21. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 21

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by Earl Doherty


“Key Data” in Proving Jesus’ Historicity – The Crucified Messiah



  • The conflict between messianic expectation and result
  • Assumptions based on the Gospels and Acts
  • Why did Paul persecute the early church?
  • Paul’s gospel vs. Ehrman’s view of early church beliefs
  • Christ as “curse” for being “hanged on a tree”
  • Paul switching horses in mid-stream
  • A new view of Christian origins
  • The traditional Jewish Messiah
  • Jesus as lower class Galilean peasant
  • Who would make up a crucified Messiah?


* * * * *

The Crucified Messiah

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 156-174)


A conflict between expectation and history

To introduce his second piece of “Key Data” which confer a “high degree of certainty that (Jesus) was an historical figure,” (p. 144) Bart Ehrman offers this:

These early Christians from day one believed that Jesus was the messiah. But they knew that he had been crucified. (p. 156)

This is a good example of what happens when one’s thinking is stuck firmly inside the box. The point Ehrman is making is that the concept of the “messiah,” the expectation of what he would be and what he would do, conflicted with the fact that Jesus had been crucified. In other words, historical expectations were at odds with (alleged) historical events. But if that is indeed one’s starting assumption, and if it is wrong, then it will lead us down all sorts of problematic garden paths and into conclusions which are not only erroneous but unnecessary.

The first part of this assumption, entirely based on the Gospels and Acts, is that certain people made judgments about a certain historical man. If that were the case, then an anomaly would certainly exist between traditional ideas about the messiah and what the life of that man actually entailed. Why, then, the question arises, did those people come to such a judgment when it conflicted so much with standard messianic expectation?

But all we have to do is ask: what if no judgment was initially made about any historical man? Everything that follows would then be entirely different, and perhaps more amenable to understanding how Christianity began and showing a conformity to what some of the texts themselves are telling us.

Paul’s persecution of the church

For reasons that may not seem self-evident at first, claiming that Jesus was crucified is a powerful argument that Jesus actually lived. (p. 156)

Ehrman’s route to supporting this statement is a complicated one. He first calls attention to Paul’s persecution of the church in Judea prior to his conversion. He notes that Paul says nothing specific about what the beliefs of that early church were, or on what particular grounds it was subjected to persecution by the authorities, with himself acting as their agent. Nothing daunted, Ehrman steps into that breach. But because he has made the initial assumption that an historical man was interpreted as the messiah, he embarks on a chain of speculation which not only contains problems, but also looks to be completely off the path of reality.

To begin with, Paul refers to those persecuted as “the church of God” (Gal. 1:13), whereas if this were a movement proceeding out of belief in and reaction to a human man, we might expect it to call itself “the church of Jesus.” Then to set the scene of his argument, Ehrman slips into the same kind of question-begging he did in the first part the chapter dealing with “brother of the Lord.” From his inevitable contact with the people he was persecuting, Ehrman surmises that Paul must have learned about Jesus from them. No doubt. But which “Jesus” was that? Ehrman simply assumes the very issue under debate: that it was the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, the human man who had been crucified only a few years earlier.

What Paul “learned” about Jesus

And what were they saying about this Jesus?

These Christians were not calling Jesus a dying-rising God. They were calling him the Jewish messiah. And they understood this messiah to be completely human, a person chosen by God to mediate his will on earth. That is the Jesus Paul first heard of. (p. 157)

I guess Ehrman hasn’t read Paul and the other epistles lately, which is the only early record extant. Perhaps he’s forgotten Paul’s gospel as laid out in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: that Christ died, was buried, and rose to life on the third day. Perhaps he’s lost sight of Romans 6:1-6 as well, in which believers were baptized into his death, lay buried with him, and will as a consequence be one with him in a resurrection like his. So far, it’s pretty much all dying and rising, something which provided salvation, a very un-Jewish concept especially in regard to the messiah. And there are a host of other references throughout Paul and the other epistle writers to Jesus’ suffering and death (though never in any recognizable correspondence to the Gospel story), and to his rising.

Would this be “calling (Jesus) the Jewish messiah”? Obviously, there is an anomaly here between what “Paul first heard” about Jesus and his own set of beliefs about him. Ehrman has just identified Jewish messianic expectation as something that was at odds with the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion. In other words, Jewish expectation did not include dying and rising for its messiah, salvific or otherwise. According to Ehrman, Paul learned from the Jewish believers he persecuted that the man Jesus was the messiah, something that would not have been blasphemous to Jews, who had the occasional habit of declaring this or that person to be the messiah.

An “offensive” doctrine

But then why were these people with their non-blasphemous beliefs being persecuted by the authorities? Ehrman suggests that Paul, and presumably those authorities, were “offended” by the idea that a crucified man could be declared the messiah. All of this, of course, is pure speculation on Ehrman’s part. There is nothing, not a hint in the early record, that anyone was declaring a recently crucified man as the messiah and that the authorities were offended by this. (It isn’t even in Q, the supposed earliest reference to Jesus, which never refers to their perceived founder figure as the messiah, or even to his death.)

We might note that such a thing is entirely missing in 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 which says that the “doctrine of the cross,” the concept that the Christ had been crucified, was a “stumbling block to Jews and a folly to Greeks.” There is nothing said (though it is always, of course, read into the text) about a human man who was crucified being the messiah. Now, considering that in this same epistle (8:6) Paul is clearly seen to regard his Christ Jesus as a part of God, the chapter 1 passage must entail the idea that this “Christ crucified” which Paul preaches is a divine figure — even if it were the case that he had formerly been a human being.

But in that latter case, the Jews’ “stumbling block” over a crucified messiah would have been vastly overshadowed by their apoplexy at the blasphemy that Paul and his fellow Christians had identified a human man with God. Paul makes no defence of this blasphemy because there is no sign that such an objection has been raised by anyone. And there is certainly no sign, here or anywhere else, that Paul felt any need to explain why his own view of Jesus has been carried so vastly further, and in such a blasphemous direction, than the Jewish church he formerly persecuted and to which he was converted.

Christ as a “curse”

Ehrman points to Galatians 3:13 as an indication of the ‘offensiveness’ that would have been caused by those Jews adopting a crucified man as the messiah:

Christ bought us freedom from the curse of the law by becoming for our sake an accursed thing; for scripture says, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” [Deut. 21:23].

Ehrman links this ancient view with the Roman method of execution by crucifixion, thinking to cast light on why Paul was offended. But it would have been useful if anywhere in his letters Paul had actually spelled out that he had been offended by hearing that an historical man ‘cursed for being hanged on a tree’ was thought of as the messiah. It would have been useful had he anywhere even intimated that it was information like this which he had learned from the people he persecuted.

Certainly he makes no such connection in Galatians 3:13. Neither does the writer of 1 Peter in 2:22-24 who speaks of Christ hanged on a tree while giving us, by way of ‘biography’ about that event, simply a paraphrase of verses from Isaiah 53.

Paul switching Jesuses in mid-stream

Ehrman thus postulates that before his conversion, Paul found offensive the idea that a crucified man was the messiah, but this was “before changing his mind and becoming a follower of Jesus.” And what a change of mind! Ehrman has embroiled himself in all sorts of contradictions here. The Jewish followers of Jesus whom he was persecuting were, by Ehrman’s measure, traditional Jews innocent of blasphemy who not only did not regard Jesus as divine, they would not have regarded him as resurrected. (After all, resurrection as a doctrine always implies a consequence for believers or the dead righteous which can only be effected by some sort of divinity or heavenly figure, and this coupled with his death would have made him nothing short of a dying and rising god.)

One wonders, then, what this “church of God” who believed a crucified man was the messiah thought this unorthodox messiah had been good for. Had he overthrown the Romans? Had he elevated the Jews to supremacy? Had he inaugurated the Kingdom? How could any group of Jews possibly have imagined that, quite unlike their traditional expectations and regardless of what scripture had led them to expect, it had really been God’s plan to send his messiah to earth on a preliminary visit: to be ignominiously killed, but with the promise of coming again, and then he would fulfill the expectations that the messiah was famed for. Nor would those Jews have thought the reason for his death on the first visit was to redeem the world’s sins, since Ehrman assures us that, contrary to the atonement doctrine later Christians were to adopt (they read it into passages like Isaiah 53), traditional Jewish outlook contained no such concept.

One could well believe that Paul and the authorities would want to persecute a bunch of crazies like that!

But wait a minute. What, then, was Paul ‘converted’ to? The belief that a human man who was not a part of God had been the messiah? That he was not a dying and rising savior, but simply “a person chosen by God to mediate his will on earth”? The former would have been a pagan idea, and Ehrman tells us that this was a group governed entirely by Jewish principles. Another pagan idea would have been the concept of the believers joining themselves with the savior, becoming a ‘part’ of him and he of them, so presumably Ehrman has ruled this out as well.

An impossible contradiction

The problem is, most of Paul’s beliefs, as far as we can see, were the direct opposite of what he had allegedly learned from the Judean church he converted to. His Christ did die and rise. He saved through his death and resurrection. Romans 6:1-6 speaks of joining with the Son, being “baptized into union with Christ Jesus,” of being “buried with him,” of “becoming one with him in a resurrection like his.” Paul’s Christ was a part of God; as I’ve said before, to claim otherwise is to perform extreme violence on the texts (or ignore them altogether), as with 1 Corinthians 8:6, or Colossians 1:15-20.

Is Ehrman saying that Paul was converted to the non-blasphemous variety of faith, and then subsequently did another about-face and betrayed all the principles of the church he had converted to, adopting a blasphemy it would have roundly condemned? Where is the evidence of such a conflict with and divorce from the ‘church of God in Judea,’ especially if the latter were in any way connected to the Jerusalem pillars which is often suggested? (In fact, Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 15:11 that he and the latter proclaim the same thing.) Where is the record, even an implication, of this double conversion by Paul?

Indeed, such a thing has to be ruled out. In Galatians 1:23, Paul declares that

Christ’s congregations in Judea . . . heard it said, “Our former persecutor is preaching the good news of the faith which once he tried to destroy.”

But Paul’s gospel of a dying and rising part of God was, according to Ehrman, precisely not the faith of the Judaean church he persecuted. Yet that church, according to Paul, remarked that he now did preach their faith. This is an unresolvable contradiction. Moreover, would Paul, in the course of his supposed second about-face, switch from a focus that was entirely on a human man to one which focused exclusively on a heavenly deity with no reference to or interest in its human predecessor? That lack of interest has become so profound that he dismisses the human man entirely, portrays the faith movement as impelled by God and the Spirit, makes no room for a recently incarnated Jesus in the course of salvation history, and takes for himself the role of inaugurating the new covenant in parallel with Moses’ dispensation of the old.

That’s not a ‘change of mind.’ It’s a brain transplant.

And no one called him on any of it!

Revising Christian origins from outside the box

Ehrman cannot see that this convoluted mess he is presenting to his readers is far less likely — indeed it is ludicrous — than the obvious alternative: that the earliest form of the faith Paul persecuted and then was converted to had nothing to do with a human man who had been crucified, but with a Son and sacrificial Savior who, as Paul and others regularly say, was discovered in scripture after lying unknown for long ages until God and the Spirit revealed him (as in Romans 16:25-27). Either he lived at some unknown time in the past (the view of G. A. Wells), or he lived, died and was resurrected entirely in a non-material dimension, in the supernatural heavenly world.

But not a single epistle writer ever offers us a statement that he had lived on earth at an unknown time in the past. They never show the slightest inclination to speculate on any details of that unknown life (they certainly could have consulted scripture for such things, as the evangelists were later to do). And the occasional human-sounding language can easily be understood in the context of Platonic philosophy and cosmology — with the occasional passage or document, such as 1 Corinthians 2:8 and the Ascension of Isaiah, not to mention Hebrews’ picture of a heavenly sacrifice, actually placing it in a spiritual dimension. Thus the Wellsian theory should be rejected in favor of the heavenly alternative.

Ehrman does not even realize that he is floundering in a sea of contradiction and fallacy. Starting out with question-begging assumptions can lead one into a quicksand burial from which there is no rising.

The traditional ‘Anointed One’

Ehrman now digresses to give us a capsule summary of the history of the Jewish concept of messiah. Originally it simply enjoyed its literal meaning of “Anointed One,” referring to the practice of anointing a king or high priest, or one enjoying God’s special favor. It was the mark of a special representative of God. This, when Israel lost its independence under a succession of foreign overlords, led to the concept that there was a unique “Messiah” promised by God who at some point in the future would restore the nation to its independent kingship under a descendant of David. One of the Psalms of Solomon most thoroughly encapsulates this complex of expectations, one in which there was no thought of redeeming the world or its sinners.

Ehrman also gives us alternative concepts about a Messiah existing at the same time. One — or rather a duality of concepts — is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in their expectation of “two messiahs, one who would be a ruler-king and over him the priestly messiah.” Then there was this:

[The messiah] would be a cosmic figure, a powerful angelic being sent from God to destroy the enemy and set up God’s kingdom on earth. This figure was often modeled on the “one like a son of man” in the book of Daniel (for example, 7:13-14). In an apocryphal writing known as 1 Enoch, probably from about the same time, comes this prediction about the future messianic Son of Man:

[The Son of Man] shall never pass away or perish from before the face of the earth. But those who have led the world astray shall be bound with chains; and their ruinous congregation shall be imprisoned; all their deeds shall vanish from before the face of the earth. Thenceforth nothing that is corruptible shall be found; for that Son of Man has appeared and has seated himself upon the throne of his glory; and all evil shall disappear from before his face (1 Enoch 69). (p. 162)

The Jewish sect represented in 1 Enoch (in the section known as the Similitudes of Enoch, probably from some time in the first century) has envisioned for itself a spiritual messiah who is a cosmic figure and powerful angelic being residing entirely in heaven and whose arrival they await on the day of judgment; with this Messiah/Son of Man/Elect One the righteous on earth identify themselves, and from him they receive certain future guarantees. (None of 1 Enoch contains the concept of a sacrificial Messiah, or a death and rising for him.)

Why not, then, another Jewish sect which has envisioned out of scripture a figure they see as God’s own Son, in the spirit of the Logos or personified Wisdom; only this one also underwent a sacrifice at the hands of evil angels, but came back to life as a guarantee of eternal life for the devotees who have joined themselves with him through faith and ritual? All the concepts of the time were available to create such a perceived ‘revelation’ of a hitherto hidden truth. Like the Similitudes of Enoch, this was a transformation of the traditional idea of an earthly Messiah into a spiritual and Platonically-based version, one taking on a dimension of divinity.

He, too, would be a judge and establisher of the Kingdom. And when he came into contact with an imagined sage who had preached in Galilee and came to be identified with a different group’s expectation of a similar End-time figure they called the Son of Man — though this one, too, had no death and rising dimension — a fusion took place, and the heavenly Son fell to earth to join with his composite partner to create, under Mark’s hand, a powerful symbol of an entire religious trend: Jesus of Nazareth.

The Jewish messiah and the crucified Jesus

In his attempt to accommodate the crucified man Jesus to the concept of the Jewish messiah, Ehrman makes a number of unsupportable declarations. The first is

In all our early traditions (Jesus) was a lower class peasant from rural Galilee . . . (p. 163)

I hardly need to point out that no such thing is witnessed in the early traditions that are contained in the epistles. Even if Ehrman has postulated (on dubious grounds) oral traditions, including Aramaic ones, which he claims go back to immediately following Jesus’ death, he can hardly claim that “all” early traditions make Jesus out to be a peasant from rural Galilee. Even if the epistolary view of Christ were claimed to be a subsequent development, we would hardly see in such a wide range of documents and writers an utter absence of any sign of its supposed predecessor only a decade or two after his death.

Then there is this declaration:

That Jesus died by crucifixion is almost universally attested in our sources, early and late. We have traditions of Jesus’s bloody execution in independent Gospel sources (Mark, M, L, John, Gospel of Peter), throughout our various epistles and other writings (Hebrews, 1 Peter, Revelation), and certainly in Paul — everywhere in Paul. The crucifixion of Jesus is the core of Paul’s message and is attested abundantly in his writings as one of the — if not the — earliest things that he knew about the man. (p. 163)

Once a question-beggar, always a question-beggar. I’ve already dealt with the claim that all those “Gospel sources” are to be seen as independent. As for all those non-Gospel writers, including Paul, to which we can add other non-canonical documents, crucifixion is indeed the centerpiece. What is not part of that centerpiece, however, is its location on earth, or the fact that a recent human man was involved, or that he was crucified by human agencies. Indeed, some of them specify the agents to be the demon spirits, and one or two actually give a location in the heavens. It’s one thing to beg a question; it’s another for that question to be allowed to stand in contradiction to a major part of the evidence.

Who would make up a crucified messiah?

Ehrman now asks the question that many historicists consider something of a slam-dunk. Would any first century Jew make up the idea of a crucified messiah — meaning out of nothing, out of no historical event, as mythicists claim? But once again, Ehrman is doing his thinking from inside the box. What if the question, asked from outside the box, were:

What would have led certain Jewish thinkers, influenced by Greek ideas and widespread religious trends, to survey scripture and find that it told of a part of God who had undergone a sacrifice in the supernatural world at the hands of evil angels, some of those thinkers seeing this as a way of overcoming the demons and rescuing present and future souls of the Jewish righteous from Sheol, others broadening their view and seeing it as a way of redeeming the sins of the entire world?

What a different picture of the origins of Christianity Ehrman might have come up with then!

Unfortunately, Ehrman does not ask that question. Instead, as a means of demonstrating to his university pupils the offensiveness of the idea Paul supposedly encountered, he asks:

What if I told you that David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, attacked and killed some years ago in Texas by the FBI as a dangerous rebel, was really God’s Chosen one, the Lord of all? (DJE? p. 163)

Good analogy. And it has presented Ehrman with a major challenge. What indeed would have led the first Christians to regard an apparent David Koresh as God’s chosen and prophesied messiah? Would any Jew judge a man whom most saw as a “crucified criminal” to be the messiah, God’s agent for Israel’s salvation?

For Ehrman’s answer to that question and all the problems and anomalies it raises, the reader will have to wait until the next instalment.


. . . to be continued


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7 thoughts on “21. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 21”

  1. If there are a group of followers who should have the best knowledge of Jesus teachers it should be his apostles. The gospels present them as following Jesus for considerable periods of time, and yet we have the situation where they have conflicts with Paul about major theological questions such as circumcision and when his kingdom will come. Either Jesus was a bad teacher or they were bad listeners. How is it Paul ends up overruling the apostles if everything is so crystal clear ? How or why do the congregations of followers somehow take sides with Paul if everybody was so well aware of both Jesus recent life and the appointments he gave to his apostles ? I can understand the need to move on from the restrictions and problems of the Mosaic law, but i dont understand why they listen to anyone but the apostles.

    1. Because it was the Gentile churches that listened to Paul and the Jewish ones that listened to the apostles? And then the Jewish “churches” died about because they weren’t about worshiping Jesus as God but awaiting a second coming that didn’t happen? So all that was left was the Pagan version of Paul’s?

      1. But today the Roman Catholic Church manages to do the unpopular thing on many perspectives such as birth control. Of course Paul was the winner for being practical, but that hardly explains how a layman managed to upstage the apostles of God. Imagine if you or me went to Rome and somehow overruled the Pope, its never happened in 2000 years of the papacy and yet it did happen in the NT.

        1. You’re thinking in terms of one church instead of two. What if the church in Judea was one church and the church outside Judea was another–basically two religions both claiming to be “the church,” kinda like Catholicism and Protestantism in a way. And as for “that hardly explains how a layman managed to upstage the apostles of God,” with this scenario it explains it perfectly: Marcion upstaged the apostles for a time the same way, with his own church; Luther and Calvin are still doing it today.

          1. Your point about Marcion is well taken, as he was quite influencial for a while during those ancient times. In the end however unlike Paul, Marcion’s theology was only followed by a limited relatively small number of followers and he is only remembered by enthuaists and scholars. Pauls example of hijacking a religion and gaining authority is rare, not many individuals have changed world religions like Paul. I can only think of a few characters, Mohammad, Buddha, Paul, Moses, Jesus, myth or otherwise the persona of world changer is few and far between.

  2. “Good analogy. And it has presented Ehrman with a major challenge. What indeed would have led the first Christians to regard an apparent David Koresh as God’s chosen and prophesied messiah? Would any Jew judge a man whom most saw as a ‘crucified criminal’ to be the messiah, God’s agent for Israel’s salvation?”

    No, but rabidly antinomian Gentiles might use such a person’s name (for that’s all they could use, they certainly couldn’t use his actual teaching) to destroy the Law. And really, isn’t this all Christianity is about–bashing the Law? saying there is no need for “law”–its all about “faith”? Yes, really, it is. And for that, do you really need a real figure? No, you just need the desire to create a crucified Messiah whose death can be seen as the death of the Law. Mythical, real, doesn’t matter–all that matters is his death is interpreted as the death of the Law and hence the way is paved for Gentiles to say “We don’t have to obey your stinking Law, oh Jews, nor obey any morality whatsoever–because your Messiah was crucified and that crucifixion was the crucifixion of the Law, not only of your Law but of the very concept of Law!!!” There’s your origin of Christianity right there.

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