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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLINY THE YOUNGER – WITNESS TO CHRIST

To begin, let’s look at what Pliny has to say about the christians he had to deal with:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.

Note that there is no ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ to be found in the writing of Pliny. Just saying…

Ehrman quite rightly underscores this fact:

This is all he [Pliny] says about Jesus: the Christians worshiped him by singing to him. He does not, as you can see, even call him Jesus but instead uses his most common epithet, Christ. Whether Pliny knew the man’s actual name is anyone’s guess. One might be tempted to ask as well whether he knew that Christ was (at one time?) a man, but the fact that he indicates the songs were offered to Christ “as to a god” suggests that Christ was, of course, something else.

Indeed, we could further wonder whether these christians knew the Christ they worshiped by any another name, such as Jesus. Or whether they thought the Christ they worshiped had recently been crucified on earth (or more specifically Palestine) anytime in the previous 100 years.

That the few words Pliny records about his christians does absolutely nothing to say anything about an historical Jesus (let alone a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ who’d been crucified) tells us quite a bit about the sort of thing that has to be accepted as evidence to make a case for a specific historical reality.

That even under torture Pliny couldn’t get such basic ‘facts’ about the supposed ‘historical Jesus’ tells us even more: there is perhaps a stunning ignorance among some who are called christians about the gospel narratives which emerged around this time. They seem to have no clue that Christ was named Jesus, that he was crucified, that he lived at a specific time in a specific place, or taught anything or warned about the coming ‘end of the world’.

Including Pliny on a list of ‘witnesses to Jesus of Nazareth’ seems rather like padding out the list.

 

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I realize I should try to tease out more what an ‘historical Jesus’ entails: thus far I’ve only put a focus on the phrase ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ because that’s part of the title of Ehrman’s book. In the introduction Ehrman describes him:

How is it that a scarcely known, itinerant preacher from the rural backwaters of a remote part of the empire, a Jewish prophet who predicted that the end of the world as we know it was soon to come, who angered the powerful religious and civic leaders of Judea and as a result was crucified for sedition against the state – how is it that within a century of his death, people were calling this little-known Jewish peasant God?

Contrast this story to what information can be gleaned from Pliny – no Jesus, no apocalyptic preaching, no Judea, no Judaism, no crucifixion.

There’s a rather largish gap between the two. Yes, Pliny’s christians are worshiping a god they call christ, but there’s nothing that indicates recent Judaic roots.

 

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.

Who is addressing the issue of whether Jesus existed?

Moving slowly through Ehrman’s book DJE? (still evaluating his introduction for goodness sake!) I have been trying to elucidate Ehrman’s point of view going into the book proper.

1) The question of whether Jesus existed is not an issue among the scholars in Ehrman’s field – despite the large interest in trying to figure out who this Jesus was: teacher, rebel, folk healer, cynic, peasant philosopher, etc.

2) Ehrman discovers there is a body of literature discussing this profound question.

…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 else in the world).

So if the professional scholar class isn’t discussing this problem, who is? Obviously it has been undertaken by those beyond the pale of academia.

Their books may not be known to most of the general public interested in questions related to Jesus, the Gospels, or the early Christian church, but 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.

Apparently these people are ‘loud’ and ‘vociferous’ – yet no one seems to notice them. It would seem they aren’t loud and vociferous enough to be heard above those who insist that there really was a man called Jesus.

The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be “mythicists” – that is, those who believe Jesus is a myth… When mythicists use the term they often seem to mean simply a story that has no historical basis, a history-like narrative that in fact did not happen.

This would appear to be a fair description of how myth is being used by those authors I am familiar with who question the existence of Jesus outside of literature. Similarly one could argue that Noah is mythical – a world-wide flood did not in fact occur, nor did someone build a boat in anticipation and fill it full of animals. Likewise one might say Moses is mythical – despite the stories concerning his life and deeds it is becoming apparent the Exodus did not in fact happen.

There is nothing particularly shocking in learning that characters can be created, biographies crafted, speeches written about people and events which are not historical. Yet once the scholarly consensus was that these, too, were people who certainly existed. I have read accounts where scholars have attempted to ‘explain’ Moses’s speech impediment, naturalistic ‘explanations’ of the Ten Plagues, even Freud tried to psychoanalyze Moses.

We learn, therefore, that the scholars can be wrong – dead wrong – about the real existence of Biblical heroes. Why should Jesus be any different?

…the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet. That in itself is not proof, of course. Expert opinion is, at the end of the day, still opinion. But why would you not want to know what the experts have to say?

It’s not clear who this rhetorical question is aimed at – has anyone said they don’t want to know what the experts have to say? There’s no end of ‘historical Jesus‘ theories to be read, with new versions released from every quarter. Hippy Jesus, Orthodox Jew Jesus, feminist Jesus, apocalyptic Jesus, Jesus the business guru, Jesus the life coach, etc. If anyone takes any interest in Jesus they can’t escape the onslaught of the plethora of ‘real Jesuses’ some scholars have just now discovered in Scripture.

So Ehrman can hardly complain that the ‘experts’ aren’t being heard. Indeed the experts are everywhere hawking their wares. So why pretend that they aren’t?

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As a side note Ehrman complains of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code and Monty Python – little noting the irony that the novel posits an historical Jesus (not a mythical one) and that Monty Python’s Life of Brian also features an historical Jesus.

THE TRUTH BEHIND THE JESUS MYTH!

Well, no Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? doesn’t include the exclamation point, but why the heck not? The back cover does have in all caps “THE TRUTH BEHIND THE JESUS MYTH” as if this were a shocking expose.  I really had no idea the thing was being marketed by such sensationalism and taking advantage of public interest in the possibility that there never was a Jesus in the first place.

I know the author probably didn’t write that blurb, but it really does I think inform the tone of the book. I’m just going to read through the book and pick out any bits that seem to me particularly remarkable.

Today I brought it home from the library and have been reading away, starting with the introduction.

Here Ehrman spends a few pages outlining the why of this book – why write a book defending the notion of an historical man named Jesus who is behind the stories of Jesus the Christ? Whether you consider him Lord, liar, or lunatic we all agree there’s a Jesus, right?

Apparently in his whole career it never occurred to Ehrman that the subject of his studies might never have lived, even though scholars have questioned the real existence of Jesus for a couple centuries now. It was a trickle of emails asking about whether this ‘historical Jesus’ existed at all which put Ehrman on the trail and

I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

…I am trained as a scholar of the New Testament and Early Christianity, and for thirty years I have written extensively on the historical Jesus, the Gospels, the early Christian movement, and the history of the church’s first three hundred years… I have read thousands of books and articles in English and other European languages on Jesus, the New Testament, and early Christianity. But I was completely unaware – as are most of my colleagues in the field – of this body of skeptical literature.

I don’t doubt Ehrman’s sincerity – very likely he has labored decade after decade in the field without ever coming across a dissenting voice. In a way this comes across to me as a rather dismal view of the field. The Bible is becoming widely recognized as being full of not-real characters, beginning with Adam, running up through Methusaleh, Noah, Moses, Job, Jonah, and right into the New Testament with Zaccheus, Judas Iscariot, Lazarus, and Barabbas.

Apparently no one in the field for decades has wondered out loud ‘Is Jesus one of these, too?’ Not Ehrman, not his colleagues, not his teachers. Why should that be? Is it not an important question whether or not there ever was a real Jesus?

You’d imagine any student who tremulously asked ‘Did Jesus even exist?’ would be rewarded with a hearty ‘That’s a very good question – your first assignment. class, is to frame an argument as to whether or not Jesus really did exist. Due by Thanksgiving break.’

But apparently the question is never asked, and thus never answered.

Let that suffice for now.

Excited today! Received my hard copy of the

Excited today! Received my hard copy of the book Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth edited by Frank R Zindler and Robert M Price. This book is an evaluation of Dr Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? which took on the double task of presenting his argument why there was indeed a man known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ upon whom the gospel narratives are based and responding to some arguments of ‘mythicists’ who question that premise.

Some of the response to Ehrman’s book I am familiar with having followed the debate as it occurred (and is ongoing!) online. I will have to preface this series with the admission that I have not read all of Ehrman’s book (hereafter referred to as DJE?). Perhaps I will have to obtain a copy from the library – we have an excellent library here in town – so that I will be able to understand the context of the arguments being developed.

One reason I have not yet read DJE? is that the reviews for this book have not been overwhelmingly positive – and the material I have read hasn’t persuaded me that the book would be a good resource for my personal library. 

My plan here is to read both books with a view to trying to determine for myself whether either view is able to make its case, with Ehrman representing the ‘historicist’ and the various authors included in this response representing some ‘mythicist’ perspectives on Ehrman’s argument.

One criticism of this new book – to shorten the title I shall use the acronym BEQHJN – is that it does not itself represent an argument for a ‘mythic Jesus’ but is only a compendium of certain criticisms of materials presented in DJE?. This is a real problem in that readers may expect a coherent theory for that position to be laid out.

But I hope that will not present a problem for me as I do not have that expectation – the authors responding to Ehrman – Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, David Fitzgerald, D M Murdock, Rene Salm, Robert Price, and Frank Zindler – all have their own unique takes on the question. So the format will be a kind of ‘point/counterpoint’ discussion instead of an organic whole.

One reason I have opted to purchase a hard copy of this book is that I am partial to reading from books. The list price isn’t exorbitant (about the price of two movie tickets, two sodas, and two popcorns) and I’m sure this will be more valuable to me than a night out viewing the latest Hollywood blockbuster.