McGrath “not paying close attention” in his review of Doherty’s chapter 4

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Proof-texting backfires

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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10 thoughts on “McGrath “not paying close attention” in his review of Doherty’s chapter 4”

  1. On the subject of “the best explanation for the lack of evidence,” I’m reminded of the general agreement among Q scholars that the reason there are no Passion and Resurrection stories/sayings in Q isn’t that they’re “missing” or “tacitly understood,” but because they weren’t important to the community that created it.

    I think that’s a hopeful sign from NT scholars. No evidence? Well, all right — until there’s good reason to believe otherwise, we’ll just assume absence means absence.

    1. Applying that to Paul’s writings, we get the idea that the tale of an earthly Jesus was not important to Paul in the writings we have. End of story.

      The absence can be a belief in a mythical Jesus, a lack of space in the writings, a lack of interest, embarrassment about apostolic credentials, marketing of his sect, a orthodox redactor or whatever imagination can provide.

      1. vader: “…the tale of an earthly Jesus was not important to Paul in the writings we have. End of story.”

        Not quite the end. The paucity of sayings from the risen Christ is remarkable, too. Paul focuses on what Jesus did at a particular time and how he became the Christ, which in turn he demonstrates to be true by quoting from scripture.

        As you know, most mainstream scholars are absolutely certain of the “vibrant oral tradition,” which kept alive the various sayings of Jesus. I suppose we should consider it an unfortunate quirk of history that in Paul’s extant writings he never had to explain a misunderstood saying or clarify one of the parables. Darn the luck.

  2. This is not a defense of McGrath, but rather a response to something he says above that Doherty mentions in Jesus, Neither God Nor Man.

    McGrath on Doherty:

    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 himslef in order to confer authority and reliability on each apostle’s preaching of the Christ, would have been an inevitable and indispesnable 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.”

    Since I’m convinced that the Dead Sea Scrolls, in their final stage, belonged to James’ group, I look to them for answers about the early “Christian” movement there. And I wrote in a recent comment:

    “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 intitiation process of the DSS group required 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).”

    Coincidently or not, this is very similar to what James is depicted as doing in the arguably Ebionite portion of the Recognitions of Clement:

    “Then said James, ‘We must first inquire from what Scriptures we are especially to derive our discussion.’ Then he, with difficulty, at length overcome by reason, answered, that it must be derived from the law; and afterwards he made mention also of the prophets.”

    “To him our James began to show, that whatsoever things the prophets say they have taken from the law, and what they have spoken is in accordance with the law. He also made some statements respecting the books of the Kings, in what way, and when, and by whom they were written, and how they ought to be used.

    “And when he had discussed most fully concerning the law, and had, by a most clear exposition, brought into light whatever things are in it concerning Christ, he showed by most abundant proofs that Jesus is the Christ, and that in Him are fulfilled all the prophecies which related to His humble advent. For he showed that two advents of Him are foretold: one in humiliation, which He has accomplished; the other in glory, which is hoped for to be accomplished, when He shall come to give the kingdom to those who believe in Him, and who observe all things which He has commanded” (1.68-69).”

    I also wrote that:

    “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.”

    If we consider the possibilty that James’ group kept their doctrines secret from outsiders (like the DSS group and the Essenes), it makes sense that the Epistle of James, being written for those Jews who lived outside Judea, would not be as explicit about them as it would have been to those who were more fully initiated into the sect, as we see in the Recognitions of Clement. And in any event, the thrust of James’ epistle is arguably to counter the influence of Paul.

    In the case of Jude, I recently pointed out how it doesn’t even mention the crucifixion or resurrection, which are key components of both the Christ myth and the historical Jesus idea. This is because that letter appears to be only a warning not to follow wayward teachers (who sound like Paul).

    I also don’t think we should expect to see any sayings of Jesus (if there really are any) in, as Doherty puts it, “all the non-Gospel evidence of almost the first hundred years,” in any event, because there is no evidence that they even existed until the second century.

    Whether the written sayings of Jesus were genuine or created, there is no evidence that this was a type of literature that was happening before the second century, not even for “Q.” I suspect that it was the change in situation post-70 CE that led to the creation of literature that talks more openly about James and Jesus, after the threat of annihilation by the Romans had become reality. What did the DSS/James sect have to lose after 70? They would no longer need to use code names like the “Liar” for Paul or the “Teacher of Righteousness” for James anymore; they were now “free” to lay it all out (such as in the Gospel of the Hebrews), because it was all that they had left and the old rules no longer applied. That’s how it looks to me, anyway, since I do factor in the Scrolls. I could be wrong, but this is what I’m thinking.

    1. John, that certainly is one possible explanation, but it is not just as likely that Christianity started as a Jewish version of the pagan mysteries and the gospels were their hieros logos?

      1. That’s possible too, especially the Pauline version, I suppose. I couldn’t say to what degree Greco-Roman culture may have influenced the Dead Sea Scrolls sect or Ebionites, though Eisenman makes a good case that they are links in a chain of Jewish resistance to Hellenism that began with the Maccabees (and that they ultimately lost).

    2. MCGRATH
      “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”

      Of course, McGrath just ignores what Paul says , as he cannot fit what Paul says into his mental framework of how Christianity developed.

      Paul, as McGrath rightly points out, would have been duty-bound to establish the authority of the apostles and the pillars.

      But the authority Paul uses is never any earthly Jesus. It is either the risen Jesus, or God.

      Paul thinks seeing the risen Jesus puts him on an equal footing with people McGrath claims were followers of the earthly Jesus.

      1 Corinthians 9:1
      Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?

      And Paul does not denigrate the pillars. He claims they have been given authority by God Himself.

      1 Corinthians 12
      And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.

      McGrath claims a prediction of his historicist theory is that Paul would say that Jesus appointed apostles.

      Therefore, McGrath’s theory fails to predict reality, using the test McGrath himself devised.

      McGrath’s theory has failed McGrath’s own test.

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