McGrath does not read what he claims to be reviewing

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by Neil Godfrey

What else am I to conclude? The evidence McGrath provides for his claim to have read chapter 6 of Doherty’s book is that he can cite names and topics that Doherty uses in that chapter. But at the same time McGrath strongly indicates that he merely glanced at those references and never bothered to read what Doherty was actually arguing. This is surely a kinder criticism than to suggest that McGrath cannot comprehend what he reads or deliberately suppresses what he reads.

(References in this post can be followed from McGrath’s pseudo-review of chapter 6 here, and from my outline of Doherty’s argument in chapter 6 here.)

Example. McGrath writes:

Doherty proceeds to consider details from the Gospels that he considers it (sic) surprising Paul and other epistle writers never mention in their letters. Often his response to the material borders on the bizarre. Why is it surprising that the later and clearly legendary details in the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke are not reflected in earlier literature? It is unsurprising to mainstream historical scholarship, which is familiar with countless examples of the same phenomenon, namely the development of mythologized birth stories around a historical figure.

I would have expected an honest reviewer to at least give a nod to Doherty’s argument. But not McGrath. He merely repeats the conventional apologetics or wisdom of the prevailing paradigm. He would have done better, I think, to have at least attempted an argument to counter Doherty’s purpose, discussion and conclusions. What Doherty was arguing is outlined in my earlier post on Doherty’s chapter 6.

I would also have expected a Professor and scholar with some intellectual integrity to have been honest with his readers and not attempt to give the impression that there are “countless examples” of mythologized stories attaching themselves only many decades after the death of those historical figures. He surely knows how quickly mythical stories do attach themselves to historical figures, and could have explained to his readers that with the likes of Apollonius of Tyana and Alexander the Great that there is evidence that mythical tales circulated even within the life-times of such figures or almost immediately after their deaths.

I would also have expected a scholarly review of a book to be honest enough to explain the argument of the book, and to explain that Doherty argues why we should expect such mythological tales to have arisen almost immediately of a historical figure who was expected (and believed) to have been the Messiah.

But all McGrath can do is repeat the arguments he learned in NT studies 101 as if on auto-pilot. He is impervious to any new idea that challenges what he has always believed. So much so, that he cannot even see an alternative for what it is. So how can he possibly mount a rebuttal to it?

This is the purpose of Doherty’s chapter 6 in Doherty’s own words:

This survey will . . . demonstrate that Christian documents outside the Gospels, even at the end of the 1st century and beyond, show no evidence that any traditions about an earthly life and ministry of Jesus were in circulation.

“In circulation” — not just (as McGrath misleads readers to think Doherty is arguing) “in earlier literature”.

McGrath failed to read the several instances in chapter 6 where Doherty showed that certain fictitious stories did attach themselves to Jesus as early as the Q source — something McGrath’s own peers date to around the time of Paul’s earlier letters. This simple fact pulls the rug out from McGrath’s auto-pilot “critique”. McGrath has failed to notice this entirely. Doherty has rebutted his argument already but McGrath cannot see it, comprehend it, or repeat it.

As for McGrath’s “arguments” against Doherty on the topics of circumcision and the “brother of the Lord”, it is more of the same. One can see Doherty’s own response on James McGrath’s blog, and the arguments in outline on my own earlier post.

The strongest case McGrath can mount against Doherty is that the entire argument for historicity must rely on a single preposition against the bulk of counter-evidence discussed. Ambiguity and uncertainty in the materials with which we are dealing seems to be something quite inconceivable to McGrath. At least when he needs to jettison ambiguity and uncertainty when this serves his criticism of mythicism.

As one would expect from such a reviewer, when Doherty does branch out into concepts that appear to have never been considered by McGrath (such as the implications of whether a historical Jesus was married or not), McGrath is silent.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “McGrath does not read what he claims to be reviewing”

  1. I think what I will do is enlarge on Neil’s very efficient and insightful (and much appreciated) critiques of Jim McGrath’s ‘review’ of my book, by repeating here some of the postings I make on the Matrix, especially as I am never sure whether my postings there will survive….

    This posting contains a typical McGrath pseudo-argument: ‘Doherty does not take into account that evidence he is examining can actually be used to argue for historicity, as for example the declaration by Ignatius of certain Gospel-like biographical data for an historical Jesus.’ Duh. I hardly need to make the point that such evidence IS used by historicists to argue for Jesus being historical. That’s a given. As for Ignatius, we already know that he (or whoever might have forged the letters in his name some time after his death) does believe in an historical Jesus. What I am doing is examining that evidence to see if we can judge whether Ignatius was right, as well as whether historicists are justified in their conclusions from such evidence. I’m sure Copernicus addressed astronomical evidence for the Ptolemaic system which adherents to the latter would have argued was evidence for their own geocentric convictions. If Copernicus reinterpreted those observations in a different (read: better) direction, in favor of a solar-centric universe, was he “failing to take into account evidence” for Ptolemy, of not acknowledging such evidence as being against his new astronomical paradigm and in favor of Ptolemy?

    Now, in this chapter I am examining a range of Gospel biography to see “who knew what and when,” to see where are the earliest signs outside the Gospels of any biographical knowledge attached to the Christian Jesus, and what the pervasive silence on various bio data should indicate. Here I spend two pages on Ignatius, but later in the book I devote an entire chapter to him, and I alert the reader not only to this fact, but also that I will be addressing my view that Ignatius’ has opponents who are docetist as well as others that are rejecting Ignatius’ historicism. McGrath is so far totally ignorant on that later discussion, so of course he can make no attempt to rebut it but simply declares in favor of his traditional paradigm. This shows the folly of ‘reviewing’ a book before reading it in its entirety.

    And once again I have to point out that I am not addressing this book solely or even primarily to critical scholarship, so I am going to be dealing as well with silences on things which critical scholarship, in its commendable wisdom, has already rejected as historical.

    Earl Doherty

  2. I encourage everyone to visit Amazon and:

    1. Provide feedback on McGrath’s precog review.

    2. Add your own comments.

    3. Buy Earl’s book!

    I suspect McGrath is trying to carve out a niche for himself as the “Van Helsing of Mythicists” to gain favor among NT superscholars. And his strategy is: Better to be early and emphatic than accurate and thorough.

    1. I know your question is rhetorical, but it’s worth pointing out (though a waste of time pointing out to McGrath himself) the fallacy of McGrath’s comparison of biblical studies with biological sciences. His argument rests on the judgments of the academics in each field, rather than the nature of the knowledge in the respective fields. If you disagree with the majority of academics in biblical studies it’s as if you would disagree with the scientists who argue for evolution.

      This comparison fails to appreciate that the views of biologists are grounded on hard evidence, repeatable tests, prediction-verified hypotheses, and the rigour of the scientific method. The main results are open, observable, testable, verifiable and universally accepted. Evolution is as much a fact as gravity. The opinions of biologists or other evolutionary scientists are grounded in hard evidence and tests that apply universally.

      Historians do not compare their field with the hard sciences. If McGrath knew the first thing about historical studies he would know this and not make comparisons that no real historian ever makes. Biblical studies are more like the Imams’ studies of the Koran. Opinion, cultural presuppositions, subjectivity, are the foundations in both. Widespread agreement is an expression of cultural beliefs and rationalizations.

      Real historians seek to create narratives. Those narratives reflect ideologies, myths, values, and a major part of the historian’s task is to justify her narrative. The first thing I was taught as a senior high school history student was that history is interpretation. Part of our education was to be involved in debates about the “facts” of history — debating competing narratives. There is a Whig history, a Marxist history, etc.

      There is no Whig or Marxist or Post-Modernist biology or physics. (I know, post-modernists and die-hard Stalinists might deny this, but aircraft engineers don’t have to listen to them.) In our science classes we never had debates about the facts Boyle’s or Newton’s laws. We understood that if we wanted to understand how newer theories and experiments had gone beyond Newton’s laws, we knew that this was a matter of learning more mathematics than we were capable of at the time.

      McGrath is embarrassing both real historians and scientists by comparing his view of biblical studies with both.

      1. Actually, I think he is embarrassing himself (and his institution)and in the process, insulting real historians and scientists.

        Tim Widowfield may be correct, in that McGrath is trying to carve a niche for himself. Or he has backed himself into such rhetorical corner that there is now no way for him to admit that he is out of his depth (not that I am really one to judge there).

      2. ‘This comparison fails to appreciate that the views of biologists are grounded on hard evidence, repeatable tests, prediction-verified hypotheses, and the rigour of the scientific method. ‘

        Yes, but McGrath claims Historical Jesus scholars have pioneered methods that do not rely on the ‘instinct’ and ‘intuition’ used by historians in other fields.

        New Testament scholars (but not historians in other fields) use rigour….

        I quote him ‘New Testament scholars have sometimes been pioneers. The attempt to define criteria of authenticity was in fact an attempt to articulate more precisely and rigorously things that in most other areas of history were determined in much the same way, but with a far greater degree of intuition and instinct.’

        And yet somehow, New Testament scholars have been doing nothing different from what historians in other fields have been doing.

        McGrath also claims that it is the task of a historian to work out what they can put in place of a miracle of a resurrection.

        ‘What we seek to catch glimpses of are Jesus as he interpreted himself, and Jesus as his disciples interpreted him prior to the changed perspective resulting from Good Friday, and from whatever subsequent experiences and reflections persuaded them that he had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand.’

        Even McGrath knows historians cannot account for the origins of Christianity, and that the standard historicist explanation for the origin of Christianity is no more than saying ‘Something weird happened and these people became Christians.’

        And yet McGrath chides mythicists for not producing a step-by-step explanation of how Christianity originated, much as Dembski lambasts Darwinists for not producing a step-by-step explanation of how bacteria developed flagella.

        1. I quote him ‘New Testament scholars have sometimes been pioneers. The attempt to define criteria of authenticity was in fact an attempt to articulate more precisely and rigorously things that in most other areas of history were determined in much the same way, but with a far greater degree of intuition and instinct.’

          Does McGrath give any specific examples to verify his claim, here? What “other areas of history”, specifically, does he have in mind here, and that biblical studies have surpassed methodologically?

          Or is he just making stuff up off the top of his head (again)?

  3. “New Testament scholars have sometimes been pioneers.”

    Yes indeed. Boldly pushing accepted historical-critical methods to the breaking point and beyond!

    The problem with this talk about methods and “rigor” is that these criteria of authenticity are just that: properly employed, they give reasonable confidence that a given saying, or narrative unit, is older, more original to the oldest layers of transmission, and hence “authentic.” And in most historical reconstructions, where the underlying facts and major players are better known, it’s fine as shorthand to make “authenticity” and “historicity” synonymous. But that is shorthand. If basic historical facts do not undergird the methods here, as they do not in the case of Jesus, the criteria only identify earlier, and hence “authentic,” traditions. There is no rigorous methodology for extending this to “historical” in the sense of “going back to Jesus himself” when “authentic” could just mean “from the earliest layer of tradition (however that started)”.

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