Probably most of us who have witnessed someone attempting to engage Associate Professor James McGrath in a rational debate will be familiar with his rejoinder: “You seem to be saying . . .”. And those who are familiar with this line of his know he has missed (or misconstrued) the point the other person was making entirely.
I once attempted to illustrate what I meant by independent testimony for the existence of Socrates by pointing to sources from a serious philosopher and a comic playwright. Such disparate sources are clearly independent testimony, while what we have in the New Testament are all from the one source: followers of Jesus. This was the point Albert Schweitzer himself made when comparing the evidence for Jesus with the evidence for other historical figures.
McGrath responded that it “seemed” I was arguing that I believe we should believe philosophers and playwrights in preference to Christians!
So when I read in McGrath’s review of chapter 4 of Doherty’s book the refrain (about half a dozen times) “Doherty seems to say . . . .” then I know whatever Doherty did say is completely beyond his comprehension.
This post is not an attempt to argue Doherty’s case. It is an analysis of a review about Doherty’s book made in the hope that it may alert some to think about what they are reading and that not everything from an academic is of a scholarly standard.
I recommend McGrath’s review for anyone who wishes to feel they have read a scholarly review but that in fact keeps readers completely in the dark about how Doherty reaches any of his conclusions or even what many of his conclusions actually are.
If you already know the gist of what Doherty argues, then you will find all of that repeated in the review, with repeats of McGrath’s old arguments against them, but you will not learn anything new. You will not be any the more knowledgable about how Doherty argues to reach any of his conclusions or what it is about the arguments themselves that are so logically flawed.
One will not even learn of the central argument and theme that holds this chapter together. One will leave the review thinking that Doherty here tackles major arguments that he in fact reserves for chapter-length detail later in the book.
The review begins:
Chapter 4 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man focuses on the subject of disciples and apostles. Doherty begins by asserting that “In the rough and tumble world of religious proselytizing, the appeal to Jesus’ own words and actions, the urge to claim a direct link back to Jesus himself in order to confer authority and reliability on each apostle’s preaching of the Christ, would have been an inevitable and indispensable mark of the early missionary movement. There would also have been an appeal to the apostles who had been chosen by Jesus and heard the words he spoke” (p.41). Doherty then proceeds to note that “such a picture is completely missing in all the non-Gospel evidence of almost the first hundred years.”
The best explanation for lack of evidence?
McGrath then makes a strange rebuttal by declaring, obviously without realizing it, that the evidence supports Doherty’s argument. So grounded is McGrath in thinking in a certain way he cannot see that Doherty’s explanation of the evidence is by far the less complex one. What escapes McGrath is that the absence of any evidence for appeals to the authority of the twelve apostles is best explained by suggesting that there were no historical appeals to the authority of the twelve apostles. We find this conclusion even among mainstream biblical scholars.
Several points are perhaps worth noting from the outset. First, the only early Christian letters we can attribute to named authors with any degree of certainty are Paul’s authentic ones, and reasons why Paul would not appeal to the authority of other apostles with whom he was sometimes in competition, and with whom he could not compete in terms of a comparable direct connection to Jesus, can be found in Paul’s own letters. Once again, we have an attempt to find a more complicated solution when a straightforward one is available.
There’s always one!
I’m reminded next of McGrath frequently chastising mythicists for finding at least one scholar somewhere in the field to support a point in their arguments. McGrath finds one scholar who has tried to argue that the Gospel of Mark should be dated before Paul’s letters, and concluded from this that it is therefore “possible” to date Mark so early. McGrath wisely avoids mention of much of the critical reception of Crossley’s book, and even more wisely avoids any hint of the logic of Crossley’s argument for dating the Gospel as early as the mid 30s.
(I have discussed Crossley’s and Casey’s astonishingly convoluted arguments in other posts on this blog. And I did address Crossley’s arguments, not just his conclusion, and McGrath might like to look at those posts to see how a review can manage to give both sides of an argument.)
Second, it is worth noting that the tendency to date the Gospels relatively late in the first century is an expression of caution on the part of scholars, not an indication that we are certain that they are not earlier. James Crossley has made the case for dating the Gospel of Mark to a time when the Caligula crisis was still ongoing, and so around 40 CE. Whatever one makes of his arguments, in the present context what is important is that it is not impossible that Mark’s Gospel dates from a time before Paul wrote, while the whole mythicist scenario Doherty requires a date for the Gospels that is significantly later. We cannot be certain that the earliest Gospel is as early as Crossley suggests, but we cannot be certain that it is late enough for Doherty’s hypothesis to work either.
McGrath then gets a bit muddled trying to find proof-texts against an argument by Doherty and actually ends up citing NT passages that support Doherty’s case. McGrath is attempting to show that there are passages in the epistles that support the idea that there was a concept of being a disciple or follower of Jesus in the sense of being a follower of a human teacher on earth. But each passage McGrath cites actually refers to people who never met Christ. So McGrath’s objection here falls a bit flat.
Doherty then goes on to point out that the term “disciple” is not used in the epistles. This is true – although it is perhaps worth noting that the verb from the same root is used, e.g. in Ephesians 4:20. And another term for discipleship, namely following, is used in the way that we would expect if Jesus was viewed as a human being – for instance, in 1 Corinthians 1:12, 1 Corinthians 11:1, and 1 Peter 2:21.
Seeming and dissimulation
McGrath then informs us of Doherty’s conclusion to a series of arguments that Paul and the Jerusalem apostles only saw Jesus in visions, but fails to inform readers what Doherty’s arguments were that led him to that conclusion. So when McGrath offers his own objection he is hardly playing fair. He is allowing only his own argument to be heard while suppressing Doherty’s. One would expect a scholarly review to critique the arguments made in a book, not just the conclusions.
Come on James, tell us what it is about Doherty’s arguments that are fallacious. You tell us what Doherty “seems” to be saying. Is it so hard for you to actually understand what he is saying? Is it not “scholarly” to sum up the arguments that you are reviewing? Why have you not done that? Why do you continue to attack only what you see as the conclusions as you were doing long before you even picked up Doherty’s book?
Doherty suggests that Paul’s claim to have seen Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1), offered as a defense of his authority viz-a-viz the other apostles, requires us to conclude that other apostles had only seen Jesus in the same way that Paul had – as a vision (p.42). It is not at all obvious why this must be the case, and Doherty seems at times to expect Paul to offer an impartial assessment of his own qualifications, rather than a polemical one that emphasizes what was in his favor and downplays or omits what could be counted against him.
Once again James avoids Doherty’s argument entirely by projecting his own “what he seems to be saying” ploy. As I explained at the outset, from my own experience in attempting to discuss a point with McGrath I have learned that when McGrath says “you seem to be saying”, then he is ignoring or twisting what you are saying and setting up his own straw man.
Doherty discusses the Didache (p.44), which reflects a period/context in which itinerant prophets were still active. He seems to be treating prophets as though they should be links in a chain to apostolic authority, which is puzzling.
Again, McGrath gives readers what Doherty “seems” to argue. A sophistic rhetorical device to avoid engaging with Doherty’s actual argument. But this time the straw man allows McGrath to slip in another insult. Insults are always easier if you don’t understand or like what the other person is saying. (McGrath’s criticism here is especially curious because some of his peers who do argue the same point as Doherty with reference to the role of visions and revelations among early Christians.)
Next, Doherty seems to attribute to Paul an actual miraculous revelation. He notes that Paul claims to have received his Gospel by divine revelation (Galatians 1:11-12), and takes this to be the Gospel which Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. That Gospel, Paul emphasizes, was the same one that other apostles preached (1 Cor. 15:9-11). And so if Paul had the same exact Gospel as them, without learning it from them, would that not suggest that Paul did indeed receive a divine revelation? However, since I am approaching this using the methods of history, which is skeptical of claims to have received revelation, I am forced to consider a more mundane explanation, namely that Paul did indeed know things via human contacts, and his claim to not depend on any human being is apologetics rather than factual reporting. Indeed, he may well have persecuted the Christian movement because he already had some information about what it was proclaiming. If Doherty wishes to posit miracles, that is his business, but it will be yet another hurdle that will prevent his treatment being taken seriously by historians and mainstream scholars.
Impression and feeling but don’t mention the logic or argument!
In response to Doherty’s arguments that the NT epistles speak of the death and resurrection of Jesus as articles of faith and not historical witness, McGrath once again sidesteps them all by lifting Doherty into a twilight zone of his own confusion by saying he has an “impression that Doherty feels” something. But McGrath does not breathe a hint about Doherty’s actual arguments or why he concludes that Paul spoke of a “symbolic mystical idea rather than a literal one.” Perhaps he simply did not follow the logic of Doherty’s thought. He has said elsewhere that he rejects any logic that does not lead to the conclusions of his peers, and has advertised his own inability to follow basic logical processes.
In the process of discussing Paul’s summary of the Gospel, Doherty is forced to say something about Paul’s reference to Jesus’ burial (pp.46-47). He mentions baptism, he mentions Osiris, but offers no account of what the words might actually mean in reference to events that supposedly occur in the celestial realm. Instead, we are told that “Paul could conceive of a burial of Christ to complement the burial of the believer (both being a symbolic mystical idea rather than a literal one), each before ascending to new life” (p.47). Even if this statement made sense (which I’m not persuaded it does), one gets the impression that Doherty feels that saying “it is symbolic” is an adequate way of dealing with evidence that seems to undermine his interpretation.
Again when discussion the passage in Paul about the Lord’s Supper all McGrath can manage is to say Doherty argues a certain conclusion, but again he will not offer readers any clue as to what Doherty’s argument could possibly be. McGrath does not like the conclusion so he attacks the conclusion. The reader is listening to a monologue. A review, I thought, should be able to alert readers to at least two sides of the question.
Worse yet, McGrath leaves readers of his review with the impression that Doherty leaves it open for one to read Paul any way one chooses – depending on the “conclusions” one brings into the text. This is, well, I should not say a dishonest representation of Doherty’s actual arguments. Perhaps McGrath omits any explanation of Doherty’s reasoning because he genuinely finds it too confronting and cannot understand it. He even reduces Doherty’s argument to “hand-waving”. No explanation. Just dismissal.
On pp.48-49, Doherty argues that Paul’s “tradition” about the Lord’s Supper which he handed on to the Corinthians was something he received by divine revelation and referred to a supernatural/celestial rather than a historical event. It supposedly then gets from him to Mark and from Mark to Matthew and Luke. Doherty’s remark is telling: “If Paul knows of this ‘Supper’ not through human reportage but by personal revelation, this removes the whole scene from any necessity of having taken place in history. It can be assigned to the realm of myth, where similar scenes in the mystery cults were located” (p.49). Doherty has already emphasized that in many instances a historical Jesus is read into texts in the epistles rather than found there. It is not clear to me that Doherty in any way shows that reading a purely mythical and purely celestial Christ into the epistles does not involve the same process. If one draws the conclusion that a historical Jesus likely existed and that Paul had reason to believe this was the case, then one interprets the epistles as a whole in light of this. If one draws a different conclusion, one interprets the epistles as a whole in light of those different premises. But this issue clearly should not be decided on the basis of whether it is possible to read texts both ways. The existence of mainstream scholarship and of mythicism indicates that there are people who find themselves able to read passages through both lenses and find them to make sense. The only way to avoid a deadlock is to actually take seriously those passages that Doherty dismisses with hand-waving and references to symbolism: mentions of birth, Davidic descent. taking bread, bleeding, dying, and being buried. It is certainly the case that puzzles remain in the early Christian literature even when one does so. But if anyone thinks that Doherty’s view is not creating puzzles of its own, and leaving some evidence in the epistles unsatisfactorily accounted for, then they haven’t been paying close attention.
And finally in the last paragraph we learn what “seems” the case to McGrath, but no explanation at all what Doherty really does say. All McGrath does is repeat his usual dismissal of an argument he has heard before without any attempt to seriously acknowledge it, let alone engage it. His own straw man rejoinder is all the reader needs to know.
The chapter ends with a discussion of Paul’s statement in Romans 10:14, which is taken to indicate that Jews required a preacher to tell them the good news. I have encountered this argument before from mythicists. Even apart from the fact that all Jews did not live in places where they might have encountered Jesus during his public activity, Doherty seems to miss entirely that a key element of the Gospel which Paul proclaimed was the message that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And as Acts also suggests, Christians seem to have believed that it was necessary to proclaim that message to Jews, even in places where Jesus himself had at some point been present. And so this is a very poor and thoroughly unpersuasive argument, although I fully expect that as I keep reading, I may encounter worse.
Posted by James F. McGrath
McGrath is completely out of his depth. He cannot register, not even summarize, Doherty’s arguments. Nowhere does he even explain the central idea of this chapter. He can only see the conclusions he knew were there all along so he continues to repeat all he has been saying, insults included, about mythicism. The reader learns nothing about Doherty’s arguments — except that McGrath does not like their conclusions — from this review.
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