My Jesus Puzzle review at Amazon
As I wrote a few posts back, I've been composing pieces about mythicism that I hope to publish on permanent web pages rather than debating forums and blogs. I've submitted a review of The Jesus Puzzle to Amazon, and what the heck, I'll publish it here, too:
A conspiracy theory
An important test of any theory is how much evidence exists for its case. In this book, Doherty proposes that Christianity began with a celestial Christ who was thought to be crucified in a celestial realm above the earth, and that Paul’s letters as they currently stand speak only of a non-terrestrial Christ. In fact, Doherty makes this claim for all the New Testament epistles, which are thus presented as direct evidence -- people describing their own belief and thus directly attesting to the existence of the belief.
One trouble facing Doherty’s thesis is that Paul’s letters and the other early Christian documents speak of Christ’s flesh and blood, and his birth and death; they also provide other indications of a terrestrial savior. So a large part of Doherty’s book consists of arguments to the effect that all these earthly-sounding words really referred to a “spiritual” death in the heavens. A great deal of work has already been advanced against these arguments, and it does not need to repeated here, except to say that no single piece of evidence for Doherty's thesis exists which is not ambiguous. Doherty hardly denies this ambiguity, since it is his own contention that even the most terrestrial-sounding passages in the New Testament can be dismissed as metaphor rather than plain evidence for a historical Christ.
Thus, the main argument of this book is about a lack of evidence, that is to say, an argument from silence. Doherty claims that the first ancient Christians are silent about an earthly Christ. Again, much prior work has been done to show that this is far from true. What I find interesting is that an argument from silence, though difficult to make and not generally favored by historians, can be legitimate, especially if combined with positive evidence. In this case, if we could not combine it with such evidence we would face new arguments from silence that contradicted Doherty’s own, or cancelled it out: Why are the proposed believers in the celestial Christ silent about so many details of their heavenly savior? And why do we not find ancient Christians, Jews, and pagans reporting or reacting to doctrines about a celestial Christ?
In this book, Doherty deals only with the second of these two questions. He looks for ancient authors who tell us that others either believed in a celestial Christ or doubted the terrestrial Christ. Since no ancient author tells us clearly about people who doubted that Christ appeared to be a flesh-and-blood man on the earth, Doherty proposes that we can find hints of such a thing.
In Appendix 3 of this book, he quotes a letter by Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesians, written at the start of the second century, wherein Ignatius hopes that his readers will attain “full assurance in regard to the birth, and passion, and resurrection which took place in the time of the government of Pontius Pilate” (Magnesians 11:3).
This seems to Doherty like a polemic against a celestial Christ. The principle he is using is a valid one, akin to when mainstream scholars use Paul's assurances about the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 as evidence that doubts about the Resurrection existed. But in that case, Paul tells us clearly what the doubts were. Ignatius does not, and it will be worth a little effort here to go into the details.
Ignatius says earlier in his letter that some deny the death of Christ. Today we call this the Docetic doctrine, which held that Christ merely appeared to be a human being but was actually only a spirit who appeared to die on the cross. This doctrine is well-attested because so much ancient Christian literature seeks to refute it; and Doherty rightfully regards these refutations as different from the refutation that he is looking for, the proposed polemic against a Christ who did not even appear to walk on the earth.
Yet Ignatius mentions nothing like that. He alludes to Docetism and to unspecified doctrines denying that Christ was the same as the one true God. And he refers very specifically to Judaism, just before making his assurance about the birth, death, and resurrection in the time of Pilate’s governorship of Judea. He is telling his readers, in short, to have full assurance about things that both Docetism and Judaism are known to have challenged: the nature of this or any proposed savior's birth; his Passion under the Roman leadership in a Jewish province; and his Resurrection. Doherty thinks that Ignatius is asking his readers to be “fully persuaded” of the bare facts of these things – the bare fact that they took place – but it hardly seems probable that Ignatius would be content to ask for that. He is asking his readers to attain “full assurance” about all of the Church’s interpretations and teachings concerning these things – to keep from straying into any kind of doctrinal dispute. So he writes throughout his letter.
The ambiguity of Doherty’s evidence prompts him to argue that there is so little clear evidence because orthodox Christianity changed, destroyed or neglected the evidence that was once there. He uses this argument openly in a chapter claiming that at least some second-century Christians worshipped only God and rejected all savior figures. Doherty presents the writings of Minucius Felix as a “smoking gun” to that effect, but he allows that the evidence is not as clear as we might want. He tells us that it is the best evidence that can be expected, because clearer statements would never have “reached us through 2000 years of Christian censorship” (see p. 292).
That is the conspiracy theory. Considering that Christianity has not wiped away all evidence of doctrines that it regarded as heresies, but instead has offered refutations of every heresy and preserved these refutations as a guide to the true faith, Doherty's claim is hard to believe. A conspiracy to hide the truth can take place, Christians not excepted; the record of the past can be doctored, and has been. But Doherty's specific claim is that Christianity's very first doctrines contained a purely celestial Christ, and that these doctrines have not been preserved even as heresy (with Ignatius serving as a brief and ambiguous exception). Christianity's true origin was wiped away, not merely with refutation and doctoring, but with silence.
It is hard to believe that Christian institutions and individual writers were silent about what would have been the most radical and provocative of all the heresies -- silent about an idea that, per Doherty's central thesis about how religions work, would have threatened the Church's power to a greater degree than any of the other heresies, some of which were already regarded by Church Fathers as mortally dangerous to the Church.
So Doherty proposes one additional reason to explain the silence: he suggests that the Roman war against Palestine in the year 70 C.E. uprooted or destroyed so many lives that later writers could claim that Christ had lived there in recent decades, without challenges from locals who remembered either the true situation or the beliefs of the sect that worshipped a non-terrestrial Christ (see pages 168 and 179). Doherty's picture is of a dying sect. But a fundamental claim of Doherty's idea is the pervasiveness in the entire ancient world of the belief in saviors who descended to celestial regions above the earth and experienced pain or death there. Had this sort of belief really been ubiquitous throughout the Empire, and applied to Christ as far as the church in Rome (to whom Paul addresses his longest letter), one war in Judea could not have extinguished the belief; and even in Judea it would be likely to reappear. Ignatius himself, per Doherty, is proof that the belief survived the war. But if Doherty is right, we would expect such a popular doctrine to have flourished after the war. We’d expect the orthodox sects of the Church proclaiming an earthly savior to produce some refutations. The Fathers established in Rome, the center of all ideas, would surely have encountered or heard of the celestial Christ, for Doherty does not address how the celestial Christ of Paul's Letter to the Romans was just forgotten -- except by returning to the idea of censorship.
I invite any reader attracted by this book to work out Doherty's scenario and to test it repeatedly against the available information about the time period. That's an external test. Then test it against its own premises, repeatedly, for an internal test. It is a worthy and rewarding challenge.