2011-05-09

Why Is McGrath Spending Time on Doherty’s Book?

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

McGrath continues:

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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Neil Godfrey

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27 thoughts on “Why Is McGrath Spending Time on Doherty’s Book?”

  1. I cannot count the number of times that I have read a criticism of Bart Ehrman running along the lines “Ehrman cites the large number of variants in the New Testament manuscripts, but what he doesn’t say is that the overwhelming majority of those variants are trivial mistakes that are easily resolved.” If I had a nickel for each time I have read such a criticism, as well as a nickel for every time I have seen Ehrman make that exact point, I wouldn’t be rich, but I would have a nice pile of nickels. In fact, the only time I can recall that he didn’t point out that most of the variants are trivial was when he was on The Colbert Report, but Steven Colbert was shooting zingers at him so rapidly that I would cut Ehrman some slack.

    I was also struck by McGrath’s insistence that Price hadn’t addressed points that it seemed to me he had pretty clearly addressed. I suspect that it is the product of a mental block towards an argument that one knows must be wrong rather than conscious dishonesty.

    1. Vinny: “I suspect that it is the product of a mental block…”

      Reading McGrath’s review I got the impression that he was intent on arguing against points he expected Doherty to make, rather than points he actually made. If I may twist an old saying, his only tool is a hammer, so to him all of Doherty’s arguments look like nails.

      Surely the point is not that Paul’s silence on Jesus’ sayings somehow proves they are false, thereby demonstrating the non-historicity of Jesus. The point is Paul’s very conception of Jesus is quite unlike what we find in the later written gospels. Consider the fact that Paul frequently repeats what Jesus did. If Paul’s aversion to repeating logia in his letters stemmed from a reluctance of repetition or the scarcity of papyrus, then why continually rehearse the death and resurrection? We know he taught his churches about the dying and rising savior. Yet he never shies away from telling them again and again.

      For Paul, Jesus was not a teacher who had disciples; rather Jesus was the path to salvation, the righteous Son of God, the first fruits of the resurrection. He and the others who were spreading the gospel weren’t students of a traveling sage, but apostles “sent out” from God to proclaim his message.

      But back to Neil’s original question, “Why is McGrath spending time on Doherty’s book?” If the initial reviews are any indication, I gather it’s so he can pretend to have read and understood it, claim to have “debunked” it, and then take a few victory laps while is sycophantic readers applaud.

  2. MCGRATH
    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…

    PAUL
    But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.

    CARR
    Did Jesus testify to this new righteousness?

    What teachings of Jesus were passed on when it was the Law and the Prophets that has testified?

    In the next chapter, Paul writes ‘What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

    What could be more natural for Paul than to ask ‘What did Jesus say?’

    And what could be more blatantly missing from the letters of Jude, 1 Peter, James, Paul, Hebrews….

    Why does Paul ask ‘What does scripture say?’. Why doesn’t Paul ask ‘What did Jesus say?

    1. “Why does Paul ask ‘What does scripture say?’. Why doesn’t Paul ask ‘What did Jesus say?”

      For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Dead Sea Scrolls sect, in its final stage, was James’ group. Let’s also assume that sayings of Jesus were considered important and were writtten down or remembered in Paul’s time. Paul did not complete the two year initiation process of the DSS group in 1QS 6.17-23 (cf. Gal. 1:15-24), members of which were required to practice “faithful concealment of the mysteries of truth” (4.6), and the “Master” was supposed to “conceal the teaching of the Law from men of injustice, but shall impart true knowledge … to those who have chosen the Way. He shall guide them all in knowledge according to the spirit of each … and shall instruct them in the mysteries of marvelous truth, so that in the midst of the men of the Community they may walk perfectly together in all that has been revealed to them” (9.17-19).

      Keeping secret doctrines is also mentioned by Josephus, who says that an Essene “will neither conceal anything from those of his sect, nor discover any of their doctrines to others, no, not though anyone should compel him so to do at the hazard of his life” (War 1.141).

      This could explain the “silence” of Paul, and all pre-gospel Pauline literature, concerning sayings of Jesus. What information Paul had was by his own admission “not man’s gospel, for I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). Maybe he picked up some other ideas when he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13), or from his brief time with Cephas and James (Gal. 1:18-19), but I imagine that they would have been imparted to him “according to [his] spirit,” as in 1QS above, which, judging from how he was shunned by Cephas “and the rest of the Jews .. even Barnabas” after “certain men from James” came to Antioch (Gal. 2:11-13), was not considered very good.

    2. ‘What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

      I forgot to mention above that this verse (in fact all of Romans 3:22b-4:25) is most likely the product of the second-century redactor, and probably does not belong to the original text of Romans.

  3. MCGRATH
    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.

    CARR
    McGrath had to make a good point eventually.

    ‘Luke’ had to wait until Josephus had written before he could write against a backdrop.

  4. MCGRATH
    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.

    CARR
    McGrath quotes an authority figure, putting words in his mouth if needs must.

    Why did the Gospellers have to make up so many sayings of Jesus when we are assured that the first thing Christians got was a list of things Jesus had said?

    Who could Paul, James, the author of 1 Peter, the author of Jude have quoted as authority figures?

  5. “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.”

    And yet they never ask Paul about Jesus’ myth? The Lord Jesus Christ is not known from any earlier or contemporary source outside of Christianity. Why is it that Paul does not need to discuss the details of this character to these congregations if Doherty is right? He voids his own argument.

  6. He voids his own argument.

    He does no such thing. You are apparently constitutionally incapable of realizing you’re assuming your conclusion. If Doherty’s thesis is correct, there was no character yet, in the sense of a protagonist in a narrative. There was a cosmic redeemer, who reveals himself to the elect via visions and inspirations from the Holy Spirit. Do you really mean to say that there are no details of this figure in the Pauline corpus?! Or can you just not grasp the arguments being made?

    1. C.J.: “There was a cosmic redeemer, who reveals himself to the elect via visions and inspirations from the Holy Spirit.”

      Further, the ecstatic visions are proved by searching and reinterpreting the scriptures. So the formula would be: “Jesus was raised to the right hand of the Father in accordance with scripture.” It’s as if Jesus is a distant and mute figure — to be proclaimed, but himself proclaiming nothing.

      Not that this is unique to Paul. The author of the Jude’s tiny epistle quotes the archangel Michael (fighting over Moses corpse), Enoch (seriously?), and the apostles (who warn about mockers who come mocking). But Jesus? He’s the silent savior.

      1. “Not that this is unique to Paul. The author of the Jude’s tiny epistle quotes the archangel Michael (fighting over Moses corpse), Enoch (seriously?), and the apostles (who warn about mockers who come mocking). But Jesus? He’s the silent savior.”

        Jude is also silent on the crucifixion and resurrection. We wouldn’t know these things either if we only had Jude. It strikes me as nothing more than a warning not to follow insiders (v. 4) who sound a lot like Paul to me: “Grumblers, malcontents, following their own passions, loud-mouthed boasters, flattering people to gain advantage” (v. 16).

    2. No character? I’ve mentioned this before, so I’ll try to be brief. I find it hard to believe, given the mythologies around Attis, Osiris, Michael, and others that Paul would deliver the message, “the Lord Jesus Christ died on a cross, was resurrected, is the Son of God, and his death provides salvation, and no one is curious as to how he came into being, how he was crucified, why he is the Son of God and Christ? we get some vague reference to him being descended from David and born of a woman.” Do you really feel that Paul gives a full story on Jesus, that we understand Jesus from just Paul’s letters? Even through the lens of Doherty’s ideas on how the ancients viewed the cosmos, Paul does not seems to give an unambiguous description of Jesus.

      1. Mike, Paul gives us no story at all, except what he perceives to be his story from what he gathers from the scriptures. He doesn’t offer us any original data on Jesus, just continual exegesis of “his” life through the Hebrew Bible.

        1. But he does give data, we know from reading Paul that he thinks there is a being he calls Jesus, who is resurrected from death, is the son of God, Christ, is coming again, and so on. Earl’s argument is that the curiosity of Paul’s people would require that Paul explain more on the background of Jesus, were he a historical being, but I am not sure why they wouldn’t be interested in the background of Jesus were he a spiritual being. To claim there is no background is to say that Paul gives a complete description of Jesus, and I think that it would quite difficult to persuade someone to join a cult based solely on Paul’s description.

          1. Doherty answered this for you on McGrath’s blogsite a few days ago:

            Mike, I hardly think that audiences would be as likely to pester Paul about the nitty-gritty nature and activities of a Christ who had operated in the heavens, as they would about a man on earth whom Paul was claiming was the heavenly Son of God and Redeemer of the world. The existence of the former would be demonstrated from scripture, something which Paul and other early writers do refer to a number of times. But the validity of the claim about the latter (a man being God, rising from his earthly grave and redeeming the world by his death) would need far more persuasive details about that earthly man to effect conversion to what Paul is preaching about him. Also, that dimension on earth would make available far more useful data for the needs of the ongoing communities that Paul is writing to.

            You’re missing the whole point of why apostles would have a need (for their own authority and credibility against their competitors) to appeal to the earthly deeds and sayings of Jesus had there been any.

            1. As far as Paul’s appealing message (“…difficult to persuade someone to join a cult based solely on Paul’s description”?), I’m reminded once again of the notion that the diaspora synagogues had apparently been drawing significant numbers of Gentile “god-fearers.”

              If Paul came along and said, “Guys, I’ve got a new formula,” and lays out his vision of a heavenly Son who died for our sins, including a new dispensation that permits pork and foreskins (so long as you’re a Gentile), I can imagine plenty of takers. Suddenly, you’re no longer on the periphery, but a full-fledged member of a congregation of believers.

              In fact the god-fearer conversion hypothesis might help explain why it appears that Paul is always addressing Gentiles, but continually appeals to Hebrew scripture. They knew the Tanakh already, having been low-level (forever a bridesmaid, never a bride) initiates in the Jewish cult.

  7. Mike, please show me where Paul ever says Jesus is coming again. That would be a very key point for him to make against the mythicist case, and I’ve never seen any epistle that states it, nor is it in Revelation as far as I can see. So this is a great test case of the competing hypotheses. On the mythicist case, one would expect only discussions of Jesus’ soon coming, but one would never find a statement that he was coming again. On the historicist case, one would expect multiple references to his return or his coming again in the epistles.

    Let me know what you find.

    1. I hate to give aid and comfort to the opposition, but in the case of the word παρουσία, I think it’s worth remembering that its classical meaning referred to the coming of a royal personage. If the emperor was coming to your town with his vast retinue, that was a παρουσία.

      I still suspect when Paul talks of the parousia he thinks it’s the first coming of Jesus to Earth. However, the same word can be used in Matthew for the second coming, because at the παρουσία, he will be fully elevated as King of Kings, Son of Man, the Messiah, and the enthroned Son of God.

      So while I used to think this was an extremely strong case for mythicism, I’m not as certain. All this talk of Jesus’ “coming” is indeed a strange phenomenon if we read it as simply “his arrival on Earth.” But if we think of it as “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” then perhaps it isn’t quite so striking.

      Although it may sound like apologia, there is some basis to the claim that the first coming was the incarnation and the second coming will be the παρουσία. Whether the epistle writers saw it exactly that way is another matter.

      1. Tim, no argument, but most emperors visited most places once if ever. I would imagine even a man like Hadrian visited most places once only. Therefore my objection stands. I don’t know of any translation of parousia in the NT that includes the concept of return or coming again.

        1. Tim and Evan,

          Are you referring to 1 Thessalonians 4:15’s “until the coming of the Lord”? While Paul doesn’t
          say “second” coming, there does appear to be a “second” coming, even if the first one was only “believed” in:

          “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again … the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thes. 4:14-16).

          I haven’t given the “second coming” much thought, it’s just what I’m seeing here and maybe I’m wrong.

          1. John I’m not sure why you think that text necessitates the concept of return or a second coming, unless you assume the death of Jesus happened in historical time and wasn’t a mystery hidden for the ages. Col 1 is very clear on this:

            Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;

            No evidence that there was a dispensation from Jesus, but the author himself is the messenger of God here.

            Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:

            Note no evidence of any recent change in the status that relates to a person other than the author and his peer. If this is talking about a recently deceased person, it requires much more clarification regarding what ages and generations were not hidden, as there would have been at least one new generation since the death of a historical Jesus.

            To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:

            Note that Christ here is reported to be in the mystery of the Gentiles. This strongly suggests that a la Attis and Mithras, a formerly ethnic religion of a subject people is being Hellenized and Romanized and non-Jews are being admitted into those mysteries. The character of Jesus of Nazareth was hardly “among the Gentiles”.

            Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus:

            Again, this sentence seems to make no sense if this is talking about a recently deceased historical figure. If it is speaking about spiritual entity made manifest in a mystery with its basis in the Hebrew Scriptures are the primary hieros logos then we it is much more understandable.

            Whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.

            No mention here of the recent labors and works of the actual recently deceased person, the author seems to be the locus of the supernatural entity he is channeling.

            1. I’m not sure Colossians is considered a genuine epistle of Paul, thus I’ve never factored it in to my thinking. If it is, then I would take a closer look at it.

              I can, however, say something about your comment:

              “John I’m not sure why you think that text necessitates the concept of return or a second coming, unless you assume the death of Jesus happened in historical time and wasn’t a mystery hidden for the ages. Col 1 is very clear on this:”

              I don’t know if 1 Thes. 4:15 necessitates the concept of return or second coming. I’m just guessing. As I wrote:

              “While Paul doesn’t say “second” coming, there does appear to be a “second” coming, even if the first one was only “believed” in:

              For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again … the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thes. 4:14-16).”

              I’m somewhat new to Doherty, so my mind is still adjusting to the new paradigm, but so far my understanding is that there is a “coming down” from somewhere by a mythical Jesus to a lower sphere, not on earth or any fixed time period, where he is crucified, dies, is buried and resurrected, as reflected in the Ascension of Isaiah, and perhaps the Odes of Solomon or Hebrews? if not elsewhere.

              This could be the “first” coming then, of which Paul says above in 4:14, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again…” This would make the part where “the Lord himself will decend from heaven” in 4:16 a “second” coming, whether the first was mythical or not, is all I’m thinking. As I said, I haven’t given the “second coming” idea much thought. This is just what I think when I look at these verses.

              1. Now that I think about it, if the Jesus who “died and rose again” in 4:14 is a myth (and I’m not saying he isn’t), who is “the Lord Himself” who “will descend
                from heaven” in 4:16 whom believers will “meet … in the air” in 4:17?

              2. John, it’s true that Colossians is deuteropauline and I guess since I consider them all to be works written after 70 CE that’s not such a big deal to me, as they are all windows into early 2nd century Christian thought. If we accept 1 Thess as a genuine document that dates back to 50 CE as mainstreamers like Burton Mack do, it makes no sense unless you remove 2:14-16 as an interpolation, and then, of course, unless you have an original, pre-Marcionite text you can figure out what the autograph might have said, but we don’t have that. I’m not sure if Tertullian or any others quote the Marcionite version of 1 Thess 4:14-16 or 2:14-16, but I would love to see the quotes if they exist. However, if you suspect a 70 CE or later date for 1 Thess, than you are correct that 2:14-16 and 4:14-16 seem to be consistent with a historical Jesus, however they don’t seem to be particularly inconsistent with a Dohertian mythical Jesus or a Jesus that was a mystery recently revealed on earth through ritual or visions either, especially if you see the “Lord Jesus” as an instantiation or allegory for the whole Tanakh and the temple, which had recently been “destroyed” (again assuming a post-70 date) for a sizable subset of the Jewish people who were not Pharisees.

              3. However it may be, I haven’t said anything about 1 Thes. 2:14-16. But now that you bring it to my attention, I have always just assumed that the idea that it is an interpolation is correct, and I hadn’t given it any more thought. It’s an interesting question, and now I want to look into it. Right off the bat I’m seeing that it might be compatable with Romans 11:28, but this is another subject.

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