Open Letter to James McGrath from Peter Kirby

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by Neil Godfrey

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I encourage everyone interested in James McGrath’s smear campaign against Earl Doherty with his “reviews” of his book to read Peter Kirby’s open letter to McGrath.

Go to Open Letter to James McGrath.

Peter has also indicated on McGrath’s blog that he has posted this open letter, as well as sending him a copy by email.

I am pleased to read Peter’s response. The intellectual dishonesty and betrayal of all that a public intellectual should stand for was so appalling in his recent post supposedly addressing Doherty’s chapter 5 that I needed to avoid attempting to respond this evening just to avoid feeling ill. In his latest “review” he even “justifies” not giving a fair account of what Doherty himself writes. It is clear his sole intention is to stop people reading Doherty’s book and to stifle any serious discussion about mythicism.

For the record, I copy below excerpts from earlier posts of mine offering views by biblical scholars about Doherty’s work that are quite different from McGrath’s. Does McGrath compare Professor Stevan Davies or Hector Avalos — or Professor Thomas L. Thompson for that matter — to “creationists”?

Professor of Religious Studies at Misericordia University, Stevan Davies, read. Davies said of Doherty’s work:

But in going along with Earl I’ve learned more than by going along with anybody else whose ideas I’ve come across anywhere. . . .

Crossan, or Johnson, Allison or Sanders, can give you slightly different views of the standard view. Earl gives a completely different view. His is a new paradigm, theirs are shifts in focus within the old paradigm. From whom will you learn more? (See Crosstalk #5438 for the full quote)

Professor of Biblical Criticism with the Council for Secular Humanism’s Center for Inquiry Institute, Robert M. Price, read. Price has the strongest praise for Doherty’s books, especially his recent one in the Youtube video linked at my earlier article on Robert Price’s view.

Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, Hector Avalos, read. Avalos writes:

Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus. (See earlier post Legitimacy of questioning)

Here is the full quotation from Professor Stevan Davies:

I haven’t read Kuhn in a coon’s age, but recall something to
the effect that a prevailing scientific paradigm gradually
accumulates problematic elements that are swept under the
rug until a new paradigm appears, accounting for those elements,
at which time it becomes clear (where it did not before) that
those problematic elements should have indicated fatal flaws
in the former paradigm.

Earl’s paradigm is a paradigm. It’s not simply a reworking of
the usual materials in the usual way to come up with a different
way of understanding them. It’s not an awful lot different than
the claim “there is no such thing as phlogiston, fire comes
about through an entirely different mechanism.”

New paradigms are very very rare. I thought that my J the H
gave a new paradigm rather than just another view on the
subject, but no. Earl’s is what a new paradigm looks like.

(And if he’s not the first to advance it, what the hell.)
A new paradigm asserts not that much of what you know
is wrong but that everything you know is wrong… more or
less. Your whole perspective is wrong. The simple thing to
do is to want nothing to do with such a notion
, which
simple thing has been violently asserted on crosstalk by
various people. Indeed, at the outset of this discussion,
more than one person asserted that since this is an Historical
Jesus list, we presuppose the Historical Jesus, therefore
a contrary paradigm should not even be permitted on the list.
I think this is cognate to the establishment’s reaction to Galileo.

But it’s not that Earl advocates lunacy in a manner devoid
of learning. He advocates a position that is well argued
based on the evidence and even shows substantial knowledge
of Greek. But it cannot be true, you say. Why not? Because
it simply can’t be and we shouldn’t listen to what can’t be
true. No. Not so quick.

The more you think about early Christianity from the perspective
of the new paradigm, the more the old paradigm can be seen
to be flawed. … and the more the rather incoherent efforts to
make those flaws disappear seem themselves flawed.
Ptolemaic astronomy does work, sort of, if you keep patching
it up. So we can say that the host of Historical Jesus scholars
haven’t got it right, but we know that they are going about
it more or less the right way because it’s the only way we
know of.
Or indeed we say that HJ scholars are going about
a task that is just impossible, but still their goal is in theory,
however impossible in practice, the right goal. Really?

This isn’t to guarantee that Earl’s arguments are always
I’m not at all pleased with the redating of Mark etc.
Or that he’s thought of everything… the normative Jesus
who is a Galilean Jew whose followers immediately were
subject to persecution by the pharisee Paul are huge holes
the standard paradigm just ignores… but he’s thought of a lot.

You cannot advance very far in thinking if you simply refuse
to adopt a new paradigm and see where it takes you. Even
if, ultimately, you reject it, the adoption of it, or at least the
effort to argue against it, will take you to places you have not
been before.
Hence Goranson (an intelligent knowledgeable
person, thus the foil for this letter) is wrong.

Stephen Carlson’s objections to Earl on the grounds that
Mark is evidence for an historical Jesus just takes the
standard paradigm and asserts it. That’s one way of going
about it, as pointing to the self-evident fact that the sun
goes around the earth will nicely refute Copernicus.
But it’s not that simple.

But in going along with Earl I’ve learned more than
by going along with anybody else whose ideas I’ve come
across anywhere.
I went along with Mark Goodacre, and
learned some there. Refusing to go along, refusing even to
argue against, being happy that nothing new is being
discussed except widgets of modification to the standard
paradigm, that’s where you really learn almost nothing.

Crossan, or Johnson, Allison or Sanders, can give you slightly
different views of the standard view. Earl gives a completely
different view. His is a new paradigm, theirs are shifts in
focus within the old paradigm. From whom will you learn


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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “Open Letter to James McGrath from Peter Kirby”

  1. How many of layers of irony can there be before the Internet collapses into a singularity?

    1. McGrath’s reviews Doherty’s book, ignoring the actual arguments, replacing them with well-loved straw men from the doctor’s imagination.

    2. Godfrey takes McGrath to task for not addressing the actual arguments in Doherty’s book, and choosing instead to knock down said straw men.

    3. McGrath responds by ignoring Godfrey’s actual criticism, replacing it with a straw man about failing to point out good points in the book.

    4. Kirby writes an open letter pointing out that McGrath has ripped several straw men to shreds, but should instead (as an honest public intellectual whose chosen life’s work is education) focus on what the author is really saying.

    5. McGrath responds to Kirby’s letter by misrepresenting the nature of the criticism. Follow along as we tumble down the rabbit hole.

    a. First he says that the problem is his “tone.” He writes, “I have all along struggled with what the appropriate tone for my discussion of Doherty’s book ought to be.” Now it may be true that Kirby mentioned McGrath has been overly dismissive, but the problem isn’t a matter of tone, but a lack of content.

    b. Then he tries to absolve himself by claiming that Doherty lacks all intellectual rigor and fails to apply the scholarly method. He is afraid that engaging with the arguments in a calm, rational way might imply the opposite. That is, McGrath thinks he is the paragon of intellectual rigor and the exemplar of the scholarly method, and if he treated Doherty’s arguments seriously, it would leave the impression that Doherty is engaged in “real scholarship.” After all, as McGrath says, “mythicists are not people who are interested in doing scholarship.” Do you see where this is heading? McGrath writes, “I have been in conversation with mythicists for some time, and have already seen them use even the fact that I take the time to discuss their claims as supposed evidence that those claims have scholarly merit.” McGrath acknowledges writing crap, but feels justified because the subject of the review is crap, and the people who write such crap are full of crap. Remember, this guy is a professor at a generally respected American university.

    c. Next he explains his testy tone by explaining how he feels as though he’s wasting his time. McGrath tells us mythicists goaded him into reading Doherty, and he writes, “I am doing so, and am finding it to be full of illogical arguments, misrepresentations, and claims which time and again reinforce to me the sense that time spent reading it is time wasted.” You might think that exposing all of that in his blog might be a cathartic release. But apparently it’s more fun kicking straw men.

    d. Finally, it’s his tone! Yes, he knows his tone is bad. Bad tone! “I would love to be more polite, more objective, and if nothing else, give a better impression of myself in the process of reviewing Doherty’s book.” You see, it’s just like Quadrophenia — He’s Doctor Jimmy and Mr. Jim.

    And the tag line is just precious: “Thank you again for reading my blog and for taking the time to challenge me on my tone. I do appreciate it immensely.”

    Good God, the man sounds positively miserable. And it’s affecting his tone. If he can’t bring himself to argue against the actual points, if he can’t understand the arguments Doherty is making, if it’s keeping him up at night — Stop!

      1. McGrath continues to insult his readers’ intelligence.

        His response here is yet even another straw man!

        Tim Widowfield did NOT say that McGrath’s “evaluation of” Doherty’s arguments are straw men at all. But that is how McGrath twists Tim’s statement in order to justify himself.

        Tim, Peter, and myself and others have pointed out — and I have given posts demonstrating the fact — that McGrath simply ignores the main arguments that Doherty is actually making and substitutes for them straw men, many of them being the same straw men that he as been attacking ever since he began “engaging” with mythicists.

      2. From Merriam-Webster — “straw man: [noun] a weak or imaginary opposition (as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted”

        Peter Kirby: “They tell you that you are not representing the substance of the argument but instead using a strawman. You say that it’s okay to leave out praise of positive points when you are making a review with a negative emphasis. I’m stultified enough to stop reading after that paragraph.”

        In a nutshell: You countered the complaint of not engaging the arguments honestly by defending against a charge that was not made, namely that you omitted praise.

        James McGrath: “Thank you again for reading my blog and for taking the time to challenge me on my tone. I do appreciate it immensely.

        You don’t see the irony there? Really? I hate to spell things out, because explication so often kills humor, but here goes. Kirby takes you to task for a lack of serious content in your reviews. You defended yourself against the straw man of tone.

        Peter Kirby: Instead of the troubling accusation made against him being given response, that of wrongfully representing Doherty’s work, that argument itself is facilely represented as an objection about a failure to point out the good parts of the book, as if it were a mere matter of charity to give the argument a fair shake.

        Pretty simple. What? You still don’t get it? Oh dear. OK, point by point, just one more try.

        1. Doherty says X.

        2. McGrath demolishes argument Y.

        3. Godfrey says McGrath should really address argument X instead of straw man Y.

        4. McGrath defends his right not to point out the “good parts of the book.”

        5. Kirby points out that McGrath’s defense against Godfrey’s challenge is itself a straw man.

        6. McGrath responds to Kirby’s letter by admitting his problem with “tone,” but pardons his poisoned pen since it’s the best response against pseudo-history.

        7. Widowfield publicly worries about the recursion of irony and its effect on the fabric of space-time.

  2. To your list of encouraging quotes from scholars regarding Doherty’s work, let’s add Richard Carrier:

    “Like Doherty. I think Doherty’s stuff is pretty good. It’s just short of Ph.D. quality. Not quite Ph.D. quality, but it’s up there. Certainly I know PhDs in history who have written books that are worse than his: methodologically and factually. So, even at worst, he’s in good company, right?

    But people won’t even read his book because they’ve read some other book – I won’t name names – that they see as complete crap. So they assume it all is.”


  3. I just posted this on Kirby’s blog and the Matrix. Later (maybe tomorrow) I will more directly address McGrath’s Chapter 5 review….

    KevinC suggests above that in his last post McGrath offered “good examples of evidence for historicism.” Unfortunately, he did only half the job; it’s really the other half that matters. It’s fairly easy to find a few passages (such as those Kevin quoted) which contain language that the historicism-disposed reader will think points to an historical Jesus. But the other half of the job is to take into account—and REBUT—how mythicism deals with those passages. And by that I don’t mean simply by declaring, oh, it’s all ad hoc!

    Usually those passages are anything but clear pointers to historicism, because they enjoy other, equally valid and often more supportable, interpretations. For example, the idea sometimes expressed that Christ recently “came” is readily seen as a reference to Christ being revealed by God/scripture/HolySpirit, and that he is now working in the world through his spiritual presence. Nor is this simply an alternate reading plucked out of thin air. It fits with the overall evidence. Unfortunately, Jim and many others do not open their minds sufficiently, if at all, to be able to recognize and grasp that overall evidence. (Of course, he hasn’t yet encountered it all.)

    The diehard historicist is guilty of refusing to consider how mythicism deals with the evidence. He simply insults it or tosses it overboard, regarding that as enough to discredit it. When Jim gets to my discussion on a passage Kevin (like many others) points to, Gal. 3:16, he will find cogent arguments that in fact Paul is NOT saying that Christ is the “seed of Abraham” in any physical way. Will he engage honestly with those arguments, let alone try to refute them? I doubt it. He will simply call mythicist motivations and sanity into question. Such things are not counter-arguments.

    Kevin quotes Gal. 3:24. I don’t know about Kevin, but I have to assume that Jim is proficient in Greek and hopefully familiar with more than one translation. Verse 24 is translatable, not just as “until Christ came”, but, as the KJV puts it: “The Law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” What honest reviewer will declare only the first option, claim it as some slam-dunk argument against mythicism, and ignore or be ignorant of the second? He would be either prejudiced or incompetent. And considering that the flanking verses (23 and 25) declare that what has ‘come’ in the present is “faith”, the second option actually makes more consistent sense: faith has come in that we have been brought to Christ.

    Hebrews 10:5. This is an outright mistranslation from the Greek. It is not, “When Christ came into the world, he said…” The latter verb is actually in the present, “he says:” And the preceding participle is a present-tense one, which places its understanding in the same tense as the main verb, namely present. The proper translation, then, is as the NASB (cf. NEB) gives it: “Therefore, when he comes into the world, he says:” Yes, there are translators who render it in the past tense, because they don’t know how else to understand it, although even there scholars fuss over whether this means at his incarnation or in heaven prior to it, or whatever. Paul Ellingworth suggests that the “he says” is “a timeless present referring to the permanent record of scripture.” This, inadvertently, is halfway to mythicism. And if Jim could let himself see the overall evidence, he would recognize that the epistles regularly quote scripture as the voice of the Son speaking to the world in the present time, fitting my earlier point that Christ has “come” in that sense. The case for mythicism is far more ‘all of a piece,’ spanning the entire record, than someone like Jim McGrath is able or willing to realize.

    Jim’s “review” of my book will be a joke (it already is), because he is so blinded to any thought that historicism could be wrong, that mythicism might be a worthy theory to investigate, that he can only fall back on outright rejection and disdain. With a lot of fallacy along the way.

    1. Earl Doherty wrote:

      KevinC suggests above that in his last post McGrath offered “good examples of evidence for historicism.” Unfortunately, he did only half the job; it’s really the other half that matters. It’s fairly easy to find a few passages (such as those Kevin quoted) which contain language that the historicism-disposed reader will think points to an historical Jesus. But the other half of the job is to take into account—and REBUT—how mythicism deals with those passages. And by that I don’t mean simply by declaring, oh, it’s all ad hoc!

      Doing “the other half” of the job would matter to Mr. McGrath if he were engaging you in a debate. He’s doing something else: making the claim that you are not worthy to engage in a debate, being in the same league as Creationists, homeopaths, Holocaust deniers, etc.. In my opinion, this actually sets a higher bar for the historicist position, not a lower one. The corollary of “mythicists are like creationists and other tinfoil hat nutters!” is “we (historicist scholars) are like evolutionary biologists, doctors who use real medicine, and historians who accept the Holocaust.” The distinguishing feature of the latter, the reason they are entitled to dismiss their “opponents” with scorn and scoffing, is that they really do have utterly overwhelming, airtight cases for their positions.

      I’m currently working through his “Mythicism Round-Up” to see if he’s lassoed any beef. I haven’t found it yet.

      1. The corollary of “mythicists are like creationists and other tinfoil hat nutters!” is “we (historicist scholars) are like evolutionary biologists, doctors who use real medicine, and historians who accept the Holocaust.”

        A more accurate comparison would be, of course, between biblical studies and Koran/Qu’ran studies in countries where the Moslem religion is the cultural backdrop. Look at Professor Sven Kalisch. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,579052,00.html

        1. I love that interview. It is like looking in a parallel world.

          ‘In general, when it comes to history, you can’t point to any scientific proof. How would we, for example, prove the existence of Charlemagne? We can’t conduct any experiments; we have to work with evidence. And, for this issue, the evidentiary thread is the Koran.’

          Of course, the Gospels say Judas, Thomas, Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene etc existed.

          So they must have existed.

          ‘ Ohlig claims that Islam was actually a Christian sect up until the Umayyad Caliphate, that is, the eighth century. In this case, I run into this massive issue: It doesn’t match up with the text of the Koran. Why isn’t Christ a more central figure in the Koran, then? You hear about Abraham, Moses and Noah much more frequently.’

          Notice the immediate and instinctive appeal to the argument from silence by mainstream scholars. The Koran is relatively silent about Christ, so it is not a Christian text.

          Mainstream scholars , with their instinctive grasp of historical method, trash mythicist claims by pointing to silences about Christ.

          Strike the Epistle of James as being written by a Christian.

          Except when these silences are in the New Testament. Then, of course, all the readers of the Koran, sorry, New Testament, already knew all of these stories of the historical Jesus, so there was no need to mention them.

  4. I don’t see these reviews from scholars you offer are as supportive as you think. They are more positive than James, yes, but they, for the most part, don’t conclude he is correct in his conclusions. So we need not say that because Doherty is pseudo-scholarship, that they are also pseudo-scholars, they just thought it was interesting, James does not. I think it is more interesting than most of the crap out there, but on the other hand, I’m a bit of a novice, and the others praise, may simply reflect a lack of critical thinking on there part.

    1. You seem to have some reading comprehension disability if all you see in what they say is that Doherty is “interesting”.

      Correct, not all of them are mythicists. That is the point. But they are professors (and I suggest Davies and Avalos have had made a far greater intellectual contribution to their field than McGrath ever has) and they say they respect the work of Doherty with more than a nod to it being “interesting”. Maybe in your novice status you will sit back and imagine they are not thinking critically about a work you yourself have not read, but that since McGrath says so often that he is being very scholarly, rigorous and critical, he must be.

  5. So far, the best “nutshell” explanation of McGrath’s argument is one of his comments in the thread on his Mythicist Constraints post:

    Paul mentions Jesus having been born, being of Davidic lineage, and having been crucified. He also mentions meeting Jesus’ brother. Whether the family was in fact of Davidic lineage is beside the point – lots of families claim a royal heritage that they don’t really have – but all this suggests that Paul believed he was talking about a person who had recently lived and died, and had sources of information that could confirm this sufficiently to make Jesus’ existence likely, and to leave as the alternative to concoct a scenario for the invention of Jesus which has left no trace on our records.

    And just to be clear, my point is not that the latter could not have happened. My point is that, lacking evidence for it, the balance or probability seems tilted in the direction of there having been an actual figure Jesus of Nazareth from whom the later legends developed.

    So, to me (not a scholar) it looks like each side has at least one major, difficult puzzle to solve. For historicists, it’s explaining how the earliest Christians (especially Paul and the pre-Gospel Epistle writers) believed the following:

    1) There was a man who lived recently, who surpassed all of the ancient prophets and heroes so that he alone of all men was joined to God in a unique way, becoming at least semi-divine himself.

    2) Nothing he said or did during his life was worth writing about or basing doctrine on. Let’s quote some scriptures about Abraham and Moses!

    For mythicists, its explaining how a spiritual “channeled entity” Jesus could have been “born of woman,” descended from Abraham and David “according to the flesh” and so on, and why they would include crucifixion in his narrative when they didn’t have a real crucifixion they had to make sense of.

    I’m not yet convinced that either side has a slam dunk. I wonder about the possible validity of a merged theory: that “the Christ” was originally viewed as a spiritual being who performed his works in the higher realms (as “revealed” in the scripture-codes from which his Passion narrative, and later, his Gospel “biographies” were constructed). This heavenly work was also reflected in earthly shadows in the life and death of a man, or perhaps more than one man (given the range of views expressed in the different “sayings of Jesus”), similar to the way the author of Hebrews argues that the sacrifices in the ancient Tabernacle were earthly shadows of a heavenly Priesthood of the Christ. In this model there would be no need to posit a “fleshy” sublunar heaven, since the “fleshy” stuff could have happened on Earth. But the human man (or men) would have been regarded as mere shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, hence, not terribly important in his (or their) own right. In this model the HJ would not have been the founder of Christianity, more like a visible narrative prop early Christians used to illustrate their Judaic version of the Mystery Religion dying-rising god-man saga.

    1. The problem is not with the points advanced by historicists — as you show McGrath has done — but with what happens if anyone challenges any of those points in a way that advances the mythicist position. It is McGrath’s inability or unwillingness to show any respect for any view that challenges historicism that is the problem.

      Perhaps the closest we do have to your scenario is the Maccabean martyrs. These were represented by the Son of Man in Daniel (a beast representing the Seleucid empire; a man representing the kingdom of the saints). That Son of Man image represented the exaltation of the martyrs in order to inherit the kingdom forever. This Son of Man image was further developed into a figure in his own right by the Enochian tradition, and was merged with other Logos and Suffering Servant and Binding of Isaac (Akedah) “theologies”.

      I’ve raised a few ideas in

      1. Intimations of Death and Resurrection in Son of Man in Daniel

      2. and in Paul’s development of the Isaac offering into his Christ idea: Jesus Supplants Isaac: Contribution of Paul.

    2. I think a more fruitful line of inquiry will be studying the Jesus story through Claude Levi-Strauss’s understanding of the nature of myths and their developments. I touched on this as part of a discussion of Wajdenbaum’s analysis of a comparison of the myths of Phrixus and Isaac.

      If we follow Levi-Strauss in understanding myths through models of language or music (will be discussing this in a future post), the relationships of myths both within a culture and with neighbouring cultures fall neatly into place. Jesus can best be explained as a variation of “Israel” (both the nation and the person) and the various components of his life and teaching are possibly all found in the “mythemes” of the myth of Israel.

      The same model also explains the different gospel variants of the myth.

      I know I’m rushing ahead of myself in making this comment, since it obviously needs lots of unpacking. But that’s what I’m looking forward to doing in coming months.

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