Response #1 to the good doctor’s “review” (sic) of a bit of Earl Doherty’s chapter ten

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by Neil Godfrey

Scene from the first (Jewish) part of the Ascension of Isaiah. (Imagine Dr McGrath sitting on the side watching that mythicist being sawn in half 😉

(belatedly — about 50 mins after original posting — added quotation from ‘The Origin of the Samaritans’ concerning the date of Asc. Isa.)

Coming hard on the heels of Dr McGrath’s public display of professional incompetence over his failure to understand the elementary principles of the Documentary Hypothesis, this is a double embarrassment for the professor. He demonstrates total confusion about the date of the composition of the various parts of the Ascension of Isaiah and in the end resorts entirely to the one passage many commentators are agreed is a late Christian interpolation and that has no relevance at all as a rebuttal to Earl Doherty’s arguments about the earlier portions of the text. For good measure he concludes with a swipe at Doherty’s use of the word “midrash” (yes, again) despite the fact that his use is in complete accord with what Jewish scholars of midrash themselves, not to mention a raft of his own New Testament colleagues, say about the Gospels.

Dr McGrath misleadingly titles his post Review of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man chapter 10 part two. It is not a review of the second part of the chapter by any means, and Dr McGrath effectively admits this. He left off the review of the first part of this chapter after covering the first 12 pages. But now he skips across the next ten pages to focus on the last 7.

I’ve finally found some time to post my second blog entry about  chapter 10 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus. Here’s a link to my first post about this chapter. Ironically, even though I have written far more already on the first 1/6 of the book than one would ever find written about an entire book in a printed review, some mythicists have still complained that there are details in the book that I have not addressed.

To paraphrase an expression Dr McGrath has himself used often enough himself: Just writing lots of tirades against a book chapter by chapter does not mean that one has addressed anything more than one or two points per chapter. I have in past posts demonstrated with a comparison of Dr McGrath’s “reviews” and Doherty’s own words that McGrath has chosen to entirely overlook the central arguments and key points of chapters, and even baldly claim that Doherty does not say or reference things that he most certainly does say and reference. The fact is, the complaints against Dr McGrath’s reviews have focussed on the intellectual dishonesty that runs through them all in that they regularly accuse Doherty of not saying or addressing things he clearly does say and address, and of creating completely misleading ideas of Doherty’s arguments by omitting entire arguments that belie McGrath’s false allegations.

Since those complaints are a smokescreen trying to distract from the fact that the book’s shortcomings are so bad that they undermine anything positive that could be said about the book, presumably there is no point in trying any longer to be as comprehensive as possible.

One has to ask for whose benefit Dr McGrath has been writing these reviews. He says here the complaints “of a few mythicists” have led him to change his approach. Was he really doing these reviews all along primarily for the benefit “of a few mythicists”? I doubt it. I suspect McGrath has finally tired of attempting to maintain the appearance of comprehensive chapter by chapter reviews — efforts that were regularly rewarded with prompt exposures of his incompetence (one dare not suggest dishonesty) with each review — and now is going to select bits here and there in the book he feels he can use as a springboard to attack mythicism.

In other words, if readers of his reviews were given a completely false impression of Doherty’s book till now, from now on they will not be given any overview of the chapters at all.

I don’t know how such an exercise can possibly be called “a review”.

What good points there have been in the book thus far have typically been things that one can find in other books which consistently use a scholarly approach. And so from this point onward readers of this blog can expect me to focus entirely on the book’s many shortcomings, and can look elsewhere for other information.

Dr McGrath appears here to be saying that there is absolutely nothing Doherty has written that is “good” that is not found in other authors. Everything original Doherty has written is “bad”.

I have always thought it a truism that when you start to find nothing good or nothing bad in another then that is a sure warning signal that you are letting prejudice dictate your outlook. One is reminded of book-burning rationales. Anything bad in the book deserves to be burnt; anything good is redundant so the book should be burnt anyway.

This chapter at long last brings into the foreground something that is central to Doherty’s book: the question of where Jesus was believed to have been crucified (on earth vs. in a celestial realm). Also central to Doherty’s argument is a work known as The Ascension of Isaiah, which some have regarded as originally having been a Jewish text which Christian redactors made additions and changes to in order to adapt it to a Christian viewpoint, while others would say that the work is better viewed as resulting from the combination of Jewish and Christian works originally composed separately.

Dr McGrath appears to be confused here. There is no either-or of which I am aware. Scholars are agreed that the first 5 chapters are primarily an early Jewish text; subsequently Christian texts were written of the Vision and later still other Christians combined these and interpolated additional Christian passages into both halves.

That is, the first 5 chapters are virtually unanimously believed to be a first century Jewish text about the martyrdom of Isaiah. The remaining chapters are a compilation of later Christian additions. They speak mainly of the Vision of Isaiah. When these Christian and Jewish texts appear to have been combined into a single work a Christian redactor interpolated a sprinkling of verses throughout the Jewish section and added a large section, chapters 11:2-22, to the earlier Christian account of Isaiah’s vision. That is a very simplified but essentially correct overview. McGrath himself later says the textual history is very complex, but actually Doherty does address and explain the complexity very well — a pity Dr McGrath did not take the time to learn from him.

It is easy to overlook Dr McGrath’s apparent confusion at this stage of the post but later on we will see that it should be taken as a warning indicator that there is much more to come. Dr McGrath clearly has never seriously studied the Asc. Isa. before and there is much evidence he is struggling to make a coherent argument. (It took me quite some time and re-reading many commentaries before I could be sure I could grasp the many references to the various manuscripts in the different languages, of the Asc. Isa., but the basics are not difficult to follow.) In the end Dr McGrath will rely for his own “rebuttal” of Doherty entirely on the one passage all scholars declare to be a very late second century forgery that is completely irrelevant to Earl Doherty’s argument.

He continues:

There are several places online where one can read the text in English translation in whole or in part. The manuscript tradition is varied, and trying to solve the textual and literary issues is fraught with complexities.

I don’t know if many readers of Doherty’s work would agree that the Asc. Isa is “central” to Doherty’s argument, though it is a noteworthy addition to it. Doherty devotes 7 or 8 packed pages to it here and makes about half a dozen other references to it (pp. 6, 100, 112, 126, 155, 256-7, 609) throughout a 700 page argument.

But if the oldest Jewish core is found in chs.1-5, there is no basis therein for Doherty’s claims about the pre-history of Christianity.

This is a mysterious statement. Doherty does not discuss chapters 1-5 — and certainly makes no use of them for any claims about “the pre-history of Christianity”.

Perhaps Dr McGrath would like to explain what he meant by this statement since it appears to me to be quite irrelevant and misleading in its suggestion that chapters 1-5 somehow undercut anything Doherty says.

The Christian version is dated by scholars to the second half of the second century at the earliest, and Doherty does not even address that conclusion or show awareness of it, much less present anything that might justify disagreeing with it.

Whenever I read scholarly reviews by reviewers who lament that an author has failed to address recent or significant scholarship in a field, I am sure I always find that the reviewer names the scholars and works that should have been addressed. But Dr McGrath criticizes Doherty for not showing awareness of scholarly arguments that date the Christian version of the Asc. Isa to the second half of the second century at the earliest” without mentioning the scholarship to which he is referring.

What I think Dr McGrath is confusing here is the date of the final redactions of the Asc. Isa complete with very late Christian interpolations that are quite irrelevant to Doherty’s arguments.

Indeed, I suspect Dr McGrath’s source for his information about the date that scholars affirm is taken from one quotation on Peter Kirby’s online earlychristianwriting’s site (my emphasis):

C. Detlef G. Müller writes (New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 2, pp. 604-605):

Composition and date: in its present form the Ascensio Isaiae is a Christian work, which was put together at the earliest in the second half of the 2nd century. It was intended to combat, in the manner of an ancient apocalypse, certain contemporary evils, the lack of discipline and the divisions in the Church. One cannot however fail to recognize that the work takes up traditions already in existence and makes them serve its purpose.

If so, then when Dr McGrath blames Doherty for not addressing this particular date and for not presenting any argument to counter it, he is surely demonstrating gross incompetence or bloody-minded harshness as a scholar. The date of the final collation of the various parts of the Asc. Isa into the final Christian form has no relevance at all to the sections of the Ascension that Doherty uses as the basis of his argument.

In fact, if Dr McGrath was using the above reference as his source (and the wording he uses is very similar) then he stands professionally derelict for not also addressing what the same author said in the second paragraph:

The oldest part may be this martyrdom of Isaiah – a document of Jewish origin which uses material the existence of which is attested by Heb. 11:37.

That is a reference to the first 5 chapters of Jewish origin, but more significantly is C. Detlef G. Müller’s statement about the one section which McGrath selects for his source of all the passages he uses to “refute” Doherty’s argument — chapter 11:2-22:

Here XI 2-22 is an additional interpolation which makes more precise an already Christian document of the 2nd century.

I cannot believe that Dr McGrath would rely on this sole one section (as we will see that he does) that many scholars declare to be a late interpolation or addition to the text in order to supposedly refute Doherty’s argument that is based on portions of the text that are almost uniformly dated much, much earlier.

And Dr McGrath accuses Doherty of “selectively quoting” from the Asc. Isa!

It appears Dr McGrath has as much scholarly awareness and knowledge of the Ascension of Isaiah as he does of the Documentary Hypotheses. (Tim Widowfield recently demonstrated his ignorance in the most basic understanding of the nature of that hypothesis.)

I don’t know if McGrath actually read any of the the other online sources that he links to, or if he did but disagrees with them all but for some reason won’t explain why he disagrees with them, but I cite below what they all say about the date of the Asc. Isa, and in particular the dates of the key passages critical to Doherty’s argument.

I will end this post after this range of scholarly views on the date of the relevant sections of the Ascension, most of which are taken from the pages linked by Dr McGrath himself.

From TexExcavation:

James Charlesworth writes: . . . . The first writing is Jewish, dating from around the second century B.C., and the other two are Christian, having been composed around the end of the second century A.D. A few scholars think that all three compositions already existed in the first century (Charles in APOT 2, pp. 157f.; Box in Charles’ The Ascension of Isaiah, pp. x, xiii; E. Hammershaimb, no. 914, p. 19), and it is conceivable that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews knew the Martyrdom of Isaiah (see Heb 11:37), but it should not be forgotten that Isaiah’s martyrdom is also recorded in the Lives of the Prophets (see below).

Jonathan Knight comments on the date of the Ascension of Isaiah: “It is difficult to date the Ascension of Isaiah with precision but helpful to specify some parameters which can determine any decision. It is argued here that the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan in c. 112 CE explains many of the allusions in the First Vision. This means that the apocalypse was probably not written before the second decade of the second century CE, but it is difficult to say how much later than this it appeared. Perhaps a few years must be allowed for Pliny’s procedure to have been adopted by governors in other parts of the Roman empire. Given that the First Vision alludes to the myth of Nero’s return (4.4), as does Book 5 of the Sibylline Oracles (see below), the material may have been written as late as the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132-135 CE) but probably not later than the death of Hadrian (138 CE). A number of differences from the Gnostic literature indicate that the Ascension of Isaiah was written before 150 CE, the date of the earliest Gnostic writings. The apocalypse may thus provisionally be assigned to the period 112-138 CE, and it may possibly come from the period before the Second Revolt.” (The Ascension of Isaiah, p. 21)

From Early Christian Writings:

This is the page from which it appears Dr McGrath drew his information for a supposed late second century date. The same page includes quotations from M. A. Knibb:

Of the first 5 (mostly Jewish) chapters again:

There are a number of indications which point to the view that 3:13-4:22 was composed at about the end of the first century A.D. This section of the Ascension is clearly later than the death of Nero in A.D. 68 because it refers to the expectation that Nero would come again as the “Antichrist” (see 4:2b-4a); presumably a little time would have been needed for this belief to develop, and this suggests a date at the earliest toward the end of the first century.

. . . . the similarities with these writings likewise suggest that 3:13-4:22 dates from about the end of the first century. Two other pieces of evidence also point towards this date. . . .

More significantly for our purposes, the date of the Vision:

The date of the Vision of Isaiah is rather more difficult to determine. The fact that Jerome refers to 11:34, and that Epiphanius gives a quotation of 9:35f., suggests that this part of the Ascension was in existence, at the latest, by the end of the third century A.D. But it is probably much older than the third century. The Acts of Peter 24, which dates from the second half of the second century, appears to quote 11:14, while the narrative of the miraculous birth of the Lord in 11:2-16 shows some similarities with the Protevangelium of James, a work attributed to about A.D. 150. It thus seems likely that the Vision comes from the second century A.D. The date of composition was carried back even earlier (to the close of the first century) by Charles, because he believed that 11:16 was quoted in Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 19, “And hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her child-bearing and likewise also the death of the Lord.” But it is not at all clear that Ignatius really is quoting from the Ascension.

(I am not sure if Charles revised his views or if there is a misunderstanding here because everything I read by Charles himself says he does not accept the Ignatius qualifier. Perhaps I have misunderstood something.)

So there is uncertainty and debate. We will see in the continuation of my response the means by which Doherty infers date at the turn of the century. But for now I will continue what the other online sources posted by Dr McGrath say:

Magnar Kartveit, The Origin of the Samaritans

The date of the Ascension of Isaiah has been difficult to agree upon, but the late first century C.E. seems probable for the first five chapters, except for the later addition of 3:13-5:1a. Justin Martyr and Tertullian knew the tradition that Isaiah was sawn in half, and Hebrews 11:37 may testify to the same tradition. The second part of the book, chs 6-11) is later, but the second century is not an unlikely date.

István Czachesz, ”
The Coptic and Old Slavonic versions of the Ascension of Isaiah: Some text-critical

This article does not touch on the date of the composition of any part of the text. It only addresses the dates of the later translations that gave rise to our present manuscripts.

From The Jewish Encyclopedia: (Dr McGrath linked to this in his first paragraphs.)

From internal evidence, as well as from quotations in writings of the second and following centuries, it is safe to conclude that the three parts of the book were written during the first century C. E.

From R. H. Charles: (See comprehensive notes detailed here.)

The later recension of this vision (G2) was used by Jerome (p. 8 note), a more primitive form of the text by Hieracas (p. 67 note), according to Epiphanius (Haer. lxvii. 3), by the Archontici (Haer. xl. 2).    This shows that the book was in circulation towards the close of the third century. But it is much earlier attested by the Actus Petri Vercellenses (p. 77 note). This takes the Vision back to the second century, or at latest to early in the third.    The Protevangel of James was apparently acquainted with it (see notes on xi. 4, 8, 1 1), and I do think it is reasonable to explain the agreement between Ignatius, ad Ephes. xix. and xi. 16 (see note), otherwise than that the former is dependent on the latter.    Thus the composition of the Vision in its primitive form G belongs to the close of the first century.

Not cited by McGrath —

H.F.D. Sparks from his commentary:

And the actual date is in all probability very much earlier. Indeed Charles committed himself to a date in ‘the latter half of the second century’ and went on to claim that the three ‘constituents . . . circulated independently as early as the first century’.
Charles may very well be right. (pp. 780-1)

From Knibb further

Jerome refers to 11:34

Epiphanius quotes 9:35f

Hence “this part of the Ascension was in existence, at the latest, by the end of the third century A.D. But it is probably much older than the third century.” (p. 150)

Acts of Peter 24 (dated to second half of second century) appears to quote Ascension 11:14.

Protoevangelium of James (dated around A.D. 150) contains similarities to the narrative of the miraculous birth in the Ascension 11:2-16.

It thus seems likely that the Vision comes from the second century A.D.

So Knibb sets this part of the Ascension later than Charles (and Sparks), with this explanation that centres around Ignatius:

The date of composition was carried back even earlier (to the close of the first century) by Charles, because he believed that 11:16 was quoted in Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 19, “And hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her child-bearing and likewise also the death of the Lord.” But it is not at all clear that Ignatius really is quoting from the Ascension. (p. 150)

It should be added that Charles had another reason for resisting the mid second century date here, and that was what he considered the unlikelihood of Christians seeking to make use of a Jewish text in a time of strong hostility against Jews and things Jewish.

So much for Dr McGrath’s faulting Earl Doherty for not addressing a so-called late second century date for the Ascension of Isaiah. The late second century date only applies to the time the various texts were combined into a single document and almost certainly is the same time that 11:2-22 was added — the only section Dr McGrath will use in order to “refute” Doherty’s arguments about the text.

To be continued.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Response #1 to the good doctor’s “review” (sic) of a bit of Earl Doherty’s chapter ten”

  1. Any chance to show the source of this interesting picture? And the reference in the text for the illustration?
    The mark in the corner reads “BRITISH LIBRARY” and some words in the manuscript seem to be French.
    No trace of this image in Wikipedia or through Google Images.
    Can we get more clarification?
    I think it is fair to us readers to know the source and the meaning of this illustration.

    1. I don’t follow the V, 11-14 reference, sorry. As for details of the manuscript check there’s a link to a “detailed record” to the left of it the image — you’ll find all the details in there, I believe.

      1. This is Ch. V, 11-14 of the text of “The Ascension of Isaiah” posted in Early Christian Writings:


        CHAPTER V

        11. And they seized and sawed in sunder Isaiah, the son of Amoz, with a wooden saw.

        12. And Manasseh and Belchira and the false prophets and the princes and the people [and] all stood looking on.

        13. And to the prophets who were with him he said before he had been sawn in sunder: “Go ye to the region of Tyre and Sidon; for for me only hath God mingled the cup.”

        14. And when Isaiah was being sawn in sunder, he neither cried aloud nor wept, but his lips spake with the Holy Spirit until he was sawn in twain.

  2. On further reflexion, I think that, in the same way Vridar prides itself, for the cause of impeccable scholarship, in giving accurate historical references to every text quotation, the same care of accurate referencing should apply to all illustrations used in the site.

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