Review section

Book Review:
'Jesus: Neither God Nor Man'
by Earl Doherty

'Jesus: Neither God Nor Man' by Earl Doherty

Reviewed by GakuseiDon, Jan 2011

This is my review of Earl Doherty's latest book, 'Jesus: Neither God Nor Man' (JNGNM). There are four sections, over four webpages. The first Section is the review proper. The other three sections expand on topics within Dohety's book. I find that his book is comprehensive on issues around the historicity of Jesus Christ, and is probably worth buying for that alone; but there are too many adhoc arguments, and very little evidence to support his unprecedented views on early Christian and pagan beliefs.

Update (3): Dec 2012: (Note: my earlier updates are below this one)

Interesting comment by Doherty recently, especially compared to Carrier's comment on the same topic. Background: Last week I added a review of J:NGNM onto the Amazon website here. Doherty saw my review and made the following comment on Neil Godfrey's Vridar blog here. Doherty wrote (my bold below):

Of course, as I’ve said before, Carrier’s comment [that J:NGNM is "90% speculative digression"] is ridiculous. In-depth argument and a wealth of literary evidence backing up that argument is hardly pointless speculation and digression. Making demands on a reader’s attention span may be something entirely different, but if Carrier prefers the more succinct and less demanding “The Jesus Puzzle” why dump on a fuller edition which simply seeks to cover all bases and make the most thorough case possible (something appreciated by many readers)?

Sometimes I think non-historicists can be their own worst enemies. I can’t for the life of me understand Carrier’s motivation in this. Does he want to cut a fellow writer off at the knees in preparation for the publication of his own book? Incomprehensible behavior like that naturally raises less than flattering speculation. It also gives ammunition to unscrupulous apologists like GDon who will gleefully promote Carrier’s comment in his devious and despicable “review” of the book on Amazon (see Neil’s much appreciated comment added to that review).

As a corollary it also enables apologists to portray the mythicist camp as squabbling and at odds with themselves. The same kind of overwrought condemnation of Acharya even by some who sympathize with mythicism is self-defeating. And it’s fodder as well for those declared atheists and agnostics found all over the internet who for unfathomable reasons treat the mythicist case as scholarly charlatanism and virtually tantamount to raping their grandmothers. I regularly get sick of the whole thing.

Aside from Doherty's colorful "raping their grandmothers" quote, it is interesting to contrast Doherty's approach to Carrier's. This is what Carrier wrote on his blog
here (my bold below):

Bad mythicists (e.g. Atwill, to pick an example of someone who is very much arguing a thesis Murdock must reject) are doing good mythicists no favors. In fact, they are making it worse for us, by communicating to the scholarly community that “mythicism” is based on sloppy methodology, dubious speculations, and ignorance of the arguments and evidence discussed by the actual experts in these matters. So when I try to present at a conference or publish a paper, I have to explain at length how my methodology is valid and that I do not endorse all the nonsense that people like Atwill argue, and even then academics are suspicious, because all they have seen is Freke & Gandy crap. Mythicists can’t even agree on what happened (is it Murdock’s explanation? Or Atwill’s? One of them is wrong…which one? What method do they have to answer that question with?). There is therefore no benefit in “not criticizing” each other. Because, by all disagreeing with each other, most mythicists must be wrong. And the cornerstone of valid, professional methodology is pursuing and rooting out error and determining who of any collection of disagreeing parties is wrong. We therefore must do that. To say we shouldn’t do that, in some sort of political solidarity to the abstract “idea” of mythicism is precisely the kind of dogmatic, political, emotional bullshit that is screwing over serious myth research. That behavior is the surest way to never be taken seriously by anyone who matters.

That's what I like about Carrier: I suspect I will disagree with his conclusions as much as I did with Doherty's, but he comes across as a scholar. His condemnation of some of Acharya S's theories where he thinks she is wrong is a sign of integrity, nothing more. I've always scratched my head at Doherty's support of Acharya S's theories. Did he really think he was helping the mythicist cause look like a serious enterprise by recommending her works in his book and website? But Doherty's comment above solves the mystery for me. 

Update (2): Nov 2012:

It's been nearly two years since I completed this review. I've occasionally browsed the Internet for other reviews of JNGNM, with interesting results. Most are overwhelmingly positive about the book, but more on that in a moment. Dr Richard Carrier writes here that he generally doesn't recommend JNGNM, preferring Doherty's earlier 'The Jesus Puzzle':

"JNGM is disorganized, verbose, inordinately long, and accuracy-inefficient (it has an extremely high rate of speculation-dependency, and I worry also it may have a higher error rate simply by statistical inevitability given its page count and number of digressions not central to the thesis, but I have not vetted it the way I did JP so I can’t rightly say)."

Carrier repeats this view here:

"I know Ehrman read Doherty’s monstrous second book but not his original Jesus Puzzle, and yet the latter is a far superior argument for his conclusion, by the standards Ehrman would expect, whereas the second [JNGNM] is 90% speculative digression (hundreds and hundreds of pages worth) which is exactly the kind of thing that chaps the hide of professional scholars. So Doherty may have shot himself in the foot with that one..."

Based on Carrier's review of Doherty's 'The Jesus Puzzle' (I examine it in Part 4), I suspect I would have problems with the remaining 10% that Carrier finds is not speculative digression. Carrier plans to publish a book in 2013 presenting a
case for a non-historical Christ. The book will incorporate ideas from Doherty's "Jesus Puzzle", though he has stated that his case is not the precise theory of Doherty's. I have swapped a handful of emails with Carrier over the years (Carrier has always responded kindly, promptly and thoroughly to my questions), so I know his focus is less on the Inanna myth, which he used as 'proof of concept in his review of TJP, and more on the early Christian work 'Ascension of Isaiah' and Plutarch's 'Isis and Osiris', both of which I look at in Part 4 of this review.

So I will be interested to see where Carrier differs from Doherty in his upcoming book. Given Carrier's view of Acharya S's theories, I doubt that Carrier will be echoing Doherty's recommendation in JNGNM to his readers to read the works of Acharya S, 'especially' her 'Suns of God' (JNGNM, Page 153), a book Doherty has described as a 'tour de force'. Doherty also gives Acharya S's "The Christ Conspiracy" 5 stars out of 5 in his review of her book on Amazon, which is surprising since Acharya S's 'astrotheology' theory -- that the myths of the gods are stories based on the movement of the sun through the zodiac -- appears to be at odds to Doherty's 'World of Myth' concept. I realise that this comes across as 'guilt by association', but I've found that both Acharya S and Doherty suffer from the same tendency to throw any piece of speculation into the mix when building their cases. I can see why Carrier views JNGNM as containing "
90% speculative digression", even if the figure seems a little high. Now, there is nothing wrong with speculation... as long as it is clearly identified as such. Unfortunately Doherty and Achayra S rarely do this, so the unwary reader comes away thinking that the conclusions presented in the books are stronger than they actually are. Carrier, on the other hand, will be building a case using Bayes Theorem, where the premises and assumptions are spelled out in advance, and it becomes obvious which arguments have been built on speculation.

But back to the reviews of JNGNM I found on the Internet. These are mostly non-critical acceptance of the contents of Doherty's JNGNM, with apparently no attempt to validate the information in the book. I suspect that the authors have very little knowledge of the topic, and so aren't able to distinguish between when Doherty is being speculative or factual. And strangely enough, it doesn't appear to matter. One of the fears that I expressed in this review was of people posting Doherty's speculation on ancient thinking as facts, swamping Internet forums on early Christianity and early pagan religions in the same way that people nowadays post on how Mithras, Horus, Krishna, etc, were 'born of a virgin' and 'crucified between two thieves' after the terrible 'Zeitgeist' movie was released in 2007. But this has not happened. The concepts raised in Doherty's books are rarely referred to at all. I think that it is because many mythicists are waiting for Carrier's new book to distill and build on the best ideas from mythicists like Doherty to push the mythicist case forward, so in a sense, JNGNM has already become irrelevant. Personally, it will be good to see Carrier, a scholar in the field, present the best scholarly case for non-historicity (the historicist side needs to do the same for historicity! Bart Ehrman's recent book 'Did Jesus Exist?' was a disappointment), so that we no longer need to be concerned with the sideshows of the Dohertys and Acharyas.

I would still recommend JNGNM to mythicists who want to debate Christian apologists -- especially inerrantists -- on early Chrisianity, but JNGNM is way too speculative when it moves away from providing background information. As I concluded in this review, 'buyer beware'. For those interested in a scholarly case for mythicism, I suggest waiting for Carrier's book in 2013.

Update (1): May 2011:

Earl Doherty has responded to my review on his website here.

Section 1: Review Summary

1.1 Introduction

Earl Doherty’s latest book, ‘Jesus: Neither God nor Man’ (Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa, Canada, 2009) expands on topics raised in his earlier ‘Jesus Puzzle: Challenging the existence of an historical Jesus’ (1999). Doherty argues that Paul and the earliest Christians didn't see Jesus as a historical figure acting on earth; rather, Paul and his contemporaries saw Jesus as a heavenly figure who was crucified in a heavenly realm. It was only after the Gospels were written starting from 90 CE – as 'midrashic' tales that weren't meant to be taken as historical accounts -- that Christians mistakenly came to believe that Jesus Christ had incarnated on earth in Galilee and been crucified under Pontius Pilate.

‘Jesus: Neither God nor Man’ (JNGNM) consists of four sections. The first section examines “the Jerusalem Tradition”. Doherty lays out his view that there was a “Son of God” movement that believed in a heavenly Son who was both an intermediary between God and the world and a Savior figure. According to Doherty, early Christian writers never thought that the Son had incarnated as an earthly figure.

The second section looks at “the Galilean Tradition”. Doherty believes that itinerant prophets of a new ‘counter-culture’ movement announced the coming of the kingdom of God and anticipated the arrival of a heavenly figure called the Son of Man, who would judge the world. This kingdom of God movement operating in Galilee and beyond produced most of the traditions which ended up in the Gospels as part of the ministry of their fictional Jesus (page 5). Doherty sees “Q” and the Gospel of Thomas as arising from this tradition.

The third section, entitled “A Composite Christianity”, examines how the Gospel of Mark was constructed, including its allegorical character, how it was followed and enlarged upon by other Gospels, and how the new ideas they contained gradually spread until Mark’s central character of Jesus of Nazareth came to be regarded as the historical originator of the entire movement.

The fourth and final section of the book looks at the non-Christian witness to Jesus, as found—or not found—in the pagan and Jewish writings of the period. Doherty examines in detail the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and other historians and writers in the First and Second Centuries, to evaluate the evidence they provide towards a historical Jesus.

Doherty notes that the mythicist case has regularly been accused of dependence on the argument from silence (page 9), but that this would be a misrepresentation. Doherty’s case lays an equal, if not paramount, emphasis on what is to be found in the epistles, on the actual information presented by Paul and other early writers in describing their faith movement and the object of its worship.

Doherty believes that modern scholarship in general is so in thrall to the Gospel scenario and the distortion of early Christianity it created that it is unable to envision an alternative. It fails to recognize the much broader and more complex picture revealed by the non-Gospel record which can explain how the movement developed without the “Big Bang” requirement (i.e. that “something must have happened to start it all!”) governed by the Gospels and Acts. Doherty sees this as a faulty and circular reasoning process that has been operating since the time of church historian Eusebius in the early 4th century.

1.2. My Review

My review of Doherty's JNGNM consists of four sections, with one webpage devoted to each section. This first section is the 'review proper'. I outline some general issues that I find in JNGNM and present my conclusions. In the other three sections, I delve into specific issues raised by Doherty's theories. I hope that these sections will encourage interested parties to investigate these issues for themselves.

As part of reviewing issues raised in JNGNM, I will also be referring to arguments made by Doherty on his website and on the FRDB forum, where this may might help to shed light on content in JNGNM.

As for myself: I am an interested layman on the topic of early Christian and pagan thinking. There is very little evidence for a historical Jesus, so the question of whether there had been a historical Jesus is a reasonable one. Nevertheless, I believe that the evidence we have provides a strong cumulative case that there was a person called Jesus, whom was crucified under Pilate, and whom was the focal point for the cult that later became Christianity. The earliest layer of texts – Paul and Mark – suggest that this Jesus was not regarded as virgin-born nor God incarnated into a human body by the early Christians. He was probably an apocalyptic prophet whose body disappeared after he was crucified. Visions of Jesus led to the belief that he had been resurrected. He came to be regarded as the “first-fruits” of the general resurrection, signalling that the end-times – the general resurrection at the end of the age – was near. I suspect that Paul and the other early Christians didn't believe that Jesus was divine; rather, they were “adoptionists”, and believed that Jesus was a man who was 'adopted' as God's son, either at his baptism (as per Mark) or after his death on the cross (as per Paul).

While this review isn't about building a case for my own views on the historical Jesus, I will be touching on some of these points in Sections 2 and 3. In Section 4, I will discuss the cosmology and philosophy of ancient pagans and early Christians, and contrast it with Doherty's views on the subject, his "World of Myth" theory.

Aside from being an interested layman in the topic of ancient cosmology and philosophy, I have no formal training in the subject, and I have very little understanding of ancient languages. I have read much of what is available in English translation from primary sources, and I have read widely from secondary sources. In this review, I have tried to use atheist and agnostic secondary sources as much as possible, for obvious reasons.

On citations: when I quote from JNGNM, I will give the page number after the quote, rather than as a citation note at the bottom of the page. On-line references will be linked to within the text. Citations for books will be added into the footnote section.

1.3. Evaluation

At over 800 pages, JNGNM covers an impressively wide range of topics. Aside from laying out his theories on Christian origins, Doherty looks at the development of the Gospels and New Testament epistles, Christian writings from the early Church Fathers and the writings of Second Century apologists. He also examines the evidence for a Historical Jesus provided by the earliest non-Christian writers, including Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger. This material is well laid out and easy to follow. In my opinion Doherty has crafted the most comprehensive handbook yet written on the topic of mythicism.

Framing the debate

I suspect that few people who read JNGNM will understand how many points of disagreement with common consensus there are within the book. Not only is Doherty proposing that early Christians didn't believe in a historical Jesus, but also:

  1. Christianity arose from a number of separate strands, including a “Son of God” movement and a separate itinerant “Christ” movement who invented a symbolic founder for themselves. (See “The Q Document”)
  2. The pagans of the day believed in a "World of Myth", a place above the earth in which their gods acted out their myths (see “World of Myth”)
  3. Even up until the late Second Century, there existed self-described Christians who nevertheless didn't believe in either a historical or mythical Jesus Christ (see “Silence in early Christian writings” section) For example, according to Doherty, when Tatian wrote “Address to the Greeks” he belonged to a Christianity that didn't have a historical Jesus at its core.
  4. Flesh” (sarx) and “according to the flesh” (kata sarka) were concepts that could be applied to beings existing above the earth.

As far as I know, the above concepts are not even on the radar of modern scholarship. However, Doherty presents his views in such a matter-of-fact way that it is easy to miss that his views on the above topics are quite radical and, frankly, often unsupported by anything but speculation. His is a cumulative case, and the reader needs to have enough knowledge to evaluate each step and come to a decision on whether the data is there to support Doherty or not. For example, is Doherty correct that Tatian at one stage didn't believe in a historical Jesus? I find this an incredible assertion, and to me this weakens the strength of his argument from silence, as I discuss in Section 2. A reader without knowledge of the general literature of the day is ill-prepared to make this evaluation, and since Doherty is decidedly one-sided in his presentation of evidence many won't pick up that Doherty has stated a conclusion that is very radical.

In my view, JNGNM provides little evidence to support Doherty's conclusions. There are too many adhoc arguments, too much speculation portrayed as established conclusion. I find that a more complete analysis shows that not only is there little evidence to support his theories, but the evidence we do have goes against him.

Doherty and me: the state of the debate

I've debated Doherty on various issues raised on his website and in TJP for a number of years now, both on our websites and on the "Biblical Criticism and History" board on the FRDB forum. He was even kind enough to quote me in JNGNM, where I am identified as an unnamed “dissenter” (page 150). Before continuing my review of JMGNM, it would be useful to go over some of the points where we have disagreed in the past.

I first encountered Doherty's theories on his website around 2004. One of my interests is early Christian and pagan philosophy, so I found his theories fascinating. They offered a new paradigm in reading the ancient literature that I so enjoyed. They didn't appear to be consistent with what I had read on the subjects, so I purchased TJP and read it eagerly. I was disappointed in the content, and in 2005 I wrote a review entitled “Earl Doherty, the Jesus Myth and Second Century Christian Writings”, which was critical of Doherty's views on the Second Century apologists. Doherty was kind enough to respond on his website. Later that year, I wrote a follow up article, to which Doherty also responded. (Links can be found on my Reviews webpage. Links to Doherty's responses can be found in those articles.)

My opinion was that Doherty is dead wrong in his views that Second Century writers like Tatian were members of a Christianity that had no Jesus Christ – either historical or mythical – at its centre. In fact, I found it a bizarre claim, since there are examples of “historicist” Christians that also didn't include details of a historical Jesus. Why hadn't Doherty included them in his book? To me, it was a one-side presentation of the evidence.

I also started debating Doherty directly on the IIDB (now FRDB) forums about his views of early pagan philosophy and his “World of Myth” theory. Again, those views didn't appear to be consistent with what I had read on the topic. In TJP, Doherty made several sweeping statements about pagan philosophy and “mystery cults” that are simply not supportable by the literature of the time. He does this again in JNGNM. For example:

The second resemblance was to a wide range of pagan savior gods found in the “mysteries”, the dominant form of popular religion in this period, going back to ancient roots. Like Paul's Christ, these savior gods were thought of as having performed acts in a mythical world, acts which brought sanctity and salvation to their believers. These cults had myths and rituals very much like those of the Christian movement. (Page 4)

From what I understood, the pagans had no concept of “a mythical world” where savior gods were thought to have acted. I wondered where Doherty's information came from. Scholars generally note that there is very little information about mystery cults. As Erhman points out:

Recent scholarship, however, has been less inclined to call Christianity a mystery cult, or to claim that it simply borrowed its characteristic ideas and practices from previously existing religions. In part this is because we do not know very much about what happened during the mystery rituals, especially in the period when Christianity began. For example, did they typically partake of a meal, commemorating the death of their savior god? We simply don’t know. [1]

So how did Doherty know? For several years I questioned Doherty on this topic, asking him where the evidence for his reading of the mystery cults came from. For example, I referred Doherty to one quote from TJP, page 122:

The Greek salvation myths inhabit the same mythical world. They too can spin stories about their deities, born in caves, slain by other gods, sleeping and dining and speaking. None of these activities were regarded as taking place in history or on earth itself.

I asked him many times for the source of that and similar claims. Finally Doherty responded:

The statement itself is too stark. Unfortunately, it implies that there is direct evidence from pagan writings to demonstrate it. Of course, over the years I have acknowledged to Don that this is not the case. While I have often pointed out and argued for ‘indicators’ of such a view, there is no clear and direct statement about any particular pagan mystery cult deity which says that devotees or philosophers regarded the activities of its myth as taking place in the spiritual dimension, in heavenly layers above the earth (whether above or below the moon).

Despite this acknowledgement, Doherty makes the same “stark” statements again in JNGNM. For example:i

Some of these circles--though again not all--envisioned this Jesus as having undergone self-sacrifice in the supernatural world, the same realm where the activities of other savior gods of the era were now seen as having taken place. (Page 85)

The implication above is that there were Christians who, like their pagan compatriots, believed in a “supernatural world” where their savior god carried out his activities. Once again, there is no source for this. In fact, as he states in JNGNM, there is virtually no information at all about mystery cults:

This is the reason why we are groping in the dark to try to understand how the savior god myths were conceived within the cults. We have virtually no writings of the period on the subject to reflect those conceptions. Plutarch (end of the 1st century) is almost our only source from the turn of the era, and we must work through his personal disposition to render it all allegorical. (Page 146)

I will discuss Plutarch in Section 4, but if we have "virtually no writings of the period on the subject", where did Doherty get his interpretation of pagan beliefs from? After swapping many posts with Doherty on FRDB on the topic, I noticed that there was a pattern in his replies: whenever I questioned Doherty on Paul's beliefs, he pointed me to the mystery cults. And whenever I questioned him on the beliefs of mystery cults, he pointed me to Paul. Finally, in one post, I said that he seemed to be relying on circular arguments. Doherty responded (my emphasis):

You recently said that you felt I was arguing in a circular fashion, and while I don’t think I laid out my material in Part Four [of TJP] in a way that should have indicated that, you may have come away with that impression. 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). My interpretation has not been governed by an a priori Platonic reading of the mystery cult myths, although I was of course familiar with them and Platonic cosmology in general and could recognize that my findings within the early Christian record would fit into the latter scheme of things. They were mutually supportive.

This was an extraordinary admission, and to me cut to the heart of the matter. Despite Doherty's stark comments about how pagans thought back then, he wasn't getting this information from pagan sources. Doherty was using his controversial readings of Paul and early Christianity to interpret pagan beliefs, and not the other way around.

Now, that would have been acceptable if we had clear-cut evidence on the Christian side. But since we don't (as I argue in the “World of Myth” section) then the sides can hardly be mutually supportive if the evidence is missing to support either pillar.

Since I didn't see evidence for Doherty's theories on either the pagan side or the early Christian side, and his 'indicators' (as Doherty called them) appeared to me to be ad hoc rationalisations, I lost interest in his theories. However, when he announced that he was producing a second edition of his book, I decided I would take another look.

It's not what we think, it's what they thought

One point that Doherty stresses is that we need to be wary of bringing modern concepts to the ancient record, of imposing our own standards on what it meant, on what we decide could have been believed or not believed by early Christians. As Doherty writes::

We cannot judge their use of language by our own use of language. We cannot determine what constituted the original Christian belief according to what we today would be led to accept. (Page 11)

This is a good point. We should not evaluate their writings by what we would expect. And yet, Doherty himself does just that throughout his book. For example (my emphasis):

If this were the view of Paul and his contemporaries, that their Jesus had at some time lived on earth, we would expect a degree of speculation as to when and where he had lived, whether or what he might have taught, the role of other people in his life, especially those who had crucified him; we would expect an interpretation of him in terms of his possible earthly circumstances. We would also expect to find questions about these things put to apostles like Paul, and efforts by Paul to answer them as best he could. (Page 110)

I agree that we would expect those things. But as Doherty insists, it is not our expectations that are important. Would they have expected that? To determine this, we need to look at the literature as a whole. What if there were a similar silence amongst the 'historicist' Christians? And what if there were many examples of that silence? How should that affect our expectations? I examine this further in Section 2 when I look at the wider literature, but I'll note here that Doherty simply hasn't done that analysis. Unfortunately the reader that does not have knowledge of the wider literature can only take Doherty at his word that our expectations have relevance when examining early literature.

Apologetics vs critical scholarship

A customer reviewer of JNGNM on the Amazon website, though giving the book four stars out of five, remarks that Doherty "feels it necessary to respond at length to apologist books that have been published in the last ten years and to internet sites that have sprung up in the same period."

In fact, throughout JNGNM Doherty all too often works from modern apologetic interpretations of Pauline writings rather than from the views of critical scholarship. For example, what did Paul mean by “Son of God”? Doherty states that “Paul and the other early writers start with the divine Christ” (page 19) (emphasis in the original). But it is by no means clear that Paul regarded Christ as “divine”. For example, Dunn writes (emphasis in the original):

... centuries of Christianity have made us hesitate to be quite so free in our use of 'son of God' or 'god' when speaking of other men. What we must try to reckon with is the fact that the contemporaries of the first Christians were not so inhibited. In the first century AD 'son of God' and 'god' were used much more widely in reference to particular individuals than is the case today. [2]

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the title “Son of God” belonged not only to the Messiah, but also “to any one whose piety has place him in a filial relation to God”:

It is through such personal relations that the individual becomes conscious of God's fatherhood, and gradually in Hellenistic and rabbinical literature "sonship to God" was ascribed first to every Israelite and then to every member of the human race (Abot iii. 15, v. 20; Ber. v. 1; see Abba)... The application of the term "son of God" to the Messiah rests chiefly on Ps. ii. 7, and the other Messianic passages quoted above.

The phrase "the only begotten son" (John iii. 16) is merely another rendering for "the beloved son." The Septuagint translates ("thine only son") of Gen. xxii. 2 by "thy beloved son."... the "only begotten" thus reverts to the attribute of the "servant" who is the "chosen" one.

We are used to the idea that Paul's “Son of God” means a divine being, and Doherty rarely questions this interpretation in JNGNM, but it is by no means the view of critical scholarship. Paul states in Romans that all who are led by the Spirit of God receive the “spirit of adoption” and are “sons of God”:

Rom 8:13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. 15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.

Scholars point to early Christians as being “adoptionists”, i.e. that God adopted Jesus as “Son”. As Bart Ehrman notes in his book "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture"

Christians of the second and third centuries generally--regardless of theological persuasion--claimed to espouse the views of Jesus' earliest followers. With regard at least to the adoptionists, modern scholarship has by and large conceded the claim. [3]

Ehrman points to the following passage in Paul, as an indication that Paul believed that Jesus was initially a man who was appointed “Son of God”:

[Christ Jesus. . .] who came from the seed of David according to the flesh, who was appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom 1:3-4)"

Ehrman spends many pages on the subject of adoptionism, but despite Doherty referring to Ehrman's book several times, Doherty barely touches on the topic, even when using passages where Paul declares that believers can be adopted as sons of God. Doherty's theory requires a high Christiology, and readers like myself who are interested in critical scholarship's views will be disappointed to find such perspectives often ignored.

Another example is Doherty's reading of the pre-Christian hymn located in Phil 2:6-9. Modern apologetics interpret this to be proof that Paul regarded Christ as a pre-existent being equal to God. However, many critical scholars view Phil 2:6-9 in terms of Paul's Adam Christology -- that Jesus was a man in the image or form of God (as was Adam) rather than a pre-existent being. Again, Doherty is happy with modern orthodox views here, since -- like orthodox views -- his ideas work better with a divine figure.

A final example: Doherty warns that it is a mistake to read Gospel events into the writings of Paul and other early letters. He states that even “critical scholars now agree” that Jesus' deeds “could not possibly have matched those of the Gospel story” (page 21) and that “critical scholarship... has begun to admit that much of the Gospel story... is indeed fabrication” (page 82). And yet, Doherty finds significance in Gospel details that are missing in Paul:

The descent of the dove into Jesus would have provided the perfect parallel to Paul's belief that at baptism the Holy Ghost descended into the believer. The voice of God welcoming Jesus as his Beloved Son could have served to symbolize Paul's contention (as in Romans 8:14-17) that believers have been adopted as sons of God. (Page 65)

I doubt very much that critical scholarship would expect to find the Gospel story of the dove descending on Jesus in Paul, given that Paul states that Jesus was appointed Son of God by his resurrection from the dead rather than by his baptism (as seen in Mark). It might give fundamentalists food for thought, but would any critical scholar be concerned by the lack of that particular Gospel story in Paul?

Doherty's frequent references to Christian apologetic views gives the book a strange slant. He often brings up arguments by apologists (e.g. “Apologists place crucial importance on this passage, and it usually involves some form of special pleading” (page 76)), and I have to wonder: why? If the argument is bad, why not present the viewpoint of critical scholarship? And if the argument is good, what does it matter whether it is used by apologists or not?

The impression I gathered reading through JNGNM is that, for Doherty, addressing critical scholarship is less of a concern than addressing modern conservative Christian views of the Bible. That would be fine if the purpose of JNGNM was to critique modern conservative Christian views. But if Doherty wants his book to be taken seriously by critical scholarship as a new paradigm in which to understand Christian origins, I don't see the need for examining apologetic arguments if critical scholarship has moved in a different direction.

I suppose some of his more convinced readers might argue that critical scholarship in the area of Christian origins is no better than apologetics, but my point remains: if Doherty wants his theories to be addressed by critical scholarship, then surely he should be focusing on points raised by critical scholarship rather than those raised by Christian apologists.

Doherty underlines his approach when he writes:

Throughout this book, in the course of examining the silence in the epistles on the life and teachings of Jesus, we will look at all of the Gospel elements, without discrimination. This will include those which critical scholarship has cast doubt on, or even totally rejected—such as the apocalyptic sayings or the existence of Judas. (Page 28)

Evaluating elements that critical scholarship has already rejected does not seem a fruitful endeavour, especially if Doherty wants his work to be taken seriously by that same critical scholarship.

Doherty's audience

A reviewer of TJP, Chris Zeichman, points out that Doherty's ideal audience appears to be those who lack the ability to assess his claims and arguments. (Doherty responds here). Without that ability, readers will find it difficult to determine the plausibility of Doherty's hypotheses. As one Doherty sympathiser named Doug wrote in a post on FRDB:

Doherty's is the only plausible hypothesis I've seen, but for the average person its plausibility depends on a knowledge of ancient philosophy, specifically Middle Platonism, that almost nobody has except for a handful of academic specialists.

Dr Jeffrey Gibson (New Testament scholar and non-theist) responded to Doug's remark in this way (emphasis in his original post):

I'm compelled to say that it's just the opposite of what Doug asserts -- i.e., that the plausibility of D'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.

And that is exactly so. Even GA Wells, probably the leading mythicist before Doherty, finds issues with Doherty's Platonic reading of early Christianity. Wells writes:

Doherty likewise holds that Paul speaks of Jesus 'in exclusively mythological terms'. I have never -- in spite of what some of my critics have alleged -- subscribed to such a view: for Paul does, after all, call Jesus a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3), born of a woman under the (Jewish) law (Gal.4:4), who lived as a servant to the circumcision (Rom. 15:8) and was crucified on a tree (Gal.3:13) and buried (I Cor. 15:4). Doherty interprets these passages from the Platonic premiss (sic) that things on Earth have their 'counterparts' in the heavens. Thus 'within the spirit realm' Christ could be of David's stock, etc. But, if the 'spiritual' reality was believed to correspond in some way to a material equivalent on Earth, then the existence of the latter is conceded.

Doherty does try to offer explanations for why those passages could be applied to a non-earthly being, but has little data to back him up. The reader without the requistite knowledge will simply need to take Doherty's explanation at face value.

After reading TJP, Zeichman made a recommendation that many who have looked at Doherty's theories have also made. Zeichman writes (link above):

If he instead submitted works to scholarly journals, it would both improve the quality of his work by undergoing close examination, and result in more attention for his hypothesis. Thus, if Doherty believes he has anything to add to the field of New Testament studies, this approach would be emphatically preferable. However, because he has not subjected his work to critical scrutiny, he bases large amounts of his work on avoidable mistakes that would be caught under nearly any peer-review system. By repeating the same significant blunders, it is difficult to take seriously the whole of his hypothesis, as The Jesus Puzzle quickly appears to be a tangled web of mistaken interpretations.

I also strongly recommend that Doherty submit his theories to scholarly journals, and I urge his supporters to encourage him to do so. The peer-review process isn't about 'proving' the correctness of the views expressed in the submitted article, it is about removing obvious mistakes and weaknesses. The peer-reviewers do know something about the topic, and they won't take Doherty's explanations at face value. And I doubt that they would be impressed by Doherty addressing the arguments of apologists instead of critical scholarship.

1.4 Conclusion

JNGNM contains a lot of material on early Christianity which is well laid out and easy to read, and I would recommend this book to people interested in the topic based on that alone. And it is a 'must-have' for the mythicist who is interested in debating conservative Christians on the topic of orthodox Christian views of the Gospel Jesus and the development of the early church.

However, for those (like myself) who are interested specifically in early Christian and pagan thinking, this is not a good book. Doherty has to mangle his sources to try to get them to say what he wants them to say. Not only is there no direct evidence to support Doherty's theories, the evidence that we do have is decidedly against them.

Ideas in popular books promoting a controversial new theory tend to reverberate around the Internet for years. Forums on early Christianity are only now starting to recover from the “virgin born and crucified gods were a dime-a-dozen” nonsense that used to be posted everywhere, and only because proponents were asked to back up their views with evidence from primary sources.

I fear that JNGNM will unleash another round of similar nonsense about Middle Platonism and mystery cult beliefs. Let me point out a recent example on the FRDB forum. The poster wrote:

Jesus took on ”the likeness of flesh” in the lower regions of heaven. That's why he could be crucified there. It sounds odd today but that's what people believed, including ”Paul”.

When I asked the poster to back this up with evidence, I received no response. I hope my review will at least encourage forum posters to ask proponents of Doherty's theories to back up their claims.

If Doherty's readers are convinced by JNGNM or TJP, they should encourage Doherty to publish his theories in a peer-reviewed journal. He doesn't need to publish all his theories in one article. Here are some possible topics he might consider that would assist in adding value to his cumulative case:

  1. That the Second Century apologist Tatian, at the time he wrote “Address to the Greeks” (around 160 CE), didn't believe in a Jesus Christ, either historical or mythical. If Doherty is right, then he has made an amazing discovery about a Christianity that went unnoticed by the heresiologists of the time. On the other hand, if he is wrong, it would begin to call into question the implications of the silences he found in Tatian and other Second Century apologists (see Section 2.)
  2. That the pagans believed that the myths of Attis and Mithras took place in some non-earthly “World of Myth”. I'm not aware of any scholar who holds this view. If Doherty is correct, scholars will need to rethink their views about ancient philosophy. However, if Doherty is shown to be wrong, then it would call into question how he is reading the myths of other savior gods, including that of Paul's.
  3. That the Q community created a symbolic non-historical figure called “Jesus” to be the voice for their sayings.
  4. If the modern consensus shifted towards Doherty in any of those topics it would cause a sensation, and would lay the ground-work for introducing the other elements of Doherty's theory.

It should be noted that at least two scholars relevant to the field being discussed in this review have provided support for Doherty's theories. Dr Richard Carrier has made a provisionally positive review of “The Jesus Puzzle”. I discuss his review in Section 4. Dr Robert M Price doesn't appear to have a written review of either JNGNM or TJP as far as I know, but he has made many positive statements about them and considers Doherty's theories worthy of being taken seriously. Perhaps one of them might provide the evidence lacking in Doherty's books.

A final thought: Even if Doherty is wrong, that doesn't mean that there was a historical Jesus. There is very little evidence for a historical Jesus. It might be that another mythicist theory will have the explanatory power lacking in Doherty's model. Some of the content of the JNGNM may be useful in that regard, though I would recommend “buyer beware” to anyone using it.

Goto Section 2: Early writings



[1] Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Third Edition. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
[2] Dunn, James. Christology in the making: a New Testament inquiry into the origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 1996, 2nd edition, page 18
[3] Ehrman, Bart D. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, page 48

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