Bart Ehrman vs. Earl Doherty
- Using previous scholarship with a different end result
- Ehrman’s numerous misreadings and misrepresentations of my text
- Platonic (and other) ancient views of the universe
- What was the interpretation of the cultic myths:
- allegorical or literal, heavenly or earthly?
- among the philosophers?
- among the devotees of the cult?
- among the common people?
- Revisiting 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16
- Revisiting “the rulers of this age”
- Was the Christ cult Jewish or Greek—or both?
- Jewish sectarian thinking moves upward
- Was Pauline Christianity “Aramaic rural Palestinian Judaism”?
- Must Christ have shed his blood on earth?
- Problems and declarations
* * * * *
Was Jesus Crucified in the Spiritual Realm Rather Than on Earth?
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 252-258)
The practice of drawing on previous scholarship
Ehrman calls me “one of the staunchest defenders of a mythicist view of Christ.” Well, that’s almost the only valid statement he makes about me in the entire book. He starts off with a complaint which has often cropped up in criticisms directed against me:
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. (DJE? p. 252)
First of all, I scarcely think I needed to point this out. What mainstream New Testament scholar subscribes to the mythicist theory, let alone that Paul regarded Christ as sacrificed in the heavenly realm? If any of these scholars I draw on had so believed, does Ehrman think I would not have trumpeted it to the skies? I was hardly concealing what anyone would assume was the historicist orientation of such scholars.
More importantly, does Ehrman or anyone else regard it as illegitimate of me to draw on observations and conclusions on the part of established scholarship if they can be fitted into the context of my own argument? Mainstream scholars do that all the time. All of scholarship builds on the work of predecessors, and all of those predecessors are subject to reinterpretation and the reapplication of their work to the new conclusions of their successors. Besides, many of my references to the views of historicist scholars involve a clear indication that I make use of their observations in different ways than they do, with different end results.
Enough said on that fallacy. Ehrman’s motive in raising it is quite clearly to impugn to me some form of dishonest procedure.
Multiple views of the universe
One of the “problems” Ehrman finds in my book is its main thesis:
One particular piece is especially unconvincing: in Doherty’s view, Paul (and other early Christians) believed that the Son of God had undergone a redeeming “‘blood’ sacrifice” not in this world but in a spiritual realm above it. (DJE? p. 252)
In the course of explaining why he is unconvinced, Ehrman makes a number of egregious misreadings of my text. (I know it is 800 pages, but it is still incumbent upon Ehrman to actually see the words as they stand on the page if he is going to find fault with them.) He says:
Doherty’s reason for this remarkable statement involves what he calls “the ancients’ view of the universe” (was there one such view?). . . . To begin with, how can he claim to have uncovered “the” view of the world held by “the” ancients, a view that involved an upper world where the true reality resides and this lower world, which is a mere reflection of it? How, in fact, can we talk about “the” view of the world in antiquity? Ancient views of the world were extremely complex and varied. . . . (DJE? pp. 252, 254)
This is not simply a misreading, it presents the exact opposite of what I actually say. Included in what I do say are the following:
To understand that setting, we need to look at the ancients’ views [VIEWS, plural] of the universe and the various [i.e., MULTIPLE] concepts of myth among both Jews and pagans, including the features of the Hellenistic salvation cults known as the “mysteries.” [Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.97]
[I]t is clear that much variation existed in the concept of the layered heavens and what went on in them, just as there were many variations in the nature of the savior and how he conferred salvation. [Ibid.,p.126]
Not only has Ehrman misrepresented me as someone who thinks the ancients’ view of the world was monolithic along Platonic lines, he then implies that the Platonic view of the universe, with its upper world of ‘true reality’ and a lower world which is a counterpart reflection of it, is somehow my own invention. Whereas any undergraduate student of ancient philosophy knows full well that this was a widespread (and to some extent even pre-Plato) type of cosmology about the structure of the universe. Unfortunately, much of Ehrman’s readership will not even be undergrads. Ehrman is here being either dishonest or incompetent. Further:
This view of things was especially true, Doherty avers, in the mystery cults, which Doherty claims provided “the predominant form of popular religion in this period.” (This latter claim, by the way, is simply not true. Most religious pagans were not devotees of mystery cults.) (DJE? pp. 252-253)
This is a non-sequitur. A predominant form of a popular practice does not infer that a majority of the population indulges in it. The predominant form of popular illicit drug is cocaine. Does that mean the majority of all men and women use it? Ehrman is guilty of serious logical deficiencies here.
From The Jesus Puzzle to Jesus: Neither God Nor Man
In the first edition of Doherty’s book, he claimed that it was in this higher realm that the key divine events of the mysteries transpired; it was there, for example, that Attis had been castrated, that Osiris had been dismembered, and that Mithras had slain the bull. In his second edition he admits that in fact we do not know if that is true and that we do not have any reflections on such things by any of the cult devotees themselves since we don’t have a single writing from any of the adherents of the ancient mystery cults. Yet he still insists that philosophers under the influence of Plato—such as Plutarch, whom we have met—certainly interpreted things this way. (DJE? p. 253)
First, although the words say so, I needed to have stressed that it was only in the context of interpretations within the mystery cults themselves, and not those of the common man-in-the-street or the average writer speaking of the traditional myths (such as the historian Tacitus or the geographer Pausanias), that I am claiming that a reorientation to the upper world took place for the activities of the savior gods, under the influence of Platonism. And even that may not have been complete, for the age-old setting of the traditional myths in a primordial time on earth would still have made its influence felt.
Still, even though we have no literature directly addressing the activities of the cults and the interpretations of their myths, there are many indicators in the record we do have to suggest that such a reorientation to a Platonic higher world did take place. (In The Jesus Puzzle, I devoted an Appendix to focusing on that evidence, and in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, such discussion was made a part of the main text.)
Thus in The Jesus Puzzle my too-firm claim about the relocation of the cultic mysteries’ myths to the upper world needed to be qualified as “deducible from the evidence,” even if not firmly demonstrated. Ehrman’s claim that I admit that “in fact we do not know if that is true” similarly needs qualification. In both books I have marshalled a great deal of evidence and argument to justify the postulation that, in the minds of the priests and philosophers of the cults and the devotees who had such things explained to them during the secret rituals, the myths were indeed thought of as transpiring in a heavenly dimension. Ehrman fails to address that evidence and argument.
Philosopher vs. man-in-the-street
In this connection, Ehrman has directly reversed what I had to say about the differences between the views of the philosophers and the views of the average devotee of the cults, or simply the common person who was familiar with the traditional myth but not a cult member.
What literature we do possess which addresses the cultic gods and their myths are from a handful of philosophers spanning a few centuries. The most important of these is Plutarch, who wrote his treatise Isis and Osiris around the end of the first century CE. Plutarch’s interpretation of the myth is an allegorical one. He does not regard the myth as representing actual activities of the gods, but as symbolizing forces of nature, of the universe, spiritual processes, etc. But in presenting his own interpretation, he gives us information on the various ways contemporary society regarded such myths, and it is clear that many people held a much more literal view of the Isis-Osiris myth than did a philosopher like himself.
That difference, between philosopher and the average person familiar with the myths (whether a devotee of the cult or not), was made clear in my book. Ehrman, on the other hand, has accused me of the direct opposite:
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. . . . 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. (DJE? p. 255)
This distinction between allegorical and literal understanding is an important one, and it figures in much of my analysis of the mystery cults. How Ehrman could have missed it is hard to say. But what, to a great extent, the philosopher and the average cult devotee probably did have in common, if we take into account those indicators I spoke of, is a concept of the myths taking place, whether allegorically or literally, in a supernatural world rather than in a primordial time in the distant past on earth.
(One myth we can be quite sure of in this respect is Mithras’ slaying of the bull, which has been fairly securely interpreted by modern scholars as representing activities of the god in the heavens in regard to the movement of the stars. In addition, Plutarch gives us an interpretation of the myth of Osiris which relates specifically to heavenly spheres, as do the 4th century philosophers Sallustius and Julian the Apostate in regard to the god Attis.)
But if we can judge by Plutarch’s admonishments—and Ehrman recognizes this in his quote above—members of the cults tended to adopt an outlook of literality on the myths (whether located on earth or in the heavens) which the philosophers felt at pains to correct. This situation is clearly outlined in my book:
Even the traditional religious myths which took shape in ancient society tended to be chaotic and lacking any sense of what we would call the rational and comprehensible (for example, Dionysos born from Zeus’ thigh). Yet such features were still looked upon as ‘real,’ however illogical they may seem to us; they were allegorized only by the intelligentsia. If pressed, average devotees might have been mightily exercised to define exactly how they saw the stories of Attis, Dionysos and Mithras unfolding in their world of myth, let alone to provide a specific location for them. [Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 155]
It tells us that in philosophical circles, and 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, but it demonstrates that the thinking of the era had moved in an upward direction, and we have no contrary evidence to suggest that the interpretation of the myths in the cults as a whole did not follow. [Ibid., p.149]
Ehrman criticizes me (see above) for admitting that we don’t know for sure what the average devotee of the cults believed, since we don’t have any writings from such people on the subject, but then—as though this is a contradiction—he says: “yet he still insists that philosophers under the influence of Plato—such as Plutarch, whom we have met—certainly interpreted things this way” (i.e., seeing the myths as locatable in the heavenly world).
But there is no contradiction here. Ehrman has just agreed that we do not have any writings from the cult devotees explaining the myths and rites. But from philosophers like Plutarch we do possess writings telling us something about how those myths and rites were interpreted, with specific reference to the layers of the heavens. That is why I can state that such philosophers interpreted the myths in the context of a Platonic heavenly setting.
|It is one thing to be expected to rebut a critique of one’s case which accurately and adequately represents it. It is quite another thing to know what to do with a critique which has thoroughly misread that case and thinks to deal with it on the basis of a complete misrepresentation of it. One unfortunate side effect of that misrepresentation is that the uninformed reader has no idea that Ehrman has given them a flawed and inaccurate picture of my position. If he had done that to a thesis presented by some mainstream critical scholar, bloody murder would have been raised and Ehrman’s reputation as any kind of reliable reviewer, let alone a scholar with integrity, would be in tatters.|
One paragraph from Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.100-1) sums up my position on this whole question:
What we do know is that the philosophers whose writings have come down to us did in fact transplant the myths and it was under the influence of Platonism. They transplanted them from a primordial time to a supernatural dimension, turning them into allegories of cosmic forces and spiritual processes. For them, the religious myths now symbolized things that happened beyond earth. And if that transplanting is the trend to be seen in the surviving 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, 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.
Paul’s Christ in the context of the times
Before leaving this topic for good, I should stress an important aspect of my argument in regard to the mysteries. I have stated that I do not use a Platonic interpretation of the pagan mystery cult myths as the primary evidence, let alone the only evidence, for such an interpretation of Paul and his view of his Christ Jesus. The latter is not reliant on the former.
It is the presentation of the Christ cult itself in the epistles which leads to an interpretation that Paul’s faith centers around a heavenly Jesus acting in a supernatural setting. Naturally, the broader philosophy and cosmology of the time provides us with the background against which we can interpret early Christian thinking (just as mainstream scholarship uses it in many ways), and identifying similar ideas in the mystery cults and their own savior god myths provides us with some corroboration for such an interpretation of the epistles’ world and mindset.
But it is primarily
- the lack of placement of Jesus on earth,
- the void on a recent historical role for him,
- his characterization in spiritual and mystical terms,
- the exclusive appeal to scripture for information about him,
- his state of being “unknown” for long generations and only now “revealed” by God through the sacred writings,
- supported by a mountain of evidence in Jewish sectarian intertestamental writings that even Jews looked to the heavenly world for the activities of divine figures and the source of God’s salvation
—all this and more leads one away from seeing the early Christian Jesus as a recent earthly man and instead to a heavenly paradigm whose reality was a spiritual one and whose temporarily-adopted “likeness” to humanity enabled him to descend and undergo sacrifice at the hands of Paul’s “rulers of this age.”
“The Jews who killed the Lord Jesus”—again
As an argument against my thesis that Paul’s Christ Jesus was an entirely supernatural figure, crucified in the lower heavens at the hands of the demon spirits, Ehrman once more makes this criticism:
Doherty refuses to allow that l Thessalonians—which explicitly says that the Jews (or the Judeans) were the ones responsible for the death of Jesus—can be used as evidence of Paul’s view: it is, he insists, an insertion into Paul’s writings, not from the apostle himself. (Here we find, again, textual studies driven by convenience: if a passage contradicts your views, simply claim that it was not actually written by the author.) (DJE? p. 253)
I refuse to allow? I insist that 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 is an insertion into Paul’s writings? It is my textual studies that are driven by convenience? This is utterly unconscionable on Ehrman’s part, making it sound to his readers that only irresponsible mythicists have made such a claim regarding this passage, when in fact interpolation is a widespread opinion on the matter among liberal scholars, and has been for at least a century.
“The Rulers of this Age”—again
Considering the importance of 1 Corinthians 2:8 for the mythicist theory, one might expect that Ehrman would devote some space to it. Here he introduces it:
More telling for (Doherty) is the passage I already quoted above from l Corinthians 2:6-8, which indicates that the “rulers of this age” were the ones who “crucified the Lord of glory.” For Doherty these are obviously not human rulers but demonic forces. Thus for Paul and other early Christians, Christ was not a human crucified on earth but a divine being crucified in the divine realm. (DJE? pp. 253-254)
Once again, the meaning of this phrase is not “obvious” only to me, but to a whole range of scholars over the last century. As well, of course, to ancient commentators themselves who “obviously” must have been familiar with the contemporary connotation of the phrase.
Now, lest I garner more criticism for an illegitimate appeal to mainstream scholarship, let me make it clear that those scholars who understand the phrase as a reference to the demon spirits, such as S. G. F. Brandon, do not draw the conclusion that Paul actually located that crucifixion in the heavenly realm. Most will simply conclude, as Origen was the first to do, that Paul was speaking of the demons working through human agents on earth, but somehow bearing the primary responsibility.
And yet, that is a superimposed layer of interpretation, one produced, of course, by the Gospels. But the willingness on the part of some mainstream scholars like Brandon to recognize the meaning of the phrase as intended by Paul is a piece of interpretation which a mythicist like myself can make use of with full legitimacy. If the phrase does mean the demon spirits—who do, after all, inhabit the lower reaches of the heavens where they engage in disreputable human-like activities which we have no reason to think could not include a hanging on a tree (views of the heavens as a whole are full of such ‘geomorphic’ envisionings, many of them gruesome)—then this becomes a perfectly valid plank in the mythicist theory.
And just how does Ehrman deal with that plank? Does he nail it down so that it doesn’t trip up historicism’s stroll in the park?
But is this really what Paul thought—the Paul who knew Jesus’s own brother and his closest disciple Peter, who learned of traditions of Jesus just a year or two after Jesus’s death? (DJE? p. 254)
This is Ehrman’s rebuttal? How could it possibly be demons in the heavens who crucified Jesus when Paul knew the historical Jesus’ own brother and closest disciple, and learned all about him within a year or two after Calvary? Who needs logic and counterargument, who needs to rebut one’s opponents’ position, when begging the question is so much easier and so handy? In Jesus: Neither God Nor Man I spent six pages on “the rulers of this age,” plus at other spots touching on certain points about the question, and this is what Ehrman thinks is sufficient to dismiss it?
As for this objection:
Is this why Paul persecuted the Christians—not for saying the (earthly) messiah was crucified by the Romans but for saying that some kind of spiritual being was killed in heaven by demons? And why exactly was that so offensive to Paul? Why would it drive him to destroy the new faith, as he himself says in Galatians 1 that he did? (DJE? p. 254)
Aside from it being unclear why Paul was acting on behalf of the Jewish religious authorities to persecute the new faith, it was hardly on the basis of it claiming that demons in the heavens had killed a spiritual figure they called the messiah. It was far more likely because they were preaching him as a heavenly part of God and compromising the establishment’s strict monotheism.
It is at this point that Ehrman erroneously imputes to me a monolithic view of the cosmology of the ancients. His insistence on mentioning the Stoics and Epicureans as though they had not crossed my mind is yet another reason to suspect that he did not himself read my book, in which I do make mention of rival philosophies to Platonism. (There has been some question about whether he indulged in the scholarly practice of having one’s undergrad students read the material and supply a report on it.)
But there is also no denying that Platonism was the dominant viewpoint of the day where cosmology was concerned, especially in Hellenistic Judaism, and there is no reason to reject a new Jewish-gentile movement whose own cosmology was Platonically oriented. It shows once again that Judaism was not isolated from pagan thought.
Jewish vs. Greek
Some very un-Jewish ideas
- eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ
- a believer entering into joint carnality with the body of Christ
- dying with Christ through baptism
And yet Ehrman seems to think so:
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. (DJE? p. 255)
And what would Ehrman say of Philo? His thought-world resided within the Hebrew scriptures, but he brought some very non-Jewish principles to their interpretation, principles which permeated the air of the time. There is scarcely a stronger Middle Platonist in this era than Philo, who in his own mind was thoroughly a Jew.
Paul may not have been the saturated Platonist that Philo was, and his dependence on the scriptures is undeniable, but his christology contains some very un-Jewish ideas. Was the concept of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ related to Jewish tradition? Not that I’ve heard of. How about the concept of the believer entering into joint carnality with the body of Christ? No connection there with Second Temple Judaism that I know. Dying with Christ through baptism? That was hardly right up the Jewish traditional alley. Says Ehrman,
And the Hebrew scriptures certainly did not discount the events that transpire here on earth among very real humans. For the writers of the Hebrew Bible, the acts of God did not transpire in some kind of ethereal realm above us all. They happened here on earth and were deeply rooted in daily, historical, real human experience. (DJE? pp. 255-256)
Earth vs. Heaven
And so they were. But the Hebrew Bible ended early in the second century BCE. And in its last canonical book, Daniel, we already see the beginnings of a shift to a concern with the heavenly world and God’s activities within it, a focus which was continued and enlarged on in much of the Jewish intertestamental writings.
The seminal scene in Daniel 7, in which God bestows power and glory on the “one like a son of man” representing the nation of Israel, is not conducted on earth, but in that “ethereal realm above us all.” The literary fascination with seers and prophets receiving guided tours above the earth, ascending through the layers of heaven and learning of their content and preparations for the future, as in the Similitudes of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah and the Ascension of Isaiah, shows that some Jewish thought was moving beyond—or ‘higher’ than—any former biblical traditions. The document 2 Enoch contains extended accounts of activities going on in the spiritual layers of the universe.
The Pauline corpus’ obsession with the threat of dark cosmic powers who inhabit the heavens, the period’s fixation on the threat from the demons, has little precedent in the Hebrew bible and marks a new development in Jewish thought, as it did in Hellenistic outlook generally.
And inasmuch as Gnosticism is now seen as having had at least a partial origin within radical Jewish circles preceding Christianity, with its center of attention on a heavenly world and the workings of the Godhead, we can see an era-wide development in an interest in the Platonic view of an upper part of the cosmos where divine activities took place.
Even Philo, with his focus on the Logos as emanation of God, as well as his “Heavenly Man” concept—another fixation in the period’s picture of divine realities which shows up in Paul’s concept of Christ as “anthrōpos”—demonstrates the saturation of earthly thought with heavenly imaginings.
Jewish sectarian trends
Much of these imaginings took place in what we would call Jewish sectarian circles, which the establishment may well have turned a jaundiced eye upon, yet what was Christianity but a sectarian expression? What was Paul’s system, and whatever preceded him as seen in the christological hymns, but the imaginings of a sect? Paul did not even see the kingdom of God (wherever he placed it—1 Thessalonians 4:15-18 suggests it was not on this mundane earth, and other sects envisioned the righteous inheriting thrones and crowns in heaven) as being possessed by normal flesh and blood. All of this hardly fell into the category of “daily human experience.”
Ehrman does his best to ignore any facets of Pauline thought which could not possibly be said to have arisen out of Jewish traditions. Instead, as with most modern scholarship which has pulled in its wagons to circle narrowly defined Jewish sources, he maintains that mystery cult influences cannot be identified as present within “Aramaic-speaking rural Palestinian Judaism of the 20s and 30s of the first century,” as though this is the sum total of the nature of the early church Paul joined.
Did Paul—and even the Jerusalem pillars—move only in rural areas?
Did they speak and write in Aramaic? (Not according to the entire New Testament record they didn’t.)
Did they live their lives wholly in Palestine? If Acts is correct that Paul was from Tarsus, this is far removed from any Aramaic rural Palestine. Tarsus was the center of Mithras worship.
Paul is as at home in Corinth and Ephesus as he is in Jerusalem, and he encounters rival apostles of the Christ all over the eastern empire, some preaching “another Jesus,” who have no connection to the Jerusalem group.
The Christian congregation in Rome later possessed a tradition that it had adopted belief in Christ without benefit of outside preaching, from Jerusalem or anywhere else.
Ehrman’s attempt to restrict the Christ cult’s horizon to something which would exclude every pagan influence is ludicrous.
Ehrman appeals to Paul as having been a Pharisee. “Were Pharisaic Jews influenced by the mystery cults?” he asks. Were they, or the Sadducees, or the Essenes, students of the mysteries? I could agree that they were not. But does this prevent any individual or individuals that might be within these classes from being open to such influences? By way of analogy, an ethnic group might as a rule not marry outside the group, but does that mean that no one within the group ever does? Ehrman obviously does not understand the principle of mutation. Besides, not every Jew was an active Pharisee, Sadducee or Essene.
An influence from the mysteries?
These mystery cults are never mentioned by Paul or by any other Christian author of the first hundred years of the church. (DJE? p. 256)
Well, Paul makes a pretty clear allusion to at least the sacred meal practices of such pagan cults in 1 Corinthians 10:20-22. And because of the exclusivity the Christ cult adopted, it would be very unlikely to acknowledge any commonality with, let alone derivation from, the ideas of the pagan mysteries. They would have convinced themselves that they were something quite original and the genuine article, helped by the fact that in their Jewish context, they could be seen as different and unique.
Moreover, Ehrman has not taken note of the fact that I impute to the Christ cult very little direct conscious borrowing from the mysteries of the day. It was simply feeding into ideas which formed the very atmosphere of popular religion and salvation theory of the period.
And once Christianity had expanded sufficiently that it attracted attention and opposition from pagan observers, then comparisons of its basic ideas with those of the mysteries and other mythology could not be avoided by its apologetic defenders. If at that point the similarities were undeniable by such as Justin Martyr, and referred to with scorn by such as Celsus, it is highly unlikely that at its inception a century earlier the cult of Christ Jesus the savior god could have been free of any similarities or dependency, conscious or unconscious, on its older cousins.
And Ehrman is simply wrong in this statement:
There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that these cults played the least role in the development of early views of Jesus. (DJE? p. 257)
Quite the contrary, there is plenty of evidence. It is present in the beliefs and practices of the “early views” found in Paul and the other epistle writers, which cannot be derived from Jewish precedents and which bear strong resemblance to concepts native to Hellenistic philosophy and salvation religions. (If Joe’s wife has a child which bears a striking resemblance to Joe’s best friend Bill, should we blithely accept her assurances that she has never been unfaithful?)
Shedding blood on earth
Of course, by “early views of Jesus” Ehrman is largely focusing on the Gospels:
That is not the view of Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John. It is not the view of any of the written sources of any of these Gospels, for example, M and L. It is not the view of any of the oral traditions that later made their way into these Gospels. (DJE? p. 257)
Once again, Ehrman is calling upon his ‘multiple independent sources,’ all of which are derived from a story which has created the picture of a crucifixion for Jesus on earth where it did not exist before. But he also brings in a couple of epistles in support, ironically the two which are in fact least equipped to provide it. Hebrews, as we have seen, excludes from its picture of Jesus’ sacrifice anything earthly and places his activities entirely in heaven, with a source of knowledge about him drawn solely from scripture. Ehrman has him “coming into the world” (10:5) quoting from Psalm 40, while Jesus acts “in the days of his flesh” (5:7) by performing passages from other Psalms.
As for interpreting 10:12’s “But Christ offered for all time one sacrifice for sin” as “making a bloody sacrifice in this world,” this not only ignores the entire Hebrews portrayal of that sacrifice in terms of the offering of his blood in the heavenly sanctuary, it turns a blind eye on the following words: “and took his seat at the right hand of God,” which seems to regard the two locations as next door to one another. There is no “in this world” in sight anywhere in Hebrews’ picture. In fact, Ehrman overlooks 8:4 which states that Jesus had never been on earth (another multi-page discussion in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man which he has ignored).
From 1 John, Ehrman turns neuter pronouns about the revelation of eternal life at the formation of the sect into a hearing and ‘man-handling’ of the preaching Jesus of Nazareth. 1 John also provides evidence that Jesus “shed his blood as an expiation for sin,” though regrettably it does not provide any indication that this shedding took place on earth. And this from an epistle which has to deal with the very question of whether Jesus Christ had actually “come in the flesh” or not, a debate in which both sides were dependent entirely on revelations from the spirit (4:1-4).
More “blood” from Paul also demonstrates for Ehrman that it had to be shed on earth, and he reads into Paul’s references to Jesus’ resurrection that this was a “bodily” one—something which Paul never states and which most critical scholars today now reject. And if the epistle to the Hebrews envisions its blood sacrifice as having taken place on Calvary, it provides no explanation for how that blood was collected (in one of the ‘skulls’ lying around Golgotha perhaps?), or how the dead Christ, ascending in spirit, transported it to the heavenly sanctuary where he offered it to God on the altar.
Ehrman appeals to the curious non-sequitur that if Christ appeared to earthlings rather than to heavenly beings after his resurrection, then the latter had to take place on earth. (Hmmm . . . doesn’t the christological hymn in 1 Timothy 3:16 say that after he was resurrected in spirit, he “was seen by angels”? There is no mention of being seen by earthlings—before or after death; and by Ehrman’s argument, wouldn’t this have to require that his resurrection was in the angels’ domain?)
There is, naturally, mention of “born of woman, born under the Law” of Galatians 4, which has its own problems and is vulnerable to arguments for interpolation (some supplied by Ehrman himself, as we have seen), though even if authentic it contains curiosities such as Paul’s use of a verb which does not directly convey human birth. These points were discussed earlier in this series.
Ehrman also considers that mention of “on the night he was delivered up” in 1 Corinthians 11:23 assuredly points to an earthly event, without taking into account that myths can enjoy any geomorphic setting required by their subject matter, and that the ancients’ understanding of the nature of the heavenly world was not like our own. His query, “Do they have nights in the spiritual realm?” might well have been answered yes, especially if Paul’s Lord’s Supper myth had a symbolic linking with Passover, whose celebratory meal took place after sundown.
Ehrman states that Paul “stresses” Jesus’ burial (I am not sure if slipping it in between his gospel of dying and rising, both known “kata tas graphas” whereas the burial is not, constitutes ‘stressing’), from which he concludes:
Surely he means he was buried in a tomb, and that would mean here on earth. (DJE? p. 258)
It’s nice to be “sure” of something which is an asset to one’s case, but nowhere in the epistles does anyone refer to a “tomb” for Jesus, much less to any tradition of an “empty tomb” three days later. And if one looks at Romans 6:4, “By baptism we were buried with him,” one can see the probable reason Paul slipped in burial between Christ’s dying and rising: it conformed in paradigmatic fashion with the burial he envisioned for the devotee who died to his old life and emerged into a new one. As G. A. Wells once observed (as have others), the elements of a rite often give rise to a myth which explains it, rather than the myth or alleged historical event producing an imitative rite.
Paul and others expected Jesus to return from heaven, into this very realm where we dwell now (1 Thessalonians 4-5), leading to the transformation of both us and the world (1 Corinthians 15). Paul thought Christ was to “return” here because he had “left” here. This is where he was born, lived, died, and was raised. It all happened here on earth, not in some other celestial realm. Jesus was killed by humans. The forces of evil may have ultimately engineered this death (although, actually, Paul says God did); the demons (whom Paul never mentions) may have inspired the authorities to do the dirty deed, but it was they who did it. (DJE? p. 258)
In typical Ehrman fashion, things not at all in evidence in the record—in this case, the epistolary one—are simply declared to be:
- The word “return” he presents as though a quote from Paul, whereas no such word is ever used by any epistle writer in reference to Jesus’ coming in glory at the Parousia. It is indeed notably missing.
- Despite the controversy over “rulers of this age” and its common interpretation, especially in ancient times, Ehrman delcares that Paul never mentioned them. (The prominent mention of demons in Colossians and Ephesians requires him to dismiss any thought that these pseudo-Pauline epistles owe anything to the ideas of Paul.)
- The ‘birth, life and death’ on earth are likewise missing.
- No such clear, direct language as “when he lived on earth” or “during his life among us” is ever found in the epistles.
But in fact:
The epistles universally characterize the appearance of the Son Jesus in the present period as a “revelation.”
Right after that questionable “born of woman, born under the Law” in Galatians 4 we find Paul stating that God “has sent the spirit of the Son.”
Similarly, as a guarantee of his promises of eternal life, Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:5 says that “God has sent the Spirit.”
Contrary to all the oral traditions claimed by Ehrman about a teaching Jesus in Galilee, Paul can say in 1 Thessalonians 4:9 that “We are taught by God to love another.”
There is often no foothold for an historical Jesus in the picture created of the origin and progress of the early movement, or in the sequence of God’s salvation history.
And so on, into the sunset. There are a host of such indicators throughout the epistles that no “birth, life and death” for a Jesus on earth was envisioned.
In the face of all this contrary evidence in the record itself, Ehrman’s desperate declaration that mythicism is flat wrong does not make it so.
. . . to be continued
Latest posts by Earl Doherty (see all)
- Jesus and the Mythicists: Earl Doherty’s Concluding Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 34 - 2012-08-27 08:33:39 GMT+0000
- 33. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 33 (Ehrman’s Picture of the Apocalyptic Jesus) - 2012-08-20 01:00:34 GMT+0000
- 32. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 32 (Jesus an Apocalyptic Prophet?) - 2012-08-17 01:00:20 GMT+0000
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