James McGrath once “reviewed” a chapter by Robert M. Price in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. In my estimation at that time, one for which I was censured by several people, was that McGrath was being blatantly dishonest in his reading and presentation of Price’s chapter. McGrath has said on several occasions that mythicists should not be taken seriously, so perhaps that explains why he only skims each alternate paragraph or page of a mythicist publication and on that basis presents a “review” of “the whole”.
So it is with his “review of chapter 2” of Earl Doherty’s book, Jesus Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus.
Here is what McGrath writes in his review of the second chapter of this book, with my emphasis:
In chapter 2, however, Doherty turns his attention to something that ought genuinely to puzzle modern readers of the New Testament epistles. Why do we have so many quotations from the Jewish Scriptures which are attributed to that source, but few if any quotations of teaching of Jesus that are clearly and explicitly attributed to him?
While this is a genuine puzzle, and if it has never puzzled you it should, this is not to say that the best explanation is that which Doherty offers – and which, I should add, he offers without any attempt to engage in a detailed analysis of the evidence for or persuasiveness of other possible explanations.
No attempt to engage with the persuasiveness of other possible explanations? Here is what Doherty wrote on page 26 of his book, again (as throughout, with my emphasis):
While some scholarship maintains that Paul did have an interest in the historical Jesus and did preach him, we will start with the traditional view, which acknowledges that he seems to have done neither. The reasons put forward to explain Paul’s silence about the human Jesus are several: . . . . . Regardless of the credibility of such explanations — to be considered as we go along — other factors can be offered which should have been in play to counter this deliberate ignoring of the human man by such as Paul.
So here Doherty writes that he invites readers to follow his arguments in future chapters point by point, and this was presumably in the same book that McGrath read when he complained that it offered no attempt to engage with alternative evidence or persuasiveness of other arguments. But even in this chapter 2 Doherty does indeed continue by addressing, head-on, the question of the “persuasiveness of other possible explanations”:
One reason is that he [Paul] could never have gotten away with it in his missionary activities. If Paul were preaching a man who was God, his listeners and converts would have demanded to know about the life of this man, his sayings and deeds. Whether he liked it or not, Paul would have had to make an effort to learn a certain amount about Jesus’ life. It would have become one of the subjects of discussion between himself and his congregations, details of which would certainly have surfaced in his letters. None do. . . .
If the elevation of a man to the status of God were a part of the new faith, the challenge from the Jewish authorities would have required a knowledge and promotion of the man himself and his career in order to try to defend such an offensive elevation. The need to appeal to the superior nature of his teachings, his unusual miracles, his prophetic abilities, not to mention the details of his atoning death and the circumstances of his resurrection, would have been inevitable. If an apostle like Paul were seeking to convince potential converts that they should believe him — rather than run him out of town tarred and feathered — when he claimed that a crucified man back in Judea was actually the Son of God and had walked out of his tomb, it would be absolutely necessary that he present the man: his character, his words, his deeds. . . .
Gentile religious proclivities were different from those of the Jews, and Doherty points out that given the gentile traditions of exalting heroic and wise humans to divine status, detailing the great human deeds and sayings of Jesus would be an asset in reaching such people. This is especially conspicuous given the fear of demonic spirits in the ancient world, and Christianity’s need to compete with other mystery cults: Jesus’ exorcisms and healings would have been of the highest value in any preaching and reference point in ongoing discussions.
Doherty then tackles Eddy and Boyd’s 2007 book The Jesus Legend, which he describes as “perhaps the most significant apologetic work of recent memory and one which seriously grapples with elements of the mythicist viewpoint.” One would have expected any review hostile to the mythicist position would have at least mentioned Doherty’s five page demolition of Eddy and Boyd’s arguments. But McGrath apparently skipped those last 5 pages of a 10 page chapter.
So what options are there besides Doherty’s, which posits that Paul and the churches to which he wrote did not focus on a Jesus who was thought to have lived a human life in human history? First and foremost, it must be said once again that the most fundamental consideration is one that Doherty is either deliberately downplaying or has altogether failed to grasp. Paul’s letters were written to Christians, and if there was any teaching that allegedly came from Jesus that was passed on to Christians, we would expect it to be presented to Christians in the process of persuading them to believe in Jesus, and in introducing them to the faith once they came to believe. We should not expect such things to be the major focus in letters, which seem for the most part to have been written in response to unexpected issues and questions for which answers were not readily available in the teaching of Jesus.
McGrath’s argument for what one should expect “to be the major focus in letters” is perhaps blinded by the presuppositions of its proponent. Doherty’s argument — in fact most mythicist arguments of which I am aware — are not about “the major focus in letters” at all, as McGrath attempts to (mischievously? absentmindedly? uncomprehendingly?) say.
Here is Doherty addressing what McGrath said earlier he did not address. In this case it is the argument that Paul’s readers already knew the sayings of Jesus so there was no need to repeat them in letters.
In any case, are we justified in thinking that Paul’s audiences were indeed “steeped” in Jesus traditions — only two decades after the man’s death, and in every community across half the empire to which Paul, and others, are writing? Moreover, just how were those congregations to become steeped in the Jesus tradition if no one ever cited it as such? Does not the very fact of the continued existence of debates on important questions which should have been resolved by Jesus’ teachings suggest that the parties were anything but thoroughly familiar with those teachings? . . . . [C]itation of Jesus himself would add an emotional and persuasive element to what is being said (precisely because of its familiarity), just as it has done ever since the Gospels were disseminated . . . .
McGrath’s words that I cited above conclude with the notion that Paul’s letter’s were addressing situations that were never anticipated by Paul (nor, presumably, Jesus), but that falls apart with just a half glance at the issues Paul does address, and some arise in the remainder of this post.
McGrath again demonstrates that he was not very attentive when he read this chapter of Doherty’s book. After Doherty had addressed the fact that much Gospel material about Jesus was a later invention of the church, McGrath embarrasses himself by writing the following:
At this point I must mention another issue with Doherty’s book. He regularly points to sayings attributed to Jesus in later Gospels which, if they had been known to Paul, he could be expected to have quoted to end debate and provide a definitive answer. But the study of a wide range of figures leads scholars (but not the conservative Christians who seem to be Doherty’s primary conversation-partners) to acknowledge that material was invented later and attributed to the central authoritative figure.
Thus saith McGrath. Yet here is what Doherty wrote:
What did Jesus teach? The Jesus Seminar rejected as inauthentic some three quarters of the sayings attributed to him in the Christian record. . . .
Throughout this book, in the course of examining the silence in the epistles on the life and teachings of Jesus, we will look at all of the Gospel elements, without discrimination. This will include those which critical scholarship has cast doubt on, or even totally rejected . . . . .
Whoops. So Doherty did address the fact that modern scholarship rejects the authenticity of most of the Gospel sayings of Jesus.
But it gets worse. Doherty goes to the trouble of singling out those sayings that even that horridly radical Jesus Seminar conceded were probably authentic, and asking why Paul could not have used at least some of this material — for the reasons explained above:
On the famous “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) . . . . . These are sayings the Seminar judged most likely to be authentic . . . . (p. 28)
McGrath then shows what he wears under his kilt. He is not addressing Doherty’s argument in this book at all. He is bringing to this book his own preconceptions of mythicist arguments and using the book as a foil to show why he thinks his own preconceived misconceptions are valid.
But this process of invention, like the even more impressive multiplication of hadith attributed to Muhammad, complete with chains of transmission supposedly vouchsafing their authenticity, does not demonstrate the non-historicity of the figure in question. That must be settled not by noting the proliferation of inauthentic material, but by determining whether anything can be deemed early and authentic when subjected to critical scrutiny.
McGrath has often asserted that mythicists argue that Jesus was not historical on the grounds that quotations attributed to him can be shown to have been not genuinely from him. I, and probably several others, have asked McGrath to cite who actually argues this, but to my knowledge McGrath has never responded. Here, once again, McGrath drags out this favourite toy. It matters not a whit, it seems, that Doherty has nowhere argued that false attributions of quotes demonstrate non-historicity. McGrath is using his pseudo-reviews, it seems, as platforms to promote his own disinformation against mythicism.
McGrath then demonstrates his utter inability to grasp anything he has read (or maybe they were the alternate paragraphs he skipped) in Doherty’s chapter:
Returning to the question of how one is to explain the failure to quote Jesus regularly in the epistles, Doherty offers another explanation, although because of the agenda that drives his book, he fails to use it in this rather obvious way. If Paul spent relatively little time with the Jerusalem apostles (a subject which we cannot attempt to tackle here without disrupting the flow of this post), then he would have had very little authentic Jesus tradition to quote. And we might expect him and others like him to offer teachings that were allegedly mediated to them by supernatural revelation. What isn’t clear is why this is not immediately recognized by Doherty as an explanation, whether whole or partial, of Paul’s failure to quote more frequently from teaching of Jesus and stories about him.
In response return above to the first 2 or 3 or 4 paragraphs in colour maroon.
McGrath then comes to the point where he is complaining because Doherty does not beg the question in his discussion, as clearly the relevant scholars McGrath is speaking about do. McGrath has not been noted for his logical prowess (see links here and here), and it appears that once again here he is falling into the trap of question-begging to support his argument:
But another consideration might itself provide a better solution, even if we were to find the others I have mentioned thus far inadequate. In primarily oral cultures, notions of authorship are very different from our own, and it is noteworthy that the quotations Paul offers are almost exclusively from written sources (he does not clearly quote his opponents either, and even when we suspect that Paul may be quoting from the Corinthians’ letters to him, he doesn’t make it as explicit as we might expect someone writing today to). Doherty does not even investigate whether cultural norms for citing and passing on traditions prior to their being written in some sort of collection might be part of the explanation. It certainly seems that this ought, at the very least, to be thoroughly studied when evaluating possible ways of accounting for this puzzling aspect of the epistles. But one does not get the impression when reading Doherty’s book that considering all options, evaluating them as impartially as possible, and then choosing the conclusion that best fits the evidence is what he is setting out to do.
Having read a fair amount of the scholarly discussion on orality, I would love to see McGrath explain in just a little detail how any of it overthrows Doherty’s points in this chapter. As he did with his review of Price’s chapter, McGrath simply chooses to ignore Doherty’s arguments altogether.
McGrath then demonstrates that he is really just flipping pages and not actually reading anything Doherty writes:
The authenticity of the epistles attributed to Plato is sufficiently disputed that it might be ill-advised to use them in an analogy. But perhaps other readers can think of ancient letters which fail to quote extensively, or to clearly attribute quotes to, someone we might expect them to if they followed our contemporary practices? Certainly if one thinks of the medium of oral preaching today, one scarcely needs to say “As John Newton wrote, ‘I once was blind, but now I see…'” And so there are examples even today that suggest that something sufficiently well-known can and will be mentioned without any need to specify where it comes from.
So John Newton was being preached as the founder of a new religion and as a man who was God?
But let McGrath continue:
And so it seems that whether we have teaching of Jesus that was widely disseminated among early Christians, or a situation in Pauline churches in which Jesus’ teaching was not at all well known, we have possible explanations for the dearth of explicit quotations which are at least feasible, and do not bring with them all the difficulties and problems that removing a historical Jesus creates.
True, true. A shame in a review McGrath does not address what Doherty says about the plausibility of those possible explanations.
McGrath has accused mythicists of being as black and white/either-or as fundamentalists. But he is the one who is attempting to set up black and white divides where they don’t exist.
At any rate, underlying his whole treatment of Paul’s letters is the problematic assumption that because Paul’s letters are our earliest sources, the earliest Gospels are not in any sense early sources.
Doherty actually speaks of “early” and “later”. The page McGrath is thinking of is page 26, I am sure. The Gospels are indeed “later” than Paul’s epistles. So why does McGrath introduce games like this?
McGrath then takes the same old route of all establishment positions. Anything to the left or right of what I/You/McGrath says is extreme, so the most persuasive position is in the happy middle.
I won’t extend this post further by tackling that subject here, especially as the Gospels will be discussed more directly later in the book. But one thing I think we can say with confidence: the Synoptic Gospels are neither so early and so directly connected with eyewitnesses or the locations in which stories are set that they do not make errors; neither are they so late and so completely fabricated that they do not get enough details about geography, people and events right to exclude their being works of pure fiction. In later times, a Bram Stoker could go to a library and read about Transylvania without ever going there, and set a story against that backdrop. We must ask whether it is realistic to imagine something similar happening in the first century. If not, then the accurate details in the Gospels, which include things such as the proportions of common names typical in Jewish Palestine in the first century, suggest that the middle course of mainstream scholarship is more likely to be correct. It views the Gospels as, like most sources historians have to deal with, neither entirely trustworthy nor entirely fabricated. The conservative apologists and the mythicists share this in common: they both find genuine evidence that some things are authentic/fabricated, and then try to use that to argue that everything is authentic/fabricated, even when the evidence for some of the material does not fit. A better course, I believe, is that taken by mainstream scholarship, recognizing that we have a collection of material that combines the historical and the ahistorical. While we may never be able to completely disentangle the contrasting threads, and certainly are left wondering which is which in a great many instances, denying this multifaceted, composite nature of the evidence creates more problems than it solves. Neither the fundamentalist apologists nor the mythicists are completely wrong, and that is not why I reject both stances. The problem is that neither is completely right, and they are not the only two options. There are possible stances in between, which recognize that the situation is not as simple as either side would have us believe.
Thus McGrath has closed his eyes completely to any challenge Doherty has raised against the mainstream view, and even excised it from any reference in his review. McGrath simply cannot admit into his mind that mythicism challenges the fundamentals of what both he and fundamentalist apologists think. The question is not over this or that amount of truth or fiction in a story. It is about the very origin and nature and function of that story to begin with.
But McGrath unfortunately concludes on a vapid note:
Albert Einstein is purported to have said “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I have not been able to trace the source of the quotation. But either way it seems applicable to the current context. If it is authentic, it is applicable to the apologists on both sides of the spectrum who would have us believe that Jesus simply never existed or simply was exactly as described in the Gospels and the later creeds, when the reality seems more complex than either extreme does justice to. But even if the saying doesn’t really go back to Einstein, it then becomes relevant in another way, because the fact that spurious stories and quotations have been made up and attributed to Einstein is not an argument against his having been a historical figure.
So if the quotation attributed to Jesus in the Gospels does not really go back to Jesus, then it becomes relevant in another way — because this is not an argument against Jesus being historical???
Er, no. It is not an argument against Jesus being historical any more than it is an argument for any fictional character to whom a quotation is attributed. This is a truly strange way to conclude a “review” of a chapter that offers no reason to think either way.
But with this conclusion we do come to evidence for McGrath’s interest in writing such “reviews”. They do offer him a platform from which to argue his own views while suppressing those of whom he claims to be addressing.
So I’ll conclude here with Doherty’s conclusion, and leave anyone who has not read the book wondering how on earth such a conclusion could be reached if all that McGrath wrote was indeed a review of what was actually written:
Thus we have concluded that Paul (along with other early epistle writers) has no sense of Jesus as a recent ethical teacher. Rather, Christ is a divine presence in Christian communities, bestowing revelation and guidance, a channel to God and to knowledge of spiritual truths. Christ has taken up residence in Christian believers themselves. It is the voice of this spiritual Son which Christians hear, not the passed-on words of a former rabbi. And as we shall see, his very words can be read in scripture, God’s way of revealing new truths to humanity. (p. 34)
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