What Ehrman actually says

Richard Carrier takes a look at Bart Ehrman’s article at the Huffington Post on the did-Jesus-exist question. One point Richard makes jumped out at me, because the same thing jumped out at me in Ehrman’s book.

Mistake #2: Ehrman actually says (and I can’t believe it, but these are his exact words):

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

He actually says we have such sources. We do not. That is simply a plain, straight-up falsehood. I can only suppose he means Q or some hypothesized sources behind the creedal statements in Paul or the sermons in Acts, but none of those sources exist, and are purely hypothetical. In fact, barely more than conjectural. There is serious debate in the academic community as to whether Q even existed; and even among those who believe it did, there is serious debate about whether it comes from Aramaic or in fact Greek sources or whether it’s one source or several or whether it even goes back to Jesus at all.

Richard doesn’t have the book yet, and he attempts to give Ehrman the benefit of the doubt in the article.

 That he actually says we have this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source is, by contrast, profoundly incompetent writing. I am certain he did not really mean to lie. In his emotional pique, he just didn’t proof his own article and thus didn’t notice how badly he misspoke. But that suggests he is driving on emotion and not reason or any careful process.

But Ehrman says it in the book too.

On page 82 he sums up the preceding claims about sources that [must have been] behind the existing Gospels and fragments of gospels that actually exist.

 The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced.

That’s one place where Ehrman does the thing that Richard (quite rightly, I think) protests – he talks about conjectural sources as if they were more than conjectural. “Is found” is a very odd phrase to use of “sources” that, if you read closely, he is admitting don’t survive. Turn the sentence around to see it more clearly: It is conjectured that there were sources for the Gospels that survive. They must have been circulating throughout the Empire.  The view that Jesus existed is found in these sources (as well as the ones that do survive). See how odd that looks? We think there were sources. They didn’t survive.  The view that Jesus existed is found in them.

Then he does it again, but more so – more like the way he does it in the HP article. Continuing without a break:

Where would the solitary source that “invented” Jesus be? Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others. And these are just the ones we know about, that we can reasonably infer from the scant literary remains that survive from the early years of the Christian church. No one knows how many there actually were. Luke says there were “many” of them, and he may well have been right.

You see how it is.

Now, in context it’s possible to read “we have” as a loose way of saying “we have these items I’ve been explaining” – but – given that the evidence for the existence of Jesus is the subject of the book, it’s really not a good way to put it. Given that we don’t literally “have” any such thing and that that’s part of the argument for the mythic status of Jesus, it does seem at least woefully sloppy to say we do.

Update: On a re-read, I think I should clarify that in that last passage all the claimed “numerous accounts” that we “have,” after Mark, are conjectural. Everything after “In addition to Mark” is what we in fact don’t literally have. It’s possible to realize that that’s what he’s saying, if you read carefully, but it’s also very easy to misunderstand. He should have been much more careful. I’ll be interested to see what Richard says he should have done.