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.

 

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THE GOSPELS AS HISTORICAL SOURCES?

I must admit, it has been hard to continue reading Ehrman’s book as it’s of the kind where one cannot long resist the temptation to throw it down in disgust. This reputed scholar exhibits so many failures of logic that it is difficult to take him or his arguments seriously. One wonders whether he really believes as he writes or if he’s merely cynical – and which of these is the worse?

Chapter Three of Did Jesus Exist? begins with the assertion that Ehrman’s critics are mistaken when they assert that his work is needlessly hostile to ‘the Bible’ and/or merely repeating that which is already well known. Alleged hostility to ‘the Bible’ is much the same as far as I am concerned as allegations that one is ‘anti-christian’ – ultimately meaningless attacks on one’s motives without regard to the verity of the evidence and arguments. It’s interesting that Ehrman makes out the ‘saying nothing new’ critique as some sort of ad hominem attack when Ehrman has no  reluctance to compare some of his critics to ‘Holocaust deniers’ and other popular bugbears. Ehrman should look to the log in his own eye before attempting to pick the dust from anyone else’s eye…

With that introductory salvo we are treated to a preliminary comment on using the gospels (presumably the four canonical narratives included in present day versions of ‘the Bible’ and not the many other ‘gospel narratives’ produced in the same time period) as historical sources.

As I will try to show momentarily, the Gospels, their sources, and the oral tradition that lie behind them combine to make a convincing case that Jesus really existed.

One admirable trait Ehrman possesses as a writer is the ability to pack a great number of claims into a short and pithy remark, such that one is apt to see that a great many assumptions lie behind a sentence of a few well-chosen words. Here we are treated to three distinct entities, each of which is somewhat problematic, as if they are givens that we should accept without examination.

Firstly, let us consider ‘the Gospels’ – what we have is a plethora of versions of each ‘gospel’ – notably in the case of the Gospel of Mark there are ‘long’ and ‘short’ versions.This is due in part to the necessity of copying books by hand in earlier ages, but also to the opportunity provided by that necessity to alter the text as it is passed through different hands from one generation to the next. For the ordinary reader we are presented with what is considered the ‘best’ version (much like we find in reading Shakespeare’s plays) but no version is necessarily definitive as there is no original with which to compare extant copies. When interpretation can depend on even a single word such difficulties in transmission must always be kept in mind.

We then are presented with the assertion of the ‘sources’ for the various gospel narratives, and here  it is fitting to remember that there is but one ‘original’ and several derivatives: in this case the ‘Gospel of Mark’ is the original and the other three are almost universally considered to be dependent on that work. What do we know about ‘sources’ for this story? Virtually nothing, except that it seems to be influenced by several sources: the translation of the scriptures into the Greek language known as the Septuagint and Greek literature (especially Homer, who for the Greeks of this time was as Shakespeare is to speakers of English).

[As a side note I find it interesting that there is not to my knowledge any significant early christian literature in Aramaic (or Syriac) which is supposed to be the native language of Jesus and his disciples. When it came time to proselytize in the land of Jesus’s alleged homeland Greek texts were imported and needed to be translated into the local language! Imagine if all our ‘originals’ of Shakespeare’s plays were in Italian!]

The third claim is of an ‘oral tradition’ supposed to lie behind the extant versions of the gospel narratives that have survived to the present day. Our confidence in being able to say much (if anything) about an alleged ‘oral tradition’ claimed to be a source for any gospel narrative can only be strained at best.

So of the three claimed entities, we have only direct evidence of the written gospel narratives (themselves at times garbled, added to, and edited), inferred evidence of literary influences ( the Septuagint, the works of Homer and Greek novels, and the theoretical ‘Q’ document), and only theories about supposed ‘oral traditions’.

It is not that one can simply accept everything found in the Gospels as historically accurate… This historical information must be teased out by careful, critical analysis.

I agree that there may be historical information found in literature, There may well be historical information in the ‘Gospels’ just as there may be in the Homeric epics or in the works of Sophocles or in the mysteries of Mithras. One would be well advised to proceed with caution with such dubious materials.

Ehrman, it would appear, is unable to distinguish between different genres of literature: a poem, a play, a history, a military report, a hagiography, and a satire are all alike:

Sometimes the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible… whatever else you might think about the books of the Bible – whether you believe in them or not, whether you consider them inspired or not – they are still books.

Actually, it would appear it is the other way around: the ‘gospel narratives’ are included in the collection known as ‘the Bible’ because they are a distinct kind of literature derivative of the sorts of stories found in the ‘Old Testament’: tales like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and his technicolor coat, Moses and the generic pharaoh, Samson and Delilah, Job, Jonah, Judith, Daniel, etc. It’s rather disingenuous of Ehman to complain about how poorly Jesus is treated without mention of the august company this figure of biblical literature shares with these other figures of ‘history’.

Ehrman tries again to link the fundamentalist christian view of the bible with that of skeptics, that we should neither consider blatantly religious tracts as above criticism nor should we treat them with any special care due to their polemical nature. Apparently we should consider the ‘historical Noah’ on a level playing field with the ‘historical Heracles’ and the ‘historical Augustus’. Yes, perhaps there can be extant literature about each figure, and this literature can be supposed to be based on previous literature, and even a certain ‘oral tradition’ can be imputed to each. But can it be honestly argued that there is no difference between the literary evidence we find for these persons?

My impression is that Ehrman goes a bit far in claiming that he is merely following any ‘consensus’ among historians that all literature is equally indistinguishable as sources for history, or that it is ‘common knowledge among scholars’ that stories about Noah are no different than stories about Julius Caesar. On the other hand, if this is indeed the attitude of ‘scholars’ known to Ehrman this notion should serve as a big red flag that these ‘scholars’ are out of touch with reality. It’s as if one asked today’s readers to consider the New York Times, The Onion, and The Watchtower magazine as equally good sources of information. Absurd!

 

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At this point I must point out that the questions raised by Ehrman’s claims are more numerous than can easily be enumerated. This is what makes it a long and difficult slog for anyone the least bit familiar with the territory. I returned to this book because I learned there are some interesting claims made in this latter part, but it is painful to read.

This will be the place to let this rest for now – I realize I have only begun Ehrman’s foray into the Bible as his last, best source for evidence of a real man behind the Jesus represented in the Bible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Early mythicists: Jesus as a solar deity

In Ehrman’s brief history of mythicism, he names a few authors with whom I am not familiar:

The first author to deny the existence of Jesus appears to have been the eighteenth-century Frenchman Constantin Francois Volney, a member of the Constituent Assembly during the French Revolution. Volney published an essay (in French) called “Ruins of an Empire.” In it he argued that all religions at heart are the same – a view still wildly popular among English-speaking people who are not religion scholars, especially as articulated in the second half of the twentieth century by Joseph Campbell.  Christianity too, for Volney, was simply a variant on the one universal religion. This particular variation on the theme was invented by early Christians who created the savior Jesus as a kind of sun-god.

Apparently Volney was respected by some influential Americans including Thomas Jefferson (who helped translate “Ruins of an Empire” into English) and Abraham Lincoln (who is said to have been an ‘avid reader’ of the work).

http://www.neoclassicism.us/Content/TheUsesOfAntiquity

Although Volney’s views may be out of favor in today’s climate, he does not appear to have been out of step with the intellectual atmosphere of the Enlightenment.

Several years later a much more substantial and influential book was published by another Frenchman, Charles-Francois Dupuis, who was secretary of the revolutionary National Convention. The Origin of All Religions (1795) was an enormous work 2,017 pages in length. Dupuis’s ultimate objective was to uncover the nature of the “original deity” who lies behind all religions… Dupuis subjected the fragmentary information that survived to his day to careful scrutiny, as he argued that such gods as Osiris, Adonis (or Tammuz), Bacchus, Attis, and Mithra were all manifestations of the solar deity. Dupuis agreed with his compatriot Volney: Jesus too was originally invented as another embodiment of the sun-god.

Likewise Dupuis was a respected intellectual of the Age of Enlightenment whose astronomical work seems to have influenced his views on religion.

Dupuis devoted himself to the study of astronomy (his tutor was Lalande) in connection with mythology, the result of which was his magnum opusOrigine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle. It appeared in 1795 in quarto or octavo format, profusely illustrated (in 12 volumes); an abridgement (1798) spread his system more widely among the reading public. In Origine he advocated the unity of the astronomical and religious myths of all nations, an aspect of the Enlightenment‘s confidence in the universality of human nature. In his Mémoire explicatif du Zodiaque, chronologique et mythologique (1806) he similarly maintains a common origin for the astronomical and religious opinions of the Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, Persians, and Arabians.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fran%C3%A7ois_Dupuis

In the first flush of freedom from religious dogma it seems several highly respected intellectuals were willing to go on record considering the notion that Jesus might not have lived at all outside of literature.  This was still a time of conflict between dogmatism and rational thought, and those willing to express views in dissent against the assertions of orthodox christians were still in danger of life and limb.

Cayetano Ripoll (allegedly from Solsona 1778 – Valencia 26 July 1826) was a schoolmaster in Valencia, Spain, who was executed for allegedly teaching deist principles. Ripoll was a soldier in the Spanish army during the Peninsular War (1807–1814). He was captured by French forces and was a prisoner of war. While being held by the French he was taken to France and there he became aware of deism. He soon became a deist. Upon returning to Spain, he used his position as a school master to teach others about deism. He was accused by the Spanish Inquisition of being a deist and of teaching his students about deism. He was arrested for heresy and held in jail for close to two years. The clergymen of the Spanish Inquisition demanded Ripoll be burned at the stake for his heresy, however, the civil authorities chose to hang him instead. Allegedly, the Church authorities, upset that Ripoll had not been burned at the stake, placed his body into a barrel, painted flames on the barrel and buried it in unconsecrated ground. Other reports state that the Church authorities placed his body into a barrel and burned the barrel, throwing the ashes into a river.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cayetano_Ripoll

It is interesting that even in such tumultuous times there were some willing to take the position that not only was Jesus not a god, or the son of a god, or even a wise man, but was very likely a representative figure and not a real historical person at all any more than Osiris, Adonis or Mithras were thought to be.

It was these early thinkers who threw down the gauntlet of treating the christian religion on a level playing field with other religious notions, and treating its literature on a par with devotional literature of the kind christians were accustomed to treating with contempt.

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.

Heroes! …and Villains

To continue with Ehrman’s book –

In the last episode you may recall it seems to me Bart Ehrman was positioning himself (and the whole weight of New Testament academia) as the ignored and disdained underdogs in a debate about the existence of a real Jesus in history. Slight miscasting I’m inclined to point out.

But like any Hero, Ehrman must be opposed by a Villain – or better yet a big Gang of Super-Villains. It’d be nice if the had an Evil Plan up their sleeves…

In this story the role of the villain is to be filled by the ‘mythicists’ – those who doubt there ever was a real man named Jesus who served as the catalyst for the creation of christianity and that this figure is a mythical character of literature.

Sometimes Ehrman is (sometimes) inclined to be generous to (some of) them.

[While] none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere in the world)… a whole body of literature, some of it highly intelligent and well informed, makes this case.

But a couple of bona fide scholars – not professors teaching religious studies in universities but scholars nonetheless, and at least one of them a PhD in the field of the New testament – have taken this position and written about it.

…and the smart ones among them need to be taken seriously…

For the introduction this is as far as Ehrman is willing to go in giving (some) mythicists any credit – there are some who (though woefully lacking in proper credentials and the right sort of training and not even professors!) are intelligent and well informed.

But of mythicists in general he paints a less sanguine portrait.

Some of them [mythicist books and articles] rival The Da Vinci Code [the historical Jesus novel] in their passion for conspiracy and the shallowness of their historical knowledge…

..they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a (very) small but (often) loud minority voice. Once you tune in to this voice, you quickly learn just how persistent and vociferous it can be.

a quick Internet search reveals how influential such radical skepticism has been in the past and how rapidly it is spreading even now. For decades it was the dominant view in countries such as the Soviet Union.

Rarely do mythicists define what they mean by the term myth, a failure that strikes real scholars of religion as both unfortunate and highly problematic…

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.

…there are several loud voices out there, whether you tune in to them or not, who are declaring Jesus is a myth. This mythicist position is interesting historically and phenomenologically, as part of a wider skepticism that has infiltrated parts of the thinking world

these claims are seeping into the popular consciousness at an alarming rate. Jesus existed, and those vocal persons who deny it do so not because they have considered the evidence with the dispassionate eye of the historian, but because they have some other agenda that this denial serves.

You see, Ehrman has quite a bit more to say, in much stronger terms, about mythicists as a group than the few backhanded compliments he reserves for a few exceptional cases.

This last bit is interesting, as he accuses mythicists of having a ‘passion for conspiracy theories’ yet he boldly proclaims that mythicists have a secret agenda!

But I think I observe in the great deal he does say about mythicists as a class the outlines of a familiar story: a vociferous and militant minority, radical skeptics, have set themselves against the views of the rest of the civilized world: alarmingly, they are infiltrating the thinking world from strongholds such as the Soviet Union to fulfill a mysterious hidden agenda.

Has Hollywood been notified? Red Dawn has got nothing on this.

———–

I have left a couple of passages out of Ehrman’s litany on the diabolical nature of the mythicist menace because I think they deserve a little more discussion than his broad-brush depictions listed above.

Another cliff-hanger to keep you on the edge of your seats!