Doherty, the sublunar realm, and Paul: correcting some disinformation

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by Neil Godfrey

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My recent posts regarding Earl Doherty are largely for the purpose of offering a public corrective to some common claims about his arguments that are, for whatever reason, simply false. My own views are more exploratory than definitive, especially on Paul’s letters. But I do hate to see any misrepresentation so hopefully this post can clarify a thing or two for some who genuinely want to know.

One common erroneous view is that Doherty’s view of “the sublunar realm”, and the activities of its spirit occupants, does not extend to earth itself. (See, for example, some of the responses to my post Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world. McGrath, apparently relying on internet gossip and smugly assuming that Doherty’s views somehow conflicted with Aristotelian basics, felt it necessary to post links to online articles explaining the Aristotelian cosmology. Despite being informed otherwise he has continued to speak of Doherty’s supposedly erroneous views of ancient cosmology.)

Yet on the first page Doherty where speaks of the place of demons in ancient thought in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, he writes of the demons inhabiting the area below the moon and extending their activities to earth itself:

But even the spiritual dimension has its denizens of evil and less-than-perfect elements: subordinate spirits, lesser and fallen angels, even inhospitable landscapes; in a layered universe, gradations can be accommodated. Still, the boundary between incorruptibility and corruptibility was generally placed at the lowest division between the spheres, namely the orbit of the moon. The term “firmament” is sometimes applied to that point of delineation, but it can also refer to the area immediately below the moon which is not part of the earth itself. . .  [There are various other terminologies of “firmament” not discussed here.] . . . In this system, the demon spirits, part of the realm of incorruptibility, were located in the area below the moon, although their activities extended down to earth as well. (p. 112)


Demons were regarded as filling the very atmosphere of the earth and were thought to cause most misfortunes, from personal accidents and sickness to natural disasters. (p. 36)

On the “rulers of this age” in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 Doherty expresses the well-known view that demons wielding authority behind the scenes were thought to influence the events on earth.

In both pagan and Jewish parlance, the word [rulers – archontes] could be used to refer to earthly rulers and those in authority (as in Romans 13:3). But it is also, along with several others like it, a technical term for the spirit forces, the “powers and authorities” who rule the lowest level of the heavenly world and who exercise authority over the events and fate (usually cruel) of the earth, its nations and individuals. That invisible powers, mostly evil, were at work behind earthly phenomena was a widely held belief in Hellenistic times, including among Jews, and it was shared by Christianity.

There has not been a universal scholarly consensus on what Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 2:6 and 8 . . . [Doherty then presents an argument for it to mean the demons] . . . Rather, Paul envisions those in the present age who have controlled the earth and separated it from Heaven, the evil angelic powers, are approaching their time of “passing away” (2:6) . . . (pp. 104-5)

He refers to a number of passages in Paul that speak of these demonic powers dwelling above the earth. So in  Ephesians 3:9-10 [*See comment #3 below for correction: Doherty does not attribute Ephesians to Paul.]

Here the rulers . . . are identified as the ones in the heavens. (p. 105)

On Ephesians 6:12

also speaks of . . .” cosmic powers, authorities and potentates in this dark world, the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens.” (p. 105)

Doherty discusses scholars who have described such passages alluding to spirits in the planets and heavens, as well as some of the second century Christian notables and gnostic writings. He looks at many other passages in NT epistles, in particular those relating to Christ’s crucifixion.

The intertestamental period:

The intertestamental period witnessed a fixation on these evil spirits, in which one theory and another saw them as forces which needed redeeming, overcoming or simply destroying, something that God had promised. (p. 109)

1 Enoch: The fallen Watchers were to be either imprisoned within the earth (ch. 14) or in a ‘terrible place’ neither in heaven nor earth (ch. 21) for their sin of bringing death and evil into the world.

Testament of Solomon: Provides readers with magical powers to establish control over demons.

The “realm of the flesh” as extending to the area of corruptibility even a way above the earth is described with reference to a standard reference work:

As a deity descended from the higher levels of pure spirit, he passed through ever degenerating spheres of the heavens, and could take on an increasing likeness to lower, material forms as well as an ability to suffer fleshly fates, such as pain and death. The lowest level of the spirit realm was the firmament below the moon and above the earth. This was the domain of the demon spirits — in Jewish parlance, of Satan and his evil angels — and it was regarded as closely connected to the material earthly world; together, as falling within the sphere of corruptibility, they could be thought of as the “realm of the flesh”. As the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament puts it (vol. VII, p. 128), the demonic spiritual powers belonged to this realm of flesh and were thought of as in some way corporeal, though they possessed ‘heavenly’ versions of earthly bodies. Even the angels “have flesh or at least appear to have it” (op. cit., p. 143), though it is a different “corporeality” between humans and angels. (See the reference to the “different flesh” of angels in Jude 7.) (pp. 114-115)

In this connection it is obviously of interest that the epistles consistently imply that Christ took on only the “likeness” of flesh. See, for example: Romans 8:3, Hebrews 2:14 (“in like manner” = paraplesios, means “similar to”, and not “identical” with the thing itself, as in Philippians 2:27), Philippians 2:6-11, Apocalypse of Elijah 1:6.

The Ascension of Isaiah, possibly dating from the late first century, illustrates a Jewish belief in the firmament above the earth being the abode of Satan and his demons. It also shows the belief that the happenings in the world above were reflected in those on earth.

Ascension of Isaiah 7:9-12, 28

9. And we went up into the firmament [Knibb (translator): ‘the vault of the sky, here thought of as separating the earth from the seven heavens’], I and he, and there I saw Sammael [Satan] and his hosts; and there was a great struggle in it, and the words of Satan, and they were envying one another. 10. And as above, so also on earth, for the likeness of what (is) in the firmament is here on earth. 11. And I said to the angel, “What is this (war and) envying (and struggle)?” 12. And he said to me, “So it has been ever since this world existed until now, and this struggle (will last) until the one comes whom you are to see, and he will destroy him.”

28. And again he took me up into the fourth heaven, and the height from the third to the fourth heaven was greater than (from) earth to the firmament.”

In chapter 10 God commissions the Son to descend through the heavenly spheres, changing his form at each level into the one like the spirits living at each level in order to disguise his real identity, to continue descending through the firmament and right through to Sheol (presumably below the earth), but not as far as realm of “Perdition”:

8. Go out and descend through all the heavens. You shall descend through the firmament and through that world as far as the angel who (is) in Sheol, but you shall not go as far as Perdition. 9. And you shall make your likeness like that of all who (are) in the five heavens, and you shall take care to make your form like that of the angels of the firmament and also (like that) of the angels who (are) in Sheol. . . .

I leave the Ascension of Isaiah at this point. There is much to discuss here, and Doherty does examine the scholarship published on the various manuscript lines for this text, the possibility that references to Jesus are later Christian insertions, the hanging of the Son on the tree by Satan and the Son’s overcoming and judging of the evil powers and reascent into glory, the evidence for gnostic Christian insertions, and the later insertion of the nativity scene as evidenced in the different manuscripts. The point is to offer another example of the understanding of one “cosmological” view and the place of demons and spirit activity in it.

A gnostic text (possibly pre-Christian), Eugnostos the Blessed, contains an even more complex vision of the heavens and angels above the earth:

And when those whom I have discussed appeared, All-Begetter, their father, very soon created twelve aeons for retinue for the twelve angels. And in each aeon there were six (heavens), so there are seventy-two heavens of the seventy-two powers who appeared from him. And in each of the heavens there were five firmaments, so there are (altogether) three hundred sixty firmaments of the three hundred sixty powers that appeared from them. When the firmaments were complete, they were called ‘The Three Hundred Sixty Heavens‘, according to the name of the heavens that were before them. And all these are perfect and good. And in this way the defect of femaleness appeared. . . .

. . . . the powers appeared who were called ‘gods’; and the gods from their considerings revealed divine gods; and the gods from their considerings revealed lords; and the lords of the lords from their words revealed lords; and the lords from their powers revealed archangels; the archangels revealed angels; from <them,> the semblance appeared, with structure and form for naming all the aeons and their worlds.

All the immortals, whom I have just described, have authority. . . .

Some, Indeed, (who are) in dwellings and in chariots, being in ineffable glory and not able to be sent into any creature, provided for themselves hosts of angels, myriads without number for retinue and glory, even virgin spirits, the ineffable lights. . . . .

Additional illustrations of beliefs about the nature of the various heavens, including the “sublunar realm” and the “Great Demon” suspended midway between heaven and the earth, from ancient texts of the period, are included in How Literal was the Mythical World?

Doherty on Paul’s cosmology

While reference can be found to the divide between spirit and flesh, between incorruptibility and corruptibility, there is in this context no reference to the moon in Paul or any of the other epistles of the New Testament. But we have seen that Paul subscribed to the idea of multiple layers of heaven. And in the Greek Septuagint, and increasingly in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, there is a clear distinction between the realm of spirit and the realm of flesh, between the spheres of heaven and earth. So we know it was a widespread idea even in Jewish circles (see the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII, p. 119f). Several Jewish sectarian writings have been examined which offer a wealth and variety of divine activity going on in the spheres of heaven.

But a universally agreed-upon systemization of any of the ideas of the ancient world never existed. One school’s or philosopher’s views might gain prominence and adherents, but Gnosticism is a good example of riotous and uncoordinated variations on a theme. Thus we cannot be sure how Paul or early Christianity in general conformed to various Middle Platonic and biblical concepts. (pp. 157-8)

The above has been an attempt to clarify one of the points on which there appears some widespread misinformation. Doherty’s references to the “sublunar realm” are actually attempts to contextualize common beliefs among Jews and pagans about the activities and locations of the spirit world. The scenarios of ancient beliefs Doherty describes are well documented and nothing controversial.

This is not the whole story. There are many additional texts to cite. There is also the myth of the Fallen Watchers and their progeny on earth, particularly around the Mount Hermon area in upper Galilee, and which I have posted on recently (and also included in Doherty’s own discussions).

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5 thoughts on “Doherty, the sublunar realm, and Paul: correcting some disinformation”

  1. I have put an order to my library to get Doherty’s “neither god nor man” It is referenced frequently and it seems to be a favorite with mythicist. The most intriguing part of what I’ve heard from his work is all of this sub lunar realm business. Paul for his part rarely discusses his cosmological ideas. Even when discussing trips to heaven or demons he doesn’t divulge the nature of the things and places. Even his knowledge of Philo is questionable. While he uses ideas that are similar to Philo’s Paul doesn’t elaborate much on the spirit or the Christ relation to God. Paul can be used to support any number of ideas because of his lack definition. I’m not sure Paul’s audience would be so in the dark, but I think every one else has been for a long time. This issue with Paul not giving the background information to understand his arguments is one of the complaints I have with the mythicism. Paul isn’t just silent about a Jesus of history but a Jesus of myth too. I had been compiling a list of every thing Paul says about Jesus or Christ, I may have to revisit that.

  2. One thing seems to have been lost in some of the internet criticisms one reads of this sublunary idea. All it refers to is the common assumption that the area from the moon to the earth was the area of corruptibility and change. The moon’s appearance is in constant change, and even the appearance of it when full displays an uneven colouring of shiny and darker patches. From there down to earth, we have more changeable phenomena, sometimes destructive — clouds, lightning, storms, winds, comets, meteors (these latter were also thought to be atmospheric phenomena). By “atmospheric” ancients thought of the whole space betwen earth and the moon to be filled with something like air or atmosphere.

    Finally the most corruptiblity or changeabity was found at the lowest point below the moon, the earth itself. Tides, erosion, earthquakes, growth and decay, etc.

    There is nothing unusual or unique about Doherty’s understanding of any of this. It was the commonly understood way of how everything was among Hellenistic times.

    Above this area of corruptibility was the realm of perfection — the planets (living things, because since they moved they must be living or moved by living things), the sun, the stars, were thought to show no signs of the corruptibility and decay seen below the moon. And since the circle was the “perfect” movement, it was understood they all moved in circles, too. And this was the area of the higher spirits or gods.

    All space had to be filled with something. Vacuums were generally conceded to be an irrational or impossible concept. So the space between the moon and earth was seen as occupied by spirits, too. And since this was the area of decay, these spirits or demons were the powers of corruption — mostly negative, often evil.

    But there were many variations on this basic theme. We find these variations in both pagan and Jewish writings. Including gnostic ones, and some early Christian texts, too.

    There is nothing controversial or new about any of this.

    All Doherty is attempting to do is to help modern readers understand a bit more of the ancient world view. We tend to read Paul through modern eyes. He is asking that we attempt to enter a bit more into the thinking of the ancients themselves and to read Paul from their perspectives. THAT, it appears, is what is controversial and unacceptable to many. He is advancing the idea that instead of reading Paul and other NT epistles through the lense of the Gospels, we read them through the common thinking of their day when they speak of ‘heavenly powers’ in relation to the crucifixion.

    But the sublunary concept is only one part of a much larger pictur Doherty explores. There are more “intellectual” concepts relating to heavenly mediators (Logos, Reason . . . .) among both pagan and Jewish thought. There are also popular cult factors. To get an idea of some of the breadth of issues he addresses see: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/how-and-why-scholars-fail-to-rebut-earl-doherty/

    Read through these thought systems we begin to see that they say a whole lot more about the “spiritual” or “heavenly” Christ (Paul didn’t think he was a “myth”!) than we have hitherto noticed. There are passages in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, Hebrews that all speak of the crucifixion in relation to these heavenly entities (and other passages that speak of Christ being in the “likeness of flesh”), yet historicists insist on interpreting these as metaphors or symbols — and then accuse Doherty of explaining away “facts” by interpreting them “metaphorically”.

    Some laugh at what they hear on the internet about Doherty’s views by pointing to passaages about the “seed of David”, etc. All they are doing is showing their ignorance of ancient concepts and Doherty’s arguments.

    Associate Professors who accuse Doherty of ignorance of ancient cosmology are themselves culpably ignorant, IMHO.

  3. Hi, Neil. Just signed up to be able to comment. I’m a Jesus Myth proponent and have read Doherty’s prior book. One issue with something you wrote in this section which I’ll paste again below…

    “He refers to a number of passages in Paul that speak of these demonic powers dwelling above the earth. So in Ephesians 3:9-10

    Here the rulers . . . are identified as the ones in the heavens. (p. 105)

    On Ephesians 6:12…”

    Does Doherty identify Ephesians as a work by Paul or have you mistakenly attributed it to Paul? Just wondering because I did bring up a problem with one of Doherty’s ideas in an email and pointed out to him that Ephesians was most likely not written by Paul (many scholars believe this is the case) regarding the “mystery” idea because one verse he wanted to say was a ref to the gospel was actually a ref to the mission to the Gentiles. IOW, Doherty was not allowing for a separate author to speak for himself and was simply superimposing Paul’s language onto that verse in Ephesians.

    Anyway, interesting stuff and one thing I plan on doing is reading more about Q. I’m not convinced it’s existence is needed to explain anything in the gospels. To me it’s pretty simple. Mark wrote first. Matthew copied and edited. Luke then used Mark and Matthew and those parts not in either were created by Luke himself and modified as he saw fit. Maybe that’s not convincing enough. Anyway, thanks for the reviews of Doherty’s new book. I’d have bought it but $ was an object.


    1. You are right. My mistake. Doherty does not attribute Ephesians to Paul. He references Ephesians in the middle of a discussion about what Paul does write, but says for the point in question that the author of Ephesians “is consistent with general Pauline expression . . . .” Not the same thing.

      Thanks for pointing this out. (Will add a correction in the post.)

  4. No problem. I am going to peruse more of the posts later as I enjoy this topic. There are a few issues that I’m still wanting to find good explanations for and I think I have some answers but the evidences are scattered here and there in my mind. 🙂


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