Earl Doherty’s Antidotes for a James McGrath Menu.

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by Neil Godfrey

Earl Doherty has visited James McGrath’s Matrix Restaurant and sampled for himself all 23 items offered on his Menu of Answers for Mythicists. Here is the first part of Earl’s complete culinary report on his experience along with tips for other prospective diners.

Herewith a response to Jim McGrath’s blog feature A Menu of Answers to Mythicists

Dr. Jim McGrath has kindly offered historicists who visit his Matrix restaurant a handy “Menu of Answers” to arguments and claims put forward by mythicists. With his white napkin of pre-washed orthodoxy draped securely over his forearm, waiter McGrath hands diners his menu and wishes them “bon appetit.” The problem is, the entrées on this menu as often as not produce indigestion, since they have not been properly cooked with reason at fallacy-killing temperatures, seasoned with critical acumen or sautéed in clarity, and the accompanying beverage list offers only the cheaper vintages of biased brews. So I would like to offer a selection of antidotes, guaranteed to restore equilibrium to the digestive system and a measure of rationality to the world outside his establishment, since at the end of the day we all have to return to it.

Menu Entrée #1:

Jesus and Entrées at other Establishments

The management of the Matrix may complain that it is not an argument, in and of itself, to merely mention legendary or fictional figures like Hercules and Sherlock Holmes in the same breath as the legendary and fictional picture of Jesus in the Gospels, and it is certainly valid for them to maintain that such comparisons need to be argued in-depth.

On the other side of the coin, however, neither is it an argument, in and of itself, for historicists to wear their own comparison hat—a far more popular fashion statement on their side—and claim that there is as much evidence for Jesus as there is for, say, Julius Caesar (in fact, a bust of this historical worthy adorns one of the Matrix pages with that clear implication), while ignoring the vast differences in extent and quality between the two sets of evidence. Unlike Jesus, Caesar authored his own writings, he sired children, coins and sculptures bear his likeness, multiple historians (not religious devotees) wrote of him soon after, some immediately upon his death; and the subsequent history of Rome would be inexplicable without him having lived, whereas the picture of Christianity’s development enjoys other explanations. Nor are there a vast number of subsequent Roman writers who, offering a history of their nation’s past, fail to present Caesar as an identifiably historical individual.

Menu Entrée #2:

“Don’t ignore the existence prior to the writing of the Gospels of the phenomenon that would in later times come to be referred to as ‘Christianity.’ Suggesting that the Gospels were composed after Paul’s letters but that they were merely intended as fiction for entertainment is not going to work.”

What mythicist is supposed to have ignored the prior state of the movement before the Gospels appeared? That’s where some of the most persuasive evidence lies that the Gospel figure did not predate the Gospels (and the later stratum of Q). And the Gospels as fiction or allegory, whether for entertainment or educational/inspirational purposes, will in fact “work” as a feasible proposal when it is demonstrated that so much in them has been artificially constructed on the basis of scripture, that they bear more than a few marks of allegory and symbolism, and that nothing in them can be securely identified as “history remembered.” Add to this the fact that the later evangelists do not treat Mark as history since they feel free to change anything they like at will. Nor can a source in oral tradition be claimed when none of the Gospel details show up as existing tradition in the earlier non-Gospel record.

Menu Entrée #3:

Galatians 1:19

The waiter’s description of this Entrée is muddled. “Brother of Jesus” seems to be a reference to Galatians 1:19’s “the brother of the Lord,” the point seeming to be that ambiguous meaning can be eliminated through context. The problem with this dish, however, is that no side-order of context is included with it. Historicists have very little if anything to clarify the ambiguity of the phrase in the direction of their preferred ‘sibling of Jesus’, whereas mythicists have their own side orders: an almost exclusive majority of usages of ‘brother’ in the epistles as referring to a fellow believer, as well as a lack of identification of the alleged authors of the epistles of James and Jude as being brothers of Jesus. Of course, the Matrix and its sister establishments offer as a substitute a special seasoning called “begging the question.” Since the Gospels identify James as Jesus’ sibling, Paul in Galatians must be doing the same.

Menu Entrée #4:

“The quest for the historical Jesus and the criteria of authenticity do not presuppose the historicity of Jesus. They seek to demonstrate it in the only way possible.”

Good luck getting any, let alone all, of the Matrix’s patrons to agree that they truly do not presuppose the historicity of Jesus. Too many of them adopt quite a different stance: we believe Jesus existed, we’ve always believed it (and how could so many have been wrong for so long?), therefore the evidence in the record must point to that. Any ambiguity is a priori resolved; mythicism is automatically a crock. Besides, the entrée contradicts itself. If historicism’s quest “seeks to demonstrate” the existence of Jesus, it has already made up its mind. And if that mind has already been made up, then it is no longer a quest entailing a lack of presupposition. So the conclusion exists before the quest to prove it. How likely, then, that the ‘proof’ sought and found will not be slanted and free of fallacy? Moreover, on what is that prior conclusion based if not on the proofs which the quest seeks? We all know the answer to that: faith and received wisdom; and we also know how reliable such things have always been in the history of ideas.

Anyone who would not presuppose the historicity of Jesus should be willing to give mythicism equal and unbiased consideration, rather than knee-jerk rejection and ridicule. At the very least, the Matrix would offer two balanced menus, somewhat as some culinary establishments have a separate vegetarian menu. Of course, a restaurant which regarded vegetarians as vagrant nut cases would be unlikely to let them in the door.

Menu Entrée #5:

“If you think that it is reasonable to expect the same evidence to be left behind by an itinerant exorcist and an emperor, you clearly have yet to begin giving this matter the serious thought it deserves.”

If the historicist finds it reasonable to expect that any itinerant exorcist whose impact was so great that he could immediately upon his execution as a crucified criminal be turned into the heavenly Son of God, creator and sustainer of the universe and redeemer of humanity through his resurrection, could nevertheless leave virtually no contemporary evidence of his existence behind, no sign of interest in his earthly incarnated life to be found among his followers in the pre-Gospel record of Christian correspondence, a willingness among a host of Jews and Jewish converts to accept the blasphemy of turning a mere man into the very emanation of the God of Abraham, then such an historicist has clearly yet to begin giving the matter any thought at all.

Menu Entrée #6:

“If one disqualifies literature as a possible source of historical information, then one must treat Socrates, John the Baptist, Paul, and a great many other figures in the same way as Jesus.”

Socrates, John the Baptist and Paul have indeed all been subjected to examination for authenticity, as have many other figures in world history. Nor does any mythicist automatically “disqualify” the Gospels as possible sources of information and support for the historicity of their main character. But the key word here is “possible.” A survey of those Gospels and the early Christian record as a whole leads the unbiased investigator to judge that possibility as low, and to come to the conclusion that Jesus is very probably an entirely fictional character. In fact, that possibility is so low, with very little concrete evidence to back up Jesus as historical, that the burden of proof devolves on historicists, something they refuse to admit and deign to undertake except in the most superficial way. (Popular but half-baked side orders like Josephus and Tacitus are usually relied upon to give the entrées any flavor at all.)

In fact, the very lack of concrete evidence is illustrated by the entrées on the Matrix Menu. Their ingredients seem to be nothing but abstract principles having dubious applicability. Ambiguity can be resolved by context, but no actual context is presented as part of the recipe. Documents cannot automatically be disqualified, but no proof of qualification has been added to the pot. A prophet cannot be expected to leave behind better remains than an emperor, but where, even in the Gospels, are the historical remains of a man who was reputed to be no less than the divine Son of God descended from Heaven (something that ought to outrank an emperor)? Where is the actual meat and potatoes on this menu? Where’s the beef? Historicism would die of malnutrition if it had to subsist on the diet offered by the Matrix.

More to follow. . . . .


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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “Earl Doherty’s Antidotes for a James McGrath Menu.”

  1. ‘ Since the Gospels identify James as Jesus’ sibling, Paul in Galatians must be doing the same.’

    In fact, ‘Luke’ knew that ‘Mark’ had given the name James as a brother of Jesus, and ‘Luke’ knew that there was a church leader called James, and Luke/Acts never once hints at any connection between those two people.

    If there had been any oral tradition of this James the church leader being a brother of Jesus, then ‘Luke’ would not have airbrushed it from history. This after all was the man who was so desperate to find family connections that he made John the Baptist a cousin of Jesus.

    1. “This after all was the man who was so desperate to find family connections that he made John the Baptist a cousin of Jesus.”

      I don’t agree. I can think of two examples in Luke that seek to distance Jesus from his family. The first one is obvious: Jesus is presented as being sired by the Holy Spirit (1:34-35), so Joseph is not really his dad: “…being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph,” (3:23).

      The second is 18:20-21: “‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’.”

      Is there anything else in Luke that makes you think he was “desperate to find family connections”?

  2. I think I can fix this…

    Luke had to mention that Jesus was betrayed by a disciple because it was too embarrassing to ignore.

    And Luke never mentioned that Jesus had a brother called James because it was too embarrassing that Jesus had a brother who did not completely support the Pauline doctrines.

    1. “And Luke never mentioned that Jesus had a brother called James because it was too embarrassing that Jesus had a brother who did not completely support the Pauline doctrines.”

      You don’t seem to mean this seriously, but I think that your statement actually hits the nails on the head. It’s what I suspect, anyway.

      1. The other possibility is that Luke knew of a tradition that said James was the “brother of the Lord” — but understood it in the way that Jews meant Adonai. That is, James was not the brother of the Master, Jesus, but of God, hence the very early liturgical tradition that still persists in the East of calling him Ιάκωβος ο Αδελφόθεος.


        But we’ll never know in any case, because Acts effectively pushes James off the stage and focuses on the two superstars, Peter and Paul.

        1. But Luke knew Mark, and Mark knew that Jesus had a brother named James:

          “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended in him. And Jesus said unto them, ‘A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,'” (Mark 6:3).

          This is another great example of how gospel writers try to distance Jesus from his family. I don’t get the impression that they mention his family to support his humanness, but rather are having trouble dealing with the fact that he had one, and that they, in reality, as Steven put it above, “did not completely support the Pauline doctrines.”

          1. John: “This is another great example of how gospel writers try to distance Jesus from his family.”

            No argument here. But why?

            There are those who theorize that the downgrading of James occurred when one sect of Christianity, those who followed the teaching of Peter and the Twelve, split from the main Jerusalem core, represented by James and the family (either real brothers or spiritual brothers). And part of the propaganda involved the marginalizing of James by turning him into an early unbeliever and later nearly erasing him from the story.

            Is Mark telling you that Jesus’ family thought he might be a few loaves and fishes short of a basket, because he wanted to portray his humanness, or was he doing it for other reasons? Here are some possibilities:

            a. There was a logion that went something like: “Jesus motioned to his disciples and said, ‘These are my brothers and my mother.'” And Mark created a framing story around it.

            b. The evangelist wanted to prove Jesus was a prophet by relating a story about his family and home town rejected him. “See? Just like the prophets of old, nobody believed him.”

            c. Mark was part of the Pauline or Petrine sect of Christianity and wanted to discredit James and the Brothers.

            d. It made for a great story. The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God. You (the reader) know that Jesus is the Son of God. Mark introduces suspense into the gospel — when will people figure it out?! Jesus is working miracles; he’s kicking the Devil’s butt; he’s preaching a new doctrine “with authority.” When will the disciples and his family come to their senses and acknowledge what we know to be true?

            One last thing. Paul tells us that James experienced a Christophany just before Jesus appeared to “all the apostles” and then to Paul. Where is this in the Gospels and Acts? Has it been edited out for sectarian purposes?

            (Note: I know I need to finish Eisenman’s James, the Brother of Jesus, but I swear it’s the book that never ends. It’s like the TARDIS: bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.)

            1. “I know I need to finish Eisenman’s James, the Brother of Jesus, but I swear it’s the book that never ends.”

              It’s funny, I remember when it came out. I happened to see an ad for it in the newspaper. I had never heard of James before, let alone the idea that Jesus had a brother. I had read a few things about the Dead Sea Scrolls before, but aside from Gaster, who was my entirely random introduction to the Scrolls (and an interesting one, I feel, in hindsight), nothing made the Scrolls seem “alive” until I read Eisenman (whom I’d also never heard of). Something just “clicks” for me with Eisenman, and I’ve never understood the problem people have, firstly, with his ideas, and secondly, with how he presents them. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in two days, and many times since (in addition to his other books and articles). I have to agree with some people’s assessment of his style though, when it comes to The New Testament Code. It seems as redundant, badly edited and difficult to read as some people find “James,” and I’ve never enjoyed it the same way. It doesn’t seem necessary if you have “James” and his other stuff, though someday I might appreciate it more. I get the impression that he wanted to put out “everything” while he has time left. I agree with Price that, “Those who found James the Brother of Jesus too long, too redundant, too circuitous, will only find those sins magnified here. One almost feels Eisenman, like an apocalyptic scribe, wants to make his readers prove their mettle by working for the pay-off. Reading the book, despite its very fascinating revelations, must frankly be called an ordeal … But you are just going to have to soldier on. It is worth the time. Whether Eisenman is correct in his apparent conviction that it is necessary to cover every relevant document, surveying all possible cross references, and doing it again every time he comes to the same item in the next document, I cannot say. But he does make his case that there is an inescapable commonality of terminology and conceptuality, sometimes used ironically or satirically, between a mass of texts which need to be placed together on a mental map if one is to grasp the shape of the religious world in which they all float as continents. And the first achievement of The New Testament Code hard won through this methodology, is the realization that the Dead Sea Scrolls stem from the mid to late first century CE (equivocal Carbon dating results no longer even being relevant), and that they represent the sectarian baptizing Schw‰rmerei known variously as the Essenes, Zealots, Nasoreans, Masbotheans, Sabaeans-and Jewish Christians headed by James the Just.”

        2. Mark’s gospel is riddled with symbol and parable and it would be hasty for us to take for granted that his reference to the family of Jesus was derived from a tradition of a literal flesh and blood family. It is not unlikely that he is addressing those who claimed “brotherhood” with Christ/the Lord and allegorizing them in the role of physical relationships.

      2. But your explanation is completely ad hoc.

        If somebody doesn’t mention an elephant in a room, we can’t just say that he didn’t like the attitude of the elephant.

        1. Or, to put it another way, ‘Luke’ has brothers of Jesus as believers in the story right up to the very instant that there is a public church.

          And then, like almost every other Gospel character, they vanish as though they had never existed – as completely as though they were spirited away by the Angel Moroni.

  3. ‘….he could immediately upon his execution as a crucified criminal’

    I find it very hard to get historicists to say that Jesus was a crucified criminal by telling me what crime he had committed.

    If Jesus had committed blasphemy, why were his followers not attacked as blasphemers?

    If Jesus was seen as a rebel, why were his followers not attacked as rebels?

  4. Mcgrath seems to be saying “you can’t prove Jesus didn’t exist” and the menu items are a list of reasons why various mythicist points are not “proof.”

    Mcgrath is correct. Mythicists can’t prove Jesus never existed. Nor can we prove that aliens from Andromeda did not build the pyramids at Giza. Metaphoricall speaking, Mcgrath reminds us, ‘just because Earl Doherty shows it’s possible that the Egyptians built the pyramids themselves doesn’t prove that aliens weren’t actually responsible for their construction.’

    Of course, if your identity and world view pivots on the pyramids being built by little green men, then any doubt is enough.

    On the other hand, who has their sense of self worth riding on Jesus being a myth? Nobody. And Mcgrath does his best to exploit this “flaw” in Doherty’s hypothesis. Clever.

    1. Some time ago I questioned McGrath on his definition of “possible”. His understanding of the word is not constrained by known physical laws of nature, but by whatever one can imagine. So when McGrath talks of what is possible in history, he really does include aliens building pyramids and resurrections from the dead. The only constraint he places on such possibilities is “probabilities”. Maybe there’s a theoretical rationale he can appeal to in there somewhere, but I really do think he has spent too long lost in the unrealities of science fantasy and abstruse theological speculations.

      1. Neil: “So when McGrath talks of what is possible in history, he really does include aliens building pyramids and resurrections from the dead.”

        Are you sure? I thought his special pleading was limited only to canonical scripture. I’ve never met someone who applied “general pleading” to all historical texts. Even within the set of all Christian writings, the later non-canonical texts are sources of endless fun — “Can you imagine Simon Magus flying around Rome? What a hoot!” Of course the synoptic gospels, which have Satan and Jesus flying over to the Temple roof — “Jump, Jesus! Jump!” — are to be taken very, very seriously.

        1. McGrath really doesn’t understand history.

          Unless he wants to claim the default position is that Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Isaac existed…

          McGrath is using the Popeye defense again?

          Popeye was based on a real person, and what is not plausible about a sailor who gets into fights over a girl?

          Therefore, Popeye existed, as historians like McGrath keep explaining to people who just don’t get it.

          What is not plausible about Lee Harvey Oswald having an accomplice?

          McGrath needs to explain why there is no more evidence for Judas, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Thomas, Bartimaeus, Barabbas etc etc than there is for the second gunman who shot JFK.

  5. Earl: “Anyone who would not presuppose the historicity of Jesus should be willing to give mythicism equal and unbiased consideration, rather than knee-jerk rejection and ridicule.”

    Just yesterday I was re-listening to the first of Mark Goodacre’s extended NT Podcast on the Synoptic Problem. He tells his students he prefers to describe the source material Matthew and Luke share apart from Mark as “double tradition material.” Calling it “Q” is very common but he argues against doing so, because (as he writes in the hand-out) “this can pre-judge the solution to the problem.”


    He’s right, of course. We should avoid defining the problem domain with terminology derived from the dominant hypothesis. We should separate observed phenomena from the theories that seek to explain them. The theory of natural selection attempts to explain the problem of the origin of species. The theory of plate tectonics attempts to explain the problem of continental drift. We should avoid the fundamental error of confusing the problem with the solution.

    In his book, The Case Against Q, Goodacre laments the fact that basic course texts in NT studies actually discuss Q as if it were fact. Sometimes Q is introduced to students, he notes, without any preliminary caveats that it’s a reconstructed document and that its very existence is based on a hypothesis, “indeed a derivative hypothesis, the function of which was to account for the origin of the double tradition material…” (p. 3)

    You know where I’m going with this. In NT studies the problem of Christian Origins is almost always construed as synonymous with Historical Jesus Studies. But surely anyone can see that this practice defines the problem domain using nomenclature from the dominant hypothesis. If we approached the problem without any preconceptions (so that we don’t “pre-judge the solution”) we would consider the question, “How did Christianity originate?”

    The problem of Christian Origins could be addressed by:

    1. One historical Jesus, immediately followed by the shattering of the movement into a thousand vastly different sectarian groups.

    2. Two or more historical Jesus characters who were later blended together by the evangelists and/or the proto-orthodox church fathers.

    3. One historical Jesus (Q?) and one or more mythical Christs (Paul? Marcion?), later fused into one.

    4. An entirely mythical Jesus, later historicized by the gospel writers and their communities.

    In the discussion of Christian Origins, the first hypothesis is simply presented as fact. We may ask, “What can we know about the historical Jesus?” But we may not ask, “How did we arrive at the solution?”

    Goodacre writes that we should have “genuine anxiety” about the Q hypothesis being treated as fact and that we should be “suspicious of claims so dogmatically asserted.”

    With that in mind, I would like to direct his attention to the elephant in the room.

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