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Mar 23 2012

The unseen

Some more on Bart Ehrman and places where he seems too definite.

Backing up from where I started yesterday (which was p 82), on p 78 he says that mythicists fail to appreciate

that our surviving accounts, which began to be written some forty years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, were based on earlier written sources that no longer survive. But they obviously did exist at one time, and they just as obviously had to predate the Gospels that we now have.

Obviously? Well it’s not obvious to me, for one. Plausible, but not obvious.

But that pales in comparison to what he says on p 86. He starts with mythicists’ claims about Paul’s lack of knowledge of Jesus, and says they’re flawed and he’ll say more later.

But even if we leave Paul out of the equation, there is still more than ample reason for thinking that stories about Jesus circulated widely throughout the major urban areas of the Mediterranean from a very early time. Otherwise it is impossible to explain all the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century.

They’re all independent, he says. They’re written in different places, they contain different accounts, but they agree on many of the basics: Jesus was ”a Jewish teacher of Palestine who was crucified on order of Pontius Pilate, for example.” Where did all these sources come from? They couldn’t have been invented independently because there’s too much agreement.

Instead, they are based on oral traditions. These oral traditions had been in circulation for a very long time before they came to be written down. This is not pure speculation. Aspects of the surviving stories of Jesus found in the written Gospels, themselves based on earlier written accounts, show clearly both that they were based on oral traditions (as Luke himself indicates) and that these traditions had been around for a very long time…

Here’s the problem. Note that “Otherwise it is impossible to explain all the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century.” Because he says “all” he must mean the ones that don’t actually exist as well as the ones that do – but if that’s what he means, he’s arguing in a circle. He does the same thing with “themselves based on earlier written accounts.” He twice cites “written sources/accounts” that don’t actually physically exist but are inferred via ones that do, as if they were physical evidence. That’s terribly circular. It may be that the sources did exist; it seems quite plausible that they did; but he doesn’t know that they did. It’s circular to rely on them as conclusive.

Then at the end of the chapter, which is on the Gospels as historical sources, on page 92 he says there are surviving Gospels that attest to the existence of Jesus, and that

these independent witnesses are based on a relatively large number of written predecessors, Gospels that no longer survive but that almost certainly once existed.

I balk there. I can see saying “almost certainly” about a natural process that has no perverse human mind to mess things up, but I balk at saying it about human activities. I balk at the implicit claim that it’s “almost certain” that the predecessors were written rather than oral.

He sums up

If historians prefer lots of witnesses that corroborate one another’s claims without showing evidence of collaboration, we have that in relative abundance in the written sources that attest to the existence of the historical Jesus.

Again he seems to be lumping actual, existing written sources with notional, non-existent written sources in order to call them relative abundance, which I think is not fair to the reader.

He could well be right about all of it. But I think he should be more careful with those postulated but absent written sources.

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  1. 1
    eric

    there is still more than ample reason for thinking that stories about Jesus circulated widely throughout the major urban areas of the Mediterranean from a very early time. Otherwise it is impossible to explain all the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century.

    This says nothing about the stories’ veracity. We are now almost 40 years since Star Wars. There are thousands of versions, spin-offs, and even serious literary articles written about it and its characters (like, say, Darth Vader).

    In a technical sense, he’s right – all of the later Star Wars material is best explained as arising from some original story/event. It would be practically impossible to explain how all these writers, critics, and scholars came to discuss similar plots, characters, and themes without positing the existence of some source, in or around 1976.

    But in a bigger sense, he misses the point. The fact that all the later stuff is based on a single event proves nothing about Darth Vader’s actual existence. That’s the real issue. Its not whether all the stories originate from a single, aboriginal source story, its whether (or how well) that original source story relates to real events and real people.

  2. 2
    Ant (@antallan)

    This is almost as fatuous as claiming that die Gebrüder Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen was based on written predecessors that no longer survive but that almost certainly once existed!

    /@

  3. 3
    Jeff D

    At least Ehrman admits that many of the now-lost sources on which Mark drew were oral traditions. Of course, the category “oral traditions” includes the 1st-century C.E. equivalent of rumors and urban legends, tales that grew in the telling.

    With one minor exception, there is no way for anyone, now, to tell how much of Mark’s gospel (the versions that we have in manuscript form) was based on oral traditions retold X times, and how much was based on earlier and now-lost written sources, none of which can be assumed to be accurate. The minor exception is that where Mark (and the other 3 Canonical evangelists) present two versions of a miracle story as if they were separate incidents (e/g., the miraculous feedings with fish and loaves of bread), we could logically infer that the writer/editor was using two separate written sources that had diverged over time.

    Take what we now know about the unreliability of “eyewitness” testimony and defects in human perception and information processing, and project those problems back into 1st-century Palestine and the Mediterranean vicinity (full of superstitious, ignorant folks living in politically unstable or insecure areas), and consider how reliable even “contemporaneous” written records by these people are likely to be.

    I don’t understand how someone as smart and knowledgeable as Ehrman can downplay, as he does, the mysterious silence of Paul about (a) any time-and-place details of Jesus’ life other than his inconspicuous birth, (b) any teachings or sayings of Jesus, (c) anything about a trial of Jesus, or (d) any miracles worked by Jesus.

    Quite a while ago, I concluded, along with some of the middle-of-the-road mythicists like G. A. Wells, that the Jesus of the New Testament is a mostly-fictionalized composite character, based on both Paul’s “experiences” of the “risen” Christ and earlier vague rumors of a preacher and rabble-rouser who was one of dozens (or hundreds) who got into trouble with the authorities, leading to crucifixion and the disappearance of their corpses.

  4. 4
    busterggi

    Lately I think that Bart has suffered a crisis of non-faith, the realization that he is merely mortal and no longer has a supernatural friend to cure him of it. Damned shame as his work helped convert me out of pantheism into atheism.

  5. 5
    Grendels Dad

    I’m sure someone must have pointed this out already, but wouldn’t the same argument apply to the myths of other cultures? I’ve seen quite a few Hercules stories, all agreeing in broad strokes though differing in some details. Kevin Sorbo made a career out of them. Didn’t persuade me that Hercules must have been a real person.

  6. 6
    vinnyjh

    If such a vibrant oral tradition about the saying and deeds of Jesus existed prior to the composition of the gospels, wouldn’t we see some reflection of that in the epistles? Wouldn’t a vital part of Christian fellowship and worship have been sharing the words and deeds of the earthly Jesus? Even if he didn’t personally know the historical Jesus, I cannot see why the community’s collective memories of him would completely escape Paul’s attention.

  7. 7
    NewEnglandBob

    Besides all of Ehrman’s hemming and hawing about possible sources, it still comes down to there being no written records existing of Jesus or his alleged doings despite a culture of the time of many learned people writing everything down, including meetings of cults, government doings, crop harvests, ad nauseum. The entire religion, just like Judaism that it is based upon, as well as Islam that followed are all fantasies with no evidence of hardly any doings that their books report. I have read a few of Ehrman’s books and even he doesn’t believe most of Christianities silly tales.

  8. 8
    Aratina Cage

    they agree on many of the basics: Jesus was ”a Jewish teacher of Palestine who was crucified on order of Pontius Pilate, for example.”

    And Santa Claus was a priest who gave gifts to the little children, ergo Santa Claus was a real person.

  9. 9
    iknklast

    There are lots of written documents that attest that Santa Claus exists. These were ALMOST CERTAINLY based on earlier documents, even though we don’t have those earlier documents anymore. Ergo, Santa Claus is a real, historical figure.

    And Captain Kirk.

  10. 10
    iknklast

    Hmmm…didn’t read all the comments. Someone else beat me to the punch!

  11. 11
    CJO

    Ehrman is blowing smoke. It’s an article of faith, if you will, that the author of Mark used sources, written and/or oral. And though Ehrman tiptoes around the elephant in the room by talking about “gospels” generically, Mark is the linchpin. As far as the extant texts go, Mark represents the first appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean teacher/healer/exorcist with a setting and a narrative, as opposed to Christ crucified or the Risen Savior of the 1st century epistles, who is a cosmic figure, all kairos and no chronos. The authors of Luke and Matthew are utterly beholden to it for their narrative chronology, and their additions are overwhelmingly sayings material.

    So if it’s so obvious that the text of Mark was written using narrative sources, “protoeuangelia“, there should, I would think, be some convergence in scholarly opinion as to the nature of thses lost texts or oral sources, as well as to exactly where in the narrative we can detect their echoes. Sadly for Ehrman, this is anything but the case. Raymond Brown, in his epochal two-volume study of the Passion narratives in the gospels, The Death of the Messiah, helpfully includes in an appendix a table consisting of summaries of no less than thirty different reconstructions of the hypothetical “pre-Markan” passion. In not one single pair of these reconstructions do we even see agreement on which passages in the extant narrative the author borrowed, much less what the original source probably said. I take this as strong evidence that Mark is in fact almost entirely an original composition, with two major possible exceptions, the death of John the Baptist (6:14-29) and the Apocalyptic Discourse that forms the bulk of Chapter 13. (Clearly neither of these will fill the bill as far as Ehrman’s assertions; they do not contain narrative material that would help to place Jesus in history. It’s free-floating material that needn’t have been connected to Jesus at all until the author of Mark incorporated it into his own narrative.)

  12. 12
    Egbert

    Most people who are familiar with Ehrman’s earlier work will know how much of a brilliant and insightful scholar he is. And so this strange dogmatic attitude he’s displayed recently almost comes across as a mental meltdown than authentic scholarship.

  13. 13
    Eric MacDonald

    I think Ehrman is taking his expertise too seriously. While he may be an expert at textual study, it is too much to claim that he is an expert at how texts came to be the way we have them now. There is simply not enough evidence for the oral traditions to which he adverts. No doubt there were oral traditions, and if it could be shown that the correspondences between texts could be traced back to such oral traditions, it would be possible to say something about the independent attestation of what we find in the texts, but that is simply not something we can have. But showing that a text is an independent one, and can be counted on for historical reasons is more difficult than that. Fragments of texts probably existed. Since writing began as a matter of business note taking, it is likely that some fragments of stories or sayings existed in linked documentary sources now lost, so that they can’t be taken as independent for the purpose of historial attestation. Mark existed as a source, and the theoretical source Q, based on material present in both Matthew and Luke, has been assumed. But we do not know that there was only one such source that Matthew and Luke had access to, for they also, independently, had a source, or dreamed up sayings on their own, which are not present in the other gospel. The mythmaking tendency was obviously working overtime. For Ehrman to make too many assured claims on the basis of what must have been much more complicated than we know is probably a stretch too far. (I add that I haven’t and don’t intend to read his book.)

    My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Jesus was a real person, but that the whole supernatural story that got added along the way is all the result of mythmaking activity, though some may have derived from Jesus’ overheated imagination. Messiah cults and figures were a dime a dozen in those days, and a constant source of trouble for the Roman as well as the Jewish authorities, as they still are in present day Israel. So we mustn’t give too much credence to the sources. From the sound of it, Ehrman does.

  14. 14
    Aratina Cage

    @iknklast

    There are lots of written documents that attest that Santa Claus exists. These were ALMOST CERTAINLY based on earlier documents, even though we don’t have those earlier documents anymore. Ergo, Santa Claus is a real, historical figure.

    Yes, that is part of what seems to be happening here and a little different from what I was getting at.

    In regard to my comment #8, I had one person on Twitter actually tell me that Santa Claus was a real person because of Saint Nicholas having been a real person (never mind the legends built up around Saint Nicholas that have nothing to do with his Santa-like aspects!). I argued that the Santa Claus of today is so divorced from any real historical figure that it would be disingenuous to say that Santa was a real person simply because someone in the past did things that later became associated with Santa.

    Likewise, the people claiming to see a real person behind the Jesus of Christianity could be making the same mistake. Yes, a Jewish teacher may have been killed by the government authorities, and yes he could be a real person associated with the Jesus of Christianity, but that doesn’t make the Jesus of Christianity a real person any more than Saint Nicholas being a real person makes Santa a real person.

    In other words, historicists are arguing that Jesus is like the supernatural Mao–one person on whom all the tales are built–instead of the supernatural Santa–a fabrication spun out of numerous traditions, myths, and even real personalities and events. One just isn’t like the other as far as historicity goes. A real Mao existed; a real Santa did not.

  15. 15
    Stewart

    “If such a vibrant oral tradition about the saying and deeds of Jesus existed prior to the composition of the gospels, wouldn’t we see some reflection of that in the epistles?”

    But not just the epistles. The thing that is never adequately explained is that damned gap. If there was a historical figure worth remembering in any way, it would not have taken place with a break of 40 years, i.e. nothing and then he’s there. No, if he were real and the only reason there’s nothing surviving earlier than what we really “have” is because it was either oral or non-surviving written, it is relevant to ask why neither of those phenomena ever got mentioned by those whose truly contemporary writings do survive, at least in copies that are not under dispute. People were either talking and/or writing about him from the time of his alleged death or they weren’t. It is the total absence from the undisputed historical record that is the problem. It doesn’t buzz around completely under everyone’s radar for several decades (more than most people’s lifespan back then) if it was real and was any kind of cause celebre to begin with. How could it not have been strong at the time of the alleged events? Why does it take a generation to emerge? Why do we not even have copies of anything we know (for sure) was committed to writing until a time when almost all potential eye witnesses had to have been dead? I have no problem with him having existed, but not enough is there to convince me it had to have been the case and there are things that indicate otherwise as well.

  16. 16
    Ant (@antallan)

    @ Aratina

    Quite! Santa Claus is now probably irrevocably conflated with Father Christmas, who likely has a deeper mythic origin in the pagan Holly King. Maybe. And parallels with Дед Мороз in Slavonic traditions.

    It’s very clear that myths can accrete to real person, however inconsequential, like nacre to a piece of grit.

    /@

  17. 17
    vinnyjh

    If there was a historical figure worth remembering in any way, it would not have taken place with a break of 40 years, i.e. nothing and then he’s there.

    I think it’s even worse than that. Even if we accept the scholarly consensus on dating the gospels, we don’t know how long it took for them to be accepted. We don’t find unambiguous external references to the gospels until well into the second century. Maybe that’s because the first Christians didn’t understand Jesus that way and it took many decades for the stories about the miracle working Rabbi to circulate and gain acceptance.

  18. 18
    Scote

    By Ehrman’s reasoning the India Rope trick was real. :-p Do we really need to analyze his reasoning beyond that?

  19. 19
    Sili

    Instead, they are based on oral traditions. These oral traditions had been in circulation for a very long time before they came to be written down. This is not pure speculation. Aspects of the surviving stories of Jesus found in the written Gospels, themselves based on earlier written accounts, show clearly both that they were based on oral traditions (as Luke himself indicates) and that these traditions had been around for a very long time…

    The other problem with that argument, is that “a very long time” may well predate Paul and the Crucifiction. There’s that Essene (I think) guy that was The Christ a Hundrede Years Before Jesus for instance.

  20. 20
    SAWells

    Surely the biggest reason for the gap before Gospels emerge, is that around 70 CE Judaea in general and Jerusalem in particular was stomped flat by the Romans after the Great Revolt. It’s much easier to make up stories when you set them safely long ago and on the far side of a massive disruption.

  21. 21
    Jason Dick

    I don’t get where the certainty comes from.

    As I understand it, the best evidence for the historicity of Jesus is the synoptic gospels, and Mark is dated to some two decades after the first Pauline epistles. We have no date for Q, but Matthew and Luke are both after Mark, so Q need be no older than Mark, and may be a little younger (note: I do think the argument for a Q document is very strong, but I don’t see why it need be any older than Mark).

    I don’t think there is anything that places any of the sources before a decade or more after the Pauline epistles, so I cannot understand where this confidence of a historical Jesus comes from. It is very easy for me to imagine a situation where Jesus was invented out of whole cloth after Paul invented the religion, and the gospels were written based upon this wholly imaginary person (provided some suitable rewriting of Paul’s personal history to try to make the religion seem older).

    Of course, it also isn’t at all unlikely that the character of Jesus was based upon a real cult leader. But I don’t see why a wholly imaginary Jesus is unlikely either.

  22. 22
    Stacy

    The thing that is never adequately explained is that damned gap. If there was a historical figure worth remembering in any way, it would not have taken place with a break of 40 years, i.e. nothing and then he’s there. No, if he were real and the only reason there’s nothing surviving earlier than what we really “have” is because it was either oral or non-surviving written, it is relevant to ask why neither of those phenomena ever got mentioned by those whose truly contemporary writings do survive, at least in copies that are not under dispute.

    Well, the fact that most written material didn’t survive is not surprising. There wouldn’t have been much of it to begin with–literacy was not common, especially not among Christianity’s first converts–and ancient documents (of any sort) are simply unlikely to have survived. It’s like fossils–we have very few (relative to all the organisms that have lived and died) because the conditions have to be just right for those traces to remain at all.

    I think there’s another plausible reason for that particular gap, though–the fact that the historical figure was all too obviously a human being, not a god.

    The people pushing the mythological version of “Jesus Christ” would have tried to destroy or “clean up” any records that were embarrassing. They mostly succeeded (except for traces–Mark, for example, has some pretty embarrassing human details that were pointedly changed by Luke and Matthew.)

    We do know for a fact that once Christianity became the state religion of Rome, any works that didn’t reflect the party line, whether by non-believers, skeptics, or “heretical” Christians, were systematically destroyed.

  23. 23
    Stewart

    I see no one took me to task for it, but I feel my earlier comment (#15), written a little hurriedly, risked some sloppiness by taking a step back from the detail. However, the zooming-out had a purpose. Textual analysis of the kind that leads to not-necessarily-unreasonable but physically otherwise unevidenced assumptions like the existence of Q (and the others Ehrman seems to be insisting must have existed) can risk losing sight of the bigger picture. If the scenario you build out of many details ends up not matching the big picture that comes to you from your knowledge of how the world works, and you are in search of a real answer to a question like “what actually happened here?,” then it probably does boil down to a certain choice: either you don’t know how the world really works (or did back then) or not all of the calls you made about the details you analysed were the correct ones.

    There are figures whose historic existence is undisputed who also have tales about them involving the supernatural. What Jesus is missing is the opposite: an existence outside the tales resting largely on the supernatural.

  24. 24
    Stewart

    Stacy’s comment went in while I was writing that last one, so I didn’t see it before posting.

    Regarding clean-ups: no, it’s not impossible. Surely, however, that was a trend that grew with the years and would have been weaker when there were eye-witnesses who wouldn’t have agreed. One can easily then say the purging itself did take place later, but if that were the case, the likelihood also increases for more copies and references in other works before it happened. And of course, this does bring into the picture all the works rejected for the canon and what some of them imply. If one is talking about the processes that led to the canon, one can’t fairly ignore what one knows about some of the rejects. I repeat my non-expert disclaimer (from the previous thread on this topic), but think the principles I’m trying to express here are not invalid.

  25. 25
    Jason Dick

    Stewart:

    Well, I would say that the argument in favor of Q is incredibly strong. There is essentially no way, for example, for two sentences of more than about 10 words to be identical by random chance. And yet Matthew and Luke have many sentences which are word-for-word identical between them that are not shared with Mark. Thus there are only two possibilities here:

    1. Matthew and Luke derived from Mark and a second document or set of documents.
    2. Either Matthew or Luke derived from the other.

    Given the number of areas where Matthew and Luke disagree with one another rather significantly on mundane details, that makes option (1) by far the most likely possibility.

    However, there’s still no reason to date Q before the Pauline epistles. At least, not that I am aware of.

  26. 26
    John Morales

    [OT]

    Jason:

    There is essentially no way, for example, for two sentences of more than about 10 words to be identical by random chance.

    Because the constituent words of any sentence are independent and uniformly distributed?

    (Essentially)

  27. 27
    Jason Dick

    John:

    If they were independent and uniformly distributed, you would need even fewer. But you can verify this rather easily with Google, if you like.

  28. 28
    John Morales

    [OT]

    Jason, I can, can I?

    Perhaps, depending on what you mean by “random chance” (as opposed to “predetermined chance”, I presume?).

    (You claim it’s rather easy, so… show me. I note that Googling “the reason that the sky is blue is that *” yields nine hits — and nine is about ten, no?)

  29. 29
    Jason Dick

    John:

    Pick a random news article. Take an innocuous sentence from said article of about ten words or so. It’s especially telling if there is nothing particularly specific about the sentence you pick. Doing a search will basically only retrieve copies/excerpts of said article.

    The particular phrase you picked fails this test for the following reasons:
    1. The phrase itself contains almost no information. Most of the words are simply modifiers which are used in a very common order for English. Few sentences are like this.
    2. It is only a phrase, not an entire sentence.
    3. It only has nine words (this is a very minor point, however…the vast, vast majority of nine word sentences are still unique).

  30. 30
    Stacy

    @Stewart @24:

    One can easily then say the purging itself did take place later, but if that were the case, the likelihood also increases for more copies and references in other works before it happened.

    I could be misunderstanding you, and if so, do correct me. But I’m thinking there were references, in passages like this:

    (Mk 3:21)Those connected with him came to put him under restraint, for they said, ‘He is out {of his mind}”

    And

    (Mk 6:1) He comes into his home town…and on the Sabbath he started to teach in the synagogue. And the crowd, hearing, were astonished, saying, “Where does this {fellow} get this {stuff}?…and “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judah and Simon? And aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they were scandalized (prevented from believing) by {their knowledge of} him….And he could not do any miracle there.

    Jesus the Magician, Morton Smith

    Note that faith healers, even nowadays, aren’t very successful when they try to do their thing around skeptics and non-believers. Note also that “the son of Mary” would have been an insult (implying illegitimacy). The whole “virgin birth” story, while it does have parallels in Greek mythology, seems to have been a late addition to the Jesus myth. Mark, quoted above, doesn’t mention it. He has “son of Mary” here, but both Luke and Matthew change “son of Mary”–(and tell stories about how Gawd impregnated Mary.) If historical Jesus was in fact an “illegitimate” child, that would have been embarrassing, and the “godditit!” story would have been a mighty convenient–later–excuse.

    I loved Jesus the Magician, learned a lot from, and recommend, it. But of course, the figure worshiped by Christians is a mythological one.

  31. 31
    Stewart

    No, you were only misunderstanding me if you thought I was attacking the very methods used to obtain the idea of Q. I do say it’s fine to go where the evidence leads and one of the things that has caused the whole larger discussion is the suspicion that there are places Ehrman insists on going with it that he might not were other forces not in play.

  32. 32
    Steven Carr

    Bart has pointed out to you guys that his claims are not ‘pure speculation.’

    ‘This is not pure speculation.’, he writes.

    Just how solid would you like your evidence to be. Already, it cannot be described as ‘pure speculation’.

    What more do people want?

  33. 33
    Steven Carr

    With these Gospels being based on earlier reports and being independently corroborated and the sort of works historians dream of, it is a little surprising that they contain stories of demons, Satans, Moses returning from the dead, and resurrected saints appearing from their graves and wandering through Jerusalem.

    Sure , they might contain a myth or two,perhaps three or four, but they are still based on solid oral traditions and reports written long before the Gospels were written. Honest. You can trust me. I’m a scholar.

  34. 34
    CJO

    Jason,

    1. Matthew and Luke derived from Mark and a second document or set of documents.
    2. Either Matthew or Luke derived from the other.

    There’s a 2.a. possibility, that similar passages that weren’t identical in the early copies were harmonized by later scribes familiar with both versions (though this still would probably leave open the argument that they were paraphrasing the same text). A fair number of early textual variants in the surviving manuscripts are harmonizations, and there’s a couple of centuries of manuscript evidence missing, beyond extremely rare partial or fragmentary manuscripts.

    Given the number of areas where Matthew and Luke disagree with one another rather significantly on mundane details, that makes option (1) by far the most likely possibility.

    The mundane details need to be taken one by one, and such close examination often reveals that the seemingly mundane is not, especially when dealing with the dense, allusive, inter-textual canonical gospels. I think the author of Luke was familiar with Matthew, but the argument you’re making depends on an assumption that the he should necessarily have esteemed Matthew to the extent that he wouldn’t have substantially altered material he chose to copy from it. As it turns out, Luke is on some fronts openly hostile to the treatment in Matthew, just as Matthew betrays discomfort (embarrassment) with its own source material, Mark, which brings me to Stacy’s comment:

    Note also that “the son of Mary” would have been an insult (implying illegitimacy). The whole “virgin birth” story, while it does have parallels in Greek mythology, seems to have been a late addition to the Jesus myth. Mark, quoted above, doesn’t mention it. He has “son of Mary” here, but both Luke and Matthew change “son of Mary”–(and tell stories about how Gawd impregnated Mary.) If historical Jesus was in fact an “illegitimate” child, that would have been embarrassing, and the “godditit!” story would have been a mighty convenient–later–excuse.

    This only works as an argument for historical concern on the part of the evangelists if we read Mark as a naive, more or less plain retelling of “handed down” material, whether written or oral. But actually the situation is that the authors of Luke and Matthew are rewriting a text in order to suppress its strong tendency toward allegory, symbolic expression and the use of literary technique generally, especially its use of irony.

    Irony suffuses Mark, and it most often takes the form of an unnamed or peripheral character making an ambiguous statement about Jesus, one that can be inverted so that it is superficially true but false in ultimate, divine, reality. The passage here is strongly ironic, in the total absence of any of the later interest in birth narratives. We have already been told in Mark, at the very outset (1:11), that Jesus is the adopted son of God. So imagine an audience who has grasped the import of the earlier passage (for the text would have been intended for reading aloud). Jesus’ enemies castigate him as a man without a father, when the reader, the audience, knows full well who his father is.

  35. 35
    Stacy

    Jesus’ enemies castigate him as a man without a father, when the reader, the audience, knows full well who his father is

    His adopted father. Still, why, if you were inventing a hero, would you make him illegitimate?

    Not because his father is a god–in Mark, Yahweh “adopts” Jesus after the baptism. That wouldn’t erase the stigma of illegitimacy, would it?

  36. 36
    Stacy

    Sorry, during, not after.

  37. 37
    CJO

    The author of Mark was not inventing a hero, as the ending ought to make plain, Biographical concerns like patrimony and birth are completely absent. It’s a symbolic fiction in which literary concerns are tantamount, and the literal fact that the “hero” is apparently illegitimate is altogether beside the point. He is God’s beloved son, we will see him at the end of days despite everything, and in the literary world we inhabit he is an outsider on all fronts, including familial relations, consistently, not just in this passage. The ways of humanity and the ways of God are starkly opposed in Mark; the passage we’re looking at is intended as an incidental, and ironic, illustration of the failure of outsiders to understand.

  38. 38
    crazyHorse

    Paul could also be a literary device of a narrator, or a number of narrators and scribes. Half his epistles are disputed, and the dutch Radicals of about 100 years ago disputed all of them.

    Too much authority seems to be given to the Pauline documents.

  39. 39
    Svlad Cjelli

    Dog ate my homework.

  40. 40
    Jason Dick

    CJO,

    Later harmonization cannot explain the particular similarities seen. While harmonization certainly did occur from time to time, the issue here is that there would never be any reason for scribes to force certain passages to repeat other passages in other books word-for-word. They would have some incentive to harmonize meaning, but not word choice or order.

  41. 41
    Stacy

    It’s a symbolic fiction in which literary concerns are tantamount, and the literal fact that the “hero” is apparently illegitimate is altogether beside the point.

    Mmmm. If it’s beside the point, why utilize it? Why complicate the story with embarrassing little details that could be used by non-believers to discredit the protagonist and his followers–(which is what happened)?

  42. 42
    Steven Carr

    EHRMAN
    ‘But even if we leave Paul out of the equation, there is still more than ample reason for thinking that stories about Jesus circulated widely throughout the major urban areas of the Mediterranean from a very early time. Otherwise it is impossible to explain all the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century.’

    CARR
    Gosh , all those written and oral sources, and not one of them had enough historical detail to help Luke date a single event in the life of Jesus – not even a birth year or death year.

    What are the odds of all those sources being free from anything enabling somebody like Luke to put a date to something?

  43. 43
    Steven Carr

    Amazingly, after Ehrman waves around invisible early sources as representing stuff going back to just after Jesus died, he then claims on page 238, that even if Phillipians 2 predates Paul, ‘it does not represent the earliest Christian understanding of Christ.’

    Because Ehrman has to deny that Jesus was thought of a as a god, he denies that anything which predates Paul must represent early Christian thought, if the picture of Jesus it presents is not one he is selling, while he simultaneously has to invent oral and written sources for the Gospels which go back to early Christianity and predate Paul.

    If you read the book, you can see Ehrman rewriting history, moving sources around in time, to build up a picture of a Jesus he can sell to himself.

  44. 44
    Squirrelloid

    I’ll agree with some of what Ehrman says: There were documents foundational to Mark (and thus the rest of the NT), and we DO have them. Its called the Old Testament. (And the Odyssey, surprisingly enough). Mark is an extended midrash on old testament prophecies structured around an inversion of the Odyssey story (with some details even drawn thereby). We have all those documents! (None of them qualify as remotely historical, especially for the purposes to which Mark put them, but we have them.)

    This is actually evidence against an historical Jesus, which is why Ehrman doesn’t mention *those* sources. But we have them! (We even known the author of Mark was reading the Greek Septuagint and not in Hebrew at all because of the version of the OT he referenced!)

  1. 45
    Carrier on Ehrman’s Response to Criticisms « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

    [...] choice of words misleads, as well as his questionable logic (see: What Ehrman Actually Says, The Unseen, A Small Town [...]

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