Dr McGrath’s review of Chapter 9 of Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man conveys no idea to the uninformed reader what the chapter is about. So to make up that lack (surely scholarly reviews should give readers some clear idea of what exactly is being reviewed!) I outline the content of the Doherty’s chapter here in the process of responding to McGrath’s review, and in particular to a fundamental misreading on McGrath’s part that resulted in his post being an unfortunate travesty rather than a serious review.
In chapter 8 Doherty had argued that Paul’s source for his understanding of the gospel and Christ was primarily revelation through the Jewish scriptures. In chapter 9, the chapter being discussed here, Doherty addresses another influence that guided Paul’s interpretation of those scriptures – the dominant philosophical and theological ideas in the Hellenistic and Jewish worlds of his day.
(Where there are any quotations in bold type that is entirely my own emphasis — not Doherty’s. All or most of the scripture references are hyperlinked to see the full text. )
Greek Philosophy and the Logos
First Doherty sums up the Platonic conception of God. He was “an Absolute Being, a Unity . . . pure mind and . . . pure spirit.” This transcendent God was too perfect to have any direct dealings with the world.
There was also Stoicism, and the view of God in this philosophy was that he/it was the living within everything. God was the governing and guiding principle of the universe – the “Logos”. It lived in mankind as the mind of God itself, or Reason, so within mankind dwelt the nature of God, or the Logos.
The Platonic idea of God could be of little direct comfort or benefit to humans. But Plato and his followers postulated the idea that this God generated other Ideas that were specific emanations or “personifications” of parts of his thoughts and nature. These would be broken down into further Ideas or “entities”. One of these, the Demiurge, took responsibility for creating the physical world. “All of these elements of the mind of God, his Ideas, the creative forces, were seen as ‘intermediate’ and came collectively to be referred to by the term Logos (literally, “Word”).“(p. 92)
The impulse of the age was to bring the intermediary between God and the world closer to matter, make him more personal, more accessible on a human level. A strong monotheist like Philo – the most prominent philosopher of Hellenistic Judaism – stopped short of making his Son and Logos a personal divine being. Instead, he envisioned Moses as a man into whom the power and qualities of the spiritual Logos had been infused. But other Jews did not feel the same rigid restrictions toward God, and could envision their Son as a personal entity beside God in heaven. From the Logos of the Greek and Philonic philosophy to Paul’s Christ was scarcely a stone’s throw. (p. 92)
Jewish Personified Wisdom
The Jewish philosopher Philo, and the author of the Book of Hebrews, are evidence that there were Jews who adapted the idea of Logos to try to amalgamate Greek and Jewish thought into one.
But more mainstream Jews hewing entirely to their own writings had another mediating figure between themselves and God. That mediator was Wisdom, a female.
Wisdom took on a status and personality of her own, developing “myths” about coming to earth, although there was never any thought of her being physically incarnated. (p. 92)
So we have Proverbs 8:1-36. (Follow the hyperlink)
So Wisdom is both pre-existent and associated with God in the work of creation (Proverbs 3:19). These are two primary attributes of Paul’s Christ, of course.
We also have Baruch 3:37
And Sirach 24
And the Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-30
The Son as Wisdom and the Logos
Paul and other early Christian writers are speaking of Christ in exactly the same language as we find in the broader philosophical world, both Greek and Jewish. Paul’s idea of the spiritual Son has absorbed both the Logos and personified Wisdom. . . . Paul is drawing on the prominent ideas of his day and the deeper philosophical heritage which lay behind them. (p. 94)
McGrath has dismissed this argument of Doherty by saying that scholarship disagrees with none of this. Doherty’s readers also know scholarship knows it all, too, because Doherty wrote immediately after the above:
Scholarship fully recognized this, of course . . . . (p. 94)
So where is the difference between Doherty and mainstream scholarship here?
Doherty explains that scholarship believes that all the above philosophical ideas of the day were applied to the human historical Jesus. The mainstream idea is that the followers who knew Jesus were so overwhelmed by him that, after his death and feeling that he was still present with them, they came to apply all of these grandiose ideas to him. (Doherty also remarks that in the process of doing this it must be assumed they also lost much of their former interest in the details of his life and teachings.)
The inherent fallacy in such a scenario is easy to see. In the above passages, early Christian writers are presenting the Son as “the image of the invisible God,” etc. They are describing a divine figure in terms of divine attributes. No identification with a human man is ever made, no writer gives us even a hint that an “application” to an historical Jesus is anywhere in their minds. As suggested earlier, scholars are guilty of reading into the text things they find hard to believe are not there. (p. 94 – I have bolded the phrases McGrath omitted. The context demonstrates that McGrath misread Doherty. Most of the rest of his review is based on this misreading. McGrath even suggests Doherty is being dishonest or blind. One might wonder about the honesty or sight of one who does the misquoting.)
A Channel between God and the World – the meaning of “in/through Christ”
Ever wondered about all those odd “in Christ” and “through Jesus Christ” phrases in Paul? Doherty’s explanation puts them in a most interesting perspective in light of the above.
Paul’s Christ, like Wisdom and the Logos, is God’s channel in his dealings with the world. Paul has an expression to convey this idea.
In the letters of Paul and those who later wrote in his name, we find the phrase “in Christ Jesus” or “through Christ Jesus” over a hundred times. With Wisdom and the Logos in mind, we can see just what this phrase means.
In Romans 6:11 Paul is using the idea of “in Christ” to represent a channel of contact with God; Christ is the means by which Christians are “alive” to God. The intermediary channel is a force in the present, something spiritual; it has no reference to a recent historical person or event.
The phrases refer to Christ as the medium linking believers to God, or the spiritual force that conveys the love of God and that allows believers to come to God.
The saving acts which have occurred in the present time are not the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are God’s granting of the rite of baptism and the bestowing of the Spirit. The heavenly Christ is the channel along which this Spirit has flowed from God to the world.
Christ then operates entirely on a spiritual level. He is a communicating and sacramental power now present in the world, impregnating the hearts and minds of believers. These are mystical ideas, and there is no justification for scholarship’s frequent attempt to see the Pauline phrase “in or through Christ” as a cryptic summary of Jesus’ life on earth. (p. 95)
Sending the Spirit of Christ
So in the epistles we find that God’s Son “is an entity that is only now being revealed to the world, but he is also a Son who has been ‘sent’ into the world.”
Early Christians saw the spiritual Christ as having arrived in a real way, active and speaking through themselves. (p. 95)
So although when we read of the sending of the Spirit of God we are generally required to think of this as the Holy Spirit, there are also times when an explicit identification of this Spirit is made with Christ. So Christ is himself sometimes depicted as a Spirit. See, for example, Philippians 1:19.
In Ephesians 2:17 we read of Christ “coming” but then Paul quotes Isaiah 57:19 to give us his teaching when he comes. And even the coming to deliver good news itself is not taken from historical memory but from Isaiah 52:7.
Hebrews 5:7 speaks of the “activities” of Christ in the flesh, but all the activities listed in Hebrews are from scripture, not historical memory.
At every turn in the epistles we meet a Son and Christ who has taken shape in the minds of the early Christians under the influence of the Jewish sacred writings. (p. 96)
A Christ Who Inhabits the World of Scripture
This has led to an important insight into how the early Christians viewed Christ. Not only is the Son revealed in scripture, the Son speaks from scripture. Certain passages in the sacred writings were regarded as the voice of the Son speaking directly to the world. (p. 96)
The Book of Hebrews especially illustrates this point. It begins by declaring that God has spoken in the final days to us through his Son, but not a single saying of Jesus is taken from his historical ministry, and there is not even a reference that he ever had an earthly ministry.
Of all the times Jesus spoke of “his brothers” in the Gospels, not once does the author of Hebrews refer to them, but bypasses them all in preference for quoting Psalm 22:22 to affirm that Christ says he will call his followers his brothers.
Another interesting detail is that very often the sayings of Jesus are prefaced by the present tense “he says” (not “he said”) – “showing that in the writer’s mind, the Son is an entity who is known and communicates now and today, speaking through the sacred writings, not through any past preaching career on earth.” (p. 96)
Even at the end of the century we read in 1 Clement 22 the author quoting Psalm 34 as a personal call from Christ. In 1 Clement 16:15-16 when describing Christ’s sufferings, he relies entirely on Psalm 22.
In early Christian thought Christ was a spiritual figure, a present force who was accessible through the sacred writings. Scripture was not the prophecy of the Christ event, but its embodiment. The Son inhabited the spiritual world of the scriptures, God’s window onto the unseen true reality. (p. 96)
End of my outline of chapter 9 and response to MGrath’s review. (There was not much to respond to — it was mainly a tirade spiralling out from the erroneous assertion that Doherty says there is no hint of a historical Jesus in the epistles.)
Doherty himself responded to McGrath’s review and I posted that here recently as a separate post.
When I challenged McGrath on his mistaken manner of quoting Doherty on page 94 he defended himself by saying that Doherty said the same thing (as McGrath misconstrued into page 94) on page 19. That claim was equally mistaken and I responded. But I leave here with Doherty’s response (the link here will take you to this response ‘in situ’ and other exchanges, including McGrath’s response, can be read there):
You still haven’t got it right, Jim. My “earlier in the book” statement (p.19) had a broader application than the one which you misrepresented in chapter 9, but it still holds good. As quoted by you:
“Thus, we are left with an entire corpus of early Christian correspondence which gives us no indication that the divine Christ these writers look to for salvation is to be identified with the man Jesus of Nazareth whom the Gospels place in the early 1st century – or, indeed, with any man in their recent past” (p.19).
First of all, you failed to point out that this quote followed on a brief preliminary noting of three passages which “present apparent exceptions” to my statement (p.17) that all the epistles fail to identify their Son and Christ with a recent incarnation, that an equation such as “Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and Messiah” is missing from all early Christian correspondence, and that the Jesus of the epistles is never spoken of as a man who had recently lived. Those three “apparent exceptions” are 1 Thess. 2:15-16 (generally regarded as an interpolation), 1 Timothy 6:13 (from a second-century document), and the Lord’s Supper scene in 1 Cor. 11:23 (which Paul says he knows through revelation). All three are dealt with at various points in the book.
Within that context, my earlier statement stands. My chapter 9 statement, which you flagrantly misrepresented, makes the same kind of point, only in a narrower sub-class of descriptions of the Son which never identify that Son with the man we know of from the Gospels. The void in this sub-class is particularly blatant, since such passages involve descriptions of the Son and his (exclusively mythological) roles, with no identification of this cosmic Son with an earthly incarnation, no mention of a life on earth, let alone the character portrayed in the Gospels.
In regard to my ch. 9 statement, you even further misrepresented me. You made it sound as though I was claiming that the epistles never contain a “hint” of an historical Jesus, period; i.e., nothing is ever said that could convey the idea of a human being, even if that human being was never located in a time or place in history, or identified as the character we know from the Gospels. That would be nonsense, since we have all along been debating the meaning that should be attached to “of the seed of David” or “born of woman” and the like. I have never said, and never would, that such phrases contain no “hint” of an historical individual. The question is, is that the only way they can be taken, given the contexts of such passages, and the wider context of a void on an HJ in the non-Gospel record.
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