The Great Debate 2

Richard Carrier has done a complete academic analysis of the (not so) “Great Ehrman-Price Debate.”  Here is my not so academic impressions of what happened.


Dr. Ehrman started off with pretty much exactly the same line of reasoning that Justin Bass, a Christian apologist started with in his debate with Richard Carrier — Jesus is pretty much the best documented Jewish figure in ancient history.  The only person, Ehrman went on to say, that we have more information about is Josephus.  He said several times that we know way more about Jesus than we do Caiphas.

Now, I am no expert in ancient texts, but I do know that Josephus talks about Caiphas, who came before and after him, who he was related to and describes how the office of high priest works.  Outside of the Bible, no one, not even Josephus, mentions Jesus.

Ehrman continued to treat the New Testament as history.  He said that there are a number of sources found in the gospels, such as the oral sources behind Mark, the new information provided by Matthew and Luke, the Q source and of course John.  He also considers Paul to be a primary source.  To the extent that these can be shown to be independent sources, Ehrman certainly has a point.  That is an awful lot of people who wanted Jesus to be remembered.

I am not convinced and I know that many others are not convinced that these are in fact independent writings from independent sources.  Other than appealing to concensus and authority, Ehrman offered no more evidence than did Dr. Bass to show the independence and reliability of the Gospels.  Along the way, he committed a logical fallacy, saying the Gospels (and also the epistles of Paul) were written soon after Jesus’s death.  Begging the question?  I think so.

Ehrman also takes the apologist position that Paul refers to a historical Jesus.  In his writings, Dr. Price cites the reference to James as “the brother of the Lord” as the most troubling reference in Paul for the mythicist position.  But Ehrman not only sees a brother in Paul, but also a mother, the last supper, the crucifixion and burial.  He sees all this even though Paul never mentions Mary, Pontius Pilate, any disciples other than Peter and so on.  I did not find Dr. Ehrman’s opening statement convincing on any level.

Dr. Price read his opening statement.  Having read quite a bit of his work, I was familiar with his position.  A friend of mine who attended with me, who is not familiar with this area said she had no idea what he was talking about.

My interpretation of Dr. Price’s position (and I may be missing the point entirely) is that Christianity evolved out of a number of cultural threads that were in the air.  These threads gathered themselves together in the culture, became a movement.  In the second and third centuries some people tried to formalize and organize the movement.  In the fourth century, it was tapped as the state religion, the formalizers won out and finished crafting the Christianity that we know today.

As I understand this process, it doesn’t seem to matter to Dr. Price whether or not Jesus is historical as the result doesn’t reflect whoever Jesus was and what ever he might have taught.  Oddly enough, the same could be said of Dr. Ehrman, but for reasons that are unclear to me, he fights that tooth and nail.

It was pretty clear to me that Dr. Ehrman came to WIN THE DEBATE.  He continued in this mode, even when it became crystal clear that Dr. Price was not there to debate anything.  At most Price thought it was a discussion.   But Ehrman kept trying to score debate points with obvious rhetorical moves and aggressive questions long after Price made it clear that he was doing something else.

The biggest question I was left with after the evening was not, “Was Jesus a historical figure?”  But rather, “What the hell is up with Bart Ehrman?”

Ehrman declares himself atheist/agnostic, but his whole reasoning for the historicity of Jesus comes right out of Christian apologetics.  “Multiple oral and written sources for the Gospels that reflect the Aramaic language….”  Same argument that I heard in Catholic High School.  Seems to be a lot of holes in it, but Ehrman sticks right to it.  Why?

Even more perplexing is Ehrman’s argument that while Jesus is certainly a historical figure, he didn’t do most of things the Gospels ascribe to him.  Like Jefferson, Ehrman wants to strip off all of the supernatural stuff.  No walking on water; no loaves and fishes; no Lazarus; and certainly no resurrection on Easter Sunday.  Ehrman speculated that Jesus was left on the cross for a week or two and then his remains were scattered in a mass grave.  Appearances to his followers were delusions.

And yet he said that Jesus is one of the most influential figures in world history.  For what exactly?  If you strip the Gospels of all of that, what are you left with?  Some Old Testament midrash; some Rabbi Hillell and some other Pharisee teachings; maybe some apocalyptic teachings, but overall not much new.  So how does this make Jesus so influential?  I think it would be like giving Martin Luther King credit for the entire human/civil rights movement that came out of the 19th century.  Yes, he certainly played his part, but you can’t give him credit for all of it.  Was this Jesus?  If so, interesting, but certainly not the most influential person in Western Civilization.  Why is this so important to Ehrman?

And even as he rates Jesus as the most influential person ever, Ehrman seems to gloss over what, to me, are huge problems figuring out how the early church developed.

According to the Gospels, at least 12 guys hung on Jesus’s every word and hundreds more were devotees.  Thousands more heard at least part of his message.  And yet, almost none of these people show up as church leaders.  The Apostles (for the most part) vanish into legend.  The leaders in the Jerusalem Church are Paul and James (who the Gospels don’t mention.)  Out of all those people, only a couple took up the cudgel?  I may be wrong about this, but it looks to me that Jerusalem was not actually the epicenter of the early church, many more things seemed to be happening in Northern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.  I guess that is why they needed the “can’t be a prophet in your own hometown” story in the Gospel.  And then there is Paul.

I’ll let someone like Richard Carrier take up the argument of what Paul meant when he said things like “rulers of this age” and “brother of the Lord.”  But two things, which are not at all in dispute, have always stuck out to me about Paul and his teachings.

The first is that he says, more than once, that he gets his teachings straight from the mouth of Jesus (or the Lord, or whatever.)  No one claims Paul met Jesus in person.  Paul himself says he had a vision.  Paul gets the teachings of the most influential person in all of history not from Peter, not from a book, but inside his own head.  If that is not bad enough, Paul then brings up the second problem.  Paul himself says that his knowledge of Jesus is equal to Peter’s.  WTF??  Peter who was there at the trial?  Peter who went in the empty tomb?  Peter the rock?  How could anyone argue that they knew as much (or more!) about Jesus than Peter, if Jesus was a real person and Peter hung with him?  Paul argues just this, and this does not disturb Ehrman in the least — why?

Dr. Price has an easy explanation for Paul’s stand.  Since Jesus was an idea in the culture, both Paul and Peter could make of it what they could — and could plausibly claim priority.  King did not create the human rights movement, but he certainly could claim leadership and authenticity within it.  Just like both Peter and Paul.

I still do not understand why is is so incredibly important to Dr. Ehrman that Jesus exists.  It seems to me that the existence question is not the interesting one.  The interesting question is how did we get from here to there?

Joseph Smith clearly existed.  How did we get from what appears to be a 19th century grifter to an enormous cathedral in Salt Lake City.  If Jesus existed, as Ehrman describes him, he seems even slightly less interesting than Smith.  How did we get from a few people believing to the organizers and sanitizers of the second century to the useful church that Romans made official in the fourth?  Those seem to be the most interesting questions to me.

But Ehrman keeps insisting that Jesus is the reason.  And the only reason.  Why?  It really is intriguing to me.

He certainly goes out of his way to label mythicists as being kooks and conspiracy theorists.  Even when he was trying to be nice to the hosts of the event, he misstated their position.  He labeled the Milwaukee Mythicists as Jesus mythicists, when that is not true.  The position of the group is that ALL religions grew out of ancient myths.  Buddah, Moses, Mohammed, even if they actually existed created their “religions” out of mythology.  It is the mythology, the culture, that makes the religion, not the “founder.”  Actually a position very similar to that of Dr. Price.

So, for me Dr. Price while confusing on the details, seemed coherent to me on the philosophy.  Christianity grew out of a cultural upwelling sometime around the first century, combing elements of Judiasm, Hellenism and who knows what else.

Ehrman stamps his feet and screams, “No! It was Jesus!  Only Jesus!”  A boring, human, platitude spouting Jesus.  It seems that there is actually a fair amount of common ground between Ehrman and the mythicists, but he will have none of it.

For an agnostic, Dr. Ehrman seems completely hooked on Jesus.

I still don’t know why.  Maybe some day he will actually tell us.




  1. forgiven says

    “I still do not understand why is is so incredibly important to Dr. Ehrman that Jesus exists. It seems to me that the existence question is not the interesting one. The interesting question is how did we get from here to there?”

    I’ve only read one of Ehrman’s books, “Misquoting Jesus.” In the Introduction (you can read it on the Amazon page for the book) he writes a bit about his past as an evangelical Christian. His agnosticism/atheism boils down to the history of the compilation of the bible and how, based on his education and research, it’s obvious it is not the inerrant word of God.

    I couldn’t help but interpret his writing as conveying a sense of loss. He would most likely be perfectly happy remaining a believer if the history of the bible wasn’t so convoluted. I think the idea that Jesus didn’t exist is too much for him to examine dispassionately. It’s probably common for former-Christians/current-nonbelievers who liked being Christians to be unable to look at the historicity debate from an open-minded perspective.

  2. Steve Watson says

    What does Ehrman’s “scholarship” amount to? The warmed up left overs of other peoples work presented for a lay audience. If he held his hands up he would see that he would have to go to the kitchen cupboards and cook a meal from scratch when he is barely capable of beans on toast. He was a fundagelical pastor. No discernible job skills there besides bilking the congregation. What is a guy to do when that gig becomes untenable? In ‘God’s Problem’ Ehrman articulates his reasons for losing his faith. They are emotional, almost entirely tied up in theodicy, why suffering, why evil, and the like. His wife is a committed Episcopalian, very active in her church. All he knows apart from how to preach the Bible is how to teach it in one way or another – from the material of others. He hasn’t got the chops for originality. As things stand he is having his cake and eating it. If he cuts the cords, bang goes the wife and his surrogate connection to the faith community and the psychological props it provides. His teaching gig is up the spout and he is out of materials apart from those created by folk who think he is a pillock. He would have to re-skill; he is a stagecoach builder made redundant by the railway. He would probably find he would have to relocate to Europe to find a truly secular teaching post – America is too God drenched – and he would be last in the queue for those positions. Lastly, who wants to admit they have been a complete fucking tool their entire life? After his Huff Post article and the publication of DJE, Richard Carrier emptied a metaphorical shit bucket on his head; it would take a hell of a lot of character to ‘fess up he was entirely correct.

  3. Yvonne Muller says

    You will get many answers if you read Gerald Massey, the 19th century English poet/author. You need to persevere though as he tends to repeat the same information many times.

  4. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Paul gets the teachings of the most influential person in all of history not from Peter, not from a book, but inside his own head.

    Didn’t Paul say repeatedly in his letters that he got his information from revelation (e.g. vision, e.g. hallucination) and scripture? Scripture, as in the books of the Jewish scriptures, what Christians call the old testament. According to Carrier, Paul was doing “Bible code” analysis of the old testament scriptures as part of his “creation” of the Jesus character. Scripture was a very important source for Paul.

    Did you mean that he didn’t learn about Jesus from contemporary written eye witness testimony? Correct. However, according to Paul, he did learn about Jesus from earlier written “eye witness testimony” that is the Jewish scriptures, what Christians call the old testament.


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