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.
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.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- A New History of Humanity — And Hope for Those of Us Who Want It - 2021-12-05 09:02:13 GMT+0000
- How the Holy Spirit Replaced Jerusalem in a Power Game - 2021-11-05 07:56:55 GMT+0000
- “The war of 70 is not a major issue” in the Gospels? - 2021-10-31 11:10:13 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!