A small town guy


I posted about Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? last month, here and here. I was addressing the fact (discussed by Richard Carrier on an article by Ehrman in the Huffington Post) that Ehrman says “we have” sources that we don’t actually literally have, because they didn’t survive. I confirmed that he does it in the book too (because Richard didn’t then have the book), and that it had jumped out at me. There are other things to say about the book though.

First, however: there are more places where his wording is (in my view) too realist about hypothetical early sources that have not survived.

In a passage where he is talking about the NT evidence (Galatians 1:18-19) that Paul knew Jesus’s brother James he writes

He calls him the brother of the Lord. In other traditions that long predate our Gospels it is stated that Jesus had actual brothers and that one of them was named James. [p 156]

To an unwary reader that would surely sound as if he meant actual existing manuscripts, but he doesn’t.

…we saw in earlier chapters that in addition to the surviving Gospels (seven from a hundred years of his death), there are multiple independent witnesses to the life of Jesus, including the many written and oral sources of the Gospels… [p 188]

That “there are” is too realist; it’s confusing, at least to unwary readers. Scholars in the field will no doubt easily understand that he’s including sources that don’t physically exist any more, but non-scholars may not.

I like the book as a whole, though. I like meta-books, that are about how the scholars know what they’re telling us, and how they go about figuring out what they know, and how certainly or tentatively they know it. Ehrman points out several times that historians work with probabilities rather than certainties (which is another reason he should be more careful with the realist wording), but he also makes a reasoned case for thinking Jesus did exist.

On the way he reports on recent archaeological findings that indicate Nazareth was a real place, a tiny hamlet of about fifty houses with no expensive rubble left behind, just ordinary clay fragments. Jesus was perhaps a tekton (or perhaps his father was, or both), a carpenter who made not cabinetry but yokes and fences and the like: farming tools. He was probably illiterate, and even if he could read he probably couldn’t write; the disciples were probably illiterate.

He was all wrong for a messiah. A messiah is powerful, chosen by God to rescue his people from oppression. Jesus got busted by the Romans and then swiftly executed in the most degrading way possible. Not the messiah then; how disappointing for his followers. How to make it a better story?

You know the rest.

Comments

  1. says

    To be honest, I actually find the story much more inspiring without the supernatural elements. A Jesus who was a poor and illiterate man with no power, a member of an oppressed and subjugated people, who preached love and peace in times when it was very dangerous to do so, and who was murdered for his efforts by the violent regime that was occupying his homeland… that’s far more impressive to me than a Jesus who was a deity in human form, who could have fixed all the world’s problems using his omnipotent magical powers but didn’t, and who “died” only to be resurrected again a few days later.

  2. Kevin says

    @Walton: Except that “love your neighbor” was very much part of the Jewish theology of the day.

    Rabbi Hillel actually existed in First Century Palestine. His most famous saying is “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.”

    Sound familiar?

    In fact, I think it’s quite likely that most of the sayings of Peacenik Jesus were cribbed one way or another from Rabbi Hillel.

    I respect Ehrman’s scholarship, but disagree with his conclusions. I don’t think there’s nearly enough evidence to suggest that there was a Joshua bar Joseph, Nazarene son of a carpenter, who preached peace (and war), turned over money-changing tables (not a peaceful act), rode into Jerusalem on a never-ridden colt (an overt act of sedition, because it announced him as the new king of Israel), was arrested, tried, and executed.

    That guy never existed. Those events never happened.

  3. mnb0 says

    Written and oral sources of the Gospels (plus Acts) by definition aren’t independent. It’s highly reasonable to assume that all those people knew each other, directly or indirectly.
    Compare Tacitus, who indeed wrote about Jesus. There is nothing in his writing that refutes the hypothesis that he got his information from the local christians (in Rome).
    I’m not a Jesusmythologist, but there are only three independent sources: the New Testament, Flavius Josephus and Polycarpus.

    Ehrmann is in fact counterproductive.

    http://www.livius.org/th/theory/theory-maximalists.html

    He stretches maximalism beyond credibility.
    When we want to answer the question if Jesus was historical we should rather apply minimalism; the united kingdom of Israel with King David shows why.

  4. mnb0 says

    “On the way he reports on recent archaeological findings that indicate Nazareth was a real place.”

    I’d like to see references for I accept this. The reason is

    http://www.nazarethmyth.info/scandalsix

    I agree with Walton that the story of Jesus is more impressive without all the supernaturalism. We should realize though that’s a typical modern opinion.

    The most essential teachings of Jesus go further back than Rabbi Hillel. I refer to

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testaments_of_the_Twelve_Patriarchs

    “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.”
    has much older versions as well.

    The scientific approach is this.
    1. What are the established data?
    2. What hypothesis, a historical or a mythological Jesus, covers those data best?

    “That guy never existed. Those events never happened.”
    These are not the same claims. Concluding the first from the second is a non-sequitur, which is very popular among Jesusmythologists.
    The fact that so many myths are attributed to Jesus does not mean that the guy himself was a myth. There is a long, long list of Antique characters to confirm that.

  5. says

    I respect Ehrman’s scholarship, but disagree with his conclusions. I don’t think there’s nearly enough evidence to suggest that there was a Joshua bar Joseph, Nazarene son of a carpenter, who preached peace (and war), turned over money-changing tables (not a peaceful act), rode into Jerusalem on a never-ridden colt (an overt act of sedition, because it announced him as the new king of Israel), was arrested, tried, and executed.

    Sure. I said I was inspired by the non-supernatural version of the story, not that I’m convinced of its truth. It’s not the same thing. I’m inspired by plenty of stories without necessarily believing them to be true.

    I’m well aware of the serious debate among scholars over whether there ever was a “historical Jesus”, and I’m entirely agnostic on that subject. I don’t know the answer, and I don’t find the question particularly important. Since I don’t believe in a god, or in the supernatural more generally, I don’t think anything whatsoever hinges on whether Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical figure. And the moral teachings ascribed to him can be viewed as useful or not useful according to their own merits, whether they were really uttered by the person to whom they’re ascribed or by someone else.

    That guy never existed. Those events never happened.

    You seem to leap here from saying “there’s not enough evidence to conclude that it happened”, which I agree with, to “it definitely never happened”. It doesn’t seem to me that anything you’ve said puts that conclusion beyond doubt. But like I said, I don’t think it matters all that much.

  6. Felix says

    Following Richard Carrier’s piece, and his recommendation of Ehrman’s “Jesus, interrupted”, I am currently reading said book. It’s really fascinating!

    It starts by documenting the minor inconsistencies in the Bible, such as “how did Judas die?” and many others. It then goes on to point out that not only the details are inconsistent, but that the Gospels give very different accounts of who Jesus was (God or man) and what the crucifiction story means.

    He then points out that most of the NT (apart from Paul’s authentic letters i.e. 7 of them) were written at least 35 to 60+ years after the event by authors in another country who spoke a different language. Most of the books are are either forgeries (i.e. deliberately passed of as being written by disciples), or eponymously named by/after men who accidentally share names with disciples. The are certainly not written by those who were there – illiterate Aramaic peasants.

    Throughout he reminds us that what he is recounting is the standard view that has been taught in seminaries and universities for between 50 and 100 years.

    To summarise: Jesus was a Jewish, itinerant, illiterate, Aramaic speaking, apocalyptic preacher, who was baptised by John the Baptist who was basically the same thing. He preached that the apocalypse would come within the lifetime of his audience. He went to Jerusalem because there would be big crowds for the passover festival and overturned a few tables in one part of the huge temple to impress his audience. He was, apparently, crucified.

    I highly recommend this book to people who are unfamiliar with the subject matter. I am now wondering what to read next. Any suggestions?

  7. Boomer says

    When in unniversity, I had a conservative Jew as one of my poli-sci profs.

    He was fascinated by Jesus, and was, in fact, an expert on the guy.

    He was of the opinion that Jesus was perhaps the only humanities/philosphy child-prodigy to have ever existed.

    We see these people in the fields of mathematics or music, but never in the humanities.

    By the time Jesus was but ten or twelve, he was already a sage, an ‘old man’.

    The incident where Jesus says “let ye who has never sinned cast the first stone” was, for this prof, a very radical and innovative approach to morality.

    It is a call to examine your own conscience, a call that forces us into self-reflection rather than just righteousness which the Old Testament so often plays up.

    The biggest thing that distrubs me about Jesus is the shroud.

    No one, of course, can prove its authenticity, but what’s truly uncomfortable is the fact that no one can explain it.

    As time passes on and our technological capacity to analyse the thing increase exponentially, the artifact just becomes more and more of a puzzle.

    When the image was first photographed in the 1890s, the photographer nearly had a heart attack in the darkroom.

    If it is a forgery from the 1300s, then did the forger know that a thing called “photography” would be inveted 5 or 6 hundred years later?

    It’s an utterly fascinating object whose creation and origins no one can explain.

  8. peterh says

    @ #9:

    There’s a slight problem with the “first stone” bit and the “woman taken in adultery” (odd that there’s no mention of them man taken in adultery).

    That little homily, beloved of so many, does not appear in any of the earliest manuscripts.

  9. Ray Moscow says

    As petherh said, that ‘cast the first stone’ bit was not spoken by Jesus, if anything at all was. It’s a later addition to gJohn.

    Examples like this show that there is no need for any HJ behind the Jesus sayings. Of course that in itself doesn’t mean there wasn’t an HJ; it’s just that some other evidence must be found to sustantiate the hypothesis.

  10. Greg Peterson says

    I bought “Did Jesus Exist?” the day it came out, read it eagerly, and immediately wrote a glowing review of it on Amazon.com. I think Ehrman is the best Bible scholar that “we” have.

    Crossan, Pagels, and Armstrong write some nice anti-fundamentalist, anti-literalist kinds of things about scripture, but they hold some unsupportable “spiritual” views that taint their contributions in my mind.

    I do have enormous respect for Carrier, and a good deal of respect for Robert Price. So it pains me a bit to see this in-fighting. Not that we (of all people) should ever paper over or whitewash a good debate, but I hope we are going far enough to emphasize that NOBODY is claiming that there was a magical son-of-god Christ; and EVERYONE is claiming legendary elements to the biblical Jesus narrative (it’s just a matter of whether there’s a creamy nuggat center of reality or not). The actual differences are fairly academic.

  11. Brian says

    The proportions of the person in the shroud are all wrong. Very small brain capacity, longer arms, etc. just as one would expect for work of art, not a supernatural calling card. Unless the messiah had the intelligence of a chimp and body shape to match?

  12. says

    Armstrong isn’t a biblical scholar. (She’s not a scholar of religion either.)

    Keep in mind that the scholars who write good books on their subject for a general audience aren’t necessarily the best scholars in the field. They may be, but it’s not a given.

  13. says

    I have loved everything I have read by Ehrman and I generally enjoyed Did Jesus Exist?, but I was disappointed to see him claim that nobody would have invented a crucified messiah because nobody expected one and because the idea was offensive and absurd to 1st century Jewish. According to Ehrman, this is one of two “especially key” points that establish the existence of a historical Jesus “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt.”

    As far as I know, 19th century Protestants didn’t expect that the New Testament canon could be expanded by a book discovered in western New York state and most found the idea offensive and absurd. I don’t know anyone outside the Mormon Church though who thinks that’s a good reason to believe that Joseph Smith didn’t make it all up.

    People invent goofy ideas every day of the week and gullible people believe them. I don’t think historians can possibly know that any particular story is beyond the reach of the imagination of each and every 1st century Jew.

  14. Nathair says

    If it is a forgery from the 1300s, then did the forger know that a thing called “photography” would be inveted 5 or 6 hundred years later?

    The forgery was quite obviously intended to be ‘worked’ in the 1300s. (Fraudulent relics were all the rage.) In the 1300s it would not have required a photographic negative image to clearly see the pigments on the cloth. Six hundred years later those pigments had, of course, faded quite a bit. Fortunately photography came along to enhance detection allowing millions of new victims to be taken in by the fraud and, apparently, allowing a completely new and ridiculous “how did they know about photography” twist to the already ridiculous circus surrounding this artifact.

    It is a painting on a piece of linen, a poorly executed fraud propped up by secrecy and wishful thinking.

  15. Steven Carr says

    It is remarkable that all these written and oral sources that Ehrman claims existed, all of them lacked historical context to the extent that the author of Luke could not put a single date to any event in the life of Jesus.

    What are the odds of that eh?

    Yesterday was Good Friday where Christians think about how God’s agents, who did not bear the sword for nothing and who hold no terror for the innocent, stripped, whipped, flogged, beat , mocked and crucified the Son of God.

    Bart doesn’t really handle the cognitive dissonance in reading Romans 13 and trying somehow to imagine God’s agents killing Jesus.

    He simply ignores it and many other mythicist arguments in his book.

  16. Steven Carr says

    ‘He then points out that most of the NT (apart from Paul’s authentic letters i.e. 7 of them) were written at least 35 to 60+ years after the event by authors in another country who spoke a different language. Most of the books are are either forgeries (i.e. deliberately passed of as being written by disciples), or eponymously named by/after men who accidentally share names with disciples. The are certainly not written by those who were there – illiterate Aramaic peasants.’

    If you read ‘Did Jesus Exist’, you will find Ehrman claiming those same Gospels are based on written and Aramaic sources dating back to just after Jesus died.

    But that’s a different book. You can’t really expect a scholar to have consistent views when he is trying to sell two different stories to the public.

    The Gospels are tremendous documentation, based on written and oral sources dating back to Aramaic stuff from the 30’s AD.

    And they are rubbish documentation, written decades after the event by people who weren’t even there.

    I hope Ehrman has cleared that up for everybody.

  17. Steven Carr says

    ‘The single greatest obstacle Christians had when trying to convert Jews was precisely their claim that Jesus had been executed. ‘

    Really?

    The Jews had rejected Jesus once, according to Ehrman.

    Why would they be bothered by how he died?

    The Saviour of the Nation was expected to usher in a 1000-year Reich , not shoot himself in a bunker.

    Nobody expected the Fueher to die in a bunker.

    According to Ehrman, the reason people reject Hitler nowawadays, is because he died in a bunker.

    The Fuehrer was not supposed to die in a bunker, and so that must be the reason people reject Hitler….

    If Jews rejected the Christian crucified Messiah because he was crucified, that means they did accept the other aspects of the Christian Messiah.

    So Jews must have been accepting Christian interpretations of scripture about the Messiah , and then walked away when Christians pointed out that scripture prophesied that the Messiah would die.

    If Jesus had really existed, Jews would have rejected Jesus the second time for exactly the same reasons they (according to Bart) rejected Jesus the first time – because of what he had said and done.

  18. says

    On the whole, I thought that Ehrman was less careful in his choice of words than he usually is. You have already pointed out that he tends to speak of the sources behind the gospels as if they were something more than hypothetical reconstructions. At another point he writes, “Paul knew Jesus’ brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did.” Without getting into the “Lord’s brother” vs. “Jesus’ brother debate,” I would point out the inaccuracy of Ehrman’s statement with respect to Peter. Paul does tell us that he met a man named Peter, but he never tells us that Peter was Jesus’ closest disciple or that he was Jesus’ disciple at all or that he even knew Jesus or that Jesus even had disciples. As far as Paul seems to know, Peter encountered Jesus in the exact same way that Paul did, the risen Christ appeared to him.

  19. says

    @ 21 – his argument is a lot more convincing than that!

    For a start, “the Jews” who rejected Jesus naturally weren’t the same Jews whom Christians were trying to convert. “The Jews” aren’t a lump who all think alike.

    Hitler’s suicide pretty much did demonstrate that he wasn’t the Leader who ushered in a thousand year reich, surely.

  20. Sili says

    Greg Peterson,

    I do have enormous respect for Carrier, and a good deal of respect for Robert Price. So it pains me a bit to see this in-fighting.

    Why Price?

  21. Steven Carr says

    ‘For a start, “the Jews” who rejected Jesus naturally weren’t the same Jews whom Christians were trying to convert.’

    Paul makes no such distinction in Romans 10. ‘Not all the Israelites accepted the good news.’ To him, there is no rejection of Jesus himself, just the message about him.

    And how exactly did Christians preach in Jerusalem where Jesus had already been rejected, according to Bart, and still have Jesus rejected because of the crucifixion, and not because of who he had (allegedly) been.

    People don’t reject Mussolini today because he died an embarrassing death being hung upside down on a tree.

  22. Steven Carr says

    OPHELIA
    Hitler’s suicide pretty much did demonstrate that he wasn’t the Leader who ushered in a thousand year reich, surely.

    CARR
    According to Bart, Jesus’s death led Christians to invent the concept of a crucified Messiah.

    How?

    When Bart has totally trashed the idea that Jews could even think of a crucified Messiah….

    From a reading of Bart, that is like us thinking that Hitler must have been the supreme Fuehrer after all, precisely because he did kill himself.

    But that is unconceivable….

  23. Svlad Cjelli says

    But we also “have sources” for Rob Schneider secretly being Pontius Pilatus, the true saviour crafted by Yahweh out of hotdog-buns and sent to covertly kill the King of Gurkins Ieshijushush – disguised as a humanoid demigod – with the Omniglare Ribosome Long Range Emitter mounted on Mt. Kebnekajse.

    How is #havesources not a twitter-thing?

  24. says

    Like you I also tend to enjoy “meta books” – I love getting a behind-the-scenes look at how we know what we know.

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one overall, even though you had some minor quibbles with the wording. Thanks for being on the tour!

  25. says

    Regarding understanding the above info everyone will agree with it as it’s valid and it’s great spotting an author that’s showing topics on this online to think about.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Indeed. Ehrman is basically saying “I was never wrong. I’m just such a phenomenally lousy writer that things I wrote appear to say what they don’t, and everyone who reads this book will often be misled in result.” Others have noted the problem entailed by his repeatedly careless and irresponsible wording of things, which can completely mislead lay readers of his book. Ophelia Benson (Butterflies & Wheels), for example, found many problems with the way Ehrman’s choice of words misleads, as well as his questionable logic (see: What Ehrman Actually Says, The Unseen, A Small Town Guy). […]

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