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.

 

######

 

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.

 

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.

Bruno Bauer – mythicist martyr?

Ehrman introduces Bruno Bauer in his brief history of mythicism section:

The first bona fide scholar of the Bible to claim that Jesus never existed was a German theologian named Bruno Bauer, generally regarded among New Testament scholars as very smart and very idiosyncratic… When he started out as a scholar, Bauer concurred with everyone else in the field that there was historically reliable material in the first three Gospels of the New Testament… As he progressed in his research, however, and subjected the Gospel accounts to a careful, detailed, and hypercritical evaluation, Bauer began to think that Jesus was a literary invention of the gospel writers. Christianity, he concluded, was an amalgamation of Judaism with the Roman philosophy of Stoicism. This was obviously an extreme and radical view for a professor of theology to take at the state-supported German University of Bonn. It ended up costing him his job.

I do hope Ehrman intends to revisit Bauer and discuss some of the actual evidence which convinced this smart and careful scholar that Jesus was a literary invention. As it is we are left to wonder what could prompt an academic to go against the  cultural and political prejudices of his time. We are only told by Ehrman that Bauer was ‘idiosyncratic’, that his views were ‘extreme’ and ‘radical’ and that 

…[Bruno Bauer] had virtually no followers in the scholarly world.

Hardly surprising Bauer had virtually no following among scholars when you consider how Bauer was punished for holding the view that Jesus never existed outside the pages of literature. He lost his position, which rather makes you wonder about those who cite ‘no one in academia holds the mythicist view’ when it is evident that expressing that view is apparently enough to get you fired.

Considering how hard people work to obtain jobs in academia, and the prestige that comes with it, you can understand why someone might be loathe to jeopardize their place in academia by even considering the question and keeping your dangerous ideas to yourself. As academic scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann notes

I should also mention that the biggest reason for the shyness of scholars with respect to the non-historicity thesis had/has to do with academic appointments (as in security thereof) rather than common sense. As a middle-of-the road Hegelian like Strauss discovered.

 

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/christ-myth-and-holocaust-denial/#comment-10067

This is not even something that could only happen in the ‘bad old days’ – recently another respected and reputable scholar lost his job when he publicly declared his considered opinion that Jesus was not an historical person: Thomas L Brodie was dismissed from the institution he founded when he revealed his conviction that Jesus was a figure of myth. 

But the ‘no academic mythicists’ mantra rings rather hollow when you realize this is not so much an observation about scholars as it is apparently a statement of enforced policy. In a piece appearing on the Huffington Post website Ehrman stated

…there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html

So not only will mythicists be fired if they are found out, they won’t even be hired in the first place, for no other reason than considering Jesus a myth. It begins to sound like members of a restricted club claiming ‘Jews can’t play golf’ simply because they don’t allow them to join the club.

But I do want to go back and look at some of the words Ehrman uses to describe Bauer and his views: idiosyncratic, hypercritical, extreme, and radical.

It’s not abundantly clear what ‘idiosyncratic’ is supposed to mean here. Certainly Bauer seems to have been bold enough to go against the grain of the times, but that tells us nothing about the value of their approach or their findings. Perhaps it’s just a word used to underscore the ‘mythicists are a minority’ meme Ehrman wants to emphasize, with the implication that there’s something wrong with taking a minority position. And as we’ve seen, steps are taken to make sure it’s a minority position.

And what is ‘hypercritical’ meant to stand for? Literally it means ‘overly critical’, but just how critical is the ‘just right’ amount? The amount that Ehrman is critical? I often hear the term ‘hyper-skeptical’ thrown at atheists because they dismiss claims of magic and other supernatural phenomenon on the grounds that evidence for such things is lacking. Perhaps it’s just meant to mean ‘not credulous enough for my taste’.

Then we have the charge of ‘extremism’. There’s not much one can do with that – I mean how much of a spectrum of views is there? Yes Jesus existed, no he didn’t? Aren’t they both equally ‘extreme’? Or is Bauer’s views ‘extreme’ only to mean ‘unpopular among scholars who want to keep their jobs’? It seems to me that ‘extremism’ is just another scare word flung at a scholar like Bauer in hopes it will stick in the mind of his readers even if only subconsciously.

Then there is ‘radical’ which has a couple of senses to it, one which may well be technically accurate: Bauer’s years of study and scholarship led him to conclude that the very root belief about the origins of christianity – that it was based more or less on the biography of an historical Jesus – turns out to be a false trail. In this sense Bauer is addressing the roots of the whole enterprise, introducing a whole new paradigm, and could be described as radical just as Copernicus’s heliocentric model was a ‘radical’ shift in perspective.

Having grown up during the Cold War I also know that ‘radical’ is often used in a pejorative sense – every time I would read in the newspaper about ‘radicals’ I knew exactly what point of view I was supposed to take about these persons. They weren’t ‘our kind’, they were dangerous. and if not actually evil they were certainly misguided. Certainly for the general reader a less emotionally loaded way of characterizing Bauer’s work could be found?

For those interested in a little more in depth discussion of Bauer I include a couple of links to a blog I highly recommend: Vridar

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/bruno-bauer-through-albert-schweitzer/

and

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/08/18/bruno-bauer-and-today-is-this-not-the-carpenter-chapter-2/

Though perhaps Ehrman will revisit Bauer later in his book, we’ll have to leave it here for now.

The Jesus of Faith a myth?

In the previous post, I discuss the unspoken common ground between the ‘historical Jesus’ and the ‘Jesus of Faith’ and how Ehrman uses this to portray ‘mythicists’ as a minority view. It’s safe to say that a great number of teachers in theological seminaries and divinity schools (and I think many in ‘secular’ colleges and universities) believe that Jesus not only existed, but worked miracles, rose from the dead, and was the son of a god, and communes with believers from his seat in Heaven. Up until now Ehrman has downplayed this fact.

In the first chapter An Introduction to the Mythical View of Jesus Ehrman does have something to say about these ‘real scholars’ and the Jesus they teach:

The Jesus proclaimed by preachers and theologians today had no existence. That particular Jesus is (or those particular Jesuses are) a myth.

Here Ehrman betrays that all is not well in the Jesus academy – the Jesus of Faith (the Jesus or Jesuses accepted by many if not most of the teachers in theological seminaries, divinity schools, and colleges and universities) is a myth.  It would hardly come as a surprise if many of them have a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus, invoke him in their prayers, and view his ministry on Earth as the single most important even in human history. Doesn’t this seem to undermine his contention that ‘nearly every trained scholar on the planet’ is exercising a dispassionate interest in maintaining that Jesus – his words and deeds – is the real cause of christianity?

It appears as though Ehrman is being a bit disingenuous, and insulting the intelligence of his readers, if he can use these real scholars to try and make mythicists out to be a ‘very small minority voice’ and then just as quickly quietly discard them when he has no further use of them. Ehrman is trying to walk a very thin line here, and perhaps hoping his readership won’t notice that the evidence that convinces the bulk of believers in the reality of a Jesus of Nazareth is informed by faith.

Having wrapped himself in the lion’s skin of ‘all the experts on the planet’ Ehrman intends to speak for them knowing full well his own view is most likely a minority opinion among these ‘experts’.

For now I want to stress the most foundational point of all: even though some views of Jesus could loosely be labeled myths (in the sense that mythicists use the term: these views are not history but imaginative creation), Jesus himself was not a myth. He really existed.

Having first embraced these believers in mythical Jesuses because like him the also believe Jesus really existed, Ehrman now is prepared to throw them under the bus.

Mythicism: like Creationism and Holocaust denial?

I have reserved a couple of Ehrman’s assertions in his introduction to Did Jesus Exist? for discussion in detail so as not to dilute their significance with the rather more casual characterizations of mythicists. Those were bad enough, but in my reading these two examples fairly leap off the page as being especially revealing.

In his argument about the expertise of academic Jesus scholars Ehrman gradually turns up the heat:

Those who do not think Jesus existed are frequently militant in their views and remarkably adept at countering evidence that to the rest of the civilized world seems compelling and even unanswerable… The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist.

…the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet.

This is where Ehrman begins to contrast the expert to the amateur – you want your dentist to be an expert, or your architect to draw up your house plans, don’t you? Professionals with years of training and experience. He goes on to bring this contrast to the field of history.

It may be the case that some of my students get the bulk of their knowledge of the Middle Ages from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but is that really the best place to turn? So too millions of people have acquired their “knowledge” about early Christianity – about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the emperor Constantine, the Council of Nicaea – from Dan Brown’, author of the aforementioned The Da Vinci Code. But at the end of the day, is that such a wise choice?

Ironically, both Monty Python and Dan Brown in their works of fiction posit that Jesus did in fact exist. It would be interesting if Ehrman acknowledged that shallowness and a passion for conspiracy is part of the worldview of some who share his conviction that Jesus was a real historical person. Indeed, may get their ideas about Jesus from the devotional literature of the New Testament, a body of literature riddled with problems as almost universally admitted among everyone who’s done any study of it (including Ehrman himself!). But perhaps that would introduce too many shades of gray in the black and white portrait he’s trying to draw.

Serious historians of the early Christian movement – all of them – have spent many years preparing to be experts in their field. Just to read the ancient sources requires expertise in a range of ancient languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and often Aramaic, Syriac, and Coptic, not to mention the modern languages of scholarship (for example, German and French). And that is just for starters. Expertise requires years of patiently examining ancient texts and a thorough grounding in the history and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, both pagan and Jewish, knowledge of the history of the Christian church and the development of its social life and theology, and, well, lots of other things.

Indeed we are all indebted to the work of scholarship for much of whatever we may believe about early christian history and the stories of the New Testament. Even the humble Bibles used by believer and skeptic alike is only accessible because of the work of translation from ancient into modern language. It’s no secret that the work of experts have contributed mightily to shaping whatever knowledge we might have about the literature and history of early christianity.

And today’s academic scholars are likewise indebted to past scholars for their training and the theoretical framework within which they practice their discipline. For more than a thousand years scholarship was the preserve of that same Christian church, and its concerns and agenda controlled what could and could not be studied and what could and could not be published. Sometimes to the point of outright murder of dissenters. Only gradually over hundreds of years could an academia free of dogmatic oversight begin to produce a secular body of independent scholarly literature.

Nonetheless, even today a significant part of the academic world – especially in Jesus studies – is still under the thumb of religious control. And when Ehrman includes teachers at theological seminaries and divinity schools among his body of experts he tacitly admits that fact.

Moreover simply because one attends or is employed at a secular school it does not necessarily preclude one from being a person of the christian faith. Indeed in our society most people identify themselves as being christians of one stripe or another – the one unifying theme of christianity being belief in Jesus whatever doctrinal differences divide them. Even those who do not subscribe to christianity are very likely to have been raised as christians in a society awash in christian beliefs. Even free thinkers are likely to simply accept that Jesus existed by osmosis.

So I think it is fair to say that belief that there was a Jesus – whether you accept theological claims about him or not – is the almost universal axiomatic jumping off point for just about  everyone. Which is reflected in thinking about ancient times. We mark time from the supposed date of the birth of Jesus, and it’s non-controversial for anyone talking about the period to refer to it as ‘the time of Christ’. It appears that the notion of Jesus as an historical person is part of the warp and woof of our culture.

These considerations go a long way, I believe, in explaining why New Testament scholars never thought to try and demonstrate that this Jesus really existed. It’s a given.

These considerations also go a long way, I think, in explaining Ehrman’s puzzlement about the existence of people who deny the existence of Jesus.

Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

The idea that the central figure in the field of study so many have devoted their lives to might be a myth must have been a shock. Ehrman makes a couple of comparisons to express just how shocking this ‘radical skepticism’ is:

It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure. Again, this is not a piece of evidence, but if nothing else, it should give one pause. In the field of biology, evolution may be “just” a theory (as some politicians painfully point out), but it is the theory subscribed to, for good reason, by every real scientist in every established university in the Western world.

In this analogy Jesus is to history as evolution is to biology. To deny the real existence of Jesus is like denying the realty of evolution. To be a mythicist is like being a creationist.

Now, as Ehrman tells us, biologists subscribe to evolution as an explanatory theory for good reason. The question is, do New Testament scholars subscribe to the historical existence of Jesus for equally good reasons? After all there is literally tons of evidence for evolution – there are so many fossils that museums can’t display them all and new evidence is discovered every day. Is Ehrman really trying to imply there is the same overwhelming unambiguous glut of hard evidence for Jesus?

If there isn’t a similar state of the evidence in both cases, then Ehrman’s comparison fails. Can we really accept that some of the prestige enjoyed by evolutionary science can rub off onto New Testament studies in this way? I don’t think so.

Now if Jesus scholars aren’t much like evolutionary biologist in the significant way Ehrman implies, are mythicists in any significant way like creationists?

In the face of the growing accumulation of evidence for evolution creationists by and large have only a couple of tacks available to them: that the evidence is faked, that naturalistic explanations couldn’t work even if it’s not fake, and that the traditional explanation of magical intervention is more likely.

Now it is known that some of the New Testament materials are fakes, even by the New Testament scholars. This is just a problem everyone interested in the study of early christianity has to cope with. This is a rather important distinction between the state of evidence for biological evolution and Jesus studies. So it’s hardly controversial that people who reject the historicity of Jesus acknowledge this fact.

As far as I know most mythicists are willing to acknowledge that the historical Jesus hypothesis could work if there were sufficient evidence – it is known that legends can grow up around real historical persons.

Finally, it seems to me most mythicists propose a thoroughly naturalistic explanation for the development of christianity as a distinct religious movement.

On this score I think Ehrman’s comparison of mythicists to creationists also fails. Can we reasonably accept that some of the distaste and disdain for creationists should rub off on mythicists? No.

Now having tried to make an analogy along these lines Ehrman goes directly to another comparison:

Still, as is clear from the avalanche of sometimes outraged postings on all the relevant Internet sites, there is simply no way to convince conspiracy theorists that the evidence for their position is too thin to be convincing and that the evidence for the traditional view is thoroughly persuasive. Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that a majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing – whether it involves the fact of the Holocaust, the landing on the moon, the assassination of presidents, or even a presidential place of birth – will not be convinced. Simply will not be convinced.

This is the most egregious slur against mythicists, attempting to put them in the same boat as a laundry-list of familiar cultural ‘bad guys’ and whipping boys.

Mythicists are people who are not persuaded of what a majority believes, so they are part of the ‘anyone’ Ehrman excoriates. And what is this ‘evidence’ that this majority finds overwhelmingly persuasive? Mostly it’s the Bible. And the weight of more than a thousand years of cultural domination of christian dogma.

I find it appalling that Ehrman trivializes the Holocaust by dragging it into his argument in a transparent attempt to tar mythicists with the same broad brush. Is this how a scholar is supposed to conduct himself? And this is no slip of the pen – he makes the same comparison in articles and interviews during the media blitz advertising his book.

By choosing to frame the debate about whether or not Jesus really existed in such Manichean terms it appears to me that Ehrman is betraying some insecurity as to whether a dispassionate examination of the evidence will be persuasive, and thus resorts to poisoning the well. He seems to be trying to inoculate his readership against taking the arguments of mythicists with an open mind and freely and fairly judging them on their merits. Because he has planted this seed in their minds that to listen to them will be like giving a sympathetic hearing to Holocaust deniers, creationists, and conspiracists.

Even if Ehrman privately thinks this way, he would have been better served to let the evidence and the arguments speak for themselves. By giving vent to such an emotional outburst Ehrman gives discerning readers good reason to doubt that he gives scholars who are not persuaded of the existence of an historical Jesus a fair hearing.

“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.

The Importance of Being Expert

Now that Ehrman has broached the topic of being an ‘expert’ I think we should try and grasp what he thinks that means. 

Let’s see what he compares expertise in New Testament studies to: 

Dentists, Architects, Biologists, Historians…

Now the thing about some of these comparisons is that we know teeth exist and know what good dentistry is thereby, we know buildings exist and can judge good architecture from the performance of their designs, and we know living things exist and thus there is something real by which we can judge the accomplishments of a biologist entails. Success is measurable. There are real consequences which are perceptible to all of us.

Moreover no one needs to have a dentist who teaches dentistry, or an architect who teaches architecture, or a biologist who teaches biology to consider them able to do their job. So all the breast-beating about ‘anyone not holding a teaching position can’t have expertise’ rather loses its luster after a few moment’s reflection.

Now is someone who studies Jesus in the same ballpark with any of these? I think it’s comparing horses and unicorns. The base of knowledge for these other disciplines is cumulative, obtaining better results over the generations because discoveries here are palpable and solid.

But look at the record of the various ‘quests’ for an historical Jesus. Time after time they come up empty, or with conflicting results. Never securing anything lasting, because the next consensus can easily overturn the previous ‘certainty’ – the only thing they seem to agree on was that there was a man called Jesus: everything else is up for grabs. And if Ehrman is correct that ‘there was a man called Jesus’ is never questioned, discussed, or demonstrated by any of these ‘experts’ then the only thing they agree on is an uncritically accepted assumption.

For the other ‘experts’ Ehrman compares himself to, the proof is in their results.

You may notice I haven’t discussed his comparison of Jesus scholars to historians.

Indeed he claims to be an historian. Now what does he compare the ‘certainty’ of Jesus’s existence to in the field of history?

The Holocaust, the moon landing, the assassination of Presidents, Obama’s birthplace.

Well, at this point Ehrman is going to have to pony up some pretty new and startling evidence to demonstrate that the existence of Jesus is anywhere near as sure as any of these facts. We’ve got physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, photographs, films, and all kinds of original documents pertaining to the historical events he lists. Has Ehrman like evidence for Jesus?

So I’m just about ready to jump into the first chapter of his book where Ehrman will try to make good on this promise: that the existence of Jesus is as undeniable as the Holocaust (to which we have living witnesses to this very day, reams of original documents, physical remains, photographs and films, eyewitness accounts, and confessions of some of the evil-doers).

If Ehrman can equal the literally tons of evidence for the reality of the Holocaust, he will have accomplished something no human in history can boast of.

But I do have at least one thing to add before we leave behind Ehrman’s introduction, and I will post on that next time.