What McGrath forgot

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by Neil Godfrey

The Forgetful Professor
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In his review of the second chapter of Earl Doherty’s Jesus Neither God Nor Man Dr James McGrath faulted Doherty for “deliberately downplaying” or “failing to grasp” that Paul’s letters were not written as treatises for the purpose of laying out all the basics about the life of Jesus:

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. (my emphasis throughout)

I will show in this post that it is in fact McGrath who is “deliberately downplaying or has altogether failed to grasp” what he has read in Doherty’s book.

It seems that McGrath had a lot on his plate personally between the time he came to write the above and his review of the chapter just prior to this, because he clearly forgot the main thrust of that earlier chapter in which Doherty makes the purpose of Paul’s letters — and what we can expect to find in them accordingly — his central focus. He even opens up the chapter with the following words:

The New Testament epistles are often described as “occasional writings.” That is, each one was written on a particular occasion to deal with a specific situation faced by the writer. . . .

What could one reasonably expect to find in such a motley collection of writings?

First and foremost, these writers are, within the situations their epistles address, discussing their faith, one that centers on the figure they worship. They may not be setting out to present a comprehensive statement of that faith and that figure — although it might be argued that Hebrews does, and to a certain extent Romans. Nevertheless, we should reasonably expect that from this collection of early Christian correspondence (to which one could add Revelation), basic defining doctrines and a background picture of the Christian movement, even if only piecemeal, would emerge.

Yet what, in fact, does emerge? (p. 15)

What Doherty is doing here, and that McGrath fails to grasp, is testing the predictive value of the traditional hypothesis. Doherty in turn demonstrates that a nonhistorical Jesus hypothesis makes more valid (and less complex) predictions and explanations of the evidence.

So, apart from failing to register one of the most important ways to evaluate any hypothesis, where does McGrath “deliberately downplay or altogether fail to grasp” Doherty’s argument?

Firstly, McGrath attempts to limit the discussion to Paul’s letters only while one of Doherty’s key points is to stress that while the main focus is on Paul, the question is not limited to Paul’s letters at all.

Secondly, McGrath attempts to limit the discussion only to those letters that are written to address local church problems, whereas Doherty stresses that we need also to account for those letters that are clearly far more than merely passing guidelines for momentary situations. Doherty also refers to early extracanonical epistles and treatises.

Thirdly, McGrath attempts to deflect attention away from Doherty’s point by subtly changing the very topic being addressed. While Doherty is asking why we don’t even find piecemeal incidental references to the life and teaching of a human Jesus in Paul, McGrath complains that Paul had no reason to make the life and teaching of a human Jesus “the major focus” of his letters. Everyone can agree on what is and what is not the major focus of Paul’s letters. But that, of course, is not the question under discussion.

Even if these writings are “occasional” – and some of them are more than that – is it feasible that in all this discussion and defense of their faith, nowhere would anyone, by choice, accident or necessity, happen to use words which would identify the divine Son and Christ they are all talking about with his recent incarnation: whether this be the man Jesus of Nazareth known to us from the Gospels, born of Mary and died under Pilate, or some other “genuine Jesus’ unearthed by modern critical scholarship? (p. 16)

Fourthly, when McGrath attempts to counter Doherty by saying Paul was responding to “unexpected issues and questions for which answers were not readily available in the teaching of Jesus”, he fails to recall that Doherty does indeed include discussions of very common every-day problems that most scholars are agreed Jesus did in fact address. Yet even admonitions to love one another are drawn from the Pentateuch and not from Jesus. (pp. 28-9)

Fifthly, McGrath forgot that he read where Doherty is not also pointing out what one does read, not only drawing attention to what is not found, and how what one does read is so reminiscent of Hellenistic philosophy that has no normative applicability to any human:

Paul believes in a Son of God, not that anyone was the Son of God.

Here is Paul stating a capsule summary of the gospel of salvation he preached to the Corinthians:

. . . that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures. [1 Cor. 15:3-4]

Is there not something missing here? . . . . .

But perhaps Paul left out such preliminaries when quoting his capsule gospel. What of his ‘definition’ of Father and Son in 1 Corinthians 8:6?

For us there is one God, the Father, from whom all being comes . . . and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came to be and we through him. [NEB]

This is language very reminiscent of Greek philosophy. But it would seem that a fundamental description of the Son is not to include the fact that he was incarnated in the person of a human Jesus, the man through whom information about the Son was presumably derived. Such an idea Paul never mentions. (pp. 19-20)

And on the central question of faith in the writings of Paul Doherty writes:

Throughout his letters, Paul has much to say about faith. . . . . But he leaves out what is surely the most important faith of all, the one that comes first, without which none of the others come into play. Paul ignores the requirement that one must have faith that the man Jesus of Nazareth had been the incarnation of the divine, redeeming Son he is preaching. (p. 20)

When McGrath — like so many others — does in the end attempt to deny Paul is so silent on the life and teachings of the human Jesus, the result is comical:

For now, I will simply point out what I have said before – the alleged “silence” is not as complete as Doherty seems to think. The references we have to Jesus being born, bleeding and dying as a result of crucifixion, and even being raised from the dead, all represent things that as a rule happened to human beings or, in the case of resurrection, were expected to happen to humans.

Of course, this is an attempt to dismiss at the outset the argument that is to follow in much of the book. It also “resolves” all the problems raised by the silence of Jesus’ life and teachings in the New Testament epistles by simply ignoring them.

The vacuity gets worse:

As for the question of why the focus in the epistles is pretty much exclusively on Jesus’ death and resurrection, rather than his teaching or exorcisms or anything else, the answer has been given by traditional scholarship and remains satisfactory. The death of the Messiah at the hands of foreign overlords required explanation . . . . It was natural for this to become a major focus, since it required attention and explanation.

But of course the epistles do not attend to or explain why a human Jesus renowned for miraculous powers doing and teaching good, or why an expectant Messiah, was crucified by the Romans. They merely state the problem: that the Son of God, the heavenly Christ (not a recent man who was expected to be an all-conquering Davidic Christ), was said to have effected salvation by his death and resurrection without any reference to an earthly career of that Christ.

As for other details, there is currently a two-strand discussion underway on James McGrath’s blog in which Earl Doherty himself is responding to various comments, and there is no more for me to add to any of that. Linked here is the discussion on chapter 1 — and the other on chapter 2.

But I will conclude with two points from Doherty’s opening chapter that I personally found “challenging”, and since they were not directly addressed by McGrath I’d like to draw attention to them here.

The first raises the question of the absence of any indication of personal or collective struggles on the part of anyone (Paul, his converts . . . ) having to come to terms with exalting a man to the status of being part of the Godhead. Included here is the absence of any apparent need in any of the epistles to explain or defend this claim.

Once again Doherty concludes by suggesting the Christ Myth hypothesis offers the simplest explanation of the evidence:

Why is no justification or defense ever offered by any epistle writer for such an unprecedented leap, turning a mere man into a part of the Godhead?

But the question which New Testament scholarship has never asked is the most natural one of all: suppose Paul made no such leap? If all we find in Paul’s presentation of Christ is the transcendent divine being whose activities are never linked to history or an earthly location, is there any justification for assuming that Paul’s Christ arose out of Jesus of Nazareth, out of the human figure who appears for the first time only in the Gospels that were written some time after Paul? (pp. 20-21)

And another significant point I found cogently made was Doherty’s response to those who argue that the deification of Jesus was a relatively late development:

But this scenario runs into problems. Such groups, being distant from the places of Jesus’ ministry and forming after his death, would have had no contact with the man himself. One has to wonder how anyone, gentile or Jew, would have been impelled to create such a cosmic product out of someone they had never laid eyes on. There is no question that what was allegedly made of Jesus owes much to Hellenistic (Greek) ideas, but these ideas not even gentiles had ever applied to an historical person. Thus we can judge that the leap would have been, in its own way, as unprecedented and shocking for them as it would for mainstream Jews.

Moreover, such a proposal founders on a very important consideration. To judge by the chronology of Galatians 1 and 2, Paul’s conversion had to have taken place some time between 32 and 36, only a few years after Jesus’ presumed death. Since Paul did not invent the Christ cult . . . , it existed at that time – even in Judea itself. And because the evidence in Paul clearly implies that the Jerusalem group thought as he did on the question of Jesus’ divinity . . . . it must have been thriving even in Jerusalem. Who, then, in the very heart of Israel, had turned Jesus into a cosmic deity and attached Hellenistic mythologies to him virtually as soon as he was laid in his grave? . . . . (p. 23)

McGrath argues that these sorts of points are addressed and adequately answered by modern scholarly research. But I will direct anyone interested in that discussion to McGrath’s blog where Doherty responds to that, too.

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12 thoughts on “What McGrath forgot”

    The death of the Messiah at the hands of foreign overlords required explanation…

    As Doherty points out, this is one thing that is NOT explained by Paul.

    Paul never claims that you need faith in a Jesus of Nazareth, a Messiah killed by foreign overlords.

    So the very thing that McGrath claims needed explanation – the thing he claims should drive the analysis of Paul’s letters – is the very thing that is missing, and should lead to the conclusion that the historical mindset cannot explain what McGrath himself says cries out for explanation.

    Paul does address head on McGrath’s point about deaths at the hands of foreign overlords, smashing McGrath’s ‘argument’ that what needed explanation in Paul’s letters is, I quote ‘he death of the Messiah at the hands of foreign overlords…’

    Romans 13
    Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

    For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.

    For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer

    According to McGrath, what Doherty should be doing is persuading McGrath that Romans 13 is about explaining ‘the death of the Messiah at the hands of foreign overlords’

    But, of course, what Paul says is alien to McGrath, so McGrath has been forced to declare Paul ‘silent’, to avoid listening to Paul.

    By the way, does McGrath ever quote extensively from Doherty’s book in his ‘review’?

    1. A very good question: Does McGrath ever quote from Doherty’s book in his review. Well, yes he did in a recent post, but not in his lastest re chapter 3 of Doherty’s book. But I did do a word count analysis to see how much McGrath informs readers of what Doherty argues against how much McGrath preaches his own opinion.


      Explanation of Doherty’s argument in chapter 3 gets 92 words*.

      McGrath’s opinion and argument against Doherty in chapter 3 gets 687 words.

      I think that works out as McGrath allowing about 13% of space in his reviews of Doherty’s chapter to explaining Doherty’s argument!

      I struggle to see what Doherty is actually arguing when I read McGrath’s “review”, but I do read the same things McGrath has been saying ever since he started “asking” what mythicists believe and garnering his answers from comments by pro and con to his blog.

      For the record, the words I counted for McGrath’s allowance of 92 for explaining Doherty’s views in chapter 3 are:

      Chapter 3 begins with some general information about the Hellenistic world, before turning its attention to the argument that Paul’s language of Jesus having been revealed suggests something spiritual, and does not naturally serve as a reference to an incarnation (p.40). . . . .

      Doherty’s approach in this chapter is to focus on those passages which are open to being understood in a mythicist way, and he promises to return to the verses which seem to refer to Jesus as a historical figure – referring to things like his birth – at a later point.

      1. In other words, McGrath is silent about Doherty’s arguments, as I can’t find anything in those 92 words which would lead anybody to know what Doherty’s book is about.

  2. Neil,

    I have spent some time reading the Exploring Our Matrix blog site. It seems that McGrath is an apologist in liberal Christain garb. That’s fine, I suppose, if you ae looking for apologetics, but rather lame if you wish to deal with actual history.

    Perhaps it is better to not waste your time with him, as I am not sure he is actually capable of stepping outside of his apologetic paradigm.

    (It is, however, amusing watching you destroy his, rather bad, arguments.)

    1. The problem is that McGrath is actually a tenured faculty member in “New Testament Literature” at Butler University. His arguments are fairly embarrassing because his attitude is such transparently bad caricatures of what “academics” are like – the idea that academics live in an Ivory Tower and that when presented with arguments they snap back at anything that doesn’t validate their own research.

      In the real world I know few academics like this – most are pretty open to new ideas if only to argue against them. Hell I know Biology profs who love and crave having creationist arguments thrown at them because it gives them the opportunity to present evidence to the creationist in question where they are wrong and then turn around and ask them how their theory accounts for that.

      But McGrath argues like a caricature – he distorts, he refuses to provide actual quotes, he even refuses to provide actual arguments. Its embarrassing to anyone who is involved in academia – and watching Neil take him to task is refreshing. McGrath should be getting this from academics in his own field – he clearly can’t actually ANSWER the questions that Doherty brings up because if he could he wouldn’t have to resort to distortion and dissembling.

      I used to read McGrath’s blog – it was on my RSS feed for quite a while. When I started realizing what a shallow thinker he actually was I ended up unsubscribing – his views on religion and pop culture were somewhat interesting to me, but I just can’t take him seriously anymore when he can’t even come up with decent answers to the simple questions posed to him by Neil here without resorting to name-calling, appeals to authority (that usually end up being misleading appeals to authority), and worse.

      Professors like McGrath give academia a bad name – it makes it seem like the field is exactly the caricature people mock. If he can’t even come up with decent, actual responses to the question of lay people without resorting to misrepresentations and insults, why is he doing what he’s doing? It’s good to have someone calling him out on it, even if sometimes it feels like Neil is taking on the role of Sisyphus to McGrath’s boulder.

    2. Robert, yeh, he can be left alone, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a reponse to his “reviews” of Doherty’s book.

      Jer, there’s a coterie of “independent” scholars in the UK who may even be a little worse than our American friend.

  3. There are two other points besides the basic silence of early epistle writers that makes me doubt that they had a wandering, preaching Jesus in mind.

    1. There are no incorrect teachings of Jesus in the early epistles. If Jesus had been known to be a preacher, then we would suspect that even some inauthentic teachings would be attributed to him. What confirms this idea is that later Church Fathers in fact did misattribute teachings to Jesus. Because they in fact did have a wandering, preaching Jesus in mind:

    as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. – Irenaeus, AH 5.33.3

    This is, in fact, a quote from 2 Baruch (i.e. a revelation from god)… not from Jesus:

    5 The earth also shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold and on each [true] vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor of wine. – 2 Baruch 29.5

    2. As soon as the gospels get produced — in the liberal Christian timeframe (late 1st century) — we start getting Gnosticism right afterwards (early 2nd century). Or some Christian cults that revoled around the “secret” teachings of Jesus. If Jesus had been preaching some “secret” teachings from the beginning, like he does in the Synoptic gospels, then the focus on the saving power of teachings of Jesus (like the gospel of Thomas) and/or his secret teachings would have appeared a lot earlier than when the gospels were written. Not immediately after.

    1. Your #2 particularly grabs my attention. Just as there are indications the narratives contain rebuttals of vision mysticism, is the theme of secret teachings/parables a rebuttal of the more mysterious secret teachings of “gnostics”? John’s gospel again has its own style of refutation. I know this is contrary to what you are saying about the relative chronology of gnosticism, though.

      1. Regarding the chronology of gnosticism, we should consider the timeframe of the Sethians. As I’ve mentioned before, John D. Turner suggests a non-Christian baptismal sect of the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E., which is gradually Christianized in the later first century onward. What we get in the early 2nd century are redacted Sethian writings.

        Turner offers a suggested reconstruction of composition and redaction in his article, ”Sethian Gnosticism: A Literary History”. In Section III. Chronology and Redaction, A. Before 100 C.E.,Turner offers a detailed discussion of his research involving early Sethian themes and mysteries (including “the mystery of Gnosis”) embedded in the mythology (A. 4. in particular), also in relation to other literature of the early Christian milieu.

        It’s not entirely out of the question that ensuing debates of the 2nd century C.E. could have developed out of a competitive atmosphere of the late 1st century as Sethians were gradually being Christianized, not to mention possible “rebuttal of the more mysterious secret teachings of ‘gnostics’”.

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