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…

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?