McGrath’s review of Doherty’s chapter 10, part 1 — a response

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by Neil Godfrey

Updated with links and headings. 

Dr James McGrath continues with his chapter by chapter review of Earl Doherty’s Jesus Neither God Nor Man by posting a part one review of Doherty’s chapter 10. It will be clear from what follows that McGrath expresses much more about his own intolerant attitude towards mythicism than he does in informing readers about Doherty’s argument.

Losing the thread of the argument

McGrath writes:

Chapter 10 begins part four of the book, “A World of Myths and Savior Gods,” and the chapter itself bears the title “Who Crucified Jesus?” Doherty summarizes the interpretation of New Testament letters he has offered thus far, writing

“In the epistles, Christ’s act of salvation is not located in the present, or even in the recent past, and certainly not within the historical setting familiar to us from the Gospels. . . . “

McGrath has fallen over right at the starting line. The quotation he takes from Doherty simply does not summarize Doherty’s interpretation of the NT letters “he has offered thus far”. Here is Doherty’s explicit summary of a key argument he has offered thus far taken from the opening sentence of the chapter:

The pieces of the Jesus Puzzle in Part Three demonstrated how the New Testament epistles present Christ as a spiritual force active in the present time, functioning as a channel between God and humanity. (p. 97)

What McGrath quotes is not any summary of earlier argument but a summary or what Doherty is about to argue in Part Four of the book.

Between that opening summary sentence and the one McGrath quotes Doherty writes the following to introduce the theme of the new book Part this chapter is introducing:

But there is another, more important role, being given him. . . .

So McGrath, in doing his chapter by chapter reviews, has clearly lost the train of thought that he is addressing. This suggests that he is not bothering to read Doherty with a serious intent to understand the argument of the book he is reviewing.

Missing the argument and substituting ad hominem

McGrath continues his quotation of Doherty and comment:

“. . . . Christ had existed from before time began, and it was in a non-historical time and place, in a supernatural realm, that this Son of God had undergone a redeeming “blood” sacrifice” (p.97).

I suspect that the quotation marks around “blood” are a recognition of the awkwardness of Paul’s and other epistolary references to blood in connection with Jesus’ death, as fitting poorly with the purely celestial understanding that Doherty is promoting.

He adds that Doherty’s claim is on

the level of mere assertion

and not

something that has been demonstrated so as to justify this confident articulation.

Having begun with the erroneous claim that Doherty is summing up his previous argument McGrath now falls deeper into the pit of his own making and accuses Doherty of merely asserting rather than arguing his case. But as pointed out Doherty is introducing the argument he is about to make in the following chapters! With reference to the nature of the “blood” itself and other elements associated with the crucifixion that moderns typically think of as being naturally and entirely “earthly”, Doherty writes chapter 12, “Conceiving the World of Myth”, chapter 13, “Dancing with Katie Sarka Under the Moon”, chapter 16, “A Sacrifice in Heaven”, as well as including additional explanation in chapters 14 and 15.

McGrath thus from the outset of his review demonstrates a most careless approach to the argument he claims to be  reviewing.

At the same time McGrath is very diligent to attack Doherty personally. He portrays Doherty as one who, despite being evidently aware of just how baseless his hypothesis surely is, nonetheless foolishly carries on with false-confidence undaunted by his knowledge of its flaws.  McGrath is not only stating that Doherty has deep-seated doubts about his own thesis, but infers that he is foolish enough to advertize these doubts by enclosing a key word in quotation marks:

I suspect that the quotation marks around “blood” are a recognition of the awkwardness of Paul’s and other epistolary references to blood in connection with Jesus’ death, as fitting poorly with the purely celestial understanding that Doherty is promoting. Such concerns do not seem to at all temper his confidence in that interpretation, however, nor to yet elevate his statement from the level of mere assertion to something that has been demonstrated so as to justify this confident articulation.

When proof-texting will do

Another sign of McGrath’s approach to mythicism as something not worth the serious effort of arguing is his inclusion of a link to New Testament passages using the word “blood” as if providing such a list should speak for itself in support of his denunciation of Doherty’s “assertion”. I encourage readers to check that list for themselves and see just how many references to blood in connection to Christ’s sacrifice are indeed necessarily understood in an earthly context. Although McGrath has tried to say that he has read ahead in Doherty’s book to know what his arguments are that he has not yet got to in his review (he was defending himself against my charge that he had pre-judged arguments he had not even read) he curiously seems to have completely overlooked the many times Doherty addresses those verses that McGrath cites as if no argument is required from them to rebut Doherty.

One rule for scholars, another for Doherty

To continue with McGrath’s review. He writes:

The chapter proceeds to say a little about mythical understandings of the world and mystery cults in particular, while deferring more detailed discussion until the following chapter. Doherty writes,

“One purpose of this book is to demonstrate the derivation of Christian mythology from the thinking of its time, how it was interwoven with the religious expressions of its age…The more we can perceive in common between Christianity and the various mythologies of its time, Jewish, Gnostic, Hermetic, and Heavenly Man, and especially the so-called ‘dying and rising gods’ of the mystery cults, the closer we will get to understanding the essential dimensions of early Christian belief and the nature of the early Christian Christ” (p.100).

This affirmation, with its lumping together of just about every stream of thought from the religious world in which Christianity emerged, is of doubtful usefulness. It shows little awareness of the enormous and important differences not only between some of these major trends, but also within them among different groups and teachers – which of course is not to deny similarities, but simply to emphasize that they are not similar in all respects. Mainstream scholarship has devoted much time and effort to illustrating how Christianity fits within and reflects cultural trends, norms, beliefs and assumptions of its time.

It is difficult to understand the grounds for McGrath’s objection here. On the one hand he cannot deny that mainstream scholarship has devoted much time and effort into exploring the way Christianity fits into the common religious and philosophical beliefs and assumptions of the day, the similarities across them all, but faults Doherty for undertaking the same discussion for his own purposes.

There is surely an inconsistency in McGrath’s objection to Doherty’s argument here. I submit that McGrath’s bias is muddying his thinking, compelling him into fault-finding rather than attempting a balanced and fair-minded review.

Of course there are differences among the many strands of thought (there would not be a plurality of groups and beliefs if there were no differences) but when one is arguing that it is the similarities – whose existence and influence are recognized by scholars and even by McGrath himself here – influenced the development of Christianity, it is quite beside the point that Doherty does not at the same time detail the many differences that are irrelevant to his argument.

But when Doherty does indeed go on to address very significant differences in the same chapter as they apply to the evolution of certain ideas, McGrath does not take this as evidence that his fault-finding has been gratuitous. No, now McGrath can only damn with the faintest of praise by conceding that Doherty merely “appears at times to be aware of these important distinctions”!

Doherty appears at times to be aware of these important distinctions, noting that Judaism expected salvation in history and viewed its key figures as having been historical (pp.101-102).

And since McGrath has said that he has read ahead in the book he surely knows that Doherty does address differences among the mystery cults as they pertain to the world from which Christianity was born — in the very next chapter, chapter 11 titled “The Mystery Cults”.

Surely this is the work of a reviewer whose prejudices against mythicism cloud his ability to assess fairly the arguments he is encountering.

McGrath writes:

But unless Doherty were able to demonstrate (contrary to significant amounts of evidence) that the only sorts of saviors and deliverers that anyone in that time hoped for were purely celestial ones, or unless Doherty can demonstrate that Christianity bears closest resemblance to groups that did (again ignoring substantial evidence), then this attempt to lump every religious viewpoint together and connect them to Platonism does nothing to support his case for mythicism.

This is nonsense. Why does Doherty have to demonstrate that all other sorts of saviours were celestial ones? That is absurd. And the second condition is too vague to have any meaning at all. In what sense or ways, exactly, does McGrath mean that Christianity must “closely resemble” “groups” (what “groups”? — he elsewhere speaks of groups, teachers and trends as distinct entities) that had celestial saviours? Does “closely resemble” imply that any comparison will be invalidated by some other point of difference?

McGrath does not find any particular fault with the actual content of Doherty’s discussion of the similarities across the religious thought of the day — he certainly cites nothing by Doherty in this connection — but brushes aside all that Doherty writes as some sort of invalid “lumping together” of “every religious viewpoint” and connecting them to Platonism.

Would McGrath ever dismiss mainstream scholarship that addresses the similarities of ancient thought and the way Platonism influenced the more educated thinking of the day as an “attempt to lump every religious viewpoint together and connect them to Platonism”? Rather, is not a scholarly discussion of the similarities embracing the many religious ideas of the day a valid exercise, and is not a discussion of the influence on Platonism on the religious thinking of the day equally valid among scholars?

But Doherty is at fault because he is using the same sort of discussion in support of the wrong conclusion, in McGrath’s estimation. So McGrath attacks not only the conclusion but the nature of the discussion itself, and he does so without citing a single point where Doherty is at fault in that discussion.

When a half truth is as good as a whole lie

And so the Messiah had to be “of David’s stock” (p.102, citing Romans 1:3), and Doherty’s response, as we know well by this stage, is to assert that a figure could be given such a lineage and yet still be situated in the heavenly realm. Here he offers as “evidence” (with no references to any primary texts whatsoever) the claim that “it would not have been unusual to style Osiris as “Egyptian” or Mithras as “Persian”” (p.102). Doherty is confusing ethnic lineage of a deity with a national origin of a cult they were associated with.

In his review of chapter 8 McGrath complained that Doherty was postponing his detailed argumentation of Romans 1:3 till later (despite detailed argument also offered in chapter 8 itself — and to be discussed again in chapter 13), but now he dismisses Doherty as always “asserting” rather than arguing the point.

But McGrath seriously misrepresents Doherty’s argument when he says that the “evidence” (in quotation marks — after the opening remarks by McGrath about D’s use of quotation marks one is entitled to wonder if McG himself is now aware that what he is about to say is very ill-fitting with what Doherty has in fact written) he offers is from pagan gods. Doherty’s argument is supported most strongly by his observation of the distinctiveness of Judaism’s mythical historicism — evidence addressed by Doherty but that McGrath skips entirely. Anyone reading McGrath’s review would be misled badly, seriously misinformed, about Doherty’s actual argument.

Here is the key portion of Doherty’s argument:

This Christian myth was to a great extent qualified by its Jewish heritage. Whatever the primitive Hebrew view of a “sacred past” may have been in the prehistoric period, it eventually moved into a more concrete setting. Primordial figures and processes became part of an archaic history, embodied in legends of human ancestors and patriarchs who had enjoyed special contacts with the Deity. All of it became firmly anchored in an historical past which could be chronicled year by year. Neither Abraham nor Moses — who may or may not be based on actual historical figures — were located in a true sacred past or higher reality. . . . This heritage fed into Christian mythology and modified the type of thinking the early Christ cult had absorbed from the conceptual world of the pagan.

Thus where the Greek myths were rendered essentially timeless, unrelated to a chronicled past, the myth of Christ had features derived rom Jewish scripture. Scripture presented an ongoing system of salvation history, and the redemptive actions of Christ in the spiritual world had to be fitted into this ongoing pattern.

For example, while the Christ of the epistles is never placed at any specific point in history, he is in certain ways presented as ‘following’ Adam and Abraham and David; the effects of his sacrifice are subsequent to the old Law and Temple cult, supplanting them. The impression of ‘sequence within history’ is thus created. Scriptural prophecies previously interpreted as applying to a human Messiah now had to be redirected toward the new heavenly Messiah. . . . He was thus, as we shall see, viewed as possessing a Davidic or Judaic nature.

Even some of the Hellenistic savior gods could be said to possess an ethnic lineage, as being associated with the societies which gave rise to them; it would not have been unusual to style Osiris as “Egyptian” or Mithras as “Persian,” especially if their original myths went back to a time and format when such figures were regarded as members of those ethnic groups (such as Osiris as an ancient king of Egypt). (pp. 101-102)

One also thinks of Mithras always being depicted with the Phrygian cap, surely another “ethnic” marker. Sometimes gods were given epithets to specifically associate them with a particular place such as Pythian Apollo.

So the thrust of Doherty’s argument, and the evidence for it, is from within Judaism’s myths. The references to paganism’s myths are supportive but not central, having been introduced by the addendum-like phrase, “Even some of the Hellenistic savior gods could be said to possess . . .” Doherty is addressing an amalgam of Jewish and Hellenistic concepts, something McGrath fails to point out.

(Having said that, I find the possibility of ethnic associations of deities with the likes of Osiris being a mythical king of Egypt interesting and worth a separate discussion, but unfortunately McGrath’s hostile manner of addressing mythicism polarizes the question and makes any even-handed discussion — one in which either side can feel open to admit weaknesses in their arguments — impossible.)

McGrath continues:

To make such claims without apparently feeling the need to provide sources is very shoddy work indeed. But since many feel that this is volume offers the best case for mythicism, it is important to point out that its key claims are often unsubstantiated.

It is even more shoddy for an associate professor to write a review that demonstrates his inability to follow the argument of the book, to confuse statements of future arguments with summaries of previous ones, to faulting Doherty for engaging in a discussions undertaken by mainstream scholarship if he takes them to the “wrong conclusion”, and for blatantly misrepresenting what Doherty advances as “evidence” for an argument.

When Doherty is supported by traditional understanding

Doherty continues by highlighting the well-known parallelism between the celestial and earthly realms in Jewish thought in this period, perhaps illustrated most clearly in the Bible’s pages by the references in the Book of Daniel to “princes” of nations among the heavenly host (pp.102-103). Since we have already been discussing Philippians 2:6-11, I won’t bring the issues of interpretation related to that up again here, where on p.104 Doherty assumes the traditional understanding of the figure in the hymn as divine.

If Doherty proposes an idea against traditional understanding McGrath excoriates him for his efforts. But here when Doherty aligns himself with traditional understanding then McGrath still manages to slip in the innuendo. Doherty is merely assuming a traditional understanding now. In a future post (or an editorial addition to this one) I will link to the exchanges between McGrath and Doherty, or copy them in full, so readers can assess for themselves the strength of McGrath’s objections to Doherty’s mainstream position: thus comments here, here, here, here and here.

Perhaps chagrined at his loss of face in exchanges with Doherty in that thread, McGrath fights back here:

But it must be said that his attempt to co-opt Morna Hooker’s idea of interchange in support of mythicism (p.104) is simply unacceptable quote mining. If Hooker is correct in her thinking, then it is to be noted that she can make sense of such language in relation to a Jesus who was thought to have appeared in history. This is a problem for mythicism, rather than something to be quoted in its support. But since nothing more is made of Hooker’s work on this topic, it is clear that the quote was offered like so many in mediocre undergraduate essays: to illustrate a view held before encountering the source, and not because of either a genuine understanding of the work or a detailed interaction with the composition from which the quote derives.

This is bollocks. It is quite legitimate to quote another author in support of a particular aspect of one’s argument even though that cited author does not agree with the larger thrust of one’s own case. If that were not legitimate then no new books with new ideas could be written citing anyone. Here is what Doherty wrote:

But whoever wrote the christological hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians 2:6-11 has done just that [taken the idea of a ‘spiritual Messiah’ found among some Jews (e.g. the Enochian literature) and developed him into a sacrificial figure]. Here we have a divine being show “shared in God’s very nature,” who humbled himself and in obedience accepted Jesus. As a result, “God raised him from the heights,” where he received the homage of all powers and beings on earth and in heaven. The implication is that this self-sacrificing divinity (who operates in the celestial spheres, not on earth) is a paradigm for believers on earth, who will similarly be exalted as a consequence of their own obedience and death. As Morna Hooker puts it (“Philippians 2:6-11” in Jesus und Paulus, p. 151f):

Christ becomes what we are (likeness of flesh, suffering and death), so enabling us to become what he is (exalted to the heights).

All this fits into that most fundamental of ancient concepts outlined earlier: the idea that earth was the mirror image of heaven, the product proceeding from the archetype, the visible material counterpart to the genuine spiritual reality above. Heavenly events determined earthly realities. . . . (pp. 104-5)

Inability to address Doherty’s discussion of “Rulers of this age”

McGrath continues with his usual modus operandi of hiding Doherty’s key arguments from readers of his review, not to mention his habit of ignoring the fact wherever Doherty’s arguments are supported by a good portion of mainstream scholarship:

The next part of the chapter addresses the “the rulers of this age” and related phrases in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, Ephesians 3:9-10 and Colossians 2:15. Since, as Doherty himself acknowledges,

“That invisible powers, mostly evil, were at work behind earthly phenomena was a widely held belief in Hellenistic times, including among Jews, and it was shared by Christianity” (p.104),

much of what follows, which argues for spiritual rather than earthly rulers being in view, is an exercise in promoting a false antithesis undermined by one’s own statement. Doherty’s claim that Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas could “hardly be styled” the rulers of this age (p.105) seems to involve his treating “rulers of this age” as though it meant “rulers of the world” rather than “the sorts of rulers who are in charge in the present evil age, and their powerful representatives.”

Again McGrath is letting his antitmythicist bias show. Doherty argument is supported by a raft of mainstream scholarly works. Suddenly McGrath is silent about accusing Doherty of “quote mining” or of failing to engage in “a detailed interaction” with works to which he refers. Doherty cites the following who contradict McGrath’s assertion that the Greek phrase translated “rulers of the world/age” means “the sorts of rulers who are in charge in the present evil age” and who argue that the phrase does mean unseen spirit or demon rulers.

  1. S. G. F. Brandon (History, Time and Deity, p. 167)
  2. C. K. Barrett (First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 72)
  3. Jean Héring (The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, p. 16-17)
  4. Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ, p. 56)
  5. S. D. Salmond (Expositor’s Greek Testament: Ephesians, p. 284)
  6. Delling in the article on “archon” in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1, p. 488-9) regards the phrase . . . “not, then, referring to earthly rulers” (n.7).
  7. Paul Ellingworth (A Translator’s Handbook for 1 Corinthians, p. 46) says: “A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here.”

McGrath would display more intellectual honesty if he acknowledged that his objection to Doherty on this point is not shared by a good number of his own scholarly peers.

One of the more bizarre moments in the chapter is when Doherty writes,

“The suggestion that since earthly rulers are considered to be controlled by heavenly ones the latter are seen as operating “through” the former is simply reading the idea into the text” (p.106).

Doherty previously acknowledge that this view was widespread in those times and specifically in early Christianity, and he emphasized the need to read early Christian texts in light of that context. We see here that Doherty does not stick to his own stated principles when they do not lead to a mythicist conclusion.

No. This is flat wrong and McGrath, whether unintentionally or simply blinded by his own anti-mythicist bigotry, has clearly misrepresented Doherty’s argument. Apologists are often ridiculed for quoting just half of a verse or passage to support their views when the full passage in fact contradicts them. McGrath has made the same mistake himself here by completely ignoring a critical and detailed discussion Doherty undertakes and that surely no reader, not even a biased one, could possibly miss.

Doherty firstly argues in detail that the Greek phrase for “rulers of the age” has a clearly established, certainly strongly arguable, technical meaning that specifically refers to demon powers. He argues in even greater length in a section headed “Ancient Views of ‘Rulers of this Age'” that the idea that Paul meant to say that the demons were acting through earthly rulers to crucify Christ (the interpretation McGrath dogmatically insists is the only correct one) was completely unheard of until Origen very awkwardly struggled to introduce this particular exegesis.

Doherty also reminds readers that the other references by Paul to earthly rulers flatly contradict the idea that they are agents working the will of evil powers.

Perhaps McGrath forgot to wet his thumb and missed a page or two as he read.

And his own claim that everyone has failed to address the issue of how Paul could have spoken in such terms if he knew traditions about Jesus’ crucifixion in Judaea is likewise misleading, to say the least (p.106).

What is misleading is McGrath’s failure to even point out, let alone address, the several lines of argument Doherty makes in relation to this claim. In addition to what I have pointed out above there is also the fact that even the Gospels the heavenly dimension lying behind the earthly rulers bent on crucifying Christ is nowhere in sight, or in the case of John exists as a very distant allusion.

The Book of Revelation illustrates very well the sort of viewpoint that Doherty himself acknowledged was widespread in that time, with demonic forces manifested through and in cahoots with earthly rulers. It is not that everyone fails to address it, but rather that Doherty alone fails to read these texts in the way he himself advocates, in light of the evidence that the texts themselves and other works from their wider cultural, historical and religious context provide.

So McGrath hereby attempts to refute Doherty’s arguments for what Paul understood by the term “rulers of the age” by a two-prong attack:

  1. ignore Doherty’s historical survey of interpretations up to the time of Origen, the contextual arguments within Paul itself, etc
  2. pull out non-Pauline text and get everyone to look at that instead.

So when McGrath criticizes Doherty for failing to distinguish between Pauline and non-Pauline works for an understanding of the meaning the phrase the irony is suffocating:

Doherty also fails to address the possibility that Ephesians and Colossians may be post-Pauline and reflect a different view of the “rulers” than is found in authentic Pauline works.

But once again McGrath is certainly failing to do justice to the distinction that Doherty does clearly and regularly point out. Speaking of the passage in Ephesians Doherty clearly indicates that its author is not Paul:

This writer is consistent with general Pauline expressions . . . . (p. 105)

McGrath has made similar criticisms of Doherty before, consistently ignoring Doherty’s own explanation of his use of sources in chapter 1:

Among the thirteen epistles assigned to Paul, scholarly study and computer analysis have judged only seven as genuine to him: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. . . .  Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians were likely written within a decade or two after Paul’s death . . . . (p. 16)

And as for the pre-Christian roots of Gnosticism?

McGrath’s final sally is over failure to provide evidence or explanation for the claim that Gnosticism’s roots are pre-Christian:

He also claims, without providing evidence or explanation, that “the roots of Gnosticism go back before the establishment of an historical Jesus in the Gospels” (p.109).

Since McGrath as usual fails to explain the whats and whys of the Doherty argument that he criticizes, let me give the context.

Doherty is discussing the evidence for an ancient “understanding of archontic rulers as spirit demons unassociated with any earthly princes”, and in this instance he is addressing the Gnostic text The Hypostasis of the Archon. He makes the comment that, given that “the roots of Gnosticism go back before the establishment of an historical Jesus in the Gospels”, we thus have “a pointer to the older understanding in the time of Paul.” (p. 109).

No doubt Doherty would have strengthened his point had he taken the time to add a discussion of the pre-Christian provenance for Gnosticsm. I imagine that he would reply that in an 800 page book aimed primarily at the informed lay reader he would ask to be forgiven in this instance. Later in the book in the chapter titled “The Gnostic Phenomenon” (and recall that McGrath says he has skipped ahead to read the arguments Doherty makes later in his book — perhaps he only means he has read ahead in those cases where he “knows” he is going to read something “unpersuasive”) Doherty does explicitly state the fairly obvious, that such a discussion is beyond the scope of his book:

Whether this means that the movement [Gnosticism] grew out of radical Jewish circles which had adopted esoteric features of Greek philosophy, or whether it began with gentiles directly linked with or influenced by fringe elements in the Jewish Diaspora, is still uncertain. (This question lies at the heart of the great debate over the origins of Gnosticism, a debate which cannot be investigated here.) (p. 287, my emphasis)

But McGrath is surely being just a little disingenuous. He does not fault Doherty’s claim that the roots of Gnosticism are thought to precede Christianity. (Only for failing to address the evidence or offer an explanation in a book aimed primarily at an educated general readership and not for a thesis advisor.) McGrath surely knows that many mainstream scholars would not question Doherty’s statement at all.

Thus we have Michael Edward Stone, author of Scriptures, Sects and Visions: A Profile of Judaism from Ezra to the Jewish Revolts (1980), who wrote a chapter discussing all of this. He concludes after discussions of much pre-Christian Jewish literature:

Many questions thus surround the Jewish sources of Gnosticism . . . . Clear conclusions cannot yet be drawn, therefore, as to where and which types of Judaism contributed to the formation of Gnosticism. That there were such contributions, however, now seems beyond doubt. (p. 104)

Birger A. Pearson, author of Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature (2007), writes after comparing pre-Christian Jewish literature with later Gnostic texts:

So it is more likely that Gnosticism arose out of a Jewish milieu, and only subsequently came into contact with Christianity, than that it arose from within early Christianity . . . . (p. 11)

Gnosticism is clearly dependent upon aspects of Platonist philosophy. It is also clearly dependent upon aspects of Jewish religion, most notably apocalyptically oriented Judaism. The most plausible way of explaining these dependencies is to posit a Jewish origin for Gnosticism, involving Jews who had imbibed a good deal of Greek philosophy.

So I shall conclude this discussion by positing that what we call Gnosticism originated among unknown Jews who incorporated aspects of Platonism into their innovative reinterpretations of their ancestral traditions. At least that is, in my view, the most plausible conclusion that can be drawn from the sources available to us. (p. 19)

Even Michael Allen Williams, who argues that the term “Gnosticism” itself is problematic in Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (1996), argues for the inclusion of Judaism as one of the roots of Gnosticism:

I will maintain that we can most adequately account for these phenomena [“gnosticism”] as a whole by allowing for multiple origins, rather than trying to trace all of this back to some single tradition, group or set of social or historical circumstances. But pre-Christian Jewish tradition ought to be included among these multiple matrices. (p. 218)

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12 thoughts on “McGrath’s review of Doherty’s chapter 10, part 1 — a response”

  1. “What McGrath quotes is not any summary of earlier argument but a summary or what Doherty is about to argue in Part Four of the book.”

    This is a serious misconduct for a scholar, and McGrath should know. It is true that this “review” is posted on his blog, but this mis-representation of his opponent’s views is something a scholar should never do.

    Butler University might have a policy about this kind of reviews.

  2. If Earl cites only the New Testament while presenting his arguments he’s accused of “not addressing current scholarship.” On the other hand, if he addresses current scholarship he’s accused of “quote-mining.”

    As Brian of Nazareth said, “There’s no pleasing some people.”

  3. I don’t agree with the idea that the ignorant “rulers of this age” who killed Jesus (1 Cor. 2:8) means demons or heavenly beings. The word ruler(s) is sometimes used this way in the gospels (Mk. 3:22, Mt. 9:34, 12:24, Lk. 11:35, etc.) and epistles (Eph. 3:10, 6:12 and Col. 1:16), but not when referring to Jesus’ death. Not only does the NT use the word more often to describe earthly rulers (including Paul’s only other use of it in Rom. 13:3, 6), it’s always understood this way in reference to Jesus’ death (Lk. 23:13, 23:35, 24:20, Acts 4:8-10), including the idea that they acted in ignorance (Acts 3:17, 13:27).

    Ephesians 3:10 implies that heavenly rulers were ignorant of the “wisdom of God” (like 1 Cor. 2:7), but it does not say that they killed Jesus.

    If Ephesians 6:12 means that pseudo-Paul and his followers were “not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” why couldn’t an earthly Jesus have contended against them, too?

    But by his own account, Paul says that he and his followers struggled with earthly and heavenly powers (Rom. 8:35-39, 1 Cor. 4:9), and lists specific punishments he personally received from human authorities (2 Cor. 11:23-25).

    James says that the rich “have condemned, you have killed the righteous one; he does not resist you” (5:6), which indicates that at least one person in his group was killed by humans. Then he immediately adds, “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord” (5:7).

      1. Doherty keeps me on my toes like no one else. I looked at his argument again and noticed that I overlooked Col. 2:15, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them in [him/the cross].” I’m inclined to accept that this could refer to heavenly rulers, though it should be noted that Col 1:16 says that “in him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities,” so it could be interpreted either way. Paul and his followers struggled with earthly and heavenly powers (Rom. 8:23-25 and 1 Cor. 4:9). I’m not quite sure how to separate the two, but both seem to have been understood to be active on real people in this world (like in Eph. 2:2).

        However it may be, it remains that the only other time Paul uses the word rulers (Rom. 13:3 and 6) he means earthly rulers.

        1. I can accept the possibility that the rulers of this age in 1 Cor. 2:8 were demons or spirits (if influencing real people), but it’s more difficult for me to think that their actions took place above the earth on an imaginary Jesus instead of a real Jesus here on earth. In Paul’s letters, these spirits existed, but their activities afffected real people. For example:

          “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated” (2 Cor. 12:7).

          “What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 2:10-11).

          “We wanted to come to you -I, Paul, again and again- but Satan hindered us” (1 Thes. 2:18).

          I can also see this in the deutero-Pauline Ephesians and 1 Timothy:

          “[Y]ou once walked, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2).

          “By rejecting concience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith … whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20).

          Satan and his spiritual minions were imagined as acting in this world on real people. I suppose it’s possible that Paul could have also imagined them as crucifiying a mythical person above the earth, but it seems like it would at least be unusual for him to do this. But maybe I’m missing something. I can’t afford to buy books right now, so I’ll take another look at Doherty’s argument online.

  4. James wrote in another comment: “Is it really plausible that mythicists are the only people whose writings I somehow consistently fail to understand and do justice to?”

    How many other reviews has McGrath written where he confuses words stating what is about to be argued with summaries of previous arguments?

    I really do wonder if there is any review board of academic standards at Butler University or is this sort of standard openly welcomed as part of the world of academic freedom? McGrath does write as a representative of Butler and not as a private individual — according to the banner of his blog.

    1. McG: “Is it really plausible that mythicists are the only people whose writings I somehow consistently fail to understand and do justice to?”

      I’m not familiar enough with his work. Has he ever written a precognitive review in public forum, condemning a work he hasn’t yet read on a subject other than Jesus Mythicism? I might have thought by now Butler would have taken him to task for the Amazon embarrassment.

      1. To be fair to McGrath he did defend himself by claiming that he skipped ahead to read those chapters that he has not yet reviewed. I was misled by his constant refrain (until till that admission) that he was mystified by why Doherty kept postponing certain discussions and his inference that he was apparently content to wait till he came to them himself.

        On the Amazon review he defended himself by saying that one only needs to read a few chapters to know the whole book is rubbish. I am sure he would do the same of a bad scholarly book.

        1. McG. says in his review, “Evidence that runs counter to Doherty’s predetermined conclusion is dismissed or dealt with unpersuasively…”

          In order to make such a sweeping statement and be honest, he would have had to read the entire book.

          But on second reading, what strikes me more than the offhanded, perfunctory derision is the review’s complete lack of substance. We read reviews to get a sense of a book to see if we want to read it or not. As such, this review fails because it does what so many apologists’ reviews try to do — viz., to write a preventive harangue that offers comfort and assurance to the faithful that they needn’t bother reading such troubling material.

          Only 12 of 106 readers found McG’s review useful I think not so much because of its dishonesty or even its mean-spiritedness, but because of its failure to make a point (let alone prove one). It’s all insult and innuendo. Ironic, isn’t it, that he would use the tools of apologists and young-earth creationists in a review that compares Doherty to apologists and young-earth creationists?

          1. In McGrath’s reponse to my criticism (in a separate post here) one sees the same thing again. He writes at length about a point that is an aside in Doherty’s argument while completely avoiding the arguments Doherty does make — and even blatantly misrepresenting the selected little he does address as if it is the bulk of Doherty’s point. I get the impression he is trying to respond to past criticisms of his reviews by avoiding the most blatant ad hominems and quoting a little of Doherty now. But most of his quotations are not germaine to Doherty’s arguments at all.

            I really think McGrath thinks he has given a serious analysis of Doherty. He says I am complaining because I cannot accept his scholarly treatment of the book — as if I have never said a thing about his ignoring of Doherty’s actual arguments.

            When I quote him and Doherty together to show that he falsely claimed to quote Doherty’s summary of previous arguments he simply responds with word-games to weasel out of his obvious failing — and now says he merely quoted what Doherty said at the beginning of the chapter.

            He is a frenetic blogger, posting several posts a day. Perhaps he assumes people will not recall what he has really written or bother to check.

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