Bart Ehrman’s false or careless assertions and quotations concerning Earl Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

Edited an hour or so after original posting to add: And any reading of the broader content would have made clear to Ehrman that Doherty addresses a wide range of ancient world views; and much later, added a longer paragraph by Ehrman demonstrating his persistent misreading of Doherty’s words.

I don’t know how to portray Bart Ehrman’s erroneous claims — even false quotations — about what Earl Doherty has written in his book, Jesus Neither God Nor Man, in words that avoid all risk of aspersions on Ehrman’s intellectual integrity. But I will try. I intend to bring them to wider attention on this blog point by point over the coming months. They need to be addressed. Unfortunately Earl Doherty himself is tied up with medical treatments on his eyes and not able to respond himself as he no doubt will when he is able.

Here is just one of these Ehrmanisms:

. . . . in Doherty’s view, Paul (and other early Christians) believed that the “Son of God had undergone a redeeming ‘blood’ sacrifice” not in this world but in a spiritual realm above it.25

Doherty’s reason for this remarkable statement involves what he calls “the ancients’ view of the universe” (was there one such view?). According to Doherty, authors who were influenced by Plato’s way of thinking and by the mythology of the ancient Near East believed that there was a heavenly realm that had its counterpart here on earth. “Genuine” reality existed, not here in this world, but in that other realm. This view of things was especially true, Doherty avers, in the mystery cults, which Doherty claims provided “the predominant form of popular religion in this period.”26 (This latter claim, by the way, is simply not true. Most religious pagans were not devotees of mystery cults.) (p. 252 of Did Jesus Exist?, my emphasis)

Ehrman continues to repeat and underscore this aspersion — that Doherty is so simplistic as to speak of a single view of the world among ancients:

To begin with, how can he claim to have uncovered “the” view of the world held by “the” ancients, a view that involved an upper world where the true reality resides and this lower world, which is a mere reflection of it? How, in fact, can we talk about “the” view of the world in antiquity? Ancient views of the world were extremely complex and varied, just as today’s views are. Would anyone claim that Appalachian snake handlers and postmodernist literary critics all have the same view of the world? Or that Primitive Baptists, high-church Episcopalians, Mormons, atheists, and pagans do? Or Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists? Or Marxists and capitalists? That all of these groups have “the” modern view of the world? To talk about “the” view of the world in any century is far too simplistic and naive.

“the” (alleged) ancient view of the world—whatever that might be . . . .

Ehrman is clear. His footnote 25 is to page 97 of Doherty’s book, Jesus Neither God Nor Man.

Now compare what Doherty actually wrote on page 97 of Jesus Neither God Nor Man:

In the epistles, Christ’s act of salvation is not located in the present, or even in the recent past, and certainly not within the historical setting familiar to us from the Gospels. Christ had existed from before time began, and it was in a non-historical time and place, in a supernatural realm, that this Son of God had undergone a redeeming “blood” sacrifice.

To understand that setting, we need to look at the ancients’ views of the universe and the various concepts of myth among both Jews and pagans, including the features of the Hellenistic salvation cults known as “mysteries.”

Did you notice it? Doherty, on the page Ehrman is citing, does NOT speak of a singular ancient “view” of the universe or world. He speaks of VIEWS. Plural.

I rather would like to think that Dr Ehrman was more careless than dishonest. But at the same time there are times when carelessness is a culpable offence and justifies the charge of dishonest work. Ehrman had a review copy of Doherty’s book in front of him and is being trusted by a very wide audience to deliver an honest, scholarly assessment of it. And any reading of the broader content would have made clear to Ehrman that Doherty addresses a wide range of ancient world views.

Heavens above!

Compare also Ehrman’s characterization of Doherty’s view as a black and white claim that Paul pictured Christ’s sacrifice “in the spiritual realm above”, conveying a clear image that Doherty has a firm topographical setting in mind. But notice in the above words of Doherty to which Ehrman is referring (according to his footnote reference) that Doherty at no point mentions a topographical setting. If Ehrman had really read Doherty’s arguments that follow he would have known that they are far more nuanced than Ehrman portrays them. Note, for example, Doherty’s further explanations:

From the documentary record both Jewish and pagan (and there is more to survey), it is clear that much variation existed in the concept of the layered heavens and what went on in them, just as there were many variations in the nature of the saviour and how he conferred salvation. We should not be looking for exact correspondences between Paul’s Christ and Jewish sectarian systems, or between the features of the early Christian savior and those of Hellenistic mysteries. We can set aside the oversimplification of a direct and conscious copycatting between the Christ cult and its predecessors and contemporaries. But the obvious commonality of ideas both general and specific found across the ancient Mediterranean world is enough to allow us to recognize the Christian version of salvation as one more expression of the philosophical and religious thinking of the time, one more case of drawing on common ‘in the air’ ideas. . . . (p. 126)

Elsewhere Doherty is just as clear. He quotes philosophical discussions of old myths that do conceptualize them as either allegorical or taking place in undefined “spiritual realms”. I will address more of this in future posts.

WHAT is “simply not true”?

Note in this same paragraph yet one more curious “error of fact” Ehrman claims for Doherty:

This view of things was especially true, Doherty avers, in the mystery cults, which Doherty claims provided “the predominant form of popular religion in this period.”26 (This latter claim, by the way, is simply not true. Most religious pagans were not devotees of mystery cults.)

Ehrman tells his readers that Doherty’s words are simply not true. But notice he puts his own wished-for words into Doherty’s mouth here and quite astonishingly says Doherty has just said something he did not say! Doherty did not at all suggest that “most religious pagans were devotees of mystery cults.”

Doherty says that mystery religions were “the predominant form of popular religion in this period”. Every textbook and every work on Roman cultural history will tell you that. Ehrman is clearly reading Doherty with a jaundiced eye that twists what it reads into something fallacious.

One will also observe that Ehrman does not address Doherty’s detailed argument in the ensuing chapter but confines himself to Doherty’s introductory synopsis as the target for his criticism.

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  • Henk..
    2012-03-28 11:38:54 GMT+0000 - 11:38 | Permalink

    Its starting to remind me of Dever’s constant repositioning with respect to “neohistorians” and “nihilists”.


    • 2012-03-28 15:33:47 GMT+0000 - 15:33 | Permalink

      A friend of mine is getting a lecture by Devers next week, I gave him a stack of Thomas L. Thompson and Magee books to read.

  • 2012-03-28 12:33:50 GMT+0000 - 12:33 | Permalink

    It reminds me somewhat of McGrath’s treatment of JNGNM. Recall that our kindly doctor friend disagreed with what he didn’t understand even before he pretended to read it.

    You would think after years of unfair accusations heaped upon Bart by angry fundies that he’d be a little more careful* in his treatment toward others. Ehrman surely knows that among his audience his is the only side of the story the vast majority will ever hear. Public intellectuals with access to the mass media have the responsibility to get it right, since their opinion will be absorbed in the popular culture as the expert opinion on the matter.

    * Of course we must first assume carelessness and not malice.

    • 2012-03-28 13:09:44 GMT+0000 - 13:09 | Permalink

      Doherty is even more generous and has pointed out that near the end of page 97 he does use the singular “view”. He discusses “Platonic waters”, “pure Platonism”, and then contrasts this with more popular ideas: “But the more popular view, a melting pot of more than one line of thought and many cultural and religious backgrounds, was a little less pristine and a lot more chaotic.”

      So where Doherty does use the singular noun on the same page (and it is easy enough, he has himself pointed out, to mistakenly read a later word back into an earlier passage from memory) it is clear he acknowledges many different views of the world among the ancients. Besides, various “world-views” are addressed in detail in several places in his book, so one must wonder how Ehrman came to be so sure of a misconception of Doherty’s position that he repeated it three times in two pages.

      • Jason Goertzen
        2012-03-28 14:09:17 GMT+0000 - 14:09 | Permalink

        The thing that really bothers me about all of this is how dishonest it is to not recognize that Plato’s view of the world wasn’t some unique thing that he came up with on his own. It was derived of common mythological understanding of the day. Surely Ehrman knows this. He has to. First year Philosophy students learn this. So he’s going out of his way to be unkind to Doherty’s position.

        • 2012-03-28 16:27:37 GMT+0000 - 16:27 | Permalink

          I wrote in haste (again!) and see I overlooked making the point you have, thankfully, raised here. Ehrman is writing for a popular audience and the way he chooses his words makes it sound as if this Platonic view of the world is something that is Doherty’s idea; one might even think Ehrman is trying to suggest to readers to scoff even at this point made by Doherty, despite the fact that any knowledgeable person knows it is the standard account found in any basic text:

          According to Doherty . . . . Doherty avers . . . Doherty claims. . . .

          • 2012-03-29 07:13:05 GMT+0000 - 07:13 | Permalink

            It’s probably not even PLATO’s idea. It’s a general current in Meso-Mediterranean ideas about the arrangement of the Cosmos.

            I am starting to be convinced that, for all his textual study and linguistic knowledge, Bart Ehrman is completely oblivious as to the nature of ancient religion and mythology. Everything he says on it demonstrates that he still views it with Protestant goggles on, as a bunch of meaningless superstition that couldn’t possibly be related to the unique and intellectual religion of Christianity.

            Ehrman has gone from apologist to critic to apologist, and I think he’s permanently going to be stuck as an apologist – because he can’t see that his own work refutes any attempt to find a ‘historical Jesus’, even if he rejects the findings of the mythicists.

  • sahansdal
    2012-03-28 16:00:59 GMT+0000 - 16:00 | Permalink

    It is so painfully obvious that the problem in the West is that everything is upside down. The ancient’s “mystery cults” — even the name is so pejorative… The way Things are, is the way the “cults” saw them, more or less. Only the myth of Christ turned it all on its head — and ever since, starting with the Dark Ages, the West has been struggling to understand Reality. Now the Eastern mystics have the Truth, and they are IGNORED. All the scholars and commentators here are foggy in the head.

    • 2012-03-29 07:09:31 GMT+0000 - 07:09 | Permalink

      Cult is only pejorative in later times. Cult just means something like ‘a particular care or cultivation’. ‘Religion’ actually has a far worse literal meaning, akin to ‘fetter’ or ‘a tie that binds together’.

      • sahansdal
        2012-03-29 08:16:59 GMT+0000 - 08:16 | Permalink

        “Cult” has a very negative connotation TODAY. Christians tell me that I am in a cult, but would never accept that of themselves. If it means “counterfeit”, the shoe is on their foot, not mine. I am aware of “religare” meaning “to bind back”. That’s a good thing when one is loosed from Dada. So unfortunate that even the highly educated, such as my personal experience with excellent scholars like Dr. Robert Eisenman showed, are prejudiced against what they think is a “cult” experience, like Indian mysticism. It happens to be the true teachings of all Ages in our time. He told me “You will never get anywhere [with scholars] with that kind of stuff…” (as best I can recall over dinner in Costa Mesa). I have a long list of ignorantly dismissive comments from scholars. Elaine Pagels is the lone bright spot. I want to meet her.

        • 2012-03-29 13:49:45 GMT+0000 - 13:49 | Permalink

          Yes, you are definitely right about the negative modern connotation. Which is funny, because Christianity is absolutely bonkers and all over the place – largely due to the desire of the Catholicizers to cram every bit of incoherent nonsense they could into the doctrines and canon as it would allow them to usurp the other churches. The Cult of Sol Invictus was far more coherent and logical than any Catholic or Protestant denomination I’ve ever seen.

  • 2012-03-28 16:37:58 GMT+0000 - 16:37 | Permalink

    ‘According to Doherty, authors who were influenced by Plato’s way of thinking and by the mythology of the ancient Near East believed that there was a heavenly realm that had its counterpart here on earth’

    I assume Ehrman has read Galatians 4 which speaks of the Jerusalem above.

    And has Ehrman read Hebrews with its talk of tabernacles in the sky?

  • 2012-03-28 16:48:03 GMT+0000 - 16:48 | Permalink

    I have just added a fuller quotation of Ehrman’s words to the post illustrating the extent of the indignation he expresses over Earl Doherty’s supposed claim to have “uncovered the ancient view of the world” — putting his foot deeper and deeper into it.

  • sahansdal
    2012-03-28 18:01:10 GMT+0000 - 18:01 | Permalink

    sorry about the book cover. I didn’t know that would post!

  • Pingback: Något om Bart Ehrmans ”Did Jesus Exist?” « Jesus granskad

  • 2012-03-29 09:41:40 GMT+0000 - 09:41 | Permalink
  • 2012-04-14 14:20:01 GMT+0000 - 14:20 | Permalink

    A reader on James McGrath’s blog has suggested that Bart Ehrman was in fact quoting page 95 of Earl Doherty’s earlier book, The Jesus Puzzle, in which he does use the singular “view” in the earlier (and shorter) version of the sentence that appears in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man on page 97 with the plural “views”:


    The same reader at the same time points out that he has “not really read” The Jesus Puzzle (let alone JNGM). Context clearly means nothing to him.

    I have replied on that blog to this reader’s attempt to salvage something of Ehrman’s reputation — he insists Ehrman was not at fault “in the letter” and infers I have been too harsh on Ehrman..

    Baloney. Ehrman quoted “view” in the sentence adjacent to his footnote to page 97 of JNGM where Doherty writes “views”. Ehrman later footnotes to page 5 of The Jesus Puzzle to bring up his hostile non-sequitur trying to lead readers to think Doherty was saying most people in the Roman empire belonged to mystery cults. Ehrman nowhere cites page 95 of The Jesus Puzzle where he uses “view”, singular.

    It looks to me that Ehrman has read “view” in TJP and later read it into the revised sentence on page 97 of JNGM. But as I pointed out in my reply to the reader, a couple of sentences later Doherty is speaking of multiple views, so it is clear from the context that “view” is his catch-all word for the cluster of many different views in the ancient world that set their thinking apart from ours today.

    Either way, Ehrman has clearly done nothing better than skim Doherty’s book(s) and demonstrated he has not read the arguments he claims to be reviewing. Otherwise there is no way he could have made such a hostile error as to claim Doherty speaks of a single ancient view of the universe.

    • Fortigurn
      2012-05-03 02:10:05 GMT+0000 - 02:10 | Permalink

      “Otherwise there is no way he could have made such a hostile error as to claim Doherty speaks of a single ancient view of the universe.”, Comment by Neil Godfrey — 2012/04/14 @ 2:20 pm.

      1. “So much of THE ANCIENT VIEW OF THINGS was determined by myth because that was essentially all they had.”, Doherty, ‘Jesus – Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus’, p. 11 (2009).

      2. “Part Four, “A World of Myth and Savior Gods” (chapters 10 to 14), enters the multi-layered universe OF THE ANCIENTS. It will examine THEIR VIEW THAT a vast unseen dimension lay above the earth, where all sorts of supernatural proceedings took place among gods and spirits.”, Doherty, ‘Jesus – Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus’, p. 14 (2009).

      3. “Ancient philosophy as a whole, its VIEW OF THE UNIVERSE and of God, was the product of purely intellectual contemplation.”, Doherty, ‘Jesus – Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus’, p. 83 (2009).

      4. “We will address the specific point about “being in the flesh” in a separate chapter to follow. But the question of heavenly trees and ground gets to the heart of the present matter, as an expression of modern literality and the inability to comprehend the ancient mind’s VIEW OF THE UNIVERSE.”, Doherty, ‘Jesus – Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus’, p. 150 (2009).

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