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.

 

TACITUS: MORE PROMISING?

A reference in Tacitus is the last of three supposed ‘pagan’ references to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (though the first two cited, Pliny and Suetonius don’t mention either a Jesus or a Nazareth).

In 64 AD a terrific fire swept through Rome (such fires occurred again 5 and 16 years later) – Tacitus claims rumors spread that Nero set the fires deliberately.

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite punishments on a class hated for their disgraceful acts, called Chrestians by the populace. Christ, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty [i.e., Crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Now this story is more promising as it has this Christ associated with Judea and with public execution during the time of Tiberius by Pontius Pilate. Still not quite ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ yet, but at least a little closer.

It would be good to consider before going any deeper into this what the passage really tells us : Tacitus, writing 50 years later claims that Nero blamed Chrestians for the fire and that these people got the name of their sect from Christ who was executed in Judea by Pilate during the reign of Tiberius.

Now from whom could Tacitus have gleaned this information? The most obvious source for knowledge about what christians believed are christians themselves. And is this notion of a messiah killed by a Roman governor of Judea a second century belief among christians (when Tacitus was writing)? Or is this what the christians during the reign of Nero believed? How would Tacitus find this out?

Or did, perhaps, Tacitus examine some Imperial records of executions in Judea to determine the truth behind the origins of the appellation ‘chrestian’ (as some apologists assert)? Seems like a lot of work looking through hundreds and thousands of such records to support a mere throwaway line in this tale of Nero’s awfulness. And if indeed such a record existed and Tacitus read it, we would expect Tacitus to have gotten the name of the guy who was executed, and gotten Pilate’s official title correct. I find it unlikely such records existed – especially after so many major fires in Rome during the intervening 80 years.

It’s my judgement that the most likely source for the notion of an execution of a messianic claimant by Pilate in Judea to be contemporary with its inclusion in Tacitus’s history.

Some mythicists argue that this reference in Tacitus was not actually written by him – they claim the same thing for Pliny and Suetonius, where the references are less important – but were inserted into his writings (interpolated)  by Christians who copied them, producing the manuscripts of Tacitus we have today.

It would be interesting to note who these ‘mythicists’ are, just in case we wanted to discover by what arguments they support such hypotheses. You’d think a scholar of Ehrman’s caliber would rebel at writing such a vague claim about other scholars. Oh, well…

The mythicists certainly have a reason for arguing this: they do not want to think there are any references to Jesus in our early sources outside the New Testament, and so when they find any such reference, they claim the reference was not original but was inserted by Christians.

So instead of considering the reasoning behind or evidence offered in support of the hypothesis that there may have been an interpolation in this case (as we know was not uncommon during this era of hand-copying) Ehrman treats us to ‘reasons’ –  motives – why these un-named mythicists make the claim. If Ehrman did his research, surely he could have done better than such a blanket ad hominem slur!

It seems rather odd that Ehrman claims to be able to read the minds of people whose names he doesn’t appear to know! A rather peculiar kind of ESP is on display here: if we are to credit Ehrman’s assertions it’s enough to take a wild guess at the motives of a scholar to dismiss them. No need to resort to being the least bit familiar with their reasoning or even being able to name the people you are attacking. Is he afraid if he names these people a reader might actually look them up and find they do present evidence and arguments? Is his case that weak?

In the end, Ehrman admits that this supposed reference, like the others, isn’t very helpful to the historian:

…the information is not particularly helpful in establishing that there really lived a man named Jesus. How would Tacitus know what he knew? It is pretty obvious that he had heard of Jesus, but he was writing some eighty-five years after Jesus would have died, and by that time Christians were certainly telling stories of Jesus (the Gospels had been written already, for example)…

Yes, it would seem that even if these three references are genuine, they only are evidence of the existence of christians (which no one denies) and some of their beliefs. They do not seem to offer much by way of independent confirmation of any claims by these christians, or today’s christians, or today’s historicists about a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. Yet in about any discussion about the existence of Jesus it is inevitable that these same names will be dropped although any examination of their ‘witness’ shows it to be based on rather late hearsay many decades after the ‘fact’.

So, having drawn a blank on the ‘pagan’ authors, we’ll have to begin to consider more partisan writings about Jesus…

SUETONIUS : WITNESS TO JESUS?

If Pliny tells us little of value regarding ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ it would appear that the alleged reference to Jesus in Tacitus is positively destructive to the general definition of an ‘historical Jesus’ as the details contradict the most common narratives built up around this figure:

Even less helpful is a reference found in the writings of the Roman biographer Suetonius, often also cited in discussions of the existence of Jesus… Suetonius indicates that at one point in his reign Claudius deported all the Jews from Rome because of riots that had occurred “at the instigation of Chrestus”.

Ehrman is quite correct, I think, in disparaging this supposed ‘evidence’ as less than helpful because if this is indeed the historical Jesus it indicates this Jesus did not die in Judea during the reign of Tiberius as depicted in the gospel tales (and generally accepted among Jesus historicists) but instead lived another 20 years or so and made it to Rome where he stirred up trouble. We never learn whether this Chrestus ends up crucified, either.

At least Suetonius’s Chrestus is associated with stirring up trouble and associated with Judaism, unlike Pliny’s Christ.

Some argue that Chrestus is just a misspelled ‘Christus’ and that this indicates friction among Jews over a particular messianic candidate (possibly an historical Jesus, but just as easily an historical Jacob or Ishmael).

…even if Suetonius is referring to Jesus by a misspelled epithet, he does not help us much in our quest for non-Christian references to Jesus. Jesus himself would have been dead for some twenty years when these riots in Rome took place, so at best Suetonius  would be providing evidence, if he can count for evidence, that there were Christians in Rome during the reign of Claudius. But this would have been the case whether Jesus lived or not, since mythicists would argue that the “myth” of Christ had already been invented by then, as had the supposed life of the made-up figure of Jesus.

On the whole, I would agree with this, except for a couple of points.

Certainly, if it is true Jews were at this time period especially prone to messianism, no doubt rival candidates could cause trouble among their partisans – even if none of the candidates were ‘our’ Jesus. Since Christ itself is merely an epithet that could be applied to anyone (indeed priests were ‘anointed’ too, and the epithet could apply to them) there’s no guarantee that ‘Jews arguing about Christ’ has anything to do with a putative ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. We’d need a lot more detail than we have for this to count even as evidence for Christians in Rome at this date.

Taking Suetonius at face value, it would seem that we merely have someone whose name is (or is known as) ‘Chrestus’ – a not uncommon proper name in those days – was the instigator of rioting the purpose of which is unknown. It could have been about something completely unrelated to messianism at all. It could have been food prices, or housing discrimination, or anti-semitism.

Thus far we have a couple of instances, sometimes taken to be referring to ‘Jesus’, which do not come to anything much when we look at them dispassionately.

At best they indicate the existence of christians, which no one seems to deny.

 

 

 

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.