Concluding my response to Dr McGrath’s “review” (sic) of chapter 10 part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Dr McGrath’s “reviews” (sic) of Earl Doherty’s book are what you get when a reviewer has made up his mind beforehand that he is going to read nothing but nonsense — except for any tidbits that happen to be repeats of mainstream scholarly views anyway — written by an ignorant charlatan whom he (the reviewer) is convinced has never engaged with the scholarship, is poorly read and only ever uses scholarly works tendentiously and dishonestly.

Approaching a book with this conviction will make it impossible to read the book on its own terms. One will be expecting to find rubbish and this expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will lead the reviewer to jump scornfully on sentences here and half paragraphs there and scoff before he has even taken the time to grasp what anyone else without “attitude” would read.

I know. I have done the same myself.

When I was beginning to leave a religious cult I picked up a book on how cults psychologically manipulate their members. I was still sensitive enough to be offended by such a suggestion and I read the book with hostile intent and wrote all sorts of objections in the margin. Years later I picked up the book again, with my pride having mellowed, and shook my head in amazement at how my notes betrayed a mind that was completely shut to what the author was really saying. My notes were testimony to my closed mind, not to any inadequacies in the book at all.

I list here McGrath’s objections to Doherty’s work with quotations from Doherty’s book that belie anything McGrath thinks he sees in it.

A year ago I posted the Ascension of Isaiah and highlighted the passages that demonstrate the thrust of Earl Doherty’s argument that this text is an example of the sorts of beliefs we find in Paul’s letters about Christ not being crucified on earth. Interested readers of this post will find that earlier post of some benefit in understanding the argument that follows. It is a complex subject and it is good to have some clear overview of the basics before one takes on the opposing arguments.

One man’s picture-frame is another man’s scaffold

McGrath begins by misinforming readers that the Ascension of Isaiah is “central” to Doherty’s argument that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in a dimension beyond earth and history.

Also central to Doherty’s argument is a work known as The Ascension of Isaiah . . . .

This brings us to the crux of Doherty’s views. Doherty’s entire argument for mythicism can be viewed as an attempt to regard some parts of the Ascension of Isaiah as both the key to understanding the New Testament, and the fountainhead of what eventually became Christianity.

Wow, now that makes the Ascension of Isaiah really critical. Surely sounds like if the Asc. Isa. goes so does Doherty’s entire argument.

But read what Doherty’ himself says about the place of the Ascension of Isaiah for his argument and wonder how McGrath could so fundamentally misrepresent his use of this text.

In a Jewish/Christian piece of writing called the Ascension of Isaiah . . . we can find corroboration for this picture of a divine Son who descends into the lower reaches of the heavens to be crucified by the demon spirits. . . .

The second section, the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11) . . . contains a detailed picture of the descent-ascent motif we have been discussing (Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 119)

So Doherty introduces the Asc. Isa. as “corroboration” and “illustrative” of the argument he has been making in the previous ten pages leading up to this 7 and a bit page illustration of, or supporting case-study for, that argument. In those previous ten pages Doherty makes his argument for the “where” of Christ’s sacrifice by a detailed analysis of

  1. Paul’s epistles (pp. 109-111);
  2. beliefs of that day about cosmology and demon spirits (pp. 111-112;
  3. ancient views of descending redeemers and saviour god myths  (pp. 113-114);
  4. the technical meaning of the “realm of the flesh”, the meaning of “the likeness of flesh” as found in Paul’s writings, in pre-Pauline hymns, in Hebrews and extra-canonical documents such as the Ascension of Isaiah (pp. 115-117);
  5. the relevance of the early Christological hymns and later epistles attributed to Paul (pp. 117-119);
  6. And after discussing the Asc. Isa. as an illustration of the of the argument from the above Doherty returns to his argument and draws together its fundamental message on the basis of Paul’s epistles and the Jewish and pagan thought world of the day.

That — points 1-5 — is where the central argument, the crux of Doherty’s views, is to be found. Yet Dr McGrath would lead readers of his “review” to think that Doherty had no such basis for his argument and relied primarily upon the Ascension of Isaiah as his foundation. That is false. It is disinformation. McGrath ignored Doherty’s ten page argument for the “where” of Christ’s sacrifice.

Thus Doherty concludes the argument of the Asc. Isa. with:

The progression in the Ascension conforms to the overall pattern we see in the Christian documentary record as a whole: the introduction of basic concepts of a Christ on earth being expanded into more detail. That progression is reflected and paralleled in 1 John’s . . . bare “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” to Ignatius’ basic biographical details about the flesh that had come, to an expanded life-on-earth picture in the epistle of Barnabas (though still primitive and mainly based on scripture), to the ever widening appearance of elements of the Gospel story as the 2nd century progresses. (p. 126)

That is, Doherty uses the Asc. Isa. as another case study in which one finds through the various redactions and interpolations across its complex compositional history another example, contained within a single document, of what all the other evidence suggests: that our documentary evidence of Christianity testifies, like successive strata preserving increasingly complex organisms, of a gradual evolution of the Christ myth. It begins as a bare bones “Christ died and rose”, is step by step augmented with additional details until we finally see the flourishing of ever more complex and graphic narratives in the various gospels. The Asc. Isa. encapsulates the evidence of this process in the one document that scholars have been able to tease apart into its various compositional sections and redactional history.

One man’s informed judgment is another man’s dishonesty

Dr McGrath skimmed over these complexities in the manuscript history of the Asc. Isa. but the information conveyed by the details of this complexity — and that Doherty made a point of explaining — are central to his argument concerning the Asc. Isa.I. McGrath has failed to understand or even notice this. Instead, he reduced all of this argument to a flippant, certainly uncomprehending accusation, that Doherty was merely “selectively” quoting the document!

All he does is selectively quote from versions of the Ascension as it suits him . . .

Doherty is not “selectively quoting” from versions in the sense implied by McGrath at all. McGrath’s claim is quite dishonest. Doherty is at pains each step of his argument to explain what section of the Asc. Isa. he is quoting from along with the scholarly rationale for his decision. He sets out the differences between the various manuscript lines as one can find in any comprehensive scholarly commentary: the Ethiopic manuscript derived from an earlier Greek version, and a Latin and a Slavonic manuscript, with explanations of the redactional histories in each, along with observations of redactional insertions over time as one can find again in most of the detailed commentaries.

The text to this point is different in the Latin/Slavonic manuscripts . . . 

Instead of the final sentence in the above quote, the Latin/Slavonic has . . .

At this point we can consider the earlier phrase in verse 13, noted above, which is not present in the Latin/Slavonic manuscripts . . .

But if a gnostic-oriented editor in the Ethiopic manuscript has had his fingers on this passage, as indicated by . . . .

Thus far we have encountered a piece of writing which is not only quite primitive, but even ‘non-Christian’ as orthodoxy is viewed. . . .

Now we can consider the next step in this evolution, as reflected in the Ascension of Isaiah, chapter 11 . . .

There are many arguments to be made that the latter version should be considered a later expansion . . . .

If we can accept that the bare alternative verse of the Latin/Slavonic version is closer to the original . . ..

There is another indicator that 11:2-22 is an interpolation . . . .

It is clear that the Latin and Slavonic texts are earlier . . . and that the Greek text behind the Ethiopic has enlarged upon an earlier Greek version lying behind the others . . . .

A document is being periodically revised (by multiple redactors in different versions) to reflect new developments in myth and doctrine. [Doherty’s argument is supported by the commentaries and I have used those commentaries myself to illustrate the same point made by Doherty himself: see Christ crucified by demons in the Ascension of Isaiah for an outline of both the Asc. Isa. and what lies behind Doherty’s argument.] The Gospels are a further advanced stage, although it is impossible to know if they owe any debt to the Ascension of Isaiah itself, or whether the ideas in the latter’s interpolation have been influenced by newly circulating ideas ultimately derived from Mark.. . .

The progression in the Ascension conforms to the overall pattern we see in the Christian documentary record as a whole . . . .

Doherty explains at each step of the way the evidence for certain words or sections being later gnostic additions to the text and his explanations are either in accord with or derived directly from the scholarly commentaries.

I can understand a professor being very busy and not having time to read all of this carefully and take it all in and to cross-check it with the major commentaries on the Asc. Isa. at the same time, but it is being quite dishonest to brush it all aside with the accusation of “selectively” quoting.

One man’s primitive is another man’s sophisticate

McGrath suppresses Doherty’s argument for some of the narrative in the Asc. Isa. being very primitive, certainly more primitive than the nativity scene in the Gospel of Matthew. McGrath says Doherty is wrong and and that his claim is implausible. But he won’t tell readers what are Doherty’s reasons for thinking this! McGrath expects readers simply to look up from reading the book, tell everyone it is rubbish, and expect them all to take his word for it. If one wishes to know what Doherty says that is so silly, McGrath ignores the request and moves on to the next point. He will not tell you. And this is the pattern of McGrath’s “reviews” from the beginning. And that is why it is misnomer to even call them “reviews”. They are denouncements, not reviews at all.

First, the Ascension of Isaiah in its Christian form has the descending Savior be transformed into the likeness of the various spheres into which he descends, including taking on the form of a baby in the womb of Mary. Doherty actually claims that the nativity account in the Ascension of Isaiah might be more primitive than that found in the New Testament Gospels, which no one who actually compares them will find remotely plausible. On the one hand, the Ascension largely follows and assumes the account in Matthew’s Gospel, while on the other, it adds to it secondary details of a docetic nature

Of course Doherty’s argument is that the nativity scene in the Asc. Isa. does not know about gospel narrative. McGrath interprets this silence in the Asc. Isa. with respect to the gospel narrative as meaning the author of the Asc. Isa. scene “assumed” a knowledge of Matthew’s Gospel! No evidence? — conclusion: the author and his audience knew it so well they didn’t need to leave any clues they knew of it.

Here is Doherty’s argument that McGrath does not want you to know:

The bulk of the interpolation of the Ethiopic 11:2-22 is, curiously, taken up with a primitive Nativity story, in which Jesus is born in Mary and Joseph’s house in Bethlehem. It is more primitive than either of the Gospel birth accounts, having no manger, shepherds, angels, Herod of magi bearing gifts. The child is born to Mary who has not been forewarned of the birth or even aware that she was pregnant. A few verses are then devoted to mentioning the performance of “great signs and miracles in the land of Israel” but with no examples given, to the children of Israel being roused against him, handing him over to the ruler (no one is specified, though Knibb does “assume” it is Pilate), and he is crucified on a tree in Jerusalem, to rise three days later.

The sequence of events in these verses is clearly garbled, which suggests that the passage was tinkered with after the initial interpolation, as more detail developed. The seams and discontinuities are evident:

19. And after this the adversary [Satan] envied Him and roused the children of Israel against Him, not knowing who He was, and they delivered Him to the king, and crucified Him, and He descended to the angel who (is) in Sheol.

20. In Jerusalem, indeed, I saw Him being crucified on a tree:

21. And likewise (how) after the third day rise again and remain (many) days.

22. And the angel who conducted me said: “Understand, Isaiah”: and I saw when He sent out the Twelve Apostles and ascended. [This is followed by verse 23, “And I saw him and he was in the firmament,” which brings us back (11:1) into the pre-interpolated text.] (I have reformatted this passage from a single paragraph.)

Not only is this disjointed, with things out of sequence and crudely put together, it betrays no usage of independent historical traditions. Rather, the interpolator has simply taken up and re-worked motifs that were present in the earlier, pre-historicist stage of the document itself. Satan envying, the children of Israel not knowing who he is, crucifixion on a tree in Jerusalem, the rising after three days: these are all motifs borrowed from the previous mythical layer of the document and recast into a primitive historical scenario. (p. 125)

One man’s engagement with the scholarship is another man’s heresy

McGrath disinforms readers by implying Doherty has a view that is actually the opposite of what he writes in this book.

The work (particularly in the Ethiopic version containing such details) is plainly on the trajectory towards docetism, and perhaps itself appropriately viewed as docetic. And so is best situated in the period in which docetism arose, which fits with mainstream scholarship on the date of this form of the work.

This is nonsense. McGrath clearly has no idea what the scholarship says about the Ascension of Isaiah and is merely spouting out ignorance here. He completely sidesteps the scholarly conclusions (cited in my previous posts) that the Vision portion of the Asc. Isa. dates from towards the end of the first century to early second century. Those same discussions point to docetic-like interpolations in later copyings and translations of the texts.

This criticism of Doherty is fatuous, as we can see when Doherty engages with the scholarly view (as published by Knibb) when he writes:

But if a gnostic-oriented editor in the Ethiopic manuscript line has had his fingers on this passage, as indicated by the 545 days, it is possible that the original text has been corrupted or enlarged (the line is not there at all in the Latin and Slavonic versions, indicating that it is indeed an insertion) to reflect a later docetic milieu.

So Doherty in fact argues — consistently with specialist scholars of the Asc. Isa. — that the docetic elements in the Asc. Isa. are later interpolations. McGrath has clearly not taken the trouble to acquaint himself in the scholarly commentaries on this document. Presumably he thinks his readers won’t be any the wiser. Moreover, if McGrath cared to skip ahead in the book — he has said he does skip ahead and knows any arguments of interest to him that will come later — he would know that on page 300 Doherty concurs with the scholarly view that Docetism is a later second century phenomenon. McGrath has since backed down from his assertion that the AoI was a late second century work, so his point about docetism also rightfully falls by the wayside.

McGrath then shows what is truly motivating him. He takes a swipe at mythicism generally even though the specifics are not what Doherty argues at all:

Mythicism could be viewed as an attempt to claim that docetism was the original form of Christianity, but on the one hand its case for that is not at all compelling . . . . (And the same obviously applies to docetism in general, which posits an entity appearing in human history who seemed human to observers but really wasn’t, not the purely celestial entity that is part of Doherty’s mythical account of Christian origins.)

Here McGrath is quite lost. Doherty in fact points out that the celestial view of Jesus quite naturally did not offer any reason for the rise of Docetism. Docetism was a reaction to the later post-Pauline narrative of Jesus having been in the flesh on earth. Docetists reacted to this by saying, “Okay, he was flesh, but only pretend flesh. Not real flesh.”

So McGrath’s assertion that “mythicism could be viewed as an attempt to claim that docetism was the original form of Christianity” flatly contradicts Doherty’s argument. We see that McGrath’s primary interest is in attacking mythicism. Making the effort to lay aside prejudice and read Doherty “as he is writ” is not on his agenda.


Those interested in following up the detail of the argument at stake here are invited to read my post in which I copy the Asc. Isa. highlighting the key phrases from which Doherty is drawing his understanding of the heavenly crucifixion, and that are from the earliest Christian (albeit non-docetic and non-orthodox Christianity) manuscript lines: Jesus Crucified By Demons (Not On Earth): —

In the above Doherty quote (where he says: “the line is not there at all in the Latin and Slavonic versions”) we read of the evidence that the docetic sounding phrases are later interpolations. A particular line does not appear in the pre-Ethiopic version. However, one small phrase from that line does appear there and to that extent Doherty has since qualified the above:

My statement, “he who is to be called Christ after he has descended and become like you in form and they will think that he is flesh and a man,” is indeed NOT present in the Latin/Slavonic manuscripts. Or anything like it. The latter lack the reference to Christ, as well as the key phrase about flesh and a man, which was my focus in that passage (JNGNM, p.122). . . .  Yes, one phrase imbedded in that Ethiopic verse is present in the Latin/Slavonic, and perhaps should have had more specific attention. Nevertheless, it can be encompassed in my remarks directed at the phrase “they will think he is flesh and a man,” something I dealt with in a thread on FRDB a few weeks ago. Namely, that the Ethiopic phrase is a later insertion “to reflect a docetic milieu,” similar to the nearby line about remaining in the world for 545 days.

It is important to realize that while I would maintain that the Latin/Slavonic versions represent earlier states of the text than the Ethiopic (that’s the key consideration here), I am hardly saying that the former represent in all respects the “original” text . . . . We have no clear way of knowing how much later editing is also present in the Latin/Slavonic texts, which are themselves based on an earlier Greek text of uncertain relationship to the one behind the Ethiopic.

Roger Parvus has expressed a different view of the place of Docetism, however:

In my opinion it is a mistake to see the Ethiopic version as being the earliest form of the text. The form represented by the Latin and Slavonic versions (L2 and S in RH Charle’s “The Ascension of Isaiah”) should be considered the earliest. One reason Charles chose to use the Ethiopic for his English translation is because of what he calls the “thorough inadequacy” (p. xxiv) with which the earthly life of the Son is treated in L2/ S. Apart from the Son’s getting crucified on earth, L2/S says nothing about his earthly life. There is not even a passing mention that he preached, or taught, or worked miracles.

I realize that this movement away from a docetic Son to a non-docetic one goes counter to Earl’s theory. Earl would like to postpone the origin of docetism until the second century CE. He claims, for instance, that “We see no sign of Docetism in the first century.” (p. 300 of “Jesus, Neither God Nor Man). But he can only do this by discounting what the early record tells us about Simon of Samaria. According to Irenaeus, Simon claimed to have “descended, transformed and made like the powers and authorities and angels, so that among men he appeared as a man, though he was not a man, and he seemed to suffer in Judaea, though he did not suffer.” (“Against Heresies” 1, 23). And subsequent Simonians continued in that same path. Satornilus, for example: “The Savior he assumed to be unbegotten, incorporeal, and without form, but appeared in semblance as a man.” (AH, 1,24). And it should be noted that this Simonian doctrine harmonizes well with the early hymn in Philippians 2: “Who, being in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to cling to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8).


One man’s heaven above is another man’s hell on earth

McGrath is walking on to a stage to present himself as the learned authority without realizing that among his audience are those who have read the script and know he is faking it when he says:

[E]ven works such as this one have the descending Redeemer take on the appearance of the spheres entered, and so in the forms in which we have it that include Christian components at all, the Savior appears in the human realm in human form. The Ascension of Isaiah therefore does not support Doherty’s claim for a crucifixion that takes place in a celestial realm.

This is somewhat breathtaking. McGrath completely ignores Doherty’s argument and merely asserts something he does not read (but only assumes) in the Asc. Isa.. Not one word about the narrative flow of the earliest strata of the narrative! Not one word about the scholarly views of stitching together independently composed and diverse narratives to create this composite text! McGrath gives readers nothing but an uninformed, unscholarly, naive reading of the final form of the text as if — contra all scholarship in the field — that was the original!

One can follow Doherty’s argument — and why McGrath’s contradiction is unsupported — in Jesus Crucified By Demons (Not On Earth).

One man’s scholarly engagement is another man’s ignorance

McGrath writes:

Like all other evidence, Doherty only cites the text selectively, and as usual he shows no sign of having familiarized himself with scholarship on this work, much less of having interacted with that scholarship in the necessary detail so as to draw persuasive conclusions and answer possible objections.

On the contrary, it is McGrath who has shown no familiarity with the scholarship on the date of the Asc. Isa. in his original post, and who shows no familiarity with the arguments for the different layers of text in the final product or when they were composed relative to one another, or of the details of the various manuscript lines. All of this is clearly comfortably handled by Doherty.  So again we see a classic case of McGrath projecting his own failings and ignorance into the one who really has mastered the scholarship and the document’s linguistic and ideological details.

Now I fully concede that mastering the intricacies of the Ascension of Isaiah takes some effort. These seven pages in Doherty’s book cannot be skimmed by the uninformed. They require attention to the details. I myself took some weeks to master it all and that led me well away from Doherty’s book and into inter-library loans, purchases of specialist literature and online articles, and burying my head in the details of what the scholarship has uncovered about this document. Some of the results of that back-checking can be found in various posts in my archive on the Asc. Isa.. But McGrath has had nearly a whole year since he last posted on Doherty’s book to become acquainted with the details Doherty discusses. He has failed himself and his less-informed readers.

One man’s diatribe with attitude is another man’s review

One expects a review of a book to give readers an idea of the book’s arguments. Dr McGrath has consistently failed to do that and merely used sections of Earl Doherty’s Jesus Neither God Nor Man as a launch pad for his own personal vendetta against mythicism. He at no point has informed readers of Doherty’s argument. He has even said that he has no intention of repeating the argument lest readers think his doing so lends it some respectability.

McGrath even often appeals to the lengths of his reviews as evidence he has dealt comprehensively with this book — despite the many words failing at any point to explain the arguments he opposes and expressing only his own vitriol against straw-man “reconstructions”. When I have pointed out that I have addressed his reviews comprehensively by comparing them point by point with what Doherty really does write, McGrath has objected that “just because you write a lot of words doesn’t mean you have addressed my points.”

A more classic case of Freudian projection I cannot imagine.

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8 thoughts on “Concluding my response to Dr McGrath’s “review” (sic) of chapter 10 part 2”

  1. You need to keep in mind McGrath’s purpose in the industry. McGrath is an apologist for the supernatural, that is… he attempts to keep interested in the idea that the supernatural is real and/or important. That is how he hopes to remain relevant and sell books. Once you understand this, you can get less upset when he says things that just freak you out.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  2. My thanks to Neil for a very able defense of my book against McGrath’s unconscionable “denunciation” under the guise of a “review.” As an allegedly reputable historicist scholar, one might understand McGrath’s underlying animosity to mythicism (though not forgive his incompetence and blatant bias in dealing with it), but it occurs to me that we have all met a handful of equally hostile historicists in secularist/atheist ranks (though few of them enjoy the status of ‘scholar’), who express the same degree of animosity and incompetence, Just a thought.

    Anyway, my one comment on the above has to do with Roger Parvus’ views on docetism, vis-a-vis my own. I think little reliance can be placed on Irenaeus, writing after 180, to accurately reflect the Simonian ‘history’, especially when any clearly docetic element to Simon’s beliefs is nowhere else witnessed to, even in Acts. The gnostic Gospel of Truth, likely datable to around 130 or so, reflects no docetic views of its Christ figure. We know the later apologists are notoriously unreliable on earlier Christian tradition.

    Personally, I regard the sort of thing Irenaeus presents as a common phenomenon in all sectarian expression. Irenaeus is very likely recording later attempts by the docetic movement of the second century to trace its views of Jesus back to ‘apostles’ at a point in time which is close to the Gospel Jesus’ own time. IOW, it’s an expression of 2nd century docetism’s version of an invented “apostolic tradition.” Parvus refers to this as “the early record,” but Irenaeus can hardly be styled as such, a century and a half after the legendary Simon.

    By the way, I regard his linking of 2nd century docetism with the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 interpreted in docetic fashion as erroneous. That hymn is clearly related to other supposedly pre-Pauline hymns, in which the others do not have any interpretable docetic elements; and I think I’ve demonstrated that it and they are best interpreted in the context of a cultic Christ of the Pauline sort which had no earthly Jesus at all, real or docetic. At best, if the gnostics had any real traditions about Simon, it may have originally reflected no more than certain mildly ‘proto-gnostic’ elements which even Paul shows signs of.

    Earl Doherty

    1. Earl,

      As you know, Irenaeus is the earliest extant proto-orthodox writing that is professedly anti-heretical. Many scholars hold that for his historical information on heresies he used Justin’s Syntagma (no longer extant). While it is true that Irenaeus and Justin’s claims cannot be accepted uncritically, I don’t think they can simply be dismissed as unreliable. For better or for worse they are the earliest anti-heretical treatises and, as such, must be given serious consideration.

      Personally, I doubt that Irenaeus was only, as you say, “recording later attempts by the docetic movement of the second century to trace its views of Jesus back to ‘apostles’ at a point in time which is close to the Gospel Jesus’ own time.” Throughout his Against Heresies Irenaeus is constantly reproaching his heretical opponents with inventing doctrines. Thus, for instance, “Every one of them generates something new day by day . . . “ (I, 16,1); They “make it their effort daily to invent some new opinion…” (I, 21,5); “They insist upon teaching something new . . .” (I, 28,1). And he uses the newness of their doctrines against them: “For prior to Valentinus those who follow Valentinus had no existence; nor did those from Marcion exist before Marcion; nor, in short, had any of those malignant minded people who I have above enumerated any being previous to the initiators and inventors of their perversity” (II, 4,3). To their innovative doctrines Irenaeus opposes the (supposedly) constant apostolic traditions of his own church: “Now all these (heretics) are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the churches . . . “ (V, 20,1). So I think that if he could have pulled it off, Irenaeus would not have hesitated to label docetism a late innovation too and call out some second-century heretic like Marcion as its inventor. He was not one to let heretical claims go uncontested, so I expect it was only with great reluctance that he conceded it went back to apostolic times, to Simon of Samaria himself.

      But I acknowledge that another reason I am inclined to see docetism as going back to Simon is my admittedly oddball view of the origin of Pauline Christianity. I am more and more convinced that Marcion’s assessment of the Pauline letters best explains their contents. And particularly attractive is how it can account for the apparent vacillation of the letters wherever they deal with the doctrines about which gnostics and proto-orthodox differed. Is the body basically good or bad? In the Paulines you can find passages to support either choice. Likewise on the issue of whether it will be resurrected and transformed, or left behind and replaced with in heaven with some kind of heavenly garment. And if the body is basically bad, did the Son of God assume one anyway? Or just some likeness (homoioma), form (morphe), figure (schema) of a body? And then there are all the contradictions one finds in the Pauline teaching about the law. As demonstrated by Heikki Raisanen in his Paul and the Law:

      ”Paul states in unambiguous terms that the law has been abolished… The abolition notwithstanding, Paul also makes positive statements which imply that the law is still valid”; “Paul implies that no one is able to fulfill the law . . . Nevertheless , (he says that) some Gentiles actually do what the law requires . . . No other NT writer shares the notion of the unfulfillability of the law”; “While generally holding fast to the divine origin of the law, Paul once in a heated debate also suggests that it was only given by angels and is thus inferior . . . The purpose of the law was a negative one: it was to increase and even bring about sin. This explanation of the origin of sin in the world of men clashes with the usual one, also given by Paul, that the dominion of sin is to be traced back to Adam’s fall . . . At some places Paul also presupposes that the law had a positive purpose as well: it was designed to lead men to life. This explanation runs counter to Paul’s assertions of an exclusively negative purpose for the law. . . To some extent Paul shares his difficulties in determining the purpose of the law with other Christian writers, but the tension between a positive and a negative intention is peculiar to him. No one else shares Paul’s radical association of the law with sin”; “Paul implies that the law is a rival principle of salvation . . . No other NT writer sees such a contrast between law and grace or faith”; “All these negative statements are made problematic because other Pauline statements contradict them. Paul’s most radical conclusions about the law are thus strangely ambiguous.” (pp. 199-201)

      As you know, Marcion claimed the original letters were written by someone who believed in a God higher than the God who, according to the Old Testament, created this visible world and gave through Moses his Law to the Jews. And Marcion held that someone had subsequently, by means of interpolations, woven into the text judaizing (i.e., proto-orthodoxicizing—please excuse the barbarism!) elements. Marcion’s assessment of the letters makes a lot of sense to me. It can obviously explain the doctrinal zigzagging in them. It was caused by the insertions of a judaizer (i.e. proto-orthodoxicizer—again, my apologies) whose aim was to neutralize the radical teaching present in the original texts. The insertions reflect Jewish notions about the supremacy of the Creator of the world, and the goodness of his creation (including man’s body) and of the law he gave to the Jews. But more importantly, Marcion’s assessment allows us to see that when the radical positions in the letters are considered together, the result is a remarkably consistent proto-gnostic system. That is to say, if their author believed the Mosaic law was given by inferior (and possibly evil) world-creating angels, that would explain why he takes the position he does regarding its negative purpose, and why he associates it so closely with sin. It would explain why man’s material body, as the work of these inferior world-creators, is intrinsically unfit for existence in the spiritual world of the supreme God. Its radical inferiority makes it incapable of transformation; it will be left behind and replaced with something different and better in heaven. And a material body is too inferior for the Son of God to have really assumed. He only had the “likeness” of one. Thus, I would argue that the radical positions present in the letters are not isolated and unrelated aberrations. They fit together reasonably well. And I would argue the resultant system matches up in many particulars with the system which, according to the earliest proto-orthodox heresy hunters, was put forward by Simon of Samaria and his followers.

      As I’m sure you know, the proposal that the original Pauline letters were subjected to an early and systematic set of interpolations was also made by a number of scholars in the 1800s. Allard Pierson and S.A. Naber, for instance, “claim to have discovered that the inconsistencies in the letters are due in the main to the presence of two strata of thought which have been worked together. The one is of a sharply anti-Jewish character; the other consists of milder and more conciliatory ideas” (Schweitzer’s Paul and His Interpreters, p. 124). Another scholar, Daniel Volter, disengaged in the letters “the parts which are mainly plain and practical from those which relate to an antinomian speculative system” (p. 146). Schweitzer had much good to say about their efforts but ultimately was not convinced, mainly because their criterion for separating the strata was arbitrary. Thus he writes: “Volter asserts that ‘simplicity’ is the mark of what is genuinely apostolic and Pauline. Since when? How does he know this? How, if it were just the other way round, and the strange, the abstruse, the systematic, the antinomian, the predestinarian represented the original element, and what is simple came in later!” (p. 147)

      But I am thinking that the use of a different criterion— early heretical history as related by the proto-orthodox themselves—is not open to the same objection of arbitrariness. The proto-orthodox themselves say that Marcion at some point came under the influence of a Simonian from Antioch named Cerdo. And it is the proto-orthodox who inform us that the base of operations both of Menander (Simon’s successor) and Satornil (Menander’s pupil) was Antioch. Does not this information provide a plausible explanation for how Marcion arrived at his largely Simonian understanding of the Pauline letters? The Pauline-Simonian connection is strengthened too by the document that underlies the PseudoClementines. It clearly puts words from Galatians into the mouth of Simon but never mentions an apostle named Paul. Justin too knows and repeatedly denounces Simon’s sect but never names Paul or his letters. Knowledge by Justin of the Simonian origin of the Paulines could explain that silence.

      I am aware, of course, that almost all scholars chalk up the doctrinal vacillations in the Paulines to other factors. One of the most popular is to just blame Paul’s personality. He was passionate, impulsive and probably even blissfully unaware of his contradictions. Raisanen himself explains Paul’s attribution of the law to inferior angels in Gal. 3:15-20 as due to anger and “latent resentment towards the law of which Paul was normally not conscious” (Paul and the Law, p. 133). He says Paul was “simply toying with an idea which, however, seemed too daring even to him—at least later on” (p. 133). In this scenario after Paul sent off the Galatians letter he stopped toying with his radical idea and reverted to the more orthodox viewpoint present in certain passages in Romans. I can’t prove, of course, that Paul wasn’t just toying with an idea. But to me these kinds of explanations seem pretty arbitrary too. I don’t see that using a historical criterion — Marcion’s assessment of the letters and his Simonian connection — compares unfavorably with any of the various tactical, developmental and psychological explanations that scholars continue to come up with in their attempts to make sense of Paul. (And in fairness to Raisanen, he acknowledges a number of times the speculative nature of such explanations. For instance: “We have of course very little hope of being able to penetrate into the psychic life of a person of the ancient world 2000 years later. Nevertheless, some psychological commonplaces are probably applicable” – p. 232).

      Finally, I want to briefly address the other items you mentioned:

      —I think it is questionable whether the Gospel of Truth reflects docetic views or not. As you know it contains that pesky expression “likeness of flesh” just like we find in the Pauline letters. So the issue is still: what did the author mean to convey by that expression? Personally, in line with my theory outlined above, I think it was the gnostic Christians, not the proto-orthodox, who correctly interpreted its meaning. I stand by my contention that Pauline Christianity was originally Simonian, proto-gnostic and included a docetic understanding of the “body” assumed by the Son of God.

      —It does not bother me that Acts does not mention Simon’s docetism, for It doesn’t mention ANY of the things he taught or claimed after he was baptized. The account appears to be deliberately open-ended, not saying where Simon subsequently went, what he did, what he taught, where and when he died, whether he immediately or ultimately abandoned Christianity, etc. Scholars are not even sure whether the author of Acts intended the final exchange between Simon and Peter to mean that his sin of trying to buy the power to confer the Holy Spirit was forgiven.

      —I have noted above that Irenaeus is the earliest extant proto-orthodox writing that is professedly anti-heretical. But, in general, our difference of opinion about what belongs to “the early record” may in part be due to our differences in dating the books of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers. Many of the NT writings that you date, in line with most scholars, to the latter part of the first century, I date to the second quarter of the second century, e.g. Hebrews, 1 Peter, James, and the Johannine letters. The only NT writings that I think can be securely dated to the first century are the ten Pauline letters and chapters 4 through 21 of Revelation. I’m not convinced GMark (which I consider the earliest gospel with a teaching, miracle-working Jesus) can be securely dated to the first century. And I date the Ignatians and 1 Clement to circa 140 CE. So, as I see it, the creation of proto-orthodox Christianity was a second century phenomenon. Most of the proto-orthodox creative and pseudipigraphal writing, forgery, and co-opting of Simonian literature took place between CE 130 and 160. That would mean that Irenaeus was only about 25 years late to their party.

  3. Roger, I appreciate your carefully thought-out analysis (and those of others) of the Paulines, but I still find it difficult to support much of your view. I don’t see the problem (and I see that you referred to others who agree with me) which many seem to stumble over in the inconsistencies and ambiguities contained within the ‘authentic’ Paulines. I have often observed even in my own ‘occasional writings’ (such as contributions like these to discussion boards) that I can lay different emphases within certain topics between different postings or boards. If I am defending myself against attack, I can find myself slanting my position or arguments in such a way as to aid that defense, depending on the threat level. This we all do. In a body of occasional writings like the epistles of a man like Paul, who at times could twist his arguments and statements in self-serving ways, I hesitate to deny him authenticity on that basis. This is simply human nature. Much of his ‘semantic range’ of opinions about the Law, for example, would fall into this sort of understanding. And when one is arguing in a field of thought (theology, etc.) which bears no relation to reality and no anchor in observable objectivity, it is easy to come up with different understandings and promotings of one’s own views at diffrerent times, especially when they come out of perceived mystical and revelatory experiences. Paul was not some ivory tower academic sitting comfortably at some desk who could be expected to carefully craft his writings with an eye to consistency, while under no pressure and no real threats to his personal interests.

    This is not to say that there haven’t been a certain amount of insertions and editings at later stages, which could have had the effect of some ‘zigzagging’ of doctrine.

    Secondly, I have always maintained that if a forger or editor has an agenda, wants to get across an argument or an item of faith, he will do so in a more or less clear fashion. Consequently, I tend to reject any analysis of the Pauline corpus which makes it the product of Marcion or other gnostic promoter. For example, you say: “That is to say, if their author believed the Mosaic law was given by inferior (and possibly evil) world-creating angels, that would explain why he takes the position he does regarding its negative purpose, and why he associates it so closely with sin.” You give this a gnostic interpretation. But if that were so, we should expect that such a view of the creation of the world should have emerged specifically, not supposedly ‘pointed to’ rather obscurely simply by the negativity toward the world which that writer shows, since the latter could be explainable by other means, an explanation we could assign to an original author Paul. I find nothing in any of the Pauline corpus which states or even implies that the world was created by an evil sub-deity, which is what we would expect if the Paulines were a 2nd century gnostic product, let alone by Marcionites, as many suggest.

    You and others suggest that the “likeness” motif common to the epistles has a gnostic connotation, that Jesus was said to assume it because, in the gnostic aversion to being fully material and human, he could only “seem” to be human. But again, such an agenda ought to have led to much more clear treatment of Christ as a human being on earth, or possessing the semblance of one when he was on earth, but this is precisely what is missing in the epistles, even in a hymn like Phil. 2:6-11. Docetism is part of a Jesus on earth outlook, and we find next to nothing in the epistles which could convey that outlook. The epistles as a whole are a “pre-earthly Jesus” product, I don’t think that can be denied without reading into them things which are not at all necessarily there.

    I also think you are on shaky ground in thinking to defend the idea that Irenaeus in the late 2nd century could possibly have had access to reliable traditions about what Simon a century and a half earlier believed or preached. The record of Christian tradition about earlier times has too often been shown to be completely off the mark, or simply ridiculous. The apology known as “Quadratus” claimed that people resurrected by Jesus survived to barely a generation earlier than the writer, and even some of Irenaeus’ claims about times not too much earlier have been rejected. As for Justin not mentioning Paul, I have pointed out that Justin, like most of his fellow apologists of the 2nd century, came out of a stream of “Logos religionists” who did not have a sacrificial Son, and may either not have known Paul or his writings or did not pay any attention to them since they did not relate to their own faith. Justin only later adopted the Gospels he encountered as a record of the new idea of the incarnation of the Logos to earth.

    I’m not attempting to answer in depth, or even all of, the points you raise, but there is some food for thought here, though I won’t guarantee an ongoing discussion as I am still embroiled in my mother’s estate business. Anyway, this is a very deep and complex topic which needs a much broader venue than a Comments feature to do justice to.

    1. This exchange is thought-provoking. Understand real life cutting it short but I would be able to create a separate page for it (as with Ed Jones’ dialog) if that would make the comments easier to follow.

    2. Earl,

      I understand that dealing with your mother’s estate is keeping you very busy and that you really don’t have time at the moment for an ongoing discussion. But your response brought to my attention that there were a couple things I apparently did not explain well. So in this comment I just want to remedy that by providing some clarifications.

      First, you twice brought up and dismissed the scenario that the Paulines were a second century Marcionite product. I want to be absolutely clear that I am not arguing for Marcionite authorship of the letters. I completely agree with you that Marcion did not write the Paulines. As you say, if he had he would have laid out his system much more clearly. I think that the text of the letters when they came to the attention of Marcion was pretty much what it is today.

      But at some point Marcion became convinced that the text was not in its pristine state; that between the time the letters were written in the first century and the time he came to know them in the second some parts had been woven in, interpolated. And those interpolations, he asserted, were not innocent. They changed the meaning of the original letters. They Judaized them. The original letters, he claimed, had been written by someone who believed in a supreme God higher than the Creator god of the Jews. He set about removing the later elements, trying to restore the text as closely as possible to what he conceived its original state to be. (As you know, Marcion’s restored text of the letters is not extant. A small part of it can be reconstructed from comments made by Tertullian, Ephrem and others).

      As I explained previously, my suspicion is that Marcion was right. The proto-orthodox heresy hunters themselves acknowledge that there were heretics well before Marcion arrived on the scene, one of whom — Simon of Samaria — went back to apostolic times and was considered by them to be the father of Christian heresy and gnosis. The beliefs they ascribe to him and his followers are very similar to what Marcion claimed was present in the original Pauline letters. Thus, the original letters could have been Simonian, the earliest ones going back to Simon himself, and the later ones (the deutero-Paulines) to his later followers e.g., his successor Menander and Satornilus. I suspect that sometime before (probably very shortly before) Marcion’s time a proto-orthodox Christian came into possession of a copy of the letter collection and made sanitizing changes to it. The aim was to co-opt it for proto-orthodox Christianity. We know, for example, how greatly the proto-orthodox Christian Justin despised Simon. He was offended by his blasphemous demotion of the Creator God of the Jews and his denigration of the creative work and law of that God. What more satisfying revenge for the proto-orthodox than to turn the Simonian letters into proto-orthodox ones!

      To accomplish that kind of magic it would not have been necessary to do a complete rewrite. Any parts that were too obviously Simonian, of course, would have had to be changed or omitted, but to “correct” the rest would have only required the addition here and there of proto-orthodox doctrine. The resulting presence of two strata — “one of a sharply anti-Jewish character; the other consisting of milder and more conciliatory ideas” — would not have been considered a problem by the interpolator, for just as still happens today, readers would naturally find ways to interpret the radical stratum in light of the conciliatory one. Countless ways — and the effort shows no sign of letting up — have been put forward to try to make them compatible, to explain the zigzagging, even if it means, as I described in my earlier post, explaining the radical statements as the angry “toying” of Paul with ideas that he did not seriously embrace. The only interpretations of the radical statements in the letters that are considered “possible” are ones that also incorporate the offsetting conciliatory passages. Here’s a recent illustration, from Heikki Raisanen’s Paul and the Law, of what I’m talking about:

      “Paul states in Gal. 3.19 that the law was given ‘through angels’. Does this assertion amount to a denial of its divine origin? Albert Schweitzer indeed proposed the thesis that Paul systematically presupposed that the law was given by evil spiritual powers, the rulers of the old aeon. Obedience to the law was, therefore, obedience to these evil rulers.
      Whatever Paul may have thought when dictating Galatians — we will return to that question — his other letters render Schweitzer’s view impossible.” (p. 128)

      Thus, Schweitzer’s view is “impossible” because there are other places in the letters, especially in Romans, that call the law “holy” (Rom. 7:12), “spiritual” (Rom. 7:14), “good” (Rom. 7:16), “divine” (Rom. 7:22). And what is implied here is that Marcion’s interpolation claim is likewise impossible. But shouldn’t it at least rate a footnote? Something at least to the effect: “Of course, Schweitzer’s view is not impossible if the earliest critic of the letters, Marcion, was correct in his claim that the letters were interpolated. But it is impossible that Marcion was right.”

      I don’t want to come across as picking on Raisanen, by the way. I think his writings are very perceptive. And more than most scholars, he is not afraid to go where the evidence leads. To his credit, for example, he acknowledges that Gal. 3:20 is saying that God was not directly involved in the giving of the law. And that the reason the verse is regarded as a crux interpretum is “because interpreters are not willing to swallow Paul’s message” (p. 130). Another example: he acknowledges, in commenting on 2 Cor. 3:13, that “the logical conclusion from Paul’s ingenious exposition would no doubt be that Moses deceived his people…” (p. 57). But his failure to take the interpolation theory seriously ultimately leads him to resort to psychological explanations to account for all the contradictions, inconsistencies and tensions in the Paulines. That failure is understandable. He has an awful lot of company. How many scholars give a moment’s thought to whether Marcion may have been right?

      But getting back to the interpolator’s task: I want to also point out that he would not have had to insert anything from the gospels that had appeared in the meantime with a wandering, teaching, miracle-working Jesus in them. Again, same argument: readers would naturally assume, as still happens today, that the Jesus in the letters must be same one who in the later written gospels goes around Galilee and Judea teaching and working miracles. For who else could he be?

      Thus the interpolator’s task would not have been as complicated as it might initially seem. He was concerned especially to offset Simonian errors about the Creator, his law and his creation. It is in the passages dealing with these issues that we find the contradictions and inconsistencies. The rest would take care of itself.

      Second, you rightly pointed out an oversight in my summary: it did not explicitly address where in the letters creation of the world by an evil sub-deity is expressed. So I want to briefly remedy that. You write: “I find nothing in any of the Pauline corpus which states or even implies that the world was created by an evil sub-deity… ” I, however, would argue that in the text as it stands there are still several places where the Simonian belief protrudes that the world was made by evil sub-deities (plural), one of whom was the God of the Jews. The best place to start is again with the angels who, according to Gal. 3:19-20, gave the (sin-inducing) law to the Jews. Shortly thereafter, in chapter 4 of Galatians, Paul tells his Galatians brethren that if they accept the law’s stipulation of circumcision they will in effect be “turning back” (Gal. 4:9) to the “stoicheia” i.e., element-spirits. Many scholars recognize that the context establishes an identification of the element-spirits in Galatians 4 with the law-giving angels of Galatians 3 (e.g., Schweitzer, Loisy, Reicke, Percy, Caird, Gronemeyer, Limbeck). If so, these element spirits could be “the angels” who, according to Simon, “made the world and who, by their decrees, led men into bondage“ (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1,23,3).

      The word “stoicheia” had several meanings in the Greco-Roman period but, in regard to its use in the Paulines, James Dunn is right that “the long debate about the meaning of stoicheia should almost certainly be regarded as settled in favour of the elemental substances of which the universe was usually thought to be composed (earth, water, air, fire)”. Dunn notes that “this is by far the most common usage in literature prior to Paul” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 108). There is also general agreement among scholars that throughout the Greco-Roman period the four elements were thought to be in some way divinized or under the control of spirit powers. These powers were sometimes identified with the sun, moon, planets and stars.

      Understanding elements as being element-spirits or gods would explain how Simon/Paul could say that the stoicheia to whom the Galatians were turning back, by means of circumcision, were the same gods they previously worshipped as pagans. And it corresponds nicely with Simon’s teaching. He placed the God of the Jews among the angels who made the world. And he and his followers had such low regard for the material world that for them the angels who made it were on the lowest “rung”, so to speak, of the ladder of emanating spirits. They were right at the boundary where spirit involved itself directly with matter and presumably formed the elements from it. I expect that it was among these lowest sub-deities that Simon located his angels who made the world. Note the last position of the elements, for example, in the Ascension of Isaiah: “And then the princes and powers and angels and all the elements (omnia initia – Latin version) of the heavens and earth and the lower regions will worship you” (10:15; yet another interesting point of contact between the Paulines and the Ascension of Isaiah!). The Simonian world-makers are, I submit, the element-angels (and not, by the way, the demiurge. The earliest record of Simon’s teaching contains no indication that he ever used the word “demiurge.” Irenaeus only uses that word when describing Valentinus and his system. Apparently Valentinus was the first gnostic to adopt the demiurge from Platonism.)

      With the above understanding of stoicheia in mind, read again the passage in Galatians, noticing how God is clearly distinguished from the elemental spirits:

      “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and impoverished element spirits of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal. 4:8-9).

      Simon/Paul’s scorn for the material world would explain his scorn for the element spirits. And his description of them as “weak and impoverished” probably has in view the Son of God’s victory over them. If they are impoverished it is because the Son of God “despoiled” them of the souls of men by his victory. And because of their imposition on men of a law of bondage designed to cause and multiply sin they must also be considered evil. All in all, as noted by Hyam Maccoby, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some kind of proto-gnostic system is present here: “Paul regards obedience to the Torah as a worship of inferior powers. Indeed, in Galatians 4.3, Paul says distinctly that before the coming of Christ, ‘we’ (by whom he clearly means the Jews, i.e. ‘those under the law’, v. 5) were ‘in bondage under the elements of the world’. This is pure Gnostic language. Indeed, Paul seems to go even further, and to identify the angels who gave the Torah with the pagan gods previously worshipped by his correspondents. He hints at this by reproving his correspondents for ‘turning back’ (epistrephete) to the ‘elements’ when they succumb to persuasion to observe the Torah. Thus again this passage, far from showing Paul in controversy with Gnostics (the minority opinion), shows him arguing against Judaism in typical Gnostic fashion by ascribing the authorship of the Torah to inferior powers.” (Paul and Hellenism, p. 46)

      It will draw out this comment too long to go into why the “god of this world,” “Satan” in the Paulines should be identified as the God of the Jews, the chief of the angels who made the world. I think I’ve at least provided enough here to show where I’m getting the preposterous idea that, according to the original author of the letters, the world was made by lower sub-deities. I’ll just add in finishing, that if the interpolator left the “elements” in the letters, I suspect it is because, just as in English, it has several meanings. And its possession of several meanings means that his readers will naturally search for one that squares with his interpolated orthodox passages. Several meanings means one can always plausibly deny an interpretation that does not square with orthodoxy.

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