Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty


A Response to "James Patrick Holding" on the Tekton Ministries Website

[Note: Since the initial posting of this response, Mr. Holding has moved his critique to another site and made a reply, on which I have commented at the end of this response, with a change of link. No amendments have been made to the main text below, with the exception of the first paragraph.]

I: Defending the Faith

James Patrick Holding, who I gather is well known in Internet apologetic circles and whose name, we are told, is a pseudonym, has made an extended critique of my Jesus Puzzle. It first appeared on a site called The Christian Apologetics Bookshelf, with a credo stated thus: “The Christian Apologetics Bookshelf website was established . . . . for the glory of God. Our mission is to educate, equip and encourage Bible believing Christians to uphold the truth and authority of the Word of God and to refute those who contradict.” Mr. Holding's articles were subsequently moved to another site, called Tekton Ministries. I will provide a link to this site and Mr. Holding’s critique at the end of this response.

While I have not read much of Mr. Holding’s previous writings, I was aware of his characteristic approach and tone in addressing viewpoints which threaten his personal confessional stance. Mr. Holding is a “Christian scholar”, and while I can recognize to some extent the “scholar” side of that combination (though its quality and integrity is open to interpretation), it must be as clear to everyone as it is to me that the “Christian” side of the combination is the paramount one and fully governs its secondary companion.

This is nowhere so evident as in the style of ‘rebuttal’ he adopts. The heavy sarcasm, the open derision, the sophomoric recourse to insult, the sneering tone: these are readily recognizable as the all-too-common reaction of those whose cherished beliefs are being threatened or even questioned. His lengthy critique of my site is one vast ad hominem diatribe. To perceive, much less to appreciate, the counter-arguments he offers to some of my ideas, one has to wade through a distracting and distressing overlay of insult, innuendo, scorn and ridicule, delivered with a ‘wit’ and word-play of questionable sophistication. Such heavy-handed invective often serves to bolster what are weak, or beside-the-point, or even fallacious arguments on his part. This is not the mark of the professional scholar, and I suspect that few genuine members of that category, or even the discerning layperson who is interested in learning something on the subject of Jesus’ existence and the reliability of the New Testament record, would bother to read through much of this overblown exercise in self-indulgence.

But, of course, such is not Mr. Holding’s target audience. His readership is primarily believers like himself who would not for a moment be capable of bringing an open-minded judgment or spirit of investigation to unorthodox ideas. Indeed, they seem to draw comfort from this type of retaliatory overkill. The louder the derision, the more furious and personal the attack, the better. (Those that are perceived as the greatest threat are always the targets of the greatest fury.) I am reminded of a short but exquisite musical piece by the American composer Charles Ives, called The Unanswered Question (I recommend the Leonard Bernstein performance). Against a quiet orchestral backdrop, a serene trumpet asks a musical question which a chorus of flutes at first calmly and confidently answers, but when the questioner continues to restate his query several times (evidently because the answer is inadequate) the flute contingent gradually degenerates into nattering, scoffing, sneering hyenas choking on their own scorn. Ives’ flutes have ever been with us, and their snarling has managed to drown out many a questioning voice.

I am not going to reply at the same length to Mr. Holding’s vitriolic tirade. I frankly don’t have enough respect for this kind of ‘critique’ to put an amount of time and effort into it equal to his own. And it is difficult to counter this type of argumentation, one that might be characterized as ‘aggressively apologetic’. It gives no quarter, makes not the slightest reasoned consideration of new or opposing ideas, frequently reaches for any objection or counter-explanation no matter how strained or remote—and no matter how often it must have recourse to such a thing. It obfuscates and ignores, and if all else fails (as it often does) simply resorts to invective, much of it ad hominem. Comments like “this mind-numbing absurdity” are a common type of rejoinder. I have been known to employ touches of sarcasm myself, and I can be provocative, but I have always been careful to maintain a basic level of civility. Mr. Holding knows little of this concept, which is a common characteristic of the zealot, who regards dissenters as the incarnation of the devil.

I will, however, offer a number of observations on his critique and even a couple of admissions. Beyond that, I will direct the readers to the site and let them judge for themselves.

On the Matter of Credentials

When in my Preamble I make reference to my university degree (in Ancient History and Classical Languages) and to the documentary material I have investigated, neither my words nor my tone claim “impeccability” (whatever that might mean). Mr. Holding sets his own tone at the outset by labelling it as such in his ironically scornful fashion. Elsewhere on his site, he suggests that those he seeks to counter “as a rule will be the sort who are completely unqualified in terms of Biblical scholarship and possess no relevant credentials in the field.” I might ask who is to judge relevancy and qualification, and whether progress in any field has always been restricted to those who possess the ‘correct’ credentials. Should we instead place our reliance on those whose relationship to the subject is entirely in terms of rigid confessional interest? Perhaps as a believer, Mr. Holding thinks he can claim exclusive proprietorship (despite any mention in his ‘bio’ of those correct credentials on his own part), but Christianity is an historical phenomenon like any other—these days it’s a political one as well, potentially affecting all of society—and as such enjoys no immunity to examination and challenge, and by whomever applies oneself to the task in a responsible way.

I have made no secret of the fact that I did not come up through the orthodox scholarly ranks of New Testament study. If Mr. Holding wants to label me “amateur” in this respect (my term would be “private scholar”) I’ll accept the label—in its best sense, and one which acknowledges that such an “amateur” has not been ossified by received and ingrained dogma and most importantly not influenced by peer pressure. In history, and especially the history of ideas, orthodoxy has given us little but stagnation, the strangling of new ideas, and even persecution, whereas it has often been the unfettered outsider and maverick—the amateur, if you will—who has managed to open up new insights and offer new directions.

Being a modest fellow, I will not presume to put myself into that enviable company, and I may well be fated to sink back into personal obscurity in the face of all the snarling flute choruses of the world. But at the same time I have no doubt that my conclusions about Jesus of Nazareth—and others’ before me, for I am hardly the first—will turn out to become increasingly common, part of a steadily leaking dike in the myth of Christian origins which Mr. Holding has not enough fingers to plug.

Someone like Burton Mack, a world-renowned scholar whose credentials are certainly “impeccable”—which does not stop an amateur like me from questioning or critiquing him—seems on the verge of a similar conclusion, at least in regard to Paul’s Christ and the early cultic movement (I’ve heard rumors to this effect). Robert Funk, head of the Jesus Seminar, has openly flirted with it, as I have pointed out on my site. Robert Price, a ‘young Turk’ member of the Seminar whom Holding has also attacked, has written more than one paper on the possibility. Price has paid me several compliments and has recommended my site to many. In fact, the highest compliment was to solicit an original article from me on the Jesus Puzzle for the latest issue of the Journal of Higher Criticism, an avant-garde but increasingly respected (in critical circles) New Testament publication at Drew University. Perhaps Mr. Holding could inform me as to what scholarly Journal he has lately been published in—and under what name.

On the Matter of References

Before I make some specific comments on his case against me, I am more than willing to acknowledge his most legitimate criticism: the shortage of references as to sources and supporting commentators in my Main Articles. These articles began life as a series for a small magazine called Humanist in Canada, and because of space considerations and because its audience was largely a non-scholarly one, I put in very few references of the sort he refers to. When this series was transferred to the Internet, it went onto a colleague’s site with again a limited audience in mind. When it unexpectedly gained widespread attention, I did not go back and insert a comprehensive set of footnotes, due to a little laziness and a lot of lack of time. At this point I am hoping to do a revision to the Main Articles along those lines at some point in the not-too-distant future, in conjunction with a comprehensive Index to the whole site. But I make no guarantees as to when that will be. I have other pursuits in life and do not regard the study of Christian origins as a “ministry”.

However, having said that, I am not one who believes in smothering articles, especially ones aimed at a general audience, under a heavy weight of references and footnotes, and I think I have struck the right balance for my site in the Supplementary Articles, which Mr. Holding admits do offer more in the way of sources and specifics. (And after reading his critique, I did, I admit, rush back to my most recently posted Reader Feedback file and insert a reference that should have been there, so he has had some influence!)

Mr. Holding also likes to heap scorn on the use of any general phrase like “many scholars agree,” or “there are those who maintain/suggest/etc.” without providing specifics. But I would say that not every point of an argument requires the quoting of those who agree with it, nor those points which refer to established and acknowledged trends in scholarly thinking which I express criticism of. Certainly, phrases such as “scholars are quick to criticize the argument from silence,” or “scholars have given us a Fourth Fallacy . . .” hardly need any enlarging on. I would also point out that such phrases are used among mainstream scholars themselves—and let me hasten to quote one of them. Paul Ellingworth, in his Translator’s Handbook for Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 46, in discussing 1 Cor. 2:8 with its “rulers of this age,” says: “A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here.” Ellingworth offers no list of scholars to support this, although he does mention a couple who disagree with this majority.

A General Observation

Has Mr. Holding scored any points at all beneath the invective? Of course. The subject of Christian origins as embodied in the documentary record of the time, Christian and non-Christian, is a vast one—not to mention the even vaster catalogue of modern scholarly research—and no one person can reasonably expect to achieve a full grasp of the entire field, not even in a lifetime. Insight and understanding is achieved by increments, building on the work of others, even of those one does not agree with or seeks to improve upon. Mr. Holding’s own knowledge and scope of study is clearly considerable, and he has challenged me on many points of interpretation, accusing me of a lack of sufficient or proper analysis, the overlooking of subsidiary elements which may have a bearing, even of downright misinterpretation (if we can ever arrive at certainty even on the negative side of something). I hardly agree with all his challenges, but I have said elsewhere that I do not expect to get everything right. On the whole, however, most of his criticisms are either invalid or irrelevant, and those which have a point to make do not, in my view, undercut my basic position. He and others may beg to differ. One can only lay out one’s position and leave it to others to make their own judgments. If Mr. Holding or anyone else were to deal me a crippling blow, I would like to think that I would be the first to acknowledge it, as I have no desire to promulgate something if I am no longer confident of its essential accuracy. I have no confessional investment in being right.

What I can confidently state about the growth of insight and understanding which I spoke of above, is that such things can never be achieved by a closed mind, one that starts from a dogmatic position and will brook no compromise or even examination of those dogmas. Such a stance leads nowhere, and is not what genuine scholarship is about. The human mind has not come up with any better approach to knowledge than the rational scientific method, and this involves an open and honest examination of the evidence and a willingness to follow wherever it leads, whether down unfamiliar or unsettling paths, or even down experimental dead-ends which have to be backtracked. When Mr. Holding is prepared to turn his feet along one of those new paths, even if only experimentally, I’ll welcome his company and we can have a stimulating and perhaps mutually enlightening exchange. But I won’t hold my breath.

II: Trashing the Jesus Puzzle

D01: “Fairy Castles Built On Sand” (File Nos. and Titles are Holding’s)

Mr. Holding’s critique is spread out over several articles. In the first, he offers an introduction to his critique and makes some general comments. One is the reference to my “credentials” which I addressed earlier. Another comment is that he will not be examining my material on Philo, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Odes of Solomon (the latter two being documents from the so-called Jewish Pseudepigrapha), since “we deem them irrelevant.” They are anything but irrelevant, of course, but these are complex documents and perhaps not within Mr. Holding’s parameters of expertise—or rebuttal style.

I should also point out that in his critique he never (that I can see) orients the reader to the specific location on my site for the quotes he uses, never provides the titles of the articles he is excerpting. He also never gives the URL of my site, let alone a link to it. Perhaps he would rather that his readership be shielded from such things and have access to my views only through his filter. A comment he makes to his readers (I don’t know whether to regard it as a joke or not) would seem to reveal the opinion about myself and the Jesus Puzzle being bandied about in some of Mr. Holding’s circles: “As for those who see Doherty’s website as a product of Satan—knock it off, folks. Satan wouldn’t ruin his reputation by being associated with this sort of material.”

D02: “Foursquare Foundation”

My reference above to Paul Ellingworth’s comment on “the rulers of this age” in 1 Corinthians 2:8, relates directly to the subject matter addressed in Holding’s first major article, dealing with my claim that in this passage Paul is speaking of the spirit forces who rule the lowest level of the heavenly world, and that it is they who were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus in the spiritual realm. Holding accuses me of the “Most Scholars . . .” sin, whereas in fact I discuss at length in my Supplementary Article No. 3, “Who Crucified Jesus?” (from which he has taken his quotations) several scholars who hold this position. As for one of the supporting documents I offer here, the Ascension of Isaiah, he has already, as noted above, dismissed it as irrelevant.

In his own defense, Holding quotes a long passage, 1 Cor. 1:17-2:16, highlighting all the phrases which have any reference to things ‘human’ in them, as though these, by some form of osmosis, render the “rulers” phrase automatically human, too. Unfortunately, he has failed to find, in Paul’s discussion here about the wisdom of the world vs. the wisdom of God, any reference to a human Christ and the elevation of a human man to divinity. Rather than “supernatural rulers (being) out of order here,” human wisdom, in the field of religion, has always been concerned about divine and heavenly things. (I might note that this first article does not start out in too hostile a fashion, but long before he reaches the end, Mr. Holding has slipped his rein and the rant mode is in high gear.)

When he goes on to examine my two claims for interpolation in the entire Pauline corpus, including the pseudonymous letters (a record I would claim shows admirable restraint on my part), Mr. Holding makes the suggestion that Paul himself was the first to collect his letters (thus postulating the first Pauline corpus around the year 60!), and that in any case Paul had made copies of them for his own files at the time of writing, all to guard against the very possibility that some “misfit church” would dare try to doctor them. Such wishful speculation, the like of which I have never heard before, is completely unfounded and is simply an attempt to provide himself with ammunition to discredit the very principle of interpolation; whereas the modern viewpoint (see The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, p.205f) that such a corpus was not formed before well into the 2nd century leaves plenty of time for earlier interpolations to have left no contrary manuscript evidence, especially in 1 Thessalonians which has no pre-corpus attestation.

His arguments against the claim that 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 is an interpolation are not entirely without merit, but that this is a “quaint notion” is belied by the long lineup of modern critical scholars who support it—many of whom I quote in my article.

As for my second interpolation, 1 Timothy 6:13 with its reference to Pilate, Mr. Holding fails to point out that I qualify this by saying that the Pastoral epistles come from the 2nd century, so that even if authentic, the reference does not disprove my position. Here it needs to be pointed out that Holding will in no way accept that the Pastorals are not by Paul, going against the vast majority of critical scholars today who firmly reject Pauline authorship and date these epistles post-100. This and other similar examples of his apologetic conservatism clearly place Mr. Holding’s scholarship at a “neolithic” level, and automatically put his overall exegetical powers and integrity under the deepest suspicion.

In disputing the expressions of doubt scholars have made about this passage, Holding applies uncritically a Gospel incident within an epistolary context, and makes this remark: “I’d like to see Doherty tell Jesus to his face that his was not a ‘noble confession’.” Would that any of us might have the opportunity for face-to-face enlightenment from that source!

I admit misinterpreting my notes on Kelly’s analysis of the earlier passage, 1 Timothy 6:3. Although he subjects this passage to close examination, and regards the phrase “tois tou kuriou hemon Iesou Christou” as “added,” and “a kind of qualification of ‘wholesome words’,” he does not actually judge them to be a later interpolation. My apologies to Prof. Kelly, and I trust that he will not be following Mr. Holding’s suggestion to sue me for libel. To compound the mistake, the page number was a typo and should have read 133, not 113.

I find it difficult to extract the legitimate counter-argument in Holding’s discussion of Josephus from the rabid ad hominem material, which here reaches a crescendo. It ignores much discussion by others than myself (and not just mythicists) on issues which Holding regards as “absurd”, so I will pass up saying much on it at this time. He also misleadingly refers to my brief discussion of Josephus in the “Postscript” article, without noting that I discuss Josephus at much greater length in my Reader Feedback section. I would, however, ask who are the “Josephan scholars” who have “decided” that Origen is confusing Josephus’ account of James death (the famous Antiquities 20 passage), with some (lost) reference in Hegesippus? And I would point out that if Josephus is indeed citing a known ‘title’ attached to James as “brother of the Lord”, it means nothing that he does not use the word “brother” in the sense of member of a brotherhood anywhere else in his text. As to whether in fact such an interpretation of the phrase is a “mind-numbing absurdity,” I might ask if Holding interprets the “more than 500 of the brothers” of 1 Corinthians 15:6 as siblings of Jesus (rather, they are clearly part of an organized sectarian group), or how he personally would translate “ton adelphon en kurio” (brothers in the Lord, where Paul is also referring to a group) in Philippians 1:14 without implying some kind of “brethren/brotherhood” meaning.

D03: “The Twenty-Pound Gorilla”

In this article Mr. Holding tackles my case on the pervasive silences on the Gospel story to be found throughout the early Christian record. He quotes my statement that “Before Ignatius [c.107] not a single reference to Pontius Pilate, Jesus’ executioner, is found.” His reply? “So what? Why should there be any reference to Pilate?” On the universal silence on Mary and Joseph: “Why is there any need for such trivial detail?” On the silence about Jesus’ preaching to the Jews in Romans 10, or the killing of Jesus by the Jews in Romans 11 (see my “Part One” article), he declares: “There was no need to mention it.”

And on it goes. Similar “explanations” are offered for the silence on the Eucharist in Hebrews and other places, on Jesus’ baptism, on the figure of Judas, on the appointment of apostles by Jesus while he was on earth (the teachings of Jesus I’ll get to in a moment). For many of these silences there are indeed multiple occasions in the epistles where we would reasonably expect to find such references, at least some of the time. (My own catalogue of specific places in the epistles which show a notable silence on this or that Gospel detail or attribution of a teaching to Jesus is well over 200.) Paul’s discussion of Christian baptism in Romans 6 in which there is not a whisper of Jesus’ own baptism, is but one example. In all the significant references to Jesus’ death and cross in Paul alone, are we to assume that any thought of the man who put him up on that cross never entered Paul’s mind, that Pilate would never be brought in as an element of Paul’s discussion, never to be regarded as anything but “trivial”?

Was it “trivial” that Jesus’ death was the outcome of a trial, one in which he had been falsely accused, a murdered innocent? Not one epistle writer breathes a word of it. Was the contrast between the Jews’ screaming for his blood and Pilate’s magnanimous attempt to set him free of no interest, nor the betrayal by Judas, nor the actual extent of Jesus’ ordeal, the crown of thorns, the scourging, the anguished cries and other words from the cross, the stupendous reaction of nature to his death, the tearing of the Temple veil? What of the host of lesser details: the freeing of Barabbas, the denial by Peter, the thieves crucified with Jesus, the presence of his mother at the scene, the vinegar drink? Where are the characters which people the Passion story: Judas, the High Priest, Simon of Cyrene and Joseph of Arimathea and the confessing centurion, not to mention those unnamed corpses who Matthew recounts rose from their graves and appeared to many? What of the details of the glorious witness to the resurrection, the women who played such a role on Easter morning, the angel(s) at the tomb, the rich (and contradictory) Gospel detail of the post-resurrection appearances? Have they all been forgotten, lost track of, dismissed as insignificant by every letter writer who came after? And that’s just the Passion story. We look in vain for anything to do with Jesus’ birthplace or nativity, the figure of John the Baptist, Jesus’ preaching in Galilee, his miracle working, the relics of his everyday life and activities, his controversies with the Pharisees and the many points he scored against them, the teachings and advice and encouragement he gave to all about him, the healing and the raising from the dead. Was Lazarus “trivial”?

Mr. Holding addresses each point (though by no means all of the above) as though it were there in isolation, but he misses the more telling consideration that there are a host of these things which need explaining, all of which must be reduced to triviality, to irrelevance, to a lack of need. It is the totality of the silence that is the most devastating, and here, as I have said elsewhere, any logic in his kind of reasoning breaks down.

In his dissection of the individual silences I raise, he is often at pains to produce an “apples and oranges” analysis. In these he creates the most strained distinctions and niceties of definition so as to remove the necessity, indeed the very possibility, that the writer could have brought in the Gospel element which seems to us most germane and compelling of mention. “Paul is talking about content; Jesus is talking about method,” goes one explanation. (Shades of the sophisticated subtleties of Burton Mack!) The analysis of the Sarah/Hagar allegory of Galatians 4 where we might expect some use of Mary, the wriggling attempt to escape from Romans 10 and 11 mentioned above (my objections here are “bits of tripe”), the contortions undergone to explain away Hebrews’ silence on the Eucharist, or Paul’s discussion of the cleanness of foods in Romans 14:14 where he fails to appeal to Jesus’ own Gospel pronouncements on the subject: let the reader decide if Mr. Holding convinces us that no letter writer for the first three-quarters of a century in any document under any circumstances ever happened to feel a desire, a need, a compulsion to mention any detail in the life of the god-man they all worshipped, whose story was supposedly hanging in the very air of their daily lives. His countering of the stark and startling silence on any mention of, any interest in, let alone any visitation of the holy places of Jesus’ death and resurrection, any whisper of Calvary or the scene of the empty tomb, has to be seen to be believed.

As for the two critical exceptions to all this silence, Mr. Holding has rejected, as noted above, the widespread view that 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 is an interpolation, and he similarly heaps scorn on the longstanding mythicist explanation that the passage about “the Lord’s Supper” in 1 Corinthians 11:23f is Paul’s recounting of a revealed mythical scene. (This is supported by an analysis of the “reception” idea in verse 23: see my Supplementary Article No. 6, “The Source of Paul’s Gospel”). Even Burton Mack regards this scene as one which is “not historical but imaginary,” a creation of the Christ cult surrounding meal practice “in keeping with their mythology” (Who Wrote the New Testament?, p.87f). This mythical Supper falls into the same category as the numerous “sacred meal” myths of the other savior god cults of the time.

Mr. Holding takes a number of tacks to deal with the silence in the epistles concerning any attribution of earthly teachings to Jesus. He suggests that we do not, when quoting well-known words from Shakespeare, or Kennedy, or other famous people, always insert the attribution when it is obvious to the reader or listener who said the words. Fair enough, but the situation in the epistles is more often than not one of debate, of urging the reader to a certain course of action, where mention of the “author”—especially when he is the Son of God—would be a natural impulse to give added weight to the argument. (At least some of the time, surely!) And if the purpose were to praise Shakespeare, or to show why he was so great (as the epistle-writers’ purpose was to sell the people on Jesus), we would hardly tend to leave out the fact that Shakespeare was indeed the author.

Here, too, his ability to produce strained explanations is striking. Looking back to his article D02, he said this about the observation that the epistles seem to imply, and often state explicitly, that God is the source of Christian teaching, with no mention of Jesus and his ministry: “God (is) the primary source; Jesus (is) the Word of God, His mouthpiece. Not even Jesus took credit for the content of his own preaching, but identified the Father as his source.” Evidently, every Christian epistle writer made the same respectful bypass and ignored Jesus the teacher, refusing even to refer to him as such. Is this really a feasible explanation?

The same idea is voiced in the present article. When 1 John 3:21f and elsewhere fails to assign to Jesus the great love commandment, the centerpiece of his Gospel preaching, but identifies it as coming from God, Mr. Holding explains it this way: “The answer should be obvious. As Johannine theology most explicitly equates Jesus with God, and refers to Jesus as God’s Logos [the Johannine epistles do no such thing, and Johannine theology was hardly operating in every other epistolary community which is equally silent on Jesus as the source of the love teaching], then obviously—expressed in terms of the Father/Son christology—even if these words did come from Jesus’ mouth, they in fact ought to be attributed to God.” The same explanation is offered for similar silences in Hebrews. This kind of reasoning is characteristic of the theologian, and I suggest that the great majority of us who do not dance on the head of a pin are still left unsatisfied at this determination on the part of all the epistle writers to adhere to such esoteric considerations. On the whole, we are left dumbfounded at their overall “lack of need” to refer to Jesus himself, his life’s words and deeds, amid their constant proselytizing, their struggles against rivals, apostates, skeptics and heretics, and amidst the simple love and respect they must have felt for their vividly remembered Master, the Nazarene whose name hovered, silent and kept in check, on their pursed lips and the tips of their pens.

There is a place for common sense reasoning, and it desperately needs to be brought to this field—and not only to Mr. Holding’s table.

D04: “Round and Round We Go”

One of Mr. Holding’s most vociferous complaints against me is that I often draw on a certain observation by a quoted scholar (e.g., Burton in regard to Galatians 4:4 or Barrett on Romans 1:3) when that scholar does not himself go on to draw from his own observation a conclusion identical to mine. This criticism is a red herring. Naturally, I realize that Burton does not use his own observation in the same way I do. But the observation is still made. And I have every right to call attention to it, even if I take it in support of a different conclusion. Nor am I duty bound to point out that his conclusion was different from mine—an assumption which the reader is likely to make in any case. I have not “misapprehended Burton’s material,” or “manipulated quotes,” and I can’t help Mr. Holding’s nose for detecting “the scent of rank dishonesty!” By way of analogy, a creationist may point to some natural phenomenon and draw a conclusion that a Creator is responsible. I, as a Darwinist, can surely quote him, but apply it to my own conclusions about evolution.

In this article, Mr. Holding attacks the foundation of my theory of the spiritual Christ, that Paul and the other early cultic Christians view the universe in what is essentially a Hellenistic/Platonic fashion (which Hellenistic Judaism itself reflects in writers like Philo, making the latter far from “irrelevant”), and that Jesus’ death and resurrection, as well as the mythic scene in 1 Cor. 11:23f, took place in the upper, spiritual realm—all of it similar to the mythical beliefs of the other savior god cults of the day.

Here Mr. Holding indulges in more hair-splitting in accusing me of not interpreting Moulton properly in regard to the usage of the prepositions apo and para. I find it ironic that whereas he and others are often at pains to make the point that Paul and the other letter writers are producing “occasional” (meaning informal, dashed-off, etc.) works, so that they should not be held to principles of comprehensiveness and exactness, here Paul is not subject to Moulton’s qualification of “in daily speech” because Paul had a “much more precise and intelligent mind than the average person . . . and would be unlikely to suffer from such inexactness of speech.” (I wonder what Holding makes of the garbled sentence in Galatians 2:6?)

In his reaction to my analysis of Romans 1:1-4, I refer the reader to my comments above about quoting scholarly observations. Barrett (whom I never labelled a Platonist) offers a translation of kata sarka as “in the sphere of the flesh.” By this he means, of course, earthly flesh. My appeal to Barrett was more to the concept of “sphere” which he thinks could here be taken from kata. From there one must go on to enquire what could be included, according to the various philosophies of the day, within that “sphere of flesh”. I cover this quite thoroughly in Supplementary Articles 3 and 8. Mr. Holding is free to accept or reject such interpretations as he sees fit. And of course, he has already rejected the very notion that Paul (coming from Tarsus—birthplace and capital, I might add, of the Hellenistic Mithraic cult from the 1st century BCE on), or other early Christian circles such as those in Antioch, Asia Minor and Greece, could possibly have suffered any inroads of Hellenism into their pure Jewish “mainstream” thinking (if, indeed such a creature can be found, especially in the Diaspora, during this period).

I regret that Mr. Holding gave no more attention than this to rebutting my interpretation of Romans 1:1-4, because in that Article No. 8, I make observations on this passage which I consider to be original and insightful, and which constitute a cornerstone of my position. I also deal in the same article (after a general discussion on the nature of ancient world—and especially Platonic—myth) with key passages like Galatians 4:4-6 and 1 Corinthians 15:45-49. Mr. Holding’s rebuttal on both of these is piecemeal, and in my estimation, ineffectual. I recommend that the reader have a look at my Article No 8, “Christ as ‘Man’: Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person?”

More silences in the christological hymns of Phil. 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16, as well as the Sarah/Hagar allegory of Galatians 4:24-31, are explained by the “no need or opportunity for putting in such things” argument. Calvary, for purposes of denying any possible parallel between itself and Mt. Sinai, has had its topographical profile reduced, but I still suspect that any dispassionate observer would regard Mt. Sinai, where the first covenant with God was established, and non-Mt. Calvary, where Jesus’ blood sacrifice (as stated by Jesus himself at the Last Supper) brought the new covenant into effect, to be clear and inviting parallels.

D05: “Fringe Factoids”

In this article, Mr. Holding gives further evidence of his ultra-conservative exegetical leanings by championing the view of the late J.A.T. Robinson, who attempted in the 1970s to present a case (Redating the New Testament) for regarding the major documents of the New Testament—especially all four Gospels—as having been written prior to the Jewish War. This stance on the distant right wing of New Testament scholarship is part of Mr. Holding’s general position which rejects (and not just in reaction to me) the most fundamental insights of the last century in critical NT research. I think I understood him to say that even form criticism’s longstanding view of the Gospels as a string of originally independent circulating units was to be banished to outer darkness! (On one level, I tend to agree with him, though for entirely different reasons.) The huge discrepancies between Acts and what Paul tells us in his letters are reduced to “minimal” and “easily recognized as rhetorical/polemical.” The idea that Judas Iscariot was an invention is labelled “rather peculiar” and seemingly imputed entirely to Hyam Maccoby. And so on.

Now, I wish that in the format of magazine articles, there had been space to thoroughly deal with every point put forward along the way. Even on a web site, space considerations apply. Inevitably, certain less important interpretations are going to be voiced that are not given full treatment. Such are my statements about Papias in my “Part Three” article. Fine, I’ll accept Mr. Holding’s criticism. Papias, as it happens, is about third on my list for a future article. In the meantime, let me fill him in on one of his questions. On what basis do I say that Papias had not seen the documents he calls “Matthew” and “Mark”? Mr. Holding probably does not accept deductive reasoning, but if Papias did possess copies, he would hardly have failed to deal with some of the Gospel sayings of Jesus in his now-lost work Oracles of the Lord Interpreted. And if he had, the several later commentators who saw that work, such as Eusebius who is quoting from it in the matter of Mark and Matthew (and on whom we must rely for most of what we think we know about Papias), would surely have referred to them, instead of limiting themselves to some of the ridiculous things Papias is reported to have talked about, such as a gruesome version of the death of Judas. Nor is it likely that if he had full narrative Gospels of Jesus’ life, Papias would have disparaged written works and preferred oral traditions, as he is reported to have said.

In this same article, Mr. Holding addresses the core of my first Supplementary Article, the rivalry (as I see it) between Paul and Apollos, centered on the congregation at Corinth. While he says a lot, his case seems to boil down to this: there was no disagreement at all between the two beyond a friendly rivalry based on the Corinthians’ preference for one or the other as a public speaker. For this he appeals to terminology found in two or three scattered verses in the first few chapters. For a “friendly rivalry” over their respective oratorical skills, the Corinthians have divided themselves to such an extent, that Paul is forced to write this long letter to them to patch things up, in which he discourses on the wisdom of the world vs. the wisdom of God to defend his doctrine of the cross, over which some are “on their way to ruin”! In addressing the rest of my analysis of the early Christian apostolate, Holding again has recourse to his “they already knew” argument, as well as to a “rhetorical brevity principle.”

I’ll let the reader decide if Mr. Holding has effectively explained away the blatant contradiction between Paul’s declaration in Galatians 1:12 in which he clearly states that he received his gospel “from no man” but from revelation, and the traditional scholarly reading that the “receiving” of Paul’s gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3 was through the passing on of teachings through human channels. (Again, see my Article No. 6, “The Source of Paul's Gospel”.)

When Mr. Holding gets to my discussion of 2 Peter, with its “Transfiguration” anecdote which manages to leave out virtually every element to be found in the Gospel scene from which it is supposed to be derived, he offers the familiar rejoinder: “How would stating the obvious help? What need is there for all these details if the reader is familiar with the story?”

Yet this is the very issue under debate. What conclusions do we draw from the fact that the writer of 2 Peter gives us no evidence that the Gospel incident of the Transfiguration is his source for the account he gives, an account whose bare words describe nothing so much as a revelatory vision of a divine figure? My position is that the lack of such Gospel details can be taken as an indication (not proof, of course) that the presumed historical incident in a ministry of Jesus (described in Mk. 9:2-8 and parallels) is not the writer’s source, possibly because he knows of no such thing. Holding’s position is that these details are missing from 2 Peter because the writer and his readers already knew of them. In the context of an argument over whether in fact 2 Peter knew the Gospel scene, which position stands closer to the fallacy of “begging the question”?

By now, perhaps, the reader is wondering how, if no one ever mentions the details or even the basic data of the events of Jesus’ life, if no one ever attributes teachings to him or takes care to preserve exactly what he said, how is it that in fact “everyone knows these things”? Preservation and transmission of oral tradition was supposedly accomplished by continually speaking and writing those things which in fact are so woefully missing in the entire written record outside the Gospels. Is there not a contradiction involved here?

D06: “No Apologies”

In some ways, this is the most interesting of Mr. Holding’s rebuttal articles, not the least because he manages to reproduce most of what I wrote in my “Second Century Apologists” article. I am not going to comment at length on this article, since it really boils down to a “Was So - Was Not!” confrontation.

On the matter of when the Gospels are first attested to, one can cite many scholars’ so-called “echoes of the Gospels” in the early literature, but such echoes can be interpreted in different ways, and if they all lack clear reference to written documents (and especially when they stand next to other indications which suggest that the writer is unfamiliar with basic Gospel material), then surveys like those of Helmut Koester (in Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den apostolischen Vatern, 1957, and Ancient Christian Gospels, 1990) which tend to regard such echoes as the expression of floating traditions and not derived from written Gospels, become compelling.

The same unresolved confrontation applies to our respective views of the 2nd century apologists, but I would like to assure Mr. Holding that I am well aware of the Roman social context, with its attitudes toward religion, in which the apologists had to operate, and I have taken it into account, as several passages in my article clearly indicate. On its interpretation, and the weight it should be given when taking other factors into account, we of course differ. Once again, I found his methods of “explaining” the blatant statements of apologists like Athenagoras, Theophilus, and especially Minucius Felix, thoroughly inadequate. Mr. Holding seems to have an unlimited supply of “apples and oranges.”

One note: I did not say that the Dialogue with Trypho represents Justin’s early beliefs. I said that the account of his conversion experience, which is thought to have taken place 20 years before he actually wrote the Dialogue, and which is described in the opening chapters, represents those beliefs.

The peroration against me near the end of this article is worth quoting: “Doherty’s shameful pretense at scholarship may be recognized for what it is: stretched facts keyholed into a strained theory; begged questions scurrying for their ratholes, and a blank canvas presented as a substantial and masterful work of art. Believe this man’s ravings if you will, and you will be a skeptic of remarkable faith.”

D07: “The Pot Calling the Kettle Black”

Mr. Holding frequently accuses me of fallacy, usually labelled as “circular reasoning” or “begging the question.” I find that he overuses these technical terms in the field of logic, and not always accurately, and rarely (if ever—but I’ll allow for the possibility) justifiably. In the second paragraph of the present article, Mr. Holding labels the following statement of mine “fallacious”: “To believe that ordinary Jews were willing to bestow on any human man, no matter how impressive, all the titles of divinity and full identification with the ancient God of Abraham is simply inconceivable.”

I fail to see any fallacy. It is a statement of the difficulty—in my considered opinion an impossibility—in accepting the proposition that Jews did in fact do this. It is based on a knowledge of the Jews and their attitudes toward God vis-a-vis humans. It does not state, as Holding claims, that “the idea that Christianity is true is itself fallacious.” The idea that Christianity cannot have been “true” as orthodoxy has presented the picture of its presumed beginnings, is an argued conclusion derived from evidence about the nature of Jewish beliefs and attitudes, and what these say about the difficult of accepting that they could have done such a thing with a human man. Let Mr. Holding argue with my opinion of the “inconceivability” of it if he wishes, but this is a judgmental term about the proposition’s degree of unacceptability, and not a fallacious one.

But then Mr. Holding goes on to give us a genuine fallacy. He says that such an action by Jews would be inconceivable, “UNLESS it actually happened, and that ‘human man’ proved himself to be the Son of God.” This is a far more blatant example of a piece of circular reasoning and begging the question combined, than anything he calls attention to in my work. My statement about the Jews, that they were not capable of such a thing, is “disproven”, he says, because they actually did that. Since they did that, this shows that they were capable of it. Nothing could be more classically circular than this. And by stating that it actually happened, he is, of course, begging the question that is under consideration—actually a number of them: not only that the Jews were capable of it (which the observations I offered about the Jews would tend to be evidence against), but also such things as that the Gospel record is reliable and that Jesus, if he existed, showed himself to be the Son of God.

Somehow from all this, Mr. Holding concludes that “Doherty’s first Fallacy” (in my Postscript article) actually amounts to an argument in favor of Christianity!

He also applies the term fallacy here: “The idea that New Testament scholarship for the past two millennia has been entirely wrong, and that only the genius of Earl Doherty has just now uncovered the truth, is itself a ludicrous proposition.” The two millennia idea, of course, proves nothing. Was Copernicus guilty of a “fallacy” when he bucked millennia of conviction—and scholarly conviction at that—that the sun went around the earth? Does Mr. Holding believe in the existence of Amon-Re because the Egyptians believed in him for longer than Christians have believed in Jesus? And I would like to point out that I have never claimed either “genius” or that I am the first to propose that Jesus never existed. But of course Mr. Holding knows that.

The remaining four of the five “Scholars’ Fallacies” which I discuss in my Postscript article are dealt with by Mr. Holding in a very cursory and ineffectual fashion. But perhaps by that time he was getting weary, as I am now. Unfortunately, I posted a further article on my site on the subject of Hebrews, and he felt forced to address it, and so he created an 8th article as an “appendix”, which will bring his series and my comments to a close.

D08: “Hebrew Harmonics”

Mr. Holding likes to refer to my “fallacy” in trying to compare (his) apples and oranges as “a category error”. Let me call attention to something similar of his own. In the quotation of Psalm 8 contained in Hebrews 2:6-7, “the son of man” (this term refers in the Psalm simply to “mankind”) is made “for a short time lower than the angels.” This is indeed a reference to nothing else but humanity, as Mr. Holding points out. Now, in 2:9, the writer says that Jesus was one who “for a short while was made lower than the angels.” Holding claims that 2:9 “refers back” to the Psalm quotation, and since the latter’s reference is to humanity, this must govern the meaning of the later verse, making it indicate “nothing else but that Jesus became a man on earth.”

I’m not sure what he means by “refers back”. They both use the same phrase, “for a short while made lower than the angels,” but that does not mean that we can read every aspect of the context of the first verse into the second. The writer may be saying no more than that “mankind in its way was made lower than the angels, while Jesus in his own way experienced the same thing.” Here, many analogies offer themselves. Both Floor 5 and Floor 1 are “lower than the roof”, but they are not thereby on the same level, and both may not be inhabited by people of the same nationality.

The relationship between verses 6-7 and verse 9 is a comparison, and the writer makes it for the purpose of linking Jesus in a certain way with humanity. In my Article 8, I call this a “paradigmatic” relationship and it works within the ancient world concept of a dualistic universe. But it does not imply an identical nature, and it does not have to mean that “Jesus became a man on earth,” which the epistle never says. In fact, if Mr. Holding truly understood the nature of ancient world thinking, he would realize that this upper world / lower world (spiritual / material) relationship places both parties in different, though complementary, camps. This relationship is between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the material. It is absolutely necessary that the two counterparts in this combination inhabit the two different spheres. The processes designed to provide humanity with salvation are based on the paradigmatic relationship between entities in those upper and lower halves of the universe. It is Mr. Holding’s failure to understand this (and of course, his confessional disposition) which leads to his inability to understand my section on 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 in Article 8. There and in my article on Hebrews (No. 9), I show that the presentation of the writer’s ideas are always in terms of this two-sphere duality and paradigmatic relationship, with no allowance made in the text itself for any crossover contamination, which there would be if a Jesus on earth in material flesh had been anywhere in the picture. The latter is always “read into” these epistles through imposition of the later Gospel developments.

It may be that, in order to appeal to a mass audience, the esoteric nature of the Platonic system had to give way to something more understandable, more accessible to the average mind. Paul’s audience is largely an intelligent, educated, sophisticated one, as his letters show. Christianity a few generations later was appealing to many more people of all classes, including slaves and the dispossessed, the marginal, the sick and troubled. One of the reasons for this broadening of appeal, I would suggest, was the ‘descent’ of the spiritual Christ into the material realm, to take up an abode on earth, in human flesh. For that, Christianity had “Mark” to thank, though he probably never intended it.

Finally, Mr. Holding deals with the two “Smoking Guns” I find in Hebrews: 10:37 and 8:4. I might make a general observation at this time, that Mr. Holding fails to grapple with perhaps the strongest area of my case: my presentation of the many passages in the epistles which give us a picture of the beginnings of the Christian movement, in which no room is made for an historical Jesus. This is not just a case of leaving him out or ignoring him. It is a case of Paul or Pseudo-Paul or the writer of 1 Peter or the writer of the Pastorals or of Hebrews presenting their picture of the Christian faith movement as one which was dependent on revelation from God and a study of scripture. It is one which speaks of ancient “secrets” and “promises”, with the first action on those promises, the first revelation of those secrets, being identified with apostles like Paul or the arrival of “faith”. There has simply been no room left in passages like these for a role for an historical Jesus. Moreover, the “secret”, the “mystery hidden for long generations,” has been Christ himself, as we see from passages like Colossians 2:2. Paul’s proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to Romans 16:25-26, has been based on “the revelation of that divine secret kept in silence for long ages but now disclosed,” a revelation made to all the world “through prophetic scriptures.” Compare this with my analysis (in Article No. 8) of Romans 1:1-4, whose Greek text plainly states that Paul’s knowledge of Jesus kata sarka as being “of David’s seed” (however one might want to analyze this phrase, and I do in that article) comes from the gospel of God about his Son which Paul found in the prophets. Why is it that no epistle writer ever points to Jesus himself as playing an earthly role in the revelation and carrying out of God’s work of salvation? I have no compunction about using a word like “inconceivable” to describe this, if in fact an historical Jesus had begun the movement.

So. One example of this “no room for Jesus” can be found in my first “Smoking Gun” in Hebrews. This is not yet another case, as Holding claims, that the writer did not feel it necessary to say that Jesus had already been on earth in advance of the coming Parousia because everyone knew that he had. It is a case of the writer describing things in a way which excludes such a previous presence on earth. Baldly applying the prophecy in Habakkuk 2:3 without pointing out that the “one who is to come soon” has in fact already been here, does precisely this. It may very well be that I am married, yet write to a friend and not mention it because he already knows it. But if I say to that friend, “next month I’m getting married,” it is certainly going to cause confusion and require elucidation on my part. And unless I’m planning to commit bigamy, why would I make such a statement if in fact I already have a wife?

When he gets to my discussion on Hebrews 9:27-28, Mr. Holding must really have been getting fatigued (nor do I blame him, for his critique has been nothing if not a monumental undertaking, and in a fairly short time, I understand). He completely ignores the alternate translation/meaning I offer for ek deuterou and declares that the “second time” meaning “is THERE in the text,” accusing me of suggesting interpolation, an idea which does not cross my lips. Then he goes on to define the “clear” parallel between the two verses, which turns out to be simply another statement of the way I have presented it, completely lacking the “second time” meaning—and promptly accuses me of “allegory impairment”.

As for his rejoinder to my “Smoking Gun” in 8:4, it doesn’t work, if only because as Holding presents the writer’s meaning, the point is so trivial and so uncritical to the context, that there is no reason why he would have made it. If Jesus had in fact performed a sacrifice on earth—namely on Calvary in his sacrificial death—which is the equivalent to what the high priest now does, what is the point of saying that he wouldn’t do it now that he has reached heaven, since there are priests on earth who do such things?

If the writer had that recent earthly sacrifice in the storehouse of his knowledge, why would that thought not lead him to words which would reflect such a recent presence on earth? Moreover, he goes on in verse 6 to point out that Jesus’ present ministry in heaven is far superior to the earthly one, an idea which takes no account of (and would seem to denigrate) the fact that Jesus recently did have an earthly ministry. Finally, the verses which lead into 8:4 (and it is a major motif of the whole chapter) show that the writer’s point is the assigning of a counterpart role to each of the two parties, the one being superior to the other: Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary, the human priests in the earthly one. Here again is an illustration of my point that writers like that of Hebrews set up Platonic-type analogies and comparisons based on a separation and complementary relationship between the two spheres, and if Jesus had somehow operated in both, the contamination would have destroyed their carefully crafted antitheses and required at least some concrete reference to the discrepancy.

As a last point, I will allow that Mr. Holding’s interpretation of 13:8, while a subtle one, may be valid. If so, it would simply remove the passage from those I would appeal to, though it in no way implies that the writer is speaking of an historical Jesus.

* * * *

Mr. Holding has transferred his articles to another site, called Tekton Ministries. The following link will bring the reader to his section entitled “Rogues Gallery” where he deals with “high-profile skeptics.” My name is part way down the list. I have been granted eight rebuttal articles, plus a reply (August 7) to this response.

As for that reply, Mr. Holding has certainly not mended any of his ways. Indeed, he revels in them, scorning any criticism in that regard. All the objectionable qualities I called attention to in his initial critique here approach biblical proportions, with what some might interpret to be (in his Conclusion) a veiled incitement of his readers to mailbombing. And he still refuses to provide my URL. I have said above and will repeat here, I am not claiming that Mr. Holding has no legitimate arguments to make, but the reasonable mind—at least my own—cannot communicate with, much less debate, his sort of mindset, with its rabid and uncompromising hostility and its inability to grant even the slightest concession. I will make no further reply to him.

One comment I received on the matter said: “You handled Mr. Holding with grace and dignity. Regardless of who scored the most technical points, I much prefer your more civil style of discourse.” Mr. Holding has yet to realize that, even in defense of religious faith, the abandonment of common respect and civilized decorum gets one little hearing, and certainly induces no dialogue. Of course, dialogue is not what he is interested in.