Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle
(*) 60 + 92 -
Earl Doherty wants us to believe that Jesus never lived. He points to twelve pieces of the historical puzzle to establish this fact, none of which, however, is both true and relevent, still less fits together with the other pieces to establish his claim. What the whole argument really establishes is how desperate and hopeless skeptical criticism is in dealing with the Gospels.
Doherty's main argument is that the epistles hardly ever speak of Jesus in historical terms. Why not? Because he hadn't been invented yet. Doherty spends chapter after chapter asking why Paul or James didn't mention this or that useful detail from the life of Christ, calling up rank after rank of melodramatic rhetorical questions like armies to disconcert the ranks of believers. I find myself singularly un-disconcerted.
First of all, Doherty explains away, or ignores, passages that do speak of the historical Jesus.
Secondly, even if the epistles never mentioned details from the life of Jesus, so what? There are few details about Jesus' life in Acts, either, even though it is written as a sequel to Luke. This fact alone shows the absurdity of the whole book. In the same way, there are few references to the historical Plato in the works of Aristotle, even though Aristotle was Plato's student. Or was he? Maybe Plato was a mythopoetic invention, too?
As a student of world religions, the fact that the epistles seldom mention Jesus does not surprise me. I don't expect that from practical polemics. I don't expect Xun Zi to quote Confucius when he wants to make a point, or Lenin to show the workers baby pictures of Marx. Doherty does seem to expect such things. He tells us, "If a Christian writer is urging a certain course of action . . . and the founder was known to have taught that very thing, this would almost guarantee" that the writer would mention it. Yet Doherty himself fails to quote or mention any of the positivists and Humanists who taught him this historical "law." Does that mean he doesn't believe it himself? That is what his own line of historical argument seems to imply.
When Doherty writes of "critical modern scholarship," he is generally referring to the Jesus Seminar. (Like the thief asking the robber for a character reference!) He builds his house of cards on their houses of cards. The result is, not surprisingly, wobbly. For example, following the Jesus Seminar, he writes in emphatic detail of what the Gospel of "Q" does not contain. "It is a cold, hard fact that none of the elements of the Jerusalem phase of the Gospels appear in Q." But it is an even colder and harder fact that he hasn't got Q, and neither has anyone else. We don't know what was in it, or even if it ever existed. The Jesus Seminar reconstruction he so confidently bases his arguments on, gives one very wild reconstruction, popular in some circles in the U.S., contradicted in Europe in favor of other wild reconstructions.
On the subject of Q, and many other things, a few pages of a real scholar, like N. T. Wright, (Jesus and the Victory of God) scatters whole chapters of Doherty to the wind, to await the resurrection of broken toys and silly ideas in the Last Day.
As for Josephus, fellow skeptic Jeff Lowder is superior, and comes to more reasonable (if still slightly mistaken, in my opinion) conclusions.
The biggest problem with this book is not its many fallacies, however, but the positive and overwhelming evidence to the contrary it ignores. Doherty claims, "Those who derive their view of Jesus from the Gospels might be startled to realize the highly elevated nature of the Jesus preached by the early Christians." On the contrary, I am startled by the combination of utter realism and incredible authority of Jesus in the Gospels themselves. As one scholar put it, we could not have invented him if we wanted to.
Many have tried, in vain. (See, for example, Per Beskow, Strange Tales About Jesus.) All the epistles do is translate the extraordinary picture the Gospels paint into the metaphysical images of which Doherty admits (when convenient) the people of the day were so fond.
The argument in this book is more hopeless than claiming the earth is flat: more like arguing the moon is square. You don't need a space ship to see the curvature of the moon; just open your window. (Or the flap of your tent.)
In the same way, open the Gospels, and open your mind, and no amount of sophism (and there are tons of it here) will allow you to un-see the reality of whom you find there. Unless the desire not to see reaches a high critical mass, indeed.
Eighty years ago, J. Gresham Machen prophetically noted that materialist dogmas force skeptics into taking absurd positions. Similarly, the Jesus Seminar strains and struggles to find a merely human Jesus in the Gospels. But there isn't one. There is only a supernatural, miracle-working, sin-forgiving Jesus who rises from the dead. And so Crossan and Funk deny the undeniable, and reject accounts of an obviously historical kind that are accepted in all other contexts (for example, the life of Confucius.) Then even more radical skeptics like Doherty, with a weak understanding of how to reason historically, but a few specious arguments, launch out into the void and think they are standing on the moon, when really they are just standing on the flats of their own hard heads.