Ehrman’s and Doherty’s Arguments: Spot the Difference

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is an appendix to Ehrman’s Most Bizarre Criticism Of All Against Doherty.

In a recent post I pointed out that Ehrman fully agreed with Doherty’s portrayal of the ancient mystery cults as most likely having a quite different understanding of traditional myths from the way the philosophers interpreted them. (The only pity is that Ehrman did not read Doherty’s book in order to know that he and Doherty are on the same page.) Doherty points out, and Ehrman completely agrees, that the everyday person in the towns and villages was not at all interested in finding ways to interpret the myths allegorically in order to explain grander cosmic processes. That sort of thing was, as both Doherty and Ehrman explain in unison, the preserve of esoteric philosophers like Plutarch. Similarly, Ehrman heartily agrees with Doherty’s account that there many different views of the universe and a wide range of different philosophies — e.g. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, Neo-Platonism — in the days of early Christianity.

Someone who read that post has since alerted me to further confluences of agreement between Ehrman and Doherty. Gosh, I wonder if Ehrman is a closet mythicist. You know, like the way gay-haters are sometimes thought to be suppressing their own homosexual urges. (I speak tongue in cheek. Of course Ehrman is not a mythicist. My point is to highlight the hypocritical (or worse) nature of Ehrman’s attempts to discredit Doherty.)

Readers of both Doherty’s books (1999 and 2009) and Ehrman’s publications (2000 and 2004) will be struck at how very similar they are at so many critical points. It is as if Ehrman and Doherty had attended the same classes and had come to think quite alike. Could that be one factor in Ehrman’s outrageous efforts to disinform readers about what Doherty really writes?

In Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman launched a diatribe against Doherty loaded with rhetorical questions (“Rhetorical questions . . .  paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments“). Doherty had drawn together some strands of literary and archaeological evidence to deduce the the likelihood that, although adherents to mystery cults by no means “thought like philosophers” or resorted to allegorizing their myths in the ways philosophers did, they nonetheless came to be influenced by some strands of the philosophical thinking of the day and that this was a natural outcome of being part of the same cultural world.

And if that transplanting [of myths from a primordial past to a supernatural dimension] is the trend to be seen in the surviving [philosophical] writings on the subject, it is very likely that a similar process took place to some degree in the broader world of the devotee and officiant of the mysteries; it cannot be dismissed simply as an isolated elitist phenomenon. In fact, that very cosmological shift of setting can be seen in many of the Jewish intertestamental writings . . . . [Other hints and deductions which can be derived from archeological remains, such as the Mithraic monuments, can also be informative.]. . . . . 

[N]or would everyone, from philosopher to devotee-in-the-street, shift to understanding and talking about their myths in such a revised setting. The changeover in the mind of the average person may well have been imperfect, just as modern science has effected a rethinking of past literal and naïve views toward elements of the bible in the direction of the spiritual and symbolic, but in an incomplete and varied fashion across our religious culture as a whole. [p. 100, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man]

Ehrman for some bizarre reason repackaged all of this to disinform his readers that Doherty was saying that these cult devotees “thought like philosophers” and allegorized their myths! But, given that this disinformation was addressed well enough in my recent post, we won’t go down that surreal route again here — er, except for the following (just this once!):

Why should we think philosophers had an influence beyond their elite circles?

Here is part of Ehrman’s attack on Doherty’s daring to suggest that ancient philosophical views had any impact on the thinking of the ordinary members of the mystery cults and Christian religions:

Why should we assume that the mystery cults were influenced by just one of these philosophies? Or for that matter by any of them? . . . . 

I hardly need to emphasize again that the early followers of Jesus [Christians] were not elite philosophers. They were by and large common people. Not even Paul was philosophically trained. To be sure, as a literate person he was far better educated than most Christians of his day. But he was no Plutarch. His worldview was not principally dependent on Plato. It was dependent on the Jewish traditions, as these were mediated through the Hebrew scriptures. (pp. 254 – 255, Did Jesus Exist?)

I have substituted Ehrman’s ambiguous yet question-begging “followers of Jesus” for “Christians” in the above quote so it can be reasonably dealt with in a logical manner. Here Ehrman can scarcely be any more dogmatic. There can be no doubt that here he is leading his readers into thinking that ancient philosophy had no impact on Paul nor even on any of the ordinary folk who became the earliest Christian converts. Paul’s world view was Jewish, so he is stressing. His theology was informed by the Jewish tradition and his meditations on the Jewish scriptures alone. Ehrman is laying out his point in stark contrast to anything else he leads the readers to think Doherty is arguing: Paul and the early Christians were dependent upon the Jewish religion and scriptures and NOT pagan philosophies or mystery cults.

But wait!

Ehrman answers his own rhetorical question

Before Ehrman wrote this book attacking mythicism he wrote other stuff that sounds for all the world like he was agreeing with Doherty’s fundamental assumptions and background scenarios at least. That is, before he met Doherty Ehrman was quite happy to suggest that the philosophical ideas of the elite probably did indeed trickle down in whatever bastardized form to the wider community!

Here is what Bart Ehrman has written elsewhere about the role and potential influence of ancient philosophers on the common people who gravitated towards mystery cults and Christianity:

Philosophy and religion were not thought to be irreconcilable entities; indeed, some of the best known philosophers were priests in pagan temples. They nonetheless represented two different spheres of activity with two different sets of concerns. Greco-Roman philosophy was . . . concerned with showing how a person could attain well-being in this world . . . .

Professional philosophers were a relatively rare breed in the Greco-Roman world, whose pre-industrial societies had scant resources to support large numbers of people who did little but think and teach others to do likewise.. . .

Nonetheless, philosophical ideas were widely known, in large part because of their typical mode of communication. On street corners and thoroughfares of major urban areas throughout the empire, philosophers of all stripes could be found proclaiming their views and urging others to adopt them in their own lives, rather like street preachers in some places today. (My emphasis. p. 34, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction To The Early Christian Writings, by Bart Ehrman. 2004 ed.)

And again on page 304 of the same book:

Perhaps because of their inclusive character, none of these religions [the ancient cults] was missionary, none of them urged their devotees to pursue converts to participate in their cult and their cult alone. Thus, when Paul and his co-workers were trying to make converts, they were not modeling themselves on what representatives of other sacred cults were doing.
On the other hand, some of the Greco-Roman philosophical schools were missionary, in that they had leading spokespersons actively engaged in winning converts to their way of looking at the world.

Are we reading that right? What was it that Ehrman said in his excoriation of Doherty?

Why should we assume that the mystery cults were influenced by just one of these philosophies? Or for that matter by any of them? . . . .

So Ehrman answered his question a few years ago. In his effort to denigrate mythicism he simply forgot. Ehrman himself pointed out that various followers of philosophical schools did not lock themselves away in ivory towers. Many were on the street corners seeking followers. No doubt their subtler teachings would have soared over the heads of many but one cannot assume that some knowledge of their teachings was not picked up by the wider public. As far back as the days of Socrates the playwright Aristophanes expected his lampooning of Socrates to resonate with a broader public.

So when Ehrman protests that early Christians “were not elite philosophers” he is overlooking entirely the thrust of Doherty’s argument that there was a cultural shift in thinking that cannot be thought of as confined entirely to a coterie of literates. Ehrman in his own publications has answered his own rhetorical question. He knows very well both the means and the likelihood that philosophical thinking of the day very probably did percolate through to the wider society in however diluted or imperfect a form.

Doherty himself wrote the same things as Ehrman had in 2000 and 2004:

[W]andering philosophers . . . were a kind of “popular clergy,” offering spiritual comfort— though usually demanding a fee. Some had immense influence on a wide audience, such as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who taught that the universe is governed by a benevolent and wise Providence, and that all men are brothers (in the sexist language of the time). . . .

Does this mean the common person would have thought like a philosopher? Of course not, as Doherty explains:

[N]or would everyone, from philosopher to devotee-in-the-street, shift to understanding and talking about their myths in such a revised setting. The changeover in the mind of the average person may well have been imperfect, just as modern science has effected a rethinking of past literal and naïve views toward elements of the bible in the direction of the spiritual and symbolic, but in an incomplete and varied fashion across our religious culture as a whole.

Would Ehrman seriously — in any context apart from mythicism — disagree with this?

I think we can safely say that Ehrman entirely agrees with all that Doherty has written thus far. (The only pity is that Ehrman did not read Doherty’s argument for himself and that it takes an outsider like me to see how alike they are in their thinking.)

Ehrman further misleads his readers by suggesting that the philosophers of the period under discussion were in some sense comparable to modern philosophers whose interests and work really are often quite divorced from popular thinking:

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?

Surely Ehrman knows this is a misleading or incomplete analogy at best, because we can look again at his above quotation from his 2004 publication:

Greco-Roman philosophy was . . . concerned with showing how a person could attain well-being in this world . . . .

Of course we can hardly think that most common folk were interested in allegorical speculations about their traditional myths. But in 2004 Ehrman showed us that he knows well enough that the philosophy of the period was very often directed at more mundane matters, such as how simply to get along in life. Recall Doherty’s quote above citing the very popular Epictetus teaching the “brotherhood of man.” And recall also recent scholarly research (mentioned above) that strongly points to the likelihood that philosophical ideas did indeed influence Paul’s theological arguments and even facets of his Christology.

Ehrman and Doherty agree on what we know about ancient mystery cults and their parallels to Christianity

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 we do know some things. Ehrman not many years ago told us what we know:

The mystery cults were relatively distinct in focusing chiefly on the well-being of the individual. Moreover, whereas almost all other religions were centered on life in the here and now, mystery cults appear to have placed some emphasis (older scholarship believed it was exclusive emphasis) on providing a happy existence in the life after death. . . .

The mysteries, it appears, met personal, individual needs and resonated with many persons in the Greco-Roman world who did not find existential fulfillment (to use a modern phrase) in the local and state cults in which they participated. Each of the mystery cults was different; each had its special location and its own customs and rituals. Many of them evidently centered around a mythology of the death and resurrection of a god or goddess, a mythology ultimately rooted in ancient fertility religion, in which the death of winter gives way to the new life of spring. Moreover, the periodic ritual of these cults apparently celebrated this mythology in a way that enabled the participants to become part of the entire transformative process of new life. That is to say, the enacted myth about the gods was transmuted into reality for the devotees, who believed those who had been found worthy to be a follower of the mystery’s god or goddess, there was promised not only a more satisfying existence now but also a more blissful afterlife.

Not just anyone could walk in off the streets to join one of these mystery cults. Each of them appears to have emphasized rituals of initiation for membership. Those who wished to join were typically put through a period of ceremonial cleansing (involving fastings, prayers, and sometimes ritual washings) and instruction prior to being admitted to the ranks of the devotees. We have evidence to suggest that those who had experienced the initiation, who could then join in the ceremonies when they were periodically celebrated, felt at greater peace with themselves and the world. (My emphasis. Excerpted from ‘The New Testament: A Historical Introduction To The Early Christian Writings’ by Bart D. Ehrman, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 28-31; p. 33 of the 2004 3rd edition)

So it looks like Ehrman is somewhat in concord with what Doherty also writes about the mystery cults.

The roots of the mysteries are obscure. It was thought that the primitive common denominator behind these diverse cults was the yearly agricultural cycle, the dying and renewing of vegetation and food crops. People’s experience of nature’s round led to the concept that the gods who inhabited these plants or the earth they grew from regularly underwent a representative dying and rising themselves (thus the term “dying and rising gods”), or had once done so, perhaps as a sacrifice to guarantee the annual return to fertility. Mythical stories grew up to embody such divine experiences.

. . . . scholars have recently been looking as well at male “rites of passage” in prehistoric societies . . . Another suggested source was the cult of dead kings . . . .

While much speculation has been possible, frustratingly little is known about the cults. . . .

The rite itself, which varied from cult to cult, involved experience, usually in a group and conducted by one or more priests of the cult, constituting “things seen/shown” . . . “things heard/said” . . . and “things staged”. . . . All of which provoked a feeling or insight on the part of the initiate . . . . Preparation for the rite could involve fasting or meditation, even isolation. The total experience gave the initiate an understanding of reality in terms of mystical experiences of the god . . . along with the conviction that his or her new relationship with the god would bring a better fate in this world and a fortunate afterlife.

. . . the individual mysteries . . . show considerable diversity. They were anything but carbon copies of each other. And the nature of what constituted ‘resurrection’ for these gods is particularly diverse. . . . Unfortunately, it is because of these differences and uncertainties that many scholars, whether apologetically motivated or not, will make the claim that we cannot speak of a general category of “dying and rising gods,” much less that Christianity can be compared with them as a group.  (pp. 128-9, JNGM)

Ehrman even once asked his readers to seriously think about the similarities between mystery cults and Christianity. The broad parallels, he wrote, are “intriguing and worthy of reflection”:

Christianity as a Mystery Cult

Scholars in the earlier part of this century were struck by how similar the ancient descriptions of the mysteries were to what we know about Christianity; for it too was a secretive society whose members worshiped a divine being who died and was raised from the dead, and who could bring peace on earth and eternal life after death. Initiates into the society went through a period of ritual purification (baptism) and instruction, and members, according to this view, periodically celebrated the myths of the cults beginning (in the Lord’s Supper).

Recent scholarship, however, has been less inclined to call Christianity a  mystery cult, or to claim that it simply borrowed its characteristic ideas and practices from previously existing religions. In part this is because we do not know very much about what happened during the mystery rituals., especially in the period when Christianity began. For example, did they typically partake of a meal, commemorating the death of their savior god? We simply don’t know.

All the same, the broad parallels between Christianity and these other religions do remain intriguing and worthy of reflection. Maybe the question scholars have asked should be posed differently: would non-Christian outsiders have looked upon Christianity as a kind of mystery cult, analogous to others that they knew?

 (p. 34 of the 3rd edition, 2004)

Or at least he surely considers Doherty’s discussion an intriguing and worthy reflection. After discussing specific mystery cults, the Eleusinian mysteries, the mysteries of Dionysos and Orphism, those of Isis and Osiris, Cybele and Attis, and the mysteries of Mithras, Doherty explores in some detail certain apparent similarities with early Christian rituals and teachings: the resurrection concepts, initiation through washings and the concept of a rebirth, sacred communal meals.

The limits of the place of the mystery cults in Doherty’s thesis — their relevance — should not be overlooked, either:

This is not to say that such an interpretation of Christian myth is dependent on establishing the same thing in regard to the mystery cults. Rather, the latter will provide corroboration and a wider context in which to understand and set the conclusions which can be drawn from the early Christian writings themselves. It is that early Christian record which reveals the nature of the original Christian belief in a heavenly Christ. (p. 101, JNGM)

What of Paul?

I quoted Ehrman above declaring that Paul “was not principally dependent upon Plato”. No decent person would want to think that Ehrman was playing word games or simply being disingenuous here by specifying the name “Plato” and adding the qualifier “principally”. The context of his following sentence makes it abundantly clear that he is leading his readers — and keep in mind he is addressing a popular audience who devour his books — to think that Paul was dependent upon Jewish traditions and scriptures in contradistinction to pagan philosophies. To the above quote can be added this one for emphasis:

One thing that we do know about them [the mystery cults], however, is where they were located and thus, to some extent, where they exerted significant influence. We know this from the archaeological record they have left behind. Among all our archaeological findings, there is none that suggests that pagan mystery cults exerted any influence on Aramaic-speaking rural Palestinian Judaism in the 20s and 30s of the first century.

And this is the milieu out of which faith in Jesus the crucified messiah, as persecuted and then embraced by Paul, emerged. There are no grounds for assuming that Paul, whose views of Jesus were taken over from the Palestinian Jewish Christians who preceded him, held a radically different view of Jesus from his predecessors.

Ehrman is having quite a bit if difficulty here even conceptualizing the radical proposition of mythicism. All he can do is blunder with a retort that begs the question of Jesus’ existence and the fundamental historicity underlying the Gospel-Acts narrative.

But Ehrman is a well-read scholar so he knows very well that there is abundant scholarly literature discussing the influence of ancient philosophy on the thinking of Paul. Is he turning his back on all this scholarship solely to attempt a punch at Doherty? On this blog I have in the past discussed some of this:

Troels Engberg-Pedersen: Paul and the Stoics

Th. D. Niko Huttunen: Paul and Epictetus on Law

Abraham J. Malherbe: Paul and the Popular Philosophers

Engberg-Pedersen sees remarkable similarities between the Stoic concept of Logos/Reason and Paul’s concept of Christ as a life-changing power, specifically “from above”, “in” whom the convert dwells. (Compare the expressions “in Christ”, “Christ in you”.) Huttunen argues for Paul’s debt to Stoicism for much of his theological teachings about the law. (This Stoic model was indebted to Plato’s discussion of ethics and the good life in his Republic.)

Here are a few remarks from Malherbe’s book that demonstrate scholars past and present acknowledging Paul’s debt to his Greek culture and even to philosophies of the day. Judaism was not his sole matrix and surely Ehrman knows all this.

Modern scholarship was not the first to discover Paul’s indebtedness to Greek culture. His letters, even on a superficial level, have many affinities with the popular philosophy of his day, especially as it was represented by Stoicism and Cynicism. . . .

During the last hundred years, New Testament scholars have shown that many aspects of Paul’s life and letters are illuminated with they are examined in the light of Greco-Roman culture. There can no longer be any doubt that Paul was thoroughly familiar with the teaching, methods of operation, and style of argumentation of the philosophers of the period, all of which he adopted and adapted to his own purposes. . . .

The points of similarity between Paul and his philosophic competitors may be stressed to the point that he is viewed as a type of hellenistic philosopher. (pp. 67-68)

Does Doherty deny the Jewishness of Paul’s thinking as Ehrman would have readers think?

There is no question that Pauline Christianity contains important elements which are deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures and cultural heritage. At the same time, the nature of the salvation it offers, the sacramentalism involved, the features of its saving deity, are heavily derivative on non-Jewish precedents. But that is what religious syncretism is all about. Different beliefs and practices are combined to create something new, not with any overtly conscious intent, but because over time the human mind is continually generating fresh ideas out of what it assimilates from the past and the environment. . . .

Elements of Paul’s Christ Jesus bear too close a resemblance to the savior gods of the Greco-Roman mystery religions to allow it to be claimed that one has nothing to do with the other. There may be no evidence of overt “borrowing” directly from the mysteries on the part of Paul . . . yet it is undeniable that both phenomena are expressions of similar needs and impulses; both are branches of the same [conceptual world]. (p. 127, JNGM)

Is Bart Ehrman so offended by the very idea of mythicism that he is quite prepared to deny the research of his own scholarly peers, and even deny what he himself has written, if he suspects any of that might become tinder for a mythicist flame?

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Neil Godfrey

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