Reviewing James McGrath’s “review” of Doherty’s chapter 7. McGrath begins:
Chapter 7 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man turns attention to other characters in the Gospels and events that are not mentioned about them (sic) in the epistles: Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, for starters.
Presumably the first thing to note it that the latter completely undermines Doherty’s argument. Paul refers to encounters with Peter – a real historical individual – and thus if he can be a real individual without stories from the later Gospels appearing in the epistles, then clearly so can Jesus.
This makes no sense. Even the Gospels themselves refer to undoubtedly real people such as Pilate. They also refer to real cities, like Jerusalem. Ancient fiction is also known to include real people and places. The historical Persian King Artaxerxes and his wife Statira appear in Chariton‘s Chaireas and Callihroe, as does the historical general Hermocrates.
So even if we do accept Peter as a historical person known to Paul, this simply does not inevitably force us to conclude that a later narrative that includes Peter must be historical in all its details or other characters.
Beyond that, it seems as though Doherty thinks that recent events should have had the same status for members of this Jewish sect as their Scriptures did. Otherwise, it isn’t clear why recent events should have been chosen to illustrate points when Scripture carried more weight.
Not clear? It should be. Doherty did, after all, explain that it was not simply a matter of recent events OR scripture at all. And where there is reference to Scriptures, does McGrath really, seriously believe that a reference to Esau as an arch-betrayer would outshine Judas in a Christian community to the point that no reference to Judas would ever arise at all?
Yet before [Judas] appears to fill his treacherous role in Mark’s passion story, no ghost of Judas haunts the Christian landscape. He is notably missing from the above passage in Hebrews [Hebrews 12:15-17 using Esau as an example of one who betrays for reward], where the selling of the Lord himself for 30 pieces of silver by a man embittered, jealous and deceitful, would have been a far more apt symbol of the bitter, poisonous weed that arises unchecked within the community of the holy.
Nor would the reference to Judas have been out of place in Paul’s own presentation of his Lord’s Supper. Here he is criticizing the Corinthians for their behavior at the communal meal. He speaks of rivalry and “divided groups,” of those who “eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily.” If anyone had been guilty of such things, it was surely Judas at the very first Supper.
The writer of 1 Clement also deals with the theme of jealousy, but to his list of Old Testament figures who suffered at the hands of jealous men, he fails to add Jesus himself, betrayed by the perfidious apostle in his own company.
McGrath finds an ad hoc rationalization in order to dismiss a very curious omission of Paul’s if there were any historical basis to the Gospel narrative of Peter’s denial of Jesus:
As for why Paul doesn’t accuse Peter of denying Jesus three times (a question Doherty raises), presumably Peter could have responded with “and how many times did you persecute Christians?” If they were inclined to have that conversation, it is entirely possible that they had got it out of their system before Galatians was written, and that Paul thought better about starting it up again.
Seriously? The moment Paul “met” Jesus he was prepared to suffer persecution all the way, unlike Peter even after being with Jesus three years. McGrath overlooked the fact that (as Doherty pointed out) Paul was not so shy of attacking Peter’s sins at all, and was quite prepared to “show outbursts of anger and disdain toward Peter and others of the Jerusalem group (as in Galatians 2), but never does he bring up a denial of the Lord by Peter to twist the knife.” Further,
Earlier in the story, the favored three of Peter, James and John had slept through their Master’s agony in the Gethsemane garden, . . . Paul never mentions it. Nor do any of the other epistles, which often deal with situations in which Christians are in danger of falling away from their resolve and devotion. (p. 72)
Where Doherty discusses seven early Christian documents, McGrath chooses to select but one for his criticism without leaving readers aware that this really but one of seven:
Doherty mentions Q and the Gospel of Thomas as sources that show no awareness of Jesus’ death, and seems to think that this too is evidence for mythicism. We may leave Thomas to one side given the ongoing debates about it’s date and interpretation, but as for Q, unless one is adopting the Christian view that the risen Jesus taught the apostles after Easter, then precisely what sort of discussion of his death should we expect in a source that preserves Jesus’ teaching?
This is a strange comment to make: McGrath here spends more time discussing Q than Doherty ever does in this context, and manages to miss the significance of Q altogether despite Doherty explaining it. Q is more than a “teaching-only” document. It is the document that forms the basis of the Galilean Tradition itself. Doherty merely notes here that it “contains no concept of a Jesus who suffered and died, let alone one who was resurrected” and leans toward Burton Mack’s argument that this tradition was eventually combined with another tradition that did focus on the death and resurrection, the Pauline one. Doherty discusses Q across 100 pages in a later section of the book, but McGrath is not interested in taking any of that into account here.
But McGrath’s criticism here is especially curious because Doherty only makes passing reference to Q and Thomas while naming five other “significant pieces of [early] Christian witness” that are lacking any knowledge of the death of Jesus and his resurrection: Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Odes of Solomon, the epistle of James and (without any clear indication of knowing a resurrection) the epistle to the Hebrews. Some of these Doherty does discuss in more depth, pointing to where there were clear occasions to refer to the death and resurrection in order to make their arguments, but where they are curiously silent.
McGrath then leads his more knowledgable readers to suspect he is too rushed to recall Doherty’s explanations of his discussion in this chapter:
If, in his book, Doherty were trying merely to show that the Jesus of today’s popular Christianity is not the historical Jesus, some of his points might carry some weight – and would agree with mainstream scholarship. But time and again he seems unaware of one essential point: You cannot disprove or even intelligently discuss the existence of the historical Jesus unless you adopt historical methods. Let me give a few examples of the kinds of things Doherty addresses in a manner that ignores relevant scholarly or historical considerations:
He mentions the absence from the epistles of Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” apparently unaware or unconcerned that that saying is judged on text-critical grounds to be unlikely to be an original part of Luke, to say nothing of whether any disciple could have heard anything Jesus said on the cross. The words attributed to Jesus on the cross may have been felt by the Gospel authors to be appropriate to the person and the occasion, but a historian will have serious doubts about their authenticity. Doherty discusses in much the same fashion the trial of Jesus, Pilate’s hand-washing, the earthquake, darkened heavens and the torn veil (pp.74-75). Even some relatively conservative historians have recognized that there are reasons to question the historicity of such details. If Doherty is not going to apply the insights and methods of historical criticism, or at least engage the arguments of historians that these are likely to be legendary and symbolic details, how can he possibly expect anyone to take his arguments seriously as history?
McGrath here has simply forgotten what Doherty explained about what he is covering in this chapter, and why, and the evidence Doherty does give that he is very aware indeed that much of modern critical scholarship does not accept the historicity of many of the Gospel details.
Many of the elements in the Gospel story have been rejected by modern critical scholarship as unhistorical. But our purpose is to examine all of them, to show that the Gospels are unreliable as an historical record, or as providing any basis for supporting the historicity of Jesus. This survey will also 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. Even in regard to Jesus’ death and resurrection, to which many of those documents refer, there is no earthly setting provided for such events.
We will look at the epistolary silence on the Gospel story in two chapters . . . the second [chapter 7] the passion scene of trial and crucifixion. (p. 57, my emphasis)
So McGrath’s criticism can be explained as an attack of transient global amnesia.
To be continued. . . .
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