Monday, January 16, 2006

Doherty's use of biblical scholars

My latest debate with Earl Doherty has not amounted to very many exchanges between the two of us, but it has occurred within a thread at the Secular Web (continued here) that includes a wide range of topics, as well as serious disagreements between many participants. It began as the continuation of a contentious debate at the Biblical Studies board between a mythicist and a historicist: the central topic was whether Doherty and his supporters had misrepresented mainstream biblical scholars. One of Doherty's supporters offered a surprising concession on his own behalf, in response to what he identified as the nuance of my criticisms; that was an important lesson to me about the potential of relaxed, nuanced dialogue.

However, my frustration with mythicism in general is growing. I pressed Doherty about several issues left over from our debate over The Ascension of Isaiah, and the result was some unenlightening drama, but no real dialogue. And I expressed more of the impatience that he has provoked in me. It's an impatience that grows as his arguments seem always to return to the same thin reeds. For example, when Paul says that Christ, as God's son from heaven, was nevertheless descended from King David in the sphere of flesh -- as Doherty says in his own translation -- we should hear Paul saying that Christ, who never descended all the way to the earth, was an Israelite, or Jewish; this was what Paul meant by saying that Christ was descended from David.

This is really the worst kind of rationalization, especially given that Paul's use of the same words elsewhere always signifies the flesh of human beings on the earth. It's the sort of special pleading that you find only in the most obtuse and self-regarding theories. All this is bad enough in Doherty, who never concedes that he has made a significant error. But what is really provocative is that Doherty hangs his theory on these thin reeds, and then always returns with undiminished confidence to the charge that Christians and other dissenters from his theory are not worth debating; that mainstream scholars will not debate him because his arguments are strong; that his arguments recall those of Copernicus; that his arguments are just part of the scholarly current in which Christianity and belief in God have been exposed as fantasies of the past. His own manner of bristling dramatically at all criticisms is tiring in a way that goes beyond mere frustration; there is something disturbing about it.

A mainstream scholar, an agnostic, took the time in this thread to debate him. Doherty rejected his arguments and ended by saying that "apologists" are not worth debating. He was challenged by another agnostic whom Doherty had once mis-labeled an apologist; a warning about the use of the word "apologist" was issued by the moderators; and when I piped in to ascertain whether this warning would apply to Doherty's pervasive use of the word, a new thread was provided to discuss whether such a label was against the forum's rules. I consider that a success of sorts, and for that reason I gave my support to another suggestion from a mythicist -- namely that the forum would regard it as an insult to compare mythicism with disreputable theories. Doherty, however, did not seem to take these developments well. He protested, in fact, that he had been insulted as a fool and a charlatan -- words that he had, insufferably, provided himself.

Finally, we had a brief post by Richard Carrier, the atheist scholar who offers cautious support to Doherty's theory. I got my first chance to engage his arguments publicly.

There was so much pugnacity and emotionalism in the thread -- not excluding myself, and even including some folks from whom I did not expect it -- that I hesitate even to link to it. But that does not mean that there was nothing of value to salvage from it, and I will try to do so here. I will not be offering a full-blown analysis of the two Biblical verses, and two scholars, in question; I will be sticking to short summaries of how these verses and scholars were argued over in the thread.


In Galatians 4:4, Paul says that at a certain point in time, God sent his own Son, "born of a woman, born under the law", or GENOMENON EK GUNAIKOS, GENOMENOS HUPO NOMON. Doherty was said to misrepresent some remarks by Ernest De Witt Burton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, pp. 217-18.

As I argued above, Doherty's reading just seems like a desperate stretch. And though I don't think that Doherty has lied with regard to Burton's interpretation, as he was charged with doing, I do think that his presentation of Burton is misleading, as he so often is with respect to evidence in general (which is why people must critique his work and his methods according to the information and skills at their disposal; I regret that professional scholars do not take more time to do so and that it is left to amateurs like myself).

My concluding post about Doherty's treatment of Burton explains something which I found remarkable. I don't know Greek, so a mythicist offered me a lexicon's definition of Paul's word for "born". I found that Doherty had used the general definition of the word, which can seem ambiguous, and had concluded that Paul used an ambiguous word to describe Christ's birth; but he ignored the specific applications of the word. Of persons, Paul's word always signified birth, according to this lexicon. I read that right there in the post that was offered as support for Doherty's argument. Of things, or inanimate objects (as opposed to persons), Paul's word did carry the "ambiguous" meaning ("to come into existence") that Paul was supposedly applying to Christ. But Doherty has never suggested that Paul saw Christ as a thing. When I pointed all this out, the response I got was that the general definition was ambiguous. That, I found remarkable.

Of course, an unambiguous statement that Christ was born does not tell us directly that he was born on the earth. He may have been "born" in the heavens -- except that Doherty has not given us the evidence of a deity who was thought to have been born in the heavens. He has not pointed out who the celestial woman was that Christian tradition held to have given birth to Christ. Nor has he given us an example of Paul's word being used of persons to mean something other than "born."


In Romans 1:3, Paul uses the words TOU GENOMENOU EK SPERMATOS DAVID KATA SARKA, or "who was born of a descendant of David in the sphere of the flesh." The scholar in this case was C.K. Barrett, in his Epistle to the Romans, p. 20.

The best thing I can say for Doherty's interpretation is that KATA SARKA has been translated by Barrett as "in the sphere of the flesh," and does not tell us, as such, that Christ was born on the earth. It tells us that he was born of a descendant of David in the sphere of the flesh. Doherty has not given us the evidence that the air above the earth, and not just the earth, was ever described as part of the sphere of flesh. He is getting by on the correct argument that the ancients regarded Sheol, the earth's surface, and everything below the region of the moon and the boundary with the first heaven as the region of change and decay.

Richard Carrier, inexplicably, told us that KATA SARKA is a most peculiar way of saying "located on earth" -- as if traditional translations of KATA SARKA ever included the word "earth." Every Greek linguist, and Doherty, agrees that SARKA means "flesh." That is Paul's point: that Christ, who was God's son from heaven, was nevertheless descended from David in the sphere of the flesh. Yet Doherty takes open encouragement from Carrier's argument about KATA SARKA, because Carrier points out that these Greek words do not give us a direct statement to the effect that Christ was born "on the earth." Indeed, Carrier is right that such a statement would probably call for other Greek words (including the word for "earth") that Paul did not use when he was making his point about Christ's fleshly lineage. But this is a false argument about KATA SARKA. No one has ever argued that Paul was using those words to make a direct statement about anything except Christ's relationship to David.

For a mythicist, the more general argument that Paul never makes a direct statement like, "Christ was born on earth," would still carry a lot of weight. Yet I would very much enjoy a conversation with a mythicist who took seriously the possibility that such a statement is not there because the earthly birth was never in question, or was never of interest apart from HOW it happened (for instance, through King David's lineage).

Mythicism has set itself up never to fail. Because Paul does not write like Josephus or other ancient historians, it is claimed that he cannot be speaking about history -- as if ancient historians were the only ones who spoke about what happened on earth. Because Paul does not give us a direct declaration that Christ was born on earth, he did not believe that Christ had an earthly birth. If such a statement were discovered tomorrow in a new ancient manuscript of Paul's, then it will be conceded (maybe, and only if the authenticity of the find is beyond doubt) that Paul believed in an earthly birth. But then, perhaps, the birth of which Paul speaks will be said to be no more reliably historical in our eyes than Zeus' birth, which was said to be in an earthly cave. And of course, it will be added that Paul needed to make such a statement about Christ's earthly birth because he was addressing people who had doubts about the earthly birth or who believed in an unearthly Christ: Paul then comes to be seen as evidence that there were Jesus mythicists out there in the ancient world.

There is no real way to falsify such a theory. As falsification, the theory will accept just the kind of statement that Paul does not give -- the kind of statement that if given, would not effectively disprove mythicism but would offer survival and even positive support.

Meanwhile, the posibility that evidence is being required which is not there because the earthly existence of Jesus was never in question gets foolishly set aside. And those who point this out are dismissed -- just as foolishly.


Blogger Layman said...

The only thing I would change about your post if I authored is perhaps the title. Use should be "Misuse".


January 17, 2006 7:39 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home