This is the final installment of Earl Doherty’s responses to James McGrath’s Menu of Answers for Mythicists. The previous two posts in this series are at
This post completes Earl’s responses up to McGrath’s menu item #23.
Menu Entrée #13:
“If, as Earl Doherty suggests, the ‘life’ and ‘death’ of Jesus occurred completely in a celestial realm, is the same true of the recipients of Ephesians?”
Something went awry in the preparation of this dish. Has there been any implication that the recipients of Ephesians are said to operate in a celestial realm? In any case, the comparison seems a pointless one. Locating the Ephesians and their struggle with the demons (6:12) as taking place on earth does nothing to prove the location of their Christ’s redeeming death, since the demons operated both on earth and in the heavens. And Ephesians is one of those documents which shows not the slightest sign of an historical Jesus in the background of the writer’s thought, not even in regard to traditions about healing miracles performed by Jesus on earth which would have demonstrated his power over the demons, an issue which would have been of key significance to the Ephesians community.
Menu Entrée #16:
“If you don’t believe it is possible to deduce the historicity of Jesus from a text purporting to be about him, how can you hope to demonstrate his ahistoricity from those same sources?”
Which “same sources”? The Gospels? The epistles? The early Christian record as a whole? As far as Mark and his redactors are concerned, how do we know what their works were meant to “purport,” especially when later evangelists treat their principal source with no respect for historical accuracy? How can we deduce an historical Jesus from an alleged biography which contains no biography at all, only reworked scripture, no “history remembered” which scholars like John Crossan admit is not to be found in the Gospels? Are we justified in deducing Jesus’ historicity from a set of ‘biographies’ which are all derived from one solitary account written only decades after his alleged passing? How do we know Paul “purported” an historical Jesus when he says nothing about such a person, something that has to be ‘explained’ by claiming he had to save paper and didn’t need to mention him anyway? Those documents can be used to demonstrate ahistoricity because all that historicism can do is claim that they “purport” to be about an historical Jesus. There is no clear indication that they do, and a lot of clear indication that they don’t.
Menu Entrée #17:
“The view that Jesus may have been thought to have lived in the remote past in relation to Paul’s time doesn’t take seriously his expressions of eschatological imminence.”
As most may know, I don’t subscribe to Wells’ interpretation that Paul’s Christ was thought to have lived on earth in some unknown past. But a death and rising in the heavens probably amounts to the same thing in regard to this menu entrée. In either case, I don’t see a problem. If belief in the new Messiah/Christ arose as a result of scriptural study, then, whether on earth or in heaven, the ‘time’ of the redeeming act was unknown or inapplicable. Paul (and others) envision the eschaton as imminent because they believe they have received revelation about it. They are willing to place it in their own time because they want in on the action, and there is no sign that they are concerned about any gap between the Son’s act and its fruition brought about in the present time by God. (Aren’t the ways of God inscrutable?) In fact, more than one epistle writer declares that the secret of Christ has been hidden for long ages and only now revealed—through scripture and the Holy Spirit. The above menu objection could equally apply to modern evangelicals who are convinced (usually through scripture as well) that the Second Coming is just around the corner, despite the delay of two millennia for Jesus’ promised return.
Menu Entrée #19:
“Just saying ‘Maybe Tacitus relied on Christian sources’ is not the same as making an actual case that Tacitus would have trusted Christian sources or that he had no independent information about Christianity or Jesus.”
Of course it’s not the same, but if a good case can be made (and it definitely can) that the likelihood is that Tacitus did not consult an official record, then this weakens if not discredits the reliance historicists like to place on him as a witness to an historical Jesus. Moreover, a good case can also be made that the entire passage is an interpolation, for Christian writers and Roman historians alike for the next three centuries never refer not just to the literary account in Tacitus but to any tradition of their own about Nero’s accusation of arson and his horrendous slaughter of Christians, a silence that is inexplicable. All that they can specifically say of martyrdom at the time of Nero relates to legends about Peter and Paul, and not even these are in connection to the Great Fire. All signs point to the account in Tacitus as being a later fiction, and that no such persecution took place, which deep-sixes the reference to “Christus” along with it (see my extensive discussion of this in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man).
Menu Entrée #20: (Yet another appeal to authority)
“Doesn’t the fact that mainstream historians consistently find scenarios involving a historical Jesus the most plausible way to account for the evidence we have, coupled with the fact that mythicists consistently fail to provide a more persuasive alternative scenario, itself constitute evidence against mythicism and in favor of mainstream historical scholarship?”
Doesn’t the fact that Ptolemaic astronomy consistently found scenarios involving an earth-centered universe the most plausible way to account for the cosmological evidence they had, coupled with the fact that only a few Greek astronomers provided alternative scenarios of a sun-centered universe which the rest of the world regarded as unpersuasive, itself constitute evidence against solar centricity and in favor of the Ptolemaic system?
Menu Entrée #21:
“The fact that something resembles a story from Scripture doesn’t mean that it was invented on the basis of that story. Applying Scripture to things was a common way of interpreting the significance of people and events, and fitting events into earlier types was a common memory aid. And, once again, that’s not what midrash refers to!”
The term “midrash” is used with a wider application in modern New Testament study than it had in ancient rabbinic practice. I use it in the same sense that John Shelby Spong does in his books. And let’s take an example: the Feeding of the 4000 / 5000 miracle stories in Mark. No critical scholar today fails to acknowledge that this scene is constructed entirely out of elements from the feeding miracle by Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44; nothing in it can be identified as coming from oral tradition about such an event in the ministry of Jesus himself. (A similar situation exists in regard to virtually everything else about the story of Jesus in the Gospels.) If this miracle had its origin in oral memory, why would it not have preserved elements from that tradition? How indeed would it be remembered and passed on at all if it did not entail any historical elements? Why would the evangelists feel it necessary or desirable to set aside any such elements (even if developed only in the early church) in favor of scripture-derived invention? Would it help audiences to “remember” Kennedy’s assassination by having historians describe it solely in terms of being shot with a hand gun in a theatre box while watching a play (<à la Lincoln)? And if no such event (even if exaggerated and ‘miracle-ized’) ever happened, then it would be inarguably an “invention.”
Why is it that the entire epistolary record in almost the first hundred years contains not a single tradition (authentic or not) of a miracle by Jesus, or even a mention that he had performed such things? Could a preacher of the Kingdom, an “itinerant exorcist,” have generated no surviving tradition that he had been a miracle worker, no interest in such by every early writer in the movement? Those stories “resembling” scripture, when they have, perplexingly, no external corroboration and no elements of preserved memory, are almost certainly to have been just that—“invented.”
Menu Entrée #22:
“You still have not shown that it is more likely that someone would make up a crucified Davidic Messiah than that such a belief arose as a result of someone thought to be the Messiah being crucified and subsequent efforts to deal with the cognitive dissonance.”
There is a subtle piece of question-begging going on here. The latter alternative is only more likely if indeed such a man existed. One cannot assume he did so, or adopt as an axiom that the Gospels represent the story of a real man, and then on that basis declare the latter alternative as more likely. The question is: does the evidence in the record as a whole indicate that such a man did live and that the Gospels are meant to be history? Mythicism makes the case that both answers are “No.” One cannot appeal to the Gospels as history to prove that the Gospels and their central character are history. An historical Jesus is not to be found anywhere else until the Gospels become disseminated and interpreted as history.
No one can deny that scripture contains all the elements to create a picture and prophecy of a crucified Messiah. After all, Christians for almost two millennia have claimed, and still do, validity for their beliefs about their divine Jesus on the basis that everything about him in the Gospels was to be found ahead of time in scripture. The message of the epistles themselves is that knowledge about their long-hidden Christ comes from scripture, though with no reference to any fulfilment-in-history idea. Given the religious spirit of the times, with its popular faith centered on mythical dying and rising deities, exerting a strong external pressure, there is nothing more natural than the theory that the first Christ-cult believers did indeed turn their scriptural study and imaginations to “making up” a crucified Davidic Messiah, and that the philosophical and cosmological atmosphere of a period dominated by Platonism could lead them to envisioning him as a spiritual entity and placing his actions in the spirit-populated heavens.
Menu Entrée #23:
“Please stop. You’ve said that before and now you’re just wasting my time.”
Yes, and it looks like we’ll have to keep saying these things until historicists show that they understand mythicism’s arguments, are willing to give them honest evaluation, and can provide effective answers to them. Long before the latter is forthcoming, however, we may see the Department of Public Health closing down eateries like the Matrix in the interests of rational and scientific integrity and the dietary requirements befitting a 21st century society.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!