Earl Doherty's Jesus Puzzle Refuted

Update 10/20: Earl Doherty always remained mysterious about his credentials and personal life. As a result, it is impossible to know if he is even still alive at this point. He has published nothing since 2012. His websites, however, remain alive and kicking.

"Has Western society been the victim of the greatest misconception in history?" This is the operative question in one of the largest and most comprehensive arguments advanced in favor of the thesis that Jesus did not exist, as promulgated by one Earl Doherty.

Doherty's work currently occupies well over 400 pages between its various extensions, and comes also in a book form published by a sympathetic organization. The thesis comes as something of a surprise. The standard Skeptical paradigm, that Jesus was a normal human being that somehow became divinized, is here reversed: Rather, it is argued, the spiritual Christ of Paul -- an "entirely divine Son who 'lived' and acted in the spiritual realm" -- was somehow made into a man that walked the earth, and the primary reason to hold this view is said to be the New Testament itself: because the portions outside the Gospels and Acts say little to nothing about the details of the life of Jesus.

This rather radical departure into the Christ-myth signals a need to overcome a significant scholarly consensus. Does the effort succeed? Obviously, since I am still writing apologetics articles, my answer is no.

Let us begin with a few general observations, and then proceed with an accounting of the contents of our reply to Doherty.

It may first be observed that in Doherty we have an author who professes impeccable academic credentials. We will allow Doherty himself to offer the vitae:

My own research in this field goes back 14 years, when I first encountered a serious presentation of the theory in Professor Wells. Although my university training was not in New Testament studies, I have a degree in Ancient History and Classical Languages, giving me a working knowledge of Greek and Latin, which I have supplemented with some of the basics of Hebrew and Syriac. In addition to the New Testament (along with many parts of the Old), I have thoroughly investigated all the non-canonical Christian documents, the 2nd and 3rd century Apologists, all the relevant Jewish Pseudepigrapha of the era together with the Dead Sea scrolls, plus much of Christian and non-Christian Gnosticism. To this I have added a study of Philo of Alexandria, Middle Platonism and other philosophies, relevant ancient historians, Hellenistic mystery cults and the general religious thought of the era...

In prior years, I had been disinclined to doubt these credentials, but since I first wrote this series on The Jesus Puzzle (TJP) in the late 1990s, I have come to decide that I was too generous with Doherty on this account, as these claims are notable for a certain lack in forthrightness. We are not told from what university Doherty obtained this degree in "Ancient History and Classical Languages." Indeed, Doherty does not clearly state what level of degree it is (Masters'? Bachelors'?). Nor are we told what position Doherty holds at present, and whether this professed degree is being used in any way.

In addition, Doherty's websites are not even registered in his own name, but are registered with a Canadian humanist organization. In a strange irony, Doherty -- who makes much of lack of details about the life of Jesus in the NT epistles as evidence for his thesis -- ends up revealing so little of his own life details that, by his own arguments, he ought to be regarded as a mythological figure himself.

But there is more reason to question Doherty's claim to be a credentialed scholar than this: Having much to do with Doherty's decidedly unscholarly methods. Doherty's citation and range of sources is overall rather poor. This situation is better in his "supplementary" articles than it is in the general articles which head his page; even so, it is rather disturbing to find such counter-consensus arguments given comparatively little in the way of supporting documentation, and to so seldom see direct quotations offered.

In addition, Doherty's interaction with opposing points of view is severely limited. Opponents and commentators are as a rule addressed in highly generalized terms, as unfortunately are opinions called upon for support. The dreaded "Most/The majority of scholars say...", "Scholarship says...", and "Scholars like X say..." resurfaces with a vengeance. Who this amalgam of "scholars" is, of course, is seldom mentioned, and thus such introductory formula and the data offered behind them have little authority.

Finally I have also found in some cases that Doherty has badly misreported his source material, and we shall examine those instances in due course.

Here is a listing of our responses.