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.
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.