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'. There are four sections over four webpages. The first Section was the review proper. In this section, I look further into issues raised by Doherty concerning early Christian writings. For example, there is a silence on the historical Jesus that we wouldn't expect. But what does an evaluation of the wider literature tell us?

Section 2: Early Writings

In this section, I look at some issues raised in Doherty's analysis of early Christian writings.

Part 1 looks at the silence in early Christian writings with regards to a historical Jesus. That this is the case in the epistle writers in the New Testament is well known, but Doherty sees a silence about a historical Jesus in the writings of the extant Second Century apologists that is almost the same as that in the First Century writings. What are the implications of this Second Century silence?

Part 2 examines Doherty's view of the Q document, the hypothetical document that is supposed to have been the source for some of the Gospels. GA Wells, another prominent mythicist, famously declared himself convinced that Q reflected the influence of an actual itinerant preacher who lived in the first half of the First Century. What is Doherty's view on the Q document and its Q community?

Part 3 addresses issues raised by Doherty with regards to other First and Second Century texts. What do the writings that didn't make it into the New Testament canon tell us?

2.1 Silence in early Christian Writings

When reading through the epistles generally attributed to Paul, one recognises something quite odd: they contain few – if any – references to the teachings or actions of a historical Jesus. Looking more broadly at the other epistles in the New Testament, we see the same pattern: details representing Jesus as a person living in some time or place appear almost non-existent.

Broadening our scope to the Second Century apologists and other texts, we see the same pattern continuing. Doherty examines these First and Second Century writers and concludes that they are silent about a historical Jesus for good reason: there was no historical Jesus Christ at the core of those authors' Christianity.

This is the end of Doherty's analysis. But is this the end of the story?

If we continue on with our examination of early literature, we begin to see that it is in fact not only silent about a historical Jesus, but that it contains few historical details about anything. Many epistles are hard to date for this reason, and we have to rely on hints within the text – usually names or events that we can date via other texts – to determine a possible date of origination, and even then it is often a date range extending over decades. (See the date ranges given on the excellent earlychristianwritings website.)

Why did they write in such a fashion? It certainly isn't what we would expect. But what Doherty doesn't note in JNGNM is that there are writers who, while undoubtedly believing in a historical Jesus, nevertheless wrote in the same fashion.

Silence in the Second Century Apologists

In JNGNM, Doherty examines the writings of Second Century apologists, and concludes:

As one can see by this survey, if one leaves aside Justin Martyr there is a silence in the 2nd Century apologists on the subject of the historical Jesus which is virtually equal of that found in the 1st century epistle writers. (Page 485)

Doherty describes this lack of appeal to a human Jesus in Second Century apologetic writings as a situation that is 'too bizarre' (page 487). He is correct that it is not what we would expect. With a few exceptions -- Justin Martyr being the most notable one -- the Second Century apologists appear to have little interest in the historical Jesus. (And in fact, we are lucky to have even Justin Martyr's writings. Had not a Byzantine scribe copied out some of Justin's letters in the 14th Century CE, we would have little more than a scattering of quotations today, and all our extant Second Century apologists would have been silent about a historical Jesus.)

Doherty and I have already crossed swords on the topic of the silence of Second Century apologists in 2005. I won't cover the same material here, so I invite interested readers to read my articles and Doherty's responses for background information before continuing.

Doherty's conclusion that Second Century apologists like Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix and even Justin Martyr (whom Doherty claims subscribed to a non-historical Jesus early in his Christian life) were not believers in a historical Jesus is quite fantastic. Even scholars who lean towards mythicism do not hold this view. G.A. Wells notes that, for all their unexpected silences, they nevertheless betrayed an acquaintance with the Jesus of the New Testament [1]. Richard Carrier notes that many of the Second Century apologists who were silent on the Gospel Jesus appear to be familiar with one or more of the books of the New Testament.

Here the reader needs to decide: Is Doherty's case about the majority of Second Century extant Christian apologists not having a historical Jesus in view within their Christianity convincing? If not, what implications does that have for how we evaluate the First Century silence? I will look at that shortly. At the least, this “too bizarre” situation should make us wary about placing our modern expectations on any ancient writer.

Doherty's missing example: Tertullian's “Ad Nationes”

Some of the Second Century apologists not only don't give indications of a belief in a historical Jesus, they don't mention the names “Jesus” or “Christ” at all. Doherty sees that this “blatant suppression” as “nothing less than a denial of Christ.” (page 486) Doherty points to Tertullian as an example of an early Christian apologist who did not do this (page 497). And yet, Doherty fails to mention an example from Tertullian where he does exactly that: Tertullian's Ad nationes.

Tertullian converted to Christianity at the end of the Second Century CE. He produced many works, and there was no doubt that he believed in a historical Jesus, though he moved away from what was considered orthodoxy towards the end of his life.

Around 200 CE, Tertullian penned two works: an Apology and Ad nationes. Both were addressed to the Roman Emperor and the Roman Senate. The Apology contains references to the Gospel Jesus, but while Doherty notes that Tertullian “indulges in no such cryptic concealment” in his Apology, he does not note that in Ad nationes Tertullian does not even refer to the names “Jesus” or “Christ”, and apparently denies any human ministry.

I brought this to Doherty's attention, and he responded on his website:

It matters little if the name of this founder is not actually stated (something which GDon makes a big issue of), or if no details of his earthly career are mentioned in a treatise which is wholly devoted to countering the calumnies levelled by the pagan against the Christian, and (in Book II) to a critical condemnation of the pagan gods.

Interestingly enough, Doherty's response (and Wells' also) is similar to that used to explain the silences in Paul's epistles: that these were “occasional” letters, written to address a particular topic, so there was no need for Tertullian to refer to historical details.

But could this explain why Tertullian can write about a “founder”, and not refer to the names “Jesus” or “Christ”? I suggest that something else is going on here, and a more complete analysis of the literature of the time than provided by Doherty is required.

Since I had alerted Doherty to this epistle long before he wrote JNGNM, I was interested in whether he would address this “too bizarre” anomaly. However, the only acknowledgement I found was a statement that “Tertullian, in chapter 4 of his Ad Nationes, was urging that the pagan ought to find out who the founder was, so that his sect might be properly understood.” (page 486) Doherty ignores the content of the letter. As I show below, like those Second Century apologists that Doherty deems were 'Jesus ahistoricists', Tertullian appears to be hiding an earthly existence of Jesus.

It is worth emphasizing that Ad nationes is not an individual case. There are other Second Century writers who even Doherty acknowledges as historicists that also give no details about a historical Jesus. (See my website articles at the link above.) None of those particular writings are evaluated in JNGNM.

Applying the mythicist test to Tertullian's “Ad nationes”

Is it possible to mount a case that Ad nationes was written by a Christian who didn't believe in a historical founder for Christianity? I believe it is. Like Doherty's, my case will be on as much as what Tertullian does write in Ad nationes as it is on what he doesn't.

For those readers with little knowledge of early Christian literature: read through what I have written below, and see if the evidence I have produced is convincing. If Ad nationes had been the only letter we had from Tertullian, would you expect him to also be numbered among Doherty's 'Jesus ahistoricists'?

To start: The most obvious point to make is that in Ad nationes Tertullian doesn't refer to the names “Jesus” or “Christ”. Tertullian does urge the pagans to investigate 'the founder'. But does a 'founder' have to be a historical person, or even an earthly human? Paul describes Jesus Christ as “the foundation” in 1 Cor 3:11. Hebrews 12:2 asks us to look to “Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith”. As Doherty believes that those are 'ahistoricist' texts, there is nothing stopping us from thinking that Tertullian believed 'the founder' was a mythical being along those lines as well.

And, despite Doherty's claim that Tertullian does not “indulge in cryptic concealment of any earthly ministry”, Tertullian in fact does just that:

"This name of ours took its rise in the reign of Augustus; under Tiberius it was taught with all clearness and publicity; under Nero it was ruthlessly condemned, and you may weigh its worth and character even from the person of its persecutor.

Tertullian says "the name took its rise in the reign of Augustus" (ruled 27 BCE – 14 CE). If this is a reference to the Gospel Jesus, it is a curious one. According to the Gospels, Jesus wasn't known as “the Christ” until the start of his ministry, some years after Augustus had died. And even if Tertullian believed that Jesus was Christ from birth, why use the frustratingly vague phrase 'this name took its rise...' rather than pointing out that God Himself incarnated during that period?

But even more curious is Tertullian's declaration that under Tiberius (ruled 14 CE – 37 CE) “the name” itself "was taught with all clearness and publicity." This is the very time that Jesus conducted his human ministry! How can Tertullian ignore pointing out that it wasn't just the name that was taught, but it was Jesus Christ himself that conducted a teaching ministry on earth? What is this if not Tertullian engaging in 'a denial of Christ', a 'cryptic concealment' of the earthly ministry of Jesus? This is not something that we would expect.

Tertullian goes on to state that 'the name' was ruthlessly condemned under Nero (ruled 54 CE – 68 CE). This was long after Christ had been crucified according to the Gospels. Tertullian does not seem to distinguish between those three time periods. It was “the name” that arose under Augustus, “the name” that was taught under Tiberius and "the name" that was then ruthlessly condemned under Nero. There is no hint of an incarnation, human ministry or resurrection of the 'founder' in that period.

And what is the meaning of “Christian”? Tertullian writes: "The name Christian, however, so far as its meaning goes, bears the sense of anointing." Tertullian notes that cults are named after their founders, so implies that he understands that there is a founder called “Christ”, but no explicit reference to a human ministry.

And when Tertullian refers to Scriptures, he apparently only knows the Old Testament. For example, when he wants to talk about wisdom and knowing God, he quotes Solomon:

"Now what wise man is so devoid of truth, as not to know that God is the Father and Lord of wisdom itself and truth? Besides there is that divine oracle uttered by Solomon: "The fear of the Lord," says he," is the beginning of wisdom."

But why use Solomon? Remember, this is a letter to the Roman Emperor and Senate. Why not quote the 'founder' himself? Wouldn't this be the perfect opportunity to promote, or at least rehabilitate, Jesus in the eyes of the pagans by demonstrating the wisdom of Christianity's founder? After all, he is urging his pagan readers to gain a better understanding of the founder!

In fact, Tertullian does appear to paraphrase Jesus, but attributes this to 'prime wisdom'. As Tertullian writes, even “a look” pollutes chastity (my emphasis):

For what mark do we exhibit except the prime wisdom, which teaches us not to worship the frivolous works of the human hand; the temperance, by which we abstain from other men's goods; the chastity, which we pollute not even with a look...

And what is God, according to Tertullian? He writes that the true God "is incapable of being compared with those false deities which are cognizable to sight and sense" and that God "is visible to none". The true God, writes Tertullian, is incapable of change:

Come now, do you allow that the Divine Being not only has nothing servile in His course, but exists in unimpaired integrity, and ought not to be diminished, or suspended, or destroyed? Well, then, all His blessedness would disappear, if He were ever subject to change.

Could someone who believed that God had incarnated into the world and been crucified have written that “His blessedness would disappear if He were ever subject to change”, without some further explanation on how this didn't apply to the Christian God? It is not something that we would expect.

Tertullian then goes on to criticize the Roman gods. Some of his criticisms are startling for their implications:

But when you say that they only make men into gods after their death, do you not admit that before death the said gods were merely human?

They, therefore who cannot deny the birth of men, must also admit their death; they who allow their mortality must not suppose them to be gods.

It is a settled point that a god is born of a god, and that what lacks divinity is born of what is not divine.

If Tertullian was aware that similar criticisms could be levelled at Christianity, he doesn't show it. How could any Christian write the above statements without qualification?

Now, keep in mind that no-one – not even Doherty – believes that Tertullian was anything other than a 'historicist' when he wrote Ad nationes. And Ad nationes is not the only example of this (see the earlier link). It suggests that there is something going on in the early writings that we would not expect. But there is not a hint in JNGNM that these examples exist. They are not part of the analysis provided by Doherty.

How the Second Century apologists' writings were treated

Doherty, noting the silence in the Second Century apologists, concludes:

In an age when Christian pride and fortitude required that any penalty be faced--even the ultimate one--rather than renounce the faith, this gutting of Christian doctrine would have smacked of betrayal. It would have horrified believers and quickly discredited the apologists in Christian eyes. Could any of them really have chosen to defend the Name by expunging it? (Page 486)

But were Christians horrified by this 'gutting of Christian doctrine'? No. In fact, the record shows quite the opposite reaction. Carrier notes that the respect that Athenagoras' defence of Christianity earned among orthodox Christians contributed to forming decisions on canonicity based on whether they accorded with works like it. Tatian's "Address to the Greeks" was described by Eusebius as "celebrated" and regarded as "the best and most useful of all his works". Even Doherty believes that Tertullian borrowed, or at least used as inspiration, passages from Minucius Felix (page 497). So, far from “horrifying believers” and being regarded as “betrayal”, these writings were praised – and possibly were even borrowed – by later generations of Christians. But Doherty doesn't appear to have looked at the literature in this regard.

Conclusion on Second Century apologetic silence

Tertullian was a product of his time, and needs to be evaluated in those terms. We can't impose our expectations on how people wrote 2000 years ago and in a different culture. We need to review all the literature before we come to our conclusions, and Doherty simply hasn't done that.

Keep in mind that Doherty is correct, at least from what we would expect. There is a silence in early writings – much wider than just on Jesus – that is “too bizarre”, at least from our modern expectations. At the end of the day, we are faced with two opposing views:

  1. This Second Century silence can be explained by postulating that those writers believed in a Christianity that had no historical Jesus at its core. This is the view held by Doherty.
  2. We don't know for sure why they were silent, but hints and allusions within the text indicate an awareness of the Gospels and/or the letters of Paul. This is the view held by nearly all scholars, including G.A. Wells.

It is here that the reader needs to decide: Is Doherty correct about the Second Century writers? If he is correct, then he has discovered a form of ahistoricist Christianity in the Second Century that is otherwise unknown in the record and passed unnoticed by the heresiologists, including some that were contemporaries or near-contemporaries. It is a remarkable discovery that cannot be understated. It would revolutionize our understanding of how Christianity developed.

And if he is incorrect? Then we would need to consider the implications: if there is a silence in the Second Century 'historicist' writers which we would not expect, and there are similarities to the silence in the First Century writers, what does that tell us about how we should set our expectations towards First Century writings?

Silence in First Century writings

In JNGNM, Doherty notes similarities between the Second Century apologists and the First Century epistle writers. He writes:

Another aspect is the fact that in almost all the apologists we find a total lack of a sense of history. They do not talk of their religion as an ongoing movement with a specific century of development behind it, through a beginning in time, place and circumstances, and a spread in similar specifics. Some of them pronounce it to be very "old" and they look back to roots in the Jewish prophets rather than to the life of a recent historical Jesus. In this, of course, they are much like the 1st century epistle writers. (Page 477)

And this is so. For Doherty, the reason for the similarity is simple: both groups didn't have a historical Jesus at their core.

As Doherty notes, the similarities go further than just a lack of a historical Jesus. They include a dependence on the writings of the prophets in the Old Testament rather than the life of a historical Jesus. In my Tertullian example above, we see that he quotes Solomon rather than Jesus. He prefers attributing sayings to the 'prime wisdom' rather than to Christ. And he would rather talk about 'the name being taught' rather than Christ being incarnated and having a human ministry. Such use of allusions have their parallels in the writings of the First Century.

Again, note that all these writings – First Century and Second Century – give few historical details about anything. This is not something unique to Christian writings. Stanton notes that precise historical and chronological references are few and far between in the numerous Jewish writings discovered in the caves around the Dead Sea near Qumran. [2]

Silence in the Gospels

This pattern can also be found in the Gospels. While the Gospels do contain a few historical markers, Sanders notes that the events depicted are often linked together by phrases such as 'at this time' which, though implying a chronological setting, was probably used to link individual pericopes together. [3]

As many have noted, the Gospels surprisingly tell us little about Jesus. How long was his ministry? One year, or three? What did he look like? Was he short or tall? Married or single? Even if the Gospels were fiction or the details were pulled from Scriptures, if they had been important to the author's audience the authors should have been able to include them.

Silence in Paul

The silence in Paul is baffling. We would expect that Paul would have included details about an historical Jesus if he had known them. We would expect that his readers would have been eager to hear details about Jesus, what he did and what he taught. But, like the Second Century writers, Paul is frustratingly vague about details. And again, let me emphasize: he is not just vague on details about a historical Jesus, but on historical details about anything.

Doherty does note that Paul appears to refer to a couple of teachings by Jesus, though these were probably from the Risen Christ. He writes:

The context of Paul's silence on this issue in 1 Corinthians contains the only apparent reference to teachings by Jesus to be found in the entire body of New Testament epistles: 7:10 on the command "from the Lord" prohibiting divorce; and 9:14 in which he declares that the Lord has commanded that preachers of the Gospel should earn their living by such activity. As we saw earlier, a common scholarly view sees these as directives which Paul believes he has received from Christ in heaven, through personal revelation. (Page 65)

Let's assume for a moment that Doherty is correct, and that early Christians believed in a spiritual Jesus who never came to earth. But if that spiritual Jesus was able to pass on teachings, did he only ever give two commands, with one of them being a prohibition on divorce?

Regardless of whether Jesus was historical or mythical, Paul's Jesus appeared to be able to pass on commands. If the Risen Jesus gave further teachings, why didn't Paul include them? Or if they came by revelation, why not more details about where and when he received them? I suspect that here, like he did for why Tertullian was silent in Ad nationes, Doherty would -- through necessity -- fall back on reasons used by historicists: Paul didn't know any other commands; or is alluding to them without explicitly referring to Jesus; or no other commands were applicable to the topics at hand.

Another example: It's clear that Paul belonged to a group where miracles and prophecies were common-place. Some were prophets, others healers, still others were 'speakers of tongues':

1Cr 12:9 To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; 10 To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another [diverse] kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:

1Cr 12:28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

Paul himself even claimed to have performed signs and wonders:

2 Cor 12:12 Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.

Paul describes none of these signs, wonders or mighty deeds, nor healings, nor prophets and their prophecies. Were not any through the Risen Jesus? Were they not signs that Paul could use to point to the coming End Times?

I think there is a mystery here whichever way you look at it. The Risen Christ was thought to have interacted with people and given teachings, but even when the visions of the Risen Christ are referred to in 1 Cor 15 by Paul (or for those who believe those passages are interpolations: the interpolator), there are no descriptions, no location or time. Replacing a historical Jesus with a heavenly one does not change the strangeness of the silence if Doherty is proposing that the heavenly Jesus interacted with people in visions and prophetic messages. Did Jesus not appear? Did he say nothing beyond two commands? And what of the miracles of healings and prophecies that occurred later? Would not Paul hold them up as examples of the Spirit in action, the power of the Risen Christ himself?

Interestingly, Doherty has moved Paul from being a secondary source about Jesus to being a primary source. As such, we would expect that the Christians would be eager to hear how Paul himself interacted with this heavenly Jesus. As Doherty puts it, though in a different context: “We would 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)”

Conclusion on Silence in early Christian Writings

I think there are too many similarities between the silences found in the writings of the First Century epistle writers and the Second Century apologists for this to be coincidence. Perhaps the similarities are because both groups didn't have a historical Jesus at their core, as Doherty believes. But if the evidence points to the 'silent' Second Century apologists being 'historicists', then we need to rethink our expectations on what we would find in the First Century writers.

As pointed out, leading mythicists like GA Wells and Richard Carrier appear to believe that the 'silent' Second Century authors were aware of the Gospels and the letters of Paul, though this via allusions rather than explicit statements. The reader needs to decide whether Doherty has made his case; if they decide against Doherty, then the silence in the First Century should be examined from this new perspective, and not from what we would expect.

Another consideration is that there is a strange silence even if Paul didn't regard Jesus as an earthly person. As long as Doherty believes that the heavenly Jesus interacted with the early Christians in some way, the puzzle of the silence around such events applies to his theories as well. Should Doherty's theories become mainstream, I suspect that explanations for this 'ahistoricist' silence will run similar to those currently proposed for the 'historicist' silence.

2.2 The Q Document

The Q document is a hypothetical textual source for the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke. Many scholars accept that a sayings document best explains agreements between Matthew and Luke that are independent of Mark.

GA Wells – probably the best known mythicist before Doherty – stated a few years ago that he now believes that an actual itinerant Galilean preacher was arguably behind some of the sayings and deeds of the Jesus found in the Gospels. He attributed this change of mind to the work done on Q. He writes:

Some elements in the ministry of the gospel Jesus are arguably traceable to the activities of a Galilean preacher of the early first century, whose career (embellished and somewhat distorted) is documented in what is known as Q (an abbreviation for 'Quelle', German for 'source'). Q supplied the gospels of Matthew and Luke with much of their material concerning Jesus' Galilean ministry...

Wells believes that the dying-and-rising figure in the epistles was merged with the life of the Galilean preacher, to produce some of the material found in the Gospels. I knew that Doherty also accepted the probable existence of Q, so I was interested to see how Doherty viewed the development of Q in terms of a historical Jesus.

Doherty spends much time establishing the existence of Q. He sees the Q community as a Jewish “kingdom of God” preaching movement centred in Galilee, although it seems to have extended beyond that region. He writes:

The itinerant prophets of this new 'counter-culture' expression 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. They urged repentance, taught a new ethic and advocated a new society; they claimed the performance of miracles, and they aroused the hostility of the religious establishment. (Page 3)

So Doherty sees a Q community of itinerant 'miracle-wielding' prophets teaching about the coming “kingdom of God” and urging repentence. On the Q community performing miracles, Doherty writes:

As for miracles, there is no question that the Q prophets, as preachers of the kingdom, would have claimed the performance of signs and wonders, for every sectarian movement of the time had to possess that facility. These, especially miraculous healings, were the indispensable pointers of the kingdom. (Page 384)

Doherty agrees with those scholars who see Q divided into a number of strata ('Q1', 'Q2' and a 'Q3') though he has his own views about what went into each layer and the timing of their development. Doherty sees the material in Q1, the earliest layer, as being derived from a Cynic or Cynic-like source which existed prior to the formation of the kingdom preaching movement. (Page 336) The sayings were not attributed to any individual, and there was no reference to any founding figure. (Doherty notes that scholars do see some sayings relating to Jesus, but Doherty argues against them being in the earliest layer.)

Q2 reflects an apocalyptically oriented mind and community, one which prophesies the coming of the Son of Man and a terrible judgement (Page 343). As Ehrman points out:

... Q is chock-full of apocalyptic sayings on the lips of Jesus, sayings in which he predicts the imminent end of the age in a catastrophic act of judgement sent by God. [4]

Again, although scholars do see sayings attributed to Jesus in Q2, Doherty argues against this conclusion (Page 354). It is only in Doherty's proposed Q3 layer that the name of Jesus starts to appear (page 386).

Thus it is in the later layers that sayings begin to be attributed to a Jesus, and it is this Jesus who eventually comes to be regarded as the founding figure of the community. However, in common with many scholars who have worked on Q, Doherty believes that there was no Passion narrative, crucifixion or resurrection in Q.

So, if there was no Jesus figure in the earliest layers of Q, how did such a figure emerge as the author of those sayings? Doherty notes key Q scholar Arnal's observation that in Q Jesus was represented as not qualitatively different from any other teacher in the Q community; rather, he was a “first among equals”, the “most important exemplar of activity that others can and do undertake” (Page 340). Doherty views Arnal's comment as significant. He writes:

This is an extremely momentous admission, because it opens a key door. If the Q community does not treat Jesus as an exalted figure (let alone as deified Son of God), if they allot to him no more than what the Q preachers themselves are and do, then there is no impediment to seeing him as merely symbolic of them. (Page 340)

And this left me scratching my head. “No impediment to seeing him as merely symbolic of them”? I suppose it is possible that a community might decide to adopt a symbolic name to represent them as a symbol. And undoubtedly the name “Jesus”, although a common one, with its meaning of “Savior” would be an appropriate symbolic name. But is that the most obvious choice? Doherty's leap from Arnal's “first among equals” to a “merely symbolic” figure is neither obvious nor natural.

Doherty continues:

Even more significantly, there is no impediment to postulating, based on specific evidence in Q, that earlier versions of many sayings embodied a group reference, lost when the Jesus figure was introduced and elements like pronouns were changed to assign such sayings to him personally.

There is no impediment to postulating any number of things, including that earlier sayings in Q embodied a group reference that were assigned to a Jesus figure, but... exactly how does this lead to a symbolic figure being a likely alternative? The same situation would arise if there were a person who actually rose to prominence within the group. Group sayings might well start to be assigned to such an individual; indeed, as a member of the group, he would actually be using those sayings himself. (In fact, even accepting Doherty's views on the development within Q, I would suggest that this later option is still the more plausible.)

Both Doherty and Wells make much on the lack of a Passion narrative in Q. They see this element as coming from a separate source, the “Jerusalem group”. But as Ehrman points out:

In fact, we don't know whether it [Q] contained a Passion narrative. We don't have it!

One writer, David Seeley, believes that the comment in Q 14:27 “And whoever does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me”, suggests that Q may have an awareness of Jesus' death, though without the theological significance attached by Paul. Seeley points to Cynic or Stoic philosophers of the day, where following a teacher in suffering and death was important. Jesus' death had no special implications until later Christians decided to attach theological significance to it. (Doherty discusses Seeley's comment on page 747.)

Even if Q did lack a Passion narrative, Ehrman believes that the Gospel of Thomas offers a 'precedent' of a sayings document lacking a Passion narrative:

Many scholars have been particularly impressed by the similarities evident between Q, insofar as we can reconstruct it, and the Gospel of Thomas. Interestingly enough, prior to the discovery of Thomas one of the principal arguments sometimes used against the hypothetical existence of Q was that early Christians could not possibly have created a collection of Jesus' sayings without much interest at all (if at all!) in his death and resurrection. And then Thomas turned up--a Gospel comprised exclusively of Jesus' sayings without an account of his death and resurrection! [5]

Ehrman believes that the similarities between Thomas and Q should probably not be pressed too far. Q did have some narratives; it wasn't exclusively a sayings document. And it may in fact have contained references to Jesus' crucifixion and death, as noted by Seeley; there are no extant versions so we simply can't know.

Extracting a historical Jesus from Doherty's Q?

Oddly enough, as I read through Doherty's analysis of Q, I could see how Q helped to change Wells' mind on the question of there being an itinerant Galilean preacher behind some of the sayings and actions attributed to the Gospel Jesus. Consider what Doherty has proposed:

  1. There was a group of itinerant prophets, located in the Galilean area as well as its surrounds, which proclaimed 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.
  2. The “kingdom of God” group urged repentance, taught a new ethic and advocated a new society.
  3. The group claimed to perform supernatural healings and other miracles, pointers towards the kingdom.
  4. The group aroused the hostility of the religious establishment.
  5. The community became more 'apocalyptically oriented' and started to preach that the coming of the Son of Man would bring a terrible judgement.
  6. The community's sayings became attributed to someone who was not considered divine but rather a “first among equals”. This figure came to known as the originator of those sayings.

This is very similar to models of a historical Jesus outlined by many scholars. This 'historicist' model is not the Gospel Jesus, but it has Jesus as a preacher who came out of an existing Galilean “kingdom of God” movement -- probably involving John the Baptist as an important leader initially – and, as per Arnal, gradually came to prominence within that movement. This Jesus then went to Jerusalem with some of his disciples, at which time he was crucified and killed. The Galilean movement continued, initially without attaching much meaning to his death, while a Jerusalem movement arose which, probably through visions of a risen Christ, came to believe that Jesus' death had great meaning. One writer had feet in both camps, and combined the 'Galilean' and 'Jerusalem' traditions to produce the Gospel of Mark. Later writers built on the traditions from the Q community to expand on Mark when developing their own Gospels.

Most of the Galilean side is actually supported by Doherty (I will look at Paul in Section 3): the miracle-wielding “kingdom of God” movement with the 'apocalyptically oriented' mind-set that aroused the hostility of the religious establishment (though ironically, instead of there being one miracle-wielding, repentence teaching apocalyptic preacher, Doherty now has a whole community of them!) It is only how the sayings and actions came to be attributed to the figure of Jesus that Doherty differs from the model above. Here the reader needs to decide: is Doherty's theory that the Q community decided to attribute their sayings and actions to a symbolic figure more reasonable than the idea that an itinerant Galilean preacher arose from such a community, to eventually be considered the 'first among equals', as per Arnal?

Given the paucity of evidence available for examining the origins of Christianity, any case explaining that origin needs to be a cumulative one. With regards to Q, Doherty's case appears to be built on speculation, with a fanciful conclusion. It may be possible that a Q community decided to attribute their sayings and actions to someone who in fact never existed, but it seems to me to not be the obvious one, at least from the evidence provided by Doherty. This is something that the attentive reader will need to evaluate for themselves.

While I've only looked at some of Doherty's conclusions about Q above, I'll note here that Doherty spends quite a lot of time on Q in JNGNM. Much of the background information he provides is very interesting and well worth a read.


Throughout JNGNM Doherty often writes as though there are only two views: a mythical Jesus or an orthodox one. Alternate views as proposed by Arnal and Ehrman are barely touched upon. Doherty approaches his conclusions on Q in the same manner.

Doherty does spend a lot of time delving into establishing the hypothetical Q document as a solution to the overlaps between Luke and Matthew, and much of it is interesting. But even granting his analysis of the development of Q is correct (which I have been assuming for the sake of the review) we are still left with data that could support a historicist model... just not a Gospel one. Only his suggestion that the Q community created a symbolic figure represents a major difference. The reader will need to decide whether Doherty offers adequate support for this notion. Despite the large number of pages that Doherty devotes to Q in JNGNM, it is not supported by anything that I can see.

2.3 Early Christian writings

In this section, I look at points raised about other early Christian writings not covered above.

Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas was probably written between the end of the First Century and the middle of the Second Century CE. It is another example of a text that didn't include the names “Jesus”, “Christ” nor any explicit references to historical details about the early church.

Doherty notes that there are several references to “apostles” but there is no tradition about a church established by Jesus, and nothing which could fit the Gospel ministry is referred to (page 271). He concludes that, had the author possessed any idea of the Son as a human personality who had walked the earth in recent memory, suffered and died and resurrected outside Jerusalem to redeem humanity, “he could never have buried him in this densely obscure heavenly construct and allowed the entire picture 'recorded' in the Gospels to evaporate into the mystical wind” (page 272). I hope that readers who have read my section on Tertullian's Ad nationes no longer have that expectation.

Richard Carrier notes that the Shepherd of Hermas was more likely written towards the latter end of the date range, around 150 CE. On its popularity, he writes:

So popular the Sheppherd (sic) was that it was widely regarded as inspired--it was actually included, along with the Epistle of Barnabas, as the final book in the oldest NT codex that survives intact, the Codex Sinaiticus (c. 300 A.D.).

Like many other Second Century CE texts, it doesn't explicitly cite any NT text, though it may give allusions to them. Carrier writes:

But even the book of Hermas never names or quotes exactly any NT text. It contains many statements which resemble those in various NT books, but this could just as well reflect a common oral tradition.

The Shepherd is generally thought to be an adoptionist text. Christ was a pre-existent being that descended on the man Jesus, though the names themselves are never used in the text. For the protaganist in the story, everything is shrouded in symbolism. Fortunately a helpful guide interprets the symbolism for him.

In the following example, the author sees a tower built on a large white rock. The guide explains that the tower represents the Church, and the rock the Son of God. A gate had been cut into the rock. The protaganist sees that the gate as “new”, and asks his guide on its meaning:

And in the middle of the plain he showed me a large white rock that had arisen out of the plain. And the rock was more lofty than the mountains, rectangular in shape, so as to be capable of containing the whole world: and that rock was old, having a gate cut out of it; and the cutting out of the gate seemed to me as if recently done...

"First of all, sir," I said, "explain this to me: What is the meaning of the rock and the gate?" "This rock," he answered, "and this gate are the Son of God." "How, sir?" I said; "the rock is old, and the gate is new."

"Listen," he said, "and understand, O ignorant man. The Son of God is older than all His creatures, so that He was a fellow-councillor with the Father in His work of creation: for this reason is He old."

"And why is the gate new, sir?" I said. "Because," he answered, "He became manifest in the last days of the dispensation: for this reason the gate was made new, that they who are to be saved by it might enter into the kingdom of God.

The author goes onto write that “a man cannot otherwise enter into the kingdom of God than by the name of His beloved Son” and “the gate is the Son of God.” However, Doherty doesn't see this as a reference to Christ.

Here the reader needs to decide: Is Doherty correct that this text, so popular with Second Century Christians that it almost made it into the NT canon, an example of a “Son of God” Christianity that had no historical Jesus at its core? Or is it yet another example similar to those we have looked at? If the later, how would it affect the issue of silence found in other writings?


Ignatius was an early Christian writer, probably martyred in the first half of the Second Century. His letters have been heavily redacted, if not forged outright. Dates for these letters vary from around 107 CE (if the shorter forms are genuine) to around 140 CE (if they were forged.) Doherty follows the views of critical scholarship on this, leaving open the question of whether the letters attributed to Ignatius were forged or not.

Though Ignatius doesn't refer to many historical details about Christ (a situation which I hope those reading through my review will now not be surprised at), there is no doubt that he believed in a 'historical Jesus'. Doherty sees the lack of Gospel details as significant, and goes on to point out significant elements missing from the letters of Ignatius:

That Ignatius knew of any written Gospel is dubious, virtually to be ruled out. He never appeals to one in support of his claims about Jesus. His reference to “the gospel” is clearly to the preached message, as in Paul. As in the case of other Apostolic Fathers, most scholars judge that he draws only on (presumed) oral traditions... He never draws on the idea that anything goes back to Jesus himself. There is never an appeal to any sayings of Jesus, any eschatological predictions, any miracles—although, as always, scholars manage to find unattributed “echoes” of some sayings. And for all his fixation on Jesus' human sufferings, paralleled by his own, he never once offer details of those sufferings such as are recounted so vividly in the Gospels. (Page 301)

All this is very reminiscent of Paul. Other than a few explicit references to historical details (which are lacking in Paul), Ignatius displays a silence on elements that Doherty finds remarkable in Paul. Doherty continues:

If Ignatius had no written Gospel, and never identifies circulating oral or apostolic traditions about Jesus' ministry and passion, the orthodox scenario faces an astonishing situation. The bishop of Antioch, living in the foremost Christian center in the eastern Mediterranean, almost on the outskirts of Galilee and Judea, seemingly has no access to knowledge about Jesus' life, ministry and death beyond the basic biographical data he puts forward. He never alludes to features of early Christian history surrounding the apostles, save the bare names of Peter and Paul (Romans 4:3); as noted earlier, he does not even make reference to their martyrdom, a key issue for Ignatius since he is facing it himself and is eager to embrace it. (Page 301)

Doherty writes elsewhere that since Ignatius doesn't appeal to a written Gospel, “we can assume he had not encountered a copy of such a document.” (Page 404)

But is this assumption warranted? Richard Carrier writes that there are allusions to both the Gospels and the letters of Paul, though no explicit citation from them. Carrier writes (my emphasis):

The next such text is the collection of letters by Ignatius. However, these were added to and redacted in later centuries, making the reliability of even the "authentic" letters uncertain. Ignatius wrote while on the road to his trial in 110 A.D. and it is important to note that he appears not to have had references with him, thus any allusions or quotations in his work come from memory alone (M 43-4). Thus, he borrows phrases and paraphrases from many Pauline epistles, yet never tells us this is what he is doing (he probably could not recall which letters he was drawing from at the time). Likewise, he borrows phrases or ideas which are found in Matthew and John, and on one occasion something that appears to be from Luke, but again he never names his sources or even tells us that he is drawing from a source at all (M 45-7). In no case does he name or precisely quote any NT ("New Testament") book, but again this may be due to the unusual circumstances in which he was writing.

Despite the difficulties, it seems plausible that the Gospels had been written by this date, although it is remotely possible that Ignatius is simply quoting oral traditions which eventually became recorded in writing, and also possible that this material was added or dressed up by later editors. Of greatest note is that in his letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius recounts a debate he held with Judaizing Christians in which it is clear that only the OT was regarded as an authority (M 48-9). Instead of referring to any NT writings as evidence, he simply says that Jesus Christ is the witness to the authority of the tradition. This suggests that none of the NT was regarded even then as an authority. Like Clement, Ignatius and other Christians probably regarded these texts as wise counsel or useful collections of their oral traditions, and not as "scripture" per se.

Nowadays we are used to the idea of the NT being the authoritative text for Christians. Doherty believes that Ignatius knowing of a written Gospel can be 'virtually ruled out', since otherwise he would have appealed to such a source. But if – as per Carrier – the NT was not regarded as authoritative at that time, either by Ignatius or the forger who wrote in his name, then this expectation carries less weight. We can see why early Christian authors were more keen to quote explicitly from OT texts rather than newer writings, even when coming to the words of Jesus himself.

Here the reader needs to decide: Is Doherty's view on Ignatius reasonable? Given what we know about Second Century writings, should we expect Ignatius to have appealed to written Gospels if he had known of them? And if Ignatius – who even Doherty doesn't doubt believed in a historical Jesus – is silent on many of the same things that Paul is silent on, what does that do to our expectations about what we should expect to find in Paul?

2.4 Doherty's dates for Early Christian Writings

Doherty doesn't vary much from the dates generally attributed to early letters. Below I've created a table giving some of the dates that Doherty has included in his book, with page references to JNGNM. I've included them for interest only:

Date Range
Page Ref
Q document Q1 around 50 CE, some parts of Q2 possibly post 70 C
Q1 (p 361), Q2 (p 403)
Presumably died in the 60s CE
Page 16
1 Peter and 1,2,3 John
Perhaps 80s or 90s CE
Page 17
Gospel of Mark
In the 90s CE
Page 404
2 Peter
Between 100-130 CE
Page 17
Gospel of Matthew and Luke
Within first two decades of 2nd C CE (though all gospels continued to undergo revision up to 175 CE)
Page 404
Between 110--140 CE. Appendix shows Papias as living 60--140 CE
Page 466
Pastoral epistles
Early 2nd C CE, probably 110-130
Page 16
1 Clement
Early in the Second Century CE
Page 296
Theophilus of Antioch & Athenagoras
180 CE, though possibly earlier. Doherty believes these are 'Jesus ahistoricist' texts
Page 695

Goto Section 3: Paul

hit counter
for tumblr


[1] Wells, George Albert. Can we trust the New Testament?: thoughts on the reliability of Early Christian Testimony. (2003), page 58.
[2] Stanton, Graham Stanton. The Gospels and Jesus, Second Edition, Oxford Bible Series, 2002, page 144
Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin, 1993, p. 61
[4] Ehrman,
Jesus: apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 82
[5] Ehrman, ibid, p
age 82

Copyright GakuseiDon