A while ago I was lent a copy of a book by Earl Doherty called Jesus: Neither God nor Man. Today I met up with the man who lent it to me, so that we could chat about it. It was an enjoyable chat, and I hope to continue to get together to talk further about such things.
My most fundamental problem with Doherty’s book – which attempts to present a comprehensive and scholarly case for the view that Jesus never existed – is that it is unsifted. It attempts to speak to scholars, and on behalf of “scholarship,” but without going through the normal rigours of scholarly refinement and review. And this means that, in paragraph after paragraph, there are unsubstantiated or outdated or fringe arguments that are being unashamedly presented as though they reflect academic consensus. These things would have been challenged and called into line if they had been subjected to academic process or peer review.
I am not being elitist in saying this – I have written some non-scholarly stuff myself, and have tremendous confidence that non-scholarly works can be serious and beneficial. But if one is attempting to argue a scholarly case in the hope that scholars will listen, then it makes sense to expose oneself to scholarly examination and review. This is tough, but it is designed to sift and refine a person’s work, using the wisdom and experience of scholarly peers. I was at a conference in Sydney yesterday and I spoke to one lecturer who said that in the six years it took him to complete his PhD, his supervisor only ever gave him two positive comments. Now that is harsh! But he said that it had the effect of forcing him to argue a much tighter case. In my own experience, my PhD involved exposing and defending my views to a supervisor, a secondary supervisor, conference attendees, examiners, manuscript reviewers, and others – who ensured that I couldn’t easily get away with sloppy arguments, outdated assumptions, and unsubstantiated claims (although, off course, my conclusions may still be wrong!).
So anyway, I agreed with my friend that Doherty was beginning with a number of genuinely useful observations and issues (e.g. Why is Paul relatively disinterested in the life of Jesus?); and my friend should feel free to read and evaluate Doherty’s attempt to account for these observations – but he should take it for what it is, an unsifted armchair exploration.