The 20 Pound Gorilla
[A Pervasive Silence?] [The Lack of Need for References in a High-Context Society] [Familiarity Factors] [Citation Methods] [Overarching Authority of the OT] [Applications to Specific Arguments] [Application: Words of Jesus] ["Disneyland Palestine"]

We move now, having set our foundation, to the core of Earl Doherty's case for a non-historical Jesus. Two introductory paragraphs set the stage for us:

Before Ignatius, not a single reference to Pontius Pilate, Jesus' executioner, is to be found. Ignatius is also the first to mention Mary; Joseph, Jesus' father, nowhere appears. The earliest reference to Jesus as any kind of a teacher comes in 1 Clement, just before Ignatius, who himself seems curiously unaware of any of Jesus' teachings. To find the first indication of Jesus as a miracle worker, we must move beyond Ignatius to the Epistle of Barnabas. Other notable elements of the Gospel story are equally hard to find.
This strange silence on the Gospel Jesus which pervades almost a century of Christian correspondence cries out for explanation. It cannot be dismissed as some inconsequential quirk, or by the blithe observation made by New Testament scholarship that early Christian writers "show no interest" in the earthly life of Jesus. Something is going on here.

This "something" Doherty calls a "conspiracy of silence" - not to suggest an actual conspiracy; he uses the term ironically, he tells us. But our critic's arguments boil down to exactly the sort of complaints we see above: Details he thinks are important are missing in what he considers to be key places. Ergo, they were not true history, and Jesus as a human walking the earth was a fiction.

Now of course we recognize this as an argument from silence, and Doherty admits as much; but he insists that the "silence" is so pervasive, and so far-reaching, that something must indeed be going on here beyond what NT scholars are/have been able to recognize.

But is this truly the case? Could it truly be that this "problem" has existed for centuries and has either been ignored or overlooked by educated NT scholars of all theological persuasions, and it is only the unclouded expertise of Earl Doherty (with his far lesser credentials) that has now uncovered the truth?

We would rightly be suspicious of such an incredible counter-consensus claim; and as it turns out, our suspicion is warranted.

We can now put this in two perspectives. From a strictly modern view, let us ask: How much space do general Western history books give to the Reformation? To Luther? These are works of history, and yet certain things are just taken for granted.

The early Christians, likewise, assuredly did not exist in a first-century vacuum having only a handful of epistles with no personal or geographical connection. They had the apostles or the first generation of successors from the apostles. Is it really assuming too much to say that the early Christians knew of the earthly Jesus and took information about him for granted?

But we may also deliver a coup de grace based on a major difference between our world and the ancient world. Malina and Rohrbaugh note in their Social-Science Commentary on John [16ff] that the NT was written in what anthropologists call a "high-context" society. In such societies people "presume a broadly shared, well-understood, or 'high' knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing." Readers were required and expected to "fill in the gap" because their background knowledge was a given.

In contrast, we in the modern US are a "low-context" society. We assume little or no knowledge of the context of a communication. This is in part because we have so many specialized fields requiring specialized knowledge. Thus we expect background to be given when communication is given between fields. This is in contrast to the ancient world where there was little specialized knowledge.

Malina and Rohrbaugh set forth in summary what we see becomes a stinging indictment of Doherty's methodology: "The obvious problem this creates for reading the biblical writings today is that low-context readers in the United States frequently mistake the biblical writings for low-context documents. They erroneously assume that the author has provided all of the contextual information needed to understand it."

Thus it is that Doherty's theory assumes too much need for things to be mentioned in a world where no such need was known. (We also address Doherty's list of 200 instances of "silence"; see here for that.)

Not "No Interest" But "No Need"

"It cannot be dismissed as some inconsequential quirk, or by the blithe observation made by New Testament scholarship that early Christian writers 'show no interest' in the earthly life of Jesus." As we have seen, it is not a "quirk" at all but the normal functioning of a high-context society that explains this perceived lack. The answer is, indeed, not that there was no interest - rather, the answer is that there was no NEED.

Let us take Doherty's first paragraph above as an example. "Before Ignatius, not a single reference to Pontius Pilate, Jesus' executioner, is to be found."

All right: What of this? Aside from 1 Timothy, which we have already dealt with, why SHOULD there be any reference to Pilate, or to Mary, or to Joseph, or any other person Doherty suggests? The "high context" of the time indicates that the data is already known to the reader; repeat of detail would only occur if some need were present to repeat.

Ignatius had the spectre of docetism hanging over him, and thus a need to refer to historical detail; in what context does Doherty suppose these things ought to have been mentioned by our other writers? Why should Ignatius or anyone else have mentioned Joseph in light of his "non-role" in the conception of Jesus? (He barely makes a cameo appearance in the Gospels and is not mentioned at all in Acts.)

In addition to the high-context nature of the NT documents, here are some other lesser considerations:

The Lack of an Occasion. There are many places in the epistles where no saying or action of Jesus is relevant, such as discussions over circumcision and speaking in tongues, or matters of controversy in the local church. Nor, obviously, is there much need for such references in places like Paul's extensive farewells to the Romans.

Missionary Versus Occasional Preaching. None of the epistles we have from Paul or the other writers are dated earlier than 46-50 AD. Hence it has been anywhere from 13 to 20 years since the time of Jesus, and at least 10 years since any church or person written to has heard the gospel, and been instructed in the words and deeds of Jesus and been socialized into the "in-group". There would of course be new converts who would need instruction, but that would be the job of those in the local church - not our epistle-writers.

Interesting No?

Doherty quotes and highlights by placement Herman Ridderbos' phrase about Paul's significance of Christ as a transcendent being, but ignores a notation by Ridderbos that explains the issue [Ridd.PJs, 51] as I have above, in terms of lack of need. We must ask: Why does Doherty only pick and choose issues to deal with like this?

Now it should be admitted that some scholars are adverse to this argument: Furnish [Wdd.JP, 46], for example, regards this argument as purely conjecture, and against the evidence of these verses where Paul, Furnish surmises, recounts his missionary preaching:

1 Cor. 2:1-2 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

But certainly Furnish here offers no counter to our argument. This is, first of all, an instance of rhetorical brevity in a high-context setting; in the same way we have pointed out in another venue regarding 1 Cor. 15 and Robert Price's arguments about that verse, Paul did not simply ring the doorbell at Corinth and stand there mumbling, "Jesus Christ and him crucified" over and over again.

Furnish further argues that we cannot presuppose Paul's missionary preaching for a church he never visited, in the letter to the Romans; however, we can reasonably assume missionary preaching by some missionary; else, how would the Roman church have started? There had to be SOME sort of groundwork laid prior to all of Paul's letters; even under Doherty's scheme, Paul had to present his case from the very beginning at some point in order to convince the Corinthians to accept this Jesus supposedly in the spiritual world. Otherwise, both we and Doherty have epistle-writers telling people about essential components of their faith, like the Last Supper (1 Cor. 11:23), for the first time.

In this regard, we may call upon Stanton's examination [Stant.JNTP] of the missionary speeches in Acts. Doherty rejects the testimony of Acts out of hand; and admittedly even more reasonable scholars are prone to say that Luke simply invented the speeches in Acts and retrojected later preaching methods upon the Apostles. This argument we regard as baldly circular, for it assumes the very thing that it needs to prove; but let us look at two speeches in particular - Peter's Pentecost speech in Acts 2, and Paul's speech at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13.

For Acts 2, note that Peter appeals to the facts of Jesus as something already known (2:22-4). This is what we would expect, for Peter is in Jerusalem, where the events of Jesus' life, especially his last week prior to the Crucifixion, would already be common knowledge. But note now Paul's extended speech in Acts 13: He offers a great deal of detail to these people who would not have known Jesus.

Thus we argue that, by the time of Paul's letters, this stage that Doherty perceives as being empty had in fact already been set - indeed, by the time Doherty has reached the stage, the play is over, and people have their own recordings to listen to, exactly as we would expect in a "high-context" realm. There was no need for Paul to make reference to the life-details of Jesus or recount his teachings, for that had been done long ago.

Familiarity Factors. In order to explain this aspect, we need an analogy and some personal examples.

Outside my office at the penitentiary library where I worked as the librarian, I had an amusing little sign that read: "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here". Now those of us with a literary background recognize the allusion: It is a line from Dante's Inferno - the sign posted outside the gates of Hell! I did not say on my sign that the allusion is to Dante's Inferno, and those who recognized the allusion did not need to be told where it came from: They already knew! And they also knew what I jokingly implied by placing that sign there: Approaching me for some favor is about as useful as begging at the gates of Hell and asking the devil for an ice cube.

Those who don't know Dante will not appreciate the intent of the sign to the same degree as those who do know Dante. But I did not put the sign there for such persons; I put it there for those who would appreciate the allusion, those who know who Dante is and have some idea what the quote is all about.

But did I need to give a citation, "This quote taken from Dante's Inferno", in order for the quote to be recognized? Of course not. And by the same token, in a high-context world, a context like Dante would be firmly implanted in the mind of the hearer/reader. If anything it would be abnormal to be running over the details again and again.

With this in mind, we are now ready to look at one of Doherty's core objections:

Consider another great silence: on the teachings of Jesus. The first century epistles regularly give moral maxims, sayings, admonitions, which in the Gospels are spoken by Jesus, without ever attributing them to him. The well-known 'Love Your Neighbour,' originally from Leviticus, is quoted in James, the Didache, and three times in Paul, yet none of them points out that Jesus had made this a centrepiece of his own teaching. Both Paul (1 Thess. 4:9) and the writer of 1 John even attribute such love commands to God, not Jesus!

First, a minor corrective: 1 Thess. 4:9 actually says, "Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other." This isn't a reference to a command at all; it is a reference to internal behavior as taught by the indwelling Holy Spirit. (The verb is present in sense and form: The Thessalonians are being taught this NOW.)

More will be said on 1 John below. But to the core of the objection itself, which is oft-repeated in Doherty's writings. Broken down, the argument is this: The epistles contain sayings that match those of Jesus - but since they never are prefaced or qualified by some sort of introductory or crediting formula (like "Jesus said..."), this may be taken as evidence that there is no historical Jesus behind these words.

We have pointed out that there lie behind these epistles many, many years of intimate familiarity, in a high-context setting, with the words and deeds of Jesus. These words and deeds would have been laid as a foundation at the very beginning; they would have been taught, repeated, recited, analyzed, and respected for this entire time. This being the case, why is it a problem if these words are not prefaced with some sort of essentially superfluous formula like, "Jesus said..."?

Even in our low-context world, do Shakespearian experts preface quotes from their conversational letters with "Shakespeare wrote in Othello..." or, "As the bard wrote in The Tempest..."? Do those intimately familiar with the writings of Confucius find it necessary to point out that Confucius said the things they quote from him? Does a patriotic American need to be told that "...all men are created equal" comes from the Declaration of Independence? Do we need to be reminded that Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you..." or that Orwell penned the phrase, "Big Brother is watching you?"

Of course not; as with my Dante quote above, there is absolutely no need for such superfluous introductory formulae, for these are things that are familiar to us, that have been impressed upon our consciousness, often from time immemorial. When words become so well known, they do not need introduction, and in a high-context world the attribution is assumed to be known.

Even today words may become too familiar and trite, of course, and lose something in the process - how many today know that Sextus Propertius (54 BC-2 AD) was the first recorded version-maker of "Absence makes the heart grow fonder?" - but where there is some central figure, such as Shakespeare, Aesop, Muhammed, or Jesus, a figure which becomes important to a particular group in question, the attribution will often simply be taken for granted.

Apply this now to the situation in the NT. Familiarity has already been established for a decade or more by the time Paul and the others have written their epistles; the world is high-context; there is no need for citation formulae. Similarly concerning the biographical details, such as references to Pilate and Mary: These things were known already and hardly needed repeating to the ancients.

If I may anachronize, Doherty's objection here is like someone interrupting in the middle a long conversation about the technical aspects of the Challenger disaster and asking why no one is stopping every once in a while to mention that the incident occurred at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Even today such facts would have been taken for granted long ago in the history of the conversation; how much more so, the "ground rules" of who said and did will have already been long established by the time the epistles were written, and there is no need at all to make the point again - for it was already made at the missionary-preaching stage.

Doherty's arguments re lack of citation and lack of mention of incidental and established details, like Pilate's role, are therefore phantoms. IF some person had expressed doubt about the fact that Jesus was crucified by Pilate (as with Ignatius), then yes, there would be cause for Paul to say something - but that is decidedly not the kind of problem that Paul and his associates are dealing with.

And here's one more point by Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend [229] -- the author of Acts (Luke) clearly believes in a historical Jesus, and has a collection of Jesus' sayings -- but Acts is quite clearly lacking in its use of the Jesus tradition!

Response to Quotation. In some cases, we might suggest for Paul particularly that he does not use the Jesus-tradition because it is being quoted TO him, and he is responding to it - and in that case, simply quoting back doesn't make a lot of sense. An example of this may be found in 1 Cor. 13:2 -

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

The second phrase of this verse brings to mind a saying of Jesus in Matthew 21:21 and parallels:

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that Paul is responding to some use of this saying by the Corinthians - who are perhaps, in line with Paul's response, ignoring love in favor of faith.

Methods and Use of Citation

We know, and Doherty agrees, that words attributed in the Gospels to Jesus are found in some form in the Epistolary writings, though without introductory formulae. Is this in any way unusual? Not at all, and we demonstrate this with two sub-aspects:

The way in which Jesus' words are used are much the same as the way in which the epistle writers use the Old Testament.

It is indisputable that Paul and the other epistle-writers regarded the OT as an authority - and this is a factor which shall come into play in other ways as well. But let us simply look for the moment at the actual methodology of the use of the OT and see if it can offer us any insight into the use of the words of Jesus.

It would be a mistake to assume (as Doherty essentially does) that ancient writers were subject to our same precision-methods of citation and reference. "(M)odern scruples about exact quotation...did not obtain in antiquity." [Gamb.BREC, 56]. There were no quotation marks or footnotes at this time. There were no copyright laws. Quotations were seldom exact, and were often done by memory, because documents were relatively rare and inaccessible and it could be a royal pain to look up a citation in a document.

So how did people of this time - notably for our case, Jews - make their citations? The use of the OT in particular provides us with our example. Most see at least three categories of OT reference: Quotations proper, allusions (intentional and casual), and thematic references [Ell.PUOT, 3]. We will only deal with the first two directly.

First to the direct quotations. Paul's use of the OT strikes the eye as rather unbalanced. Most of his OT cites are found in our first four epistles: Romans, Galatians, and the Corinthian correspondence. Depending on who you ask, the total varies. Ellis [Ell.PUOT, 11] finds as many as 93 quotes in Paul; for the NT as a whole, including the Gospels and Acts, Shires [Shir.FOTN, 151n] finds 437 quotes, 78 of these in Paul.

The question is: How does Paul cite these quotes? How many times does he make an "attribution" of these quotes? The answer is: In the way that Doherty requires, very seldom. Of these quotes, in perhaps only a DOZEN cases does Paul give the name of the person who wrote the selected quote (e.g., Isaiah, David). Most of the cites are prefaced with a remark of more general nature, such as "Scripture says..." or "It is written..." In a few cases Paul merely offers a quote with no formula whatsoever.

This being the case, why should we think it anomalous that Paul or any other writer does not use some sort of introductory formula (IF) to introduce words of Jesus? (Elsewhere, in Hebrews, a human author is adduced only twice! Even Philo, who was a believer in "mechanical" inspiration, only occasionally mentions a human author [ibid., 24], which suggests a paradigm of not highlighting the human aspect of Scripture. For the NT as a whole, Shires indicates that 239 of the those 437 quotes have IF of some sort, while 198 do not; of those 239, a human author of some sort is credited less than 30 times.)

But this is not all. Paul and the other writers also make an incredible number of allusions (not direct quotes) to OT sayings and events - again, how many depends on who you ask. (Ellis [Ell.PUOT, 48ff] finds 108 OT allusions between the thirteen Pauline letters. Shires [ibid.] finds over a thousand allusions in the NT as a whole.) But do these writers even once indicate where these allusions come from?

No - they do not. Revelation, for example, is chock full of allusions to the OT; but does the writer of that book even once say, "This is from the book of Joe" or even "Scripture says" for that matter? Not at all: Rather, this writer "expects his readers to recognize his vast numbers of allusions to the Old Testament, even though he at no point explicitly indicates that he is using the Old Testament." [Wenh.PFJ, 407] Can we then argue that the author of Revelation did not know of an OT, or that he did not believe that the OT books were written to those to whom they were attributed?

The book of James is heavily indebted to Proverbs, Ben Sira, and Pseudo-Solomon [With.JSg, 237]; Paul in Romans owes a debt to the Wisdom of Solomon; the theological arguments in Galatians and Romans assume knowledge of the OT books in question, and the NT as a whole can be said to depend on Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, 2 Esdras, three of the Maccabeean books, Enoch, the Psalms of Solomon, and the Assumption of Moses. But do we see a single citation to any of these works and/or their human authors? The closest we get is Jude's attributions to Enoch. Obviously, making an allusion to the OT or even other works did not require a citation or credit of any sort - much less an explicit citation.

Let us apply this now to the words of Jesus, starting with direct quotes. We first may wish to ask whether there are indeed any direct quotes of Jesus, or something that may be considered close to a direct quote. Obviously there are the "words of the Lord" that Paul refers to regarding missionary support and divorce; what of these? Doherty has this answer:

In passing, it must be noted that those half-dozen "words of the Lord" which Paul puts forward as guides to certain practices in his Christian communities are not from any record of earthly pronouncements by Jesus. It is a recognized feature of the early Christian movement that charismatic preachers like Paul believed themselves to be in direct communication with the spiritual Christ in heaven, receiving from him instruction and inspiration.

This is far from being what Doherty needs it to be. There is no evidence that Christian "prophets" put words of the Risen Christ in the mouth of the earthly one, though it is fashionable in form-critical circles to think so. As it is, Doherty here merely assumes the very thing he needs to prove: That these words referred to by Paul were indeed of the alleged "spiritual Christ in heaven."

In any event, direct quotes from Jesus are indeed so few in number that no conclusions may be viably reached. We may suggest that direct citation formulae would be limited by certain factors: An obvious one is that the words of Jesus were likely to have been transmitted, in the main, orally during this period, whereas of course the OT had been in writing for nearly a millennium at this point - which fits in nicely with the type of IF used for the OT, which often make reference using the literary terms "Scripture" or "It is written". These OT formulae were well-established by rabbinic practices and derived from a written document; on the other hand, the oral teachings of Jesus were obviously not memorized with IFs. Jesus himself would not have prefaced his own words with "Jesus said..." and so it is doubtful that his followers would have memorized his words that way, either.

But there is a far more important aspect to consider, and that is that the overwhelming majority of what is found in the epistles in terms of the Jesus-tradition does not consist of direct quotes at all, but rather, of allusions - and this is where we get into our next aspect:

What we find in the epistles is exactly what we would expect if the Jesus tradition had been in existence for 20 years or more, especially in a high-context world.

A key here is that the epistle-writers do not, with rare exceptions, offer what we would recognize as direct quotes of Jesus; rather, what we find are mostly allusions to the words of Jesus. This is indeed a key point: We have noted that allusions to the OT do not have IFs, and so we would not expect IFs of any sort for allusions to Jesus' words either, and Doherty is taking illicit advantage of a literary methodology and reading into it a case for non-historicity.

But what has happened, first of all, that allusions have supremacy over direct quotes?

What we see in the use of the words of Jesus, especially by Paul, may be expressed in terms of a number of dichotomies. We must recall that Paul in particular, and to a certain extent the other epistle-writers, were engaged in writing to people "whose situation and problems are miles away (literally and metaphorically) from the situation addressed by Jesus in his teaching." [Wenh.PFG, 407] Therefore, it is not surprising to see certain adaptations made in the Jesus-tradition, in accordance with the following:

So we have some established dichotomies here - a number of ways in which the Jesus tradition would have been developed by Jesus' later followers operating in a different social context. Apply this general principle now to a specific objection by Doherty, who says that Paul seems "ignorant of Jesus' stance in regard to the cleanness of foods." I must assume here (since he has given no cite) that Doherty means here Romans 14:14, 20 ("As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean...Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble."), and he wonders why there is no reference to what is said in Mark 7:19 (" 'For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.' [In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean.'] He went on: 'What comes out of a man is what makes him "unclean".' ")

Quite simply, we are dealing with apples and oranges here: Aside from the fact that Paul's reference would qualify as an allusion to the teaching in Mark 7:19 (and hence, require no IF), the issue is no longer clean or unclean foods per se, as regarded by the Jewish law, but meat sacrificed to idols - an issue that Jesus NEVER addressed. In fact, what Paul is doing here is applying Jesus' words to a new context, in good rabbinic fashion - it is an example of the Jewish/Gentile dichotomy in operation.

We now divert to establish our third factor, which we will go over in detail here alone:

The Overarching Authority of God and the Old Testament

Jesus = God. We may now get back to Doherty's objection concerning 1 John. "The well-known 'Love Your Neighbour,' originally from Leviticus, is quoted in James, the Didache, and three times in Paul, yet none of them points out that Jesus had made this a centrepiece of his own teaching. Both Paul (1 Thess. 4:9) and the writer of 1 John even attribute such love commands to God, not Jesus!"

Again, we must assume (lacking a direct citation) what Doherty means here - perhaps 1 John 3:21ff, which says, "Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us."

Now of course since this command appears in Leviticus, 1 John is certainly not incorrect here; but why has there been no attribution to Jesus?

The answer should be obvious: As Johannine theology explicitly equates Jesus with God, and refers to Jesus as God's Logos, then obviously - expressed in terms of the Johannine Father/Son christology - even if these words did come from Jesus' mouth, they in fact ought to be attributed to God. Thus, John tells us in his Gospel that Jesus says:

5:19 Jesus gave them this answer: "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does."

Note that this does not apply ontological inferiority to Jesus, as some cultists suggest.

14:10 "Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work."

And, of course, John 10:30 - "I and the Father are one." As we have noted elsewhere, this is referenced in the neuter singular. Jesus and Father are not one Person but instead are one "thing", one essence, homo-ousios, consubstantial, etc.

Elsewhere Doherty asks, "When Hebrews talks of the 'voice' of Christ today (1:2f, 2:11, 3:7, 10:5), why is it all from the Old Testament?" Now this objection, I must point out, has been rather poorly formulated; one would hope for a more clear explanation of why these cites are problematic. But the argument seems to be that words are attributed to Jesus that are actually from the OT, and this would seem to indicate a Jesus who did not walk the earth.

Now if this is indeed the argument, then not all four of the cites above serve as proof. 1:2 offers no cite from the OT; an OT cite begins at 1:5 and is not attributed to Christ. 3:7 attributes an OT quote to the Holy Spirit, not Christ. 2:11 and 10:5, however, would serve this argument well, but where then is the problem? Once again, if Jesus is regarded as the incarnate Logos, then he WAS the OT - the Word of Yahweh - incarnate. Even Paul calls Christ "the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24) and thus it is no surprise if we find him also making direct attributions to the Father. He makes Christ's subservience quite clear.

Incidentally, there is a bit of a parallel here in the use of the OT as well. Paul uses the "says the Lord" formula to quote the OT in 1 Cor. 14:21 - even though the speaker is Isaiah, not the Lord. Similarly, in Rom. 9:17 he says that "Scripture says to Pharaoh..." even though that was obviously not the case, and in Gal. 3:8 likewise he tells us Scripture announced the gospel in advance to Abraham.

The Authority of the OT. We will not be engaging this matter directly here, as we have dealt with it in a different way elsewhere. Doherty engages the same argument as Crossan does in regards to Scripture-searching Christians who made up history after the fact:

God had promised this gospel beforehand, or announced it: both are valid translations of the Greek proepaggelo. (The root of the verb is the same as the word for "angel", God's "announcer" and messenger.) This gospel had been announced in scripture, in the holy writings of the prophets. This is where Paul has gotten his gospel about the Son. It was all there ahead of time, encoded by God into the writings, awaiting Paul's discovery. God in scripture had looked ahead-not to Jesus, but to the gospel that told of him.

We have pointed out elsewhere that this is decidedly not the way Jewish exegesis operated, but we will add this in context of our new critic: Why indeed the constant appeal to the OT?

The answer is that the OT was indeed the overarching authority in all matters concerning the Jews. It "possesse(d) an objective and fixed reality" [Shir.FOTN, 26] that formed the center of Jewish thinking and permeated it completely. If Paul wanted to make a credible case for Jesus as the Messiah, he had to show that Jesus and the Gospel message were supported by the OT. If he did not do this, then he would not even get a hearing. At the same time, if Jesus had done something that contradicted the OT flatly (i.e., had he ridden into Jerusalem on a jeep rather than on a donkey), then there was no way that he could have been accepted as Messiah. As Shires [ibid., 39] puts it, the prospective Jewish convert:

...could understand the newness of Christianity only over against the background of their inherited faith. The significance of the coming of Jesus could be portrayed at first only in direct relationship to the Scriptures. There was no other framework in which he could be placed.

In this respect we can again hearken back to the missionary speeches in Acts. Peter's initial speech in Acts 2, and Paul's speech in Acts 13, are peppered with OT references that are called upon for authority. Peter and Paul knew how to get the attention of their countrymen, and knew that they would not accept the Christian faith WITHOUT some backing from the OT. (Note also that the Bereans searched the OT for confirmation.)

Application: A Review of the Arguments

With these three factors established, we may now expose Doherty's several specific arguments as fallacious. We will divide his arguments into two sections according to our factors listed above. (There will be no need to provide any further specific examples for the third factor.)

No Need

Appeals such as this one make up by far the largest part of Doherty's objections. We will deal with 13 of them as exemplary.

1. When Paul, in Romans 8:26, says that 'we do not know how we are to pray,' does this mean he is unaware that Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer to his disciples?

Answer: Let's look at our two cites:

Rom. 8:23-6 “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
Matt. 6:5-9 "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name...'"

As we have said before, even little words make a difference! Paul is talking about what(tis) we are to pray for. Jesus is talking about how (houto) we should pray. As even the context of each remark shows, Paul is talking about content; Jesus is talking about method. This is an apples and oranges question.

2. Nor is there any reference in the epistles to Jesus as the Son of Man, despite the fact that the Gospels are full of this favourite self-designation of Jesus. This apocalyptic figure, taken from the Book of Daniel (7:13), appears in a cluster of Christian and Jewish sectarian documents around the late first century, including the Gospels, where Jesus declares himself to be the one who will arrive at the End-time on the clouds of heaven to judge the world and establish the Kingdom. It seems inconceivable that Paul, with all his preoccupation about the imminent End (see 1 Thessalonians 4, for example) would either be unaware of Jesus' declared role as the Son of Man, or choose to ignore it.

Answer: Well, there is only one reference to Jesus as "Son of Man" in the book of Acts, so one wonders why this must be perceived as a problem anyway - it would seem to suggest that the title was one used overwhelmingly of Jesus in his ministry, and that it was voluntarily dropped in missionary preaching. We have pointed out here that the title would not be well-comprehended by Gentile readers, so that it may have been discarded as part of a Jewish/Gentile or past/present dichotomy modification. As Riesenfeld [Ries.GT, 48] explains:

In the situation of the church the term became superfluous. For the mystery of the Son of Man had been succeeded by the witness about Jesus Christ, his incarnation, suffering, and resurrection.

Even so, it may not be entirely true that the Son of Man concept is missing from the epistles. Hebrews 2:5-8 applies the term "son of man" (as found in the Psalms) to Jesus; 1 Cor. 15:27 is an allusion that applies a prophecy about the Danielic Son of Man to Jesus; 1 Cor. 6:2 is probably an allusion to Daniel 7, as is perhaps Phil. 2:7's "made in human likeness" an allusion to Daniel 7:13's "one like a son of man." At the same time, Paul's extensive Adam-christology passages are remarkably similar to Daniel's son of man figure: Both make use of "representative figures" to make their points.

3,4...(T)he silence extends beyond individual pronouncements to Jesus' ministry as a whole, and it is nowhere more startling than in Romans 10. Paul is anxious to show that the Jews have no excuse for failing to believe in Christ and gaining salvation, for they have heard the good news about him from appointed messengers like Paul himself, and he contrasts the unresponsive Jews with the Gentiles who welcomed it. Surely Paul has left out the glaringly obvious! For the Jews-or at least some of them-had supposedly rejected that message from the very lips of Jesus himself, whereas the Gentiles had believed second-hand. In verse 18 Paul asks dramatically: "But can it be they never heard it (i.e., the message)?" How could he fail to highlight his countrymen's spurning of Jesus' very own person? Yet, all he refers to are the apostles, who, like himself have "preached to the ends of the earth."

Answer: Actually, the point of Romans 10 for Paul is NOT to "show that the Jews have no excuse for failing to believe in Christ and gaining salvation" - it is to express the notion that there will be a remnant that will come to believe! Furthermore, the gospel mission of salvation is NOT "that message from the very lips of Jesus" AT ALL! Jesus' focus during his ministry was on the coming Kingdom of God. The gospel message of Paul and the epistle-writers was a result of the crucifixion and the resurrection. (Romans 10 itself, I have argued elsewhere, has to do with general revelation; this makes Doherty's argument even more irrelevant.) Doherty's objection here rests upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the context of Jesus' and Paul's remarks.

Then in Romans 11, Paul goes on to compound this incredible silence by describing the extent of Israel's rejection, wherein he quotes Elijah's words from 1 Kings about the Jews' alleged habit (actually an unfounded myth) of killing their own prophets. Yet Paul fails to add to this record the culminating atrocity of the killing of the Son of God himself!

Re the "alleged habit/unfounded myth" - one wonders how Doherty can make this assertion, especially in light of the record of persecution against reformers throughout human history, religious or otherwise. There is nothing implausible about the notion of the Jews killing their own prophets.

Even so, Doherty has again missed the point: Romans 11 is, like Romans 10, focused on the matter of the believing remnant. Paul does quote Elijah's words, but he then goes on to quote God's reply to Elijah about the seven thousand God has reserved for Himself - and that leads to the central point about the remnant of Israel that will be chosen by grace. (We might suggest that the rejection of Jesus is indeed at the back of the whole argument and hardly needs to be delineated. But even so, the issue is that the Jews have rejected the Risen Christ and the message of salvation that comes of him - this, again, is not the same message as the one preached by Jesus!)

5. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is anxious to convince his readers that humans can be resurrected from the dead. Why then does he not point to any traditions that Jesus himself had raised several people from the dead? Where is Lazarus?

Answer: Paul is NOT "anxious to convince his readers that humans can be resurrected from the dead" (one wonders how Doherty knows that Paul was in a state of anxiety here!), but was trying to explain to the Corinthians the nature of the resurrection body. None of the people that Jesus raised from the dead (Lazarus included) had a resurrection body; only Jesus had that, and Paul directly alludes to that example when he delineates the resurrection appearances. Lazarus et al. are not relevant here.

6. No first century epistle even mentions that Jesus performed miracles. In some cases the silence is striking. Both Colossians and Ephesians view Jesus as the Saviour whose death has rescued mankind from the demonic powers who were believed to pervade the world, causing sin, disease and misfortune. But not even in these letters is there any mention of the healing miracles that the Gospels are full of, those exorcisms which would have shown that Jesus had conquered such demons even while he was on earth.

Answer: Generally speaking, however, we would suggest that Jesus' miracle-working abilities were taken for granted and hardly needed discussion, unless someone expressed doubt over them. But what of the more specific (albeit still far too generalized) notion that the two named books ought to have said something?

It would be helpful here if Doherty would give us some notion of where and how Jesus' miracle-working capabilities ought to be introduced. As he has not condescended to be so specific, I, too, will only generalize by saying that I see no reason for any of Jesus' miracles to be mentioned in either book. At the same time, since Paul tells us that miracles are among the signs of a true apostle (2 Cor. 12:11-2), and if he tells us that the "lawless one" would come with false miracles as a sign (2 Thess. 2:9), it is certainly not too much of an inference to suppose that he thought Jesus Christ was also capable of performing miracles.

7. As for Jesus' great appointment of Peter as the "rock" upon which his church is to be built, no one in the first century (including the writers of 1 and 2 Peter) ever quotes it or uses it in the constant debates over authority.

Answer: The question here is: Who SHOULD be quoting it, and why? Certainly Paul has no reason to quote it, since he is interested in defending HIS authority when the matter comes up - not Peter's, which is hardly at issue.(Although it has been suggested that his use of "Cephas" to refer to Peter reflects his knowledge of the "rock" incident. On the other hand, the point may be moot: It is often thought that it is Peter's confession, not Peter himself, who is the "rock" upon which the church is to be built, or perhaps the very fact that Jesus is the Messiah that is the "rock".)

Assuming, however, the first interpretation, only 1 and 2 Peter (as Doherty alludes) may be reasonably expected to contain any reference to this incident. But again, why should they? In neither epistle is authority so much as a shadow of an issue. Indeed, 2 Peter, whoever Doherty wishes to say wrote it, would seem to indicate that the two major "authority figures" of Peter and Paul had put their disagreements behind them. WHY should the incident come up at all as Doherty suggests?

8. No first century epistle, even when discussing Christian baptism, ever mentions either Jesus' own baptism or the figure of John the Baptist. 1 Clement 17:1 speaks of those who heralded the Messiah's coming, but includes only Elijah, Elisha and Ezekiel.

Answer: Re baptism - there was again no need to mention it. Jesus' baptism was done by John, who offered baptism as a sign of repentance. Christian baptism is not for repentance per se, but a representation of joining with Christ and a symbol of his resurrection. The two baptisms were done for two different purposes, with John's baptism looking ahead to the coming Messiah whereas the Christian baptism looked back to the completed work of Jesus.

As for 1 Clement, the passage in question, like Hebrews (which the passage alludes to) is focusing exclusively on OT figures. John would be more than a little out of place in that set.

9. The arch-betrayer Judas never appears, not even in a passage like Hebrews 12:15 where the author, in cautioning against the poisonous member in the community's midst, offers the figure of Esau as an example, who "sold his inheritance for a single meal." Surely selling the Son of God for thirty pieces of silver would have been a far more dramatic comparison!

Answer: Well, we may first ask whether our writer was indeed concerned with being "dramatic" - this is after all a serious and sober epistle. We may also ask whether Judas would have been an appropriate topic to bring up where it might have been equivalent to bringing up, say, Charles Manson in a conversation.

But in the end, it makes no difference. Judas offers no example here in any case, for: 1) The writer of Hebrews has been using OT figures as examples throughout his work - the use of Esau is in line with his paradigm, whereas Judas would not be; 2) the point with Esau is the rejection of a covenant (v. 17ff) - Judas did not reject a covenant; indeed, what motives he did have are rather murky to us, and at the very least we have no basis upon which to say that he would have been an appropriate example for the writer of Hebrews, much less can we assert that he would have been a better example than Esau in this case.

10. Hebrews also contains (9:20f) a stunning silence on Jesus' establishment of the Christian Eucharist. The writer is comparing the old covenant with the new, but not even the quoted words of Moses at the former's inauguration: "this is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined upon you," can entice him to mention that Jesus had established the new covenant at a Last Supper, using almost identical words, as Mark 14:24 and parallels record. He goes further in chapter 13 when he adamantly declares that Christians do not eat a sacrificial meal.

Answer: Re 9:20 - Doherty is again comparing apples with oranges. Jesus did not establish the covenant at the Supper; he established a symbol for the upcoming act of establishment. The parallel for Moses' actions would not be the Supper, but the Crucifixion, which the writer of Hebrews does indeed go on to talk about. The Supper is not relevant here.

Re Ch. 13 - Since Doherty has yet again failed to provide a direct citation, I cannot say what he is talking about - I see not a single place where the writer of Hebrews says such a thing. The closest possible reference is vv. 9-10 -

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

- which in no way contradicts the Eucharist, except perhaps as interpreted by some who hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation.

11. Indeed, a figure like Pilate, who delivered this innocent Jesus up to scourging and execution, seems far from Paul's mind when he says (Romans 13:3-4) in a general defense of the secular authority: "Rulers hold no terrors for them who do right . . . (the ruler) is the minister of God for your own good."

Answer: Indeed so, and for good reason: Jesus before Pilate is a very "poor" example of submitting to secular authority. Jesus openly and freely broke Roman law; he admitted to that which the Romans considered seditious.

12. Read passages like Romans 16:25, Colossians 1:25-27, Ephesians 3:5-10 and ask yourself where is Jesus' role in disclosing God's long-hidden secret and plan for salvation? Why, in 2 Corinthians 5:18, is it Paul who has been given the ministry of reconciliation between man and God, and not Jesus in his ministry?

Reading these first three passages listed, we find that they all refer (the first indirectly, the last two directly) to Paul's mission to the Gentiles and THEIR salvation - an issue which was not relevant during Jesus' ministry (cf. Matt. 15:24). The only sign in the Gospels that Jesus conceived of a ministry to the Gentiles is the commission of Matt. 28:19. Most critics dismiss this verse as inauthentic, but even so, assuming for our purposes that it is authentic and without arguing the point, it hardly contains any sort of explicit plan of salvation of the sort Paul brings forth.

As for 2 Cor. 5:18, the matter is perhaps fairly the same, assuming that Paul is referring to his own ministry to the Gentiles; but even if he is not, Jesus' ministry was, again, not one of reconciliation at all. Jesus offered no plan of salvation in the Sermon on the Mount.


13. The agency of all recent activity seems to be God, not Jesus. Paul speaks of "the gospel of God", "God's message". It is God appealing and calling to the Christian believer. 2 Corinthians 5:18 tells us that "from first to last this has been the work of God" (New English Bible translation). In Romans 1:19 the void is startling. Paul declares: "All that may be known of God by men...God himself has disclosed to them." Did Jesus not disclose God, were God's attributes not visible in Jesus?

Answer: And so again, as noted before, Jesus as God's Son and God's Word, is not the originating principle - God is. And what of the "startling" void in Romans 1:19? Since Paul here is in the middle of an argument about natural theology, this is hardly the place for any reference to God revealed in any way through Jesus. One may as well ask why there is no reference to God being revealed on Mt. Sinai.

In conclusion: Doherty has in every case failed to show relevance for mention of the details he thinks "oughtta be" mentioned.

Citation Methods

Doherty tells us that "examples could be multiplied by the dozen" of places where a lack of credit to Jesus provides evidence for his theory; but it ends up that we are offered an incredibly small number of specific examples.

1.When the writer of 1 Peter urges, 'do not repay wrong with wrong, but retaliate with blessing,' has he forgotten Jesus' 'turn the other cheek'?

Answer: Not at all. Here we have not a direct quote of Jesus, but an allusion to Jesus' teaching - hence, in line with the practice of alluding to the OT, there is no call for a direct citation like, "As Jesus said..."

2, 3. Romans 12 and 13 is a litany of Christian ethics, as is the Epistle of James and parts of the 'Two Ways' instruction in the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas; but though many of these precepts correspond to Jesus' Gospel teachings, not a single glance is made in his direction.

Answer: First to Romans 12 and 13. Indeed many of these "correspond" to the teachings of Jesus; but not ONE is a direct quote. The closest we get is Romans 12:14 -

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Which is close to a small part of Matt. 5:43ff -

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?

- but is obviously not a direct quote, and is obviously not applied in the same way. Jesus offers this command in the context of the demands of the Law; Paul gives the precept as part of a list of behavioral precepts for ALL men, and to a church in the middle of Gentile society. This is an example of what we have suggested earlier: Paul has taken the words of Jesus and, in typical rabbinic fashion, used them to create his own presentation - sort of like a modern preacher.

The same may be said of other allusions to Gospel teachings - compare Rom. 12:18//Mk. 9:50; Rom. 13:7//Matt. 17:25, 22:17, 21. In the latter case especially it is probable that Paul has taken a teaching of Jesus directly suited for a Jewish context and re-applied it as a principle in a more general and Gentile context.

We will pass over the Didache and Barnabas for the present, since Doherty is not specific. What about James? Once again, we are dealing with allusions, not direct quotes. Compare Matt. 5:19 -

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

- with James 2:10 -

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.

These are conceptually similar, but they are not the same in words. James could be seen as an exposition upon the words of Jesus, but there is obviously not a direct quote. And thus again: According to the parameters set down for allusion to the OT (as indeed James often does allude to the OT and wisdom literature, but never once makes a crediting citation), there are no grounds for expecting a "glance" or a nod in Jesus' direction. "James is handling the Jesus tradition as though it were proverbial wisdom." [With.JSg, 266]

4. Paul tells his readers: "the time we live in will not last long," and "you know the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night." But can Paul be truly unaware that Jesus himself had made almost identical apocalyptic predictions, as recorded in passages like Mark 13:30 and Matthew 24:42?

Answer: Actually, when Paul says "you know", it is generally taken to mean that the Thessalonians know that Jesus taught just such a thing. But again, we have here an allusion rather than a direct quote. Jesus is not recorded as using the words "like a thief in the night" - rather, this is Paul's allusion to sayings like this:

Matt. 24:43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. (par. Luke 12:39)

Like the parable of the ten virgins, we are on thoroughly Jewish cultural grounds. It would hardly serve Paul as well to make use of this specific parable in a Gentile context, lest he have to go on to explain Jewish wedding customs for his readers. Once again, we see a dichotomy of modification in action, which, along with the rules for use of OT allusions, gives us our answer.


Excursus: Disneyland Palestine

We would like to close by dealing with an issue that is unique in a sense. It is actually a "no need" issue, but because Doherty regards this as a "glaring omission which no one, to (his) knowledge, has ever even remarked on," we would like to bring special attention to it. His objection, in brief and in detail, is:

Where are the holy places?
In all the Christian writers of the first century, in all the devotion they display about Christ and the new faith, not one of them ever expresses the slightest desire to see the birthplace of Jesus, to visit Nazareth his home town, the sites of his preaching, the upper room where he held his Last Supper, the tomb: where he was buried and rose from the dead. These places are never mentioned! Most of all, there is not a hint of pilgrimage to Calvary itself, where humanity's salvation was consummated. How could such a place not have been turned into a shrine?
Even Paul, this man so emotional, so full of insecurities, who declares (Phil. 3:10) that "all I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings," even he seems immune to the lure of such places. Three years were to pass following his conversion before he made even a short visit to Jerusalem. And this-so he tells us in Galatians-merely to "get to know" Peter; and he was not to return there for another 14 years.
Is it conceivable that Paul would not have wanted to run to the hill of Calvary, to prostrate himself on the sacred ground that bore the blood of his slain Lord? Surely he would have shared such an intense emotional experience with his readers! Would he not have been drawn to the Gethsemane garden, where Jesus was reported to have passed through the horror and the self-doubts that Paul himself had known? Would he not have gloried in standing before the empty tomb, the guarantee of his own resurrection? Is there indeed, in this wide land so recently filled with the presence of the Son of God, any holy place at all, any spot of ground where that presence still lingers, hallowed by the step, touch or word of Jesus of Nazareth? Neither Paul nor any other first century letter writer breathes a whisper of any such thing.

This argument has perhaps never been remarked upon because it operates upon several basic errors in presumption:

  1. That Paul and the other writers did indeed have a desire to visit these sites. Doherty assumes to know a great deal about Paul's personal psychology here, which is bad enough; but how does he know that Paul wanted to do these things? I personally have no desire to visit these sites, and I hardly think myself less indebted to Christ than Paul was.

    Indeed, what Doherty argues here more or less imposes a 20th century view of materialism upon 1st century persons for whom:

    • Traveling for the purpose of sightseeing was a virtually unknown activity, indeed was considered deviant behavior unless you had a specific reason to travel (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 37), and traveling itself was very dangerous, and was generally reserved (such as it was) for the very rich, of whom Paul was not one, who preferred sporting events to anything else;

    • Within the context of the Jewish belief system, visiting sacred sites was not a typical mode of operation - we do know of monuments and shrines of a sort that were set up at places where God was said to have acted (as noted in the OT), but we do not hear of tour groups in the 1st century traveling to Mt. Sinai to see where Moses got the covenant; nor do we hear of special visits to the valley where the sun stood still for Joshua, or to Jericho where the Jews' greatest ancient military victory occurred, or to the place where Ahab got his just desserts, or where the patriarchs were buried, or where Elijah raised the widow's son.

      Such places were certainly known (e.g., Jacob's well) and visited on pilgrimages (highly sacred experiences not intended for common conversation), but the idea that there would be some sort of monument or desire to take the grand tour and visit these places comes of a purely 20th century notion of the sacred attached to the material.

    • Most of the sites in question would be either quite familiar anyway - and some would also be inaccessible; Golgotha was very likely used by the Romans for even more crucifixions later on! They certainly had no sense of the "sacredness" of the site!

    • The absence of a shrine at the site of Jesus' tomb is itself a pointer towards the resurrection, since had the body still been present, there would be more desire to visit. (See a note on this point here.)
  2. That they did not, granting their desire, indeed visit these sites, and:
  3. That they would take time to mention it in their writings. The key, of course, is not for Doherty, "Did they visit these sites?" but "Why didn't they talk about it?" Well, again, WHY should they? Paul was not writing travelogues (a quite distinct genre in this time, by the way); he was writing epistles to people who had serious problems of their own, needed answers to their questions, and had no reason to want or need to hear about Paul's personal travels, and in the high-context ancient world would not have expected such detail to have been repeated anyway.

    The rhetorical principle of brevity in writing certainly comes into play here. Furthermore, one might suppose, under Doherty's thesis, that Paul would want to visit the site of his "revelation" of Christ, or where he had his first convert, etc. but do we see any place where Paul talks about how he enjoyed his trip back to Damascus or any other place?

    Finally, of course, we note that the "loss" of perspective on such sites was no doubt helpfully disintegrated by the destruction of Jerusalem and the spread of Christianity to the Gentile world. Barring expensive and dangerous travel, there was little in the way of capability for the large majority of Christians to visit Jerusalem; this situation would not change much until Christians themselves took over the Empire, and at that point, we have Christians of a Gentile background whose own history was one soaked in the material representations of deity, in contrast to the Jews who became Christians. The wholesale reverence of places was the first step which eventually led to such atrocities as icons and indulgences.

Feedback Response

I wrote this article nearly a decade ago. Since then I keep abreast of what is going on over at Doherty's website, and the November 2001 feedback section features a response from a Doherty reader named William who seems quite upset about "the number of new churches being built in this state" which he hopes is not an indication of "returning to the mentality of the Middle Ages." However, he moves on to what he supposes to be "the most obvious point of this whole discussion" which "has yet to be touched." And that is?

There is today not one Christian minister, pastor, evangelist or whatever claimant, that is not pumping out monstrously elaborated passion narratives to whet the appetite of followers and entice new converts. There is a passion narrative war going on out there. My church has more passion than yours. Follow me, good soldiers.
Sermons on the birth, apocalypse, crucifixion, resurrection, parables, beatitudes, life after death, etc., etc., are raining down on the Christians of today. These passions are the glue of Christianity. It is what holds Christians to their faith! It is the most powerful weapon in their arsenal. It is preached relentlessly and repetitively in their mantra of prayer. One cannot walk into a modern day church without being visually bombarded by passion images. In most cases, you don't have to go inside. The Easter story is repeated and acted out year after year. The same story is told over and over even though (according to J. P.) "there is no need for these details to be revisited. They are already known. There is absolutely no need for repetition."

Thus William supposes, "How absurd to think and imply that Paul and other epistle writers in their efforts of conversion would not use these weapons if they were available in THEIR arsenal."

I have to wonder what churches this person has entered; none of the churches I have attended have been pumping out passion narratives (monstrously elaborated, or otherwise); commentary on such is generally limited to Easter, when indeed there are new converts around. Nor have I seen "bombardments" of "passion images" anywhere in my fellowship. Not even in our hymnals, as I have shown.

But let's just assume that I'm the odd man out here and that our critic is right. Actually, he is wrong in two facets.

First, as noted, we are a "low-context" world and such repetition is exactly what we need to do, and do best.

Second, and relatedly, he has provided the rebuttal to his own point within his argument. The key word is "new converts" -- our critic apparently thinks that, as today, churches in the first century were places where potential converts came to find out what was going on. Nothing could be further from the truth in these terms of the actual picture in the first century. The churches of Paul, James, and John were composed of those already converted who assembled mostly in private homes. A sermon or a teaching "open to the public" wasn't in the paradigm. Evangelization at this stage took place (as it did for Paul) in personal encounters: in marketplaces, in shops, and in synagogue assemblies -- i.e., foreign territory.

The letters of Paul and the Epistle writers were addressed exclusively to believers in a high-context setting -- not to potential converts, and not to audiences containing potential converts. As Doherty failed to distinguish between evangelization and instruction, so does William; as Doherty anachronizes modern church conditions and social values unto those of the ancient church, so does William.

William has touched upon a valid issue that I myself have noted -- many sermons are watered down for the sake of potential converts and visitors in our church audiences. There is also a certain factor in play where the failure of our education system is concerned, to say nothing of the pre-eminent lack of creativity that afflicts our society as a whole. We possess few minds as brilliant as the Apostle Paul.

Nevertheless, William's point is beside the point, anachronistic, and of no relevance. The repetition of detail is a condition of our own low-context society; it is a symptom of the need to fill time with noise rather than pursue quiet contemplation, and a symptom also of a society conditioned to television and guaranteed immunity from boredom.

Doherty calls William's response a "powerful refutation" of my arguments above. Again, he speaks of the mysterious "compulsion" to speak of Jesus' words and deeds, but as yet provides no psychological evidence for such compulsions, much less any knowledge of high vs. low context, and as we have noted here all 200 of his supposed silences are without merit.

Doherty adds:

I have also made the point that it is quite unfounded to assume that in fact all these details were so thoroughly known that Paul and others did not need to mention them. There were no written Gospels at this time. What kind of aural exposure can we assume the Galatians, the Corinthians, the Thessalonians, had had to all the features of the story of Jesus, that Paul and others could say to themselves, Oh, no need to tell them that Jesus said this, or did that-they've heard it a hundred times before, I'm just wasting my breath (or ink). What traveling missionaries prior to Paul had taken the time or had the opportunity to expound on all the details of Jesus' teachings and miracles, all the events of his ministry and passion?

All of this I have already answered, though clearly Doherty wishes to pretend I have not. Especially relevant is that his own thesis requires that there were background details provided which are not mentioned by Paul and the others; his thesis is therefore no explanation for a problem, but is a different "problem". Obviously someone had had the time and opportunity to expound on the background in the 20 years (is that enough "time"?) prior to Paul's first letter to Thessalonica; even under the traditional paradigm, though, why isn't that 20 years enough for missionaries to have had time to expound upon the details, and allow church members thereafter to educate subsequent converts?

Was there such universal agreement on all these things within the sphere of oral tradition, that each apostle in the field could feel confident that others had given the correct picture of the teachings, the prophecies, the passion and resurrection (such as the agreement we can see in every detail of the post-resurrection appearances in the Gospels, along with Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15), that there would be no need for individual preachers to repeat any of this thoroughly-known information?

Why would there not be? In order for this to be an issue, Doherty must show that any divergent views were strong enough to require rebuttal; of course in the letters we do see such responses, and correctives as 1 Cor. 15, so there we have a clear case of response appealing to historical issues, though as we have seen Doherty arrives at his own circular interpretation of that passage within his assumed paradigm.

Moreover, the argument works under the implicit assumption that the Epistle writers knew nothing about these churches they wrote to, or who spoke to them earlier, and that there was no feedback loop in the church (contrary to the testimony of Acts, which Doherty dismisses on his own inadequate grounds; and he has never produced any response on this point or to my item on Paul: Acts vs. Epistles, which refutes his arguments in that area).

As I noted, people do not go about blithely repeating information for no reason, and how much less so in a high-context world. Information is repeated or clarified only if someone forgets, someone wants to dispute the information, or if correction is needed -- or today, if there is a need to fill quiet time with space to keep people from dozing off. 1 Cor. 15 is an example of a correction. 1 Thess. 5 is a corrective, and it appeals and alludes to the theme of several parables of Jesus in one compact swoop.

Was there no need for the inspiration that comes from repetition of the familiar? No need for the preacher to demonstrate his own knowledge, his own authority? No need or desire on the part of the reader or audience to be bathed in the images and warmth of contact arising from hearing about Jesus' words and deeds-the "glue of faith" even today, as William points out?

No need to be insecure? No need to show off our knowledge for no other purpose than to inflate our view of ourselves in others? No need for high context in a low context world? As noted, our social situation today is parsecs away from that of Paul's and Peter's churches. The feel-good idea of being "bathed in images," etc. is an anachronistic application of our permeated Western feel-goodism unto a time and place where they did not exist. (It's also not borne out by our hymnals very well; see link above.) Doherty and William in effect argue that churches and believers were "the same yesterday, today and forever" -- huddled, insecure, low-context infants who have to read their Footprints poem every five minutes lest they drift into apostasy. Only by anecdote and by caricature can such an argument be maintained. It finds no support at all in the record of the NT.


The core of Doherty's case against an historical Jesus is unsupportable. Expectations are assumed, often gilded with a 20th-century perspective, but are made without any cognizance of the historical, social, literary and theological context of the epistle-writers and the norms under which they operated.

Appendix: The Mythical Titanic

Here's an example of how crakpot Doherty's "silence" thesis is. There is an essay I’ve read, titled “Ireland After 1870” by David Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick goes on and on rather like a dentists’ drill about the clashes between Catholics and Protestants, labor, employment, World War 1, etc etc etc. But there’s something he doesn’t mention at all: The Titanic disaster.

Um, you’re asking, why should he mention THAT?

I agree that he didn’t need to. But if we follow the logic of “silence” mythicists like Earl Doherty, this is a huge sign that the Titanic never existed. After all, we could see them easily saying the following, which includes information derived from several reliable online sources:

The Titanic was said to be constructed at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1912. At the time it was supposedly the world’s largest boat, unmatched in both size and luxury. This project, had it existed, was surely a monumental boon to the economy of Ireland in general and Belfast in particular, as its construction employed hundreds of men in the Belfast area. It was also tried out in Belfast Lough, which was surely a remarkable enough spectacle that Fitzpatrick should have reported it in detail.

Additionally, the Titanic disaster represented an immense loss of life that allegedly made world headlines. Among the 1500 plus killed were 123 Irish citizens.

Surely if any of this were true, it would have warranted a mention by Fitzpatrick in his essay, but instead he remains preoccupied with such trivialities as labor unions!

All of which just goes to show that even in a modern, low-context society, there are people who can (and do) manage to overlook events and things which other people think are “too important” to not receive a mention. The problem with mythicists like Doherty is not an uncommon one -- they assume that their values and priorities are everyone else's, so there must be something wrong with you if you don't do what they would do.


  • Ell.PUOT - Ellis, E. Earle. Paul's Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.
  • Gamb.BREC - Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church. Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Jerv.GospP - Jervis, L. Ann and Peter Richardson. Gospel in Paul. Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.
  • Ridd.PJs - Ridderbos, Herman. Paul and Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.
  • Ries.GT - Riesenfeld, Harald. The Gospel Tradition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970.
  • Shir.FOTN - Shires, Henry M. Finding the Old Testament in the New. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974.
  • Stant.JNTP - Stanton, Graham. Jesus of Nazareth in New Testament Preaching. Cambridge U. Press, 1984.
  • Wedd.JP - Wedderburn, A. J. M. Paul and Jesus. JSNT, 1989.
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  • With.JSg - Witherington, Ben. Jesus the Sage. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.