Category Archives: Exchanges with McGrath

My take on the “heavenly paradigm” apparent contradiction in Doherty’s argument

“This post is not for McG’s benefit but for any innocent but curious bystanders”

This is my take on one part of Earl Doherty’s argument that when Paul spoke of  “rulers of this age” ignorantly crucifying Christ he was not suggesting that the spirit powers were working through earthly potentates to do their will. Dr McGrath believes that Doherty is contradicting himself here because Doherty also notes that it was commonly believed by the ancients that “heavenly  events determine earthly realities.”

Unfortunately I do realize that nothing I can say will change Dr McGrath’s mind at all in relation to his belief that Doherty’s argument is “a self-contradictory mess” since he made it very plain that “no one with sense will believe” Doherty and that any attempt of mine to explain it will at best be “entertaining”. He does not ask whether or not Doherty’s argument is self-contradictory so any attempt to point out that it is not will not be accepted by him. (Further, since McGrath has online access to Doherty online it is to be noted that he has not chosen to raise this with Doherty himself.)

When I responded that I would be happy to explain it and that the perception of a contradiction was partly the consequence of continuing to read Gospel presuppositions into Paul, McGrath responded that he believed I would be objecting to the “methods [he shares] with those who work in the discipline of history”. (I have publicized theologians’ ground-breaking contributions to the field of history at NT scholars are pioneers and contrasted the way nonbiblical historians handle mythical and legendary sources at Can Hobsbawm recover the historical Robin Hood?)

I can’t argue with a mind closed. So this is not for McGrath’s benefit, but for any innocent but curious bystander. read more »

McGrath’s further defence of his review and responses to my criticisms

Dr James McGrath has written another defence of his review in response to my discussion of it and I think it would be useful to post it here so it can sit beside my criticisms. I am still trying to understand the hostility towards mythicism as well as the apparent inability of even some of the most educated among us to minimally comprehend what they read in its defence.

At least it must count in Dr McGrath’s favour that he is willing to even look at mythicist works outside his normal scholarly exchanges. At least one other blogger is not even interested in doing that much though he is at the same time quite prepared to denigrate the character and works of authors he has never met or read simply because they are not published in the scholarly arena. And this blogger sometimes murmurs sympathetic noises towards mythicism. It looks like he needs to protect his standing with the scholarly community by denouncing the “unclean” outsiders. Compared with one like that one has to appreciate Dr McGrath’s willingness to at least read Doherty’s book.

But I am coming to believe that there is nothing I can say, or that any mythicist can say, that will in the present circumstances make any dent in Dr McGrath’s beliefs, attitudes, and inability to comprehend what he reads of mythicist arguments. I wonder now if his mind is made up and whatever he reads or hears will only confirm what he believes because that he cannot read or hear a mythicist point any other way. I might be quite wrong since I am trying to reach back into my own experience and nature to understand his. I once read a book that I found myself disagreeing with totally. I wrote indignant notes in the margins declaiming the author’s ignorance and shallow understanding of the issues, etc etc. Years later I looked again and saw how I agreed with everything the author wrote and how incapable I was of comprehending and accepting what he said the first time I read his book. The reason was simple. The book was addressing something that I was still very close to, that had been a core part of my identity for many years. It took me a long time before I could gradually wean myself off my past allegiance to that old self and accept how utterly wrong I had been about something once so important to my identity. The funny thing was that at the time I first read this book I knew I had been wrong, but I did not want someone else telling me just how wrong, or that I was wrong-er even than I could believe. It’s like family. I am free to argue with a close family member, but don’t you dare say a word against them!

Anyway, enough of that. What I write is written for those not trapped in one way of thinking but who are open to exploring new idea and who do not hold to any belief about Jesus (mythicist or historicist) with the arrogance of the ignorant. One thing most people who learn most know is that the more they learn the more they know how little they know.

McGrath’s criticisms and defence read more »

Why I don’t trust a scholar’s review of Doherty’s book

I don’t mean “scholar” generically, but one scholar and his reviews in particular. The reason is, not to put too fine a point on it, that he blatantly misrepresents and suppresses what Doherty actually says. I even wonder if he bothers to read Doherty and merely skims, sees a few words that feed his prejudice, and sets to writing outright falsehoods.

I quote here what this reviewer has to say about Doherty’s argument in relation to the evidence of Origen for our understanding of what Paul meant by “rulers of the age” crucifying Christ. (My own emphases throughout.)

And perhaps Neil’s point over on his blog is correct, and I should indeed have pointed out what Doherty does with Origen. He finds evidence that Origen understood the “rulers of this age” as demonic forces. So? There are interpreters today who do the same, and just like Origen, do not understand this to be evidence against a historical Jesus.

I apologize for not mentioning this example of Doherty’s willingness to engage in apologetics-style prooftexting, citing a church father whose understanding of Paul and of Jesus he actually thinks is wrong, because he believes that he can appeal to him as an authority to bolster his case.

What do others think? Do I really need to mention every single one of Doherty’s claims in order to have demonstrated that he is engaging in apologetics for a predetermined view, rather than treating the evidence in scholarly, historical-critical manner?

How is it possible for any reviewer to write the above when Doherty’s whole argument in relation to Doherty is not about Origen understanding the rulers of the age as demonic forces at all, but about his being the pioneer to lay the basis of the modern interpretation that Paul meant the demons were working through earthly princes?

Here is what Doherty writes about Origen and the early interpretations of Paul’s meaning. Would a scholar ever be so careless with truth if he were addressing works of his scholarly peers? read more »

McGrath’s review of Doherty’s chapter 10, part 1 — a response

Updated with links and headings. 

Dr James McGrath continues with his chapter by chapter review of Earl Doherty’s Jesus Neither God Nor Man by posting a part one review of Doherty’s chapter 10. It will be clear from what follows that McGrath expresses much more about his own intolerant attitude towards mythicism than he does in informing readers about Doherty’s argument.

Losing the thread of the argument

McGrath writes:

Chapter 10 begins part four of the book, “A World of Myths and Savior Gods,” and the chapter itself bears the title “Who Crucified Jesus?” Doherty summarizes the interpretation of New Testament letters he has offered thus far, writing

“In the epistles, Christ’s act of salvation is not located in the present, or even in the recent past, and certainly not within the historical setting familiar to us from the Gospels. . . . “

McGrath has fallen over right at the starting line. The quotation he takes from Doherty simply does not summarize Doherty’s interpretation of the NT letters “he has offered thus far”. Here is Doherty’s explicit summary of a key argument he has offered thus far taken from the opening sentence of the chapter:

The pieces of the Jesus Puzzle in Part Three demonstrated how the New Testament epistles present Christ as a spiritual force active in the present time, functioning as a channel between God and humanity. (p. 97)

What McGrath quotes is not any summary of earlier argument but a summary or what Doherty is about to argue in Part Four of the book.

Between that opening summary sentence and the one McGrath quotes Doherty writes the following to introduce the theme of the new book Part this chapter is introducing:

But there is another, more important role, being given him. . . .

So McGrath, in doing his chapter by chapter reviews, has clearly lost the train of thought that he is addressing. This suggests that he is not bothering to read Doherty with a serious intent to understand the argument of the book he is reviewing.

read more »

Historians on Jesus

Obviously the fact that people can speak about Jesus as if he had really existed does not mean that he really did exist.

But what if historians (whose careers are in history faculties that have nothing to do with biblical studies) who write about the Roman empire mention Jesus as the founder of the Christian religion. Do they make such a statement on the basis of their independent or even collective scholarly research into whether Jesus really did exist or not? I think we can be confident in answering, No. I think we can further say that, if really pushed, many would say that for the purposes of what they wrote, they would not care if he existed or not. What they are addressing is not the historicity of Jesus, but the historical fact that Christianity had its beginnings in the first century in the Eastern part of the empire. What they are addressing is the fact of the appeal and reasons for the spread of Christianity.

The reason they might phrase an initiating discussion with reference to Jesus himself as the founder of Christianity is because this is the commonly accepted understanding of Christian origins, and it is, at bottom, quite beside the point for their own purposes — which are explaining Christianity’s spread and influence in the empire — whether it turns out that Jesus himself really was or was not the founder of Christianity. read more »

Appeals to McGrath, Regrets and the Responsibility of Public Intellectuals

Let’s deal with the regrets first. Yes, I have expressed some regret over when, a little over a year ago, I once made an offensive play on his name.* I have also taken note of Lester Grabbe’s discussion of unscholarly standards of debates and have taken his words as a warning to myself as much as a commentary on a wider situation.  I have attempted to understand why the irrational and unprofessional hostility among some scholars towards certain views and to be careful how I do express myself. I highly respect the way others like Earl Doherty and Rene Salm maintain their civility and I am grateful to a number of readers of this blog who, after I had posted something heated, wrote to me encouraging me to keep my cool.

I have also appealed to McGrath to put the past behind us, but even since then his responses to me have been laden with hostile insinuations. I have appealed to McGrath repeatedly to acknowledge Lester Grabbe’s warnings.  Till now my appeals have done nothing to lessen his personal barbs against me. It is clear he cannot carry on an exchange without imputing sinister motives.

There is simply no place for this from one who speaks as a representative of the scholarly community. And I am a little surprised that McGrath’s manner has apparently gone without censure among his own peers. This is not a good sign. Some biblical scholars like to follow Noam Chomsky’s outspokenness on international issues. It is time they also took note of his criticisms of public intellectuals.


* (The accusation that I also insulted McGrath an earlier time is false. I re-wrote his name as an innocuous anagram when creating a parable to clarify through analogy a point I was trying to make about his argument at the time. It was by no means an insult.)

Why McGrath Should Honourably Step Down From the Debate

Dr James McGrath blogs as the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. That is how he identifies his blog — it is the blog of the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. So he writes as a professional, a public intellectual, and it is to the standards of professional scholarly discourse and the responsibilities of public intellectuals that he must be held to account.

If a judge or prospective jury member is known to have a conflict of interest or deep-seated prejudice that will inevitably affect their ability to approach the trial appropriately they have a duty to step aside. We like to imagine we have moved on from the days when an accused would be condemned whether they sank or swam.

So when McGrath

  • publishes an Amazon review of a book before he has read more than a small fraction of it,
  • and when he says he knows he will find an argument implausible before he even reads it,
  • and when he says he should not explain fairly or fully an argument that he detests because he fears someone might think favourably of it — thus conceding he does not respect his readers and lacks confidence in the power of reasoned arguments,
  • and when he finds himself incapable of thinking someone can present a mythicist argument with sincerity and honesty — that such a one is either incompetently deluded or a blatant liar
  • and when he refuses to respond (except with insulting barbs) to questions and posts addressing the discrepancies between what he says about Doherty’s arguments and what Doherty actually does write

then it is time he admits that he is no longer thinking of his opponents as normal, healthy, fellow creatures with whom he can have even a normal healthy human rapport. Every attempt at communication will inevitably be governed by feelings of contempt that scarcely will be hidden as innuendo and ad hominem inevitably surface.

When one reaches that point then one owes it to everyone to admit that one is biased beyond reason and incapable of engaging in a genuinely respectful and fair discussion. read more »

Doherty’s Chapter 8 in outline & Review of McGrath’s review

11 am 18th July 2011, Revised the section “What the Chapter is about”

James McGrath begins his review of chapter 8 protesting that Doherty is placing a different interpretation on some known and agreed facts in order to argue a mythicist case.

The chapter gets several things right and mentions important information about the context of earliest Christianity – and yet consistently manages to interpret those details as leading to mythicism.

It sounds as if McGrath simply does not want Doherty reinterpreting anything at all in a way that can present a mythicist argument. But that is hardly a sound objection to what Doherty’s actual interpretations and arguments are.

Unfortunately McGrath does not specify which arguments or interpretations Doherty uses are faulty. In fact, as we have come to expect in these reviews, Doherty’s arguments are sidestepped. In their place McGrath reverts to pulling out arguments he has used against mythicism time and again even before reading Doherty’s book. Sometimes he claims to be informing readers of what Doherty argues, but in the following response I will quote passages from Doherty that belie McGrath’s portrayals of Doherty’s lines of reasoning. read more »

Doherty’s chapter 7 (2): reviewing McGrath’s review

Continuing from the previous post, addressing McGrath’s comments on Doherty’s chapter 7.

I have so often heard scholars repeat, as if it were a truism, that in pre-modern cultures that relied more on oral traditions and story-telling than on stick-it notes people had trained themselves to have remarkable memories. But I was obviously mistaken. McGrath informs us that if the news of the assassination of Kennedy (or let’s say Julius Caesar) were spread as “a tradition”, then by the time anyone came to write it down as a story, they would be obliged to invent a host of imaginary characters and variable settings simply to tell it as “a story”. Maybe some would say the assassination happened in Rome, others in Actium or Athens (or Dallas, or San Francisco). Such basic detail is not likely to have been included in the original oral transmission of the news, so McGrath would have us believe.

Or if we think of tales involving resurrections/reappearances after death, imagine the tales of the death and reappearance of Romulus. He was murdered in the environs of Rome and reappeared there after his assassination according to accounts, but presumably other accounts could well have had him reappear in northern Italy or Syracuse instead. We have no record that oral transmission did leave such details as the geographic setting of the event open to imaginative recreation, but then the absence of such details is most likely evidence that they were all well-known and no-one needed to put such things in writing. (This line of reasoning works for explaining the epistles’ silences about Jesus’ earthly life, so it can surely work here, too.)

McGrath actually equates the recovery of a fundamental geographic setting with the problems a story-teller would have in trying to imaginatively reconstruct story dialogue! read more »

Doherty’s chapter 7 (1): McGrath’s attack of transient global amnesia

Reviewing James McGrath’s “review” of Doherty’s chapter 7. McGrath begins:

Chapter 7 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man turns attention to other characters in the Gospels and events that are not mentioned about them (sic) in the epistles: Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, for starters.

Presumably the first thing to note it that the latter completely undermines Doherty’s argument. Paul refers to encounters with Peter – a real historical individual – and thus if he can be a real individual without stories from the later Gospels appearing in the epistles, then clearly so can Jesus.

This makes no sense. Even the Gospels themselves refer to undoubtedly real people such as Pilate. They also refer to real cities, like Jerusalem. Ancient fiction is also known to include real people and places. The historical Persian King Artaxerxes and his wife Statira appear in Chariton‘s Chaireas and Callihroe, as does the historical general Hermocrates.

So even if we do accept Peter as a historical person known to Paul, this simply does not inevitably force us to conclude that a later narrative that includes Peter must be historical in all its details or other characters.

McGrath continues: read more »

A mythical Jesus, or a “nobody” Jesus

A mythical Jesus, or a “nobody” Jesus.

I would like to know why the second would be so much preferable and acceptable to so many here than the first. I would like to have someone who so prefers to present us with the actual evidence for the second which is so much superior to the actual evidence for the first.

I would like to know just how one defines a “nobody” Jesus. Obviously, such a Jesus can be assigned virtually nothing that is portrayed of him in the Gospels, not just because it is now recognized that there is no history remembered in the Gospels, but if he were assigned anything remotely like we find in the Gospels, he wouldn’t be a “nobody.” If he is a “nobody” then he does not constitute the Jesus of Christianity, and would serve no purpose for it.

So why does everyone seem to get all warm and fuzzy for a “nobody” Jesus (at least, that’s what they convey), and foaming at the mouth against those who would postulate a mythical Jesus?

Or is this all a smokescreen? Will James McGrath tells us openly whether he subscribes to and finds acceptable the idea of a “nobody” Jesus? Will Mike Wilson? Tim O’Neill? Anyone else who regularly craps all over mythicism?

Earl Doherty

And by way of rejoinder to McGrath who wrote: read more »

Doherty answers McGrath and others (continuation of ch. 6 criticisms)

Earl Doherty has responded in detail to criticisms by James McGrath and others over chapter 6 of Jesus Neither God Nor Man. I have collated them in this post, and may add any future ones here, too. (Compare comments on my outline of chapter 6)

Updated 31st May 2011

Brother of the Lord

By now we are all familiar with how much historicists rely on Galatians 1:19 and its “brother of the Lord” to find an historical Jesus within the epistles. It’s one of a small handful of life preservers thrown into the waters to try to rescue Paul from drowning in a mythical sea. I would like to put an additional emphasis on one of the arguments I have used to poke holes in this particular preserver. I have pointed out that Philippians 1:14 uses a similar phrase to Galatians 1:19, namely “brothers in the Lord” (ton adelphon en kurio). This can hardly be taken any other way than meaning “fellow-believers in the Lord” and indicates the usage of a phrase to describe a group of sectarians Paul is acquainted with. The very fact that it is so similar to the Galatians phrase should be a strong argument that the latter is likely to have the same meaning. read more »

James Brother of the Lord, Porky Pies and Problems for the Historical Jesus Hypothesis

A good reason to accept the theory of evolution is that it predicts what we will find in the fossil record and its predictions have not yet failed. No one has found a rabbit fossil in pre-Cambrian rocks.

If James had been a sibling of Jesus and a leader in the Jerusalem church (along with Peter and John), then we can expect to find certain indicators of this in certain kinds of evidence. If our reasonable expectations (predictions) fail, then we have an obligation to reconsider our earlier conclusions that led to our expectations.

Dr James McGrath demonstrates an unfortunate oversight of this fundamental principle (and also shows a taste for porky pies) when he writes:

It is entertaining to watch mythicists, who claim to be guided by the principle that the epistles are earlier and more reliable, while the later Gospels essentially turned a mythical Christ into a historical figure, jettison that supposed principle whenever it becomes inconvenient. When evidence of a historical Jesus is highlighted in the epistles, they will appeal to Acts, or epistles likely to be later forgeries, in an attempt to avoid the clear meaning of Paul’s reference to James as Jesus’ brother.

Mainstream historical scholarship can be discussed in terms of whether it’s conclusions are justified upon the basis of its methods. Or one can discuss whether the methods themselves are valid. In the case of mythicism, neither is possible, because it has no consistent methods and no conclusions, just foreordained outcomes and the use of any tools selectively that will allow one to reach them.

Or to put it simpler still, why do you trust Acts to indicate what Paul meant by “James” yet reject it when it comes to what Paul meant by “Jesus”?

Firstly, James McGrath knows very well that Earl Doherty at no point based his interpretation of Galatians 1:19 on the evidence of later epistles or Acts. Some readers might even be excused for suspecting McGrath is being a bald-faced friar, so he might like to write a clarification of this comment to dispel any suggestion that he is telling an outright porky about Doherty’s argument. read more »

McGrath does not read what he claims to be reviewing

What else am I to conclude? The evidence McGrath provides for his claim to have read chapter 6 of Doherty’s book is that he can cite names and topics that Doherty uses in that chapter. But at the same time McGrath strongly indicates that he merely glanced at those references and never bothered to read what Doherty was actually arguing. This is surely a kinder criticism than to suggest that McGrath cannot comprehend what he reads or deliberately suppresses what he reads.

(References in this post can be followed from McGrath’s pseudo-review of chapter 6 here, and from my outline of Doherty’s argument in chapter 6 here.)

Example. McGrath writes:

Doherty proceeds to consider details from the Gospels that he considers it (sic) surprising Paul and other epistle writers never mention in their letters. Often his response to the material borders on the bizarre. Why is it surprising that the later and clearly legendary details in the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke are not reflected in earlier literature? It is unsurprising to mainstream historical scholarship, which is familiar with countless examples of the same phenomenon, namely the development of mythologized birth stories around a historical figure.

I would have expected an honest reviewer to at least give a nod to Doherty’s argument. But not McGrath. read more »