THE GOSPELS AND THEIR SOURCES

Having established to his satisfaction that the texts that make up early christian literature is on par with any other sort of literature, Bart Ehrman delves into The Gospels, meaning the four canonical narratives about Jesus Christ found in every New Testament. They are commonly referred to by the names The Gospel According to Matthew,  …to Mark, …to Luke, and …to John. These are not, of course, the actual names of the authors, as they are generally thought to be the work of now unknown authors and at some point attributed to persons bearing those names.

Once it is conceded that the Gospels can and should be treated as historical sources, no different from other historical sources infused with their authors’ biases, it starts to become clear why historians have almost universally agreed that whatever else one might say about him, Jesus of Nazareth lived in first-century Palestine and was crucified by the prefect of Judea…

This opening section will not be convincing to naysayers, for reasons I will explain, but we need to start somewhere, and the place to start is with the surviving witnesses we have in hand.

I’m already on record as being somewhat skeptical of treating literature of every genre as equally good sources of history. But in this section quoted above I am interested in the notion of these narratives as ‘witnesses’ which on the face of it might imply more to the average reader than what can be safely claimed. After all, very few in the field of bible studies assert that these are accounts written by persons who have seen Jesus in life, or heard him speak any words. These are generally thought to be written some decades after anyone meeting the basic criteria of ‘the historical Jesus’ must have died.

If the Gospel of Mark (hereafter gMark) was written as early as 70 AD, this would be about 40 years after Jesus is thought to have died. Well within the realm of possibility of a surviving witness to recount their eyewitness testimony. However it does not seem many scholars conclude the author of gMark was himself an eyewitness, that at best he is recounting stories in circulation at the time of the composition of the narrative. Therefore he is at best a ‘witness’ to stories about Jesus. and not a witness to Jesus himself.

It is almost (but not quite) universally thought among New Testament scholars that both Matthew and Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark and used it for many of their stories about Jesus… Some mythicists – as we will see in chapter 7 – have taken this critical conclusion to a faulty end to argue that all of our Gospel accounts (even John, which has very little to do with Mark) ultimately go back to Mark so that we have only one source, not multiple sources, for the life of Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nothing? For now let us be content to wait until chapter 7 to discover whether the other narratives are independent or dependent on gMark. Suffice to say that for now let us see how Ehrman develops his theme of each of the four canonical Jesus narratives as being independent sources.

Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death… The Gospel of John is sometimes described as the ‘maverick Gospel” because it is so unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Prior to the narrative leading up to Jesus’s death, most of the stories in John are found only in John, whereas John does not include most of the stories found in the other three Gospels. And when they do share the same stories, John tells them in such a different way that he does not appear  to have received his accounts from any or all of them.

Now Ehrman’s dating of these narratives seems to be as follows:

  • gMark 70 AD
  • gMatthew  80 – 85 AD
  • gLuke 80- 85 AD
  • gJohn 90 – 95 AD

 

So within the first century we have four independent accounts of Jesus’s life and death…

Aside from these four there are others which Ehrman includes as independent accounts (because they were not considered to be ‘canonical’ they are not included in most bibles and are thus lesser known to the general public). He includes:

  • The Gospel of Thomas 110 – 120 AD
  • The Gospel of Peter (fragmentary,date unknown)
  • Papyrus Egerton 2 (fragmentary,date unknown)

To bring the independent witnesses up to lucky seven.

There are, of course, lots of other Gospels, some forty or so, down to the early Middle Ages, that are not found in the New Testament. These include narratives of Jesus as a newborn, and as a young child, where he uses his miraculous powers sometimes for mischief and sometimes for good; narratives of his public ministry; narratives of his death and resurrection.

It does appear to be the case there was quite a cottage industry in composing stories about Jesus. And this does not include narratives that did not survive into our own day, or that remain to be discovered.

But if we restrict ourselves here, as we did earlier, to a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, we have at least seven independent accounts, some of them quite extensive… For a historian these provide a wealth of materials to work with, quite unusual for accounts of anyone, literally anyone, from the ancient world.

Quite unusual, indeed.

One might say unprecedented.

This prompts me to wonder why it might be that so many persons felt compelled to write their own versions of a biography of this Jesus, people so far removed in time from the events, so remote in geography and culture from the vanished world of Judea when this Christ is supposed to have lived? It is quite the literary phenomenon.

 

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Let us leave the argument here.

To recap: The mentions of Jesus or Christ in secular and Jewish sources have been discounted as unhelpful in establishing the existence of a real man – an ‘historical Jesus’ – underneath the mythology of the Jesus of Faith that christians worshiped.

But the accounts of christians themselves bear some sort of ‘witness’ to stories about Jesus, and there are at least seven independent sources that may provide the evidence needed.

 

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The Importance of Being Expert

Now that Ehrman has broached the topic of being an ‘expert’ I think we should try and grasp what he thinks that means. 

Let’s see what he compares expertise in New Testament studies to: 

Dentists, Architects, Biologists, Historians…

Now the thing about some of these comparisons is that we know teeth exist and know what good dentistry is thereby, we know buildings exist and can judge good architecture from the performance of their designs, and we know living things exist and thus there is something real by which we can judge the accomplishments of a biologist entails. Success is measurable. There are real consequences which are perceptible to all of us.

Moreover no one needs to have a dentist who teaches dentistry, or an architect who teaches architecture, or a biologist who teaches biology to consider them able to do their job. So all the breast-beating about ‘anyone not holding a teaching position can’t have expertise’ rather loses its luster after a few moment’s reflection.

Now is someone who studies Jesus in the same ballpark with any of these? I think it’s comparing horses and unicorns. The base of knowledge for these other disciplines is cumulative, obtaining better results over the generations because discoveries here are palpable and solid.

But look at the record of the various ‘quests’ for an historical Jesus. Time after time they come up empty, or with conflicting results. Never securing anything lasting, because the next consensus can easily overturn the previous ‘certainty’ – the only thing they seem to agree on was that there was a man called Jesus: everything else is up for grabs. And if Ehrman is correct that ‘there was a man called Jesus’ is never questioned, discussed, or demonstrated by any of these ‘experts’ then the only thing they agree on is an uncritically accepted assumption.

For the other ‘experts’ Ehrman compares himself to, the proof is in their results.

You may notice I haven’t discussed his comparison of Jesus scholars to historians.

Indeed he claims to be an historian. Now what does he compare the ‘certainty’ of Jesus’s existence to in the field of history?

The Holocaust, the moon landing, the assassination of Presidents, Obama’s birthplace.

Well, at this point Ehrman is going to have to pony up some pretty new and startling evidence to demonstrate that the existence of Jesus is anywhere near as sure as any of these facts. We’ve got physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, photographs, films, and all kinds of original documents pertaining to the historical events he lists. Has Ehrman like evidence for Jesus?

So I’m just about ready to jump into the first chapter of his book where Ehrman will try to make good on this promise: that the existence of Jesus is as undeniable as the Holocaust (to which we have living witnesses to this very day, reams of original documents, physical remains, photographs and films, eyewitness accounts, and confessions of some of the evil-doers).

If Ehrman can equal the literally tons of evidence for the reality of the Holocaust, he will have accomplished something no human in history can boast of.

But I do have at least one thing to add before we leave behind Ehrman’s introduction, and I will post on that next time.

Who is addressing the issue of whether Jesus existed?

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

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

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

…none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world).

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

Their books may not be known to most of the general public interested in questions related to Jesus, the Gospels, or the early Christian church, but they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a (very) small but (often) loud minority voice. Once you tune in to this voice, you quickly learn just how persistent and vociferous it can be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why question Jesus?

I think I left my post at a bit of a cliff-hanger: Bart Ehrman admitting it never occurred to him, or any of his colleagues, to question whether the subject of much of their reading, writing, debating – namely Jesus – ever really existed outside of the literature.

Ehrman puts it thus in his blog:

…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.

 

http://ehrmanblog.org/did-jesus-exist-as-part-one/

 

Which harks back to my previous post – no one in a hundred or more years thought to give the question of the existence of Jesus serious consideration? That’s just very intriguing to me. Scholars today believe Jesus lived because they were taught it, and their teachers were taught by their teachers, and so on into the mists of time. 

You can begin to feel the dead weight of tradition here. No one questions the basic assumption upon which the whole edifice stands. It never even occurs to them!

Now, of course ‘historical Jesus’ studies is just that – trying to discover what a Jesus who lived outside of literature might be like. And over the decades many novel interpretations are to be had. And I think one factor that contributes to this plethora of images of an ‘historical Jesus’ is how very little information there is.

Now Bart Ehrman complains that his work on the New Testament is sometimes ‘misused’ by mythicists to bolster their claims. Perhaps that happens – there’d have to be some specific examples.

But I think in a general way it is right to use the information that Ehrman publishes about the unreliability of the NT writings even if Ehrman disagrees with the conclusion. By way of analogy just because A invented fire to keep warm doesn’t mean fire is ‘invalid’ if it’s used by B to cook food.

Because many of the mutually contradictory versions of the ‘historical Jesus’ that come out with monotonous regularity use those very discredited writings to flesh out their biographies. We might not know what words Jesus used, but he probably taught this, or that, or something else entirely. Well, we can’t be sure any action Jesus took but this incident proves – no that didn’t happen but when Jesus – no that’s not right either.

Basically the things they agree on are the big three: there was a Jew called Jesus, he had followers, he was crucified. Everything else is rather sketchy.

But then, if there were Heracles historicists’ they’d probably agree on a similar short list: there was a Greek named Heracles, he was strong, suffered from anger issues. But nothing there really to indicate strongly that there was a specific Greek strongman upon whom the stories of Heracles were based.

 

Next – back to the text.