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.

 

Advertisements

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical Jesus vs the Jesus of Faith vs the Mythical Jesus

Chapter One of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? is titled An Introduction to the Mythical View of Jesus opens with a discussion of some of the variety of views held by some scholars about who this Jesus might have been:

Modern scholars of the New Testament are famous – or infamous – for making claims about Jesus that contradict what most people, especially Christians, believe about him.

Ehrman gives examples such as Jesus as a political revolutionary, an ancient Cynic philosopher, a kind of proto-Marxist, a proto-feminist, a Pharisee, an Essene, a bourgeois, a gay man, and so on.

I think it is important here to mention that the term ‘historical Jesus’ as Ehrman will be using it is in contrast to the ‘Jesus of Faith’, that is that when Ehrman is describing an ‘historical Jesus’ he does not mean a Jesus as accepted by most christians: the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ, capable of performing miracles, uttering true prophecies, or raising others or himself from the dead, or really appearing as a spirit or some such thing to real humans after a resurrection. The sort of Jesus Ehrman is proposing to establish the real existence of is a mortal man like any other who is born, lives his life, and eventually dies and stays dead.

Now assuming that most christians believe in the “Jesus of Faith’ who did indeed exercise miraculous powers and did rise from his tomb we can see that these scholars choose to believe something contrary to evidence that a great majority of people find very convincing. In point of fact it’s not abundantly clear how many teachers in theological seminaries, divinity schools, major and minor colleges and universities hold to this mortal ‘historical Jesus’ model. Unless we can see the research on how many real scholars of the New Testament adhere to one or the other view it’s difficult to accept any claim that most or (unlikely) all of them think Jesus was merely a mortal man like any other.

Yes, it may well be that virtually all the experts believe Jesus really existed, but that doesn’t mean they believe in an ‘historical Jesus’ as Ehrman defines it. This is I think a major difficulty for Ehrman’s thesis because on the one hand he wants to stack the deck in favor of the historical existence of Jesus by citing the united front of ‘all New testament scholars’, but to do so he has to include the many, many people – scholars and laymen alike – who are convinced on the evidence that Jesus was a real miracle-worker who could raise the dead, raise himself from the dead, and was if not a god in his own right the son of a god. For most people Jesus was not a failed prophet, a street-corner rabble-rouser, or a social reformer: Jesus was Lord and Savior, the long-promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, Son of God reigning even now in Heaven, coming soon to judge the living and the dead.

If Erman were to acknowledge this inconvenient truth, his ‘consensus of scholars’ would shrink, if not to a minority, at least to a mere plurality. The force of his rhetoric would lose much of its power if he were forced to admit ‘many scholars believe in a mortal Jesus’ instead of the ‘overwhelming majority’ he’d like to have his readers believe. Thus far Ehrman has chosen to leave his readers in ignorance of this embarrassing reality.

This is a point to keep in mind when Ehrman tries to scoff at mythicists as being a minority opinion – it would appear he is himself arguing from a minority opinion.

As evidenced in the quote above, Ehrman cannot escape the fact that even among this group of scholars that there is no consensus – there are many ‘historical Jesuses’ touted by those who think Jesus was merely a mortal man.

Despite this enormous range of opinion, there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. Even though this is the view of nearly every trained scholar on the planet, it is not the view of a group of writers who are usually labeled, and often label themselves, mythicists.

As you can see, there is nothing in this definition of his ‘historical Jesus’ which an ordinary christian would deny either. It’s all found in their Bibles.

Now against this view of Jesus acting in history – whether as a god or a man – there are mythicists:

In a recent exhaustive elaboration of the position, one of the leading proponents of Jesus mythicism, Earl Doherty, defines the view as follows: it is “the theory that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single identifiable person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition.” In simpler terms, the historical Jesus did not exist. Or if he did, he had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity.

And in the simplest terms of all, the question of this debate is this:  is the real existence of a single person named Jesus necessary to explain the existence of the New Testament literature and christianity? Many say yes, this includes the vast majority of christians and (some) New Testament scholars. Some say no, and these are the mythicists.

It’s critical to understand that this is the ultimate question – Lord? Liar or Lunatic? Or Legend?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.