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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.

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    We can also conjecture that there was a source, let’s call it FU, that included Jesus H. Christ’s long form birth certificate. How unfortunate that this document did not survive, because it decided the case conclusively.

  2. kenbo says

    Does he also site the Book of Mormon’s account of Jesus here in America as an “independent source”? /snark

    Kenbo

  3. says

    At least the book makes it clear that Ehrman is inferring the existence of those sources. That is more accurate than what he says in the HuffPost article.

  4. eric says

    Just curious, but do any of these scholars consider the possibility that Q etc. were oral accounts? Literacy was not exactly common back in those days, but people did memorize and retell some pretty freakin’ long stories.

    I guess in some ways it doesn’t matter, since that hypothesis may be mostly indistinguishable from the “no Q” hypothesis. But still, you’d think that we would seriously consider the possibility that a mostly oral culture would produce an oral account.

  5. Jason Goertzen says

    I also love the assumption that material unique to Matthew cannot be *made up by Matthew* and material unique to Luke cannot be *made up by Luke*. I’ve never seen a compelling argument that suggests this material must come from earlier sources.

  6. raven says

    At least the book makes it clear that Ehrman is inferring the existence of those sources.

    Ehrman is really sloppy in his phrasing about early sources in Aramaic. We have no such direct evidence. Ehrman is a very smart and careful scholar and he knows this.

    What he must mean is that the Gospels are built on earlier sources. Not unreasonable since the first bible one, Mark was written 20 years later than Paul’s Epistles.

    One such example would be the Q document, known only from reconstructions from the bible.

    But how many such sources, how early they date to, and in what languages they are in is pretty uncertain and probably unknowable. They are educated guesses.

    I’ve never heard any evidence one way or the other as to whether they were in Aramaic. But the entire NT was written in Koine Greek, the language of educated people at the time.

  7. raven says

    I also love the assumption that material unique to Matthew cannot be *made up by Matthew* and material unique to Luke cannot be *made up by Luke*. I’ve never seen a compelling argument that suggests this material must come from earlier sources.

    The Gospels are literary fiction and there are way more than 4. Even at this late date of 2,000 years later, we know of ca. 60, List of Gospels, wikipedia source.

    So someone had to make up a whole lot of stuff somewhere. The birth stories of Matthew and Luke are very different, the crucifixion and resurrection stories are all different and so on.

    As to whether “Matthew” or “Luke” (both written anonymously) made up stuff or someone else did, isn’t very relevant.

    FWIW, Gospels are still being written. The last one to catch on was The Book of Mormon.

  8. vinnyjh says

    Internet apologists are constantly making claims along the lines of “What Ehrman doesn’t tell you is….” However, when I go back to his books I invariably find that the alleged omission was in fact addressed. I might not agree with all of Ehrman’s conclusions, but I have always felt that I can count on him to give an accurate picture of the evidence. I would not have expected him to make the kind of statement he made on HuffPost.

    I agree that it is reasonable to think that Paul and the gospel authors had sources, but any hypothetical reconstruction of those sources is going to depend in part on initial assumptions about historicity. We cannot know that the details that place Jesus more clearly into a historical context weren’t the details that the gospel authors added to sources in which historicity was much less clear.

  9. Jason Goertzen says

    @raven

    I agree that they are fictions. But surely you’re not arguing that it’s equally probably for it to be a fiction regardless of whether it was borrowed from earlier sources? That would be to argue in a circle as tight as Ehrman is.

    Given no possibility that the authors of the gospels were eyewitnesses to the purported events, there are three possibilities for any given story in the gospels:

    1) The author of the gospel in question made it up.
    2) The author borrowed from a previous source, who made it up.
    3) The author borrowed from a previous source, who was reporting an actual event.

    Technically, these can all be doubled to include the story having been interpolated into the text by another author, having made it up, used sources, etc., but let’s set that aside for the time being.

    Until (3) can be definitely shown to be impossible, it’s necessary to conclude that IF a story in the gospels is drawn from a previous source, it’s *more probable* that it’s a genuine account than if the story originates with the gospel’s author. I think (3) is very unlikely, given the “just so” nature of the stories, and given their obvious utility in settling later dogmatic debates. I’ve found also convincing the work of people like Robert M. Price, who has shown how many of these stories are essentially revisions of Old Testament stories. So again, I think (3) is unlikely, but don’t consider it settled as being obviously impossible.

    As a result I have to restrict myself to criticizing Ehrman for assuming that (3) *is* the case, with no supporting argument given.

  10. Jason Goertzen says

    @ vinnyjh

    “I agree that it is reasonable to think that Paul and the gospel authors had sources, but any hypothetical reconstruction of those sources is going to depend in part on initial assumptions about historicity. We cannot know that the details that place Jesus more clearly into a historical context weren’t the details that the gospel authors added to sources in which historicity was much less clear.”

    Well said. Ehrman seems blind to how circular a lot of his arguments are, when it comes to Jesus’ historicity. It’s what I found so problematic in his historical reconstruction in “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.” He constantly makes huge assumptions without seeming to be aware that his entire argument is being supported by something for which he has no evidence.

  11. mnb0 says

    “As to whether “Matthew” or “Luke” (both written anonymously) made up stuff or someone else did, isn’t very relevant.”
    Actually it is. If Jesus is fiction you’ll have to explain who (not necessarily a name) came up with this character, where, when and why. Or the hypothesis will just hang in the air.

    “do any of these scholars consider the possibility that Q etc. were oral accounts?”
    Maybe Q itself not, but it is pretty obvious that almost all Ancient sources use oral accounts, because they are written well after the events had taken place. Moreover it should be clear that with one exception I’m too lazy to look up now (it can be found on Livius.org) every single Ancient sources mixes facts with fiction. What’s more, they were very fond of repeating myths. The baby-killing in Matthew is essentially the same as the attempt to kill Moses as a baby, can be found in the story of Oedipus and in Homerus – Paris escaped death as a baby too.
    It’s a grave mistake to assume that readers then read their books the same way we do in the 21st Century – as either fiction or literal accounts.

  12. raven says

    I agree that they are fictions. But surely you’re not arguing that it’s equally probably for it to be a fiction regardless of whether it was borrowed from earlier sources?

    I wasn’t too clear because I wasn’t addressing how much of the Gospels are fiction. That is for Carrier and Ehrman to address.

    We do know that much of the NT and Gospels are fiction. This is the scholarly consensus based on literary criticism and textual study. With all these numerousl contradictions in the NT, it is beyond doubt.

    As to who made up what when, we can only guess but it doesn’t matter much. It’s unanswerable. We don’t even know who wrote the Gospels, the names were added later to anonymous documents.

    The core question is how much, if any, is historical.

    Got me. I’ve read most of the popular books, around 15 or 20. IMO, this is an unanswerable question. The data no longer exists. It’s been too long and the data is lost in the mists of time.

    That is why this controversy has been going on for over a century. Without data, there is no way to settle the point and never will be.

    FWIW, I do lean towards a historical jesus but couldn’t prove it or disprove it. And don’t care all that much. It’s a fun question like what is the sound of one hand clapping.

  13. raven says

    “As to whether “Matthew” or “Luke” (both written anonymously) made up stuff or someone else did, isn’t very relevant.”
    Actually it is.

    No. I addressed this above. Fiction is fiction.

    If Jesus is fiction you’ll have to explain who (not necessarily a name) came up with this character, where, when and why. Or the hypothesis will just hang in the air.

    This is completely wrong. It is wrong because it is impossible. It’s been 2,000 years, the data is long gone, and no one knows.

    The hypothesis has been hanging in the air for 2,000 years. It has been vigorously debated for over a century. What does this tell anyone? It will hang in the air forever barring some improbable new archaeological findings.

    You are making the assumption that any and all historical questions can be answered millennia later. That simply isn’t true.

  14. Dan L. says

    Actually it is. If Jesus is fiction you’ll have to explain who (not necessarily a name) came up with this character, where, when and why. Or the hypothesis will just hang in the air.

    I agree with Raven. There are thousands if not millions of myths and legends that are not regarded as having a historical core even though no one knows who initially composed them, where, or why. This “requirement” is just not acknowledged in any context in which ancient fiction is being studied.

    Except for Christianity, apparently. But that’s only because for some bizarre reason even agnostics and atheists make special pleading arguments for the historicity of the Bible. It constantly blows my mind how much this book has poisoned the minds of even those who claim not to buy a word of it.

  15. eric says

    Jason Goertzen @9:

    Until (3) can be definitely shown to be impossible, it’s necessary to conclude that IF a story in the gospels is drawn from a previous source, it’s *more probable* that it’s a genuine account than if the story originates with the gospel’s author.

    I think your are focusing on the wrong probability comparison. The probabilities of interest are original fiction vs. original non-fiction, not later fiction vs. original fiction.

    I’ll make an analogy to the telegraph game to make clear what I mean. What you seem to be worried about is whether the last person in line accurately repeats what the first person said. But what you should be worried about is whether the first person spouted b*llsh*t or not.

  16. says

    If Jesus is fiction you’ll have to explain who (not necessarily a name) came up with this character, where, when and why. Or the hypothesis will just hang in the air.

    Then again, the historical Jesus hypothesis has the same problem: You’ll have to explain which parts of the Jesus character are fact and which are fiction. Otherwise the hypothesis will just hang in the air.

    Personally I don’t really care that much whether Jesus was 100% made up, or just 99.9%.

  17. Jason Goertzen says

    @ eric

    “What you seem to be worried about is whether the last person in line accurately repeats what the first person said.”

    No, you’ve misunderstood me.

    I’m not in the least concerned with how accurately something was transmitted. I was answering the claim that (paraphrasing) ‘it doesn’t matter if the stories are original to the authors of the gospels, since they are fiction regardless.’

    My point was that a story that is original to a non-eyewitness is *almost certainly* fiction, whereas a story that is borrowed from earlier reports/traditions (whether or not it is accurately transmitted) is at least *conceivably* based on eyewitness accounts. So long as this is a possibility, it would be circular reasoning to dismiss every story as fictional regardless of its origin, unless other evidence can be leveraged to demonstrate that it is.

    This being said, of course, the mere *possibility* that a story comes from an earlier, eyewitness tradition cannot be used as evidence of anything. This is Ehrman’s mistake.

  18. says

    I wonder what someone brought up in a non-Abrahamic tradition would think of this discussion?

    Based on the evidence presented (and absent), I think it quite unlikely that a single individual named Joshua (an extremely common name at the time, FWIW) lived a remarkable life as an itinerant preacher, was executed by the authorities, and then had his followers develop a religion based on his philosophy. Primarily because there’s no answer to the question “which philosophy?” There’s Jesus meek and mild, there’s Jesus the revolutionary, there’s Jesus who rides into Jerusalem on a never-ridden horse (quite literally declaring himself to be the new king), the Jesus who declares he comes with a sword to separate parents from children, and on and on. The “philosophy” of Jesus is a total incoherent mess.

    Never mind the post-execution hagiography. Virgin births were dime-a-dozen. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a faith healer back then. Prophets and apostles had the power to raise the dead — that wasn’t reserved for a half-god.

    I think it’s likely that Jesus is the Paul Bunyan of his day. A mainly mythic figure placed in a time and place, with bits and pieces of the lives of others stolen to make his alleged earthly visit seem more plausible. If one of the lives these myths were based on was named “Jesus”, it’s more of a coincidence than an identification of that guy as that Jesus.

  19. Jason Goertzen says

    @ raven

    “We do know that much of the NT and Gospels are fiction. This is the scholarly consensus based on literary criticism and textual study. With all these numerousl contradictions in the NT, it is beyond doubt.

    [...]

    The core question is how much, if any, is historical.”

    I think we agree entirely, and that something got lost in communication. :)

    Of course much of it is fiction–and certainly the real question is whether any of it is historical. You did overstep this slightly in your initial comment, though, implying (perhaps inadvertently) that the gospels are 100% fiction, which we can’t know. Even if most of the gospel material is fiction, it’s at least conceivable for critical scrutiny to reveal a *probable* historical core, rooted in the stripped down, historical material.

    I’ve read a few attempts to provide such a reconstruction (including Ehrman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium”), and frankly, they are so full of wild speculation, logical fallacies, and improbable premises that I’m left suspecting the entire endeavor is probable hopeless. I’ve yet to see anything like a good, probable reconstruction. I agree with Robert M Price: if there was a historical Jesus, he’s been totally lost in the shuffle.

  20. Jason Goertzen says

    @ Kevin

    Well said. It’s like Robert M Price argued once: it’s POSSIBLE that Merlin the Magician is based on a figure named “Myrddin Wyllt”–who was probably an historical figure… but is that the same thing as “Merlin the Magician” having been an historical figure? Not really. So too, perhaps, with Jesus.

  21. R.J. Moore says

    “Actually it is. If Jesus is fiction you’ll have to explain who (not necessarily a name) came up with this character, where, when and why. Or the hypothesis will just hang in the air.”

    No, you don’t, because there probably never was a ‘single source’ for Christianity; it’s a combination of various Anointed demigod/gnostic/mystery cults that adopt similar titles and slowly merge, split, remerge, etc. Christianity no more has a ‘single founder’ or ‘creator’ of Jesus than the Dionysian Mysteries did, and to expect that they did is baseless.

  22. raven says

    There’s Jesus meek and mild, there’s Jesus the revolutionary, there’s Jesus who rides into Jerusalem on a never-ridden horse (quite literally declaring himself to be the new king), the Jesus who declares he comes with a sword to separate parents from children, and on and on. The “philosophy” of Jesus is a total incoherent mess.

    Yes. This.

    There seems to be several Jesuses running around in the New Testament.

    The benign Jesus who wants to feed the poor and the meek shall inherit the earth.

    The Jesus who says he will come back as a king and kill everyone who didn’t believe he is god, a central feature of a lot of xian sects.

    The Jesus who recommends that men cut off their testicles if they can bear it.

    The Jesus who warns people about casting the first stone.

    The raving antisemitic Jesus of Matthew and John, responsible for 2,000 years of Jewish persecution.

    The Jesus who talks (prays) to his father and much later claims to be his father.

    There really isn’t a coherent Jesus or a coherent philosophy in the multi-author work. In fact, Jesus does a lot of evolving from the first to last written books.

  23. says

    Almost any legendary character might in some sense have been a historical person. Nevertheless, I would still consider Paul Bunyan, Romulus, and King Arthur as merely legends or myths because because I don’t see how positing a historical person behind any of those characters would contribute to our historical understanding or help to make sense of the historical data. I cannot say the same about Jesus, however. Although I tend to think that the historical Jesus is unrecoverable for all practical purposes, I can see how the historical Jesus hypothesis might have explanatory value and might help to make sense of the data. While that is no reason to affirm his existence, it is enough reason for me to remain agnostic about a historical Jesus even though I am comfortable treating Merlin or Robin Hood as legendary.

  24. says

    From Reginald Selkirk:

    We can also conjecture that there was a source, let’s call it FU, that included Jesus H. Christ’s long form birth certificate.

    Oh my, the endless forms of mockery to be found! This is why I love Gnu Atheism; it’s never dull for long. If I ever get into it with a birther, who will undoubtedly be a fundie Christian, I am certainly using that one.

  25. says

    @raven

    FWIW, I do lean towards a historical jesus but couldn’t prove it or disprove it.

    If you can’t be reasonably sure, especially not beyond a reasonable doubt, then why do you keep trotting out your evidence-free viewpoint that there was a real person that this Jesus character was based on? Can’t you just be more realistic and say that an opinion either way isn’t currently possible?

    @mnb0

    It’s a grave mistake to assume that readers then read their books the same way we do in the 21st Century – as either fiction or literal accounts. [emphasis added for kicks]

    Do you mean that people reading or listening to the reading of written stories back then were incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction? I would think that stories about people doing or interacting with supernatural things wouldn’t have been considered fictional amongst most readers/listeners back then (well, they still aren’t today w/respect to theists).

    So should we assume that the people reading or listening to the Jesus stories believed the accounts were accurate? Should we assume the readers/listeners would have found parts of the Jesus stories inaccurate? Just what are you trying to tell us?

  26. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    I’ve read a number of Ehrman’s books. If Ehrman’s “historical Jesus” was someone who was NOT born of a virgin, did NOT perform miracles, was NOT divine and did NOT rise from the dead, then I think as far as believers are concerned they will think that Ehrman is saying that Jesus did not exist. Not their Jesus anyway. Without the magic bits, Jesus can’t be “their” Jesus. Without the magic bits, Erhman’s Jesus cannot be a perfect offering to atone for sin, cannot be Word made Flesh, can’t be part of any Trinity. That pretty much guts most Christianities. That’s a result I can live with.

  27. raven says

    If you can’t be reasonably sure, especially not beyond a reasonable doubt, then why do you keep trotting out your evidence-free viewpoint that there was a real person that this Jesus character was based on?

    It’s not evidence free. I just don’t have the time or interest to clutter up message boards with it. It’s been a century now of debate. I don’t have a spare century to spend on it.

    Besides which, a lot of very smart scholars are doing just that. Crossans, Mack, Spong, Sanders, Price, Borg, Wells, Carrier, Wilson, Ehrman and many others. I’ll let them speak.

    Can’t you just be more realistic and say that an opinion either way isn’t currently possible?

    What???? I said that many times above in this thread. “The data doesn’t exist.” “It’s been too long, mists of time and all that.” “Not answerable.”

  28. SAWells says

    I’m holding out for evidence of the historical Hercules. It’s impossible that anyone could have just made up a story about a superhero with one divine and one mortal parent going around performing miracles! The stories are set in Greece, and Greece really exists. Ergo there must, must I tell you, be a historical Hercules behind all the myths.

  29. GordonWillis says

    I second SAWells. Hercules had to clean out all that cowshit. No one would have made that up.

  30. says

    @raven

    What????

    But you go on to say that you lean toward Jesus having been a real person. Why the leaning? Why not just leave it at:

    “The data doesn’t exist.” “It’s been too long, mists of time and all that.” “Not answerable.”

    It’s like an agnostic (w/respect to gods existing) saying there is no evidence that gods exist one way or the other, but they lean toward gods not existing–just call yourself an atheist and get on with it!

    Say, instead of calling it mythicism, the label ought to parallel theism::atheism and be ahistoricism.

  31. typecaster says

    I agree that it is reasonable to think that Paul and the gospel authors had sources – Jason Goertzen

    The Gospel authors, sure. But why does Paul need sources? He flat out says that everything he teaches comes from “personal revelation”, not the teachings of any human person. Check out the first chapter of Galatians – there’s no beating around the bush or equivocation about it. And this is a guy who says he shared quarters with Peter (well, Cephas) for a couple of weeks, and must have learned something about what Peter thought of Yeshua. Apparently, Paul didn’t like what he heard, since he insists that he didn’t pass any of it along in his teachings.

    Of course, he probably didn’t share this with Peter himself, at least not until much later. It makes their quarrel a lot more understandable.

  32. raven says

    Say, instead of calling it mythicism, the label ought to parallel theism::atheism and be ahistoricism.

    Well OK. I’m an agnostic historicist.

    This question is really just for fun and fascinating to many people. That is why I read 15 or 20 of the popular books including almost all of Ehrman’s. Crossans was good, Spong’s was interesting.

    If anyone is interested, go to the public or university library and check them out. You won’t get an answer but these are interesting and readable books.

    If the data needed still existed, the historical question would have been answered.

  33. says

    I just want to add – the longer I look at it the odder it seems to say “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.” Really really odd. I’m wondering if Jesus scholars literally forget that the sources don’t actually physically exist…

  34. says

    @typecaster

    Why should I believe Paul when he says that he got everything by revelation when I don’t believe Joseph Smith? I don’t think that there is any way to know how much of his message Paul based on what came before him and how much was the product of his own imagination.

    I’ve often wondered whether his persecution was limited to a single cult. It seems just as likely to me that there may have been several messianic cults that offended his sensibilities. Maybe Paul’s gospel was a combination of the beliefs of several cults which Paul learned through torturing heretics.

    I’ve also thought that Paul may have done most of the talking at that first visit with Peter. Paul was much better educated and had already enjoyed some success spreading his version of the message. Moreover, he had a reputation for dealing harshly with people who disagreed with him. I can’t help but think that Peter and James might have gone along with Paul even if he had a radically different understanding of the resurrection.

  35. Jason Goertzen says

    @ typecaster

    You’ve suggested that you’re quoting something I said, but I never said any such thing. I don’t even fully agree with it! Everything I said above explicitly referred to the *gospels,* not to the letters of Paul (which are problematic in their own right).

    First, it’s far from obvious to what extent the letters of Paul have been interpolated. Second, and more importantly, it’s not even clear which are authentic.

    In any case, I’m not sure we have grounds to be confident in someone claiming to have made it up himself–erm, I mean, having “received it in a revelation,” when he says protests (too much?) that he’s not dependent on anyone else for his information…

    So I’m of mixed opinions about Paul. If he’s sincere that everything he writes is from scripture and revelation, then his testimony is worthless as far as a historical Jesus is concerned. If he’s not, then he’s worked hard enough to conceal his sources that they don’t do us much good either.

    One additional consideration is that the contradictions between Paul’s letters and the chronology and events of Paul’s ministry found in Acts goes to show that the author of Luke/Acts had no problem fabricating speeches and history–which puts a serious hole in Ehrman’s insistence that material unique to Luke ‘must have had a prior source.’

  36. GordonWillis says

    @Ophelia.

    I wonder why everybody has been arguing over hypothetical sources when Bart Ehrman could have produced the real things ages ago. Perhaps he was keeping them as a surprise.

  37. says

    If he’s sincere that everything he writes is from scripture and revelation, then his testimony is worthless as far as a historical Jesus is concerned. If he’s not, then he’s worked hard enough to conceal his sources that they don’t do us much good either.

    That is very well put Jason. I have always struggled to explain the implications of Paul’s claims that his knowledge of Jesus Christ came through revelation, but I think you’ve nailed it.

  38. says

    @raven

    Well OK. I’m an agnostic historicist.

    Heh. I think this is one area where being a fence-sitter is A-OK. I really don’t like the bravado of these historicists. Just because there are crackpots on the inexistence of Jesus doesn’t mean it is a settled matter–far from it. And I’m not sure that the burden of proof goes strictly to the historicists in this case since there is no denying that we do have these ancient accounts talking about this man/god.

    This question is really just for fun and fascinating to many people. That is why I read 15 or 20 of the popular books including almost all of Ehrman’s. Crossans was good, Spong’s was interesting.

    It is fascinating. The reason it is fascinating to me at all, though, is because so many people blindly believe that Jesus was (and is) real without ever looking at how measly the amount of supporting evidence for that belief is.

  39. Stewart says

    Ophelia, first of all, thank you for going directly to the jugular with this. If I may cross-examine a little:

    In the HuffPo, he is specific about at least three startling things: that the accounts in question that we “have” (even though we don’t) are “independent,” that they are (were) in Aramaic and that they can be dated to within a year or two of Jesus’ lifetime.

    But in the quotes you give from the book itself, things are less specific. “Multiple” is not the same as “independent,” because they could have had time to multiply from a single oral or written original, especially since he speaks here of “decades,” without nailing it down to two years of the crucifixion. Nor do I see a mention of the language involved. Does he even go into the kind of detail, outside the passages you quoted directly, that could justify those details getting into HuffPo? Is the Aramaic, for example, ever given a good reason, other than that it would have made sense if the other unproven assumptions he makes were also correct?

  40. says

    Stewart, oh yes. The bit I quote is on pp 82-3, so he’s had plenty of room to give detail. The Aramaic is inference from the fact that there are a few words in Aramaic in existing gospels. The “independent” if I remember correctly is because there is overlap and non-overlap. It’s textual analysis and inference. None of it new.

    I forget how he explains the dating.

    Speaking of thanks, thank you for sending me the link to Richard’s post!

  41. Stewart says

    Welcome. So the way it’s presented in the HuffPo is not only sensationalist teaser, but is justified, whether or not satisfactorily, by some more meat in the book.

    In one sense, what we have is a kind of likelihood conundrum. What is more likely, that someone real but rather ordinary who didn’t make it onto anyone’s radar during his life still left enough of an impression to be mythologised into a god within a few decades, or that the myths and ideas we do know were around at the time congealed into a figure ultimately accepted as real, despite the mythological properties seeming to appear before the more mundane ones? And all with a helpful gap of many decades (almost a century, no?) before the earliest and most original scrap that we really “have.”

  42. Torquil Macneil says

    What is more likely, that someone real but rather ordinary … or that the myths and ideas we do know were around at the time congealed into a figure ultimately accepted as real …’

    Hitchens had an answer for that which I find convincing. He points out that the Christ nativity myth is ludicrous: there is no conceivable reason why the Roman administration would hold a census that forced people to migrate to their birth places. So why invent such a a farrago? It can only be because there was a historical Jesus whose known biographical details (he came from Nazareth) inconveniently failed to jibe with scripture, so he had to be shoe-horned into Bethlehem to make the narrative fit. If he had just been a concatenation of myth and hearsay, why not just make him a Bethlehemite and have done? Deductive rather than evidential, but it seems plausible to me.

  43. Stewart says

    I’m familiar with that Hitchens argument and have no reason to doubt he meant it sincerely, but I think it hardly slam-dunks the whole problem away. I have to take issue with “So why invent such a a farrago? It can only be because…,” because when texts are so riddled with mysteries as to their origin, it becomes really hard to make a case for “it could only have been because.” There’s way too much else we don’t know. Not to mention that not every change between any two copies of any text ever written was always made on purpose. I’m not claiming the expertise on this, just pointing out that Hitchens’ claim is in a sense too simple/simplistic. Anyone interested in this point who hasn’t already seen it (or contributed to it) ought to take a look at this thread: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/132

  44. Stewart says

    Maybe I should have added: there’s a lot else on that thread I just linked to, so maybe make your work a little lighter by zeroing in on the spots where Hitchens and Nazareth come up in the comments.

  45. says

    The thing is – I find the arguments for earlier sources behind the existing ones plausible; I find the arguments for the reality of a historical Jesus plausible; what I’m objecting to is Ehrman’s overstatement.

    One historical Jesus argument I read a long time ago – I don’t remember where – is that a mythical one wouldn’t have been crucified. Crucifixion was utterly squalid and shaming, so it seems much more likely that it’s what actually happened to a real Yeshua and had to be explained in the stories, than it is that it didn’t happen but mythmakers said it did.

    It’s odd but true that there’s a hierarchy in modes of execution – one kind for the aristos and another for the plebs. The cross was totally the latter.

  46. Torquil Macneil says

    Yes, thee cross was belittling, which is one of the reasons why Crassus had the rebel slaves nailed up all along the Appian Way ( I think it was the Appian Way, the road to Rome anyhow).

    Another argument that is often made for an historical Jesus is that a real personality just comes across in the NT. It feels like a person keeps bursting out for all the efforts of the gospellers to knock the edges off, a person who is at odds with thee some of the claims being made for him and with a definite personal style. I think that feels right too. A similar argument is made for a historical Homer, but from the other side of the mirror so to speak.

  47. says

    Ophelia Benson,

    I have often heard the argument that it is unlikely that anyone would have invented a crucified Messiah, but I am at a loss to know how one objectively assesses that probability. I think the spread of Christianity shows that idea of a crucified Messiah in fact had tremendous appeal to the downtrodden and disenfranchised in the Roman Empire. It doesn’t seem at all far fetched to me that some creative and imaginative person could have invented what was obviously a very appealing idea.

  48. Jason Goertzen says

    @ Torquil:

    The Nazareth thing is hardly conclusive–and when Hitchens made the argument, he did so with due humility. It’s quite plausible that later writers placed him from Nazareth as an error based on his having been known early on as “Jesus the Nazorean/Nazarean” — which could have been a title for “Holy One,” give or take. (cf. the Nazarene sect, which had nothing to do with Nazareth).

    As Neil Godfrey points out over on Vridar, Nazareth is only mentioned once in the earliest gospel–Mark–and there’s evidence the mention wasn’t in the original (since the mention of Nazareth is absent in Matthew, who otherwise copied the section closely). Mark does, however, use Nazorean as a title for Jesus–in the context of demons recognizing Jesus “true identity,” and Jesus demanding they keep silent. Again, nothing conclusive–it’s a lot of speculation on either side of the argument.

    @ Ophelia

    “One historical Jesus argument I read a long time ago – I don’t remember where – is that a mythical one wouldn’t have been crucified.”

    Arguments based on what the earliest Christians ‘could not have invented’ are inherently weak, since the earliest Christians seemed to have wildly differing ideas about almost everything; in their strongest versions, these arguments come uncomfortably close to being arguments from incredulity–though I don’t think that’s the case of the way in which you’ve stated it here.

    Early Christians ‘discovering’ a mythical Jesus in the hidden, secret meaning of the Jewish scriptures might have made a lot of references in the OT to ‘hanging on a tree.’ (Deuteronomy 21:23, for instance). In any case, many mythical gods who die and rise suffer terrible, gruesome deaths–even being torn to pieces, so I don’t think *too* much can be made of the manner of Jesus’ death. Here again, I think the evidence can be fit into either paradigm fairly effectively. It’s one of the things that makes the whole question such an interesting puzzle.

  49. says

    vinny – well would they have known that ahead of time? Would they have known a squalid execution would be appealing? I don’t know; maybe; but it seems to me less likely than the alternative. Martyrs and heroes generally have glorious deaths, not squalid ones.

    But you’re right; either explanation works. I hadn’t thought of the shamey one until I read it somewhere, though, and I was impressed by it.

    It’s like that guy in Toulouse. Suicide by cop instead of a squalid arrest and trial.

  50. says

    Jason – sure – I’m going to be very careful not to say anybody “could not” have done anything, given what I’m saying about Ehrman! I have no clue what they could or could not have done.

    Another, similar claim, source also unremembered, is that the source of the “virgin birth” was the need to explain the shaming fact that Mary was pregnant without leave.

  51. says

    Ophelia,

    I’m not sure whether anyone could have known it ahead of time. By the same token, I’m not sure anyone would have guessed ahead of time that there would be 14 million Mormons today as a result Joseph Smith’s nonsense about the Angel Moroni and the Golden Plates.

    I’m just not sure that there is any principled basis to assess any story as so unlikely to be invented and believed that it must somehow be rooted in a historical reality.

    I think it entirely plausible that the actual followers of an actual itinerant preacher simply stumbled on the idea of a crucified Messiah in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance that they experienced after their leader’s crucifixion. I’m just not sure that it is any more likely than someone else stumbling on the idea in some other fashion.

  52. Jason Goertzen says

    @ Ophelia

    re: Virgin Birth

    Right. It’s very plausibly argued that the Matthean version of the story in particular (with his genealogy containing several women who had children out of wedlock) was more concerned with suggesting that it was “okay,” that Jesus was born out of wedlock (“after all, look at all these other guys who God chose, despite that…”), rather than suggesting that Mary was a virgin. This does hint that there may have been an pre-existing story about Jesus’ birth that was embarrassing to the author of Matthew (though without knowing the provenance of this, hypothetical story, we can’t do much with it).

    Of course, with so many ‘divine man’ stories floating around the Mediterranean the time–many of whom had miraculous births–it might just be an instance of borrowing, too. It might also have been an instance of later Christians copying from Old Testament narratives–like the promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would conceive, despite its being so unlikely: it doesn’t really make sense that Mary should be so confused by the angelic prediction that she was to have a child, since she was engaged to be married at the time! This does make the story seem like it was the author’s attempt to shoehorn in a motif from another source.

    One suggestion I’ve read is that nativity additions to Mark (by Matthew and Luke) were concerned with refuting “adoptionism”–the view that Jesus *became* the Messiah at his baptism, when the spirit enters him. Later Christians were anxious to claim that no, he was always the Messiah, ultimately claiming that he was the pre-existing Logos, in John.

    Anyway, blah blah blah. Sorry to go on at such length. :)

  53. Sili says

    I’m wondering if Jesus scholars literally forget that the sources don’t actually physically exist…

    Yes. Yes, they do forget. Mark Goodacre makes a point of this in his attempt to take down Q. Most Jesus scholars have grown so enamoured of their hypothesis, that they’ve completely forgotten that that’s what it is – a hypothesis.

  54. Stan Brooks says

    I’m curious, but is anyone having these arguments about the historicity of Zeus? or Mithras? or any of the other mythological creation/savior stories? Not being a scholar, I can’t answer that in certainty, but I expect that the answer is a resounding “NO”.

    There is NO EVIDENCE for any sort of supernatural entity. If there is no god, then what the f’ing difference does it make if there were some itinerant carpenter who thought he was that god’s offspring? Oh, wait, there is a school for biblical studies, and some people are paid a substantial sum of money to teach about it. Now it all makes sense, Bart’s book is just job security.

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