Friday, January 27, 2006

Mythicism's recent showing

Jesus mythicism has taken something of a drubbing at the Secular Web recently. In the last round of debates, Doherty complained openly that the Secular Web had changed since he last participated on the board, four years ago. He was responding to the rebuke, by the moderators, of his negative use of the word "apologist." But I have the sense, too, that his theory encounters more opponents now, and is less likely to draw favor even from where Doherty might expect it.

Doherty has described the Secular Web as perhaps the place where mythicism is most welcome and best understood. When I first joined the boards last summer, a poll of the members was taken, and I recall seeing something to the effect that 50% of the respondents were Jesus mythicists: they believed that Christianity did not begin with a human savior figure. I do not know what the numbers were four years ago, and I don't know what they might be today. But even in my short time there, I feel as if historicist arguments are being taken more seriously.

It is now almost routine for Doherty to post a new thread and to receive fairly detailed replies from three historicists (I am one of them). Shorter replies by longtime Secular Web historicists are also routinely offered. A professional scholar, an agnostic, has begun debating Doherty at the Secular Web, as I noted in my blog last week. A moderator has started offering some of the best historicist arguments. Another new historicist contributor began a thread about the same KATA SARKA question from my last blog post, and he offered an argument that drew this response from a veteran user: "I think you've just put a whole bunch of nails in the coffin of the MJ argument, at least the bit that relies on kata sarka and what Paul meant when he wrote this phrase."

As this opinion seems to concede, no single piece of evidence, like kata sarka, can disprove mythicism as a whole and prove historicism -- but I agree with him and with the original poster that the argument about kata sarka actually favoring a mythical Christ is effectively refuted.

This is not to argue that mythicism or its component arguments have never been called disproven, on these boards. I don't know about the time before I got there; I just can't remember such a confluence of confident historicist arguments in my half-year there.

I have said more than once that Doherty offers no significant concessions. He conceded in his last post that I was right to emphasize a distinction in ancient thought between, on the one hand, the temporal and changing world of history, and on the other hand, the timeless and incorrupt realm of heaven above. He said nothing about my charge that he has, at different times, placed Paul's conception of Christ's death in both places. Indeed, he has seemed to interpret Paul to mean that God sent his Son from the incorruptible realm and into (the air of) the changing world below ("God sent his Son", Gal 4:4); and yet he has interpreted Paul to be saying that Christ's death occurred in some mythical version of the past and was only recently revealed to human beings in scripture and visions. As evidence for this latter contention, Doherty uses 2 Tim 1:9-10 and Eph 3:9-11 -- passages which neither he nor most scholars believe to have been written by Paul, but which he regards as telling us, not of the pre-existence of God's Son in heaven from all eternity as in the traditional model, but of the fact that Christ's death itself took place before time began. In sum: "The redemptive work of God through Christ has been relegated by Paul and his kind to a dimension outside matter and beyond time" (The Jesus Puzzle, 118-120).

So Christ's death took place before there were any human beings around to witness it -- and yet Doherty insists on top of this, at other times, that the death took place in the sublunar air where presumably human beings were not likely to see it. It seems, on the one hand, that Doherty wants to remove Christ from history by putting him in the primordial past. That takes care of the question of time. And one would think that there is no need to locate Christ in the air if no one was believed to be around to see him. But when it comes to the question of space, Doherty does place Christ in the air above the earth, as a solution that works whenever Paul seems to say that Christ actually descended from God's throne into the world of obedient suffering and corruptible flesh for a onetime sacrifice of himself (at the hands of demons, Doherty believes; and demons were restricted to the world they ruled, namely the lower world of matter). Christ's death is said to be pre-historical when Timothy and Ephesians seem to speak of Christ having existed before the beginning of time; but his death is said to be in the air above the earth when Paul himself says that Christ was sent to us in "the fullness of time" (Gal 4:4), or when the Ascension of Isaish (which Doherty invokes repeatedly) speaks of Christ literally descending from God's spheres in a time after the death of the Biblical Isaiah in the eighth century B.C.E. (see Ascension 3:13, 9:17, 11:37-38).

This contradiction -- or convenient flexibility -- in Doherty's theory can be described in other ways. This is how I described the problem in the post to which he replied with his concession:

But Earl’s theory remains confusing, because in it, the crucifixion is sometimes described as being in the highest heaven, and sometimes in the lowest air; as one of the spiritual counterparts to the fleshly things of our world, and as one of the low, corruptible things that God’s Son had to take on in order to redeem the lowest flesh; as a thing outside of history and matter, and as a thing that Paul thought to have occurred in the sublunary air at a specific point in time (in the “fullness of time”) and presumably only a few years or decades before his own preaching and that of the Jerusalem apostles.

But Doherty did not really address any of this; he conceded only that the changeless world, wherever Paul located it, was not the same as the world of change, wherever Paul located it. He stated a few times that Paul does not give us the exact location and that the ancients themselves were confused about how the cosmos was structured. This seems to me a very bad error on two counts.

Firstly, it seems to equate the ignorance of the ancients about the actual structure of the earth and its surroundings with real confusion or disagreement on their part. Let me offer this article, "A Common Cosmology of the Ancient World," not as the final word on the matter, but as a starting point of conversation for the proposition that all the ancients, regardless of religion or culture, shared the idea that the moon and the stars were set in a dome. On top of this, there is every indication that the monotheistic Jews regarded their deity, not as a piece of the observable world of matter, but rather as a being whose home was beyond the dome that contained visible flesh, the moon, and the stars. For a start, see Genesis 1:8 and 1:14.

Secondly, even if it turns out that the ancients disagreed on such things as the exact location of the dome and on questions of what lay beyond it -- nothing, according to Pliny the Elder -- I think finally that Doherty has projected the confusion of his own model onto the ancients. Whatever Paul believed about the exact structure of the universe, it's plain that for him there was a place of perishable matter and a place of timeless perfection. Doherty intimates the same when he speaks to us about how the age was characterized by Platonism (in this case, Middle Platonism). So there were two worlds in Paul's mind: and his thoughts were given constantly to comparing the two worlds. He plainly believed, although Doherty seems to forget it, that Christ was sent from the one world into the other. So when someone charges the mythicist model with contradictory and confusing statements about where and when Paul thought the crucifixion to have occurred, it does no good to simply imply that Paul himself was confused about it. He was quite clear that it occurred somewhere in our world: that this was the whole point of the Good News.

There is something here that would not just render mythicism incoherent in the terms of the traditional models for understanding this ancient history (terms which I believe to be accurate, but which atheists often reject when considering Christian history), but which would render it incoherent upon its own terms, and which could be explained to atheists and agnostics not already committed to mythicism. I haven't quite put my finger on it. But I'm exploring a contradiction in Doherty's use of the concept of Platonic counterparts. He argues that Christ's unearthly crucifixion could be considered a Platonic "counterpart" to earthly things: a crucifixion in the air, as a counterpart for crucifixions below. Yet if Paul believed that Christ's death occurred in our world, and he was a dualistic thinker as we've have seen, then it's plain that he believed the death to no longer be a spiritual counterpart: he believed it to be one of the things of this world, which a being from another world descended to participate in. He believed this along with everyone else, for the stories of gods incarnating and making contact with our world, even participating in it, are ubiquitous. To say, as Doherty often does, that Paul believed in a Platonic "counterpart" means that he did not believe that Christ had broken into our world. An event of this world, or even one in mere likeness to those of this world, can no longer seriously be described as a spiritual counterpart to the material things of this world.

Doherty has been able to point essentially to only one ancient passage possibly expressing a belief that counterparts could exist within the world of matter. That is Ascension 7:9-10,

And we ascended to the firmament, I and he, and there I saw Sammael and his hosts, and there was great fighting therein and the angels of Satan were envying one another. And as above so on the earth also; for the likeness of that which is in the firmament is here on the earth.

This passage, besides having nothing to do with Paul, is probably also just speaking about the similarities between all the things of the changing world below the dome. Look at 6:13 and 6:15,

And the angel who was sent to make him see was not of this firmament, nor was he of the angels of the glory of this world, but he had come from the seventh heaven.... And the vision which the holy Isaiah saw was not from this world but from the world which is hidden from the flesh.

Here, "firmament" is used to describe the whole realm visible to the flesh: the air and the earth. That corresponds perfectly with the proposition that the ancients thought of flesh, and of the "angels of the glory of this world," as confined to the world below the dome, while thinking of everything above as hidden from our ordinary sight. In essence, then, Doherty's strongest piece of evidence for Platonic "counterparts" located in the air is at best ambiguous, when "firmament" is a proper way to describe the ancient conceptions of the entire sublunar realm (6:13 - 6:15), the sublunar air (7:9-10), and even the dome itself (7:28).

And Doherty has already conceded to GakuseiDon at the Secular Web (see the second paragraph of this post) that it is perhaps best to speak of the crucifixion as taking place in different regions, areas or locales of the sublunar world rather than in a separate "dimension." That word, used in The Jesus Puzzle and perhaps elsewhere, is almost certainly wrong, and I bet that it is one of the things that Doherty says he will change in any second edition of his book. Don is right to suggest that such a word confuses the issue by invoking modern popular conceptions of parallel dimensions, such as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (we could also add Narnia or Harry Potter).

For all these reasons, I am not surprised that agnostics and atheists are either opposing Doherty's sublunar crucifixion theory or increasingly finding it to be unlikely. I think the evidence from Paul's undisputed letters, leaving aside other admittedly mystical and possibly confusing New Testament writings, and other writings such as the Ascension of Isaiah, point strongly to a belief that Jesus Christ descended from the world of spiritual counterparts and into the world of change, decay, suffering and death -- and that he did so at a recent and specific point in history.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Toto said...

Hi krosero, as you are known on II. I just found this through Google -

I think you have a very distorted view of what has happened in the recent debates on II. There was no "rebuke" by the moderators (you link to my post, so I know what I meant) for the negative use of the word apologist, only an attempt to keep the peace where some posters react almost violently to being called apologists. Such are the depths to which the reputation of Christian apologetics has fallen.

And I don't think that Doherty's theory has encountered more opponents, just that the opponents will not give up, while Doherty's supporters have gotten tired of some of the arguments or moved on to other concerns.

After all, Doherty's theory is a challenge to one of the central items of Christian faith - that Jesus was born as a human - and also attacks a popular figure in American culture. Christians have to keep trying to refute him, even if their efforts begin to resemble the creationist attacks on Darwin (not that the level of evidence for Doherty approaches that of evolution.)

Doherty made his case a few years ago, and made a respectable showing and more than a few converts, even if most II posters either did not accept every part of his theory, or found that he was too conservative on some issues (Doherty accepts the conventional scholarship on the dating of Paul's letters, and accepts the existence of Christianity in the first century.) The historicists made a really dismal showing at the time.

In this current round, I don't think most of us are giving more credence to historicist arguments. There is still no historical evidence worth beans for the existence of a Jesus son of Joseph who was crucified under Pilate at the instigation of the Jewish leadership. The historicists have been reduced to trying to find a weak spot in Doherty's particular formation of the mythicist hypothesis, or trying to redefine the person who might qualify as the historical Jesus.

February 03, 2006 1:31 AM  
Blogger J.L. Hinman said...

I've heard that Toto doesn't like to bebate and he wants to leave "II" because he knows he's been beaten too many times.

Well here's how it was in the old days. I would post my thing about how the so called dysing rising savior gods of pagan myth are not at all like Jesus if you go by real mythology instead of myther books.

They would research it, at least one person would report that I was right and he could not find any of myther assertions in real mythology books. People like Toto would continue to make those assertions and everyone would just forget it.

As for Doherty's actual stuff, I would refute it based upon the twelve summery statmetns on his website, they would say "you havent' read the book, you dont know what he says." I would say "why can't his summary statements accruately reflect what he says in the book?" They would ignore that and go on calling me names, then i would get banned for defending myself.

February 04, 2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger Kevin Rosero said...

Hi Toto -
On the historical Jesus, we have always stood very far apart. But let me try to address a few points you made about my post.

What you call a very distorted view is my personal impression -- opposite your own. I said that I could not recall such a confluence of confident historicist arguments in my short time at II. That was my only certain claim. You said that mythicists are growing tired or moving on. I said nothing about them, because I find myself tired of the debate, and trying to move on to other things I'd like to work on more fully; so I've always assumed that something similar could be happening on the other side. For that reason, I made no claim about the number of mythicist arguments appearing in the debates -- only about the number of historicists who were now appearing (including a moderator -- which for me, as a theist visitor to an atheist board, is a big deal). I said frankly that I did not know how many posters at II held a mythicist viewpoint at any given time.

I did not think originally that you had rebuked Doherty for calling people apologists. When someone complained about being called an apologist, and went into detail about people who actually were apologists, you warned the whole board that "any discussion of apologists is off topic." If you remember, I interjected to ask WHETHER your warning was also a critique of Doherty's habit of calling people apologists. I was not sure that he would feel rebuked, or even sure that he had been rebuked. I'd never seen him criticized for his use of the word "apologist"; and your warning was issued, not after he used it, but after someone protested his use of it. Doherty then complained very vocally that it was the mythicists who were being slapped down (which is why he wondered openly what was happening at II); and he was not alone in saying that the historicists were getting special treatment. I never heard a clarification on this matter, so I concluded that there had been a rebuke of Doherty; but nothing in my posts here suggests that I thought of it as Doherty or the mythicists as a whole being singled out; on my blog I've explained the whole context in great detail.

If you're saying here that you were not singling out Doherty and his supporters and that you wanted to keep the peace, I accept that explanation. As I've mentioned on this blog, you did propose a new rule against calling people apologists unless the term was self-applied, and I still appreciate that.
Kevin

February 04, 2006 2:46 PM  

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