THE GOSPELS AND THEIR SOURCES

Having established to his satisfaction that the texts that make up early christian literature is on par with any other sort of literature, Bart Ehrman delves into The Gospels, meaning the four canonical narratives about Jesus Christ found in every New Testament. They are commonly referred to by the names The Gospel According to Matthew,  …to Mark, …to Luke, and …to John. These are not, of course, the actual names of the authors, as they are generally thought to be the work of now unknown authors and at some point attributed to persons bearing those names.

Once it is conceded that the Gospels can and should be treated as historical sources, no different from other historical sources infused with their authors’ biases, it starts to become clear why historians have almost universally agreed that whatever else one might say about him, Jesus of Nazareth lived in first-century Palestine and was crucified by the prefect of Judea…

This opening section will not be convincing to naysayers, for reasons I will explain, but we need to start somewhere, and the place to start is with the surviving witnesses we have in hand.

I’m already on record as being somewhat skeptical of treating literature of every genre as equally good sources of history. But in this section quoted above I am interested in the notion of these narratives as ‘witnesses’ which on the face of it might imply more to the average reader than what can be safely claimed. After all, very few in the field of bible studies assert that these are accounts written by persons who have seen Jesus in life, or heard him speak any words. These are generally thought to be written some decades after anyone meeting the basic criteria of ‘the historical Jesus’ must have died.

If the Gospel of Mark (hereafter gMark) was written as early as 70 AD, this would be about 40 years after Jesus is thought to have died. Well within the realm of possibility of a surviving witness to recount their eyewitness testimony. However it does not seem many scholars conclude the author of gMark was himself an eyewitness, that at best he is recounting stories in circulation at the time of the composition of the narrative. Therefore he is at best a ‘witness’ to stories about Jesus. and not a witness to Jesus himself.

It is almost (but not quite) universally thought among New Testament scholars that both Matthew and Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark and used it for many of their stories about Jesus… Some mythicists – as we will see in chapter 7 – have taken this critical conclusion to a faulty end to argue that all of our Gospel accounts (even John, which has very little to do with Mark) ultimately go back to Mark so that we have only one source, not multiple sources, for the life of Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nothing? For now let us be content to wait until chapter 7 to discover whether the other narratives are independent or dependent on gMark. Suffice to say that for now let us see how Ehrman develops his theme of each of the four canonical Jesus narratives as being independent sources.

Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death… The Gospel of John is sometimes described as the ‘maverick Gospel” because it is so unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Prior to the narrative leading up to Jesus’s death, most of the stories in John are found only in John, whereas John does not include most of the stories found in the other three Gospels. And when they do share the same stories, John tells them in such a different way that he does not appear  to have received his accounts from any or all of them.

Now Ehrman’s dating of these narratives seems to be as follows:

  • gMark 70 AD
  • gMatthew  80 – 85 AD
  • gLuke 80- 85 AD
  • gJohn 90 – 95 AD

 

So within the first century we have four independent accounts of Jesus’s life and death…

Aside from these four there are others which Ehrman includes as independent accounts (because they were not considered to be ‘canonical’ they are not included in most bibles and are thus lesser known to the general public). He includes:

  • The Gospel of Thomas 110 – 120 AD
  • The Gospel of Peter (fragmentary,date unknown)
  • Papyrus Egerton 2 (fragmentary,date unknown)

To bring the independent witnesses up to lucky seven.

There are, of course, lots of other Gospels, some forty or so, down to the early Middle Ages, that are not found in the New Testament. These include narratives of Jesus as a newborn, and as a young child, where he uses his miraculous powers sometimes for mischief and sometimes for good; narratives of his public ministry; narratives of his death and resurrection.

It does appear to be the case there was quite a cottage industry in composing stories about Jesus. And this does not include narratives that did not survive into our own day, or that remain to be discovered.

But if we restrict ourselves here, as we did earlier, to a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, we have at least seven independent accounts, some of them quite extensive… For a historian these provide a wealth of materials to work with, quite unusual for accounts of anyone, literally anyone, from the ancient world.

Quite unusual, indeed.

One might say unprecedented.

This prompts me to wonder why it might be that so many persons felt compelled to write their own versions of a biography of this Jesus, people so far removed in time from the events, so remote in geography and culture from the vanished world of Judea when this Christ is supposed to have lived? It is quite the literary phenomenon.

 

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Let us leave the argument here.

To recap: The mentions of Jesus or Christ in secular and Jewish sources have been discounted as unhelpful in establishing the existence of a real man – an ‘historical Jesus’ – underneath the mythology of the Jesus of Faith that christians worshiped.

But the accounts of christians themselves bear some sort of ‘witness’ to stories about Jesus, and there are at least seven independent sources that may provide the evidence needed.

 

BEFORE WE DIVE INTO THE SCRIPTURES…

Ehrman’s go to place to find real historical evidence that a Jesus of Nazareth really lived is going to be the writings of christians – that seems to be the trend. As we’ve seen, he’s admitted there’s no archaeology, no first person accounts, no mentions by disinterested third parties to make a firm basis for belief in this matter.

Ehrman discounts Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus though many who argue Jesus is real do depend on these sources. There’s one more ‘source’ Ehrman dismisses which comes up from time to time which I think deserves mention:

In order to complete my tally of early references to Jesus, I need to say a few words about the Jewish Talmud. This is not because it is relevant, but because when talking about historical references to Jesus, many people assume it is relevant. The Talmud is a collection of disparate materials from early Judaism: legal disputes, anecdotes, folklore, customs, and sayings. Most of the material relates directly to teachings of and stories about the early rabbis, that is, Jewish teachers. The collection was put together long after the days of Jesus.

Given Ehrman’s description of the Talmud, it would seem very relevant if indeed as many claim Jesus was an early Jewish teacher. If we are going to speculate that some oral history of a Jewish teacher reached the ears of Josephus, Roman governors, and pagan historians then who better to have recorded something authentic about this Jewish teacher than the Jewish people who would presumably have been his audience? That would be the first place I’d look.

Jesus is never mentioned in the oldest part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, but appears only in the later commentaries of the Gemara. One of the problems even with these very late references is that Jesus is not actually called by name even though it is reasonably clear that he is the one being referred to.

Well, that doesn’t look good. Apparently everybody all over the Empire is talking about Jesus the Jewish teacher except Jewish people in the places where he supposedly made a spectacle of himself. It’s like finding references to Queen Elizabeth I everywhere in the world except England and in every language but English.

Ehrman mentions passages alleged to be about ‘our’ Jesus: one naming him ‘Ben Panthera’ and another mentioning ‘Yeshu had five disciples’ and being executed (in a perhaps biased account, according to Ehrman) around the Passover festival. Ehrman does not quote extensively from these accounts, but I find them very interesting.

http://www.angelfire.com/mt/talmud/jesusnarr.html

If indeed these accounts preserve any authentic information they seem to point to a Yeshu (that’s Jesus to you and me) having had his career about 100 years before the christian tales place him. This does not look good at all for Ehrman’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ as this Jesus of the Talmud is also styled ‘the Notzri’ which is a term from the Hebrew Bible and not a place name at all. So perhaps there was an ‘historic Jesus’ after all, but he’s just not the one you thought he was going to be.

Sure, it could be a coincidence. A pretty big coincidence.

 

 

 

 

 

JOSEPHUS: ONE MORE THING…

Now I have seen what Ehrman makes of the Testimonium Flavianus – he doesn’t seem to set much store by this either. But I did want to make sure to mention the other mention of Jesus Christ in today’s copies of Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus. This occurs in Book 20:

But the emperor, when he learned of the death of Festus, sent Albinus to be procurator of Judea… But the younger Ananus who, as we have already said, had obtained the high priesthood, was of an exceedingly bold and reckless disposition… Ananus, therefore, being of this character, and supposing that he had a favorable opportunity on account of the fact that Festus was dead and Albinus was still on the way, called together the Sanhedrin and brought before them the brother of Jesus, called Christ, James by name, together with some others and accused them of violating the law, and condemned them to be stoned.  But those in the city who seemed most moderate and skilled in the law were very angry at this, and sent secretly to the king, requesting him to order Ananus to cease such proceedings… And the king, Agrippa, in consequence, deprived him of the high priesthood, which he had held three months, and appointed Jesus, the son of Damneus.

Unlike the Testimonium, the time frame for this was during Josephus’s lifetime, and as such might seem to have a better chance of Josephus having some personal knowledge with what was being said about this as it happened.

Here’s all the discussion Ehrman makes of this passage:

Here, unlike the pagan references we examined earlier, Jesus is actually called by name. And we learn two things about him: he had a brother named James, and some people thought he was the messiah. Both points are abundantly attested as well, of course, in our Christian sources, but it is interesting to see that Josephus is aware of them.

No discussion of whether this passage, like the earlier one, might also have been tampered with (as is almost universally acknowledged about the Testimonium). No discussion as to whether the James mentioned here might not be the brother of the Jesus who is anointed High Priest at the end of the story.  No discussion of the curious notion that if this James was indeed the head of a heretical Jewish sect pious Jews would come to his defense (surely that would make an interesting tale of political intrigue!). Ehrman blandly accepts it as authentic to Josephus and that it does refer to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

Like the earlier passage, it is questionable whether Josephus would ever call ‘our’ Jesus by the title Christ, as that would pretty much make Josephus a christian.

It’s actually clever, I think, of Ehrman to try to slip this bit past his readers quickly with virtually zero discussion. A brief investigation shows that in discussions regarding the historicity of Jesus this passage in Book 20 also gets a lot of discussion over its provenance and its meaning. Earl Doherty, for one, is able to devote several paragraphs to this ‘evidence’ which Ehrman can only spare a couple dozen words on:

http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/supp16.htm#Ant20

Here is more discussion by another author of this passage:

http://vridar.org/2007/04/06/that-other-suspect-entry-in-josephus/

…and also:

http://vridar.org/2009/05/15/the-brother-of-jesus-called-christ-another-eusebian-footprint-in-josephus/

Now Ehrman may uncritically accept the passage, but no one else is obliged to do so.

One wonders if Ehrman will try to make use of this unvetted ‘evidence’ later in the book as corroboration of claims based on our christian sources…?

JOSEPHUS: THE MAIN EVENT!

Flavius Josephus has been the linchpin of arguments for the historicity of Jesus since he was ‘discovered’ by christian apologist Eusebius in the 4th century AD. Likewise, Ehrman makes much of this:

…on two occasions, at least in the writings as they have come down to us today, he mentions Jesus of Nazareth.

The ‘two mentions’ in current copies of Josephus occur in his work Antiquities of the Jews in books 18 and 20, which was published at the end of the 1st century AD. It was probably due to these passages which Eusebius made use of that we owe the survival of any work of Josephus at all, as his ‘witness to Christ’ was of importance to the christian scribes and copyists who transmitted these texts over the centuries.

It is in Book 18 that the famous Testimonium Flavianum occurs – extolling Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and praising the faith of his followers:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

Finding any credible person in literature who confessed Jesus was the messiah and a ‘worker of wonders’, a teacher of truth and wisdom, who died on the cross and rose again… well that was certainly something worth preserving!

For centuries this was regarded as being authentic words of Josephus, a notable Jew. Jesus was the Messiah. Take that, unbelievers!

But Ehrman is cautious about swallowing this testimony whole:

The problem with this passage should be obvious to anyone with even a casual knowledge of Josephus. We know a good deal about him, both from the autobiography that he produced and from other self-references i his writings. He was thoroughly and ineluctably Jewish and certainly never converted to be a follower of Jesus. But this passage contains comments that only a Christian would make: that Jesus was more than a man, that he was the messiah, and that he rose from the dead in fulfillment of the scriptures. In the judgement of most scholars, there is simply no way Josephus the Jew would or could have written such things. So how did these comments get into his writings?

Indeed, once the stranglehold of christian hegemony over scholarship began to weaken after the Enlightenment, secular scholars were free to reject this passage completely as an obvious forgery inserted by pious frauds. The scholarly consensus (including Christians, by the way) for about 100 years was that the mentions of Jesus Christ in Josephus are spurious – not original to Josephus at all in any way, shape, or form.

However, any scholarly consensus is tenuous because it can be overturned in the light of new evidence or new arguments (something Ehrman should remember when citing ‘the consensus’ as evidence). And efforts have been undertaken in the past few decades to rehabilitate Josephus in defense of the historicity of Jesus.

The big question is whether a Christian scribe (or scribes) simply added a few choice Christian additions to the passage or whether the entire thing was produced by a Christian and inserted in an appropriate place in Josephus’s Antiquities.

And that is indeed what some scholars are arguing: Josephus said something about Jesus and only the most purple phrases are embellishments of christian forgers.

Indeed, a sort of cottage industry has sprung up among scholars trying to come up with what they imagine the ‘original’ mention of Jesus might have been. Someday these ‘imaginary Testimoniums‘ will perhaps be collected together like the various translations of Basho’s famous frog haiku.

However, it must be noted that it is almost universally agreed that the Antiquities has been the target of forgers, and that the text is corrupted where Jesus is ‘mentioned’. Surely that should give anyone pause in considering it as evidence of historicity.

Ehrman professes not to be persuaded by arguments by Christians, historicists, or mythicists that the whole Testimonium is spurious.

But that is not the main point I want to make about the Testimonium. My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter for the question I am pursuing here. Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this. And here is why. Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium. That would show that by 93 CE – some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death – a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him. And where would Josephus have derived this information? He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation.

Which is exactly right: the most likely source for Josephus (or anyone else for that matter) writing long afterwards about Jesus – the supposed obscure dead peasant – would be from christians and their dogmas (not the most disinterested sources of information). So even if Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus are all swallowed whole not one of them stands as an independent source of information useful to an historian.

Having demolished the likelihood of any of these authors as knowing anything about a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, where then is reliable information about this ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ to be found?

NON-CHRISTIAN SOURCES ACCORDING TO EHRMAN

For the time being I’m going to skip Chapter One and try to concentrate on Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of an historical ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ – that seems to me the proper way to approach this topic. The evidence that has persuaded ‘everyone else’ that there must have been such a person.

One reason I’m having a difficult time slogging through the book is the endless hand-wringing about how he expects others to respond to his arguments. He begins his chapter on non-christian sources with seven paragraphs about how he’s ‘not attacking Christianity’ but only a certain kind of christianity. That’s great and all, but it makes actually finding the important information he’s supposedly trying to get out to the public more difficult.

After a couple of pages genuflecting to the christians he then begins his preliminary remarks about historians and their work. Again putting off making the argument and presenting evidence for later, all the while dropping more (so far) unsupported assertions that ‘Jesus is real’. Sheesh!

Ehrman uses Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon as examples. Would any historian have to pussyfoot for 57 pages before they could bring themselves to advance a single argument or bit of evidence regarding such events? It makes for extremely tedious reading for this reader to have to wade through page after page of chaff in hopes there might be a kernel of real substance.

One is tempted to drop the book as tl;dr. For Christ’s sake, spit it out!

No, first we have to take a detour through the sorts of evidence we don’t have: No physical evidence? Check. No disinterested contemporaneous accounts? Check. No eyewitness accounts? Check.

Obviously the mere existence of this Jesus fellow is a long way from being as certain as the sorts of things Ehrman compares it to – Lincoln or Caesar, or evolution, or Moon landings. A long, long way.

Finally we come to the actual evidence we do have from non-christian sources. They should be familiar to anyone who’s taken more than a passing interest in the topic:

They are Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus.

And anyone who’s taken more than a passing interest in this topic is probably aware each of these are controversial in their own way. But at least we have arrived at some of the evidence which is supposed to be persuasive!

This discussion in Ehrman’s book takes up about 18 pages.

The next section of his book will focus on the biblical and other christian sources, which runs about 100 pages.

I will take some time to explore each of these ‘non-christian’ sources individually. Beginning with Pliny in the next post.

Ehrman’s Take on The Basic Mythicist Position

Having run through his word-portraits of mythicist personalities and even gone into some detail in characterizing and criticizing the works of some authors he feels particularly ‘sensationalist’ Ehrman is finally ready to talk about what mythicism is all about.

The case that most mythicists have made against the historical existence of Jesus involves both negative and positive arguments, with far more of the former.

Which I think is to be expected – if one were to argue that unicorns do not really exist the lack of evidence for them would loom large in any discussion of the matter. This in itself speaks to the burden of proof: it’s generally agreed that those who propose something like the existence of unicorns need to make their case – it’s not up to anyone else to disprove them. But it’s not unusual for those unable to meet the burden of proof to challenge the skeptical listener to ‘prove I’m wrong’.

We see this in debates between theists and atheists all the time. Because belief in gods is so ubiquitous, it is often argued that the burden of proof is on the atheist to prove there aren’t any gods. Which seems rather absurd. Because the characteristics of these gods are so mutable and vague it’s difficult to know what would constitute ‘proof’ that none exist. A more reasonable view is for those making the positive claim to define what they mean and then back it up with what they think might be evidence for their view.

Likewise for the debate about the existence of Jesus: just because many belief there was a Jesus does not mean that there is no burden of proof on those who make this claim. As we have seen, Ehrman has characterized the question of Jesus’s historical existence as an unexamined axiom of Biblical studies which only with the publication of his book Did Jesus Exist? became an explicit argument intended to make that case.

I realized when doing my research for the book that since New Testament scholars have never taken mythicists seriously, they have never seen a need to argue against their views, which means that 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. How do you prove that someone from 2000 years ago actually lived? I have to say, it was terrifically enlightening, engaging, and fun to think through all the issues and come up with all the arguments. I think really almost any New Testament scholar could have done it. But it ended up being lucky me.

http://ehrmanblog.org/did-jesus-exist-as-part-one/

Obviously if no one is really making a case for an historical Jesus (up until now) then one can hardly fault mythicists for failing to rebut one.

In any case, I think it is a fair assessment to say that there are both positive and negative arguments for a mythicist position: on the negative side there is the lack of evidence for Jesus as an historical person and on the positive side there should be arguments for how the figure of Jesus came about. To return to the unicorn example we have the lack of evidence for unicorns plus hypotheses as to how such a fabulous creature should have been developed.

On the negative side, mythicists typically stress that there are no reliable references to the existence of Jesus in any non-Christian sources of the first century. Jesus allegedly lived until about the year 30 CE. But no Greek or Roman author (or any other non-Christian author, for that matter) mentions him for over eighty years after that.

This would seem to be a fair characterization of a negative argument. While it is in itself not a decisive argument (after all most people who may have existed during this time period were not mentioned in surviving texts either), it would certainly help the case for an historic Jesus if there were some record of him outside of devotional literature. For instance, if there were no references to Boudicca by known contemporary authors what reason would we have to conclude she existed? And indeed the documentary evidence is slim – but slim is not none.

Ehrman will revisit this negative claim in detail later, so I will reserve discussion of it until then

(On a side note I’m getting rather frustrated by the constant flitting about: topics keep getting mentioned, hints dropped, promises made to go into detail later, etc such that it’s difficult to get a fix on the full argument. There’s a certain vague hand waving air that ‘all will be shown in due time’ that I get the impression I’m supposed to take these bland statements on faith for now. Is this how arguments are generally developed by established academicians? Make insinuations about the personalities of the people whose conclusions you disagree with before you address their arguments? Assert things as facts with only a promise that you will eventually establish them as facts?)

But let us move on to the other area where ‘lack of evidence’ is thought to plague claims for an historical Jesus:

In addition, they typically claim that the historical Jesus does not appear prominently even in early Christian writings apart from the New Testament Gospels. In particular, they maintain that the apostle Paul says hardly anything about the historical Jesus or that he says nothing at all. This may come as a shock to most readers of the New Testament, but a careful reading of Paul’s letters shows the problems. Paul has a lot to say about Jesus’s death and resurrection – especially the resurrection – and he clearly worships him as his Lord. But he says very little indeed about anything that Jesus said and did while he was alive. Why would that be, if Jesus was in fact a historical person?

This also seems like a good summing up of arguments I have seen regarding the epistolary record. The New Testament is a body of ‘canonical’ devotional literature part of which consists in texts in the form of letters supposedly written by various early christian heroes. Some of these are thought to have originated in the first century between the alleged date of Jesus’s crucifixion and the composition of the famous Four Gospels.

Now there are several issues connected with this – the first I should mention is ‘canonical’: there was a great deal more written about christianity by early christians which was not deemed as worthy of  acceptance when it came down to deciding which texts would be held as ‘theologically correct’ by an emerging orthodoxy. That is to say, there were many different ideas about what christianity was, who or what Jesus was, and many versions and variations of tales circulated from the earliest record. Those who thought their version was the correct one condemned the others as ‘heretics’ just as christians do today.

In any event, the version of christianity that won out over the others enforced its version of christianity in part by selecting among all the available literature which texts were required reading and how those texts were to be interpreted. So the New Testament is just a selected collection of devotional works that fit the agenda of one particular sect. Since everything that was excluded from this sample was either considered unimportant or even harmful, much of it was lost or deliberately destroyed. Much of what we know about these other christianities that flourished from the earliest times is literature from the winners in the historical contest – often polemical treatises condemning them.

How accurate these portrayals are is questionable indeed. Imagine if the only record we had of Abraham Lincoln was that of the secessionists in the United States, or the only record we had of Winston Churchill was written by Joseph Goebbels. Fortunately for historians some of the documents of alternative christianities have managed to survive and we are able to read for ourselves what else was thought and taught during this fertile time.

Of a variety of portraits of Jesus available to people of that time (on the assumption that the epistles do in fact predate the gospel tales) it is interesting to compare and contrast the earlier version of Jesus as found in Paul to the later-emerging narratives of the Jesus story. It would seem that much that was later put out about Jesus was different than the Jesus who appears in the epistles. This is another oddity which must be accounted for.

So if it is true that the historical Jesus is not known from disinterested contemporary authors, and not known from what is thought to be the earliest writings of the christians, where do we get information of an historical Jesus?

This means that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are our only real sources for knowing about the historical Jesus, and mythicists find these four sources highly problematic as historical documents. For one thing, they were written near the end of the first century at best, four or five decades or more after Jesus allegedly lived. If he really did live, wouldn’t we have some earlier sources? And how can we rely on such hearsay from so many years later?

Moreover, mythicists typically point out that the Gospels cannot be trusted in what they do say. Their many accounts of what Jesus said and did are chock-full of contradictions and discrepancies and so are completely unreliable. The Gospels are thoroughly biased toward their subject matter and so do not present anything like disinterested history “as it really was.” They can be shown to have modified the stories they relate, and in some places they obviously have made up stories about Jesus. In fact, virtually all – or even all – of the stories may have been invented.

Likewise this seems to be a reasonable statement of some criticisms made by many people of the gospel tales, whether they believe in an historical Jesus or they don’t.

As such these facts are further hurdles for those who want to argue for an historical Jesus – not only the lack of evidence from disinterested sources, but even from the earliest interested sources. And when sources for a biography of Jesus belatedly arrive on the scene, they are highly dubious.

Furthermore, many mythicists insist that the Four Gospels ultimately all go back to just one of the Gospels, Mark, on which the other three were based.

This is hardly a controversial claim. It is widely accepted that the Gospel of Mark (so called – really just attributed to someone named Mark who, as legend has it, took down the testimony of Simon Peter, allegedly a disciple of Jesus) was the first of the canonical four to be written, as the others seem to copy it and then expand upon it.

This does not impose an insuperable difficulty for someone who wants to argue for an historical Jesus, though it should serve as a warning that attempts to ‘multiply’ the number of sources in an effort to bolster the case is on notice that it’s well known that four versions of one story is not four independent sources.

Given all these problems, some mythicists insist that the burden of proof rests on anyone who wants to claim that Jesus did in fact exist.

We don’t even need to enumerate the problems to realize that the burden of proof is on those who make such a claim. That is where it always belonged. Ehrman seems to think there’s something wrong in mythicists ‘insisting’ on holding true to this basic principle of reasoning. Why this should be surprising to anyone, or a point that must be insisted upon against those trying to shrug off their responsibilities, is quite telling about the attitude Ehrman has toward meeting those responsibilities.

Added to these negative arguments is one very important positive one, that the stories about Jesus – many of them incredible, all of them based on late and unreliable witnesses – are paralleled time and again in the myths about pagan gods and other divine men discussed in the ancient world.

Thus Ehrman sums up what he takes to be the basic mythicist position, which I think is fair as far as it goes. Although it’s my understanding that there is much more to the positive case, but that is where we find much more diversity among those proposing that Jesus is more likely a literary figure than an historical one.

The discussion about the content of the epistles and the gospel tales touches on this – if it’s true that much of this material is literary in character (for instance, it’s widely recognized that half of the epistles attributed to Paul in the canon are forged in his name) then that is in itself positive evidence for a ‘mythical’ Jesus – evidence that the authors are ‘caught in the act’ of invention rather than faithfully recording history as they know it.

But now we are finally ready to embark on Ehrman’s discussion of what he takes to be the positive case for an historic Jesus, a task long avoided by the mainstream scholarly community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking mythicists seriously. Seriously?

Despite the profound implications of the question of whether Jesus existed historically (or only as a figure from literature – a myth) it seems there is no discussion of this issue because it is not taken seriously by those whose work is most closely affected by it:

It is fair to say that mythicists as a group, and as individuals, are not taken seriously by the vast majority of scholars in the fields of New Testament, early Christianity, ancient history, and theology. This is widely recognized, to their chagrin, by mythicists themselves. Archibald Robertson, in one of the classic works in the field, says with good reason, “The mythicist… does not get fair play from professional theologians. They either meet him with a conspiracy of silence or, if that is impossible, treat him as an amateur whose lack of academic status robs his opinion of any value…”

If  in fact mythicists do not get fair play by established academics, then we can certainly look forward to this situation being corrected now that the secret is out. Ehrman goes on to give examples of others who summarily dismiss the views which are so antithetical to their own (John Meier and I Howard Marshall).

Having established that, in his view, mythicists are treated unfairly by academics in his field, Ehrman goes on to mention some whose arguments must be considered:

As I will indicate more fully later, I think Wells – and Price, and several other mythicists – do deserve to be taken seriously, even if their claims are in the end dismissed.

Which is in the end the ideal – ideas are not simply to be ignored nor dismissed without a hearing – even if it becomes clear that the evidence does not support a theory at this time it is fruitful to know where it fails and how it might be instructive to look at old ideas from a fresh perspective. Even if mythicism does not succeed in persuading, some of the critiques it offers may be beneficial in testing hypotheses of the current consensus.

 

Knowing that Ehrman intends to take some mythicists seriously, we are about to embark for the meat of the matter. But before we do Ehrman treats his readers to a couple of appetizers, authors who he does not feel should be taken seriously: D M Mudock whose work includes The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold and Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy whose book The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? comes under some scrutiny.

While it is useful to provide a taste of the sensationalist claims that one can find in this literature, I do not think that the serious authors who have pursued a mythicist agenda (for example G A Wells, Robert Price, and now Richard Carrier) can be tarnished with the same brush or be condemned with guilt by association. Their work has to stand or fall on its own. independent of the foibles and shortcomings of the sensationalists.

That’s good to know, because in my experience many who have taken up the historicist agenda make it quite clear that ‘guilt by association’ is a major pillar of their mode of argumentation. That is when they’re not simply ignoring mythicists, or condemning the on the basis of what credentials they hang on their office walls.