I continue to ponder what went down at the Price-Ehrman debate, so the fallout mentioned here is my own personal fallout. I doubt there is much impact in the wider world. Unless we find out that Ehrman used an unsecured web server to write his blog posts on.
I went into the debate as a leaning mythicist. I came out as a “Don’t Careicist.” I have to say that when you think about the Jesus that Ehrman put forth, a fully human, non-miraculous guy, this really leaves us with the same sort of questions that we should have had before and almost all of them relate to sociological questions of how, assuming there is no God, religions form.
Actually, even if there was a God, we would still have the same problems about knowing how religions form. Let’s just say for a moment that Jesus really did walk out of the grave in Jerusalem just as described in the Gospels. There is still the huge issue of how you convince people of this. Only a couple of witnesses and the story was not exactly air tight, does the story spread faster even if it true? I am not sure it does. It seems to me that there are questions that need to be answered whether or Jesus existed. And for me, at least, none of them revolve around the exact meaning of some Greek term in the Bible.
Question 1: If Jesus existed why is the first story about him from so far away? As Ehrman shouted several times during the debate: “Mark was NOT A JEW!” Why is a Syrian (?) writing the story in Greek so many miles from Jerusalem? Jesus had that little impact there? In the same way, where are the accounts of the other Apostles? Dude walks out of the grave and NO ONE puts pen to paper? This sort of thing needs to be explained if you take the historicist position.
Question 2: Where did all those early churches in the Eastern Mediterranean come from and how did they all have the same ideas about Jesus? According to Ehrman Paul was persecuting these Christians just two years after Jesus “died.” How did word get out so fast? And how did it formalize so rapidly? Both historicists and mythicists have to grapple with this one.
Question 3: Who the heck was Paul really? And what did he really do and say? None of the “traditional” answers to this seem very satisfying to me. Here is a guy where half of the works published under his name are “traditionally” considered forgeries, but of course the other half are absolutely genuine. Not sure why more people don’t have a problem with that. If we ignore Acts, we get a picture of Paul’s activities, but adding Acts back in muddies the picture with many contradictions, starting with the “traditional” idea that Luke was riding around with Paul, but still feels free to contradict him. Paul doesn’t seem to have started any churches, but seems to feel free to tell them what to do and think. How is that? Paul seems to have only talked to Jesus mystically, but is held in higher regard than the guys who supposedly hung around with Jesus (like the missing Apostles). How does Paul get to be a leader in a church which he doesn’t seem to have founded. Where did he get his ideas anyway? Ehrman says that we can be sure that Paul was real and important because so many wanted to forge in his name, which seems like a very odd kind of verification. Both mythicists and historicists have a huge problem with Paul, I think.
Question 4: Where did the New Testament come from? The consensus view on this is very dissatisfying to me. It’s fine that we ditched the view that they were written by companions of the Apostles, but what is left is pretty much a mess. No original manuscripts, not even ones close to the time they were supposedly written. But even more disturbing, for a religion that claims to be based on the Truth with a capital “T” is the apparent lack of concern that early Christians seemed to have had for the texts themselves. Just go ahead and rewrite them for a new audience. Given what seems to have happened in the 4th Century, I don’t think we will ever have a good look at the development of the New Testament, but it certainly matters for how the religion developed. And none of that hinges of Jesus’s reality.
Personally, I think while parsing ancient Greek is certainly worthwhile looking for clues, that reasoning by analogy would also be useful at this point.
I feel that the history of the Mormon church is very germane to what might have happened in early Christianity. Of course there are tremendous differences, to be sure, but similarities as well.
Mormonism came about at the time of the “Great Revival” in the United States, an upwelling of religious sentiment. A small group of people started making supernatural claims and attracted a group of followers. These claims lead to direct attacks on the believers which may have strengthened their beliefs. There was then a time of extreme flux where the founding documents and claims underwent revision and reinterpretation. A formal structure emerged which was then used to gain new adherents, which in turn grew the formalized structure and so on.
In the investigation this path of development it is frankly irrelevant as to whether Joseph Smith was a grifter or visionary. I think we would also agree that “reality” of the supernatural claims is also irrelevant. Whether Moroni existed or not, later Mormons got the same evidence. That is to say, even if Maroni was real, the only thing that later Mormons would have is Smith’s writings. The writings obviously exist and that is all the evidence people seemed to need. Same with Jesus, really.
Richard Carrier touched on some of these issues in his book, Not the Impossible Faith, but that book was, unfortunately penultimate to the historicity question. I now think that historicity is a distraction, a red herring. Irrelevant.
The real question is why do churches start? How do they win out in the marketplace of ideas? What is the psychology and sociology involved?
Agnostics and atheists are the only ones who can really attempt to answer these kinds of questions. Religionists have their answer built in, “The supernatural claims are true and God guides our church.” Which, if true, either means there are hundreds of gods or that God wants hundreds of churches.
For me, I am starting with the assumption that churches are something like corporations. A new idea starts them and then a structure evolves around them. That process is what I think is worth studying. Whether or not Jesus really gave the Sermon on the Mount and whether or not it was a rehash or a radical idea really doesn’t matter that much to me any more.