Dr. James F. McGrath: Conspiracy Theorist

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

McGrath’s E-book

Awhile back I bought the Kindle edition of McGrath’s e-book, The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?, hoping to get a review post out of it. Unfortunately, the work is just a tepid rehash of what you’ll find in Bart Ehrman’s (far superior) lectures from The Great Courses (aka The Teaching Company). Dr. McGrath adds nothing especially new or interesting in his assessment of the life and death of Jesus, probably because we’re not in his target audience — Christian believers who are troubled by the Talpiot tomb story.

English: Resurrection of Christ
English: Resurrection of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was about to write off the effort as a complete waste of time when I came upon the section header, “Evidence for a Conspiracy?” Now we’re getting somewhere. This could be fun. Perhaps my slogging through page after page of leaden prose wasn’t for nothing. So, what sort of conspiracy is James talking about? He writes:

There is one point at which, if one were inclined to make a case for some sort of conspiracy or cover up in connection with early Christianity, one could do so particularly plausibly. I am referring to the missing ending of Mark’s Gospel. As all recent translations of the Bible point out, our earliest manuscripts end abruptly at Mark 16:8, after the phrase “they did not say anything to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Kindle Locations 1436-1443)

Ugh. Here we go again. As regular readers know, McGrath has a special curiosity about the end of Mark’s Gospel, which drove him to write a paper, “Mark’s Missing Ending: Clues from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Peter,” which was recently reviewed (and corrected) here in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Mark’s “Missing Ending” — Redux

James is much more forthcoming in his e-book than in his paper. When writing for the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) or the Bible and Interpretation web site, he didn’t come out and say he thought an unknown ending once existed but is now missing. He left himself some wiggle room, some “plausible deniability.” But now we’re going to see his true colors:

There have been attempts to treat this ending as the way the Gospel originally ended, and the way the author intended for it to conclude. However, when we consider that copyists of the Gospel of Mark independently added at least two different endings, and that Matthew and Luke both felt the need to complete the story when they used Mark’s Gospel, it seems clear that early readers of Mark’s Gospel found its sudden ending at 16:8 unsatisfactory. Once we realize that it makes little or no sense to tell a story that ends with an assertion that no one was told about the events in the story, it begins to seem far more likely that the original version of Mark’s Gospel must have once continued beyond this point. (Kindle Locations 1442-1446, bold emphasis mine)

An argument from silence

McGrath is pointing out what many readers over the years have noticed. Mark’s Jesus predicts his death and resurrection throughout the gospel. Then when we finally reach the resurrection scene, we find out it has already happened “off stage.” Worse still, instead of treating us to a set of entertaining resurrection stories, Mark informs us that the women told no one and ran away in terror. The End.

James finds this silence displeasing. No, it’s more than displeasing; for him, it’s impossible. He doesn’t simply suspect Mark’s gospel continued after 16:8, he says it “must have once continued beyond this point.” Curiously, when Paul’s silence about Jesus is the focus of our discussion, the main alternatives are (1) Paul chose not to write about the historical Jesus or (2) Paul knew nothing about the historical Jesus. Now we have a viable third option, a McGrathian Conspiracy: Paul wrote about Jesus but it has mysteriously disappeared!

Continue reading “Dr. James F. McGrath: Conspiracy Theorist”

22. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 22

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Earl Doherty


A Crucified Messiah


  • Jesus and David Koresh
  • Was a crucified criminal believed to be the messiah?
  • Ehrman’s “story” of a resurrection
  • A story missing in Q and the epistles
  • The actual picture in the epistles
  • Did Jews invent a crucified messiah?
  • Did Jews anticipate a suffering messiah?
  • The sources and nature of Paul’s new messiah
  • Ehrman’s summary of his evidence with summary responses


* * * * *

The Crucified Messiah

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 164-174)


Jesus as an ancient David Koresh

At the end of our last instalment, Bart Ehrman told of putting a question to his university students:

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)

He was making the point that for the followers of Jesus to declare that a man who had just been executed as a rebel was really God’s prophesied messiah would indeed have been equivalent to survivors of the Branch Davidians making a similar declaration of David Koresh today.

Ehrman is now faced with a major challenge. He must answer the question: How could any Jew judge a man who fulfilled none of the expectations the nation held about the messiah, a man whom society would have regarded as a “crucified criminal,” ignominiously despatched by the very overlords he was supposed to overthrow, to be the fulfillment of all those prophecies in scripture about God’s agent for Israel’s salvation?

The traditional Christian answer and Ehrman’s “story” substitute

Ask that question of an evangelical Christian today and you will get a stock answer: the actual resurrection of Jesus convinced his followers that he was God’s Son and Messiah. I suppose if I had been around at that time and saw a dead man walk, I too would have let that override whatever negative reaction I had to seeing him die on the cross. But Ehrman hasn’t allowed himself that option. And yet, he appeals to much the same thing, just a weaker version of it.

If it is hard to imagine Jews inventing the idea of a crucified messiah, where did the idea come from? It came from historical realities. There really was a man Jesus. Some of the things he said and possibly did made some of his followers wonder if he could be the messiah. Eventually they became convinced: he must be the messiah. But then he ran afoul of the authorities, who had him arrested, put on trial, and condemned to execution. He was crucified. This, of course, radically disconfirmed everything his followers had thought and hoped since he obviously was the furthest thing from the messiah. But then something else happened. Some of them began to say that God had intervened and brought him back from the dead. The story caught on, and some (or all—we don’t know) of his closest followers came to think that in fact he had been raised. This reconfirmed in a big way the hopes that had been so severely dashed by his crucifixion. For his reinspirited followers, Jesus truly is the one favored by God. So he is the messiah. But he is a different kind of messiah than anyone expected. God had a different plan from the beginning. He planned to save Israel not by a powerful royal messiah but by a crucified messiah. (DJE? p. 164)

So now instead of an actual resurrection, with followers seeing Jesus again in the flesh and placing their hands upon him to confirm that he was indeed alive, Ehrman posits a “story” of a resurrection which “caught on.” I’m not so sure that I myself, back then, would have been convinced by a ‘story.’ It hasn’t got quite the same force as actually seeing the dead live, right in front of you. Maybe getting a sworn assurance from someone else who actually did see the dead man alive again might have substituted. But a ‘story’? And what did that story say? That he had actually been seen in the flesh? Or that he had been taken up to heaven immediately, leaving no witnesses behind? Was it a resurrection in flesh, or one in spirit? Did the story offer any proof? Ehrman does not say. Continue reading “22. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 22”