Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity (2002)
What follows is a critical review of The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus, a work by Earl Doherty (Canadian Humanist Publications: Ottawa, Canada; revised edition, 2000). This does not address anything on Doherty’s website ) or what he has written elsewhere. It only refers to his book, in its entirety and on its own terms. The reviewer: Richard Carrier has an M.Phil. in ancient history from Columbia University, with a graduate major in historiography, religion, and intellectual history, and has several years experience in Greek linguistics, including palaeography and papyrology.
Summary of Argument and Overall Conclusion
General Impression of the Work
The Sublunar Incarnation Theory
Arguing for Ahistoricity
A Note on the Peculiar Context
The Argument from Silence
The Argument to the Best Explanation
Appendix 1: Problems
Appendix 2: Other Online Reviews of Doherty’s Book
Appendix 3: Bibliography – Historical Method According to Historians
Summary of Argument and Overall Conclusion
Earl Doherty argues that Christianity began as a mystical-revelatory religion, very different from the “deviant” sect that won the propaganda war to become the eventual “orthodoxy.” The latter gained prominence in the 2nd century and achieved total victory by the 4th. According to this theory, the idea of an historical progenitor was not original to the faith even in Paul’s day, but evolved over the course of the later 1st century. As Doherty argues, “Jesus Christ” (which means “The Anointed Savior”) was originally a heavenly being, whose atoning death took place at the hands of demonic beings in a supernatural realm halfway between heaven and earth, a sublunar sphere where he assumed a fleshly, quasi-human form. This and the rest of the “gospel” was revealed to the first Christians in visions and inspirations and through the discovery of hidden messages in the scriptures. After the confusion of the Jewish War and persistent battles over power in the church, rooted in a confused mass of variant sectarian dogmas, a new cult arose with the belief that Jesus actually came to earth and was crucified by Jews with the complicity of the Roman authorities. To defend itself against sects more closely adhering to the original, mystical faith, the new church engaged in polemics and power politics, and eventually composed or adopted writings (chiefly the canonical Gospels) supporting its views.
The “scandalous” consequence of Doherty’s theory is that Jesus didn’t exist. But it cannot be emphasized enough that Doherty’s thesis is not “Jesus didn’t exist, therefore Christianity started as a mystical-revelatory Jewish sect” but “Christianity started as a mystical-revelatory Jewish sect, therefore Jesus didn’t exist.” This is significant. Most scholars who argue that Jesus didn’t exist (who are called “ahistoricists,” because they deny the “historicity” of Jesus, or “mythicists,” because they argue Jesus is mythical) have little in the way of reasons beyond a whole complex of arguments from silence. Doherty, in contrast, uses arguments from silence only to support his thesis. He does not base it on such arguments, but rather on positive evidence, especially a slew of very strange facts that his theory accounts for very well but that traditional historicism ignores, or explains poorly. By far most of the criticism or even dismissal of Doherty’s work is based on the criticism or dismissal of the Argument from Silence, or his (often supposed) deployment of it. This completely misses the strongest elements of his case: evidence that Christianity did in fact begin as a mystical-revelatory religion.
General Impression of the Work
First of all, let me say this: having read the entire book carefully, and having checked those facts I did not already know, I can honestly say as an expert that Doherty’s facts are generally all in line. He does not make anything up or fudge the truth. And as far as I could tell, he doesn’t leave out anything significant. Where he puts his own spin on things, he is usually explicit about that, and argues for his particular interpretation rather than asserting it as given. The exceptions to these general observations I detail at length in Appendix 1: Problems. But to a remarkable extent, I can sincerely vouch for the fact that lay readers can trust him as an historian and translator. All you need do, then, is assess how his facts relate to his arguments, and how strong these are in the end, an act of reason that any rational person, with care, can undertake. A special education is not necessary.
Secondly, this book must be taken seriously. It is not a quack theory, it is not shoddy work, it is not amateurish. Though elements of Doherty’s method of presentation do indicate he is an amateur in the literal sense (I would not believe from reading it that he had a Ph.D. in any relevant field), he is one of the most expert amateurs I have ever encountered. He has read a vast amount of scholarship and he actually understands what he reads. More importantly, he deals with ancient texts directly and competently. The scope of his work would be of dissertation quality, if it were only polished according to existing conventions. In short, I was very impressed. This is serious scholarship, marshaling a great deal of important evidence and observations, and the lack of letters behind the author’s name does nothing to remove from the importance of this work as something one must read and interact with before dismissing.
The Sublunar Incarnation Theory
Central to Doherty’s thesis is his reinterpretation of the nature of the Incarnation as held by the earliest Christians (including Paul and some other epistle authors), such as by rereading the strange yet oft-repeated reference to kata sarka, “according to the flesh” (as usually translated). Doherty does confuse readers, I think, when he denies the Incarnation here and there, equating that word with the earthly sojourn. However, his theory actually entails that Jesus did undergo incarnation–just not on earth. So though you might get the opposite impression from Doherty ‘s rhetoric (and he needs to reword several passages to remove the confusion), 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).
The actual phrase used, kata sarka, is indeed odd if it is supposed to emphasize an earthly sojourn. The preposition kata with the accusative literally means “down” or “down to” and often implies motion, usually over or through its object, which would literally read “down through flesh” or “down to flesh” or even “towards flesh.” But outside the context of motion, it frequently means “at” or “in the region of,” and this is how Doherty reads it. It can also mean “in accordance with” in reference to fitness or conformity, and in this sense kata sarka can mean “by flesh,” “for flesh,” “concerning flesh,” “in conformity with flesh,” and the like, meanings that don’t relate to the location or origin of the flesh. Presumably this is what biblical translators have in mind with “according to the flesh,” but I find it hard to understand what Paul would have meant to emphasize with this, other than what Doherty already has in mind. For example, the word kata can also have a comparative meaning, “corresponding with, after the fashion of,” in other words “like flesh.” And it has other meanings not relevant here. But the most common, relevant meanings of kata with the accusative do at least fit Doherty’s theory that Jesus descended to and took on “the likeness of flesh” (Romans 8:3), in which case kata sarka would mean “in the realm of flesh.” Nevertheless, though kata sarka does not entail that Jesus walked the earth, it is still compatible with such an idea. But many other strange details noted by Doherty are used to argue otherwise, and I think he makes a good case for his reading, based on far more than this.
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.” 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). 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.
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).
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”). 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.
Arguing for Ahistoricity
We must compare the standard historicist theory (SHT) with Doherty’s ahistoricist or “mythicist” theory (DMT). I have already refuted the popular misnotion that “you can’t prove a negative” in my essay “Proving a Negative.” An obvious hypothetical example in our present case would be a signed and witnessed confession by Paul on a papyrus carbon-dated to the early 1st century A.D. stating that he made Jesus up. That would be strong positive evidence that Jesus didn’t exist. Many other hypotheticals could be adduced to the same end. So no one can say you can’t prove Jesus didn’t exist. Of course, we have no smoking gun like that.
There are two ways to “prove” ahistoricity:
(1) If you can demonstrate that there is both (a) insufficient evidence to believe x and (b) sufficient evidence to disbelieve x, then it is reasonable to disbelieve x. This is the “Argument from Silence.”
(2) If you can demonstrate that all the evidence can be far better accounted for by a theory (y) other than historicity (theory x), then it is reasonable to believe y and, consequently, to disbelieve x. This is the “Argument to the Best Explanation.”
The first method is akin to proving there is no Bigfoot by going and looking and finding nothing where you ought to have found something, and finding a lot to fault in the evidence that remains. It typically produces agnostic disbelief: “I see no reason to believe it, so I won’t.” In such a case it might not be irrational to maintain belief, but it would be irrational to expect others to believe. More troubling for the persistent believer in the face of such an argument is the danger of hypocrisy: unless the believer can produce reasons to believe in the questionable fact (say, “Jesus existed”) that do not also, mutatis mutandis, support belief in contrary facts (e.g. “Buddha ascended to Nirvana” or “the dead rise to haunt Hawaiians who violate tribal taboos”), then maintaining belief does become irrational. For to be rational the believer must maintain a consistent standard of evidence and reason. But all this is contingent on developing a strong Argument from Silence. A weak argument is easily dismissed without challenge to your rationality.
The second method is akin to proving, with positive evidence and analysis, that all the evidence for Bigfoot is fake. This typically explodes belief altogether, since by accounting for all the facts in a way that is better than the alternative, we are left with a positive reason to disbelieve, not merely the absence of evidence. Of course, there will likely never be absolute certainty there is no Bigfoot. But the problem of uncertainty is the same for positive claims, too–even seemingly irrefutable propositions like “there is a moon.” It is not a problem unique to negative assertions. If it is reasonable to positively disbelieve in anything at all, then there must be an argument by which the nonexistence of something can be justifiably asserted. Otherwise we are obligated, for instance, to believe every religion is true, not just one of them.
The Argument from Silence is such an argument, but only to agnosticism, and only when strong. In contrast, if you have a strong Argument to the Best Explanation, it always becomes irrational in the face of it to maintain belief. To act otherwise is to renounce the very existence of an Argument to the Best Explanation, which is tantamount to asserting that there are no better arguments for any belief over any other, which easily leads to the irrationality of inconsistency. However, a weak Argument to the Best Explanation is another story. In such a case, there remains room for dispute, room that shrinks in proportion to the argument’s strength.
A Note on the Peculiar Context
It is common to argue over the historicity of Jesus by calling upon analogies with other historical questions. However, this is fraught with peril. Most analogies break down due to the unusual nature of early Christian history. First, there is the general incongruity between ancient and modern societies, which I discuss in “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” and “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels.” But more important than that is the peculiarity of Christian history itself. From very early on Christianity was wracked with bitter ideological disputes and competing sects with conflicting claims. Even the letters of Paul are full of references to his opponents and the desperate struggles he had with them to maintain control of his own congregations. Yet the sect that “won” this internecine propaganda war achieved victory by political rather than epistemic means.
Every Patristic historian remarks on how regularly the surviving (“orthodox”) literature of the second and third centuries slanders opponents with exaggerated or even false charges, how they employed shunning and other acts of social intimidation rather than open debate, and how routinely complaints are heard of forged texts and other tools of deception in the ranks. Numerous extant orthodox works have been proven to be forgeries, and even many canonical texts are universally agreed to be dubious. There is also an endless record of persistent ideological doctoring of the canonical texts from the earliest dates (see Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, 1993, and the works cited there; also, my essay “The Formation of the New Testament Canon“). Though the New Testament in its entirety is a rather small book by ancient standards, it contains over a thousand passages that have so many early variants we cannot confidently identify the original reading (there are 19 such passages in 1 Timothy alone, a letter only 134 verses long, meaning 14% of the letter is to some extent uncertain; see my “Two Examples of Faulty Bible Scholarship“). Many of these conflicting readings cannot be explained as mere scribal errors, but are ideological in nature.
To make matters worse, when the Church finally acquired absolute political power under the Constantines, opponents were compelled by force to fall in line. The sect that gained the emperor’s ear did not win this trophy through convincing him by sound evidence and argument in an open and equal debate with opponents, but by mere luck: they just happened to be the ones in his entourage. As the threat of death, prison, or dispossession was used to eliminate opponents, “disapproved” texts were collected and burned, or simply never copied and thus left to disintegrate, never to be read again. And thus, though we know there were radically variant sects even in Paul’s day, we have not a single text from them. Instead, the vast bulk of surviving material is solely what was approved by the victorious “orthodoxy,” who did not win because of their greater adherence to the truth, but their more effective and fortunate politics.
Devout Christians have the most reason to be alarmed at this: a church that engages in murder, slander, deceit, compulsion, and intimidation could not plausibly be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus himself, true Christians did not write down their beliefs to argue or prove them, but simply had faith, accepting their deaths without a fight. Thus, if there is any true Holy Spirit, it was more likely inspiring the first believers, none of whose literature survives, and those souls who turned the other cheek to the “orthodoxy’s” bullying and machinations rather than fight back. And so true Christianity could well have died a silent death. But even if you turn aside from that awful possibility, you are faced with the original problem: Christian literature, and history, holds almost no analogy with any other literature or history we could care to name. From Homer to Tacitus, there is by comparison virtually no such background or context of ideological conflict affecting the texts–affecting not only the doctoring or editing of their content, but their very selection and preservation. Christianity’s own history, and above all the nature of Jesus, was the very target of contention here. I cannot think of any comparable problem in ancient history that is as seriously challenged by such biasing of the source material.
Yet the “victorious” sect happened to be historicist. Since that was an accident of their tactics and good fortune, we cannot be entirely confident that the orthodoxy, much less the surviving source material, reflects the truth about Jesus. This is all the more troubling since we know the orthodox sect was credulously eager to latch onto any piece of nonsense that supported their historicist position. Prominent examples include the obvious fantasies inserted into the Gospel narrative by Matthew, the wild legends believed and repeated by the early 2nd century Christian Papias, and Eusebius’ belief and reliance upon a forged letter of Jesus himself. More troubling, though more debatable, examples include Luke’s “importation” of historical details into the basic combination of Mark and Q so as to make a hagiography look like a history (see my “Luke and Josephus“), and John’s probable invention of the Doubting Thomas tale (not mentioned by anyone else, least of all Matthew, who was clearly prone to recording the fabulous, or (Ps.-) Peter, and Paul, who had several occasions to call upon the story, e.g. 2 Pet. 1:16-19; 1 Cor. 15:5-7, 35-58).
All this does not entail that the historicist sect was wrong and that Jesus didn’t exist. But it does throw a wrench into any argument that draws on analogies with other historical questions which were not subject from the start to this unusually intense and persistent ideological conflict and behavior. Historians are in a worse position regarding early Christian history than any comparable (and comparably preserved) institutional history (such as the origins of the major schools of philosophy), and the most suspect elements are, by an unfortunate coincidence, the very ones a historicist needs to settle his case.
The Argument from Silence
Evangelical apologist Craig Blomberg argues that one should approach all texts with complete trust unless you have a specific reason to doubt what they say (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, pp. 240-54). No real historian is so naive (see Bibliography). I am not aware of any ancient work that is regarded as completely reliable. A reason always exists to doubt any historical claim. Historians begin with suspicion no matter what text they are consulting, and adjust that initial degree of doubt according to several factors, including genre, the established laurels of the author, evidence of honest and reliable methodology, bias, the nature of the claim (whether it is a usual or unusual event or detail, etc.), and so on. See for example my discussion of the Rubicon-Resurrection contrast in Geivett’s Exercise in Hyperbole (Part 4b of my Review of In Defense of Miracles). Historians have so much experience in finding texts false, and in knowing all the ways they can be false, they know it would be folly to trust anything handed to them without being able to make a positive case for that trust. This is why few major historical arguments stand on a single source or piece of evidence: the implicit distrust of texts entails that belief in any nontrivial historical claim must be based on a whole array of evidence and argument. So it is no coincidence that this is what you get in serious historical scholarship.
Even so, there is nothing inherently dubious in the claim that Jesus existed. So there is no need for much evidence to ground a reasonable belief that he did, so long as that evidence can be trusted more than it can be doubted. However, when trust and doubt are in balance over all the existing evidence, an Argument from Silence can tip the scales. We do face such a situation with regard to Jesus. The only overt evidence of his existence can be tied in one way or another to a single source: the Gospel of Mark, which could have been written as late as 80 or 90 A.D., fifty years after the events it is supposed to describe, and which is unmistakably a hagiography rather than a history or biography, whose interest seems more cultural than factual (see my “Review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark“). All additional evidence, though still adding weight to any case for historicity, is either too vague to be conclusive, or tainted by association with this document. If that were where the case stood, historicity would still be the most credible explanation of that evidence, simply because the existence of a real Jesus would not be unusual enough to doubt. All else being equal, it is true that a real Jesus would be more probable than the rise of an unexplained legend of so uncommon a type in so short a time. But if a significant Argument from Silence (AfS) can be made, then all else is not equal. There would then be an increase in the probability of “an unexplained legend of so uncommon a type in so short a time,” and enough of an increase can overcome the prior probability of a real Jesus.
How does one make a good AfS? Gilbert Garraghan explains:
To be valid, the argument from silence must fulfill two conditions: the writer[s] whose silence is invoked in proof of the non-reality of an alleged fact, would certainly have known about it had it been a fact; [and] knowing it, he would under the circumstances certainly have made mention of it. When these two conditions are fulfilled, the argument from silence proves its point with moral certainty. (§ 149a)
This is a slam dunk AfS. But an AfS can be deployed that is relatively weaker to the extent that either condition is less certain. That is, it may only be “somewhat certain” that the relevant authors knew x and would mention it, and in this case the AfS only produces a less than “somewhat certain” conclusion. In general, based on the hypothesized entity itself, and in conjunction with everything we know on abundant, reliable evidence, should we expect to have evidence of that entity? If the answer is yes, and yet no such evidence appears, then an AfS is strong. If the answer is no, then it is weak.
But an AfS that gets this far can be made stronger if we can fulfill either of two more criteria. First, is the hypothesized entity the sort of thing, based on long experience with other examples of the same kind, that is easily arrived at by the human imagination even when not real? If the answer is yes, then an AfS gains strength. If no, then it actually loses strength. Second, does the hypothesized entity entail or include properties that we know on abundant, reliable evidence cannot or do not exist? If yes, then an AfS gains strength. If no, then it doesn’t. Note that this second criterion does not rule out such claims. Rather, it only strengthens a preexisting doubt. Enough evidence can indeed confirm the seemingly impossible and prove it possible, but we are not considering a case where the evidence is strong or abundant.
Certainly, there is a General AfS to be made regarding Jesus. For many other famous men who walked the earth we know at least the titles of books that were written by and about them while they were still alive or very shortly after their deaths. Philosophers like Socrates, Epicurus, Chrysippus, or Musonius Rufus, leaders like Pericles, Ptolemy, Augustus, or Herod the Great, even holy men like Empedocles or Apollonius. All had things written about them in their own day, and wrote things themselves.
One could say that Jesus was an insignificant, illiterate, itinerant preacher with a tiny following, who went wholly unnoticed by any literate person in Judaea. However, this would not bode well for anyone who wished to maintain he was God, or did any of the more amazing things attributed to him. It is very implausible, for instance, that a biography would be written for the obscure itinerant philosopher Demonax in his own lifetime (by Lucian), yet God Incarnate, or a Great Miracle Worker who riled up all Judaea with talk, should inspire nothing like it until decades after his death. And though several historians wrote on Judaean affairs in the early 1st century (not just Josephus and Tacitus, but several others no longer extant), none apparently mentioned Jesus (see the Secular Web library on Historicity). Certainly, had anyone done so, the passages would probably have been lovingly preserved by 2nd century Christians, or else inspired angry rebuttals.
For instance, the attacks of Celsus, Hierocles, and Porphyry, though destroyed by Christians and thus no longer extant (another example of the peculiar problem of Christian history discussed above), nevertheless remain attested in the defenses written by Origen, Eusebius, and Macerius Magnes. But no earlier attacks are attested. There is no mention of Christians in Plutarch’s attack On Superstition, nor a rebuttal to any attack on Christianity in Seneca’s lost work On Superstition (which ruthlessly attacked pagans and Jews, as attested in book 10 of Augustine’s City of God), so it seems evident Christians got no mention even there, in a text against alien cults, by a man who would have witnessed the Neronian persecution of 64 A.D. (alternatively, the fact that this is the only work of Seneca’s not to be preserved, despite the fact that Christians must surely have been keen to preserve an anti-pagan text by a renowned pagan, might mean it contained some damning anti-Christian material and was suppressed, though Augustine clearly had access to the work and says nothing about such content). All of this suggests a troubling dichotomy for believers: either Jesus was a nobody (and therefore not even special, much less the Son of God) or he did not exist.
But this is not an AfS that Doherty emphasizes (he covers it in chapters 20 and 21, rightly almost as an afterthought). His case is built mainly from actual extant texts, and in that sense argues against even the “Jesus as nobody” theory. I am reminded of a worthwhile parallel: Pliny the Elder. Certainly, he was no charismatic leader or miracle worker, he didn’t stir up a whole country with news and controversy, he did not inspire hundreds of people to conclude he was God and commit themselves to an entirely new religious outlook with him as the focus. So it is even more strange that people to whom Pliny’s nephew writes a few decades later are eager to hear everything they can about his life and character, especially the exciting and tragic events surrounding his death, yet neither Paul nor any of the believers to whom Paul writes show any such interest in Jesus. Where is the Christian equivalent of Baebius Macer, who wanted to hear everything the Elder Pliny said on important subjects and to make sure he had a complete accounting? (Pliny to Baebius Macer, Letters of Pliny 3.5) Indeed, as Pliny says, “I am also confident that the details [of how Pliny the Elder lived and worked and studied] will be no less welcome to you than his actual books, and inspire you more…” (ibid. 3.5.20). How could that not have been even more true of Jesus? Yet such a sentiment never occurs to Paul. That is bizarre. Even more bizarre is how Tacitus can think to ask the younger Pliny to relate in detail the circumstances of his uncle’s death for posterity (Pliny to Cornelius Tacitus, Letters of Pliny 6.16), yet no one ever thought to ask Paul this, nor does Paul seem to have been interested in asking anyone else this. Such interest is natural and human, and all the more expected when it concerns the most revered man in history, for whom you are forsaking everything and devoting all. And letters are the most natural, and usually the first place where such questions get voiced and answered, as we see in Pliny’s correspondence. So historicists have a problem.
In contrast, Doherty’s book contains countless examples of curious omissions and elisions in the authenticated Pauline epistles (as well as in some other early Christian texts). Nothing even remotely like the curiosity of a Tacitus or a Baebius is found there. Some of Doherty’s examples make for a weaker case than he lets on, but many others are pretty hard to explain away. I won’t survey them here. Those who are interested simply have to read the book to see. But I can vouch for the fact that he accumulates so many examples, and calls upon both parts of a proper AfS in most cases, that he builds a pretty good AfS. It is not a slam dunk. But it is not something one can dismiss. Its strength lies not so much in the certainty of each individual case, but in their cumulative weight: the sheer number of cases produces an awkward situation for defenders of historicity, a problem Doherty’s theory completely avoids. Which brings us to the ABE.
The Argument to the Best Explanation
The Argument to the Best Explanation (ABE) is a formalization of the most common form of historical argument, described and defended by McCullagh (pp. 15-44; see Bibliography) and endorsed by Christian apologist William Lane Craig (cf. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, rev. ed., 1994, p. 183).
Apart from the obvious fact that a theory must be testable even to be considered, McCullagh enumerates six criteria that must be fulfilled to construct a strong ABE. In short, when we compare the “advocated theory” with “any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject” it: (1) “must be of greater explanatory scope,” that is, it must explain more existing evidence; (2) “must be of greater explanatory power,” that is, it must make the existing evidence more probable; (3) “must be more plausible,” based, that is, on established general truths about the time, the place, the context, etc., and the universe generally; (4) “must be less ad hoc,” that is, it must contain fewer “new suppositions” that have no other evidential support apart from the fact that they make the theory fit the evidence; (5) “must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs,” that is, it must be less challenged by existing evidence and general accepted truths; and, finally: (6) “must exceed [on the previous five criteria] other incompatible hypotheses about the same subject by so much…that there is little chance of an incompatible hypothesis, after further investigation, soon exceeding it in these respects” (p. 19).
The reality is that for much of history, especially ancient history, it is not common for any theory to be so successful as this. Historians always deal in probability, but they get knee deep in uncertainties far more than any other scientist or investigator. Thus, what is reasonable to believe is, in general, what is ‘most probable’, not just what is ‘practically certain’, since such confidence can rarely be had for claims about ancient history. But the ABE still serves the historian here, too: while no theory in many cases can win on all six criteria, very often one theory can win on enough of them, and by a large enough margin, as to be the most credible, possibly even the only credible theory. The relative credibility of two theories, in other words, rests in proportion to their relative success on the criteria of the ABE. For instance, based on an ABE one might correctly say that theory x is very likely and theory y rather unlikely, therefore it is more reasonable to believe x over y. And if x happens to entail ahistoricity, then it becomes more reasonable to deny historicity than to affirm it.
Doherty is guilty of occasional hyperbole in asserting his victory (see Appendix 1: Problems ). But this largely stemmed from his choice of words. Had he framed his position more explicitly in terms of an ABE the real merit of his case would become apparent. For example, when he argues that the sayings and deeds of Jesus are missing from the epistles (pp. 26-30) it is not the AfS aspect of this argument that is most effective (though it is pretty good: he shows several examples of where we certainly should expect a detail to be mentioned yet it is not). Rather, it is the ABE element that makes this more serious: Doherty’s theory very easily accounts for the peculiar features of the passages he singles out, while historicists must struggle harder to explain them, introducing ad hoc assumptions about the customs and assumptions of the early believers, or less plausible appeals to “bad luck” (e.g. the writers just happened to use roundabout ways of saying things on every occasion that matters to us). And while Doherty’s theory makes this peculiar state of affairs highly probable (and so has greater explanatory power), no orthodox theory does so–that is, even though some theories can explain these features, the probability of getting the evidence we have is not as great as it would be if Doherty is right. This does not mean necessarily that Doherty is right and the historicists wrong. But it does mean his theory is a better explanation of this evidence–even if not decisively better.
Likewise, Doherty points out repeatedly that “Prophets like Paul were inspired through visions, through interpreting glossolalia (speaking in tongues), through a study of scripture” (29). That is, throughout the epistles, Paul uses or refers to all three of these as sources of spiritual doctrine, but never appeals to historical facts or evidence as such a source. This is strange on SHT, expected on DMT. Also relevant is how DMT perfectly fits the cultural-ideological milieu (as Doherty shows in chapter 3, for example), whereas SHT does not. And while SHT has an explanation for this, to make it work it relies on many ad hoc assumptions as well as the presumption of supernaturalism (whereas DMT does not rely on the presumption of naturalism; and, since it fits the context, it uses fewer ad hoc assumptions). In like fashion, certain strange features of the vocabulary of the Pauline epistles is more explicable on DMT than on SHT. Doherty also shows how DMT explains all the early Christian literature (especially the strange features therein), and not just the canonized works, whereas SHT has a harder time doing that. And so on. In several ways like these, Doherty shows how his theory is a better explanation of all the evidence than SHT. He is successful enough that everyone should take notice.
One element that Doherty might draw on in a future edition is the popularity of euhemerization, a word coined after the Hellenistic philosopher Euhemerus who most thoroughly exploited the method (fl. 300-280 B.C.). This was the practice (engaged in by numerous Roman-period authors, pagan and Christian) of equating gods with real heroes of the past (Lucian euhemerizes Attis in De Dea Syria; Plutarch discusses the euhemerization of Isis and Osiris in De Iside et Osiride, but then attacks the whole method as atheistic: 360a-b; etc.). This is essentially what DMT suggests happened in the case of Jesus, and here we have another example of how DMT perfectly fits the cultural-ideological context in a way that SHT does not.
I have only mentioned some examples. The book is full of many more facts that are peculiar on SHT but expected on DMT, and I highly recommend that everyone read it who is interested in this issue. Doherty would do well to organize all this material in an ABE structure, so it becomes clear to all readers what advantages DMT has over SHT, for which criteria, and by how much. However, he comes close. Doherty implicitly employs six forms of argument. Though they do not correspond exactly to the ABE criteria, all are used by professional historians. I ask readers to look for them:
(1) He challenges the reliability of sources (RE). This is the first task of the historian, quellenforschung, to establish the nature, history, origin and trustworthiness of his sources. Doherty rightly finds many cases where the reliability of Christian sources is deeply in question.
(2) He points out in many cases the absence of evidence (AB). This is the core of an AfS, which I discussed above.
(3) He points out the peculiar nature of certain evidence, which we might call the Argument from Peculiarity (PC). This supports an ABE, since every fact that is peculiar on a given theory reduces that theory’s explanatory power, or else forces it to become more ad hoc.
(4) He argues from the cultural and literary context of a passage or text to a different meaning than is traditionally ascribed, what we might call the Argument from Context (CT). This is a very common historical argument, one that has in the past fifty years toppled so many historical conclusions of the pre-WWII era that historians no longer implicitly trust any historical work written before 1950 without good reason. Naturally, it forms the core of an ABE, affecting a theory’s plausibility and explanatory scope.
(5) He argues from contemporary analogous texts or beliefs to a different meaning than is traditionally ascribed, what is often called the Argument from Analogy (AN), a form of the CT. He uses this in different ways to support both an AfS and ABE.
(6) He argues for the implausibility of certain ancient claims or of traditional interpretations of them, what we can call the Argument from Implausibility (IM). This is of course one of the core six criteria of an ABE.
Finally, Doherty could emphasize more how challenged SHT is by certain facts (supernaturalist SHT, of course, is challenged by a stronger inference to naturalism, as I point out in “The Problem with Miracles,” part 3a of my Review of In Defense of Miracles, but Doherty need not spend ink on that). Some of his arguments have this implication, but it is not always explicit. However, due to the paucity of evidence, there isn’t much that actually threatens to contradict either DMT or SHT, and that is the biggest problem in deciding between them. We have two theories, both of which can explain all the facts, and neither of which can be decisively falsified. All we have is one theory that “fits” better: DMT. That is bad news for SHT, but not its death knell.
When we compare the standard historicist theory (SHT) with Doherty’s ahistoricist or “mythicist” theory (DMT) by the criteria of the Argument to the Best Explanation, I must admit that, at present, Doherty wins on at least four out of the six criteria (scope, power, plausibility, and ad hocness ; I think DMT is equal to SHT on the fifth criterion of disconfirmation ; neither SHT nor DMT wins on the sixth and decisive criterion). In other words, Doherty’s theory is simply superior in almost every way in dealing with all the facts as we have them. However, it is not overwhelmingly superior, and that leaves a lot of uncertainty. For all his efforts, Jesus might have existed after all. But until a better historicist theory is advanced, I have to conclude it is at least somewhat more probable that Jesus didn’t exist than that he did. I say this even despite myself, as I have long been an opponent of ahistoricity.
However, I think the fault is more with historicists who have stubbornly failed to develop a good theory of historicity. By simply resting on the feeble laurels of prima facie plausibility (“Jesus existed because everyone said so”) and subjective notions of absurdity (“I can’t believe Jesus didn’t exist!”), the existence of Jesus has largely been taken for granted, even by competent historians who explicitly try to argue for it. The evidence is selectively mined for confirming evidence, and all challenging evidence is ignored, especially when it is weird. But Doherty deals with the weird evidence in a way few historicists ever have. In fact, I have never seen any historicist case made by comprehensively explaining all the evidence in this way. At present, historicists “can” account for all the evidence, but they do so at great cost to their theory’s merits, building ad hocness, or diminishing scope, power, or plausibility. Worse, each problem by itself would not be serious, but to have to resort to such excuses for hundreds of such problems is very serious indeed, a problem DMT avoids.
And it is for these reasons I am forced to rule against the historicist case, even if by a small margin. Maybe someone can finally take Doherty’s thesis seriously and develop a single, coherent theory of Jesus’ existence that explains all the evidence as well as Doherty’s theory does, or better. As I have not seen it tried, I cannot say it can’t be done. But someone is going to have to do it if they want to refute Doherty. Merely picking at his arguments, and again flinging prima facie plausibility and subjective notions of absurdity at it like they were heavy artillery, is not going to work.
Finally, all this is not to say that the historicity of Jesus has been refuted or that it is now incredible. Many arguments for historicity remain. They simply are not as abundant, strong, and coherent as Doherty’s thesis, no matter how abundant, strong, and coherent they may be. That Jesus existed remains possible, and if Doherty could take early Christians to court for the crime of fabricating a historical Jesus, they would go free on reasonable doubt. Still, the tables have turned. I now have a more than trivial doubt that Jesus existed, to my surprise. But this stands only by a margin, allowing that I could easily be wrong. This is the impact I believe Doherty’s book will have on any careful, objective reader. As an historian, I do not believe truly decisive evidence exists either way. It could. We might turn up proof that Jesus did or didn’t exist, if we had better documentation of the 1st century, especially of early Christian communities and beliefs, but we don’t, a fate that leaves many an historian in an inescapable position of relative ignorance. As it is, we must entertain the plausible possibility that Jesus didn’t exist.
Appendix 1: Problems
I feel it is important to list all the problems I found with Doherty’s book, which he could certainly mend in a new edition. I would like to see him pore back through the entire work with an eye to catching and correcting every instance of the following faux pas. The list that follows is very long, but is generally complete.
(1) There are many cases where a professional scholar would cite far more literature in support of statements than Doherty does (especially generalizations about the ancient world or its culture or ideology, or controversial claims about a source; e.g. pp. 88-9, 96-7, 103-4, 110-1, 134, 137, 179-180, 286, 308-10, 317, etc.; the funniest example: Doherty claims “more than one scholar” supports a point, then cites only one scholar: p. 175, w. n. 76). Though I already know he is correct (except where I note below), either from my own wide reading, or from specifically investigating his claims, I should not have to vouch for these things. A much more thorough reference to Doherty’s scholarly sources is needed, and it should not just be a careless laundry list of readings, but in each case a carefully focussed bibliography that, in toto, demonstrates that each particular generalization or claim is correct or well-supported.
(2) Here and there, Doherty needs to distinguish two different opponents. For instance, he argues at one point (p. 19) that the rapid deification of the “man” Jesus is “virtually unprecedented in the entire history of religion” and therefore the peculiarity of this argues against any theory proposing it. This, of course, presupposes Jesus wasn’t really God. Naturally, we should expect unprecedented reactions if he was (and really did the things said of him). So this is really only an important argument against secular historicists, ignoring religious historicists whose theory already accounts for this observation. Doherty’s theory must stand against both, and to do so he must treat the Christian theory on its own terms. Here, he should acknowledge how the Christian theory answers this objection and that he raises it only against secularists. Elsewhere, he can note which points operate against one or the other position, or against both secular and religious historicism. This would certainly avoid a lot of easy straw man argumentation against his position, and make his argument clearer and more rigorous.
(3) There are occasions when it is not exactly clear (without careful attention to context and wording) what is a fact and what is merely a conclusion Doherty is making by interpreting a fact in the light of his theory (e.g. pp. 98, etc.). The entire book would benefit from an explicit clarity at every turn between fact and theory (maybe by splitting sections into two parts, e.g. “facts” and “conclusions”), as between descriptive and explanatory hypotheses. That is, historians formulate descriptive hypotheses about what was the case, what did happen, and then formulate explanatory hypotheses about why, and every work benefits from keeping the two as distinct as possible. Both points are especially important for a work that aims at overturning a dominant orthodoxy in scholarship.
(4) Related to the above, there is always a danger of hyperbole in any position outside the mainstream, and it is all the more important to avoid it there, where it is least justified. Yet Doherty occasionally falls into hyperbole. For example, he argues that “if none of the sayings and deeds of Jesus found in the Gospels are attributed to him in the epistles,” etc., then “the Gospels cannot be accepted as providing any historical data…” (p. 26). This is far overstating the case. It is true this somewhat lightens the weight the Gospels carry as evidence, but it hardly destroys it. After all, if none of the sayings and deeds of Plato as recorded in Diogenes Laertius were exactly reflected in Plato’s letters it certainly would not follow that Diogenes is to be thrown out. To the contrary, these are such different media we cannot expect overlap, though we are delighted to find it. Different interests, different styles, and different sources dictate the content of both. This does not mean Doherty’s point is wrong. The problem he raises does add to his aggregate case. But it does not result in such a slam-dunk conclusion as he portrays here.
Another example: I am not entirely convinced by Doherty’s argument about the incredibility of early Christianity’s spread (p. 139). Jim Jones amassed over a thousand followers (and convinced them all to kill themselves), and Rastafarianism and Mormonism grew to the thousands with adherents in dozens of cities around the world, each in less than a decade. It is not implausible that a new religious movement should inspire lots of people so quickly, especially if (as is possible, and as is claimed) its very founder made specific efforts to spread missionaries far and wide. This does not undermine Doherty’s argument, since his reading of the evidence is certainly possible. But again, it is a bit hyperbolic to claim that this is implausible on the standard historicist theory.
Exaggerated claims like these occur several other places in the book and should be corrected. It is not wrong to concede that an opposing theory can also account for some piece of evidence. One can still argue that it does so at a greater cost, or with greater difficulty, without exaggerating one’s own case. And on some points two theories might explain a datum equally well, and it is fair enough to say so. Such an admission would not affect the argument that other data accumulates for one theory and against the other.
A special remark is needed for the most unfortunate example of hyperbole: Doherty’s ad hominem, “no serious scholar dates either [Matthew or Luke] before the year 80” (p. 194). Such a sentence has no business in anything a serious scholar writes. Several scholars whom I would indeed regard as serious, and competent, do in fact date these texts earlier (even if not greatly so), and Doherty seems to be maligning them here without the dignity of a trial. The fact is, there is no evidence these texts weren’t written earlier, by at least a decade, maybe two–yes, it is unlikely, but not impossible, and arguing this certainly does not deprive me of the right to be called a serious scholar.
(5) Related to the above is the whole issue of dating texts. Rather than obsess on particular cases for particular dates, which distracts from his actual purpose, Doherty needs to discuss the viability of entire ranges of dates for every relevant text. He should identify which ranges of dates are consistent with his theory, which are a problem, and which are fatal, and only then discuss which dates are possible, or most probable, or most widely accepted. In contrast, he really needs to de-emphasize arguments for late dates that aren’t even necessary for his thesis. For example, there is no need at all for him to argue that Acts was written decades after Luke (a very disputable claim), since this has nothing to do with his thesis. He can work just as comfortably with Luke-Acts being a single unit composed at the end of the 1st or beginning of the 2nd century. Arguing for later dates belongs in a totally different book. So this whole sub-argument should be reduced to a mere suggestion in an endnote with reference to scholars who support it.
(6) There are some specific places where Doherty needs to do more convincing by adducing more primary evidence. For instance, when he argues that the “born of woman” of Gal. 4:4 could be a mythical/scriptural attribute rather than an assertion of earthly incarnation, he says it is “something that was said of certain mythical savior gods, like Dionysos,” that Isaiah 7:14 “was taken by Jew and early Christian alike to refer to the Messiah,” and that “national gods were often regarded as having the same lineage as the nation itself” (p. 124). He does not demonstrate any of these claims. Many examples are needed to establish all three generalizations as not only valid, but relevant to the given passage. For example, citing cases where Dionysus had a mother because he was euhemerized as a real person, or had a goddess for a mother, are not relevant, since Paul can be doing neither here. And so on. Given the fact that this passage is the most problematic for his theory, Doherty needs to spend a great deal more time validating his interpretation, certainly more than two pages, which consist mostly of argument rather than evidence. This is not to say his arguments here are ad hoc. There is some truth to his generalizations, but how much is not clear.
I am surprised he doesn’t point out the most important support for his position: the fact that Paul actually says in the same letter that one woman he is talking about is allegorical, representing the “heavenly” Jerusalem, not an actual woman (Gal. 4:23-31). That this is the same woman is suggested by the fact that this passage perfects an argument connected with the previous one, employing similar metaphors and vocabulary. It is thus consistent with Paul’s own writings that he meant Jesus was born from the “woman” who is the Heavenly Jerusalem (thus fulfilling scripture and the logic of Paul’s Christology). And Doherty certainly could emphasize even more than he already does how bizarre it is for Paul to say “born of a woman” about someone everyone already took for granted had parents. Are we to imagine that this was in doubt, so that Paul had to remind his parishioners of the obvious fact that men have mothers? In light of this, and the fact that Paul himself provides support for the alternative Doherty offers, Doherty’s reading still fits the facts at least as well as a historicist reading. But he hasn’t made the case for this that he could have.
Also, “more convincing” is needed, i.e. more quotations of texts supporting his claims, where Doherty says certain apocrypha he cites do not “refer to incarnation” and are “mythical and have nothing to do with a human being” (pp. 137-8). He needs to show this at length, since doing so provides crucial support for his deployment of the Arguments from Analogy and Context, and supports the plausibility of his theory. After all, his theory is just a variety of what these texts actually prove to have been a real phenomenon in those days. Also, his claims about Cynicism, though certainly true, really ought to be proved with some carefully cited and dated quotations (pp. 159-60), and there were times that it seemed he confused Cynic and Stoic sources, which could use some clarification. The same goes for some other claims made (e.g. on pp. 170, 177-8, 210, 227, 249, 262). One in particular that was raised by others: his claim that adelphos (“brother”) was part of standard mystery religion vocabulary (p.58). Though I know from experience this is true, he needs to prove it to those who don’t have that experience (for readers who want confirmation sooner: Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 1987: p. 45).
(7) Doherty should pull most of his endnotes back into the body of the text, and integrate them with his flow of argument. For example, n. 61 (pp. 130, 345) is a prize piece of information central to his argument, not some mere sidenote or gratuitous digression. In many other places, material in his notes clearly belongs in his text (e.g. n. 44, p. 340; etc.). Endnotes should only be used for two things: discussion of bibliography and sources relevant to establishing a claim made in the text, and asides on matters not central to the argument but of possible interest to readers (and even the latter could be done without). Actual evidence and argument should never be banished to notes in a scholarly work. The very task of reintegrating this material will help Doherty structure and build his case even better than he has.
(8) Doherty should clarify the importance of his reconstruction of multiple Q layers and address alternative possibilities more openly (pp. 155-68). Indeed, this is the biggest example of where he blurs the line between fact and theory, and needs to do some serious disentangling for future readers. How would it affect his overall theory if any part of his elaborate source analysis is wrong? Which parts of his construct are vital (and thus create problems for him if wrong), and which are incidental (and thus even if wrong would still be compatible with his theory)? It is hard to tell. So he needs to tell us. There are other ways to interpret all this evidence. What do those alternatives do for or against his overall thesis? Doherty needs to show us he has considered this, and help us to consider it, walking us through the possibilities.
This is particularly important since this is the weakest part of his book, the most complicated, and the most likely to contain errors. For instance, he argues that Q1 contains “scarcely a Jewish idea.” But already one of the sayings he lists in support of this contention I have stumbled across many times in the Talmud (the saying about “the ravens [who] never sow or reap”). Indeed, the Jewish version is clearer and more coherent than the one attributed to Jesus, and thus more likely represents the original. Sure, it was an apothegm among Gentiles, too, as we see in Musonius Rufus (see my “On Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay“). But regardless of origin, if it was already adopted and promulgated in Jewish oral lore you can’t argue it is un-Jewish. How many other Q1 sayings are in the Talmud? I am not at all confident that Doherty has checked, since he clearly missed this one (he also seems unaware of the Talmudic-Midrashic origin of the two crucified thieves, one good and one bad, cf. n. 78, p. 350). More work is needed here, and quite possibly he will need to qualify and adapt his argument to the facts. Of course, his conclusion, that Q1 was a cosmopolitan collection of Hellenic ethical apothegms adapted for use by a Jewish community, can certainly still be correct (we know a lot of Gentile ideas had been imported into Second Temple Judaism, so there is nothing unusual about his proposal). He would also do well to show that such collections of apothegms allegedly promulgated by certain wise men (like Solon) were a popular form of literature, which routinely attributed things to sources who probably never really said them.
(9) Doherty does on occasion rightly mention the inevitability of our ignorance: we can’t know the meaning or cause of everything, especially when we are talking about secret or esoteric doctrines that have been lost, abandoned, or buried by the victorious church, or thought processes that might never have even been written down. Still, some attempt should be made where some idea exists or can be speculated as to why certain details were added. For example, why is Mary the name of the mother of Jesus? Maybe we can’t know. It is quite possible it was invented for a particular reason now lost to us, so it is no fatal flaw of his theory that he can’t explain everything (it simply subtracts from his theory’s explanatory scope, but his theory’s scope is already much wider than standard theory and thus is not much put out by this reduction).
But Doherty will improve his case if he can offer plausible suggestions of a scriptural basis (perhaps even drawing on extant Midrashic or Talmudic material, or Christian Patristic remarks) for every quasi-historical detail in Mark, since it is his theory that these details came from a mystical reading of scripture. Details in later Gospels can more easily be explained as “window dressing,” attempts to force a veneer of history onto Mark’s hagiographic tale, for instance with Luke’s cribbing of Josephus (see my essay on Luke and Josephus). Some might be patron-mongering: just as many Greek cities had a tendency to insert their names into their copies of Homer, important patrons of a church could be flattered by inserting the names of their biological or “apostolic” ancestors into the story. Other names could have a double or “eponymous” meaning, though one would have to suggest possibilities before claiming this. In the case of Mary, we might wonder if there is any connection with the prominent place of the sister of Aaron, Mary the Prophetess, in the Moses cycle (Exodus 15, Numbers 12, Deuteronomy 24:9, Micah 6:4). Doherty would have to come up with an argument to support that. A different example is the role of Pilate in the execution, which can plausibly be explained as misreading or “mystically reading” the oral report that Jesus appeared “onto” Pilate (see below), and thus probably has its root (on Doherty’s theory) in the early Christian Gospel, rather than scripture. But maybe there are other reasons (was there a salvific or other mystical purpose in involving a Gentile government in the story?). And so on. There is a lot Doherty should attempt to do here in a future edition.
(10) There are several cases where Doherty’s erudition fail him in a way it would not fail a degreed expert in ancient history. But even here his errors are not egregious. I will enumerate them all, since if all these together are his worst mistakes (and it seems they are), their triviality is itself a proof of Doherty’s overall competence:
(i) Doherty repeats Wells’ mistaken claim that “procurator…was the title of [Pilate’s] post in Tacitus’ day, but in the reign of Tiberius such governors were called prefect” (p. 202). A few years ago, correspondence with Wells on this point inspired me to thoroughly investigate this claim, and my findings will eventually be published. But in short, this sentence is entirely wrong. It seems evident from all the source material available that the post was always a prefecture, and also a procuratorship. Pilate was almost certainly holding both posts simultaneously, a practice that was likely established from the start when Judaea was annexed in 6 A.D. And since it is more insulting (to an elitist like Tacitus and his readers) to be a procurator, and even more insulting to be executed by one, it is likely Tacitus chose that office out of his well-known sense of malicious wit. Tacitus was also a routine employer of variatio, deliberately seeking nonstandard ways of saying things (it is one of several markers of Tacitean style). So there is nothing unusual about his choice here. But despite being wrong about this, Doherty’s conclusion is still correct: it is inconceivable that there were any records of Jesus for Tacitus to consult in Rome (for many reasons, not the least of which being that Rome’s capitol had burned to the ground more than once in the interim), and even less conceivable that he would have dug through them even if they existed (just imagine an aristocrat rifling through literally tens of thousands of barely legible documents on a wild goose chase for a mere digression). It would simply be too easy to just ask a Christian–or a colleague who had done so: Pliny the Younger was Tacitus’ friend and governed a neighboring province in 112 A.D. when we know Pliny interrogated Christians; they met and corresponded regularly, and there can be no doubt that what Pliny discovered was passed on to his friend and neighboring magistrate. (On Thallus and Phlegon, whom Doherty rightly dismisses on p. 203, see my “Thallus: An Analysis“).
(ii) Doherty says epiphaneia, “appearance,” can “signify the intervention or manifestation of a god, with no human incarnation involved” (p. 118). That is technically accurate on the Greek, but in context not so certain a point as he might like. Antiochus IV had called himself theos epiphanês, “God Manifest,” and in fact this was a common epithet of royalty, used by many kings. And this is not the only word–numerous commonplace epithets of royalty were applied to Jesus (in fact, every single Christological title). So to adopt the same vocabulary for Jesus was clearly a political statement, equating him with the greatest kings of his day and before (see, e.g., Erwin Goodenough, “The Political Philosophy of Hellenistic Kingship,” Yale Classical Studies 1 (1928): 102-53, a paper that Doherty would benefit from reading, since it supplies much that might support his case; relevant to this is Evan Fales, “Are the Gods Apolitical?“). It is not hard to see how this could be understood as referring to a God Incarnate, just as Antiochus and other Greek kings certainly expected. Though the word did not emphasize an incarnation, but the “manifestation” of divinity, this is admittedly compatible with incarnation, a point Doherty should concede. But despite that, “manifestation” was indeed, as Doherty says, a routine reality in all religions of the day–gods were frequently “made manifest” to people, using the same vocabulary (which is why the Hellenistic kings borrowed it), so it does not entail incarnation either.
(iii) Doherty is indecisive about the argument that the Testimonium Flavianum is too short to be a fabrication. He concludes “we cannot know” why it is so short (p. 207). But an expert on manuscripts would know the problem here: scrolls have a fixed length. Each book of a work usually had to be no larger than would fit on one scroll, and certainly it was problematic for a copyist to break the pattern and use more scrolls than his source text (it would throw off everything, and make consulting the work a nightmare for any reader). This fact argues in favor of interpolation. If the material came from Josephus, he could have written more about such a topic (surely, since as we now have it, it is a marvelous digression indeed to warrant so slight a coverage), and just ended the whole book sooner, thus creating no problem. But if the material was added by a later editor, there would have been very little space to work with: so the addition had to be short, short enough to prevent the whole book from exceeding a standard scroll’s length. (The interpolation was perhaps made by the 4th century Christian librarian Eusebius: see Kirby’s “The Testimonium Flavianum“).
(iv) Doherty says Josephus would never portray Pilate as acting “improperly” or being influenced to do so (p. 213), but this is quite untrue: Josephus goes out of his way to show the incompetence and illegal actions of all the procurators, Pilate included, as part of his way to shift blame away from the emperors (who “didn’t know what was going on”). Philo used a similar tactic in writing his Embassy to Gaius.
(v) Doherty is “intrigued” by the fact that, in a summary of the reign of Tiberius in the Histories, Tacitus never mentions Jesus, despite mentioning him when writing on Nero in the Annals (p. 222). Doherty alleges this is a problematic “silence” (though I can’t see why Jesus would warrant mention there); he even suggests in a note that the Neronian passage might be an interpolation (very unlikely: if it is a forgery, the forger was a master of Tacitean style). But it is a shame Doherty missed a different problem: years 30 and 31 of Tacitus’ account of the reign of Tiberius in the Annals are mysteriously missing. We cannot make an argument from silence when we don’t even have the complete text. Jesus might have been mentioned in these lost chapters (one is tempted to wonder whether Christian scribes had a reason to destroy them). Admittedly, however, this is unlikely, since if there were such a mention, Tacitus would have said so when he later returned to the subject under Nero.
(vi) Doherty makes too much of the present tense when he interprets the use of “he says” as suggesting a present rather than a past speaker (p. 94). For in Greek it was not unusual, especially in Koinê, the vernacular of the NT, to refer to past events using verbs in the present tense (we do the same today when we treat a book as speaking in the present even when the author is long dead). Doherty’s interpretation is still valid, but not the only one.
(vii) Doherty says Paul does not mention “the great collective visitation of the Holy Spirit to the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4)” (p. 273). I wonder why he does not consider 1 Cor. 15:6 as just such a reference? It seems an obvious candidate, a core from which the Acts author could elaborate (and if the Acts author is indeed elaborating on an oral record of the same event Paul refers to, this supports Doherty: it shows that a visitation of the Holy Spirit was for Paul synonymous with “seeing Jesus”).
(viii) Doherty refers to kyriotês as meaning “attributes” or “nature” (p. 324). I don’t know how he arrived at that. It only ever means “dominion” or “authority.”
(ix) Doherty is wrong when he says of 1 Tim. 6:3, “If [the phrase ‘those of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (tois tou kyriou hêmon Iêsou Christou )] were part of the original writer’s text, the word ‘those’ (tois ) would have been redundant and would not likely have been written” (p. 301). The fact is, such a construction is standard stylistic fare in Greek (e.g. cf. Rom. 5:15, en chariti tê tou henos…). In proper Attic, the article would have to be repeated twice. In Koinê it was common to skip the first instance and only present the second (as is done here), or to skip both altogether.
(x) Appendix 5 (p. 310): Doherty intuitively mentions the correct reading, but is evidently unaware of the more esoteric details of Greek grammar that confirm this intuition: an ei…an phrase using the imperfect tense is always a present contrafactual (a past contrafactual would call for the aorist). In other words: “So, then, if he were on earth, he would not be a priest…” is the only correct translation. This is not an obscure point in Greek grammar. It is so fundamental to habits of oral discourse that this is simply the only way to read this passage. This takes away some of the force of his interpretation, but does not contradict it.
(xi) Last, and certainly least: Doherty says “it is hard to see how Christianity as a vital force in society will be able to continue” (p. 295). I beg to differ: apart from the persistence of superstition and ignorance, Christians could well revive their creed with a new return to a Spiritual Christ, based solely on inspiration by the Holy Spirit and no longer dependent on any texts or hypotheses about history.
(11) I should mention a few trivial items: a typo on page 247: “to be derive” should be “to be derived”; and a sentence fragment on page 292: “Until…censorship.” Though I understand this is deliberate, the colloquialism is a bad idea here because the previous sentence is too long and complex, so the reader loses the train of thought and needs a verb to recover it. Also, I must complain about the publisher’s tactic of saving money by shrinking the margins. Half an inch was far too little for annotation and this bugged me at every page. If Doherty follows all the advice I gave above, at least here in the Problems section, he will have a work more than acceptable to an academic press, which will produce a proper book.
(12) Finally, I will list a few items that Doherty missed in his own arguments that actually support him:
(i) Doherty is competent enough in Greek to know that the hêkei of 1 John 5:20 actually refers to a present circumstance (“we know that the Son of God is come”), but fails to mention that the verb has so strong a present-perfect sense that, in fact, it routinely means is present, a fact that supports his point even more.
(ii) Doherty mentions the Orphic literature in his survey of the literary-ideological context of early Christianity (p. 113), but does he know that there were Jewish Orphic poets? The fact that we have a known variety of syncretism between Judaism and Orphism in the very period of Christianity’s origin (see Carl Holladay, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors IV: Orphica, 1996) certainly makes his reference to Orphism all the more relevant and supportive of his theory.
(iii) In Appendix 1 (pp. 297-9) Doherty should add that even if 1 Thess. 2:15-16 is original (or partly so), Paul may have believed the Jews were spiritually responsible for killing the cosmic Jesus, since scripture says so (pp. 254-5), and God may well have told him so. This shores Doherty’s case up from both sides (since the case for interpolation is already pretty strong).
(iv) In Appendix 1 (pp. 299-302) Doherty should add that 1 Tim. 6:12-13 does not in fact say quite what is assumed. A homologia (homo-logia, same-statement) is an agreement, a contract. The Christian reading as “confession” is certainly playing a bit loose with the word’s range of connotations. The verbal cognate typically means to agree or make a promise. Literally, the passage says: “Toward [eternal life] you were called and you promised the beautiful promise before many witnesses. I charge [you] before the God who gives life to all and [before] Christ Jesus who testified to the beautiful promise upon Pontius Pilate, to…”
First, there is no parallel between Timothy’s promise “before” witnesses and Christ’s “upon” Pilate. Different prepositions are used. To the contrary, the parallel is between Timothy’s promise “before witnesses” and Paul’s charge “before” God and Christ, using the same preposition. Second, martureô takes a dative of person, it does not need a preposition. If Jesus were testifying “to Pilate” it would more likely be Pontiô Pilatô, not epi Pontiou Pilatou. If he were testifying “before Pontius Pilate” (Ps.-)Paul would more likely follow the parallel and use the same preposition as used for Timothy’s “before many witnesses”: enôpion. But he doesn’t. Finally, epi plus the genitive followed by a magistrate’s name is a very common idiom, meaning “in the time of.” Though it can mean “in the presence of,” it can just as easily mean “in the time of Pontius Pilate.” In other words, the author of this passage may simply be referring to the visions of Jesus to Peter and others (1 Cor. 15:5-8) as occurring during Pilate’s tenure. (See also Alvar Ellegård in Jesus One Hundred Years Before Christ (1999), pp. 206-7; Ignatius, Magnesians 11:1, for example, uses Pilate as just such a way to date the events, making no mention of Pilate’s actual involvement).
(v) Doherty’s reading of Heb. 9:27-8 is probably correct (n. 25, p. 334). Though the phrase can (and frequently does) mean “for a second time,” Doherty adduces several reasons why that reading does not fit here, and there is another reason he doesn’t mention: the word for “once” does not mean for the first time, and so cannot set up a sequence of two similar events. The word hapax means once only, once and for all. It excludes a repeat event. So ek deuterou must mean “in the second place” (and as he notes, this is a direct parallel to the previous meta de touto : “once and for all…and after this” then “once and for all…and second”). See Jude 5 for the closest parallel in the New Testament (to deuteron with hapax, here clearly means “next” not “for a second time”). I also find it curious that the expected de particle is missing in the Hebrews ek deuterou clause. Either something has been distorted through scribal error (and ek deuterou was not original) or the ek deuterou is intended as a copulative (in which case it merely represents the shift to a new thought, hence “secondly,” and not a substantive idea like “for a second time”).
(vi) This may be on his website, but Doherty’s thesis is supported further by Rom. 3:25. The NAS, as most other translations, render this “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith…to demonstrate his righteousness.” This is not what the Greek says. It actually reads: “whom God intended as a propitiation through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness.” The verb rendered “displayed publicly” is literally “put forth,” and here is in the middle aorist with a purpose clause, which usually suggests the meaning “put forth as a proposal or intended result.” It can also mean “put forth as a decree or notice.” But either way, “displayed publicly” is a stretch (it would normally take that meaning only in the active). Also, the Greek does not say “propitiation in his blood” but “propitiation through faith in his blood.” So when we examine the actual language here, we see a phrase that perfectly supports Doherty’s thesis, a fact that is utterly obscured by English translations, a good example of the fact that no one has read the bible who has not read it in Greek. Indeed, I reread the entire New Testament specifically trying to find passages that undermined Doherty’s argument. Instead, I found a lot of other material in the Epistles that supports Doherty’s position, which increases the attractiveness of his theory: it even fits evidence he does not address.
(vii) I might add to his postscript on how history changed around 1960 (p. 294): due to the G.I. Bill and other changing resources and sensibilities, by that year hundreds of new scholars had entered all fields, including history and biblical studies, from the middle and lower classes, for the first time flooding academia with men who did not have the traditional elite education and sensibilities. The result was a great rise of interest in social history, against the mainstays of intellectual, political, and military history, and a shakeup of historical assumptions and methods toward a more critical and scientifically rigorous model. Both changes so radically altered our base of evidence and our understanding of antiquity, that earlier work, even by great scholars, should always be held in some suspicion as less rigorous and less informed than work done since.
Appendix 2: Other Online Reviews of Doherty’s Book
Some other online reviews of Doherty’s work that I know of are as follows. They vary from the objective to the biased, and some misrepresent Doherty’s book or argument.
“Book Review: The Jesus Puzzle” by James Still.
“Fairy Castles Built on Sand: Or, A Most Complex Case of Christ-Myth” by James Patrick Holding.
“The Jesus Puzzle” by Peter Kirby.
“The Christ Myth Revisited” by Frank R. Zindler.
There are no doubt many more.
Appendix 3: Bibliography – Historical Method According to Historians
Gilbert Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, 1946.
Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method, 1950.
Robert Shafer, A Guide to Historical Method, 3rd ed., 1980.
C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, 1984.
Martha Howell & Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, 2001
Editor’s note: Please see also Earl Doherty’s A Comment on Richard Carrier’s “Review of The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin With a Mythical Christ?” (Off Site)