No. (But historicists do argue for interpolations and interpret contrary evidence metaphorically.)
This is another misinformed assertion advanced by some who appear never to have read mythicist publications. I most recently noticed it in a response to another post by James McGrath complaining that mythicists do or don’t do or argue this and that, and again without offering any specific examples to inform readers of the basis for his accusations.
I show here that the exact opposite is the case. You know what they say about false accusations being projections etc. It is indeed the historicists who explain away contrary evidence as metaphor, and it is the “historicists” who are the ones who have made the arguments for interpolations.
Humanity and Historicity
The first point one needs to address in the implication that humanity of Jesus, or his existence in the flesh, must by definition mean Jesus was a historical figure. This is a false assumption. Many mythical figures have been described or implied as “human” or having “bodies of flesh”.
The accusation, I think, usually is targeted specifically at what the person believes Doherty argues.
The only interpolations singled out in Paul’s letters by anyone who advances a mythical Jesus (at least from my readings) are those that are strongly argued to be interpolations by scholars who have expressed no interest in mythicism, and who almost certainly would accept a “historical Jesus”.
The classic example is 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16. This was argued by Birger A. Pearson in 1971 in the Harvard Theological Review to be an interpolation, with further linguistic evidence in favour of the passage being an interpolation published by Daryl Schmidt in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1983.
Pearson’s arguments can be summed up in 9 points:
- The passage begins a second “thanksgiving section” in the letter — something that appears to be an anomaly in Paul’s letters
- This same passage begins with a repetition of the same words and phrases (or identical ones) as had been already written in 1:13ff.
- The passage intrudes into a ‘travelogue’ or ‘apostolic parousia’ section, something used by Paul to declare his travel plans and desire to be with the congregation, etc. — Paul nowhere else breaks up a ‘travelogue’ section
- The passage urges one church to follow another church as an example — while elsewhere (including in chapter one of this same letter) Paul commands his churches to follow him, or praises them for doing so, as he follows Christ
- This passage points to a period of persecution of Christians in Judea between 44 and 66 (when the Jewish War against Rome began) b.c.e. — there is no other evidence for such persecution
- The description of Jews as “hostile to all men” is found elsewhere among secular anti-semitic literature of the time — it contradicts Paul’s favourable views of Jews in other letters
- This passage blames the Jews for the murder of Christ — Paul never blames them in other letters, but does accuse “the rulers of this age”, a phrase that is found in other literature to refer to archons or angels and demons
- The passage says that the Jews have filled up their sin quota, meaning that there is no longer any way for them to avoid condign punishment from God — something alien to Paul’s thought elsewhere about the Jews, and to the fact that Paul could boast about being a Jew himself
- The phrase for “to the utmost” means that the Jews have at last, finally, in the past, received their ultimate punishment without any more hope, and many commentators say that this could only refer to the event of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. — while in Romans 11 Paul speaks of ongoing and future hope and promise of salvation for the Jews.
Schmidt’s linguistic arguments arrived at the following conclusions:
- the passage contains content that does not fit well in 1 Thessalonians
- it has content that does not fit well into Pauline thought in general
- it intrudes into the overall structure of the letter
- it is built around an unPauline conflation of Paul’s genuine expressions.
I have discussed these more fully, along with attempted rebuttals of these arguments in one of my posts on Eddy and Boyd.
Robert M. Price has also suggested a few passages in Paul are interpolations, but he is hardly engaging in special pleading when he does. Firstly, I don’t think all such passages are related to Jesus’ humanity. Secondly, he generally cites scholars who have written specialist monographs on the question of interpolations in Paul, such as William O. Walker, Interpolations in the Pauline Letters, and (if I recall correctly) Winsome Munro, The Identification of a Pastoral Stratum in the Pauline Corpus and I Peter.
Finally, to reject a priori even the likelihood of interpolations in Paul is naive at best, and in defiance of all we know of the frequency of interpolations in ancient literature generally, and the evidence for varying textual readings of Paul through the second century specifically.
I know of no justification for the claim that mythicists attempt to get around references to Jesus’ humanity by claiming any such indication in Paul is an interpolation.
Since posting the above I realized a significant oversight of one recent partial exception. I discuss this in comment #6 at the end of this post.
Historicists claim contrary evidence is metaphorical
As for the accusation that mythicists engage in some sort of desperate exit strategy by declaring any passage in the NT epistles as a metaphor if it speaks of Christ’s humanity, this is again simply false. In fact, it is the historicists who resort to the metaphor interpretation in order to explain away passages that make little sense of Jesus’ sacrifice being a historical one.
Take The Epistle to the Hebrews. This describes Jesus’ sacrifice being made in the Holy of Holies in a Heavenly Temple. I think that scholars and lay readers alike who believe in the historical Jesus who was crucified outside Jerusalem (and not in a heavenly temple) have regularly interpreted the descriptions in Hebrews as a metaphor or figurative language.
Hebrews contrasts the earthly Temple, priesthood and sacrificial system with a heavenly temple, high-priest and sacrifice. The heavenly counterpart is said to be superior. Just as it was the sprinkling of the blood by Moses that initiated the old covenant, so it was Christ’s sprinkling his own blood in the heavenly holy of holies that inaugurated the new covenant.
I have never heard any who believes in Jesus historically being crucified outside Jerusalem interpret Hebrews as anything but a metaphor for that historical event.
Mythicist Doherty, on the other hand, discusses Hebrews at length and demonstrates that the metaphorical interpretation fails to withstand clear-headed scrutiny. There is a very good case to make that the author of Hebrews was not metaphor, but a description of contrasting earthly and heavenly settings and actions. (Other Jewish literature, such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, also describes sacrifices occurring in heaven.)
Mythicist does not accept metaphorical interpretation
As for how Earl Doherty does interpret passages that speak of the “flesh” of Christ, or his being “the seed of David”, one does not have to make uninformed assertions. One can read in his Jesus: Neither God Nor Man that he generally denies a metaphorical or figurative interpretation of such passages.
The word “flesh” is also applied to Christ, first in descriptions of him, both in a ‘literal’ and mystical context. Paul sometimes speaks of Christ’s flesh in ways that could never be interpreted as referring to a human Jesus of Nazareth on earth; they are to some metaphysical, supernatural dimension of Christ — and not merely in a metaphorical way. (p. 160)
Then there are those cases where the word “flesh” is used quite mystically, hardly a reference to an earthly event of life, such as joining Jews and gentiles in his “body of flesh,” or entering a spiritual sanctuary “through the curtain of his flesh.” This is not mere metaphor; this is Paul’s view of metaphysical reality and Christ within it. (p. 163)
Since this idea [‘the body of Christ’] crops up repeatedly throughout the Pauline corpus, always with a tone of literal actuality, we ought to take Paul as referring to what is for him a literal spiritual “body of Christ.”
There is no reason to dismiss all this language as poetic metaphor . . . . (p. 167)
And since the thought of people like Paul already contained so much of a mystical nature that could hardly be rationally explained, such as the inclusion of humans in the spiritual “body” of Christ . . . (p. 172)
1. Christ’s form/substance when he descends to the realm of corruptibility to suffer and die and take on an inferior nature (the “likeness” of something belonging to that realm). Here, the term Paul always uses is “flesh”.
2. The heavenly form/substance which Christ regularly possesses when he is not in the realm of No. 1. This includes the mystical entity . . . Here, the term Paul always uses is “body”.
These writers talk of Christ’s “body” entirely in the mystical, spiritual terms we have been examining (p. 176)
I recently posted my own observations of the use of “flesh” in the NT epistles with a mystical or spiritual meaning, and certainly not a metaphorical one.
I also addressed a few points on Doherty’s own argument for the meaning of “according to the flesh” in another post.
A full exposition cannot be undertaken here. Anyone new to the idea might consider the many mystical references to Christ’s body, such as Christ being united with the fleshly bodies of believers on earth, and the implications of such ideas throughout Paul’s writings. (I would also suggest the possible relevance of a Jewish belief that a Davidic messiah did not have to be a literal son of David.)
If anyone parrots the claim that mythicists explain away passages referring to Jesus’ “humanity” as interpolations or metaphors, hold them to account. Require them to justify their assertion.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- The Big Question We Should Be Asking of Human History - 2021-12-06 22:51:36 GMT+0000
- A New History of Humanity — And Hope for Those of Us Who Want It - 2021-12-05 09:02:13 GMT+0000
- How the Holy Spirit Replaced Jerusalem in a Power Game - 2021-11-05 07:56:55 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!