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
- Paul’s epistles (pp. 109-111);
- beliefs of that day about cosmology and demon spirits (pp. 111-112;
- ancient views of descending redeemers and saviour god myths (pp. 113-114);
- 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);
- the relevance of the early Christological hymns and later epistles attributed to Paul (pp. 117-119);
- 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
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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