BOOK REVIEW Untangling the Traditions That Begot Early Christianity
Earl Doherty’s Bold Inquiry
Jesus: Neither God Nor Man
Age of Reason Publications
One would be hard pressed to find something that has influenced Western civilization more than Christianity. Even in the age of Britney and Facebook, the figure of Christ — cornerstone to the faith — is considered divine by a significant fraction of mankind. Debates stirred by discussion about the historical Jesus make headlines periodically, be they triggered by the serious study of artifacts like the shroud of Turin and the James Ossuary, or by storytelling from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Dan Brown.
Unfortunately, the chunks of the debate on the historical Jesus that typically reach the lay person are, as a rule, too shallow to attract sharp intellects with no dog in the fight. The result is the simultaneous preaching to parallel choirs of believers and infidels with little or no progress on the general understanding of the origins of Christianity.
A refreshing exception to this rule is the monumental work of Earl Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, a revised and expanded edition of The Jesus Puzzle on top of which a decade’s worth of new research has been added. This hefty tome presents an argument so bold it is no surprise it comes from outside the mainstream of New Testament scholarship, yet so compelling in its ability to explain contradictions in the existing theories that it may prove to be nothing less than a paradigm shift.
Before Doherty, many a layman struggling to think their way through the New Testament has been offered the view of Jesus as a first century revolutionary or a cynic philosopher whose story was spun out of proportion by a factually-challenged Saul. Yet even this toned-down understanding of the birth of Christianity leaves seekers like yours truly looking for further explanations to such weird phenomena as how Paul managed to get such a large following so fast; why the Gospels’ Jesus seems to have multiple voices, some at odds with the Epistles’ Christ; and why the New Testament seems to mirror the Old one so closely.
Enter Doherty’s dissection of the Gordian knot: Jesus was neither god nor man. He was just the mythical amalgam of several previous, independent traditions and cults. Trying to summarize in such a short piece the intricate logic of Doherty’s theory on Christianity’s birth is an effort doomed from the start, so I refer the reader to the book for the details. Here’s the main idea: Even though in the New Testament the Epistles come after the Gospels, they were actually written the other way around, with a significant lapse of time in between and by two separate groups of people, from two independent traditions. Oh, and by the way, there was no historical Jesus. Ever.
In the first part of the book, Doherty introduces the reader to the “Jerusalem Tradition,” a movement epitomized by Paul’s preaching of a divine son through whose sacrifice mankind is redeemed. Doherty compellingly illustrates how this preaching not only lacks but also excludes a human Jesus, its rhetoric being centered on a heavenly being, not a historical man. In the second part, Doherty introduces us to the “Galilean Tradition,” a movement that preached the coming kingdom of God, the evolution of which can be followed by studying the layers in a collection of sayings (known as Q) as reconstructed by modern scholarship. With surgical precision, Doherty argues that the presence of Jesus in Q is an interpolation of late revisions. In the third part, Doherty makes the case for the Gospel of Mark as a fictitious narrative that used building blocks from these two traditions and a process known as midrash or commentary on the Old Testament to fill in the gaps, a story that served as basis for the other gospels and that was taken as factual in the subsequent centuries. A fourth part takes care of Flavius Josephus and shows how adulteration on the part of Christian copyists renders him an unreliable source.
The bombshell conclusion that there was no flesh and blood Jesus ever is nothing new: The concept of the mythical Jesus has been in and out of vogue for centuries. What makes Doherty’s theory a force to be reckoned with is its power to explain why the New Testament looks the way it does, and where all those puzzling inconsistencies came from. By unscrambling the two traditions and setting them in the right order, he has provided us with significant explanatory power. According to Richard Carrier, a well-known atheist philosopher, Doherty’s theory is simply superior, albeit marginally, “in almost every way in dealing with the facts as we have them.” After long opposing the claims that Jesus was not a historical figure, Carrier admits that, in light of Doherty’s argument, “the tables have turned.” As in most historical issues, truly decisive evidence may not exist either way, yet Carrier warns that Doherty’s theory “must be taken seriously,” since it accounts very well for “a slew of very strange facts” that “traditional historicism ignores, or explains poorly.” “This is not a quack theory,” he quips, adding that if somebody wants to refute Doherty, they will have to develop a single, coherent theory in favor of Jesus’ historicity that can explain all the evidence as well as Doherty’s, or better. “I now have a more than trivial doubt that Jesus existed, to my surprise,” he says in his review of the work.
This book, like a prescription, is not for everybody. Christians happy with their belief system, particularly those who do not like their boat to be rocked, may want to steer clear of this one, just to play it safe. Yet, in full disclosure, I have to admit that the comment of one disgruntled believer on Doherty’s work (“You present nothing new here that your master, Satan, has not previously used to deceive the simple”) is what sealed the deal for me: I had to read it. Atheists, on the other hand, even those with no particular interest in the historical Jesus, can enjoy this work as a splendid example of the kind of clear argumentation that unencumbered scholarship should be about.
Yet the demographic that should run to read Doherty’s argument is current (or past) Christians with an inquisitive mind and an unsatisfied curiosity about the inconsistencies between the Gospels’ Jesus and the Epistles’ Christ. If you fall in this category, do yourself a favor: Read this book, even if it’s the only one you read on the subject. I did. And when I was done, I felt like a veil had been lifted from my eyes: the quest for truth had set me free.