2011-08-24

McGrath’s further defence of his review and responses to my criticisms

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Dr James McGrath has written another defence of his review in response to my discussion of it and I think it would be useful to post it here so it can sit beside my criticisms. I am still trying to understand the hostility towards mythicism as well as the apparent inability of even some of the most educated among us to minimally comprehend what they read in its defence.

At least it must count in Dr McGrath’s favour that he is willing to even look at mythicist works outside his normal scholarly exchanges. At least one other blogger is not even interested in doing that much though he is at the same time quite prepared to denigrate the character and works of authors he has never met or read simply because they are not published in the scholarly arena. And this blogger sometimes murmurs sympathetic noises towards mythicism. It looks like he needs to protect his standing with the scholarly community by denouncing the “unclean” outsiders. Compared with one like that one has to appreciate Dr McGrath’s willingness to at least read Doherty’s book.

But I am coming to believe that there is nothing I can say, or that any mythicist can say, that will in the present circumstances make any dent in Dr McGrath’s beliefs, attitudes, and inability to comprehend what he reads of mythicist arguments. I wonder now if his mind is made up and whatever he reads or hears will only confirm what he believes because that he cannot read or hear a mythicist point any other way. I might be quite wrong since I am trying to reach back into my own experience and nature to understand his. I once read a book that I found myself disagreeing with totally. I wrote indignant notes in the margins declaiming the author’s ignorance and shallow understanding of the issues, etc etc. Years later I looked again and saw how I agreed with everything the author wrote and how incapable I was of comprehending and accepting what he said the first time I read his book. The reason was simple. The book was addressing something that I was still very close to, that had been a core part of my identity for many years. It took me a long time before I could gradually wean myself off my past allegiance to that old self and accept how utterly wrong I had been about something once so important to my identity. The funny thing was that at the time I first read this book I knew I had been wrong, but I did not want someone else telling me just how wrong, or that I was wrong-er even than I could believe. It’s like family. I am free to argue with a close family member, but don’t you dare say a word against them!

Anyway, enough of that. What I write is written for those not trapped in one way of thinking but who are open to exploring new idea and who do not hold to any belief about Jesus (mythicist or historicist) with the arrogance of the ignorant. One thing most people who learn most know is that the more they learn the more they know how little they know.

McGrath’s criticisms and defence

Dr McGrath does not actually address the detail of my criticism but says he has studied my post with a view to finding the “essence” of what I write. Nothing wrong with that, so long as one does not overlook the obvious detail, too. Otherwise a search for an “essence” may end up as fruitless and misguided as those searches of an older generation that sought to understand the “essence” one of a different race or class. Such searches generally uncovered just what the searchers were looking for, unfortunately.

So I have copied his second defence below but I have also copied the points again in context against my original post beneath that. There I have greyed out the sections McGrath does not touch upon. McGrath’s criticisms are in this coloured bold.

You misunderstand my point about celestial saviors. Doherty spends a lot of time saying that “this is what people back then believed.” But since not everyone thought in these terms, nor did everyone who thought in such terms focus only on celestial figures, unless he were to show that early Christianity more closely resembles those groups with a purely celestial focus, what has he accomplished?

This sounds like an interesting possibility for a study. But of itself it does not address the positive thesis that Doherty does advance and that certainly has accomplished much. Had earlier book reviews addressed Doherty’s arguments and not sidestepped them for fear, as the reviewer confessed, for making mythicism sound reasonable or acceptable, the positives would be more obvious to him. In one earlier response I attempted to fill the gap in this respect left by the reviewer and was told I had made mythicism sound plausible — and “therefore” what I wrote was a joke.

 

 

As you presumably know full well, Doherty is not offering a balanced discussion of the influence of Platonism on early Christianity. There are plenty of those, really good ones, in the scholarly literature. He is trying to shoehorn all of early Christianity into a particular understanding of Platonism and a particular understanding of the implications of Platonism for how to understand early Christianity.

I would like to know what McGrath can single out in Doherty’s discussion that is unbalanced or inaccurate. This sort of sweeping accusation is meaningless without supporting evidence.

 

You seem to come close to actually recognizing problems with Doherty’s claims. And at that point, rather than offer criticism, you claim that my hostile attitude prevents you from doing so. But in fact, I have been more than willing to express appreciation of Doherty’s point on some occasions, whereas your treatment of him you admit to be uncritical, and my own criticisms provide no justification for your own uncritical stance.

So close, yet so far. McGrath speaks of his criticisms providing no justification for my supposedly uncritical stance.

Firstly I am hardly in the position of being an uncritical supporter or advocate of Doherty’s book by simply pointing out what Doherty does write when I can see that the reviewer has failed to understand him or worse. Doherty knows I disagree with him in some areas, and I have expressed those disagreements with him publicly. But my purpose here is to not let what I believe is a totally jaundiced reading of Doherty go unanswered. That is not being uncritical with respect to Doherty. It is being critical of the reviewer and an attempt to demand what in Australia we call a fair go.

Secondly, McGrath says here two different things. It is not his criticism that I use as justification for not expressing my own critical views of Doherty’s book. It is McGrath’s hostile attitude that he seems to accept he has. (And also the fact that my purpose here is to place on record a response to what I believe is unfair treatment of Doherty’s book.) The tidbits of appreciation that McGrath have offered have been mere banalities.

 

Then, after an outburst of swearing, you write “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.”  But that isn’t what Doherty did. He quotes from Hooker’s treatment of interchange – which presupposes and requires a human Jesus – as though it supports his own understanding. It is not some other point but the meaning of the quoted words in their original context that Doherty disagrees with. That is not legitimate, in my opinion.

I disagree. But claim and counter-claim is pointless. If anyone is seriously interested I might take the time to quote the paragraphs in question. (Is “bollocks” really an outburst of swearing? Don’t step outside your sanitized ivory tower, — but then again I do happen to recall a renowned Sheffield biblical scholar accidentally (presumably — it only happened the once) sending me a pornographic email, and another renowned Sheffield biblical scholar responding to my review with more colourful language. I trust McGrath has no truck with such types. They’re probably all godless atheists in Sheffield anyway so what does one expect!)

 

You then write, “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. ” No, Doherty acknowledges that in at least one other context, Paul uses the same term for “rulers” for terrestrial ones, and the specific phrase “rulers of this age” may not be Pauline. I do not dogmatically insist that the mainstream interpretation is the right one, I point out that Doherty has rejected it because of a false antithesis that no one thinking about the matter reasonably will accept.

There is no false antithesis involved in his argument at all. He does not even argue on the basis of an antithesis! He is not arguing “It either means A or B and for these reasons I believe it means B and therefore not A” — that is how McGrath appears to be (mis)understanding Doherty’s reasoning. It is not an either/or argument at all. I recently quoted some of the depth of the argument as it pertained to a discussion by Origen and McGrath simply responded as if all of that was fiddlesticks. No, it’s not. The argument is about what Paul understood by the term, and what the contextual evidence indicates about this, as well as the evidence for the exegesis from Paul’s time onwards until one finally reaches the common understanding we all have today.

I’ve addressed some of the other points already. You seem to genuinely believe that what you offer is a response and even a rebuttal, but you seem to either misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent not only me but even what Doherty wrote. But your belief doesn’t make it so, or require others to regard it as such.

If I misrepresent you then I will correct what I write. But I do try to avoid that as much as possible by quoting you and your criticisms as fully as possible — usually in full — along with significant extracts from Doherty so readers can compare your words about Doherty with Doherty’s own words. Is that misrepresentation . . . ?

The context

 

 

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.

You misunderstand my point about celestial saviors. Doherty spends a lot of time saying that “this is what people back then believed.” But since not everyone thought in these terms, nor did everyone who thought in such terms focus only on celestial figures, unless he were to show that early Christianity more closely resembles those groups with a purely celestial focus, what has he accomplished? As you presumably know full well, Doherty is not offering a balanced discussion of the influence of Platonism on early Christianity. There are plenty of those, really good ones, in the scholarly literature. He is trying to shoehorn all of early Christianity into a particular understanding of Platonism and a particular understanding of the implications of Platonism for how to understand early Christianity.

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.)

You seem to come close to actually recognizing problems with Doherty’s claims. And at that point, rather than offer criticism, you claim that my hostile attitude prevents you from doing so. But in fact, I have been more than willing to express appreciation of Doherty’s point on some occasions, whereas your treatment of him you admit to be uncritical, and my own criticisms provide no justification for your own uncritical stance.

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)

Then, after an outburst of swearing, you write “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.”  But that isn’t what Doherty did. He quotes from Hooker’s treatment of interchange – which presupposes and requires a human Jesus – as though it supports his own understanding. It is not some other point but the meaning of the quoted words in their original context that Doherty disagrees with. That is not legitimate, in my opinion.

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.

You then write, “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. ” No, Doherty acknowledges that in at least one other context, Paul uses the same term for “rulers” for terrestrial ones, and the specific phrase “rulers of this age” may not be Pauline. I do not dogmatically insist that the mainstream interpretation is the right one, I point out that Doherty has rejected it because of a false antithesis that no one thinking about the matter reasonably will accept.

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)

I’ve addressed some of the other points already.* You seem to genuinely believe that what you offer is a response and even a rebuttal, but you seem to either misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent not only me but even what Doherty wrote. But your belief doesn’t make it so, or require others to regard it as such.

* /2011/08/22/mcgraths-defence-of-his-review/

Enhanced by Zemanta

Related Posts on Vridar

Who’s “Rejecting Critical Inquiry̶... Dr. McGrath has taken me to task for my last post on "Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem." Actually, he's unhappy about several things. You c...
Leap of Faith or Failure of Reason? Accommodating the unaccommodatable I was taken aback when I saw that the pingback on my previous post, Miracles and Historical Method, was from the D...
I ask the following directly to Dr. McGrath in all... I am copying Tim's comment on a recent post here as a post in its own right. Some interesting backpedaling today on Exploring Our Matrix . . . McGra...
Appeal to Vridar readers re Dr McGrath Dr McGrath has a bee in his bonnet about mythicism and says a lot of crazy things about it and anyone who presents an argument for it or (in my own ca...
The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.