Continuing from the previous post, addressing McGrath’s comments on Doherty’s chapter 7.
I have so often heard scholars repeat, as if it were a truism, that in pre-modern cultures that relied more on oral traditions and story-telling than on stick-it notes people had trained themselves to have remarkable memories. But I was obviously mistaken. McGrath informs us that if the news of the assassination of Kennedy (or let’s say Julius Caesar) were spread as “a tradition”, then by the time anyone came to write it down as a story, they would be obliged to invent a host of imaginary characters and variable settings simply to tell it as “a story”. Maybe some would say the assassination happened in Rome, others in Actium or Athens (or Dallas, or San Francisco). Such basic detail is not likely to have been included in the original oral transmission of the news, so McGrath would have us believe.
Or if we think of tales involving resurrections/reappearances after death, imagine the tales of the death and reappearance of Romulus. He was murdered in the environs of Rome and reappeared there after his assassination according to accounts, but presumably other accounts could well have had him reappear in northern Italy or Syracuse instead. We have no record that oral transmission did leave such details as the geographic setting of the event open to imaginative recreation, but then the absence of such details is most likely evidence that they were all well-known and no-one needed to put such things in writing. (This line of reasoning works for explaining the epistles’ silences about Jesus’ earthly life, so it can surely work here, too.)
McGrath actually equates the recovery of a fundamental geographic setting with the problems a story-teller would have in trying to imaginatively reconstruct story dialogue!
On a more substantial underlying point, I have the strong impression that Doherty has given little thought to what is involved in turning a tradition into a narrative. We may start with a more recent example. If someone had information about the assassination of John F. Kennedy only by the means available in New Testament times – word of mouth – or even via newspapers, and they wanted to turn what they knew from such reports into a story – let’s say a movie – then imagine just how much dialogue, how many supporting characters, how many undocumented events the person would have to concoct in order to accomplish that. In the same way, imagine two authors who received a tradition like that in 1 Corinthians 15, and the different ways they might try to turn it into a story – for instance, we might find one setting an event in Jerusalem, the other setting the same event in Galilee, since the location wasn’t specified. That is in fact what we find in the Gospel Easter stories, and such huge discrepancies at such a major juncture can seem genuinely puzzling – until we realize that in passing on information, we do not always provide enough detail so as to enable the listener to later reproduce it as a narrative. This is one of the reasons why accounts of historical events need to be subjected to historical critical analysis, and why the discovery that many details may be authorial flourishes doesn’t mean that there may not at the same time be important kernels of historical information wrapped in them.
McGrath does not spell out above what he means by “historical critical analysis”, but we know from his discussion of this in Burial of Jesus that he means something quite unlike anything practiced in other fields of history, but I won’t repeat that discussion here. (It is covered in “sham methodology“, “unquestioned assumptions“, “Brodie (almost) versus McGrath” and “the HJ hypothesis” and many more.)
McGrath then writes that he can agree with one aspect of what Doherty says about the Epistle to the Hebrews — that it does not envisage a physical bodily resurrection. But
Now for a major point of agreement between Doherty and myself. I think he is right that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews does not leave any room in his system of thought for a physical bodily resurrection of the sort that other New Testament writings envisage. The author of Hebrews has Jesus offer his sacrifice and take it into the celestial Holy of Holies to purify the sanctuary, so as to allow a holy God and impure humans to dwell together, as the Aaronic priest was commanded to do on the Day of Atonement. Envisaging Jesus offering his life as a sacrifice, waiting, picking up his body a couple of days later, and then heading to heaven to present his sacrificial death after he had ceased to be dead turns Hebrews’ already cumbersome system into one that is grotesque. The author’s Platonic outlook would fit well with a view of heaven that does not require or allow for an earthly or physical body to be brought there. Nevertheless, since the whole outlook of Hebrews is distinctive among the New Testament writings, I am inclined to view this as one Platonically-influenced author’s idiosyncratic take on Jesus, rather than an indication of the original worldview of Christians, from which the rest of the New Testament authors managed to drop the key distinctive elements.
One would never suspect from McGrath’s lengthy discussion above that Doherty only writes four lines making this point about Hebrews in this chapter. Nor would they suspect that those four lines by Doherty are part of a chain of NT references making the very same point, and that in this particular respect — its suggestion that Jesus rose immediately to heaven after his death, without any concept of an earthly sojourn or appearances on earth to witnesses — Hebrews is one of several texts that indicate “most early Christian thinking” did not know anything about a resurrection on earth and before human witnesses.
Most early Christian thinking seems to have envisioned Jesus ascending to Heaven immediately after his death. Scholars admit that the epistle writers show no concept of a bodily resurrection after three days, or of a period during which Jesus made appearances to human beings on earth. Such a blind spot would be difficult to conceive, if we accept the orthodox picture of a Christian movement which began in response to a perceived return of Jesus from the grave.
Yet that blindness seems clear in passages like the following . . . . (pp. 75-6)
Doherty proceeds to discuss 1 Peter 3:18-22, Ephesians 1:20 and Hebrews 10:12 & 13:20 to illustrate this point. McGrath has completely bypassed Doherty’s argument and attempted to derail it by addressing just one of the illustrations used by Doherty and arguing that it represented a solitary idiosyncratic view found nowhere else in the NT. Yes, Hebrews is different from other letters in the NT, and Doherty discusses this at length later in his book. But McGrath refuses to see that Doherty is here drawing attention to one point on which Hebrews is in agreement with other NT writings.
Having finally found some pages (sic — as explained above this was only 4 lines of text) with some legitimate and helpful insights (as explained above, Doherty was actually demonstrating something quite different from the point McGrath tried to make), one might hope that the book is turning in a better direction. If you do so at this juncture, you will be disappointed, as I was. The next section discusses the references to Jesus “appearing” or “being seen,” and the likelihood that these refines are to visions rather than physical experiences. Doherty interacts with Eddy and Boyd, who point out that resurrection in Judaism meant something bodily. Doherty writes in response, “While the latter claim may be correct, such expectation lay within the context of resurrection for humans, not of a god – and of humans on earth, not of a god in a supernatural location” (p.77).
A reader familiar with Jewish beliefs from this period – and with the act of reading – will most likely simply shake their head at this attempt to avoid the significance of contextual evidence rather than make sense of Paul in light of it. What god is Doherty referring to? What resurrection of non-humans from the dead? Where are these ideas found in Judaism? What is the evidence that such language would have been understood by Paul’s hearers in the way Doherty imagines? There is none, outside of Doherty’s own admittedly creative imagination.
McGrath demonstrates here once again that he is only interested in reading with hostile intent and has no interest in attempting to understand the flow of thought in Doherty’s words. “The significance of contextual evidence” is the very point Doherty proceeds to discuss. But McGrath has apparently skipped all of that section in which Doherty discusses:
- the logical fallacy of Eddy and Boyd’s argument;
- the significance of the context of Jewish understanding of a resurrection;
- and the range of meanings of the Greek words used within the broader context of the epistle.
But McGrath’s attention skipped to the next pages after shaking his head and he failed to notice all of this. One example of what McGrath clearly failed to notice:
Eddy and Boyd speak of the Jewish tradition about the concept of “bodily resurrection.” But as we have just seen, that ‘tradition’ is nowhere in evidence in the epistles in regard to Jesus’ own resurrection. If such a belief about Jesus existed in the early Christian community, why does not a single one of these Jewish writers focus on this aspect of Jesus’ rising from the dead — that it took place in the flesh? In fact, why is the language of 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 precisely that of “mystical vision”? (p. 77)
Doherty also raises the problem of the failure of the NT epistles to indicate any awareness of any bodily activities of the resurrected Jesus on earth, given that such traditions would have “constituted an invaluable witness to the rising of this man from his grave, crucial for apostolic success and debate.”
So Doherty certainly does address the context of Paul’s words in any one passage by comparing it with similar expressions in all other passages in not only Paul’s letters but in other NT epistles as well. He shows that the mainstream Jewish view of a bodily resurrection is alien to all the related thought expressed in all the epistles, not just to something expressed in an isolated passage or two.
He discusses at length the logic of the thought and argument — and syntactical structure — of the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, relates the meaning and words of Paul to what Paul says in other passages such as Galatians 1:11-12, the nature of Paul’s epistles as “occasional” writings dictated to a scribe and the relevance of this, the details of where Paul explains he is repeating what he had told his readers while he was once with them.
McGrath has overlooked the very significant discussion about the meaning of the Greek word for “witness”, and the arguments that Paul is saying that his knowledge about the resurrection of Jesus comes from God, and that is own preaching is something revealed in Scriptures — and not from history or apostolic tradition. Paul’s message is one of faith-based on God’s testimony, not any man’s testimony. “Historical human witness plays no part.”
McGrath’s eyes and mind apparently just glazed right over all of this. So he brushes it all aside with the following:
What Doherty does here is to completely reverse the appropriate direction of reasoning. When we interpret an individual text, we look at its context and other texts from the same milieu in order to have a basis for determining the meaning of the individual text under discussion. Instead, Doherty determines what he wants Paul to mean, and then dismisses the counter-evidence by coming up with other possible meanings and references, no matter how contextually implausible, and using them to avoid the likely meaning of Paul’s words in his time and place.
If we are allowed to just make stuff up, then Doherty is free to do so, but so are others, and there is no basis for him to criticize any other meanings that some might attribute to these texts. If, on the other hand, we take the accepted understanding of language, culture and communication, and think it is possible to determine what texts mean against the background of a particular linguistic, cultural and historical context, then Paul meant what the words he used meant in that time and place, unless he indicates otherwise, in which case Doherty is simply wrong and unwilling to admit it. But because Doherty has not committed himself to the norms of scholarly (or even typical human) textual analysis, Paul ends up meaning things that his contemporaries would not have understood, and evidence that the words Paul uses meant something other than what Doherty wishes them to will be met with seemingly infinite creativity.
What I suspect McGrath is saying here in these two paragraphs is that his interpretation of Galatians 1:19 (Paul meeting the “brother of the Lord”) and Galatians 4:4 (Jesus being said to have been born of a woman) overthrows the entirety of Doherty’s arguments in these pages. So much so that McGrath simply refuses to address any of them except by means of the vague statements above. He does not even think it is worth informing his readers of his “review” what Doherty actual arguments are.
McGrath then gets himself completely muddled, and ends up faulting Doherty’s character on the grounds that (once again) he does not agree with the views of “mainstream scholarship”! (But he does at least acknowledge here, in contradiction to what he has said elsewhere, that Doherty really is familiar with some biblical scholarship.)
The remainder of the chapter includes arguments that for Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was “a matter of faith, not of historical record as evidenced by eyewitness to a physical, risen Jesus at Easter” (p.79). Since Doherty has already accepted the argument of the Jesus Seminar and other scholars that the earliest “Easter experiences” were of a visionary sort, it is unclear why he thinks it would be persuasive to argue a point in relation to a more physical understanding of resurrection. The visionary nature of the experiences that persuaded those early Christians that Jesus had been raised from the dead is compatible with (and a result of some) mainstream scholarship, and so trying to pretend the point is not merely compatible with mythicism but somehow serves as an argument in it’s favor is disingenuous.
That sentence I have highlighted must have been written very late at night and McGrath might like to withdraw it if brought to his attention. Doherty argues that the “easter experiences” were mystical and visionary, and that this is why Paul fails to argue for a physical understanding of the resurrection. Doherty argues that IF there been traditions of a physical resurrection then Paul would have argued for them in order to prove the “fact” of the resurrection.
McGrath has complained that Doherty does not address mainstream scholarship. But when Doherty does do just that, McGrath complains that he finds the scholarly view compatible with his own theory of mythicism. McGrath thinks this is very bad of Doherty.
What I think is worse, though unstated, is that while the scholarly view is said to be “compatible with” orthodox ideas of the resurrection, Doherty shows that the scholarly view is much more than “compatible with” mythicism — it directly and more simply points towards a mythicist interpretation. So McGrath pulls out the ad hominem card.
McGrath then commits all the sins of which he has accused Doherty in order to overturn the “plain meaning” of Paul’s words and to “make up stuff” about what Paul must have meant though he said the opposite:
Doherty’s repeated assertions that Paul did not depend on apostolic tradition perhaps shows how persuasive Paul’s apologetic for his own authority in Galatians is, but does nothing to make Doherty’s interpretation persuasive. Derivative tradition still works as a historical explanation, in a way that supernatural visions or divinely-guided revelations from Scripture, which supposedly led Paul and other apostles to the same Gospel, do not.
What McGrath describes as “Doherty’s repeated assertions” are not mere assertions at all. Doherty makes his point on the basis of evidence of a range of passages in Paul’s writings and that he discusses in detail across several pages in chapter 4 (the link is to my discussion of what Doherty “really said” in that chapter, contrary to what McGrath indicated in his “review”.)
We know that ancient Jews and Gentiles honoured places associated their deceased loved ones, especially their tombs. Even the Gospels tell us as much. We know they reverenced sacred objects thought to have been associated with the gods, as we read even in Acts 19:35. Treasuring the sacred (time, space, objects) is probably a human universal. But McGrath and others have flippantly dismissed any suggestion that Paul and early Christians would have had any interest in any such things related to Jesus had such things existed.
What is one to make of McGrath’s insinuation that only modern peoples attach importance to such things and that we should not impute our “modern” interest in relics, sacred places, etc. to the early Christians? And what is one to make of McGrath’s assertion (sic) that one should not make such comparisons without first studying relevant anthropological and sociological literature that shows the differences and similarities in the relevant cultures? McGrath’s vagueness is again a sure sign he knows of no such studies to support his argument here.
And what does one say in response to McGrath’s attempt to overturn Doherty’s argument by saying that the NT letters lack “mythical stories” too! Hebrews certainly doesn’t, nor does Revelation. So does very early extra-canonical literature such as the Odes of Solomon and Ascension of Isaiah. But the “simple” story of God giving up his Son, of the Son submitting himself to death, and being resurrected and exalted, IS the central myth. Details were probably seen in visions, and McGrath would know scholars such as Segal have argued. Though simple, it is as powerful and life-changing a myth as is the concept of the Logos/Reason for the Stoics, as many moderns have found just by reading the epistles, and as Engberg-Pedersen explains.
The chapter closes with some lame attempts at psychologizing, which may resonate with some Christians more than with others. Wouldn’t Paul have wanted to stand before the empty tomb? And having done so, wouldn’t he want to write about it to churches? Wouldn’t he want to carry around a crucifixion nail, boast of having it, and perhaps rub it on his epistles and then mention in the letter that he had done so? OK, I’m parodying what Doherty wrote in that last one, but you get the idea. Doherty should at least entertain the notion that the earliest Christians may not have held the same cultural norms and interests as those in the Middle Ages. But even if Doherty is right in his psychologizing, that doesn’t provide a reason for preferring mythicism to other possibilities. Let’s say Paul had a fragment of the true cross that he always carried with him. Why would he wait until some later time when he wrote to a group of Christians to boast about it? Why wouldn’t he mention it and even show it off to them on his first encounter with them? Even if Doherty has psychoanalyzed Paul and the other early Christians correctly with respect to the importance of pilgrimage sites and relics, there are plenty of non-mythicist scenarios which are no more speculative and no less plausible than the one he suggests. The possibility that belief that the end of history was drawing near might make pilgrimages and acquisition of relics seem less important is just one factor among many that ought to be considered.
Since I have already made the point that it is reckless to expect ancient people to think and behave like modern ones, and to psychologize about them without at the very least studying anthropological and sociological studies relevant to possible differences between us and them, I won’t say more about that here.
In this chapter, as elsewhere, Doherty keeps going on about the lack of tales of the historical Jesus in the epistles. He has yet to explain the absence of mythical tales. If we should expect stories in letters, we should expect them on both mythicist and historicists scenarios. If that is not a fair expectation, then their absence doesn’t tell against either one.
This brings us to the end of Part Two of Doherty’s book, and so it may be time for another recap soon. Thus far, we have seen that there are some places where mythicism could work as an interpretative option, and others where it simply does not. In the latter instances, Doherty offers unconvincing, speculative, ad hoc arguments for why readers of his book should not follow the evidence where it more naturally leads. I hope that readers will see those for what they are, and choose to follow the evidence rather than Doherty’s imagination.
Explaining away the total absence of any references of sacred sites or relics at all by suggesting that Paul had gotten all of that out of his system before he came to write any letters, or that the Christians were so looking forward to seeing Jesus come again that they had no interest in knowing anything about the site of his death, are not “ad hoc arguments”?
To sum up Doherty’s point that McGrath attempts to dismiss:
Why is it only in the 4th century that pieces of the “true cross” begin to surface? Why is it left until Constantine to set up the first shrine on the supposed mount of Jesus’ death, and to begin the mania for pilgrimage to the holy sites that has persisted to this day? Why would someone in the first hundred years of the movement not have similarly sought to tread the same ground that the Son of God himself had recently walked on? The total absence of such things in the first hundred years of Christian correspondence is perhaps the single strongest argument for regarding the entire Gospel account of Jesus’ life and death as nothing but literary fabrication.
Of critical scholarship, which has begun to admit that much of the Gospel story — and virtually all of the passion account — is indeed fabrication, [what was that McGrath said earlier about Doherty not indicating any knowledge of critical scholarship admitting such things?] we might ask: if not the Gospel story (most of it derived from scripture), why not some other? Why not places and relics relating to Jesus’ actual experiences? Could Paul and the Jerusalem Tradition have believed in and preached an historical man who had undergone death and resurrection, without these events being attached to some location? If a “genuine Jesus” had lived and preached and died under any circumstances at all, would the memory of the places associated with his career have been completely lost, would they have been of no interest to Christians? If it is said that in fact nothing of Jesus’ life was known by early Christianity — a fallback position that is increasingly being suggested — what created the vitality which launched the movement in the first place, what kept it alive in such a biographical vacuum? (p. 82)
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Did Paul Quote Jesus on Divorce? — Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #5 - 2021-05-10 10:42:06 GMT+0000
- Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4 - 2021-05-10 02:50:25 GMT+0000
- Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #3 - 2021-05-07 23:25:23 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!