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, covered over four webpages. The first Section is the review proper. The other sections expand on topics within Doherty's book. In this section I look at Doherty's controversial "World of Myth" theory.

Section 4: World of Myth

In this section, I look at Doherty's controversial “World of Myth” theory. I describe ancient cosmology and how Doherty's theories interact (or don't interact) with our current understanding of how people thought 2000 years ago.

To expand on comments made earlier: I am fascinated by how our beliefs in cosmology have changed over the years, and how it might have affected the conceptual landscape of the people of those times. When the worldview moved from a flat earth to a spherical one around 2500 years ago, how did it affect the thinking of the time? What did it mean to people that they could look up and see the firmament, which some described as Zeus himself? Did this contribute to the development of our moral sense? And when the firmament was removed sometime in the last millenium, did this allow us to start questioning how we thought of God? Even more, how did the development of Middle Platonism and later, from around the Third Century CE, Neo-platonism, affect views on the gods, ethics and morality?

I speculate that the relationship between Platonism (in its Middle Platonic and Neo-platonic forms) and religious views 2000 years ago is paralleled by the relationship between science and religious views over the last 200 years. Just as we can see the writers of 2000 years ago -- especially Second Century Christian apologists -- trying to make their theology consistent with the prevailing philosphical ideas of the day, so too do major religions and many modern day cults (e.g. Scientology and New Age cults) invoke the name of science to support them.

So it was with great interest that I read Doherty's views on his “World of Myth” concept, first on his website, then in his “The Jesus Puzzle” book, and finally in JNGNM.

I will discuss Doherty's “World of Myth” concept in its own section below, but briefly Doherty believes that pagan salvation cults had their own saviour god who had performed deeds in a 'mythical world'. This was a 'supernatural realm', a Platonic world of myth and higher reality (page 19).

Now, I have read a lot on ancient thinking. I've read scholarly articles, books, blogs and websites. And nowhere is there a suggestion that the activities of the saviour gods were seen as taking place in a 'supernatural world'. The concept simply did not exist. When Attis dismembers himself with his knife, or Osiris is cut to pieces, or Dionysus is eaten by the Titans and reconstituted by Zeus; none of this was thought to take place in a 'supernatural world'. Plutarch, a pagan who wrote towards the end of the First Century CE noted the different versions of the myths of Osiris, and doesn't mention a version where the myths were thought to have occuirred in a "World Of Myth". John Dillon's book “The Middle Platonists” is probably the most comprehensive survey of Middle Platonic thought published, and there is nothing in there to suggest that the activities of the pagan gods were thought to have taken place in a 'supernatural world'. And when the Second Century CE Christians attacked the various ways the Romans worshipped their gods, none of them seemed to be aware of a "World of Myth" belief amongst the pagans of the day.

As I mentioned in Section 1, Dr Jeffrey Gibson (New Testament scholar and non-theist) remarked:

the plausibility of [Doherty]'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.

Before continuing, one note that I should stress: my objections to Doherty's “World of Myth” theory exist only so far as Doherty portrays them as a norm of the thinking of the time. If Doherty believes that Paul and the early Christians had their own cosmological views that didn't exist beforehand and were misunderstood afterwards, then my objections in this part fail. What I object to is Doherty making sweeping and unsupported generalizations about the thinking of the time, and passing them off as representative of that thinking.

So, exactly what did ancient pagans believe around the time of Paul?

4.1 Ancient Cosmology

This section provides an overview of early ancient beliefs about cosmology and the interaction between heavenly creatures, demons and humans. Without this understanding, it is difficult to evaluate where Doherty is being consistent with ancient views or whether he is advocating views that go outside current scholarship. Doherty is by no means clear when he does this in JNGNM, and the unwary reader will not pick this up (I urge Doherty to publish in peer-reviewed publications for that reason: so that he has readers who will pick up on this.)

The universe

By Paul's time, people understood that the world was a sphere. This sphere lay at the centre of the universe. Above the earth were the lower heavens, the sky they saw above them filled with clouds. The great blue dome that they saw overhead – the firmament – was thought by many to be an actual physical structure. Some thought it was made of iron, others of crystal. Some even called it “Zeus”, the all-seeing god who watches over us. Above the dome were the upper heavens, the realm of the true and pure gods.

Many believed that the stars were glowing rocks stuck into the firmament. The seven “wanderers” – the planets – were thought to have their own spheres, which allowed them to move independently of the stars.

The upper heavens

The upper heavens were those layers above the firmament. By Paul's time, Platonic thought posited these layers as the realm of unchanging perfection: the realm of the true and pure gods. The gods were perfect; and naturally anything perfect would not change. There were varying views about what was in the upper heavens, including the number of layers that they contained.

The Firmament

The firmament is the big blue dome we can see when we look up on a clear sunny day, and it was thought to be a physical structure. Some thought that it held back the waters that gathered above the firmament. Gates within the firmament could be opened to allow the water to pour on the Earth as floods.

These gates were also thought to have been used by souls to travel into the heavens, or angels to travel from the upper heavens into the lower heavens, and then onto earth. Some thought that special passwords were required to pass through the gates.

The Moon

The Moon was considered a demarcation point. The sublunar realm – i.e. everything below the moon, including the earth – was part of the zone which underwent change and corruption. The Moon itself changed – it waxed and waned – but always in a cycle. So it was often considered a transition point between our world and the heavens.

Earth and the lower heavens

While the upper heavens -- above the firmament -- were the realm of the eternal and the unchanging, the realm of earth and the lower heavens (that area below the firmament) was considered temporary and subject to decay. This was the realm of flesh, of desire and envy, of impermanence.

The four elements

It was generally agreed that everything on earth consistent of four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Each element could be broken down into atoms – indivisible units of matter. Thus fire was made up of 'fire atoms', water was made up of 'water atoms', and so on. Plato proposed that each elemental atom had its own shape.

In addition, some believed that there was a fifth element, called “aether”. This element only existed in the heavens above the firmament.

Living things were made of the four elements. Flesh, for example, contained some of each element. Empedokles (450 BCE) wrote that:

Flesh is the product of equal parts of the four elements mixed together, and sinews of double portions of fire and earth mixed together, and the claws of animals are the product of sinews chilled by contact with the air, and bones of two equal parts of water and of earth and four parts of fire mingled together...

Plutarch gives the various theories of his day with regards to how those elements 'move'. Anything made of earth and water had a natural tendency to travel in a downwards direction. Anything made of air or fire are 'carried aloft'. According to Plutarch:

Plato saith that it is neither heavy nor light in its own nature, when it exists in its own place; but being in the place where another should be, then it has an inclination by which it tends to gravity or levity.

Aristotle saith that, if we simply consider things in their own nature, the earth only is to be judged heavy, and fire light; but air and water are on occasions heavy and at other times light.

The Stoics think that of the four elements two are light, fire and air; two ponderous, earth and water; that which is naturally light doth by its own nature, not by any inclination, recede from its own centre; but that which is heavy doth by its own nature tend to its centre; for the centre is not a heavy thing in itself.

Epicurus thinks that bodies are not limited; but the first bodies, which are simple bodies, and all those composed of them, all acknowledge gravity; that all atoms are moved, some perpendicularly, some obliquely; some are carried aloft either by immediate impulse or with vibrations.

Objects consisting of earth and water – including flesh – were naturally weighed down, and attracted to the earth. Things made of air and fire naturally floated. Ironically, early Greeks thought that the heavens were filled with fire, since fire naturally travelled upwards.

Spiritual beings -- including daemons and disembodied souls -- were made from air or fire, which is why they could fly. As Plutarch writes:

He affirms that our soul is nothing but air; it is that which constitutes and preserves; the whole world is invested with spirit and air. For spirit and air are synonymous.

Four species of rational beings

Plutarch notes the belief that there were four "species of rational beings": (1) gods, (2) daemons, (3) heroes , and (4) humans. Plutarch put "demigods" into the "heroes" category. Some thought that there was a procession of change: from men to heroes, heroes to daemons, and, for those daemons that become "thoroughly purified by means of virtue", from daemons to gods.

Pagans generally placed the true gods as existing above the firmament. Daemons lived in the air or on earth, and could be good or evil. Men, heroes and demigods were powerful beings who lived on earth, though the latter two could become spirits or daemons. Plutarch wrote that "Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, and the Stoics do conclude that daemons are essences endowed with souls", and that "the heroes are the souls separated from their bodies, some are good, some are bad". These "essences" were thought to have lived in the air, except for those that could pass through the firmament into heaven. (A comet viewed after Julius Caesar's death has claimed to be his soul travelling into the heavens beyond the firmament, confirming he had joined the ranks of the gods.)

Daemons and demons

Daemons” were beings made of fire and/or air who lived in the air as well as floating around locations on earth. They were regarded as an intermediate being between humans and the true gods above the firmament, and passed on messages from the gods to humans, and the prayers of humans to the gods. The pagan writer Apuleuis (Second Century CE) gives us this description (my emphasis):

Moreover, there are certain divine middle powers, situated in this interval of the air, between the highest ether and earth, which is in the lowest place, through whom our desires and our deserts pass to the Gods. These are called by a Greek name daemons, who, being placed between the terrestrial and celestial inhabitants, transmit prayers from the one, and gifts from the other. They likewise carry supplications from the one, and auxiliaries from the other, as certain interpreters and saluters of both. Through these same daemons, as Plato says in the Banquet, all denunciations, the various miracles of enchanters, and all the species of presages, are directed. Prefects, from among the number of these, providentially attend to every thing, according to the province assigned to each; either by the formation of dreams, or causing the fissures in entrails, or governing the flights of some birds, and instructing the songs of others, or by inspiring prophets, or hurling thunder, or producing the coruscations of lightning in the clouds; or causing other things zto take place, by which we obtain a knowledge of future events. And it is requisite to think that all these particulars are effected by the will, the power, and authority of the celestial Gods, but by the compliance, operations, and ministrant offices of daemons, for it was through the employment, the operations, and the providential attention of these, that dreams predicted to Hannibal the loss of one of his eyes; that the inspection of the viscera previously announced to Flaminius the danger of a great slaughter; and that auguries granted to Accius Navius the miracle of the whetstone. It is also through these that forerunning indications of future empire are imparted to certain persons; as that an eagle covered the head of Tarquinius Priscus, and that a flame illuminated the head of Servius Tullius. And lastly, to these are owing all the presages of diviners, the expiations of the Hetruscans, the enclosure of places struck by lightning, and the verses of the Sibyls; all which, as I have said, are effected by certain powers that are media between men and Gods.

Apuleius gives a description of the bodies of daemons:

But if the clouds fly loftily, all of which originate from, and again flow downward to, the earth, what should you at length think of the bodies of daemons, which are much less dense, and therefore so much more attenuated than clouds? For they are not conglobed from a feculent nebula and a tumid darkness, as the clouds are, but they consist of that most pure, liquid, and serene element of air, and on this account are not easily visible to the human eye, unless they exhibit an image of themselves by divine command.

For they are capable, in the same manner as we are, of suffering all the mitigations or incitements of souls; so as to be stimulated by anger, made to incline by pity, allured by gifts, appeased by prayers, exasperated by contumely, soothed by honours, and changed by all other things, in the same way that we are. Indeed, that I may comprehend the nature of them by a definition, daemons are in their genus animals, in their species rational, in mind passive, in body arial, and in time perpetual. Of these five characteristics which I have mentioned, the three first are the same as those which we possess, the fourth is peculiar to them, and the last is common to them with the immortal Gods, from whom they differ in being obnoxious to passion. Hence, as I think, daemons are not absurdly denominated passive, because they are subject to the same perturbations that we are.

Apuleius describes the human soul, separated from the physical body, as another type of “daemon”:

There is also another species of daemons, according to a second signification, and this is a human soul, which, after its departure from the present life, does not enter into another body. I find that souls of this kind are called in the ancient Latin tongue Lemures. Of these Lemures, therefore, he who, being allotted the guardianship of his posterity, dwells in a house with an appeased and tranquil power, is called a familiar [or domestic] Lar.

Early Christians used the same Greek word (though nowadays we spell it “demon”), but for them the daemons were deceivers, actually fallen angels pretending to be the Greek and Roman gods and demanding sacrifices. Their purpose was to lead men away from God by confusing them with talk of myths and gods. Demons, they said, copied stories found in the Old Testament in creating the Greek myths, in order to deceive Christians later on.

Demons were evil 'spiritual' creatures – that is, made up of 'spiritual' elements of fire or air, weighed down by their own lusts. The Second Century Christian apologist Tatian writes:

But none of the demons possess flesh; their structure is spiritual, like that of fire or air. And only by those whom the Spirit of God dwells in and fortifies are the bodies of the demons easily seen, not at all by others,--I mean those who possess only soul; for the inferior has not the ability to apprehend the superior. On this account the nature of the demons has no place for repentance; for they are the reflection of matter and of wickedness.

Another Second Century apologist, Minucius Felix, writes:

The same man also declared that demons were earthly, wandering, hostile to humanity. What said Plato, who believed that it was a hard thing to find out God? Does not he also, without hesitation, tell of both angels and demons? And in his Symposium also, does not he endeavour to explain the nature of demons? For he will have it to be a substance between mortal and immortal--that is, mediate between body and spirit, compounded by mingling of earthly weight and heavenly lightness

These impure spirits, therefore--the demons--as is shown by the Magi, by the philosophers, and by Plato, consecrated under statues and images, lurk there, and by their afflatus attain the authority as of a present deity; while in the meantime they are breathed into the prophets, while they dwell in the shrines, while sometimes they animate the fibres of the entrails, control the flights of birds, direct the lots, are the cause of oracles involved in many falsehoods.

Clement of Alexandria writes of impure spirits, weighed down by an earthly and watery nature, and condemned to flit about graves and tombs. He writes:

How, then, can shades and demons be still reckoned gods, being in reality unclean and impure spirits, acknowledged by all to be of an earthly and watery nature, sinking downwards by their own weight, and flitting about graves and tombs, about which they appear dimly, being but shadowy phantasms?

Where did they set the location of their myths?

All the myths of the gods appear to have been set on earth or the underworld. Some involved gods in the upper heavens, looking down on earth as events occur. But the myths themselves were set on earth or the underworld.

Now, pagans differed in their views on the veracity of the myths. Some were 'euhemerists', and believed that the gods were ancient kings whose characters and stories became mythologized over the years. For example, Tacitus writes on Jupiter being a king on Crete, and who threw his father Saturn from the throne. Isis was reigning in Egypt around that time:

Some say that the Jews were fugitives from the island of Crete, who settled on the nearest coast of Africa about the time when Saturn was driven from his throne by the power of Jupiter. Evidence of this is sought in the name. There is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida; the neighbouring tribe, the Idaei, came to be called Judaei by a barbarous lengthening of the national name. Others assert that in the reign of Isis the overflowing population of Egypt, led by Hierosolymus and Judas, discharged itself into the neighbouring countries

Second Century apologists accused the pagan poets of making up stories and introducing gods for the sake of the story. Still others that devils inspired the poets to create lurid tales about Jupiter.

Finally, many educated pagans held that these myths had some deeper meaning, and shouldn't be taken literally. They offered allegorical interpretations for the myths. I will touch on this below.


We actually have quite a lot of information about ancient thinking around the time of Paul available to us. Views differed, but from the literature available we can see:

  1. The upper heavens varied in number, but they were the domain of the true gods. The Middle Platonic/Neo pythagorean views had them as unchanging and undefiled. No evil could enter into this realm.
  2. The area beneath the moon -- the sub-lunar realm stretching down to earth -- was the area of temporality and decay. This was the area inhabited by humans, animals and daemons.
  3. Daemons lived in the area. They passed down messages from the gods to humans, and passed up prayers from humans to the gods. They could be good or evil, and were thought to be made mostly of 'spiritual' substances like air and fire.
  4. The myths of the gods were set on earth. Some thought that the stories were mythologized accounts of actual people; others that they were fictional accounts; and others that the myths held an allegorical meaning, and shouldn't be taken literally.

4.2 World of Myth

In Part Four of JNGNM, Doherty outlines his “World of Myth” concept. Doherty believes that this was a concept common to mystery cults of the early days of Christianity, and shared by the early Christians themeselves. Doherty writes:

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)

Doherty sees that these pagan salvation cults shared a view that their gods – like Attis, Osiris, Adonis and Dionysus -- performed their deeds in a “Platonic world of myth and higher reality”. Doherty writes (my emphasis):

For all its jarring incongruity with our modern outlook, not to mention centuries of tradition about an earthly Jesus, this is a view that would have been perfectly at home in the philosophical and mythical thinking of the time. It was, in fact, a view shared by a whole range of pagan salvation cults, each of which had its own savior god who had performed deeds in the mythical world. Like Paul's Christ, savior gods such as Attis and Osiris had been killed; like Paul's Christ, Osiris had been buried (after being dismembered); like Christ on the third day, Adonis and Dionysos had been resurrected from death. It will be argued that in the cults all these things were not regarded as historical; they had taken place in the Platonic world of myth and higher reality, a world to be looked at in detail in Part Four. (Page 19)

However, there is no evidence that any pagans held to a view that their saviour gods acted out in a “Platonic 'World of Myth' and higher reality”. The concept simply didn't exist, as far as the literature of the day can tell us. In debates online, mostly on FRDB, those of us with an interest in the subject have repeatedly asked Doherty to support this part of his theory. Finally he responded that he had 'always worked first with the early Christian record, and come to a heavenly-realm understanding of it through internal evidence' (see Section 1 of my review). But is that apparent from the quotes I gave above from JNGNM? No. The unwary reader will simply take Doherty at his word that this kind of thinking was the norm amongst pagans at the time.

On his website, Doherty responded to questions by myself and others about his sources. He writes:

We don't even know if the Attis 'passion week' celebrations had Attis dying in the firmament, because no sources are that specific. We don't know if Osiris was 'buried' in the firmament because no sources are that specific. We don't know if Christ died for our sins and was buried in the firmament, because Paul and the others aren't that specific. But because of our understanding of the thought of the time, we can assume these specifics.

I will discuss the Attis and Osiris myths below, but I would say that it is precisely because we do have a good understanding of the thinking of that time that we can reject Doherty's “World of Myth” concept.


According to Doherty, the average pagan and Jew believed in this "World of Myth". He writes on his website:

For the average pagan and Jew, the bulk of the workings of the universe went on in the vast unseen spiritual realm (the "genuine" part of the universe) which began at the lowest level of the "air" and extended ever upward through the various layers of heaven. Here a savior god like Mithras could slay a bull, Attis could be castrated, and Christ could be hung on a tree by "the god of that world," meaning Satan (see the Ascension of Isaiah 9:14)

But is there any evidence that Attis was thought to have been castrated in the air? Doherty gives the following description of the Attis myth:

Attis was originally a shepherd boy and lover of Cybele who betrayed her with a nymph or by marrying a king's daughter (the myth varied)... The festivities [commemorating the myth of Attis' death] included a mourning for his death, with Attis attached to a pine tree (the one under which he died as a result of the castration); then both Attis and the tree were buried. Two days later came a day of rejoicing (the Hilaria), which by the 4th century represented a "saving" of the god which conferred a guarantee of similar salvation for the initiate into the Attis mysteries. (Pages 132-133)

Doherty also refers to Sallustius' allegorical interpretation, which represented the myth of Attis as "timeless spiritual processes" (page 261).  Sallustius gives the myth as follows:

... they say that the Mother of the Gods seeing Attis lying by the river Gallus fell in love with him, took him, crowned him with her cap of stars, and thereafter kept him with her. He fell in love with a nymph and left the Mother to live with her. For this the Mother of the Gods made Attis go mad and cut off his genital organs and leave them with the nymph, and then return and dwell with her.

Sallustius then provides the interpretation:

Now the Mother of the Gods is the principle that generates life; that is why she is called Mother. Attis is the creator of all things which are born and die; that is why he is said to have been found by the river Gallus. For Gallus signifies the Galaxy, or Milky Way, the point at which body subject to passion begins. Now as the primary gods make perfect the secondary, the Mother loves Attis and gives him celestial powers. That is what the cap means. Attis loves a nymph: the nymphs preside over generation, since all that is generated is fluid. But since the process of generation must be stopped somewhere, and not allowed to generate something worse than the worst, the creator who makes these things casts away his generative powers into the creation and is joined to the Gods again. Now these things never happened, but always are.

Obviously Sallustius doesn't appear to have a "World of Myth" in mind here. The myth takes place on earth, by the river Gallus in Phrygia. Gallus signifies the stars. All this is clear enough. If we wanted to apply this to Paul, then we could imagine that Paul held to a similar allegorical mindset. However, Doherty sees Paul as treating Christ's death as some literal event, and not as allegory.

My question is: how much of the myth is played out in Doherty's "World of Myth"? Is there a river Gallus in the "World of Myth"? How about shepherds or nymphs?

The same question can be asked about the other myths. Adonis was killed by a boar. Were there boars up there in the "World of Myth"? Or was that part of the myth not represented?

I suspect that Doherty will throw his hands up at this point and say "We can't hope to know how they thought back then!" But my issue with this is that we DO know. We have writings from the period that tell us what they thought of the myths. And what we see in those writings not only don't Doherty's theories, but they provide evidence against them.


I cover Plutarch in more depth below, but some quick notes on the myth of Osiris, and how it is portrayed by Plutarch. In brief: Osiris was an Egyptian god who was dismembered by Typhon, and then reassembled by Isis. He became god of the Underworld.

Plutarch was a well-educated pagan living in the late First Century CE. His writings are useful because he often gave various views on topics before giving his own. He does this when writing about the myth of Isis and Osiris.

Here are some of the views he gives:

  • That Osiris was just a king who was later thought to have been divine. He showed the Egyptians "the fruits of cultivation, by giving them laws, and by teaching them to honour the gods. Later he travelled over the whole earth civilizing it."
  • That Osiris was a demigod, "stronger than men and, in their might, greatly surpassing our nature", who ascended and became a true god after death.
  • That the myth was allegory for the actions of natural forces, and "if we revere and honour what is orderly and good and beneficial as the work of Isis and as the image and reflection and reason of Osiris, we shall not be wrong."

If the "average pagan" thought in terms of the myths playing out above the earth in anything other than allegorical terms, then Plutarch didn't appear to know about it.

Ascension of Isaiah

The Ascension of Isaiah (AoI) is a text that was revised and updated by multiple hands over a number of years, reaching its final format around the middle of the Second Century CE. It tells the tale of God's Son, who descends from the Seventh (and highest) Heaven, through each of the different layers, finally reaching Earth, where he was born of a virgin called Mary and crucified; and then rises up into the heavens again.  Doherty discusses the Ascension of Isaiah in Chapter Ten of JNGNM.

In a Jan 2011 podcast, Richard Carrier made the following comment about the AoI at around the 49 min 40 sec mark:

It's basically a whole blueprint for a cosmic Jesus. It's Doherty's thesis right there in an ancient document in fact. Now it doesn't decisively prove his theorum, but it gives a key piece of evidence that makes his theory more likely. It's background evidence that makes the probabilities better than they would be without this evidence.

And yet, I suspect that the AoI is probably strong evidence AGAINST Doherty's theory, as I'll explain below.

There's no doubt that the text has been revised over the years. We have several versions available, in Greek and Latin. There is the Ethiopian version, which is the extant version containing the most passages. There is also the Slavonic and Latin2 versions, which are perhaps earlier reproductions of the Visions of Isaiah section of the Ethiopian one.

The extant Ethiopian text refers several times to the idea that the Beloved will descend from the heavens, transforming at each step until taking on the form of Isaiah, a man: (my emphasis):

Chapter 8:
9. And that thou mayest see the Lord of all those heavens and these thrones.
10. Undergoing (successive) transformation
until He resembles your form and likeness.
26. ...for those who trust in that Lord
who will descend in your form.

Chapter 9:
12. And he said unto me: "Crowns and thrones of glory they do not receive, till the Beloved will descent in the form in which you will see Him descent [will descent, I say] into the world in the last days the Lord, who will be called Christ.
13. Nevertheless they see and know whose will be thrones, and whose the crowns when He has descended and
been made in your form, and they will think that He is flesh and is a man.
14. And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son, and they will crucify Him on a tree, and will slay Him not knowing who He is.

Then the descent is described. The Beloved descends through the levels of heaven, from the Seventh Heaven down to the First, then descends into the firmament, and then descends into the air below the firmament. The air is the last stop before reaching earth. However, notice that he isn't in the form of a man yet when he descends down into the air:

Chapter 10:
29. And again
He descended into the firmament where dwelleth the ruler of this world, and He gave the password to those on the left, and His form was like theirs, and they did not praise Him there; but they were envying one another and fighting; for here there is a power of evil and envying about trifles.

30. And I saw when He descended and made Himself like unto the angels of the air, and He was like one of them

Immediately after this, in Chapter 11, the text describes Jesus being born of the virgin Mary, etc. This is not included in the Slavonic and L2 versions.

In JNGNM, Doherty points out that the part of verse 13 in Chapter 9 where the text refers to the Beloved descending "in your [Isaiah's] form" is not in the Slavonic and L2 versions (page 121), but Doherty appears to be wrong. In fact, all three texts have "in your form" in 9.13.

Doherty also notes that the Latin/Slavonic text has "he will hang him upon a tree", meaning Satan (page 122), though Satan and demons acting on earth through others have many precedents.

To recap, the descent of the Beloved is as follows: He leaves the Seventh Heaven, and descends down each level into the First Heaven, then into the Firmament and the air. If we look at the form that the Beloved takes at each location from the Second Heaven, we find:

Form of the Beloved
Second Heaven
Second Heaven angel
First Heaven
First Heaven angel
Form of a firmament creature
Angel of the air
8:10, 8:26, 9:13
Form of a man

Where then, does the Beloved take on the form of a man? The only location left would appear to be the earth. (Removing an expanded Chapter 11 would leave a virtual silence about the activities of Christ on earth, but those readers who have read Section 2 of my review should not be overly surprised by this.) If this is true, then the AoI becomes evidence AGAINST Doherty. Here we have an example of a descending god coming to earth to take on human form. Other locations ABOVE the earth are explicitly ruled out. How does that set our expectations should we come across other early writings where a god is said to take on human form but the location isn't explicitly given?

(Update Apr 2011) On the FRDB forum, Doherty and I discussed the Slavonic/L2 texts, and the significance of "in your form".

My question:

Earl, given what you have written above [on FRDB], where does descend "in your form" in 9.13 of S/L, as we have it, fit in IYO? The forms and locations are explicitly given by the editor: the Beloved has the form of firmament creatures when in the firmament, and the form of creatures of the air when in the air. So what is the implication of "in your form" in 9.13?

Doherty's response (my emphasis):

One assumes (insofar as we can pinpoint meanings imbedded in a document full of editings and amendments that are very hard to pin down in any exact way) that "in your form" was indeed, in the mind of that particular editor (probably one subscribing to docetism, as in the nearby phrase "they will think that he is flesh and a man"), a reference to human form and probably a reference to earth.

Doherty goes on to say that "even this is not secure" since "certain gnostic documents like the Apocalypse of Adam contain descriptions of redeemer figures and their activities which are so fantastic that they seem to inhabit some other kind of reality". But that entirely begs the question of their location. I'm not using the text as evidence of historicity (since being thought to have been on earth doesn't necessarily mean "historical"), but to counter the claim that it supports anon-earthly Jesus.

Carrier calls the Ascension of Isaiah "basically a whole blueprint for a cosmic Jesus" and "a key piece of evidence that makes his theory more likely". But the S/L2 texts not only don't support a "cosmic Jesus", but even according to Doherty they contain "a reference to human form and probably a reference to earth." 

For those who have read my argument above, there is no "probably" about it. The value of the text as evidence against Doherty's theory is that it explicitly states the form of the Beloved at each level, including the air and the firmament. Doherty needs to invoke the unseen hand of an unknown editor changing an undocumented text ("a document full of editings and amendments") to counter the implications of this.

Do any of the reconstructed texts show a Jesus that (at the least "probably") didn't come to earth? The answer is "no". I would urge all those readers who are interested in Doherty's theories (either for or against) to get Doherty to clarify his position on this "evidence", and judge for yourselves the strength of his argument from his responses.

While AoI is not direct evidence for historicity, to paraphrase Carrier: it is "a key piece of evidence that makes his theory LESS likely"

Second and Third Century Christians attack the Roman gods

In the Second Century CE, Christian apologists began launching attacks on the Roman gods. According to Doherty, early Christians would have been eager to exploit the advantage of a recently historical saviour figure over the "average pagan" belief of their gods existing in this "World of Myth". But is there any record of this?

Second and Third Century apologists like Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen were educated members of the Roman Empire who would have grown up immersed in its religious and philosophical culture. They would have been certainly familiar with the views of both the average and educated pagan of their day. And yet, in all their attacks on the Roman gods, there is not a hint of the idea that the pagans thought their gods acted out their stories in a “World of Myth”. They attacked the pagan myths as being legends about men who were merely mortal, or as allegories, or the fiction of poets, or the lies of demons.

Probably many readers are familiar with the famous quote by Justin Martyr that “we [Christians] propound nothing different from what you [pagans] believe...” Could Justin have claimed this if the pagans believed that their gods acted in a “supernatural realm” while early historicist Christians believed that Christ had incarnated on earth? Keep in mind that Justin believed in a historical Jesus and was knowledgeable about the philosophical traditions of the time.

Here is the context of Justin's comment. From his  First Apology:

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter: Mercury, the interpreting word and teacher of all; AEsculapius, who, though he was a great physician, was struck by a thunderbolt, and so ascended to heaven; and Bacchus too, after he had been torn limb from limb; and Hercules, when he had committed himself to the flames to escape his toils; and the sons of Leda, and Dioscuri; and Perseus, son of Danae; and Bellerophon, who, though sprung from mortals, rose to heaven on the horse Pegasus...

All those stories do appear to be set on earth. From the extant ancient texts written by pagan philosophers, we have a good understanding of how the ancient Romans and Greeks viewed their gods. This is supported by the texts we have from Christians over the first three centuries, until Christianity became the dominant religion. No pagan – average or otherwise -- appeared to have believed in a “World of Myth”, and when Christian apologists attacked pagan beliefs, they didn't refer to such beliefs either.

Pagans attack Second Century Christianity

We've seen that early 'historicist' Christians, when attacking the Roman gods, appeared to have no knowledge that the "average pagan" believed in a 'spiritual realm' in which the myths of the gods were carried out. But what about the reverse? Did pagan writers point out how the "average pagan" believed in a 'spiritual realm' in which their gods acted, while Christians did not? For this, we turn to Celsus.

Celsus was a pagan philosopher who wrote an attack on Christianity called The True Discourse towards the end of the Second Century. While this text no longer exists, we do have significant quotes from it in the response by Origen, a Third Century Christian philosopher. On his website, Doherty quotes from his own book Challenging the Verdict, where he addresses the apologist Gregory Boyd on whether the pagan mysteries adopted ideas from Christianity. Doherty uses Hoffman's reconstruction of Celsus' work to make the following point (my emphasis below):

Let me quote Celsus as quoted by Origen: “Are these distinctive happenings unique to the Christians—and if so, how are they unique? Or are ours to be accounted myths and theirs believed? In truth, there is nothing at all unusual about what Christians believe.” Now, Celsus was a pagan hostile to Christianity who wrote in the latter part of the second century at a time when the mystery cults were flourishing, and he is not the only one to claim that the Christians believed in nothing new.

Doherty goes on to suggest elsewhere in Challenging the Verdict that Paul and the early Christians originally regarded their Jesus as much like the pagan savior gods, a "mythical divine figure operating in a supernatural setting". But Celsus clearly understands that the Christians he is attacking believed in a historical Jesus as outlined in the Gospels of the time. If this is the case, why are both 'historicist' Christians and 'spiritual realm' pagans so at pains to point out that 'historicist' Christian views are NOT different from pagan views?


Is there evidence for Doherty's "World of Myth" amongst the beliefs of people around the time of Paul? The literature available doesn't support it. And Doherty himself admits that there is very little evidence available; he claims he has 'indicators' that point to such a belief amongst "the average pagan", but an examination of those indicators don't support his theories either. Pagan philosophers didn't talk in terms of a "World of Myth". None of them set their myths between the earth and the moon. And the early 'historicist' Christians, when attacking the myths of the pagans, had no knowledge of such a belief among the "average pagan". Indeed, they claimed that “we [Christians] propound nothing different from what you [pagans] believe”. And from what we can tell by the pagan response "when the mystery cults were flourishing": they agreed with the 'historicist' Christians!

When we look at the extant literature by pagan philosophers of the period on how they themselves described their myths, we see a clear picture. We see them explain their myths in terms of allegory, euhemerism and poetic fictions. We actually have a good idea of what they believed. And none of the myths are set in a "spiritual realm" or a "World of Myth".

In conclusion: there is no evidence in the extant literature to support Doherty's theory of a belief that pagan myths were set in a "World of Myth". And when we look at how they did describe ther myths -- in terms of allegory, euhemerism and poetic fictions -- we find that the evidence that we do have goes against it.

4.3 Carrier's review of Doherty's “Sublunar Incarnation Theory”

In 2000, Richard Carrier reviewed Doherty's “The Jesus Puzzle”. While this was more than 10 years ago, Carrier's positive review of Doherty's theory is often held up as providing support for Doherty's "Sublunar Incarnation Theory". I myself have not found any evidence for such a belief in ancient times, so I will briefly examine that part of Carrier's review here.

Is Carrier correct? Is there support for an ancient belief in a “Sub-lunar Incarnation”? Carrier writes in his review of TJP that this concept is "central to Doherty's thesis":

The Sublunar Incarnation Theory

Central to Doherty's thesis is his reinterpretation of the nature of the Incarnation as held by the earliest Christians... his theory is entirely compatible with Jesus "becoming a man of flesh and blood," that is, in the sublunar sphere of heaven, since, as Doherty explains several times, he had to in order to die and fulfill the law (only flesh can die, and be subject to the law, and blood was necessary for atonement).

Carrier goes on to give two examples. The first example involves Innana/Ishtar:

It came to my mind as I went along that Doherty's thesis resembles what we know of ancient Sumerian worship of Ishtar, better known in the Bible as Astarte, Ashtoreth, or Ashera, which had evolved by Jesus' day into the goddess Cybele. Though the texts are over a thousand years prior to the dawn of Christianity, the tradition remained in some form throughout the Ancient Near East, and extant then or not it remains relevant as a "proof of concept."

Now, there is no question that gods could suffer and die on earth, and then ascend to heaven. The issue is that “Sub-lunar Incarnation” -- that is, the taking on of flesh (in carne) above the earth – is unprecedented in the literature. Carrier writes that “[Doherty's] theory is entirely compatible with Jesus 'becoming a man of flesh and blood,' that is, in the sublunar sphere of heaven”, but that is the very concept that needs proof.

Carrier continues:

In Sumerian tablets, we learn that the goddess Inanna "abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, and descended to the underworld," crossing seven gates there (Samuel Kramer, History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Man's Recorded History, rev. ed., 1981: cf. p. 162). Eventually she is killed by a demon in Hell: "The sick woman was turned into a corpse. The corpse was hung from a nail. After three days and three nights had passed," her vizier petitions the gods in heaven to resurrect her. Her Father gives her the "food of life" and the "water of life" and resurrects her, then she ascends from the land of the dead, sending another God (her lover) to die in her place: "the shepherd Dumuzi" (aka Tammuz, a forerunner of Attis).

And that, disappointingly, is that. No sub-lunar realm, much less an incarnation. In a chapter entitled “The Sublunar Incarnation Theory”, I'm not sure how it is supposed to be “proof-of-concept”.

For those interested, the text describing Inanna's descent into the underworld can be found here.

Carrier continues:

Doherty argues that Christianity began with a story like this: where the death and resurrection took place in realms beyond earth. Ishtar still had flesh and could be killed, even crucified, and resurrected, but not "on earth." There is a lot more to Doherty's theory than that, of course. I offer this analogy only to show that such an understanding of a dying and rising God actually was, and thus could be held by ancient peoples who were among the ideological ancestors of the Christians.

I have to wonder what Carrier is on about here. There is no controversy about gods coming down to earth or even to the underworld, to suffer and/or die. There is evidence for dying and rising gods, though the concept as its own distinct category has been questioned. But there is no evidence for the very thing that Carrier is examining: a god incarnating – taking on flesh – in a sub-lunar realm above the earth. Carrier's analogy provides no support for this. It only 'supports' something that no-one questions.

As a side note: When I first read Carrier's review, I wondered why Carrier needed to offer a “proof-of-concept” analogy at all. Why not use an example of an incarnation in the sub-lunar realm from Doherty's “The Jesus Puzzle”? Later, the answer became clear: Doherty had no such example.

Carrier then moves onto his second example. He writes:

A contemporary analogy is Plutarch's "higher" reading of the Isis-Osiris myth (On Isis and Osiris, composed between the 80's and 100's, the very same time as the Gospels), where he says, using the vocabulary of mystery religion, that the secret truth held by priests is that Osiris is not really under the earth, nor was he ever on earth as a king like popular myths about him claim, but is a God "far removed from the earth, uncontaminated and unpolluted and pure from all matter that is subject to destruction and death," where "he becomes the leader and king" of the souls of the dead (382e-383a). Plutarch also says "that part of the world which undergoes reproduction and destruction is contained underneath the orb of the moon, and all things in that are subjected to motion and to change" (376d). It is there, in the "outermost areas" (the "outermost part of matter"), that evil has particular dominion, and where some believers imagine Osiris being continually dismembered and reassembled (375a-b).

The text for Plutarch's "Osiris and Isis" starts here.

Nowhere in Plutarch's work does he write that it is "in the "outermost areas" (the "outermost part of matter") that "some believers imagine Osiris being continually dismembered and reassembled". While the words are certainly there, Carrier has rearranged those words to make Plutarch say something he does not say.

Carrier continues:

As Plutarch describes their view, "the soul of Osiris is everlasting and imperishable, but Typhon oftentimes dismembers his body and causes it to disappear, and Isis wanders hither and yon in her search for it, and fits it together again," because his body is perishable and for that reason is "driven hither from the upper reaches" (373a-b). In other words, for these believers Osiris is "incarnated" in the sublunar heaven and actually dies and resurrects there, later ascending beyond to the imperishable heavens (see also my essay "Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths: Assessing the Till-McFall Exchange").

Again, nowhere does Plutarch write that believers thought that Osiris is "incarnated" in the sublunar heaven and actually dies and resurrects there. I invite interested readers to review Plutarch to check this for themselves.

Carrier continues:

Plato, says Plutarch, "calls this class of beings an interpretive and ministering class, midway between gods and men, in that they convey thither the prayers and petitions of men" (361c) and Isis and Osiris were such, but were later exalted into the heavens as full gods (361e). There are many resemblances here with Doherty's reconstructed Pauline Christology, and it is such schemes as this that prove his theory fits the ancient milieu well.

Daemons were thought to be able to carry mankind's prayers to the gods, and messages from the gods to mankind. But again, none of this relates to incarnation – the taking on flesh – in a sublunar realm above the earth.

I have raised Carrier's examples in on-line forums, and generally people agree that Carrier has misrepresented Plutarch. (One mythicist suggested that Carrier had perhaps created his own translation of Plutarch.) I invite interested readers to check this out for themselves.

4.4 Plutarch's "Isis and Osiris"

Plutarch was a pagan philosopher who wrote towards the end of the First Century CE. His works are useful, since he often gives varying readings of pagan myths. One of his most useful works in this regard is his "Isis and Osiris".

In this section, I will extract quotes from “Isis and Osiris” to provide some idea on how the myths were viewed in Plutarch's time. I will also be briefly commenting on areas that touch on Carrier's review from the last section.

Plutarch starts by relating myths involving Osiris and Isis ruling Egypt and wandering around the world. Some thought that Osiris's body "lies in Busiris; for this was the place of his birth" (359c). But Plutarch warns Clea that the legends shouldn't be taken literally, since they often have an allegorical meaning:

Therefore, Clea, whenever you hear the traditional tales which the Egyptians tell about the gods, their wanderings, dismemberments, and many experiences of this sort, you must remember what has been already said, and you must not think that any of these tales actually happened in the manner in which they are related. The facts are that they do not call the dog by the name Hermes as his proper name, but they bring into association with the most astute of their gods that animal's watchfulness and wakefulness and wisdom... Nor, again, do they believe that the sun rises as a new-born babe from the lotus, but they portray the rising of the sun in this manner to indicate allegorically the enkindling of the sun from the waters. (355B)

The idea that the myths were created to allegorically represent natural events and forces is a theme that Plutarch comes back to again and again. The myths were but reflections of "some true tale", though he points out that the more lurid parts can be discounted as against the "nature of the imperishable", which is the nature of the true divinity above the firmament:

These are nearly all the important points of the legend, with the omission of the most infamous of the tales, such as that about the dismemberment of Horus and the decapitation of Isis. There is one thing that I have no need to mention to you: if they hold such opinions and relate such tales about the nature of the blessed and imperishable (in accordance with which our concept of the divine must be framed) and if such deeds and occurrences actually took place, then "Much there is to spit and cleanse the mouth", as Aeschylus has it. But the fact is that you yourself detest those persons who hold such abnormal and outlandish opinions about the gods (358e)

Plutarch goes on to provide the opinions of some who think that the tales were legends about "demigods", who became daemons, "an interpretative and ministering class, midway between gods and men". Plutarch writes:

Better, therefore, is the judgment of those who hold that the stories about Typhon, Osiris, and Isis, are records of experiences of neither gods nor men, but of demigods, whom Plato and Pythagoras and Xenocrates and Chrysippus, following the lead of early writers on sacred subjects, allege to have been stronger than men and, in their might, greatly surpassing our nature, yet not possessing the divine quality unmixed and uncontaminated, but with a share also in the nature of the soul and in the perceptive faculties of the body, and with a susceptibility to pleasure and pain and to whatsoever other experience is incident to these mutations, and is the source of much disquiet in some and of less in others. For in demigods, as in men, there are divers degrees of virtue and vice. (360d-e)

Plutarch dismisses the "man-in-the-street" view that the stories are about the activities of gods on earth, by moving on to a "more pleasing" philosophical views of the myths: they describe the actions of natural forces:

But now let us begin over again, and consider first the most perspicuous of those who have a reputation for expounding matters more philosophically. These men are like the Greeks who say that Cronus is but a figurative name for Chronus (Time), Hera for Air, and that the birth of Hephaestus symbolises the change of Air into Fire. And thus among the Egyptians such men say that Osiris is the Nile consorting with the Earth, which is Isis, and that the sea is Typhon into which the Nile discharges its waters and is lost to view and dissipated, esave for that part which the earth takes up and absorbs and thereby becomes fertilized. (363d)

Plutarch gives other examples on how the Osiris-Isis myth was understood as being allegorical, where Osiris is the Nile and moisture, while Typhon is the dry heat that is "anti-moisture". He writes:

Let this, then, be stated incidentally, as a matter of record that is common knowledge. But the wiser of the priests call not only the Nile Osiris and the sea Typhon, but they simply give the name of Osiris to the whole source and faculty creative of moisture, believing this to be the cause of generation and the substance of life-producing seed; and the name of Typhon they give to all that is dry, fiery, and arid, in general, and antagonistic to moisture. (364a)

Plutarch continues the theme by explaining how the actions of natural forces -- the Nile fertilizing the earth – is the meaning behind the myth of Horus's birth:

As they regard the Nile as the effusion of Osiris, so they hold and believe the earth to be the body of Isis, not all of it, but so much of it as the Nile covers, fertilizing it and uniting with it. From this union they make Horus to be born. The all-conserving and fostering Hora, that is the seasonable tempering of the surrounding air, is Horus, who they say was brought up by Leto in the marshes round about Buto; for the watery and saturated land best nurtures bthose exhalations which quench and abate aridity and dryness. (366a)

Plutarch then adds Typhon to the story, as the allegorical representation of "the power of drought". Osiris being confined to the chest was allegorical for the retreat of the Nile in summer:

The insidious scheming and usurpation of Typhon, then, is the power of drought, which gains control and dissipates the moisture which is the source of the Nile and of its rising; and his coadjutor, the Queen of the Ethiopians, signifies allegorically the south winds from Ethiopia... The story told of the shutting up of Osiris in the chest seems to mean nothing else than the vanishing and disappearance of water. (366c)

In the same vein, Plutarch describes how the Osiris myth can be made to represent the actions of natural forces acting on the Moon:

There are some who would make the legend an allegorical reference to matters touching eclipses; for the Moon suffers eclipse only when she is full, with the Sun directly opposite to her, and she falls into the shadow of the Earth, as they say Osiris fell into his coffin. Then again, the Moon herself obscures the Sun and causes solar eclipses, always on the thirtieth of the month; however, she does not completely annihilate the Sun, and likewise Isis did not annihilate Typhon. (368d)

Now we come to the part that Carrier uses in his review of Doherty's “Sublunar Incarnation Theory”, dealing with the sublunar realm. I'll be referring to this further below in more detail. But for now, I'll note that as before Plutarch gives the view that sees the Osiris myth as allegorical tales involving natural forces:

It is not, therefore, out of keeping that they have a legend that the soul of Osiris is everlasting and imperishable, but that his body Typhon oftentimes dismembers and causes to disappear, and that Isis wanders hither and yon in her search for it, and fits it together again; for that which really is and is perceptible and good is superior to destruction and change. The images from it with which the sensible and corporeal is impressed, and the relations, forms, and likenesses which this take upon itself, like impressions of seals in wax, are not permanently lasting, but disorder and disturbance overtakes them, being driven hither from the upper reaches, and fighting against Horus, whom Isis brings forth, beholden of all, as the image of the perceptible world... it [the destructive force of Typhon] taints waters and winds with pestilence, and it runs forth wanton even as far as the moon, oftentimes confounding and darkening the moon's brightness; according to the belief and account of the Egyptians, Typhon at one time smites the eye of Horus, and at another time snatches it out and swallows it, and then later gives it back again to the Sun. By the smiting, they refer allegorically to the monthly waning of the moon, and by the crippling, to its eclipse, which the Sun heals by shining straight upon it as soon as it has escaped the shadow of the earth. (373a-b)

At the start of the quote above, Plutarch refers back to the Egyptian myth of Osiris's body being dismembered on earth. As can be seen, Osiris is not actually being incarnated nor dismembered in the "sublunar" realm at all. The "dismemberment" story takes place on earth, and is the allegorical representation of what happens during an eclipse.

Plutarch sums up the myths with this view:

To put the matter briefly, it is not right to believe that water or the sun or the earth or the sky is Osiris or Isis; or again that fire or drought or the sea is Typhon, but simply if we attribute to Typhon whatever there is in these that is immoderate and disordered by reason of excesses or defects; and if we revere and honour what is orderly and good and beneficial as the work of Isis and as the image and reflection and reason of Osiris, we shall not be wrong. (376f)

Finally, Plutarch gives his own view: Osiris is a pure god,"uncontaminated and unpolluted and pure from all matter" (382f).

To summarize the various pagan perspectives of their myths:

1. The myths were stories about humans or demigods around whom legends accumulated

2. The myths were allegorical stories of natural forces that never actually happened, but nevertheless were somehow descriptive of the true gods.

As for the gods themselves:

1. They were beings "pure and unpolluted" that live above the firmament.

2. Some started out as humans or daemons, but through a process of purification, were able to ascend above the firmament and become gods.


There is no hint of a "world of myth" here along the lines that Doherty has proposed. Since Plutarch examines the different beliefs of the day, this is strong evidence against the idea that "the average pagan" believed in a "world of myth".

Doherty uses comments from Pauline writings and the Ascension of Isaiah to promote his thesis, but as far as I can see, he hasn't been able to show any beliefs in "fleshy" activities occurring in any place other than on earth, nor any belief in a "fleshy alternate dimension". The Pauline writings and the AoI can be perfectly understood in terms of the beliefs of the day as set out by Plutarch. It may be that Paul had his own unique views, unprecedented in ancient literature, but I suggest that the lack of evidence for the "World of Myth" means that, where the evidence is unclear, we should be reluctant to read it into the text.

End of Review. Thanks for reading!

vBulletin analytics

Nov 2012: Minor corrections to fix typos
Jan 2013: Minor rewording in Section 4.3

Copyright GakuseiDon