The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus Paperback – January 1, 2005
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"Doherty has written a potential modern classic, which deserves to be widely read and discussed." --Jan Koster, Professor of Linguistics, Groningen University, The Netherlands
"I have never read such scholarship in so easy a style. You have a wonderful way of conveying complex ideas." --Judith Hayes, author of "In God We Trust...But Which God?"
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I’ll grant you, this book is now nearly two decades old, and my review is beyond late. However, the book still seems to have enough interest that I decided to read and review it anyway. I read the 2005 edition, not that that matters.
First, the praise:
Overall, this is a fairly easy to read book. Doherty is not a scholar, and his writing does not get too technical for the average layperson. His scholarship however, is pretty good – not perfect, but better than I expected from someone who is, in fact, not a scholar. I will say though, he doesn’t always identify the scholarship behind the conclusions well enough (I’ll address that below). The book is filled with point after point, building his case, mostly using very sound logic. By the end, the conclusion I reach is that Doherty has presented a very strong case for the ahistoricity of Jesus. While some holes are there, the case is generally very solid and certainly warrants a better, more scholarly response than Ehrman’s “Does Jesus Exist?,” which was unimpressive to say the least (and I say that as an Ehrman fan).
Now, the criticisms:
1) The scholarship. I know I said his scholarship is pretty good, but I mean that in the sense that when checked, much of his interpretations and conclusions do have scholarly support, even if often not consensus scholarship. One problem with this book’s scholarship is the lack of documenting and footnoting it. There were many places where a statement Doherty made is factually correct, or backed by scholarship, but he completely neglects to show the scholarship supporting it. Doherty seems to have a habit of rattling off point after point, or fact after fact, but forgetting to buttress any of it by citing sources or footnoting the scholarship behind it. While reading such presentation makes one want to whip out the highlighter and start marking the book, giving a sense of excitement at “puzzle pieces” not seen together before, the lack of source citing or scholarly justification, often causes critics to dismiss such writing out of hand (though often when checked, one will find he does have support for his interpretations, conclusions, etc.).
2) The Q rabbit hole. Doherty leaves his ever growing case behind for a while, and chases a rabbit down the hole after the Q hypothesis. I personally, do not subscribe to the Q hypothesis, particularly after Mark Goodacre’s excellent book, “The Case Against Q.” Granted, when Doherty first wrote TJP, he did not have Goodacre’s solid case from which to draw, but even in my 2005 edition, 3 years after Goodacre published TCAQ, Doherty did not budge on his Q argument. He admits that “there is no independent evidence for Q” (pg. 144) but understandably (albeit unfortunately) he sides with the consensus toward Q. Yet when he makes statements like, “no suggestion that Jesus is the Christ, no reference to the concept itself, ever surfaces in Q,” (pg. 148) one cannot help but note that he is basing part of his argument on a “factual” claim that something doesn’t exist in a document that itself has no independent evidence that it actually exists. The reality is that Doherty’s trip through Q country only weakens his overall argument. At the very least it does nothing to strengthen his thesis, and in my opinion, clearly weakens it if for no other reason, the ad hocness of the Q hypothesis itself. His book would have been much better if he had either completely dropped the Q leg of the argument, or at least condensed it into a short, single chapter as noteworthy, but not integral to his case.
3) Lastly, the book structure. Related to my previous criticism, Doherty could have made a better presentation by dropping the Q material. He takes up 6 chapters and over 50 pages on this nonessential, even deleterious content, yet he fills appendices and notes at the end with quite pertinent information. I think a far superior presentation of his thesis would have been to eliminate, or drastically reduce the Q material, and to integrate the appendices and notes into the main text. Honestly, the Q material he goes on and on about, being the weakest material in the book, should be relegated to an appendix at best, if not left out altogether. If the book had been structured in that way, I think his case would have continued solidly throughout, but as is, the interruption by the Q diversion opens up a big weak spot right in the middle of his presentation.
In summary, the book is a worthy read. It does end up finishing very strong, despite the weak middle. Doherty presents a very solid case for ahistoricity, but it’s important to note he had built on the work of others – it isn’t his own unique hypothesis. But Doherty has compiled the stronger points of previous mythicism research, while discarding most of the nonsense mythicism, into a very readable and not too lengthy book, that would be a good primer for anyone wanting to begin a trip into the world of Jesus mythicism. I have little doubt that as I work my way through Dr. Carrier’s OHJ, that I will find it far more scholarly and will recommend it as the far superior Jesus mythicism work, but I certainly can also recommend Doherty’s TJP as a worthwhile read that has its flaws, but presents a sound abstract of the ahistoricity case.
Doherty's thesis is that the Jesus of the New Testament was probably created early in the Christian religion as a divine or quasi-divine being who only existed in a heavenly realm and never on the earth as a flesh-and-blood man. As evidence for this hypothesis Doherty points out that contrary to popular opinion, Paul's epistles were written decades before the four gospels. What's significant about this fact is that Paul writes of only a heavenly Jesus and says essentially nothing about a Jesus who preached in Galilee or was crucified at Golgotha. Only later when the gospels were written was Jesus made into a man in history.
Doherty spends much time in The Jesus Puzzle explaining how this evolution of Jesus, from spirit to human, came about. He documents how the Jews of the first century were affected by other cultures as well as their own culture laying the groundwork for Christianity. For example, the philosophy of the Greeks and the Stoics played a part in this development. Centuries before Christianity, many Greeks came up with a monotheism of their own. A Platonic concept of God arose at that time. This God transcended the material world, and he could not make any personal contact with it. As such, he was inaccessible of being in contact with him or even understanding him. However, the Stoics came up with an “imminent” God who had a mind that was the reasoning or governing principle of the universe. The Stoics called this principle the “Logos.” Humans possessed this reason. They then shared God's nature and were continuous with him. According to Plato, his remote God could be made “closer” by understanding that his ideas or “forms” were made part of the material world by creating material copies of them. This process of creation was called the “Demiurge.” So for Plato, the Logos was these intermediate forms in the mind of God. The Logos then could reveal God and his nature to us humans. Later on the idea of the Logos went from an impersonal force to a personal divinity that could provide salvation.
That philosophy, rather than history, formed the basis for Jesus is strongly hinted at in the sacred sites that Jesus presumably visited being “out of sight.” Earl Doherty asks: “Where are the holy places?” He says there is a “resounding void” in place of the places of Jesus' life. Oddly, the early Christians seemed disinterested in these places never bothering to specify their locations. None of these first-century Christian writers said they ever visited Jesus' tomb, the hill he was crucified on, or the room of the Last Supper. The epistles never even mention Bethlehem, Nazareth, or even Galilee. Although Paul said he wished to experience “the power of his resurrection” and wanted to “share in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10), he never wrote of any pilgrimages to these places.
Earl Doherty also asks: “What about the relics?” They are missing. All the things Jesus may have used or touched have apparently never been preserved by Christians. Why would the faithful not bother to preserve and cherish these relics? These items might include the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper, the nails of his crucifixion, thorns from his crown, and his garments. Sure, many alleged pieces of the “true cross” emerged, but that wasn't until the fourth century. A mania did break out for these relics, but it wasn't until Constantine was emperor. Until then, no relics emerged.
Like many other mythicists, Doherty explains this dearth of evidence for Jesus by positing that Jesus was no more real than pagan gods like Mithra. Like Jesus, Mithra offered mediation between a god (Ahura Mazda in Mithra's case) and humanity. Mithra also aided the ascent of the soul to heaven after death. Although Jesus is not known to have been born on December 25th, this date was considered to be the birthdate of Mithra and, of course, was borrowed as the birthday of Jesus. Similar to the birth story of Jesus, the birth story of Mithra involved shepherds who worshiped him. Mithra was to resurrect the dead and be the judge of humankind at the end of the world. Mithra's cult, like Christianity, engaged in baptism and a cultic meal. This cult was a major competitor of Christianity during the second and third centuries CE.
Earl Doherty maintains that many of the stories of Jesus in the New Testament are not history but were created out of combining two or more passages from the Old Testament and blended into one story in the New Testament. He writes:
“One of the features of scriptural study in this period was the practice of taking individual passages and verses, bits and pieces from here and there, and weaving them into a larger whole. Such a sum was much greater than its parts. This is one of the key procedures of “midrash,” a Jewish method of interpreting the sacred writings...This bringing together of widely separate scriptural references and deriving meanings and scenarios from their combination was the secret to creating the early Christian message. Scripture did not contain any full-blown crucified messiah, but it did contain all the necessary ingredients. Jewish midrash was the process by which the Christian recipe was put together and baked into the doctrine of the divine son who had been sacrificed for salvation.”
Doherty also traces the evolution of Jesus in that “lost gospel” known as “Q” or “quelle” which is German for “source.” Q is significant in that it may be, along with Mark, a source for Matthew and Luke. Doherty splits up Q into Q1, Q2, an Q3. Q1 is merely sayings that were later attributed to Jesus, but no Jesus ever appears in these sayings! Only later in the prophecies of Q2 and the stories of Q3 does any Jesus appear indicating that the “story of Jesus” started out with no Jesus at all. Only later was Jesus portrayed as a real man.
My verdict on The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ? is that it is a well argued and very well documented work. I agree with almost everything Doherty argues for. On the downside, the reader needs to wade through a lot of technical scrutiny of many strange documents. So in some ways The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ? is much like a good bicycle-repair manual: it provides a lot of useful information but isn't really what most people would consider to be an entertaining book.
For further reading you may consider The Christ-Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert Price and On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier.
Also, Doherty nowhere states where he got his degree from, nor has anyone seen a picture of him. Maybe he himself is a myth?
Top international reviews
Many intriguing "puzzle pieces" outside the bible seem to offer strong support, such as an apparent ignorance of Jesus of Nazareth by early Christians. and Doherty shows that apart of the gospels, which were not know in the first century, there is even little support for an earthly Jesus in the bible. Assuming a few later additions and alterations, it appears that Paul knew nothing about him.
Do all the pieces of the puzzle, when taken together, fit better when pieced together following his theory than following the usual theory? It does look that way!
Briefly, Doherty argues that Jesus and the gospel story was a myth until the composition of Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke using Mark as a model) in the late first century, and that Mark is a result of "midrash" (the reworking of scripture to reflect a current belief) based on the Old Testament and the so-called Q Document. As a result Mark reflects the forging of two independent movements thrown together artificially - 1) the Jerusalem tradition based on a belief in a Son of God as a saviour figure, an intercessor between God and man, a Christ-figure, and 2) the Galilean tradition based on a belief in the coming of the Son of Man to judge the world. To Doherty the author of Mark and those of the Q Document were part of the latter tradition and Paul the former. Paul and the other New Testament epistles show that they believed in a Christ who was spiritual, whose death and resurrection took place in the supernatural world, revealed by the scriptures. Doherty also suggests that Paul especially drew inspiration from concepts such as the Greek Logos and Jewish Wisdom, and that Paul was part of a widespread, even wholesale, belief in an intermediary Son, a spiritual saviour between God and man. As such Paul's and others' letters reveal no human Jesus (which Doherty terms "silences"), and show no interest or mention of one, rather they show a belief in a "Christ" similar to other mystery cults of the day. Finally, Doherty asserts that all extra-biblical references to Jesus can be dismissed as forgeries or interpolations, and that the Acts of Apostles are the result of the Church's wish to denigrate Marcionism.
I'm no biblical scholar or historian and at first glance the argument appears to be compelling. However, doubts are raised about Doherty's scholarship and methodology. He has a good knowledge of Greek in which to work with the original texts of the New Testament, which is fine as I trust his translations, but he shows no knowledge of Hebrew, a language needed to interpret the Old Testament scriptures when forming his midrash argument for Mark. How can I trust his translation is correct or not taken out of context, as he is necessarily dependent on secondary sources. Also, he does not seem to know Latin, which is needed for possible references to Jesus in writers such as Tacitus or Pliny. Also, Doherty does not reference his work as I would have liked, footnotes are at the back of the book. Sometimes arguments are backed up with references but often are not. Quite often I went to a reference to look for sources backing up claims only to see further argument - no primary or secondary sources mentioned. Admittedly this is not all the time, some sections are referenced fully. I also felt that the appendices at the back of the book, in which he expands on points raised, should have been placed in the main text. Some of the footnotes are so long that they should have been in the main text too.
In conclusion I do not find Doherty's theory persuasive, although it is well argued. My doubts were raised when he wrote, concerning Mark's amalgamation of the two traditions: "The spiritual Christ's crucifixion ... in the higher world would have found a natural translation in Jesus of Nazareth's crucifixion ... on earth. But in the final analysis, Christ cult may only hve been Mark's trigger. He could almost have done without it." (p. 239). I'm sure Doherty did not mean it in this way but to me that suggests that Mark did not have to rely on the Jerusalem tradition for inspiration, and casts doubt on Doherty's survey of the Galilean and Jerusalem traditions in previous chapters. Also, it is standard practice in books expounding controversial theories to explain why a theory has not been accepted before, or why there is no evidence to back it up, and this explanation usually involves a conspiracy. Sure enough, on page 292 Doherty asks why no ancient writers cast doubt on Jesus' historicity, which of course would improve his case. Doherty answers "Until we realize that no such document would ever have reached us through 2000 years of Christian censorship."
In short I would cautiously recommend the book only as an example of how poor the case for a non-historical Jesus is, and it is not as far-fetched as other theories for a mythical Jesus.