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.

 

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.

 

*****

 

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.

The Jesus of Faith a myth?

In the previous post, I discuss the unspoken common ground between the ‘historical Jesus’ and the ‘Jesus of Faith’ and how Ehrman uses this to portray ‘mythicists’ as a minority view. It’s safe to say that a great number of teachers in theological seminaries and divinity schools (and I think many in ‘secular’ colleges and universities) believe that Jesus not only existed, but worked miracles, rose from the dead, and was the son of a god, and communes with believers from his seat in Heaven. Up until now Ehrman has downplayed this fact.

In the first chapter An Introduction to the Mythical View of Jesus Ehrman does have something to say about these ‘real scholars’ and the Jesus they teach:

The Jesus proclaimed by preachers and theologians today had no existence. That particular Jesus is (or those particular Jesuses are) a myth.

Here Ehrman betrays that all is not well in the Jesus academy – the Jesus of Faith (the Jesus or Jesuses accepted by many if not most of the teachers in theological seminaries, divinity schools, and colleges and universities) is a myth.  It would hardly come as a surprise if many of them have a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus, invoke him in their prayers, and view his ministry on Earth as the single most important even in human history. Doesn’t this seem to undermine his contention that ‘nearly every trained scholar on the planet’ is exercising a dispassionate interest in maintaining that Jesus – his words and deeds – is the real cause of christianity?

It appears as though Ehrman is being a bit disingenuous, and insulting the intelligence of his readers, if he can use these real scholars to try and make mythicists out to be a ‘very small minority voice’ and then just as quickly quietly discard them when he has no further use of them. Ehrman is trying to walk a very thin line here, and perhaps hoping his readership won’t notice that the evidence that convinces the bulk of believers in the reality of a Jesus of Nazareth is informed by faith.

Having wrapped himself in the lion’s skin of ‘all the experts on the planet’ Ehrman intends to speak for them knowing full well his own view is most likely a minority opinion among these ‘experts’.

For now I want to stress the most foundational point of all: even though some views of Jesus could loosely be labeled myths (in the sense that mythicists use the term: these views are not history but imaginative creation), Jesus himself was not a myth. He really existed.

Having first embraced these believers in mythical Jesuses because like him the also believe Jesus really existed, Ehrman now is prepared to throw them under the bus.

“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.

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.