Earl Doherty use of the phrase "According to the Flesh"
By Christopher Price
This verse is a very straight-forward reference to Jesus as a human being. By referring to Jesus as being "born a descendant of David" Paul is referring to Jesus' fulfilment of common Jewish expectations that God would send a saviour to rescue his people--and that messiah would be a direct descendant of King David. By noting that Jesus met this criteria, and clarifying less there be any doubt that he did this as a human being ("according to the flesh"), Paul here demonstrates an obvious belief in Jesus as a historical person.
No, says Doherty, there is no reference to any historical person at Romans 1:1-4. Even if there was, Doherty argues, "it is the only one Paul ever gives us." (Earl Doherty The Jesus Puzzle, page 84).
The only way Doherty can make this statement is by engaging in blatant question-begging. Paul's letters provide many references to the historical life of Jesus:
Indeed, “the outline of the gospel story as we can trace it in the writings of Paul agrees with the outline which we find elsewhere in the New Testament, and in the four Gospels in particular.” (FF Bruce, The New Testament Documents, page 79).
Although Doherty undoubtedly attempts to explain away many of these references, his statement indicating there are no other possible references is very misleading. Moreover, it follows that if Paul is referring to a human being born of a "descendent of David" and a human being "according to the flesh," that he also is referring to a human being when he describes Jesus as being "born of a woman, born under the law" and having a brother named James and being crucified by earthly rulers. To claim that this is the only apparent, or possible, reference to a human Jesus is an obvious bit of well-poisoning.
Doherty argues that these phrases cannot be references to a historical person because they were gleaned solely from the Hebrew Bible:
Doherty, op. cit., page 84.
Contrary to Doherty's allegations, Paul does not say that he obtained the information about Jesus being born "according to the flesh" of a "descendent of David" from the Hebrew Bible. Rather, he simply says--as any good Jew or Christian would--that these characteristics fulfilled particular Hebrew Bible prophecies regarding the Messiah. That is why Paul says that Jesus was someone God "promised before hand through His prophets in the Holy scriptures." Romans 1:2. Paul is not "stepping outside his focus" here. Part of the focus of Paul's teaching is that Jesus was the Messiah. He shows this by demonstrating that certain biographical elements about Jesus are consistent with the characteristics of the messiah God promised beforehand in the Hebrew Bible. This is not unusual or bizarre, it is the only way to prove Paul's point.
A far more plausible source for Paul's knowledge is traditions handed down from the Jerusalem Church, which were confirmed by Peter himself (and possibly James, Jesus' brother). The language and form used in a number of Paul's epistles indicate that he is passing along earlier traditions already established in the Christian church. For example, the "for I handed to you ... what I in turn had received" language used in 1 Corinthians 15:1-12, was typical rabbinic language for passing along an established tradition. The grammatically unnecessary "and that" used three times also demonstrate that it was a pre-existing tradition being passed down. (NT Wright, The New Testament and the people of God, page 368). Furthermore, according to Professor Thompson:
MB Thompson, Tradition, in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, page 944.
Notably, only six years after Jesus' death and reported resurrection, Paul visited at least Peter and James in Jerusalem and consulted with them about the Christian message. In Galatians 1:18-20, Paul reports that he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem. In fact, Peter spent more than two weeks living in Peter's home. As Martin Hengel, a leading German scholar states, this visit "is best understood to indicate that [Paul] spent the whole of this time as a guest in Peter's house." (Martin Hengel Paul Between Damascus and Antioch, page 144). The topic of conversation? "Jesus above all will have stood at the centre of the conversations--around six years after the Passover at which he died--the earthly and crucified, risen and exalted Jesus, who was now preached and was to come. For both Peter and Paul, his person and the salvation which he had achieved had become the centre of their lives." (Ibid., page 147). Clearly, therefore, it is more reasonable to believe that Paul obtained much of his information about Jesus from the leaders of the Jerusalem Church. At the very least, he likely confirmed what he may have received from other Christians Paul had already met. Or even from those whom Paul had previously persecuted.
Now we can move on to the phrases themselves. As for being "born of a descendant of David," Doherty argues that Paul is merely referring to characteristics of Jesus that were not really possessed by Jesus. The support he offers for this conclusion is unspecified parallel pagan myths:
Doherty, op. cit., page 84.
It appears that there are two arguments here. First, that the statement is gleaned from the Hebrew Bible and second that similar things were said of the pagan saviour.
As I have shown elsewhere, the fact that Paul discusses Jesus in Hebrew Bible terms and language in no way suggests that Jesus was derived from those scriptures. Far from it. The Hebrew Bible promised a human saviour who would be a literal descendent of David. There is no evidence of any Jewish sect that expected a purely spiritual messiah who carried out his saving works in a lower celestial realm. Thus, there is no reason to think that Paul, a self described Pharisee, had so radically departed from his background.
Even more problematic for Doherty is his complete failure to offer any evidence to support his claimed pagan saviour god parallels. First, Doherty attempts to confuse the issue by equating Davidic descent with being of "Judaic nature." There is no basis for such an equation. Saying someone was a descendant of King David is not the same thing as saying someone was a Jew. To assume such was the case with no discussion or clarification is rather extraordinary on Doherty's part. Paul says that Jesus was descended from a specific person in Hebrew history. Doherty's attempt to transform that into some sort of statement about Jesus' ethnicity is unreasonable. So, because Paul is not saying that Jesus possessed a "Judaic nature" here, examples of purported pagan parallels possessing "ethnic lineage" would be of no use to Doherty.
Elsewhere in his book, Doherty refers his readers to Dionysius. But Dionysius was believed to have been born of a mother in Thebes. He was not a purely spiritual entity who never came to earth as a human being. He lived a life here on earth. The reason he was Theban was because he was born to a Theban woman in Thebes. The reason he was described in earthly terms was because he live on earth.
Doherty's complete failure to provide any examples supporting his interpretation has not gone unnoticed by even sympathetic reviewers. Richard Carrier, while discussing Doherty's similar attempt to explain away Paul's reference to Jesus being "born of a woman" takes notice of Doherty's failure to provide any examples of such usage:
Richard Carrier, Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity
With no examples and no other reason to believe that Paul means anything other than what he says, Doherty's attempt to explain away this clear reference to Jesus as a human being fails. Paul believes that Jesus was born of a descendent of a specific historical personage--David. Obviously, he also thought that this fulfilled certain Hebrew Bible prophecies. But he hardly could have believed that if he did not believe that Jesus was also a real human being at some point.
Even Doherty if were right that "born of a descendent of David" could be a reference to a spiritual entity, surely Paul's clarification that his birth was "according to the flesh" dispels any doubts about Paul's belief that Jesus was a human being? Not for Doherty. To him, when Paul says "according to the flesh" he actually means an incorporeal spirit-being in an lower celestial realm.
A) A Sphere of Flesh and a Sphere of Spirit?
Doherty, op. cit., page 83.
To Doherty, relying on Barrett, Paul is saying that Jesus was "born of a descendent of David" in the lower celestial realm and resurrected by the Spirit in the highest level of heaven. It is obvious, however, that Barrett is suggesting nothing of the sort. Far from it. It is Doherty and Doherty alone who claims that "sphere of the flesh" may mean "lower celestial realm." Barrett is affirming that "according to the flesh" means that in the world of human beings, Jesus was literally descended from David.
CK Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, page 78.
Elsewhere, Doherty refers to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (VII) to find support for his personal interpretation of "according to the flesh." As with Barrett, however, it actually contradicts his conclusions. Even an interpretation of "according to the flesh" as meaning "sphere of the flesh" would be just as damaging to Doherty's theory. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament describes "sarx as the Earthly Sphere. In Romans 1:3-4 Paul contrasts the sphere of the sarx with that of heaven or pneuma. In this limited an provisional sphere Jesus is the Davidic Messiah, but the decisive thing comes in the sphere of the pneuma." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged), page 1004. Even though it was believed that demons may exist in the realm of man, they are never referred to as sare. (The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VII, page 128 n. 237). It is not their sphere, but the sphere of human beings. "Kata sarka distinguishes this as an earthly and human relationship from a relationship of a different kind. Sare stands for the sphere of man." (Ibid., pages 126-27).
Furthermore, Doherty's attempt to equate "according to the flesh" as occurring in the lower celestial realm and "according to the spirit" in the highest celestial realm is without any other support. It is an interpretation of his own creation that seems to have no justification other than an attempt to dispel the clear meaning of these terms. Indeed, as will be discussed below, Paul elsewhere discusses this dichotomy between "according to the flesh" and "according to the spirit." In none of these cases is Paul referring to events in one heavenly place versus events in another heavenly place. Rather, he is comparing normal human events and abilities versus those events and abilities animated or caused by the Spirit of God.
B) Paul's Other Uses of "According to the Flesh"
I was surprised that, other than blandly asserting that Paul's use of the phrase is "frustratingly cryptic", Doherty fails to study how Paul uses this phrase in his many other references in the Pauline corpus. Perhaps he did, though, and simply did not like what he found. For every time that Paul uses the phrase "according to the flesh" in reference to lineage, he is referring to a literal descent of human lineage. Nowhere does Paul use the term to denote merely the characteristics of descent in a spiritual entity in a celestial realm. Furthermore, none of the non lineage uses of "according to the flesh" by Paul offer any support for Doherty's theory. And when he combines that phrase with "according to the Spirit", Paul is clearly affirming a normal human event or ability as compared to one caused or animated by the Spirit. Indeed, the Revised English Bible translates this phrase "in the ordinary course of nature." (as cited by James. DG Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, page 246). In short, Doherty's interpretation of the phrases is contradicted by the rest of the Pauline corpus.
1. Uses Discussing Lineage
Here, Paul identifies himself as being "kinsman" to the Jews "according to the flesh." But not even Doherty imagines that Paul is describing himself as being a Jew only in the lower celestial realm. Obviously, Paul means what he says--he is a kinsman according to the flesh because he shares their ancestral lineage. Furthermore, Paul once again reiterates Jesus' physical lineage here by using the same exact phrase he had just applied to himself--that Jesus too is descended from Israelis "according to the flesh." That Paul would use the same phrase to describe completely different ideas right next to each other is untenable. Especially because to do so would completely undercut his point. Paul is arguing here that physical descent from Abraham is not enough to ensure salvation. To reinforce his point, Paul reiterates his own physical link to the Jews as well as Jesus' physical link to the Jews. Accordingly, it is by far more reasonable to understand the phrase "according to the flesh"--when used in reference to lineage--to mean actual human blood relationships. There is no hint here that these relationships only existed as an idea or a characteristic. Just the opposite is true. It is the idea, not the physical link, which makes people "the children of promise."
Again we see Paul uses the phrase "according to the flesh" in the context of physical lineage. Unless Doherty is willing to argue that Abraham was a purely spiritual being who never came to earth in Paul's thought, this scripture strongly undercuts his arguments.
2 Corinthians 11:18-22
By referring to boasting "according to the flesh" Paul does not mean boasting about demons or the demon realm of the "sphere of the flesh." He is obviously talking about human characteristics--strongly focusing on physical lineage. Note how Paul's boasting "according to the flesh" refers to his being a Hebrew, an Israelite, and a descendent of Abraham. Obviously, by "according to the flesh" Paul is stressing his actual physical lineage. He is not referring to a lower celestial realm, but to the fact that he is biologically a Hebrew, an Israelite, and a descendent of Abraham.
Again we have Paul hitting home on his theme that it is the things accomplished by the promise, or by the Spirit, that are important. Things that are done "according to the flesh" are not demonic, they are physical. Yet they do not ensure salvation. Those who are born "according to the Spirit" are in God's will--they are Christians. Paul has juxtaposed the Israelites (descendants of Rebecca) with the descendants of Hagar. It is the Israelites who were now relying on their descent "according to the flesh" from Abraham for salvation and Christians who were relying on the power of God:
James DG Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, page 257.
Professor Dunn goes on to note that here and in Romans Paul uses the "according to the flesh/according to the Spirit" in "explicit antithesis (Romans i.3-4; viii 4, 5, 12-13). His analysis is right on. Here, as in Romans 1, Paul is using "according to the flesh" to denote physical descent and using "according to the spirit" to denote through the power of God's spirit.
2. Uses Unrelated to Lineage
Having reviewed the uses of "according to the flesh," I will now examine the other uses Paul makes of the phrase "according to the flesh." None of them support Doherty's theory and many contradict it.
Though the phrase "according to the flesh" here has a negative connotation, it certainly adds no support to Doherty's unique interpretation. Paul is here using "according to the flesh" to refer to being lead by the frail, fallen human part of our nature as opposed to being lead "according to the spirit." Furthermore, there is no hint that the meaning here that Paul is referring to the lower celestial realm. These passages are interesting, however, in that they set up the "according to the flesh"/"according to the spirit" dichotomy we saw in Romans 1. Just as in Romans 1, the difference is not between the lower and upper celestial realms, but the difference between normal humanity and God's influence and power.
This passage reiterates the point made just above. Living "according to the flesh" is normal human life, whereas "by the Spirit" is being influenced and subject to the power of God. Once again, there is no hint of living in a lower celestial realm verses living in a higher celestial realm. By referring equating "according to the flesh" with the "deeds of the body" Paul is ruling out a meaning of the lower celestial realm and emphasizing that he is talking about normal humanity.
1 Corinthians 1:26-29
Though Paul does not here refer to "according to the Spirit" the dichotomy is present in this passage. The "many wise according to the flesh" is a reference to normal human wisdom. It is set up against God's own wisdom and how it will make the normal human wisdom foolish. Obviously, the "wise" here do not exist in the lower celestial realm. It is not the level of their existence that makes them foolish, but the fact of their humanity that does so.
2 Corinthians 1:15-18
Paul's use of "according to the flesh" here is not entirely clear, but appears to suggest human weakness. It offers no support for Doherty's interpretation of Romans 1.
2 Corinthians 5:16-19
There is some ambiguity in what Paul means here by "according to the flesh." But though Doherty usually attempts to twist any ambiguity to his advantage, he will find no shelter here in any of the reasonable alternatives. Some have argued that by knowing Christ "according to the flesh" that Paul is referring quite literally to having known Jesus during his ministry on earth. The preceding phrase "no one according to the flesh" makes this unlikely, and seems to point to an alternative meaning. But whatever the likelihood of such a meaning, it obviously would be inconsistent with Doherty's theory.
The more likely alternative is that Paul is speaking of knowing Jesus only by human understanding. That is, it is consistent with the previous verses that put human understanding and wisdom in a poor life. A Spirit empowered understanding of Jesus is the ideal way to know Jesus. Of course, this meaning provides no support for the idea that by "according to the flesh" that Paul meas the lower celestial realm. Far from it. He is obviously referring to normal human understanding.
2 Corinthians 10:2-4
This phrase strongly supports the traditional understanding of the phrase "according to the flesh" in Romans 1. By referring to walking "according to the flesh" Paul is referring to attempting a spiritual sojourn by human understanding. By referring to "in the flesh" though, Paul is obviously referring to physically walking as a human being. Paul goes on to discuss spiritual warfare, and excludes the idea that we are involved in warfare "according to the flesh." If Paul did see us at war somehow with the "sphere of the flesh"/"the lower celestial realm" of the demons, it is hard to imagine that he makes no connection with the enemy's existence there. It appears that all he means is that normal human effort will are not effective in a truly spiritual contest.
Here, the Letter to the Ephesians refers to a slave's master "according to the flesh." He is not referring to a demon master. Or a relationship conceived as having occurred in the lower celestial realm. The author is actually stressing a physical human relationship of a slave and its owner.
Doherty's attempt to interpret "born of a descendent of David according to the flesh" to mean that Jesus was never born but was instead a purely spiritual figure who never came to earth is unavailing. He completely fails to offer any comparable pagan savior parallels that were so described. In fact, his own example contradicts his theory because it involves a being who lived on earth and had a biological mother. It is much more reasonable to understand this verse in light of its plain meaning and its Jewish background--Paul thought Jesus was born of a descendent of David and this marked him as qualified to be the Messiah. But even less persuasive is Doherty's attempt to equate "according to the flesh" with the demon realm of the lower celestial realm. Neither of the authorities he cites supports his interpretation. In fact, they directly contradict it. Moreover, the most important evidence of all--Paul's own writings--reveals that Doherty's interpretation is unreasonable and unsupported. Accordingly, Romans 1:3-4 stands as a clear reference by Paul to the human life of Jesus.
Barrett, CK The Epistle to the Romans A & C Black, Ltd., 1957
Bruce, FF The New Testament Documents Downer's Grove, 2000
Carrier, Richard Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity 2002 (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/jesuspuzzle.shtml - accessed 10/12/03)
Dunn, James DG, The Epistle to the Galatians Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993
Hengel, Martin Paul Between Damascus and Antioch Westminster John Knox Press, 1997
Kittel, G and Friedrich, G eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged) Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986
Kittel, G. and Friedrich, G eds. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VII, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964-76
Thompson, MB "Tradition," in eds. Joel Green et. al. The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters Downer's Grove, 1993
Wright, NT The New Testament and the people of God Fortress Press,1996
© Christopher Price 2003.