Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman?

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by Neil Godfrey

One of the staunchest defenders of a mythicist view of Christ, Earl Doherty, maintains that the apostle Paul thinks that Jesus was crucified, not here on earth by the Romans, but in the spiritual realm by demonic powers. In advancing this thesis, Doherty places him self in an ironic position that characterizes many of his mythicist colleagues. He quotes professional scholars at length when their views prove useful for developing aspects of his argument, but he fails to point out that not a single one of these scholars agrees with his overarching thesis. (Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? my emphasis)

Can Earl Doherty ever have stooped so low! Quoting scholars when it suits but not informing his readers that they were not mythicists? What deviousness! This has to be outright deceit, of course, since if he really believed they were mythicist he would have shouted that out in bold caps.

Given the track record I have addressed in my previous posts I am sure we know just how much evidence we can dig up against Doherty to support Ehrman’s accusation. Ehrman also implies that Doherty only refers to scholars when “their views prove useful” to developing his argument. How sneaky!

Let’s try to trace just how dishonest this man is. Let’s begin with the Preface to his book, Jesus, Neither God Nor Man.

He fails to point out?

On the very opening page of his book, in his Preface, Earl Doherty refers to the Christ Myth as “such a radical idea” that when it was referenced on a popular TV show he believes very few in audiences would have even recognized what was expressed. He refers to it on that same page as “a fringe idea”. On that page, the first page of his book, he sets his thesis in opposition to “traditional academia” and “mainstream critical scholarship”. The bulk of those who currently embrace the idea for now are “amateurs” whom he defines as “those who undertake private study outside an official educational setting.”

The same theme dominates right through to the last page of that Preface where Doherty acknowledges his debt to traditional New Testament scholarship. He describes his debt to this as “immense” even though he is obviously presenting a thesis at radical odds with the assumptions and beliefs of that scholarship. This theme of his view being in stark opposition to traditional mainstream scholarship is sustained throughout the book. Would anyone who picks up JNGM really suspect for a moment that Doherty is supported by a significant number of mainstream New Testament scholars?

But let’s get to the nitty gritty. Does Doherty at any point mislead his readers into thinking that mainstream scholars he quotes might somehow support his mythicist argument?

Rulers of this age

Doherty argues several reasons for interpreting Paul’s reference to “the rulers of this age” (who are said to be responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus) as a reference to demon spirits. Doherty points out the disagreement among scholars on the meaning of this phrase but one scholar he quotes in support of his view is S. G. F. Brandon (History, Time and Deity). Brandon is quoted as emphasizing that the words refer to demonic powers and not Roman or Jewish authorities. If we were to believe Ehrman we would expect that to be the end of the matter. However, Ehrman’s accusation falls flat when we read what Doherty writes immediately following this supporting quotation:

However, Brandon (like everyone else) fails to address the question of how Paul could have spoken in such terms if he knew the tradition of Jesus’ death in Judea, providing no qualification to this supernatural picture. The suggestion that since earthly rulers are considered to be controlled by heavenly ones the latter are seen as operating “through” the former is simply reading the idea into the text. . . . (p. 106, JNGM)

So Doherty DOES point out that Brandon and everyone else who supports his case for the phrase referring to demon spirits disagrees with his overarching thesis!

Note, too, that it is in this particular context that Ehrman, without any supporting evidence, accused Doherty of failing to do what he clearly does do. Far from failing to point out that a single one of those he quotes do not support his overarching thesis, Doherty points out that none of them supports it! Did Ehrman take the trouble to actually read the book or did he think he needed only to tune in to what other hostile critics who have never read the book have said?

“The Heavenly Man”

In chapter 14 of JNGM Doherty discusses the ancient Jewish concept of the “Heavenly Man” and in particular Paul’s comparison of the earthly and the heavenly (second) Adam. At one point he finds a scholar who supports a point he is making and brings him in to the front line:

C. K. Barrett . . . suggests that the idea was based on “the various speculations about a Primal Man, Archtypal Man, Heavenly Man,” a concept that was diverse . . . . (p. 192)

Was Barrett a mythicist? I wonder. Doherty is quoting him here and it looks like Doherty finds some support from his words here. So let’s finish the sentence and read the next one just to be sure:

. . . . with “consistency” only being “achieved when the speculations could be focused and interpreted by a historical figure.” But no such focus or interpretation is ever spotlighted by Paul or any other epistle writer; no historical figure is entered into the equation unless we import him from the Gospels, which is what Barrett has done. But he at least recognizes the possibility of a link between that broad speculative “Man” in the philosophy of the day and the figure of Paul’s Christ. (pp. 192-3)

So at the same time Doherty finds support in words of a scholar he lets it be known that that scholar does not agree with his overarching thesis.

It is a pity Ehrman failed to provide any examples to prove his charge against Doherty. I can only find counter-evidence. But I might be biased.

On the other hand, my reading of JNGM is that Doherty’s thesis is so contrary to established scholarly views that it is inevitable that he can only find quotations among scholars in order to point out where he thinks they are right and where he believes their arguments fail.

Jesus becomes like us so we can become like him

Doherty in another context has defended his use of principles and details of interpretation of specific passages in the New Testament among mainstream scholars who do not apply their findings to mythicism:

It is completely legitimate for me to appeal to [observations of fact and principle by mainstream scholars] when they can be applied to a mythicist interpretation, even if the scholar himself or herself does not choose to make the same application of their observations.

That sounds normal and right and common enough. Everyone does that sort of thing. But does Doherty actually mislead readers by quoting others in such a way that would suggest those same sources agree with the larger mythicist thesis?

“Foul!” cries Ehrman, echoing McGrath. Dr McGrath was indignant that Doherty would dare take a scholarly observation that the Philippian hymn is describing a process whereby

Christ becomes what we are (likeness of flesh, suffering and death), so enabling us to become what he is (exalted to the heights). (p. 104, JNGM)

Doherty had the cheek to use those words of Morna Hooker in Jesus and Paulus, p, 151f. as an alternative way of expressing his own point that read:

She stated a principle (Barrett once stated a possible meaning in regard to a Greek phrase which I was able to make use of, though in a manner he did not). It is completely legitimate for me to appeal to such observations when they can be applied to a mythicist interpretation, even if the scholar himself or herself does not choose to make the same application of their observations. Hooker pointed out the principle involved in counterpart guarantees: “Christ becomes what we are (likeness of flesh, suffering and death), so enabling us to become what he is (exalted to the heights).” That principle stands, it works in both cases, whether it is applied to a Christ perceived to be acting on earth, or a Christ perceived to be acting in the heavens. I am well aware that Hooker applies it to the former; she understands it in that context. That doesn’t necessitate her being right. I can take the same principle and understand it in the context of a heavenly death and rising. Because I don’t conform to Hooker’s context does not necessitate me being wrong. This is simple logic . . . . 

As Doherty points out, it is completely legitimate to refer to scholars’ observations of principle, fact and logic and apply those observations to another argument or context. That’s the way most citations work. It is clearly understood that the author of the quotation was addressing a different thesis or context. It is the principle or point of logic and its new application to another’s thesis that is the focus of the citation. Is Doherty also expected to remind readers that when he cites a Greek lexicon he should remind his readers that its editor was probably devout Christian?

He does the same of a passage in Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Doherty informs us that Ehrman noted that Galatians 4:4 “was indeed a passage that was a favorite for amendment.” One would have to be a complete fool to think that Doherty was implying that Ehrman therefore supported his “overarching thesis”. Does Ehrman really have so little trust in the mental capabilities of anyone likely to read this book?

Riotous diversity from the beginning

A central point in Doherty’s overarching thesis is the seemingly rapid spread of early Christianity and the great multiplicity of forms it took in various locations. In support of this detail Doherty quotes Wayne Meeks (The First Urban Christians) where he points out that from the earliest moment we can get a picture of Christianity we find it is already a complex movement forming within various complex societies. He follows with another quotation from Ron Cameron (The Future of Early Christianity) when he summarizes Walter Bauer’s thesis addressing the “exceptionally diverse” nature of “the beginnings of Christianity”.

Sneaky, huh! Except that Doherty goes and spoils Ehrman’s accusation by saying these scholars do not agree with his overarching thesis:

This diversity has traditionally been characterized by scholars as different “responses” to the man Jesus of Nazareth, responses which at the same time managed to ignore most or all of the others and went off on distant tangents. Even within the Gospels themselves, scholars have recognized that different elements seem to have an independent character of their own, containing little or no reflection of other elements.

Thus, Burton Mack, in his Who Wrote the New Testament?, sees such things as representing “components” of Jesus’ career which were separately preserved by groups of followers and believers who formed in various places in response to him. Each group focused on a specific aspect of that career: teaching of one sort, teaching of another sort, miracle traditions, apocalyptic expectations, and the most dramatic response of all, the message that he had brought salvation through his death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. Each of these groups supposedly produced and preserved their own specific records: miracle collections, prophetic sayings, a passion account, etc., and these later became available to the various evangelists.

This type of theory extrapolates backwards. It starts from the Gospels and assumes that the different strands within them can be traced back to a common source. But no concrete evidence exists for this postulated break-up of Jesus into his component parts, for this initial divergence of response to Jesus, followed decades later by a reverse convergence of those separated parts into the Gospels.

Rather, the separate strands which were later brought together to form the “Jesus tradition” of the Gospels are best seen as diverse expressions within the broader social and religious milieu of the time, having nothing to do in their earliest stages with an historical Jesus . . . . (p. 267-8, JNGM, my emphasis)

How duplicitous can one get! Doherty even quotes and references the views of scholars whom he says disagree with his thesis and he then has the audacity to argue the logic of their points!

Only supporters are invited?

Ehrman charges Doherty with quoting “at length” scholars who agree with him. I don’t know off hand of any instances where he does quote “at length” supporting views. Doherty’s views are too radical for that, as he himself obviously recognizes and points out. But he does quote and otherwise reference a lot of “professional scholars” for facts, meanings, and to inform us of the current conventional wisdom or various scholarly views. He even quotes those who have published views and arguments that he disputes.


A significant section of Doherty’s book rests on the case for the existence of Q. In the chapter introducing this section he writes about 3000 words on the nature of Q and how it came to be a widely accepted hypothesis. But in that same chapter he devotes over 6000 words to a discussion of scholarly arguments against Q, most notably by Mark Goodacre. He quotes some of Goodacre’s counter arguments. Doherty also quotes a leading Q advocate and critic of Goodacre’s points, but then Doherty once again shows his trickery by even expressing qualification and a contrary view to his Q supporter, Kloppenborg:

But Kloppenborg has left out consideration of one very important dimension of Matthean (and Lukan) interest: the soteriological role of Jesus and his death and resurrection. . . . (p. 323 and so forth)

Presumably if Doherty quoted no scholars at all in his book he would be accused of completely ignoring scholarship.

The heavenly Jesus in Hebrews

Doherty has an extensive discussion of the Epistle to the Hebrews in which he argues that this book knows nothing of a Jesus on earth and that Jesus’ sacrifice was a heavenly event. He quotes several scholarly works on Hebrews in this discussion: Paul Ellingworth, R. McL. Wilson, Harold Attridge, Hugh Montefiore, J. H. Huddilston, E. V. N. Goetchius, James Moffat among them. They are quoted to present the commonly held interpretations of Hebrews that Doherty is arguing against. His chapter is sprinkled with remarks like

Scholars who squarely face this discrepancy usually downplay any link to Gethsemane . . . . (p. 227)

Not a single scholar I am aware of allows the later verse to influence the meaning of the earlier. . . . (p. 249)

Scholars again differ on what they think is meant by this . . . . (p. 222)

This is a very poor effort at quoting scholars merely to support one’s viewpoint.

What hope?

How can one honestly hope to validly portray Doherty as such a charlatan when we keep finding evidence that falsifies Ehrman’s accusation?

Or does Ehrman really have such disdain for the general educated public who are likely to pick up an 800 page book that he fears it might think the editor of a lexicon or author of a work that has nothing to do with mythicism are themselves mythicists after all just because it sees them quoted by Doherty?

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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman?”

  1. One assumes Ehrman is now going to stop his disgraceful habit of ever quoting any scholar who believes Jesus was a real Messiah, as that contradicts Ehrman’s overarching thesis that a crucified Messiah was a concept invented by Christians.

    Does Ehrman really imagine that readers of Doherty’s book are not aware that mythicism is a minority position?

    You can only imagine what Ehrman would have written if Doherty had not quoted scholars ‘at length’.

    You can also only imagine what Ehrman would have written if he had tried to refute Doherty on points like Romans 13, Romans 10 etc.

  2. Creationists don’t like it when evolutionists refute them by quoting sources ‘at great length’.

    It is called ‘literature bombing’

    To his credit, neither Ehrman nor McGrath literature bomb mythicists by refuting their arguments. They prefer to simply claim mythicists are anti-Christians, distort what mythicists write and throw in lots of phrases about how the consensus support them, and that they are scholars, paid to teach Biblical studies in classes in North Carolina or Indiana.

    Ehrman does a lot of saying that he teaches classes….

    I mustn’t forget that Ehrman does literature bomb mythicists, by waving invisible documents around, claiming that there was lots of literature around in the 30s AD that mentioned Jesus, and that if only mythicists would look at these invisible documents, they would drop their anti-Christian stance.

    1. Regarding invisible documents, I don’t recall that Ehrman pointed out that Goodacre, one of the people he acknowledges for having read and suggested corrections to his manuscript, doesn’t support the Q hypothesis. If that is so, I wonder what he and others may think about the K and L (or was it M?) that Ehrman threw in as partners of Q. Those were, as I recall, added to bolster the number of “independent” sources attesting to the historical Jesus.

  3. Curiouser and curiouser. I cannot count the number of times I have seen some Christian apologist say something along the lines of “What Ehrman doesn’t tell you is that most of the variants in the manuscript are trivial and easily resolved.” The fact is that Ehrman always tells people that. You would think that having been accused so often of omitting things that he actually has said clearly, Ehrman would be reluctant to pull the same trick on someone else.

  4. Heh. So great to watch you rip up Ehrman. I’m reading his book now for a chapter-by-chapter rip and hope to have something on it next week. It’s as awful as I expected and contains every element I expected. Thanks Bart! This one book will do more to advance mythicism than a million posts on the internet.

    Thanks Neil. Great work.


  5. Neil, your work here in reviewing Ehrman’s book, and tying in all the falsehoods and mischaracterizations of erstwhile critics of mythicism gave me an idea when you wrote: “… does Ehrman really have such disdain for the general educated public who are likely to pick up an 800 page book …”

    The idea is this: Clearly, as you’ve emphasized many times, Ehrman’s book is targeting an audience who is not likely to actually pick up that 800 page book to check if Ehrman is correct. He is targeting the popular mainstream audience, who are looking for summaries and analogies rather than detailed and thorough scholarship (hence no index). You seem to be in a bit of a unique position to have such a broad awareness of what anti-mythicists say, and you can quote and cross-reference like a mofo. 🙂 If there was anyone to write a book about the historicists’ fallacy-ridden campaign against mythicism, it would be you, IMO.

    It appears that our hope that there would be a thorough, honest case made by the historicists is not going to happen. Ehrman was probably our best shot, and he flubbed it. He will be their go-to guy, and there will be a recurring need to rebut his book, over and over again. If you simply collected your existing posts about Ehrman’s book, McGrath’s attacks, and whatever various other anti-mythicist propaganda you’ve collected over the years, I’m sure you’d have the basis for a book dedicated to providing a reliable rebuttal of common historicist attacks on mythicism. I think such a work would be very valuable for the lay-person, in contrast to Ehrman’s book and its lay-audience.


    1. Thanks for the encouragement. I do sometimes think of writing my own book on Christian origins, and that such a book would in many ways be a demonstration of the fallacies at the heart of the current studies. But I cannot see any opportunity for that until I retire. Before then I’d really love to go back over my blog posts and get them organized and accessible in some respectable and useful order. One day.

    2. Yes he does as do most scholars in this field. But you have to ask.Are they really threatened by the general educated public or by the fact that with the internet they can no longer hide this stuff? I have not bought the book and after reading Richard Carrier’s review of it I doubt I will though I have to admit that I am not fuzzy with Carrier either.

      1. This blog seeks to share awareness of aspects of scholarship that normally do not reach the wider public, but that is not because there is a “conspiracy” to otherwise “hide this stuff”. Scholars write to advance their careers and that means they write for other scholars — their careers and reputations often hang on how widely their peers cite them, review them, etc. Only a few biblical scholars are interested in popularizing scholarship for a wider audience, but given the ideological nature of biblical studies we find that these scholars are generally pushing an ideological alternative rather than a wider appreciation of critical views for their own sake (e.g. Bart Ehrman). That is not to say that scholars do not have an interest in confining some critical views to their professional circles and avoiding offending their main supports (funders, believers) but I think much of that public censorship works at an unconscious level. Scholars who are permitted to enter the guild have already proven their suitability by expressing the right sorts of conformist thoughts. There is no machiavellian conspiracy.

  6. Pingback: The Ehrman-Carrier Contoversy 5: Earl Doherty and His Sources - Labarum
  7. I have just jumped into the mythicist debate after being introduced to Richard Carrier in a debate he had with William Lane Craig. Before that, I was an Ehrman enthusiast. Carrier’s comments about him made me wonder but this post of yours CLEARLY shows where he went wrong. I really enjoyed reading this piece of yours, very lucid, logical, and well-researched. Mine is another voice urging you to write a book 🙂

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