Continuing Earl Doherty’s antidotes for James McGrath’s Menu Items 7 to 12

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is a continuation of Earl Doherty’s responses to James McGrath’s Menu of Answers to Mythicists. The first installment, items 1 to 6, was posted here. Earl Doherty continues with menu item #7, preceding each of his responses with McGrath’s description in bold italics.

Menu Entrée #7:

“Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed means showing there are good reasons to think that he did, not that it is impossible for anyone to construct a scenario in which it might have been otherwise. Historical study offers probabilities, not absolute certainties.”

Let’s break down this entrée and do a taste test on its ingredients:

(1) Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed requires showing that there are good reasons for thinking so.

(2) Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed does not require showing that no scenarios are possible which could suggest that he did not.

(3) The implication is that this particular historical study is able to demonstrate that No. 1 can be shown to be more probable than any counter scenario envisioned in No. 2.

If No. 3 is true, then there ought to be many scholarly studies and books to demonstrate the strength of the historicist position and discredit the mythicist one, especially in the last dozen years when mythicism has undergone a surge of advocacy and public popularity. No. 2 is in principle logically valid, but requires a concrete demonstration of No. 3, which has just been noted as not forthcoming; hopefully, it is not meant as a claim that addressing mythicist scenarios at all is not necessary because No. 1 is axiomatic— something which, regrettably, seems to be pretty much the attitude of mainstream scholarship in general. Again, this entrée is the statement of an abstract principle. It, too, lacks any nourishing content to sustain the viability of historicism.

Menu Entrée #8:

“Raising doubts about historicity is not the same thing as demonstrating ahistoricity. Just asking ‘what if’ questions is not the same thing as trying to construct a positive historical case. That you can imagine a scenario in which Jesus was invented does not constitute proof that your scenario is the most likely based on available evidence, much less that it describes what actually happened.”

Who has decided the difference between “raising doubts” and “demonstrating”? Who sets the bar for reaching the required level for “probability”? The historicist who automatically relegates all mythicist scenarios to the realm of “imagination”? The one who refuses to see any mythicist offering as a “positive historical case” rather than just “what if” questions? The one who shuts the door on any view that Jesus never existed rather than allow it into the hall for proper examination?

Considering that the endless and fruitless quests for the “real” historical Jesus swing back and forth from one “what if” scenario to another, with few constraints on historicist scholars’ own imaginations (since they possess ever fewer reliable indicators within the Gospels—and virtually none whatever from the early Christian non-Gospel record—as to who or what Jesus was, what he did, what he taught, let alone having any evidence that the world took any notice of him), such exercises raise as much doubt about the very existence of such a figure as do the mythicists with their alternate scenarios.

Are historicists really claiming that a non-Gospel record which has nothing to say about an historical incarnation but speaks of Christ as being “revealed” by God, plus a Gospel ‘record’ which has been pared down to virtually nothing that can be relied on as historical memory rather than scripture-based concoction, plus an external record which shows no cognizance of this ever more obscure character—that this constitutes compelling evidence for their “scenario (which) is the most likely based on available evidence,” and “more likely describes what actually happened” than mythicist scenarios which are based on what the texts actually give us?

Menu Entrée #9:

“Take seriously the fact that Paul wrote letters to Christian communities. The letter part is important – writing materials were expensive, and Paul was not writing Gospels. The audience is also important – Paul wrote to people who already had enough knowledge about Jesus to share his belief in him as Messiah and Lord.”

Regrettably, there is nothing in this entrée which a thousand eateries before the Matrix have offered as their much-touted culinary fare. The textures are mushy, the flavors weak and tired, the sauces runny and thin. The epistles, they say, are occasional writings and don’t have any occasion or need to discuss the historical figure, let alone what he said or what he did; the entire body of uncoordinated Christian congregations spread across half the empire already knew within 20 years everything that Jesus taught and all the events of his life; Paul, because he was not writing biography, had no interest in mentioning the earthly Jesus or avoided it for personal reasons (something apparently the case with all the other early writers as well); the epistle’s cosmic language about the Son is really an “interpretation” of Jesus of Nazareth even though they never mention the object of that interpretation. To this tired old recipe of slapdash ingredients is added a pinch of Paul being short of space and writing materials and didn’t want to waste paper, a shortage that seems to have been endemic across the early Christian world.

Well, no matter what one styles these literary works, they are usually discussing the writers’ faith, often its genesis, and occasionally its sources of teaching and practice. Outside the Gospels and Acts, there are roughly 80,000 words in the documents of the New Testament. In not a single case (excluding the widely-regarded interpolation of 1 Thess. 2:15-16) do any first-century writers of this diverse material make it clear that the object of their faith was a human being who had recently lived, whose acts were performed in Palestine or any other place on earth, who had begun the movement by appointing apostles and establishing a preaching gospel which those apostles represented as coming from him. Those letters witness to crucial and disruptive debates within the movement, debates which should have been settled by the teachings of Jesus on earth (genuine or placed in his mouth, as the Gospels would unabashedly do), debates which show that knowledge of what Jesus had said and done was anything but well known to Christian congregations. The paltry few appeals by Paul known as “words of the Lord” are judged by many historicist scholars to have been communications imagined from Christ in heaven, and Paul’s language bears that out. These are the “facts” that need to be taken seriously, because they are inexplicable in a context of historicism.

Menu Entrée #10:

“Don’t just fixate on things Paul doesn’t say. Notice the impression given by what he does say: Born, descended from David, crucified, bled, buried. Little detail about Paul’s views about Jesus as a human figure is not the same as no details at all.”

If anyone is fixating, it is historicists who desperately appeal to a small handful of ambiguous references in the epistles as much-needed lifesavers in the face of not only a vast flood of silence on an historical Jesus whom we ought to expect would appear all over the place, but a wealth of positive descriptions of the faith movement and its object of worship which effectively exclude an historical figure on earth. Mythicists approach the case from a different direction. An analysis of the documents indicates the strong likelihood of no historical Jesus; then we turn to that handful of alleged counter-indicators and ask if there are other ways of interpreting them. As it happens, virtually all of them can fit into the mythicist mold, while a couple enjoy a good possibility of interpolation.

Historicists are like the naïve wife who finds herself alone many evenings while her husband works late, notices lipstick on his collar, surreptitious phone calls, credit card bills for flowers she never received; but when he rolls over one night in his sleep and whispers “Darling” in her ear, she happily concludes that he loves her and is undoubtedly faithful.

Menu Entrée #11:

“If the fact that pretty much every professional historian and scholar disagrees with you about the historicity of Jesus doesn’t concern you, then you are not giving this subject more serious consideration than the proponents of creationism and Intelligent Design give to biology and evolution. It is true that all the experts can be wrong, but it is also true that rarely, when all the experts are wrong, do people without expertise just happen to be right.”

Sooner or later we were going to get the old culinary staple, the Appeal to Authority, on the Matrix Menu. First of all, I am aware of no professional historian outside the New Testament field who has investigated the matter one way or the other, while professional NT scholars have their own reasons for automatically assuming and defending the historicist position. Moreover, mythicism has an almost two-century long history of being put forward by scholars of all stripes, professional and amateur. The latter is used in the technical sense, which does not mean that they have no expertise, but have gained it outside the halls of traditional biblical academia. Entrée # 15 on the Menu refuses to recognize that, and is simply a haughty dismissal of anyone outside the privileged club. Entrée # 18 can also be brought in here, which concludes: “…the rule being that historians agree with mythicists no more than New Testament scholars do.”

The best way to answer this is to quote from my website rebuttal article on “Alleged Refutations to Jesus Mythicism”:

A typical example is historian Michael Grant, who in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (1977), devotes a few paragraphs to the question in an Appendix. There [p.200], he says:

“To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars’. In recent years ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’—or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.”

One will note that Grant’s statement about answering and annihilating, and the remark about serious scholars, are in quotes, and are in fact the opinions of previous writers. Clearly, Grant himself has not undertaken his own ‘answer’ to mythicists. Are those quoted writers themselves scholars who have undertaken such a task, even if they work in the biblical field? In fact, they are not. One referenced writer, Rodney Dunkerley, in his Beyond the Gospels (1957, p.12), devotes a single paragraph to the “fantastic notion” that Jesus did not actually live; its exponents, he says, “have again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars,” but since he declares it “impossible to summarize those scholars’ case here,” he is not the source of Grant’s conviction.

Nor can that be Otto Betz, from whose What Do We Know About Jesus? (1968, p.9) Grant takes his second quote. Betz claims that since Wilhelm Bousset published an essay in 1904 exposing the ‘Christ myth’ as “a phantom,” “no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus.” This ignores many serious presentations of that very idea since Bousset, and evidently relies on defining “serious” as excluding anyone who would dare to undertake such a misguided task.

Considering that the number of “cases” actually produced over the last century by mainstream scholars to “annihilate” mythicism can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and all of them easily countered (see the above website article which addresses them all), one can forgive mythicists for regarding this delusional claim as being as much a myth as Jesus himself.

Menu Entrée #12:

“As long as mythicists seem to agree with one another on almost nothing except the ahistoricity of Jesus, please stop treating it as an argument for mythicism that historians agree on little apart from his existence.”

If a person or event was real and historical, there should be a good chance for
professional historians to come to at least some degree of common reliable knowledge about it. If the opposite is the case, that the person or event previously regarded as real was in fact not historical, it can be more challenging to demonstrate this and more difficult to agree upon the nature of the alternatives. (One is also bucking established opinion and stubborn resistance from those with a vested interest in the old paradigm.) We might also note a similar principle applying in ancient times. If Jesus existed and impelled the movement in his name, we would expect that those who came after would agree on at least the basics about him. Yet this is anything but the actual situation we encounter in the Christian documentary record.

More to follow . . . . .

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12 thoughts on “Continuing Earl Doherty’s antidotes for James McGrath’s Menu Items 7 to 12”

  1. Earl, I was wondering if you’d read McG.’s “refutations” of your antidotes for dyspepsia. In particular he focuses on Paul’s “Brother of the Lord” reference. He thinks you fail miserably.


    On that same subject, I still haven’t heard anyone in the HJ camp explain away Origen’s comments on the subject.


    Why did Paul call James the brother of the Lord?

    a. He was related by blood. (One of Mary’s other sons?)

    b. They were brought up together. (A stepbrother or cousin?)

    c. Because of his virtue and doctrine.

    If you chose “c,” then you agree with Origen. Note that he did not choose option “b,” which is the common Catholic interpretation, in order to preserve Mary’s perpetual virginity. No, he ties the epithet to the other common nickname — the Just (or Righteous).

    It would seem to me that we have clear evidence of ancient attestation for the Brother of the Lord specifically referring to the religious meaning of brother rather than the familial meaning of brother.

    1. “It would seem to me that we have clear evidence of ancient attestation for the Brother of the Lord specifically referring to the religious meaning of brother rather than the familial meaning of brother.”

      Do you think that Origen here also provides “clear evidence of ancient attestation” that Josephus mentioned Jesus and did not believe he was “the Christ”? And that he mentioned John the Baptist? And that he said Jerusalem fell because of “the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus called Christ”?

      Origen (in the third century), thought that James could not have been Jesus’ brother, even though that’s what it says in Paul and Josephus, and felt the need to come up with an explanation for it. That’s understandable, isn’t it? But why doesn’t Paul need to explain it, or Josephus (if Origen is right), who lived in the first century, or Hegesippus, who lived in the second? Or the NT gospels and the Gospel of the Hebrews? Why aren’t they “ancient attestation[s] for the Brother of the Lord specifically referring to the religious meaning of brother rather than the familial meaning of brother”?

      Hegesippus mentions “the Lord’s brother James, whom everyone from the Lord’s time to our own has called the Righteous,” (EH 2.23), but doesn’t seem to need to explain what it means. And that “there still survived of the Lord’s family the grandsons of Jude, who was said to be [Jesus’] brother, humanly speaking,” (EH 3.20). Eusebius calls this “an old and firm tradition,” (EH 3.19).

    2. Well, Origen seems convinced that Mary remained a virgin, like Doherty is convinced Jesus had no biological brothers, possibly for similar fundamental reasons.
      “Origen (185-254) was born in Alexandria. He believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity, stating: “There is no child of Mary except Jesus, according to the opinion of those who think correctly about her. “23 The same teaching is found in his Commentary on Matthew. “Those who speak thus mean to safeguard Mary’s dignity in the virginity she conserved until the end, so that body chosen to serve the Word… did not know any relations with a man, after the point that the Holy Spirit came down upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. “24”

      Note Origen was born over a hundred years after Paul wrote. It is possible that there was a tradition floating around for over a hundred years on this, but the odds that Origen has accurate information lessen as the years go by, and at any rate he doesn’t mention a tradition so this could just be his own interpretation to get a favorable reading out of a passage, that even he admits is at odds with his theory, as it is with Doherty’s.

      Origen has heard other explanations for why Jesus is said to have brothers

      He has however heard of other theories for why James is not really Jesus brother;
      ” But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, [5264] as it is entitled, or “The Book of James,” [5265] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary.”
      # 17 The Brethren of Jesus.

      As far as using this to support Doherty’s theory, I should add that it is because Origen is firmly convinced Mary is Jesus’ mother that he feels the need to offer these explanations for why she is not Jame’s mother. If he had thought Jesus came down from space, he wouldn’t have any problem with Mary being James’ mother. The passage you site only shows what we already know, if it is inconvenient for James to be spoken of as Jesus’ brother, we can cook up an excuse whose convincing power hinges on our acceptance of some other concept that would be invalidated by Jesus having a real brother. For Origen it is the notion that God could come from a woman who gets penetrated by sinful penises, for Doherty that people could become convinced that a man they knew, cheated death and sits at the right hand of God. Other Mythicist have argued that Paul believed Jesus was a real person, and yet Jesus was still a myth. Don’t get too hung up on one theory.

    3. I’m happy to admit error when shown contrary evidence. It appears that Origen did agree with the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. He writes:

      “And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the first-fruit among men of the purity which consists in chastity, and Mary among women; for it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the first-fruit of virginity.”

      So Jesus is the forerunner of all men who remain chaste, and Mary plays the same role for women. I had earlier misread Origen as saying Jesus was the first-fruit of Mary, rather than the “only-fruit,” which would explain why immediately afterward he talks about James and Jude (the second- and third-fruits).

  2. OK, let’s boil down Jim McGrath’s argument against my “brother of the Lord” comments and see what it entails:

    (1) Referring to James as ‘the brother of the Lord’ when all sorts of people in the NT, Gospels and epistles are referred to as ‘brothers’ in the sense of fellow-believers, “makes no sense.” Presumably, if everyone is treated as a ‘brother’ in the sense of religious brethren, why use the phrase of James? Would it not be redundant and unnecessary?

    (2) If other fellow-believers could be considered brothers of the Lord, how could the same phrase be understood as signifying a leader’s role for James?

    (3) Therefore, the ambiguous phrase must have its other meaning, that of ‘sibling.’ This is the deductive process by which historicists judge Galatians 1:19’s meaning.

    Because McGrath (seconded by his fellow historicists) regards the above reasoning as air-tight and conclusive, this is supposed to prove they are justified in automatically dismissing mythicists as inattentive to detail, having no concern for plausibility and a case amounting to “pseudoscience.” They can contribute nothing to “academic conversation.” Well, that’s an awful lot to claim on the basis of the very meager and hardly exhaustive argument made above. But this is typical of historicists, who have always thought that there can be nothing to the mythicist case, and thus the least amount of effort will topple it over. McGrath appeals to “the division between those intimately familiar with the relevant methods and the relevant evidence and concerned to do justice to them, and those who are not,” as though the reasoning above regarding “brother of the Lord” is a good example of those methods and treatment of evidence. It is anything but.

    First of all, I do not regard the phrase in Galatians 1:19 as necessarily meant to signify that James is the leader of the Jerusalem group, as though some special emphasis on him is entailed in the use of the definite article “the brother…” (I rather think it is not so meant.) But neither can historicists claim that this supposed emphasis points toward an exclusive status for James as “the sibling” on the basis that other “brethren” did not enjoy that status. (I’m not sure if McGrath has such an argument in mind, he does not spell it out.)

    Well, the definite article as signifying emphasis or exclusivity does not work in either case. I point out in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.61-2), that the inclusion of the definite article does not have to mean that Paul is intending a stress or special status for James. “James” and “brother” are in grammatical apposition. In such a structure, Greek linguistic practice generally inserts a definite article between them, even if all that was meant was “a brother of the Lord” (Greek has no indefinite article to convey that). In Greek, and especially Koine, this rule may not always be followed, but when it is we are given no necessary intention of stress. One of many examples is 1 Cor. 16:12 where Paul refers to “Apollos (the) brother” (Apollō tou adelphou), which hardly singles him out as some kind of special or exclusive brother, and certainly not a sibling; most translations render it “our brother Apollos.”

    So all we really need to prick McGrath’s confident ‘air-tight’ bubble is to argue that there could be a feasible situation in which Paul would feel it necessary or desirable to point out that James was “a brother of the Lord” in the sense of a member of the sect, so that it would not be redundant or “make no sense.” We don’t have to conclusively identify what that situation was; the evidence doesn’t supply one. But if we can reasonably speculate, that’s all that is needed. I suggested in JNGNM:

    “Earlier (Paul) has referred to Peter without identifying him in the same way. Perhaps Paul’s readers [in Corinth] were more familiar with Peter than with James. Perhaps there was another James attached to the Jerusalem circle who was not a member of the original sect known by the name…”

    I’ll break in here to point out that it is quite feasible that the Jerusalem group, when formed, called itself “brothers of the Lord” (with “Lord” maybe even referring to God), and that it is members of that original core group—to which other apostles (like Paul, and perhaps even Peter) have subsequently associated themselves—who are referred to in 1 Cor. 9:5.

    In JNGNM I then offered this analogy (Note 28):

    “If I was involved in the Teamsters Union and had contacts with its Head Office, and I wrote a letter to someone detailing my visit to that group, I might refer at one point to the Teamsters members in general, and at another point mention I had lunch with Joe, and also met Frank, a Teamsters member, later that day. The person I’m writing to knows Joe and that he is a member, but needs to have it pointed out that Frank is also a Teamsters member. Paul’s language would not have had the luxury of an indefinite article, and if he were writing such a letter he could, following a common grammatical practice, have inserted the definite article between “Frank” and “Teamsters member” no matter what he was or was not implying.”

    So when we give the matter more in-depth thought than McGrath has deigned to give it, we see that it is quite conceivable that Paul’s phrase, with “brother” having the meaning of “brethren,” could indeed “make sense.” Speculation, yes, although speculation is rife throughout established biblical academia. The question is, to what extent may we judge feasibility for such speculation? Surely by weighing other aspects of the text and wider evidence which would tend to argue against sibling-hood for James and thus make it more likely that “brother of the Lord” did indeed mean fellow-believer (just as the vast number of appearances of adelphos in the epistles does).

    I’m sure it was noticed that McGrath did not address my point that the letters attributed to James and Jude made no such sibling association with Jesus for their authors. He also failed to consider, if Paul recognized James as Jesus’ sibling, why James was accorded, on the basis of that sibling relationship, no authority in the disagreements he had with Paul and his views on the Law, or why Paul would not have had to justify why he did not so accord; or how Paul could ever have said, as he does only a few verses later in Galatians (2:6), that the pillars in Jerusalem had no importance, that God did not recognize any special status for them (not even James as a sibling of His own divine Son, apparently). We could also wonder how it could be that if James was a sibling of a Jesus who actually existed, why teachings had not been accorded to the latter as they are in the Gospels (see Mark 7) making all foods clean, something Paul could have thrown into the debate pot in the argument over eating with gentiles in Gal. 2:11-14. And of course, there is the question of why the entire body of non-Gospel first-century documents of Christianity as a whole, not just James and Jude, never back up Galatians 1:19 by referring to James or anyone else at all as having been a sibling of Jesus on earth.

    Clearly, the counter-argument put forward by McGrath suffers from an almost embarrassing superficiality and short-sightedness, dealing neither with most of the mythicist arguments surrounding the interpretation of this verse, nor even recognizing the depth of the question. Should that not warrant an accusation against historicists of inattention to detail and lack of concern for plausibility? Has McGrath’s argument really contributed anything substantial to the “scholarly conversation” over this passage? It certainly makes the “relevant methods” of professional scholarship he touts seem to be sorely lacking.

    Earl Doherty

  3. Earl,

    I thank you for the insight that Jesus is about getting god ‘on the ground.’

    I read somewhere that the greeks respected the jews for believing in a god whose form could not be pictured. It seems to me that this is what Moses, Jesus, and Muhammed are all about. Getting god onto the ground into a form that the common people can understand. This is the fundamental difficulty of a monotheistic religion. Instead of inventing burning bushes and assorted ‘prophets’ than acted as god’s emanuensis’, it’s easier and more effective to create a man as god incarnate. In order to ‘sell’ monotheism, you have got to have Jesus (or Moses or Muhammed). Otherwise, it just won’t sell, it’s too esoteric, or as the greeks put it, too “philosophical.”

    One final point, I can almost see a precursor to this theme in the obelisks of egyption pharaohs. They connected the sun to the ground. and when the pharaoh died, the body of the obelisk signifiying the pahraoh was buried, while the top of the obelisk remained above the ground, still connecting him to the sun. the top of an obelisk is a pyramid, of course.

    Anyhow, thanks for that insight.

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