(REVIEW part 6) “Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist (2021)?” Earl Doherty on Hebrews

Earl Doherty deserves special mention as the catalyst for the modern mythicism movement, inspiring both Robert M Price and Richard Carrier with his “The Jesus Puzzle.” In his chapter of the anthology. Doherty argues for a mythicist reading of Hebrews with Jesus’ sacrifice taking place in heaven. The heavenly sacrifice is almost universally regarded as post earthly ascension, or else metaphorically, but Doherty takes it mythically. I am persuaded that Hebrews is thinking of a historical Jesus, which I will deal with at a later time. Regarding the sacrifice, Doherty says:

  • Christ as heavenly High Priest is infinitely superior to the high priest on earth who officiates in the earthly tabernacle. The blood of the sacrifice Christ offers is his own blood, so much greater in power than the material blood of animals that it has “secured an eternal deliverance” (Hebrews 9:12), a forgiveness of sins which the earthly sacrifices could never achieve. (W. Loftus, John; M. Price, Robert. Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist? (p. 272). Hypatia Press. Kindle Edition).

If we consider the Levitical background of Hebrews and Yom Kippur, Doherty means the celestial Jesus is the once and for all sacrificial goat of atonement that appeases God’s wrath and solves the sin problem. This is a very problematic reading of Hebrews that seems highly unlikely because it represents an inaccurate reading of Yom Kippur, but I will address this further at a later time. Anticipating that a little, I just wanted to provide a short quote from Price’s essay on Ehrman in this same volume. Price writes:

  • The ancient Near-Eastern kings would act out the death and resurrection of their gods, ritually assuming the burden of the fertility of the land and the sins of the people. Sometimes this entailed a mock death or else a mere ritual humiliation, redeeming his people in a ritual atonement in which he himself had played the role of scapegoat. Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12 seems to reflect the Hebrew version of the same liturgy. (W. Loftus, John; M. Price, Robert. Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist? (p. 349). Hypatia Press. Kindle Edition).

What is the nature of the scapegoat and Christianity, this second animal of the Yom Kippur background? Price cites Crossan that:

The Scapegoat (Mark 15:1-15)

  • John Dominic Crossan has drawn attention to the singular importance for early Christian typology of the Leviticus 16 scapegoat ritual, tracing its development, as it picked up associations from Zechariah, on its way to the composition of the gospel narrative of the mocking, abuse, and crucifixion of Jesus. Although Crossan assumes the process began with a vague Christian memory/report of Jesus having been crucified, with no details, his own compelling charting of the midrashic trajectory strongly implies something subtly different, that the process began with something like Doherty’s scenario of an even vaguer, ahistorical belief in the savior Jesus becoming progressively historicized by means of progressive biblical coloring, until the final stage of evolution was a crucifixion. Crossan describes the scapegoat ritual as it was being practiced in early Christian times by reference to Yoma 6:2-6 , the Epistle of Barnabas chapter 7, Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho 40, and Tertullian’s Against Marcion 3:7. The goat was led out of the city walls. A crimson thread of wool was divided, half tied to a rock, half between the goat’s horns. Along the way, the goat was abused by the crowd shouting, “Bear [sins] and begone! Bear and begone!” The crowd spat at it and goaded it along with pointed reeds till it arrived at the ledge where it was pushed over (Crossan, p. 119). Barnabas implies that in his day the woolen thread was tied onto a thorny bush, no longer a rock, a significant change (no less significant even if this was a misunderstanding, already marking a slippage of the “piercing” motif from the reed-poking to the wool-tying). Even without reference to a passion narrative of any sort, Barnabas and the Sibylline Oracles (8:294-301) apply the ritual in all its details to the death of the savior Jesus. Barnabas and others also attach to it the typology Zechariah 12:10 (“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a firstborn”) because of the catchword “piercing,” derived from the reeds and thorns of the scapegoat ritual.  From this it was a natural step to page through Zechariah to 3:1-5 and to associate the scapegoat-savior Jesus with the high priest Jesus (Joshua). There Jesus/Joshua is clothed in a crown (turban) and robe, which Barnabas, et. al., “recognized” as an expansion of the two bits of crimson wool from the scapegoat ritual. Once this connection was made, it was easy for the wool motif to be segregated to the robe, the crown assimilating to the thorns to which the other thread had been tied, resulting in a crown of thorns (Crossan, p. 128). From these roots, as the passion narrative begins to form, the piercing motif takes several forms. When Jesus becomes a mock king (as in the Roman Saturnalia games or the mockery of Carrabas in Philo, Flaccus VI), the reeds that once poked the scapegoat have become the reed sceptre of the mock king (which his mockers seize and use to hit him) as well as the mock crown of thorns and the scraping bits of the scourging whip. Then, in a full-scale crucifixion narrative (involving, of course, the driving of the scapegoat Jesus outside the city walls), the piercing motif takes the form of the nails of crucifixion and finally the piercing lance of Longinus.  (Robert M Price. New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash)

Does this clarify things? Not at all, because unless we clarify the relative roles of the immolated goat and the scapegoat, Yom Kippur will remain hidden from us and we will uncritically adopt the common reading of Hebrews 9 as sin payment blood magic. At another time, we will attempt a clarification.