Earl Doherty

Earl Doherty's particular take on the CMT is perhaps the most influential one of the last two decades. He first expounded it in the 1999 edition of his The Jesus Puzzle and has subsequently revised it several times, finally publishing an expanded revision as Jesus: Neither God Nor Man.  

I remember being surprised that The Jesus Puzzle was as reasonable as it is—it is not perfect, and in some places it does display some of the  excess of the other, somewhat amateurish stuff I was coming across in my reading about mythicism, but Doherty's book is generally much better. It is reasonably well conceived, well sourced, well argued, and generally well written.  At the time I started reading this book, the only kinds of mythicism that I was familiar with was the sensationalist Acharya S and Freke & Gandy variety, i.e., the new-agey kind, one the one hand, and on the other the Bob Price historico-critical stuff.  I had been interested in historical Jesus studies for a long while already and had been reading all of the Jesus Seminar stuff, which was peaking in popularity at the time, and I was also devouring as many of the older classics in the field as I could find (Strauss, Bauer, Baur, Bultmann, etc) and so I could easily relate to Price's dialectic in a way that I could not relate to the more-mystic reactionary stuff.  I still had one foot in the historicist camp, though. In fact, I remember arguing for historicity in those early days.  It was Doherty's book more than any other—and Bob Price's Bible Geek podcast— that finally tipped the scales for me.

The gist of his puzzle: Christianity originated as a syncretic synthesis of the mystery cultism that was in vogue in the Mediterranean basin in the first century with the contemporaneous Judean (specifically) theology and cosmology and folklore. Jesus initially was an archetypal celestial being whose revelations to his "apostles" came in visions and whose cosmic passion was shared by all his "believers." They were "saved" through this shared passion. Metaphors like baptism and resurrection were echoed and lived out in an ornate ritual liturgy. Eventually, this being became euhemirized, which is to say, biological physicality was ascribed to the mythical character, as was done in many other earlier mythologies with other legendary figures, a process that resulted in the Christian gospels.

When you hear about a "celestial Jesus" who was crucified and resurrected in one of the sublunar levels of the heavens, it is Doherty's basic wireframe model being fleshed out.

The basic case revolves around three main fronts:
  1. Arguments from silence— Both the silence of Paul regarding any biographical data, and the silence of contemporary writers of the period.
  2. Arguments from similarity— Parallels don't necessarily point to outright fabrication in and of themselves, but they do reinforce the model's cumulative strength, adding to it.
  3. Arguments from ahistoricity— There are things in the story that are harder to explain from a historicist perspective than they are from a mythicist one, and there are also things we should expect to see in the historical and archaeological records if the story were to bear out as even remotely true, which are in fact not there.

I'm not going to argue his entire case here. You should read his books, though. They are quite good. Richard Carrier's mythicism books are the only ones that are as cogently argued (more so, actually, in that Carrier's approach is intentionally statistical, and therefore more empirical), but even these owe their very being to Doherty's original formulation. Essentially, what Carrier would come to demonstrate mathematically as well as rhetorically, is Doherty's basic theory.


Selected Bibliography:

  • The Jesus Puzzle (1999)
    —A must read mythicist work.

    Rating: ★★★★½

  • Jesus: Neither God nor Man (2005)
    —An expanded edition of his previous thesis, in which he responds to its reception by critics. If you can only read one of these, read this later edition.

    Rating: ★★★★½

  • Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth (2013)
    — An anthology of critical responses to Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist? by several of those  scholars whom he mischaracterizes or maligns in it.

    Rating: ★★★★☆


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