James McGrath wrote a couple of years ago about Paul’s Human Jesus as an argument against mythicism—in particular against the Doherty thesis, which in stripped down form is what I find most likely to be true in On the Historicity of Jesus. I have noted before how McGrath makes armchair assertions without fact-checking them. Yet he represents his opinion as authoritative, giving the impression that he researched it and knows what he is talking about. As such he is deceiving his readers.
The most glaring example of this was McGrath’s face-palm-worthy assertion that only state officials commissioned inscriptions in the Greco-Roman era. Which he used to argue that Christians would never have produced inscriptions. Wow. This not only illustrates how he deceives his readers (by representing his unchecked assumptions as researched and authoritative facts), and how he is neither an expert (since he didn’t know the truth in this case, he cannot claim to be well versed in ancient history or its sources) nor reliable (since it didn’t even occur to him to check his claim before asserting it, how many other times has he done that?), but also how emotionally invested he is in dissuading people from considering even the possibility that there was no historical Jesus. Because he jumped immediately to this ridiculous, unchecked, factually false argument. Instead of just making the far more competent and level-headed argument that the earliest Christians were too poor or expecting the apocalypse too imminently to bother erecting inscriptions. A point with which I have agreed (it’s why I don’t count the absence of such inscriptions as evidence against historicity: see Chapter 8.4 of OHJ).
Instead McGrath just ran with the first thing that came into his head. And asserted it as a fact. And instantly believed it was true without even knowing if it was.
This is how a Christian apologist behaves. Not a competent and reliable expert in the matter.
He did this again in Paul’s Human Jesus.
McGrath’s entire argument is succinctly as follows (here with my commentary interspersed):
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes a contrast between two human beings, Adam and Jesus. One is mythical. Is the other? And did Paul think that one or both of them were mythical?
Interestingly, on this point, if none other, concerns of young-earth creationists and mythicists intersect.
It’s not clear to me what McGrath means. What is the intersection here? That Adam is mythical? McGrath just agreed with that. That Jesus is mythical? No creationist agrees with that. So I’m baffled. As best I can tell this is an unintelligible attempt to equate a respectable peer reviewed theory in the history of Christianity with a science-denying superstition. That’s a fallacy of Poisoning the Well. In this case by falsely associating mythicism with creationism. Without establishing any relevant parallel. McGrath does this a lot. He doesn’t understand the difference between having a vast scale of scientific evidence (as we have for evolution) or even having a vast scale of historical evidence (as we have for the Holocaust), and having nearly no surviving evidence at all. McGrath doesn’t even seem capable of grasping the difference in scale of evidence between what we have for Jesus and almost any other famous person of the ancient world. But let’s set that fallacy aside and get to the more substantive issue…
Is “human” ever applied without qualification to beings that are thought to exist purely in the celestial realm? Certainly we have instances of people seeing “men” but the interpretation is that they were “angels.” But those are instances of appearances of angels in the world. We know that there were docetists who claimed that Jesus merely appeared to be human in the world. But mythicism says that Jesus never walked the Earth at all, and that Paul never thought of Jesus as one who was seen on Earth except in visions.
There is a curious qualifier here that renders his set-up already fallacious. He is building a Straw Man. What does McGrath mean by “purely” in the celestial realm? Is he unaware that mythicism places the incarnation of Jesus below the heavens, not in the heavens? That in fact it was to occur precisely where flesh and decay and death reside, just where Satan and his demons congregate? The distinction between the heavens and the firmament, the latter being the whole vast region between the earth and the moon, was well-established in both Jewish and pagan cosmology (see Element 37, Chapter 4, OHJ, pp. 184-93). Is he unaware that the Jewish theologian Philo mentions that in Jewish angelology and demonology “some” spirits “descend into bodies” in that lower realm and are then subject to it? (p. 188) Is he unaware that pagan theology knew of incarnating spirits below the orbit of the moon? (p. 186; e.g. p. 172) Is he unaware that Paul knew Jesus as a pre-existent archangel even before his own incarnation and resurrection? (Element 10, Chapter 4, OHJ, pp. 92-96; and see Bart Ehrman’s defense of the same conclusion.) And therefore, that the incarnation was just a temporary blip in a long archangelic history? (As Philippians 2 makes clear.)
Let’s keep that in mind. So we can avoid any equivocation fallacy with his words “purely” or “celestial.”
So does 1 Corinthians 15:21 fit with that? Is ἄνθρωπος ever used for a purely celestial being, without some qualification specifying that the term is not being used in its usual sense?
While it might be said in response that Paul at one point refers to Jesus as the “heavenly” man, that is something that Paul says about the risen Jesus. The image of the heavenly man is the nature of the risen Jesus which Paul says that awaits others.
Here is where McGrath, once again, didn’t even check first, before making this claim. He is just arguing from the armchair again. And believing everything his mind just made up. It turns out the answer to his first question is “yes.” Celestial beings were indeed referred to as anthrôpos. In fact, they were so by Philo, the Jewish theologian who discusses the exact same Jewish angelology Paul is referencing here, of the two Adams, one heavenly and one of earth. But I’ll get to that below. For now, notice that McGrath has forgotten that Paul believed Jesus was a heavenly man before he acquired a body that could die (Philippians 2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 10:4).
The resurrection emphasis in Paul’s letters is probably one of the strongest arguments against mythicism there is. In Judaism, resurrection was expected to happen to human beings. We have no references to purely celestial beings being raised from the dead. Indeed, it is doubtful that the concept would have made any sense to first century Jews.
This is doubly fallacious reasoning. Not only is it another straw man. It’s also loony tunes anthropology. Because this is just like saying Christianity cannot come from Judaism because it teaches things no prior Jews taught. In other words, unless Christianity predated Christianity, Christianity cannot have ever been Jewish. Try to wrap your head around that crazy logic. By this reasoning, no Jewish sects are Jewish, because each sect teaches something different than the other sects. “No other Jew said that; therefore no Jew ever would say that; therefore the Pharisees were not Jews.” Uh. No. Sorry, James McGrath, that’s not how this works. The only reason so many Jewish sects could have existed at all is if Jews were comfortable innovating new beliefs. (See Chapter 12.4 of OHJ. And on sectarianism: Element 33, Chapter 4, OHJ, pp. 175-77; and TET, pp. 107-10.)
But let’s assume McGrath didn’t realize his argument was that illogical. Let’s discard his awful reasoning and focus instead on the question he confusedly was trying to get at (but came up with this face-palming mess instead). What he probably wants to say is, that no Jew could countenance an angel being resurrected, therefore only if an actual angel was actually killed in front of them and resurrected, would they ever claim such a thing happened. Therefore Jesus must have been an actual archangel. Oh wait, no, McGrath can’t have meant that, either. Hm. Whatever did he mean then? Because that’s what he’s saying: the first Christians, who were indeed full-on totally Jewish, believed Jesus was a celestial archangel who died and was resurrected. But if no Jew could ever think that… ??
Somehow McGrath is trying to get to the need for an actual guy to get unexpectedly killed thus inspiring the unique instance of Jews rethinking who can be resurrected. But there is no need for an actual event. If you believe an angel can put on a mortal body and then die and then be resurrected, then you don’t need an actual archangel to descend and put on a mortal body and then die and then be resurrected. You can just believe it happened because scripture says so and the resurrected archangel told you himself in a vision or dream. And that’s the Doherty thesis. McGrath is engaging in an equivocation fallacy: “angels can’t die, therefore they can’t be resurrected” is true but irrelevant. Because the Doherty thesis is simply taking Philippians 2:6-10 at its word: that an angel (in this case Jesus) put on a mortal body precisely to solve the problem that angels can’t die. Yes, only human bodies can die. So Jesus was given one.
This does not get us to any event on earth. We see no statement in Philippians 2 that this putting on and casting off of a mortal humanoid body took place on earth. We see no statement to that effect anywhere in any of the actual letters of Paul. Nor in any other early epistle (see Chapter 11 of OHJ), nor even 1 Clement (see Chapter 8.5 of OHJ). And yet obviously Jews could imagine an angel who wore a mortal humanoid body being killed and resurrected. Because that is by definition what can happen to any soul in a mortal body. And that is precisely why the first Christians had to imagine it this way. It is precisely because of the Jewish understanding of death and resurrection McGrath is talking about that they had to add that step in Philippians 2 of the angel putting on a mortal body.
So when James McGrath declares this is “one of the strongest arguments against mythicism there is,” we have every reason to conclude he’s the most incompetent critic of mythicism there is. Because it’s not even a valid argument. Much less strong (forget “strongest”!). Yes, indeed, no Jews would likely have imagined an angel just “getting killed” and being raised from the dead. That’s why no Jew ever imagined such a thing. They instead imagined an angel putting on a mortal body first, so as to conform to Jewish expectations about death and resurrection. And that simply does not require an actual angel to actually do that, for any Jews to believe that it happened. Once the angel told them it happened (Galatians 1:11-12), and told them the scriptures confirmed it (Romans 16:25-26), no more reason to believe it was needed. No historical man was needed, any more than a historical eternal archangel was needed (Philippians 2:6-7).
So the fact that McGrath thinks this is even an argument against the Doherty thesis tells us McGrath does not even understand the Doherty thesis. At best. At worst, he does understand it, and knows this is a straw man of it; in which case, McGrath is not just incompetent; he’s lying.
At any rate, whether by deception or incompetence, McGrath continues with this fallacy…
Paul states time and again that Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection, the first of humankind.
Referring to one statement Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23. But Paul never says Jesus was “the first of humankind” (I assume McGrath means “to be resurrected,” and I assume he means in particular only the final resurrection, there having been plenty of other resurrections in Jewish history before that). Nor ever implied such in the sense McGrath must mean. Paul simply says Jesus was the first to be resurrected, and thereby the first of many brethren, all the sons of God by adoption (Element 12, Chapter 4, OHJ, p. 108), beginning the expected end of the world.
Paul says Jesus was not resurrected in a human body (1 Corinthians 15:35-53), nor did he have a human body before his incarnation (Philippians 2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 10:4). He only was given a human body at one time so he could be subject to the elements and thus capable of dying (Philippians 2:7-8; Galatians 4; Romans 8:3 & 8:29). In no way does this require any of this to have actually happened. Paul and the Apostles need merely have believed it happened. And as Paul makes clear, only visions and scripture ever convinced them it had (Galatians 1:11-12; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Romans 16:25-26). This is the case even in the epistle of 1 Peter (Chapter 11.3 of OHJ).
And so here too, mythicism’s understanding of what Paul meant, if not impossible, is a meaning of the texts that is at odds with what a variety of words and technical terms normally meant in Paul’s context, and so, because Paul does not clarify that he is using those words in unconventional ways, he ought to be understood as saying something consonant with their usual meaning in his context. And that is the meaning that mainstream scholars ascribe to him.
And that’s the conclusion of McGrath’s argument. One huge non sequitur. It’s hard to see how one gets to this conclusion even from his stated premises. But since his premises include that fallacious straw man about what the Doherty thesis actually states, this conclusion does not even relate to the Doherty thesis, much less argue against it. What “understanding of what Paul meant” is impossible? That Jesus was an eternal celestial archangel who was later given a mortal humanoid body so he could experience death? That’s plainly stated by Paul in Philippians 2:6-8. It’s therefore the opposite of impossible. It’s what he actually said.
Or is what is supposedly impossible the notion of Paul referring to this archangel with the word anthrôpos (“man”)? But since Jesus was given a humanoid mortal body (Philippians 2:6-8), Paul certainly could refer to him as having been a man. Paul says Jesus was an eternal celestial being who chose to humble himself by taking on the body of a man, then shedding that body and returning to his celestial status (Philippians 2:6-8), now even more exalted than before. So even on the Doherty thesis Jesus was for a brief time a man. That’s the whole point of the incarnation. So there is nothing “impossible” or “unconventional” about Paul referring to an angel who wore a human body as having briefly been a man. Even in the literal sense (i.e. being a mortal in human flesh: 1 Corinthians 15:39). That doesn’t tell us anything about where this happened.
So to get his bizarre conclusion, McGrath has failed to honestly represent the mythicist thesis twice: he has ignored the actual Doherty thesis (which fully includes an incarnation to the status of a mortal man) and he has ignored the established ancient distinction between the heavens and the firmament (incarnation occurs in the latter section of outer space, not the former). McGrath therefore has no argument here against our actual thesis.
That’s bad enough. But it gets worse…
This was all based on McGrath’s spontaneous armchair belief that no celestial being was called a man, an anthrôpos. Already, of course any celestial being who wore human flesh could obviously be so called in that form. So already the distinction is irrelevant to our minimal mythicism. But even celestial beings who never wore human flesh could be called an anthrôpos. And in fact, where McGrath finds Paul calling Jesus a man, is a passage where Paul is referencing a theological doctrine we know was present in Judaism, because it is also discussed by the Jewish theologian Philo, a contemporary of Paul (yet who was writing in ignorance of Paul or Christianity or any of its innovations).
The key passage is 1 Corinthians 15:45:
So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, was made into a living soul; the last Adam, into a life-giving spirit.”
Wait a minute. Written where? Is Paul here citing a lost scripture? Which Christians often did—the Jewish scriptures they revered and built their gospel on were not exactly the same as ours today, but included versions of books different from ours, and entire books no longer extant (see Element 9, Chapter 4, OHJ, pp. 88-92). It is usually assumed Paul is just taking extreme license with a misquoting of the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:7 (which says “and man was made into a living soul”), but that’s not entirely plausible. Paul does not say, “as it was written of the first man, Adam, ‘man was made into a living soul’, so the last man was made into a life-giving spirit,” Which is how he would actually say that, if that’s what he meant. But he doesn’t. He actually is presenting the whole sentence as a quotation (as I’ve indicated above). A quotation of what? We don’t know. Some book that played on the Genesis passage with some prophecy of a coming messiah who would reverse the sin of Adam? We don’t know.
Since it’s not possible to know for sure if this is just a disingenuously massaged quotation from Genesis, or the quotation of some prophecy now lost but known to Paul’s congregations, I’ll set that aside. What we do know, is that this comparison does not come from Paul. It existed already in Jewish theology.
Paul had already explicitly called the Jesus who became a life-giving spirit a “man” (anthrôpos) in 1 Corinthians 15:21, where he began the Adam-to-Jesus comparison. And here at verse 45 he grammatically implies it again. McGrath thinks Paul can say this because Jesus at least had been a man, even though he wasn’t still (being afterward, at the time Paul wrote, a “celestial being,” as McGrath concedes). But that also holds for the Doherty thesis, on which Jesus also had been a man (when he temporarily assumed a mortal body of flesh). So if McGrath finds this acceptable, then he can’t object to it on mythicism either.
But the thing that’s worse here, is that McGrath didn’t check the literature. A quick lit search would land you with Stefan Nordgaard, “Paul’s Appropriation of Philo’s Theory of ‘Two Men’ in 1 Corinthians 15.45–49,” New Testament Studies 57 (2011), pp 348-365 (an accessible copy of which is currently available here). Nordgaard points out that the “two man” theory Paul uses here actually comes from Philo (or predecessors of both who developed this theory), and Philo was perfectly comfortable talking about an earthly “man” and a heavenly “man,” even when the latter never had a mortal body of flesh at all nor ever resided below the heavens! So much for McGrath’s “expert” claim that no Jews would ever say that. Foot, mouth.
As Nordgaard explains:
Philo developed his theory of the two men on the basis of the creation narratives given in the book of Genesis. As is well known, Genesis offers two different accounts of the creation of the human species (one in 1:26-27 and another in 2:7). While this has suggested to modern scholarship that the text of Genesis has come down to us as a compound of different sources, it suggested to Philo that God had created two categorically different ‘types of people’ (Leg. 1.31): a ‘heavenly man’ (ouranios anthrôpos), ‘fashioned in the image of God’ (cf. Gen. 1:26-27), and an ‘earthly man’ (gêinos anthrôpos), ‘moulded out of clay’ (cf. Gen 2:7). [Ibid. p. 353]
Philo in fact says this “heavenly man” is the first created being and viceroy of God, the “image” of God, God’s “firstborn son,” high priest of God’s celestial temple, the supreme archangel, whom God tasked with the rest of creation, and who governs the universe on God’s behalf. Philo says this Being is the Logos. The same exact being the Gospel of John says Jesus is. But Paul was already saying this. He only never had occasion to use specifically the word “logos,” aka the ‘word’ or ‘reasoning’ of God (though Paul does say Jesus is the ‘wisdom’ of God, which is what Philo equated with the logos of God), and doesn’t get around to discussing his celestial priesthood (that’s in Hebrews 9); but every other identification Paul made. And to know Jesus by so many specific and unusual attributes is an impossible coincidence. Paul clearly only knew his Jesus to be this supernal figure known to Philo. There is no evidence any Christians before him thought differently.
Indeed, though McGrath repels in horror at the idea (and always attempts to deploy Christian apologetics against it), in fact Philo identified this being with the ‘High Priest’ and ‘Son of God’ named Jesus in Zechariah 6 (see Element 40, Chapter 5, OHJ, pp. 200-05; see also Elements 6 and 10 in Chapter 4, pp. 81-83 and 92-96). Which if true, means the earliest Christians were not only equating Jesus with an archangel already known in Jewish theology, but that that archangel was already named Jesus even before Christians adopted the figure as their object of worship. As I wrote recently in Everything You Need to Know about Coincidences:
[W]hen we look for evidence that the Jewish scholar Philo understood a character named Jesus in Zechariah 6 to be the same archangel Paul thinks his Jesus is, [we note] that the alternative explanation requires so many coincidences to have occurred as to be extraordinarily improbable (On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 200-05), including the fact that Paul and Philo assign all the same unusual attributes to the same figure, and the fact that Philo said he made the connection because the archangel in question was already known to him as the Son of God and the High Priest, and the only person in the Zechariah passage he quotes who is identified as the Son of God and the High Priest, is Jesus.
And as I’ve noted before, Bart Ehrman “also now agrees that Philo attests a Jewish theology in which the Logos is the firstborn Son of God and the eternal Image of God, the same being Jesus was identified with” in Paul (cf. How Jesus Became God, p. 75). And though Ehrman “overlooks the passage where Philo says a Jesus named in the OT is this very same being,” he nevertheless “also finds Philo attesting a Jewish belief that Moses was a pre-existent divine being who became incarnate to live on earth and then ascend back to his station in heaven, establishing yet another Jewish precedent for Christian incarnation Christology” (cf. How Jesus Became God, p. 82). That makes one more celestial being Jews referred to as a man. Sorry, James McGrath. Do your homework next time.
Oh, by the way. Do you know how McGrath also could have come to know about this article by Nordgaard? By reading my damned book (p. 198, n. 112).
McGrath leans on unchecked armchair assertions, which he falsely implies are researched expert knowledge, but which are actually in fact false. This is not the only example. If he was competent, he would check the literature before making such claims. Certainly before making them so assertively, as if he knew they were true (how do you know something is true when you’ve never even checked to find out if it’s true?). And this isn’t some obscure or recently overturned thing that can be excused (as for example when I unfairly expected Bart Ehrman to have obscure knowledge of a specialized subject, which is expecting too much even of a bona fide expert; competent scholars need merely correct the record when they encounter unexpected information like that). This is something easily discovered with a simple literature search. It is what you would discover almost immediately upon asking yourself, “Was the word anthrôpos ever used of supernatural beings?” and doing the most methodologically rudimentary check to find out.
McGrath also leans on blatant and inexcusable fallacies. He straw-mans the mythicist thesis egregiously—and in a way fatal to his argument. He makes bizarrely self-contradicting assertions about how Judaism and other religions fracture and evolve. He deploys outrageous well poisoning fallacies, like falsely equating the question of Jesus’s historicity with claims for which we have vastly more evidence. And he makes assertions of fact that he never checked to confirm, leaning on his credentials to persuade you to believe he is a trustworthy authority on what he declares. These are all the behaviors of Christian apologists. Indeed, these behaviors of his have far more in kinship with Young Earth Creationists than anything mythicists do! (Your irony meter should be pegging out now.)
In the end, Paul did distinguish between men and the risen Jesus as McGrath avers (in Galatians 1 repeatedly), but as McGrath also acknowledges, Paul could still reference Jesus as having been a man: “The first man [anthrôpos] is of the earth,” meaning Adam, “the second man [anthrôpos] is of heaven,” meaning Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:47). Exactly as Philo said of his Jesus, despite that Jesus never having worn a human body! (That was the Christian innovation.) Though of course Paul is here building an analogy to us—in which our mortal bodies are our “first man,” our sharing the condition of Adam, and our future bodies are our “second man,” our sharing of the condition of Jesus; in fact those supernatural bodies are already waiting for us in a storehouse in heaven (2 Corinthians 5). Unlike Jesus, who had had a supernatural body since the beginning of time (1 Corinthians 8:6 and 10:4; Philippians 2:6-8), and merely resumed it after his resurrection. But the analogy works because both Adam and Jesus were men—even in the literal sense, Jesus having been given a mortal humanoid body to wear just long enough to be killed in it (Philippians 2:6-8). Which occurred in the firmament on the Doherty thesis, not on the ground just outside of Jerusalem, nor in “the heavens,” which are above the firmament. And there is nothing in the actual writings of Paul that indicates otherwise. McGrath has deployed no valid argument to the contrary.
So when Paul wrote “for since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:21), there is nothing here that contradicts the Doherty thesis or my minimal mythicism. No special interpretation or understanding of Paul is needed. We can read that sentence fully literally as written. And still it conforms to our thesis. Jesus was an eternal celestial archangel. Who descended to the lower reaches of outer space where flesh and death resided, and put on a mortal human body like an overcoat, so that he could be killed and resurrected. Where exactly did that occur? Paul never says.
At least, not in any of the letters and portions of his letters we have been allowed to see.
For Paul wrote a great deal else. Which is suspiciously now missing (OHJ, pp. 279-80 and 582-83, with p. 511 n. 4 and pp. 349-56).