What Doherty really said in chapter 4 (not what he “seemed” to say according to McGrath)

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by Neil Godfrey

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In my recent post I criticized McGrath’s review of chapter 4 of Doherty’s book (Jesus Neither God Nor Man) for suppressing Doherty’s arguments and replacing them with a series of “Doherty seems to be saying . . . ” phrases.

My understanding of a scholarly review is that it should present the argument of the text reviewed, and then include any critical comment or discussion about that presented argument.

So I offer the remainder of this post as a template to help Dr James McGrath write a revised review of chapter 4 of Doherty’s book. He can incorporate what follows — the argument of Doherty in chapter 4 — and then add his own critique in response to these specific arguments. This will mean having to erase his earlier “Doherty seems to say” paragraphs, and to replace them with pertinent arguments that address the details of what Doherty actually says.

Chapter 4: Apostles and Ministries

Earl Doherty’s chapter 4 discusses what we can know about the nature of the earliest Christian preaching activities primarily from the evidence of the New Testament epistles, and whether the picture that emerges of these ministries is best explained by the historical or mythical Jesus hypothesis.

He begins by suggesting what we should expect to find on the basis of the historical Jesus hypothesis. With a historical Jesus we should expect evidence of a unified point of origin or set of doctrines. We would expect to find:

  1. missionaries and apostles regularly appealing to the words and actions of Jesus himself in order to establish their own authority and reliability against their many competitors and before their audiences;
  2. similar appeals to the apostles who had themselves been chosen by Jesus as authoritative witnesses;
  3. over time, appeals to those who had first-hand contact with those apostles.

What the evidence outside the Gospels and Acts (later than the NT epistles) indicates:

  1. No reference to living or past “disciples” of Jesus; rather, abundant references to “apostles” who were said to be called and sent out by God;
  2. Paul justifies his apostleship on the grounds of his visions and revelations from God, particularly on having had a vision of Jesus, and on this basis claims to be no less an authority than all other apostles, thus implying that their contact with Jesus was by the same visionary experiences;
  3. Paul’s competitors were other apostles and preachers all claiming to have authority from God, accusing each other of not being “true” apostles, yet none claiming authority on the basis of having been with an earthly Jesus;
  4. True apostleship and teaching is said to be determined by the Spirit, not an appeal to an original Teacher who had taught disciples;
  5. Some modern scholars have disputed the historicity of the Twelve;
  6. Paul’s letters leave it uncertain how many apostles there were or even who they were;
  7. Non-Pauline documents from the very earliest periods – Didache 11, Hebrews 13:7, 1 John 4:1 – also deny any sense of an apostolic tradition, and also confirm that authority was decided by appeals to the Spirit and revelation, not to a founding Jesus;
  8. The concept of apostolic tradition only developed in the second century when competing groups felt a need to be able to trace their authority against others by being able to trace their teachings back to an authoritative group with Jesus

Having argued that the historical Jesus hypothesis fails to explain the evidence we have for the earliest Christian proselytising efforts, Doherty then presents his more detailed argument that the apostles received their revelations from God or through visions and not from a tradition of teaching traceable back to Jesus and his disciples. In other words, he argues that the evidence from the NT epistles of early Christian evangelization best fits the hypothesis that Christianity began not with a historical Jesus and twelve disciples, but with a concept of a spiritual or heavenly Christ revealer.

His argument here is built around three instances where Paul uses the word “paralambano” (meaning “received”, as in receiving the gospel through revelation, Doherty argues): Galatians 1:11-12, 1 Corinthians 15:3 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.

  1. Paul’s second (understood) use of the word “paralambano” (a word sometimes used within the context of Greek mystery religions to refer to a reception of a revelation from God) in Galatians 1:11-12 can only mean that he received the gospel by revelation from Christ – in opposition to any contrary claim that he received the gospel through human channels.
  2. Doherty argues (cogently in my view) that the “gospel” Paul speaks of in Galatians 1:11-12 must mean far more than the mere issue of circumcision, and must refer to the broader gospel message such as is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 when that passage is weighed against the details of the following passages in Galatians. Thus when Paul speaks of the gospel he preaches being a revelation from Christ then he is speaking about something much bigger than circumcision.
  3. The simple fact that Paul was not likely to have been accused of getting his teaching on circumcision from anyone else, particularly from Peter and James, further supports the argument that Paul says it was a much larger gospel that he received by revelation.
  4. 1 Corinthians 15:3 also sees Paul speaking of “receiving” the gospel, and unless Paul contradicts himself in Galatians 1, we must understand this reception also to have come from a divine source by revelation. Doherty uses the following 3 points (5 to 7) as further support for interpreting “received” in 1 Cor 15:3 to mean a divine revelation.
  5. Paul further explains that the reception or revelation of the gospel came from the scriptures. (Translating “kata tas graphas” to indicate a meaning such as “according to the scriptures” leads to a concept nowhere discussed in Paul, while translating it as “as we learn from the scriptures” is equally valid, or moreso given the context.)
  6. If the gospel taught by Paul was both a revealed (through scripture) gospel and about the death and resurrection of Jesus, then it follows that the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus was an article of faith and not historical witness.
  7. The “burial” reference in the gospel is not assigned (unlike the death and resurrection details – Isa. 53 and Hos 6:2) to a scriptural source by Paul, but could nonetheless fit with Paul’s mystical effects of baptism in Romans 6 that is depicted as a “burial” of the initiate.

As we shall see, the salvation process worked through parallel experiences between savior god and initiate. Paul could conceive of a burial of Christ to complement a burial of the believer (both being a symbolical mystical idea rather than a literal one), each before ascending to a new life. (p. 47)

Doherty then addresses several verses (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:2; 1 Thess 4:2 and again 1 Cor. 15:3) said by Eddy and Boyd to mean that Paul was receiving teachings through other mortals, but Doherty argues that in each case their interpretation is really begging the question.

8. I Corinthians 11:23-26 speaks of Paul receiving (“paralambano”) the information about the Lord’s Supper, and argues:

Since paralambano has elsewhere meant ‘received through revelation’ and since Paul speaks generally about his doctrine as coming through this channel – and since the words plainly say so – this passage should mean that Paul has received this information through a direct revelation from the Lord Jesus himself.

But here too, if he means that this information has come to him through revelation, he is unlikely to be referring to an historical event. In the Corinthians’ eyes, it would be ludicrous for Paul to say he got it from the Lord if the Supper and the words spoken there were an historical incident well-known to Christians. (p. 48)

  1. Doherty next challenges the common view among biblical scholars that this passage in Paul is a reference to historical tradition and not divine revelation. He uses the arguments of Eddy and Boyd as his foil, exposing the question-begging underlying their arguments, and addressing the manuscript evidence of the various gospels to show that the original gospel account of Jesus’ words at the Lord’s Supper cannot have been related to what Paul himself wrote and that Paul’s words were not, therefore, some humanly handed-down formula. (He further promises in the next section of his book to show that there is no evidence outside the Gospels that there is any evidence of a sacramental Eucharist established before the second century.)

Doherty then demonstrates that Paul always speaks of his ministry as being ordained and founded upon the word of God. If Jesus began anything at all, then Paul nowhere indicates that he is building on any ministry begun by Jesus. See, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 and 2 Corinthians 3:5. Astonishingly, Paul compares the glory of his own (not Jesus’) ministry to that of Moses who has received direct divine revelation: 2 Corinthians 3:7-11.

Paul leaves Jesus in the shadows while he attributes all the revelation, the act of salvation, the calling, the responsibility, to God and never to Jesus: 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Galatians 4:7; Romans 1:19; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 5:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:8.

Finally, Doherty points to Romans 10 and 11:

The void Paul reveals on the ministry of Jesus is nowhere so evident as in Romans 10. Here he is discussing the ‘guilt’ of the Jews for not responding to the message about Christ, even though they had every opportunity to do so. But what did that opportunity encompass?

How can (the Jews) call on the one [i.e. Christ] they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom [hou] they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? [10:14, NIV]

Paul speaks of the Jews’ opportunity to hear about Jesus from apostles like himself. But what of the opportunity they had enjoyed to hear the message from the person of Jesus himself? For at least some of them had been witnesses to his earthly ministry. How could Paul fail to highlight his countrymen’s spurning of the Son of God in the flesh?

[Doherty then discusses and refutes the attempt by C. K. Barrett (Epistle to the Romans, p. 189) to translate “of whom they have not heard” with the technically possible meaning of “hearing someone directly”, by showing that this translation flies against the context of the passage.]

Subsequently, Paul contrasts the Jews with the gentiles who have accepted the gospel message. But he passes up the obvious point of contrast: that whereas the Jews had rejected the message even though delivered by Jesus himself, the gentiles had accepted it second-hand, from such as Paul. (p. 50)

Doherty concludes with Romans 11 where Paul epitomizes the Jews’ failure to accept the message by reference to their intent to kill off Elijah! Not Jesus??

My own thoughts on Doherty’s argument in his chapter 4 are indicated in my recent posts in which I discuss the evidence — and mainstream scholarly discussion — for the role of visions among leaders of the early Christians. (Other scholars can be added to those discussed in that archive, including the likes of Bruce Chilton.) If part of the preparatory discipline prior to a vision was to dwell intently on selected scriptures (and that’s what the scholarly literature tells me was the case), it is not difficult to imagine people inducing visions that brought them into a graphic experience of witnessing the demise and restoration of a messiah/servant/son of God-Man as suggested in the various scriptures.

But now you’ve read what I think is a fair outline of Doherty’s arguments, you might want to review what Doherty “seemed” to be saying according to McGrath’s understanding.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “What Doherty really said in chapter 4 (not what he “seemed” to say according to McGrath)”

  1. The problem for McGrath is, whether he realizes it or not, that if he were to actually argue, directly, what Doherty has written, the gaping holes in the historical Jesus hypothesis just might swallow him up.

  2. Over on Exploding Our Cakemix, McG says this post “seeks to put as positive and persuasive a spin as possible on Doherty’s claims and arguments…” So you see, it’s all just spin, Neil.

    Meanwhile GDon and McG are snorting and snickering over the idea that Earl “seems to” believe in miracles.

    GDon: “But if Paul had a revelation that just happened to tell him what the church already believed, then that does indeed border on the miraculous. This appears to be Doherty’s position, though perhaps he might help to clarify this here.”

    Of course saying that Paul believed he had a divine revelation is not the same as saying he really received a vision from God and/or Christ. And did Paul’s gospel match what the “the church already believed”? If the “rich, vibrant oral tradition” that later became our four Gospels is any indication, not so much. Matthew’s view of the law is at odds with Paul’s. Luke’s perspective on soteriology does not match Paul’s. Mark says Jesus’ recipe for salvation has to do with being righteous and giving away your worldly possessions. Paul would disagree. According to the Gospels, Jesus and John the Baptist both taught that God could forgive sins if you repented. Paul taught his followers to have faith in Christ and in his atoning sacrifice on the cross; only then could they be saved from sin.

    McG: “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?”

    Let me get this straight. When Paul says he got a revelation from God, he must be lying. But when he tells us his gospel is identical with the other apostles, he can’t be lying. Really?

    Paul and the other apostles may have only agreed on two things — crucifixion and resurrection — which Paul indicates are what really matters. But the doctrinal accouterments, his full gospel, and in particular what the crucifixion and resurrection really mean could have been (and likely were) vastly different from the teachings of Cephas and James.

    McG: “If Doherty wishes to posit miracles, that is his business…”

    The very fact that he chooses to wallow around in such rhetorical mud proves he doesn’t intend to engage with Doherty’s actual arguments, and I doubt he ever will.

    1. Tim, so you believe Paul and the other apostles agreed that Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Is it really only by revelation Paul was aware of this? You don’t think he could have heard about the beliefs of the people he was persecuting? Isn’t it coincidental that, if Paul was not aware of this idea that Jesus died and was resurrected, that while persecuting people who believe that, he should have a revelation to that effect? I have to argue, Tim, that what Paul received by revelation was not knowledge of the idea that Jesus died and came back from the dead, but confirmation of that idea by way of some sort of vision. If Doherty’s intent is to show that knowledge of Jesus death and resurrection came only by way of revelation, Paul can’t be used as an example. While I doubt that Jesus’ resurrection can be counted among his historical deeds and would had to have entered the human consciousness by way of vision or Biblical divination, the death part is the big question.

      1. Following the sophistry of McGrath will not help you understand mythicism. Stop and think for a moment about revelations and how they worked.

        1. We read a passage in 1 Corinthians giving a list of people saw the risen Jesus in a vision (the same way Paul did). They were all witnesses of the risen Jesus and therefore were not “taught” his resurrection by any persons.

        2. Many claimed to have a visionary ascent to heaven as a result of a calling by God or his angel. None, I suspect, would have said they were taught the contents of this visionary experience by other people.

        Now did all of these people who had these visions not know anything at all about what to expect when they had them? Of course not. They were part of a culture that talked about them and some few were able to induce visionary experiences themselves to confirm them. We know part of their preparation for visions was to dwell intently on certain scriptures that were related to the expected vision. The visionary experience was “with God” and it was on that basis that they could claim a direct calling from God — and that they were not taught by any man but by God.

        Don’t just let yourself be led along by McGrath’s specious “reasoning”.

        Besides, have a close read of Galatians and see what it really does say, too.

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