“Out of context!”

Now I’m aware that certain objections can and will be raised in my depiction thus far of the introduction of Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? on the score that it is a perverse reading and not at all what the author intended. By digging out certain telling phrases Ehrman writes for consideration I am simply ‘quote-mining’ the text in a manner that misrepresents the message. In terms used by apologists I am ‘taking things out of context’ and twisting his words.

However, in writing about a book there’s a certain inevitability to quoting the author’s words. If I don’t quote Ehrman there’s the objection that I’m not showing where he says this, that, or the other thing. It’s a sort of Catch-22 situation: damned if I do and damned if I don’t. All I can do is present my own interpretation as best I can and support it with the best available evidence.

It’s very possible that I am misunderstanding what I read – that’s always a danger in communication of any kind. Only an extended dialog can have any hope of disentangling the deficiencies of language. To someone of a different background to my own it may be that Ehrman’s introduction of himself and the problem his book is intended to address is utterly uncontroversial and merely bland statements of objective facts.

But I didn’t have to troll through the whole book to find a few unrepresentative phrases whose context blunt their literal meaning – all this is found in the densely-packed 7 pages of the introduction. Moreover this introduction of only 16 paragraphs is recursive on the twin themes of the expertise of Ehrman and professors of New Testament studies versus the amateur status and the vociferousness of the mythicists. All the valorizing of Ehrman and his colleagues doesn’t occur in one spot and all the demonizing of mythicists doesn’t occur in another discrete section: thus it’s necessary when considering one or the other some discriminating reading is required.

It’s my judgement that this is a fair reading of what Ehrman writes: two camps are delineated and set in opposition. Ehrman uses rather loaded words associated with the mythicist camp and creates a kind of paranoid narrative of an alarming  insidious influence which he intends to counter because ‘evidence matters’.

Even if what I am pointing out about Ehrman’s writing is accurate, is it not a true representation of the situation? Aren’t the professors in New Testament academia disinterested experts whose opinions should carry weight in comparison to the amateur mythicists? No doubt there is a great deal of expertise among those who teach at seminaries, divinity schools, and colleges and universities. No doubt there are many among the mythicists whose credentials are less prestigious, and necessarily ‘amateur’ as Ehrman defines it: not employed as teachers of religious studies.

If all we had to consider was the credentials of the parties involved we’d probably tend to plump for the more impressive resume.

However, there’s more to making a persuasive argument than simply flashing curricula vitae at one another like peacocks shaking their tails.

As Ehrman contends academic Jesus scholars haven’t actually made a case for the historical existence of Jesus it’s rather difficult to to dismiss those who do make a case against that proposition out of hand. Indeed it appears that the existence of Jesus is simply assumed as an axiom among New Testament scholars. Small wonder that their opinion that Jesus certainly existed suffers from a certain skepticism among people who are interested in whether it is true or not. One is hardly inclined to accept an argument that is never offered.

In fact this is the reason Ehrman feels compelled to write this book: no one has made the case for Jesus’s existence, and he fears that the case that Jesus did not in fact exist outside of literature appears more persuasive because of that deficiency among New Testament academics.

I think this is also why Ehrman needs to include a refutation of mythicism in his book outlining his case for an historic Jesus of Nazareth: the ‘not proven’ camp is the only one trying to make any case at all.

Now as to the charges against mythicists of ‘passion for conspiracy’, ‘shallowness of historical knowledge’, ‘vociferousness’, ‘radical skepticism’, ‘militancy’, ‘agenda driven’ and the like – these are all claims that remain to be demonstrated.

Are there mythicists who exemplify one or more of these traits? I wouldn’t be surprised – the world is full of people of all kinds of characters and qualities. On the other hand are there among those who believe there really was a Jesus who also share one or more of these traits? It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. It’s my contention that by deliberately associating these ‘negative’ traits only to the mythicists without acknowledging the likelihood that believers in a real Jesus may just as easily share them is putting an undue spin on the debate. Ehrman is casting things in a ‘good guy versus bad guy’ story form with himself and his colleagues wearing the white hats.

It’s this sort of behavior which undermines my confidence in Ehrman’s claim to be a ‘dispassionate historian’ and perhaps an unreliable narrator in what is to follow.

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2 thoughts on ““Out of context!”

  1. Just found your blog today…I put a link to it on my blog. You have chosen a challenging subject to kick it off. I’ll definitely be a follower.

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