“According to the flesh” — Doherty’s mythicist argument

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by Neil Godfrey

But it’s not that Earl advocates lunacy in a manner devoid of learning. He advocates a position that is well argued based on the evidence and even shows substantial knowledge of Greek. But it cannot be true, you say. Why not? Because it simply can’t be and we shouldn’t listen to what can’t be true. No. Not so quick.

[From Crosstalk message 5438 by Professor of Religious Studies, Stevan Davies of Misericordia University, author of Jesus the Healer and The Gospel of Thomas Annotated and Explained (see homepage) ]

It is easy to come across strong, even hostile, responses to some of Earl Doherty’s arguments for Jesus mythicism, though it seems few have actually read them. One of Doherty’s arguments in particular that has met with considerable scorn is his claim that the NT phrase translated “according to the flesh” does not necessarily mean that Jesus was thought have lived a human life on earth.

I add nothing new in this post, or nothing particularly new. This post is only intended to provide another platform for an opportunity to some facts about Doherty’s arguments to be made known. As I have discussed elsewhere, there are some areas where I find myself at odds with Doherty, and my views on the origins of Christianity are always tentative. But that does not prevent me from acknowledging that Doherty often has much stronger arguments than some of his critics (who often have not even read him) would have others believe.

The passage most often cited in connection with Jesus being “according to the flesh” is Romans 1:1-4

Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was [made]* of the seed of David according to the flesh (kata sarka), and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit (kata pneuma) of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.

* [made = genomenou]

In several NT epistles we find “flesh” having a mystical meaning, as noted in the post previous to this one. It does not follow, of course, that it therefore has a mystical meaning here, but the variety of connotations of this word does give us reason to be cautious before quickly jumping to conclusions about what the word “must” mean.

(What is significant here for establishing the meaning of “according to the flesh” or kata sarka is that the phrase is constructed to stand opposite kata pneuma, “according to the spirit”.)

Certainly there are places where flesh is used literally of the human body or human life in the NT epistles (e.g. 2 Cor. 12:7; 1 Cor. 7:28). The phrase itself, kata sarka, is used at times to refer to relationships (Rom. 4:1) and standards of this world (1 Cor. 1:26; Rom. 8:4).

I can only cite what others have said about the translation of “kata sarka” and Doherty’s interpretation of it, in particular. So, given Professor Stevan Davies’ observation of Doherty’s knowledge of Greek (quoted above), I read Dr Richard Carrier‘s discussion of this with some degree of confidence:

The actual phrase used, kata sarka, is indeed odd if it is supposed to emphasize an earthly sojourn. The preposition kata with the accusative literally means “down” or “down to” and often implies motion, usually over or through its object, which would literally read “down through flesh” or “down to flesh” or even “towards flesh.” But outside the context of motion, it frequently means “at” or “in the region of,” and this is how Doherty reads it. It can also mean “in accordance with” in reference to fitness or conformity, and in this sense kata sarka can mean “by flesh,” “for flesh,” “concerning flesh,” “in conformity with flesh,” and the like, meanings that don’t relate to the location or origin of the flesh. Presumably this is what biblical translators have in mind with “according to the flesh,” but I find it hard to understand what Paul would have meant to emphasize with this, other than what Doherty already has in mind. For example, the word kata can also have a comparative meaning, “corresponding with, after the fashion of,” in other words “like flesh.” And it has other meanings not relevant here. But the most common, relevant meanings of kata with the accusative do at least fit Doherty’s theory that Jesus descended to and took on “the likeness of flesh” (Romans 8:3), in which case kata sarka would mean “in the realm of flesh.” Nevertheless, though kata sarka does not entail that Jesus walked the earth, it is still compatible with such an idea. But many other strange details noted by Doherty are used to argue otherwise, and I think he makes a good case for his reading, based on far more than this. (Did Jesus Exist?)

Doherty comments on Carrier’s explanation:

As Carier goes on to detail, this inherent motion in kata often becomes figurative, and this is one of the senses in which I interpret it, applying both to human and divine situations: “in conformity with,” “like / after the fashion of” flesh, “in accordance with / in relation to” flesh, with “flesh” sometimes entailing the idea of sphere or location, namely the fleshly realm of corruptibility below the moon. . . . As stated, Carrier notes that kata can mean “at” or “in the region of,” and the latter meaning is also to be found in classical Greek (see Liddell and Scott). (p. 731, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man)

Doherty also points to interpretative possibilities advanced by C. K. Barrett in his Epistle to the Romans, p.20, that the kata phrases in Romans refer to something like “in the sphere of the flesh” and “in the sphere of the spirit”. (p. 89 of Jesus: Neither Man nor God).

He also cites C.E.B. Cranfield [International Critical Commentary: Romans, p.60] as allowing the possibility that kata means “in the sphere of”, “although he prefers to read kata sarka as encompassing the idea of ‘ongoing nature,’ something broader than simply the idea of ‘in the life span.’ Cranfield thus inadvertently points to an idea which is non-historical, fitting the timeless realm of myth.” (p.722)

I have not discussed the other portion of Romans 1:1-4 here, the part about Jesus being made of the seed of David. That is another discussion again. But there are a few points worth noting in brief:

  1. as shown in another recent post about the messianic views of Rabbi Akiba in the Bar Kochba rebellion, at least in the early second century it appears that a Davidic Messiah did not necessarily have to mean a literal son of David.
  2. there is no evidence, as far as I am aware, that there was any literal family institution “of David” in Judea in the Second Temple period.
  3. the Romans passage is explicitly referencing information as gleaned from the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures. And the idea of the Messiah being represented, at least, by David, is certainly found there. It was how Akiba interpreted the Son of Man passage in Daniel 7, too.
  4. the passage in Romans is not the most perspicacious in the Bible, and the use of kata sarka is especially uncertain. What is certain is that it is an unusual way to refer to someone being naturally descended from David.
  5. I personally suspect the phrase kata sarka is intended to point to something similar to what we read in the Ephesians passage in my previous post: it is pointing to a condition or state that is meant to be understood as the polar opposite of the spirit condition. It is not referring to a life on earth any more than kata pneuma is referring to an ongoing life in heaven. Both are references to bodily states (and spirit beings, as others like Riley have pointed out, certainly were said to have ‘bodies’) as they function in specific mystical or spiritual roles for theological purposes. Compare the Logos, as Philo and others seemed to believe, appearing in different states of being for the momentary (or, paradoxically perhaps, “timeless”) purpose of fulfilling a particular will of God.
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0 thoughts on ““According to the flesh” — Doherty’s mythicist argument”

  1. Paul uses the words ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ as dichotomous opposites for theological reasons.
    ‘Spirit’ is good.
    It comes from god, it comes from faith in christ.
    It leads to salvation.
    ‘Flesh’ is bad.
    It come from lack of faith in god and christ.
    It leads to various nasty things, sin, lust and their ilk and separation from god and christ.

    Galatians is chock a block with this theological metaphor.
    One example:
    Galatians 5.16ff
    “For I say walk by the spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh, for the desires of the flesh sre against the spirit ….now the works of the spirit are plain …[list of nasties]….but the fruit of the spirit is …[list of nice things]…”

    In Galatians Paul describes the son of Hagar as being ‘according to the flesh’ [4.23] and then explains that this is ‘allegory’, Hagar is slavery and her and her son are contrasted to the ‘free’ child of ‘promise’ Isaac the other son NOT born of the flesh [ he obviously was, at least according to the story, but not for the purpose or in the sense of Paul’s theology] but of ‘promise’.

    ‘Flesh’ does not mean ‘flesh’.
    It is the opposite of ‘promise’ and ‘spirit’.

    In Romans Paul tells us that Christ was born “in the likeness of sinful flesh’.
    He of course could NOT be born of flesh because that would mean he was ….sinful/ lustful/not in god and so on.
    The son of god can’t be impure.
    He had to be ‘in the likeness’.
    And the purpose of this ‘apparently sinful flesh’?
    Romans 8.3ff
    “for sin he condemned sin in the flesh in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us ….”. Paul has lots more than expands on this need for Christ to sacrifice ‘apparent flesh’, which equals sin etc, so that ‘we’ can walk ‘not according to the flesh but according to the spirit”

    So all those who walk according to the spirit are not in the flesh.
    Well obviously the people who Paul is addressing are real physical flesh and blood human types so when he says’
    Gal 8.9
    “But you are NOT IN THE FLESH, you are in the spirit…”
    he is not refering to phantoms whatever but using a metaphor that divides people into 2 categories, the good believers in god and christ who are in the spirit and will receive salvation and the fleshy types who will not.

    The use of ‘flesh’ by Paul has no relationship to a physical corporal body.
    It is a theological metaphor.
    It has no relevance to a historical JC whatsoever.

      1. I appreciate the nice words Neil.

        Just to hammer the point re ‘flesh’ and christ home look at Galatians 5.17 ff.

        “17] For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.
        [18] But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.
        [19] Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,
        [20] idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit,
        [21] envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
        [22] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
        [23] gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.
        [24] And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

        1.If Paul meant JC was really born according to the flesh then JC has to have the attributes Paul lists above…..”fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing.”

        Hmmm. That IS a strange messiah type fella.

        2. Clearly that is not what Paul wants or believes which is why JC is merely “the appearance of flesh’.
        He is not saying, cannot, that JC is all these fleshy things, and therefore that JC “shall NOT inherit the kingdom of God”, that would be absurd.

        It follows that JC does not, according to Paul, have the corporal human body that orthodoxy wants.

        3.Note that those who ‘belong to christ’ whilst having real corporal historic bodies, cos they are real people Paul is addressing in these epistles, can “crucify the flesh” [5.25], thus illustrating that neither ‘crucify’ nor ‘flesh’ are to be taken literally but are meant metaphorically.
        I suppose if you are orthodox you could suggest a crucifixion initiation ceremony, physical or symbolic, if you are desperate. Not that that would really help.

        4. ‘Born of woman’ is simply another attribute of being born in the appearance of the flesh.
        Its another negative.
        I understand that contemporary Judaism required a purification after a woman gave birth and that the ritual was more demanding when the child was female.

      2. I think there was once a time — perhaps when I first encountered Doherty’s work some years ago — when I was exploring this sort of polarity as the primary meaning of flesh-spirit in the NT epistles, but Doherty’s new book has prompted me to revisit and reexamine these passages and see them afresh. I think information overload got in the way for many years. I was trying to read and learn everything. So I appreciate your elaborations of this point with more extensive evidence.

        Then I saw that there was nothing historical about the concept of “the cross” in Paul — it was entirely a theological concept. I guess the rest of my brain is catching up now with seeing “the flesh” in exactly the same light.

        I am acquiring a renewed respect for Doherty’s view that the spirit-flesh appearances of Christ really were like the twinkling mutations of a being in heaven. That it had to be in heaven is the best way, I am beginning to see, that makes sense of ancient thought patterns with their “as above, so below” view of things; as well as the actual wording and messages (and absence of earthly references) of the NT epistles in this respect.

        What’s helped me on my journey has beent re-reading from new perspectives Philo, Enoch and other Second Temple Apocalyptic literature over the past quite few months.

        I’m beginning to think Doherty’s case does make the most sense, but now I think I can argue it from my own understanding. But I still think Doherty is way too conservative on Q, and the Cynic traditions-Heavenly being divide of Burton Mack.

        There are many other ideas out there, but one has only one life-time and it is impossible to explore them all in the same depth.

        Thanks for the additional references. I might make future reference to them.

      3. Like yourself I haven’t got a lot of this stuff, if any, absolutely clear in my mind yet, possibly because my mind was formed during the 20th C not the 1st.
        Doherty’s stuff was above me the first couple of times I read it, my latest reading has prompted the thought that what he says is really pretty simple and uncontroversial [or should be] or at least deserving of more than simple dismissal.
        Progress I suppose.
        But I’m not a Q fan.
        Ah there are so many tangents in this field.

        The idea that the ‘cross’ and thus the crucifixion was not literal is new to me too, dunno who I learned that from.

        The dichotomous non-earthly nature of flesh vs spirit I got mainly from conservative orthodox believer in an historical Jesus F.F. Bruce and his ‘Commentary on Romans” Tyndale Press London 1963.
        In the words of Maxwell Smart, he came ‘this close’ to an MJ, of some sort, but his world and scholarly view, that old paradigm which Davies talks about in your post, got in the way.
        Still a very informative book, worth reading.

        Back to ‘flesh’.
        There is a reference in Paul I Cor 5.4 about the fornicator:
        “[4] When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus,
        [5] you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

        This puzzled me for a while, still does a bit, of course.
        What does it mean?
        Kill him? Really, actually ‘destroy’ his flesh?
        Or a ritual in which flesh is symbolically destroyed, the converse of the eucharist?
        What is Satan’s role?

        It either means killing the fornicator, which I doubt, or some ritual in which flesh and spirit are, yet again, seen as metaphors for sin/truth, faith/faith-less, in/out of christ and god.

        The problem we face with the conventional assertions that ‘according to the flesh/born of woman/brother of the lord” are alleged evidences for a real live historical JC is that each is usually presented by orthodoxy totally out of their own contexts.
        We argue, ‘we’ as in orthodox scholars, over the tiny detail, the shape of the leaf, when the big picture, the forest of [genuine] Pauline writings tells us clearly and consistently that they are metaphor in the first two cases, as seen by reference to 3 of Paul’s works, and a collegiate comradely term for fellow believers in the latter.

        I suspect obfuscation, sometimes unconscious, perhaps even conscious.

        I remember reading Mike Goulder donkey’s years ago and thinking that this guy was sailing close to the wind as to being an HJ denier.
        And then later I found out he had left the church.
        Got too close.

        Then, more recently, I read Bishop Spong who wrote how much he admired Goulder’s work [regarding Q] but Spong still stayed within the church as a believer.

        He came ‘this close’.

      4. Spong was quite saddened when his tutor Goulder left the faith, I have heard. But Spong’s Jesus is really ahistorical. He only “knows” of Jesus in a mystic sense, from my reading of him. He concedes there is no historicity in the gospels, so pleads that the authors were struggling to express their mystic understanding of Jesus through allegory, metaphor, etc.

        So I guess mysticism is still one option once you see there are no supports for the historical Jesus.

        Some years back I had the opportunity to meet Spong, shake his hand and thank him for helping me on my way to atheism 🙂

      5. What I think hit me this time round about the flesh-spirit syzygy(?) we are addressing is how antithetical to this concept is any idea of a gospel narrative of a man (or even a god-man) walking around Galilee performing miracles and teaching codes of conduct and states of mind really is. It is like trying to mix oil and water. The gospel narratives, at least read historically, simply don’t relate at all to the message of the epistles. They really are a completely different gospel that wipes out all idea of the message in the epistles.

        Historicity really destroys the gospel.

        One begins to see why Marcion is said to have treated the narrative gospel as something open to ongoing modification and that was decidedly not “the gospel” at all — only Paul’s message was “the gospel”.

  2. Ephesians 5:30 KJV “For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.”

    Ephesians 5:30 NRSV “because we are members of his body.”

    I wonder why the modern evangelical biased translations dropped that bit about his flesh and bones. 🙂

    1. In Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, he cites Eph. 5:30 as a clear case of an addition made in order to combat Docetism. The phrase “of his flesh, and of his bones” wasn’t in the early manuscripts, but it magically appeared when Irenaeus started writing against these “heretics.”

      1. As in several other cases (like when he says the Ebionites and Marcionites are ‘polar opposites’) it is clear Ehrman is wrong. Eph 5.30 does not combat docetism, but enables it because it uses flesh and bone in a non-literal way and thus enables the docetist to argue that these words are not literal in the gospels. Clearly the removal of the phrase was made to combat docetism. The phrase is original.

  3. The rioutous diversity of the Christianities of the first half of the 1st century that Paul is dealing with in his mythic gospel, slowly gets whittled down as the church fathers seek a pedigree justifying their power. By the time the church and the state are married, it is absolutely essential that the church trace itself back through the apostles to an historical Jesus. No matter what Paul wrote or meant, and no matter that Mark, Mathew and Luke-Acts can be understood as midrash, they came to be interpreted as history. No questions asked. No questions allowed. Subsequent centuries layered the onion.

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