Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman makes it abundantly clear to his readers that he has read Earl Doherty’s book, Jesus Neither God Nor Man, and is speaking with the authority of his academic credentials when he asserts that Doherty

  1. ignorantly suggests that Platonism was the only ancient philosophy or world-view at the time of Christianity;
  2. ignorantly claims that the followers of the mystery cults thought like ancient philosophers such as Plutarch.

To anyone who has read Doherty’s book it would appear Ehrman was skimming it in extreme haste or tackling it very late at night and was simply too tired to read more than a few lines here and there. Doherty in fact makes it as clear as day that Platonism was only one of several other major philosophies of the day, and that the adherents of the mystery cults did NOT think like ancient philosophers such as Plutarch.

So why does Dr Ehrman write that Earl Doherty claims the very opposite of what he fully, in considerable detail, explains?

Following are the accusations of Dr Ehrman. I insert the real statements by Doherty that belie Ehrman’s claims.

Continuing from the quotations in my previous post on this topic, I quote here Ehrman’s supposed “correction” of what he falsely yet scathingly said was Doherty’s claim to have “uncovered” “the view” (singular) of the ancients’ towards the world:

It is true that Plato and his followers had a certain view of reality where, roughly speaking, this material world is but a reflection of the world of “forms.” But Platonism was simply one of the ancient philosophies popular at the time of Christianity. Also popular was Stoicism, with a completely different, nondualistic sense of the world; Stoicism lacked the notion that this realm is an imitation of the higher realm. So too did Epicureanism, which thought in fairly modern fashion that the material world is all there is. . . .

But Doherty writes: [T]he pursuit of philosophy for the sake of pure truth and to further the health of the state, as Plato and Aristotle had largely indulged in it, philosophical movements were now designed to help individuals find a place in a troubled world and give them peace of mind. The most important were the Stoics, Epicureans and Platonists. . . . Only in Stoicism was there any significant focus on taking an active part in public life. . . . (pp. 35-36, JNGM, my emphasis)

When, in his second edition, Doherty admits that we do not know what the followers of the mystery cults thought, he is absolutely correct. We do not know. But he then asserts that they thought like the later Platonist Plutarch. . . .

And it is highly unlikely that adherents of the mystery cults (even if we could lump them all together) thought like one of the greatest intellectuals of their day (Plutarch). Very rarely do common people think about the world the way upper-class, highly educated, elite philosophers do. Would you say that your understanding of how language works matches the views of Wittgenstein? Or that your understanding of political power is that of Foucault?

In the case of someone like Plutarch there is, in fact, convincing counterevidence. Philosophers like Plutarch commonly took on the task of explaining away popular beliefs by allegorizing them, to show that despite what average people naively believed, for example, about the gods and the myths told about them, these tales held deeper philosophical truths. The entire enterprise of philosophical reflection on ancient mythology was rooted precisely in the widely accepted fact that common people did not look at the world, or its myths, in the same way the philosophers did. Elite philosophers tried to show that the myths accepted by others were emblematic of deeper spiritual truths.

But Doherty writes: This is highly esoteric stuff . . . It tells us that in philosophical circles, from the time of Plutarch, an application of the myths to a primordial earth setting was no longer in vogue. This may or may not give us a definite picture of how all the devotees of the cults looked upon such things . . .

In contrast with the philosophers, however, it can hardly be thought that the entire membership of the cults, even if following their lead into the upper world, went so far as to reduce the myths to pure allegory, things that never happened as described. . . . On earth or in the heavens, the heart and soul of the cults must have viewed the myths as literal, as genuine actions of the gods . . . The same is undoubtedly true of Paul . . . (p. 149)

And earlier: Before Platonism, myths were generally set in a dim, distant past. . . . And although by the period of early Christianity mythical thinking was being increasingly influenced and reinterpreted by Platonic higher-lower world cosmology, this long tradition of primordial myth continued to flow as an undercurrent.  .  .  . (p. 98. The undercurrent to which Doherty refers is the popular understanding, as opposed to the elitist philosophers’ interpretations, of the myths.)

And again: What we have are a few writings by philosophers who seek to impose an allegorical interpretation on the myths. Plutarch is the most notable, virtually the only one from the turn of the era period, which is why we rely so much on [his] discussion of the myths of the Egyptian savior deities. Other hints and deductions which can be derived from archaeological remains, such as the Mithraic monuments, can also be informative. . . . They transplanted [the myths] from a primordial time to a supernatural dimension, turning them into allegories of cosmic and spiritual processes. (p. 100. Here Doherty foreshadows a later discussion in which he will address the significant publication of Ulansey; Ehrman, perhaps quite inadvertently since it’s in another context, upheld Ulansey’s publication as “a work of real scholarship” as if to suggest it was unknown to mythicists; he also goes on to explain that while the general religiously-minded population did not, like the philosophers, think of these myths as allegories, it would be foolish to dismiss entirely the possibility of some aspects of this higher philosophical interpretation trickling down to popular understanding. In support of this possibility Doherty points to a contemporaneous shift in Jewish religious thinking: “In fact, that very cosmological shift of setting can be seen in many of the Jewish intertestamental writings, presenting divine figures and salvific forces operating in the spiritual realm of the heavens, as in the Similitudes of Enoch, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Ascension of Isaiah and other writings to be examined; in the New Testament itself, the Epistle to the Hebrews presents a spiritual sacrifice by Christ in a heavenly sanctuary.“)

How does one explain Ehrman’s claims about Doherty’s argument that are so diametrically the very opposite of what Doherty writes?

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book”

  1. “…it would appear Ehrman was skimming it in extreme haste or tackling it very late at night and was simply too tired to read more than a few lines here and there…”

    That appears to be precisely the same thing Errorman did with Acharya’s book as explained here:

    The phallic ‘Savior of the World’ hidden in the Vatican

    Errorman goes so far as to accuse her of making stuff up in his book – that’s libel and defamation, which Errorman could be sued for. Acharya proves him not just wrong, but shows just how sloppy and egregious Errorman was. He owes her an apology and a retraction.

    Bart Errorman’s new book against mythicism is a “hack job” as Dr. Price says in Acharya’s blog. But I don’t think he accused Doherty or anyone else of making stuff up. It seems he made sloppy and egregious errors with Doherty too though.

    He obviously put no effort into making his book accurate at all. So, it will ruin his reliability and credibility – and it should. It’s sad though because I was hoping for a sincere, honest and objective critique of mythicism but, this book really is an unreliable hack job that has earned Dr. Bart Ehrman the new nickname, “Errorman.”

    1. Maybe it’s simply the case that “a sincere, honest and objective critique of mythicism” is not as possible as you’d like to think. Those that have thought about, or even attempted one may have come to realize that the case for historicism is dismally deficient, and that much of mythicism’s case has a strength which cannot be easily undermined. Maybe “hack jobs” are the only avenue.

  2. What troubles me the most is that Ehrman could possibly think and claim that I, despite being an agenda-driven Christianity-hater and maniac mythicist, could research and write about ancient philosophy and cosmology in connection with Christian origins in an 800-page tome, and still be guilty of thinking that there was only one philosophy in the ancient world, one way of viewing the workings of the universe. What kind of a deranged idiot does he truly take me for?

    Of course, anyone who has read my books and website, followed me on internet DBs, or who knows anything about ancient philosophy themselves, would have to take this for what it is: Ehrman going utterly off the deep end. Unfortunately, much of Ehrman’s ‘popular’ readership is not going to be in a position to recognize this, and quite willing to believe the worst about this charlatan..

    (And by the way, we can tell that Ehrman is writing for such a readership. After all, it’s only scholars who require an Index in a scholarly book.)

    However, I suspect that a lot more mainstream scholars are actually going to delve into his book (if only to catch up on their own dismal knowledge about mythicism), and many of them are going to smell something rotten in Denmark. Many of them too, I equally suspect, frequent DBs, often anonymously, and will encounter the furor being raised at Ehrman’s disreputable antics. This is not going to do the historicism cause any favor. As for those for whom it will harm my own reputation, well, they were already ignorant and biased against me anyway.

    1. Say what?

      I’ll go out on a limb here and wonder if this is Danish? From someone put out by my “something is rotten in Denmark” phrase? Without realizing it’s a quote from Hamlet and is not a denigration of either Denmark or the Danes?

      Or not…

      1. It’s a pingback from a Swedish blog. My translation: “[…] Ehrman writes, I have copied the following quote from another post by Neil Godfrey, i.e. Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading if Earl Doherty’s book. (You may, by the way, benefit from reading Godfrey’s posts, which in addition, are more detailed than the […]” Roger Viklund is (in)famous in Sweden for writing a large book claiming that there never was a historical Jesus. In translation, the title reads “The Jesus who never existed”. Not being a professional scholar, he faced many arguments from authority against his book. The pingback is from his blog.

  3. Ehrman is a professor of New Testament Studies … confirmation bias anyone? Ehrman’s work exists solely as a reaction to maximal conservatism, whereas serious historians don’t even bother with maximal conservatism.

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