Posted: Feb 26, 2010 9:59 pm
by TimONeill
Viraldi wrote:We'll need more TimONeil characters here. ;)

Looks like one just arrived.

Kirbytime wrote:

Here's Richard Carrier's review of Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle. It was definitely a fascinating read, especially the level of depth they get into, but I'm sure that the actual book is even more fascinating. Has anyone here read it?

Carrier's review does his usual trick of maintaining a pretence at objectivity while actually being inclined toward any theory that fits with his ideological biases. And I say that as a fellow atheist who shares most of his ideological biases. Carrier has just never learned the art of maintaining objectivity when he's dealing with anything related to Christianity. That's why I say Carrier is to history what Ken Ham is to biology - a guy with a relevant degree who simply can't be trusted to present anything other than a warped perspective.

It would take a book as long or longer than Doherty's to detail exactly why his thesis is flawed. Incidentally, he has tried to get his thesis published by a peer reviewed press and was rejected. He has convinced himself that this was because of some wild Christian bias in the scholarship in the field, which is weird considering all the other totally non-Christian interpretations of Jesus that actually dominate all but the most conservative corners of Biblical studies. The real reason it was rejected is because of its flaws. I'll try to briefly summarise the reasons Doherty's thesis fails below.

Doherty's Thesis

For those who haven't read his book, Doherty argues that Jesus never existed as a historical person and that the later stories about him that present him as such are based on a misunderstanding. He argues that the original Christians proclaimed a Jesus who was a purely celestial being and who existed, was crucified and rose again in sub-lunar realm in the lower spheres of the heavens. He claims the idea that he had an earthly, historical existence only developed later and that the "mythic" and "historic" versions of Christian existed together for a while before the latter won out and wiped out any trace of the former.

There are some serious problems with this idea.

1. Paul's Human Jesus

For Doherty's thesis to work, Paul needs to be a believer in the mythic, celestial Jesus rather than the earthy, historical one. Even if we take away the epistles that Paul clearly didn't write, we are still left with seven (Romans, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon,First Corinthians, Second Corinthians and First Thessalonians) which are not only almost certainly by him but are also the oldest Christian texts we have (all written in the 50s AD). According to Doherty, there was no conception of a human, earthly, historical Jesus that early so Doherty's Paul has to be a believer in a mythic, celestial Jesus or his whole thesis falls apart.

To an extent, Paul's writing lends itself to this idea. He seems to have never met Jesus himself and converted largely because of a vision he had of the "risen Christ". Not surprisingly, his teaching and his letters concentrate on this "risen Christ", who Paul and all Christians of the time expects to return soon, and not on the historical, earthly Jesus he never met. This emphasis is also partly due to the fact that Paul seems to have resented the claim to greater authority made by those who had met Jesus; something he reacts against strongly in Galatians.

But unfortunately for Doherty, this emphasis doesn't mean that Paul never mentions the earthly, historical Jesus at all. He does so several times.

Paul explicitly says Jesus was a flesh and blood man. He says he was born as a human, of a human mother and born a Jew (Galatians 4:4). He repeats that he had a "human nature" and that he was a human descendant of King David (Romans 1:3). He referred to teachings Jesus made during his earthly ministry on divorce (1 Cor. 7:10), on preachers (1 Cor. 9:14) and on the coming apocalypse (1 Thess. 4:15). He mentions how he was executed by earthly rulers (1 Cor. 2:8) including Jewish authorities (1 Thess. 2:14-15) and that he died and was buried (1 Cor 15:3-4). And he says he had a earthly physical brother called James who Paul himself had met (Galatians 1:19)

It's pretty hard for any objective analysis to read all that as anything other than Paul talking about an earthly, historical person. Despite this, Doherty tries his hardest to do so, with pretty unconvincing results. Once you read his contorted explanations about how Paul's description of Jesus as being "born of woman" or being a descendant of David "according to the flesh" actually mean the opposite of what they seem to mean, it gets increasingly hard to take him seriously - unless of course you've already decided that Jesus didn't exist and are assuming your own conclusion. Even Carrier notes that Doherty's attempts to wriggle around the clear implication of "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4):

[W]hen (Doherty) argues that the "born of woman" of Galatians 4:4 could be a mythical/scriptural attribute rather than an assertion of earthly incarnation, he says it is "something that was said of certain mythical saviour gods, like Dionysius," that Isaiah 7:14 "was taken by Jew and early Christian alike to refer to the Messiah," and that "national gods were often regarded as having the same lineage as the nation itself" (p. 124). He does not demonstrate any of these claims. Many examples are needed to establish all three generalizations as not only valid, but relevant to the given passage. For example, citing cases where Dionysus had a mother because he was euhemerized as a real person, or had a goddess for a mother, are not relevant, since Paul can be doing neither here. And so on. Given the fact that this passage is the most problematic for his theory, Doherty needs to spend a great deal more time validating his interpretation, certainly more than two pages, which consist mostly of argument rather than evidence.

The problem for Doherty is that this criticism by his supporter Carrier can be extended to all the other clear mentions of a human Jesus given above. Each of them are nails in the Doherty thesis coffin.

2. Doherty's Invented Middle Platonism

The second flaw in Doherty's thesis lies in his claim that this idea of "fleshly" events happening in some "sub-lunar" celestial realm up in the heavens was a common and accepted concept in the Middle Platonism of the time. He argues that if we look at the way Paul depicts Jesus (once we've argued away all the clear references to him being a human), we see exactly the kind of Middle Platonic conception of a celestial being in a "fleshly" yet non-terrestrial realm. Unfortunately, when he is pressed to provide actual examples of this, he comes up with nothing much to substantiate this claim. In fact, once when "GakuseiDon" (who used to post on challenged him to provide some evidence that pagans actually believed in a sub-lunar, non-terrestrial realm where gods etc could "take on flesh", get crucified and die etc he admitted that he couldn't do so:

"I get the idea that you have interpreted me as though I were saying: the pagans placed the myths of their savior gods in the upper world, therefore we have good reason to interpret Paul that way. Actually, my movement was in the opposite direction. I have always worked first with the early Christian record, and come to a heavenly-realm understanding of it through internal evidence (supported by the unworkability of an earthly understanding of that record)"

This is an extraordinary admission by Doherty. His book argues that we can read Paul as believing in this "fleshly sub-lunar realm" because this can be found in Middle Platonic thought. But here he admits that he can't produce evidence that this idea existed in Middle Platonism because he's actually getting this whole idea from a reading of Paul that simply assumes this whole "fleshly sub-lunar realm" idea. In other words, this whole central plank of his thesis is based on a priori circular reasoning. The atheist Biblical scholar Jeffrey Gibson has engaged Doherty and his followers in online debate and came away scornfully unimpressed. He noted:

"... the plausibility of D[oherty]'s hypothesis depends on not having good knowledge of ancient philosophy, specifically Middle Platonism. Indeed, it becomes less and less plausible the more one knows of ancient philosophy and, especially, Middle Platonism.

If you think that this is not the case, please name anyone among the actual and recognized experts in ancient philosophy and/or on Middle Platonism who thinks D's views on what the ancients thought about the way the world was constructed, and who did what where, has any merit."

3. Doherty's Unattested Mythic Christianity

The final fatal flaw in Doherty's thesis is his contrived idea that there was a "mythic Jesus Christianity" that existed alongside the better known "historical Jesus Christianity" until the latter won the battle for dominance and wiped out any reference to the former. Until Doherty came along and became the first person in about 2000 years to realise what happened.

This is completely implausible. While the idea of Machiavellian early Christians completely erasing all trace of earlier forms of Christianity may appeal to zealots and conspiracy theorists, it simply doesn't square with the evidence. It's true that later "orthodox" forms of Christianity were happy to burn the books of their "heretical" rivals to keep them infecting the faithful. But this doesn't mean they were also happy to wipe out all trace or mention of these "heresies". On the contrary, they were keen to write long and detailed books explaining why their heretical rivals were wrong and why the orthodox view was right. They often distorted their rivals' ideas when they did this and sometimes the heresy in question had been dead for so long they were confused about precisely what the heretics in question had believed (they just knew they were wrong), but they certainly didn't erase all mention of them. They felt it was important to refute even minor or long dead heresies in as much detail as possible, just in case they rose up again (as some did occasionally).

It is difficult to understand why, amongst all this apologetic, anti-heretical literature, there is NO reference to what should have been the biggest and most threatening heresy of all - the heresy that the historical Jesus never existed. Not only would Doherty's supposed "mythic Jesus Christianity" have been a major threat to "historical Jesus Christianity" even after it had declined and vanished, it would actually have been THE major threat by merit of the fact that it was the original form of Christianity. Yet we find not a whisper about it in any of this literature. Doherty would have us believe that these writers bothered to condemn tiny and long-extinct heretical sects, yet ignored the elephant in the room and made no mention of this primary threat to their interpretation of Jesus.

This silence makes no sense.

Unless, of course, this whole "mythic Jesus Christianity" is a figment of Doherty's speculations and didn't exist at all. Then the silence about it in the sources makes perfect sense.

The Attraction of the Doherty Thesis

So it's pretty clear why Doherty's thesis gets no traction in the academic sphere and is regarded as a flawed theory by an enthusiastic amateur. It's also clear why, despite this, it gets presented as being solid, scholarly and convincing by online Jesus Mythers - basically, it's the best they've got. Compared to the alternative Jesus Myth theories - "Acharya S" and her bastard offspring "Zeitgeist", Atwill, Carotta, Freke and Gandy - Doherty's thesis is sober, scholarly and credible. The problem is that while it may not be downright kooky bullshit like the other Myther theories, it's still full of holes and, ultimately, wrong.