I think I left my post at a bit of a cliff-hanger: Bart Ehrman admitting it never occurred to him, or any of his colleagues, to question whether the subject of much of their reading, writing, debating – namely Jesus – ever really existed outside of the literature.
Ehrman puts it thus in his blog:
…even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it. Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise.
Which harks back to my previous post – no one in a hundred or more years thought to give the question of the existence of Jesus serious consideration? That’s just very intriguing to me. Scholars today believe Jesus lived because they were taught it, and their teachers were taught by their teachers, and so on into the mists of time.
You can begin to feel the dead weight of tradition here. No one questions the basic assumption upon which the whole edifice stands. It never even occurs to them!
Now, of course ‘historical Jesus’ studies is just that – trying to discover what a Jesus who lived outside of literature might be like. And over the decades many novel interpretations are to be had. And I think one factor that contributes to this plethora of images of an ‘historical Jesus’ is how very little information there is.
Now Bart Ehrman complains that his work on the New Testament is sometimes ‘misused’ by mythicists to bolster their claims. Perhaps that happens – there’d have to be some specific examples.
But I think in a general way it is right to use the information that Ehrman publishes about the unreliability of the NT writings even if Ehrman disagrees with the conclusion. By way of analogy just because A invented fire to keep warm doesn’t mean fire is ‘invalid’ if it’s used by B to cook food.
Because many of the mutually contradictory versions of the ‘historical Jesus’ that come out with monotonous regularity use those very discredited writings to flesh out their biographies. We might not know what words Jesus used, but he probably taught this, or that, or something else entirely. Well, we can’t be sure any action Jesus took but this incident proves – no that didn’t happen but when Jesus – no that’s not right either.
Basically the things they agree on are the big three: there was a Jew called Jesus, he had followers, he was crucified. Everything else is rather sketchy.
But then, if there were Heracles historicists’ they’d probably agree on a similar short list: there was a Greek named Heracles, he was strong, suffered from anger issues. But nothing there really to indicate strongly that there was a specific Greek strongman upon whom the stories of Heracles were based.
Next – back to the text.