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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