My Amazon Review of Earl Doherty's The Jesus Myth

I've been meaning to write a lengthier review of The Jesus Puzzle for some time, and I have penned several lengthy articles about specific shortcomings in his theories (here, here, here, and here). But I finally bit the bullet and wrote a shorter review for, here.

If you like it, please give it a helpful vote. If you hate it, give it an unhelpful vote and tell me why with a Comment. If you are not sure, ask any questions or make any comments here as well.

Here it is in full:

Clever, Expansive, and Unconvincing (& check those endnotes), December 21, 2004

Though dead among scholarly circles - even among moderate and liberal ones - the idea that Jesus never existed has visceral appeal to many with negative attitudes towards Christianity. Though not a serious academic work (it's published by the "Canadian Humanist Publications", whose bias is obvious and shared by the author), this book distinguishes itself from similar efforts by laypersons in its expansive scope. Rather than skirt the Pauline references to Jesus' human life, it embraces them and claims they support the notion that Jesus never existed. Rather than accept the consensus among historians and New Testament scholars that Josephus referred to Jesus on two occasions in Antiquities, the book rejects the idea that either reference is valid. The book's use of purported Middle Platonism to undercut seeming references to Jesus' human life in Paul's letters and Hebrews is especially clever (not the least because so few readers will have any understanding of what Middle Platonism is).

On style, the writing is uneven and at points amateurish and simplistic. The chapter titles and subheadings are often of no help in understanding what any particular chapter or section is about. There is no scripture or ancient writings index, though some of these are in the general index. The use of endnotes instead of footnotes (or even endnotes at the end of each chapter rather than lumped together at the end of the book) is particularly unhelpful because so much of the argument rest on the supporting references or discussion. And as I learned, checking Doherty's endnotes is vital given how unsupported many of his key arguments turn out to be.

But, what about the substance? Space constraints obviously limit, but I will comment on some of Doherty's central points.

Doherty's attempt to explain away references to Jesus' human life in Paul's letters (and Hebrews) is ambitious but unconvincing. As the book goes through these passages, it becomes clear that time and again he resorts to unsupported translations, far fetched interpretations, misrepresentations of Middle Platonism, and creative - to say the least - use of secondary sources in order to support his theory. This foundation is shaky and gets weaker the more closely it is examined. One example which taught me to check the endnotes closely was the book's assertion that the phrase "according to the scriptures" in 1 Cor. 15 when referring to Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection had nothing to do with fulfilled prophecy but meant instead that Paul had learned about these things from the Old Testament - not James and Peter and the other Christians. The support for this interpretation? It is not in the text and the reader is referred to an endnote. To my surprise, the endnote does not refer to Paul's use of the phrase elsewhere. Nor does he refer to another NT writer's use of the phrase. Or to any Greek Lexicon. Or to any other Greek writer using the term as Doherty claims Paul uses it. All that Doherty refers to is an extraordinarily anachronistic modern day example of reading a newspaper. I was genuinely surprised at how weak and anachronistic the support was for such a crucial point.

The rest of the book's explanations for the troubling Pauline and Hebrew references to a human Jesus are no more convincing and are ad hoc. Rarely does Doherty conduct any sort of meaninful textual discussion of how Paul uses these phrases elsewhere in his writings. This is especially true of his attempts to dismiss Paul's statements that Jesus was "born of a descendant of David according to the flesh" in Romans.

Another problem throughout Doherty's book is his use of secondary sources. Often they are quoted so selectively that they are offered to support points that the source's author would denounce in the strongest terms - as is the case with his use of C.K. Barrett's fine commentary on Romans (while trying to dismiss Rom. 1:1-4 as a reference to Jesus' becoming human).

Regarding other issues, Doherty relies on theories that have already been debunked, such as his attempt to dismiss Acts as a source for early Christian history by referring to V. Robbins' oft-refuted theory about the we passages, or his insistence that neither of the references to Jesus in Josephus are authentic (despite overwhelming contrary opinion and evidence). A continuing flaw in Doherty's argument is his rush to expalin things in terms of Middle Platonism, while ignoring obvious Jewish influence, parrallels, and beliefs. Finally, the dismissive classification of the Gospels as midrash is so brief and so uninformed that it is of almost no worth (and his radically late dating of them unsupported by the evidence)

This may be the best presentation of the Jesus Myth argument in print. Nevertheless, any informed and rational investigation into it will lead the reasonable person to conclude that if this is the best that the Jesus Myth has to offer, there is little to commend the theory.


I liked it and voted for you. :-)

Thanks for writing those Amazon reviews. I read them as do many others.


Popular Posts