it existed before Paul

Paul had persecuted the Christ cult in Judea. His letters contain snippets from earlier Christ cult doctrines. His differences with Peter of Jewish food laws would have been insignificant had he and Peter disagreed over the way Paul exalted Jesus to such an exalted divinity. Paul mentions many of the challenges and struggles he faced, but not once does he suggest he ever had a difficulty with exalting a crucified mortal to a cosmic deity.

But why?

Was he exalted because of his teachings?

But Paul and the Christ cult followers did not make much of his teachings.

Because of his miracles?

Those are not mentioned by the Christ cult sources either.

Was his death seen as a typical “noble death” such as that of a famed teacher or warrior?

But “noble deaths” focus on the life that was lived and that was being given up — the focus is on how the death is the result of devotion to his country, his teachings, his followers, or his religion. Jesus’ death has nothing to do with his life, his teachings, or his followers. “Dying for sin is not in the same category”. (p.24)

But if a group is going to elevate its teacher to divinity and apply every philosophical concept of the day to him, why would it at the same time strip away everything to do with the human life he had lived, the life that supposedly had engendered their response to him in the first place? Why would it create mythological statements, hymns and creeds about him which contained not a single identifiable reference to an earthly presence and identity? (p.24)

Was it a mythological overlay of an historical person?

how are we to understand it as such when the object of the interpretation is never mentioned? Since the epistle writers themselves give us no hint that they are “interpreting” a human man, are not scholars guilty of ‘reading into’ the documents things they wish to see there, rather than what the documents actually say? (p.24)

Finis chapter 1

This is only an introductory chapter. Doherty here is raising the questions he sees as validly thrown up by the evidence. He offers to explore them in depth in the following pages. As I said in my previous post on Doherty, we do have our differences. He covers questions I am still in the process of exploring. I post this here because I like the questions he asks and think them worth serious responses.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Introducing Doherty: his preliminary observations on ‘A Heavenly Christ’”

  1. And it existed before Paul

    Paul had persecuted the Christ cult in Judea. His letters contain snippets from earlier Christ cult doctrines. His differences with Peter of Jewish food laws would have been insignificant had he and Peter disagreed over the way Paul exalted Jesus to such an exalted divinity. Paul mentions many of the challenges and struggles he faced, but not once does he suggest he ever had a difficulty with exalting a crucified mortal to a cosmic deity.
    The obvious reason Paul had no difficult re this issue is that he was doing no such thing ie exalting a crucified mortal to a cosmic deity.
    Paul was preaching theology/spirituality not giving a historical discourse. Those who had come before him – historically not gospel storyline – would know the difference between spirituality concerns and historical realities. The dying and rising god mythology is very ancient. Early christians probably more aware of this type of storyline than many people today.

    The bigger issue for mythicists is not the gospel crucifixion storyline but the fact that Paul knows that he is a latecomer to the party and that there was a Jesus movement, a ‘salvation’ movement, that had an earlier history. Yes, Paul, probably, took things in a new direction – but to imagine that Christian history has its historical core with Paul’s vision is to cut out any historical reality that might be at the core of Christian history. It would make the gospel storyline superfluous, meaningless. Something, I’m afraid, that mythicism is in danger of doing. Methinks that Wells has seen this danger and realized that spirituality concerns, if they are to have any relevance for living on earth, need to have a grounding in historical reality. Hence his idea re a historical non-crucified Cynic type preacher figure.

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