Armin D. Baum’s Critique of Bart Ehrman’s Take on Pseudepigraphy


In the most recent issue of the JBL Journal (vol. 136. no 2, pp. 381-303) Armin D. Baum offers us an article entitled “Content and Form: Authorship Attribution and Pseudonymity in Ancient Speeches, Letters, Lectures, and Translations–a Rejoinder to Bart Ehrman”. The article is in general agreement with Ehrman (as I am) that there was no such things as ‘harmless’ pseudepigraphy, that is a using of someone else’s name without an attempt to deceive some audience. There are exceptions to this rule, for example the use of the names of ancient patriarchs (see the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs), particularly in apocalyptic literature to provide commentary on more contemporary history. Richard Bauckham has written a good deal on this subject, beginning many years ago in his landmark 2 Peter commentary. Bart’s main point however is that the use of the name of a famous contemporary or near contemporary (within a generation or so) when composing a letter or biography or historical work, in order to add authority to the contents of the document, when in fact that person had nothing to do with it, is indeed an attempt to deceive. Baum’s article however shows that: “Everywhere an authorial attribution was regarded as correct and non-deceptive if either the wording or the content of a particular text could be traced back to the author whose name it carried” (p. 402). He then provides examples from letters, speeches, and other sorts of documents to prove his case. And he is right.

Since I’ve had earlier blog posts on Bart’s book, on this very blog, I will not retread that material here. What I would like to add is, as I have said in various books (see the one shown below) ancient concepts of authorship were not identical to our modern ones. A document could be attributed to someone if: 1) he or she actually wrote the document 2) he or she was the most famous source of some of the content in the document; 3) he or she did the collecting, editing, and promulgating of a document, such as in the case of the Fourth Gospel where someone named John put together the testimony of an earlier disciple of Jesus, namely the Beloved Disciple. It is anachronistic to impose our modern paranoia about copyright and authorship on ancient persons who actually were more flexible about these things than we are. Because 1)-3) can be demonstrated to be ancient practices explaining why a document is attributed to someone who did not actually take pen and papyrus in hand and write the document, I do not think it can be demonstrated that we have any pseudepigrapha in the NT. We certainly have some in the second century (e.g. the Gospel of Peter, or the Gospel of Thomas), but that is after the eyewitnesses were well and truly dead and they were not around to provide checks and balances, as for instance Galen did when people started falsely publishing things in his name in his own lifetime. Then too, there is the whole issue of the role of trusted scribes or amaneuenses. I would say that in the case of documents like the Pastoral Epistles, the voice is the voice of Paul, but the hands and style and vocabulary are those of Luke, his trusted companion. Different scribes were allowed different degrees of latitude in composition for their superiors, as is shown by a close study of what Cicero allowed Tiro to compose for him.

We owe Bart a considerable debt for showing that pseudepigrapha do indeed involve an attempt to deceive people about the source of some document. Innocent and pseudepigrapha are two words that don’t really belong together. For more on my take on all this, see either my Pastoral Epistle’s commentary in Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Vol. 1 or more readily, the volume pictured below.


Bart Ehrman on ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ Part Seven

Q. In both the past and the present, people have often drawn parallels between Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana, a real person who lived some 50 years after Jesus’ day, and had a biography written about him by Philostratus which considerably post-dates our canonical Gospels. As you point out, even when we compare these two historical figures, or, for example compare Jesus to some of the lives of the Caesars, we have no stories in pagan literature about a virgin who becomes pregnant without sex or a story about a crucified messiah or divine figure. Why do you think it is that parallelomania seems to be such a popular modus operandi for mythicists who want to explain away the existence of Jesus, especially when various of the supposed parallels are in fact made up? And one more thing—- why shouldn’t we think that the pre-existing Gospel stories may have influenced the way the story of Apollonius of Tyana was later told, rather than vice versa?

A. There are several points that need to be made, I think, about all the parallels that exist between the stories of Jesus and other supposed “divine men” of ancient Greece and Rome. The first is that there were indeed a number of similarities between the ways Christians talked about Jesus and the ways pagans (and in some instances, Jews) talked about other “sons of God.” There is no point denying this (it comes as a huge surprise to my students). We have stories of other “divine men” from antiquity who were thought to have been supernaturally born; to have been preternaturally wise, religiously, while still youths; to have engaged in itinerate preaching ministries; to have done miracles such as miraculously feeding the hungry, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead; and at the end of their lives to have ascended to heaven. These other stories do exist (and not just about Apollonius of Tyana.)

But – the second point – the fact that Jesus was talked about in ways similar to how others were talked about does not mean that he (or they) did not exist. Some of these stories are told about figures who are absolutely and incontrovertibly historical (Alexander the Great; the Emperor Vespasian; Apollonius; and so on). If you wanted to tell stories about a figure you considered to be more than human, to be in some sense divine, these are the kinds of stories you told. That means that the stories about Jesus may well have been shaped by the expectations of the Jewish and pagan audiences to whom they were told, so that one needs to take that into account when deciding what actually happened in Jesus’ life. But as I indicated in my previous answer, this is unrelated to the question of whether Jesus actually existed.

And finally – my third point – it should be stressed that all of these figures about whom such stories were told were also different in key ways from one another. They were not all the same. The stories varied from one person to the next. The stories about Jesus are different in many ways from the others (just as each of them is different from the others). This is important to bear in mind because mythicists often claim that everything said about Jesus can be paralleled in the myths and legends told about other divine figures on earth. And that simply is not true. A number of the key stories about Jesus are in fact unique to him, including some of the most important.

Just to take two examples. As I spell out at greater lengths on one of my blog posts, even though there are numerous instances of divine men who are supernaturally born, there is no instance of a divine man being born to a “virgin,” as happens in the case of Jesus, for example in the Gospel of Matthew. The entire point of most of the pagan supernatural birth stories is that a (mortal) woman is made pregnant by a God, precisely by having sex with her (often in human form, though sometimes Zeus preferred being in the form of a swan, or a snake, or…. some other animal, for some odd reason). I don’t know of any instances in which a woman gives birth as a virgin. So too: the resurrection. The Gospel understanding of the resurrection is that Jesus came back into his body (a one-time corpse) which was then transformed and raised and exalted (explicitly in Luke-Acts) to heaven. This reanimation of the body type of resurrection is not attested, so far as I know, for any other divine man in antiquity.
This is an important point because mythicists want to claim that all the stories about Jesus were simply taken over from the pagan environment. And this is simply not true.

Q. It appears that mythicists have not read Jonathan Z. Smith, and do not realize that there is no unambiguous evidence for the historical argument that ancients believed in dying and rising gods before the time of Jesus, and that therefore the story of Jesus is just a historicized version of that myth. Why do you think this theory of dying and rising gods became so popular in the 20th century, and what caused its scholarly demise? Was there new evidence that Smith and others unearthed, or just closer reasoning about the existing evidence?

A. Yes, for a long time it was widely thought that dying and rising gods were a constant staple of ancient pagan religions, so that when Christians claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they were simply borrowing a common “motif” from pagan religions. This view was first popularized by Sir James George Frazer at the beginning of the twentieth century in his enormously influential (and very large) book, The Golden Bough. (As I explain in Did Jesus Exist, Frazer did in his day what Joseph Campbell did in ours – popularized the view that at heart, all religions are basically the same).

This view was exploded by Jonathan Z. Smith in the late 1980s, chiefly in an article on the “dying-rising gods” in the scholarly and authoritative Encyclopedia of Religion. Smith showed that the notion that there was a widespread category of gods who died and rose again was, in fact, a modern myth, not based on a careful reading of ancient sources. In his own words: The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation , must be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts….

All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case the deities return but have not died; in the second case the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity. (Jonathan Z. Smith, “Dying and Rising Gods,” Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. Lindsay Jones, (Detroit: Macmillan, 2005 [original: 1987]), 4:2535)

Smith’s findings were based not on new discoveries, but on a more careful reading of ancient sources. Unfortunately, even though these findings have made a major impact on the research of New Testament scholars and other scholars of Christian antiquity, they appear to be unknown to the mythicists, many of whom continue to make the now dated claim that the resurrection of Jesus was simply invented along the lines of the common pagan myth.

Q. In what way is the Jewish notion of a resurrection a different idea than either the fertility crop cycle idea, or what is sometimes said about pagan deities that either disappear or die?

A. One of the reasons for thinking that the belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection is not exactly like what you can find in pagan myths about their gods is that it is solidly rooted in Jewish apocalyptic beliefs of the first century. This should come as no surprise, since Jesus and his followers were not pagans with pagan views of the divine realm, but first-century apocalyptically minded Jews. In some pagan circles, there was a belief in fertility gods, who would spend some time in the underworld and some time in this world, alternating year after year. These gods were closely connected to the crops: they (both the crops and the gods connected with them) die in the winter and come back to life in the Spring. And they do that year after year. That obviously is not like the early Christian belief in Jesus, who does not go into the underworld then return to this world year after year. Instead, Jesus was believed to have gone to the underworld for three days and then to have been raised from the dead and exalted to heaven where he is to stay until he returns. This is not rooted in pagan mythology, but in apocalyptic theology.

To explain how “resurrection” is a Jewish apocalyptic idea, it is necessary to give a bit of background on Jewish apocalyptic thought. According to apocalypticists of ancient Judaism, this world controlled by forces of evil who were making life miserable for people, especially those who sided with God. That’s why there is so much pain and misery all around us. God is not doing it. The powers of evil are doing it (for example the Devil, the demons, the powers of sin and death). But God, these apocalypticists believed, was soon to intervene in history, overthrow the forces of evil, and set up a good kingdom here on earth. When he did that, he would destroy all people who sided with evil, and reward all those who sided with him. And this applied not only to people who were living at the time, but also those who had died. All people would be raised from the dead to face judgment, either eternal punishment or eternal reward. Moreover, this was to happen very soon – within their own generation!

Jesus himself preached an apocalyptic message of the coming judgment and the entrance of the Kingdom of God, to appear very soon. This would include a resurrection. Som time after Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified, some of his followers (all of them? It’s hard to say) came to believe that he had been restored to live and exalted to heaven. They interpreted this as an act of God, and understood it to be a “resurrection.” The implications for them were clear and certain, and they are not the implications that Christians typically draw today. For these ancient Jewish apocalypticists, if Jesus was raised from the dead, that means that the resurrection – to come at the end of time – had already started. In other words, the kingdom was virtually here!

That’s why Paul calls Jesus the “first fruits of the resurrection.” He was the first to be raised, and everyone else will soon follow suit, very soon, very very soon indeed. Paul expected to be alive when it happened.

This apocalyptic notion of resurrection is rooted in a belief that even though this world is filled with pain and suffering, God is ultimately sovereign, and he will have the last word. By raising Jesus, he has started the sequence of events that will transpire at the end. This is not a belief rooted in pagan ideas of a dying-rising god (if there ever were such ideas). It is a belief rooted in a Jewish apocalyptic worldview.

Q. The technique used by Frazier, and by later mythcists to reconstruct a pagan model of a dying and rising god which then is assumed to be the prototype on which Jesus is supposedly modeled has been called ‘the synthetic fallacy’. Whats wrong with the notion of cherry picking ideas from various ancient religious stories and then constructing a paradigm out of it which is supposed to be the basis for the Jesus story? To what degree do you think Frazier’s Golden Bough suffers from reading the pagan evidence on the basis of Christian views and assumptions, and so reading that evidence wrongly?

A. I’ve covered some of this in my discussion of Frazer earlier.

Q. The views of G.A. Wells seem in various ways to be different from other mythicists. He argues that Paul thought Jesus existed long before the first century, and that the Jewish personification of Wisdom was used to create the mythical Jesus. What’s wrong with this sort of reasoning about the historical Jesus? Why does it seem that persons like Wells and Doherty are prepared to grasp at straws or extreme arguments to prove their point, using an ‘any stick to beat a dog’ kind of approach to the Jesus question?

A. G. A. Wells is probably the best known mythicist of modern times, although, interestingly, he has shifted his perspective on the existence of Jesus. In his early writings Wells maintained the standard mythicist view that there never was a Jesus who lived. But as he did more research (he is not a New Testament scholar or a scholar of early Christian history; his field is modern German intellectual history) he came to realize that yes, there actually was a Jesus. Rather than completely backtracking on his earlier published views, however, Wells simply modified them so that he no longer said that Jesus did not exist, but that the Jesus who existed is virtually unrelated to the person we think of as Jesus of Nazareth. Specifically, for Wells (now), Jesus was not the Galilean preacher/healer of the first century. That figure is the creation of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was a completely unknown and obscure Jewish figure who lived over a hundred years earlier. Christ on the other hand was an invention of a Jewish sect of the first century, based on their understanding of Jewish myths about “Wisdom.”

These Wisdom traditions are based on passages such as Proverbs 8, where “Wisdom” is said to have been with God in the beginning and to have created the universe. The early Christians called Jesus God’s “Wisdom” (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:23-24), and so had begun to imagine him as that one referred to in Proverbs. This was not in reference to the man Jesus who lived in almost complete obscurity a hundred years earlier, however. This was a myth that they invented about the divine Christ, God’s Wisdom.
This view is a bit complicated, but I spell it out in greater length in Did Jesus Exist. Among other things I show that the references in Paul to Jesus do not make sense if they are referring to a person who lived in obscurity a hundred years earlier, and that it is completely implausible that the entire “Christ myth” was invented on the basis of Jewish ideas about “Wisdom,” since Jesus was not primarily identified as Wisdom in the earliest traditions about him, but instead, precisely, as the Messiah – and a crucified messiah at that (Wisdom is never called the messiah in Jewish sources). This shows that Christians knew that Jesus had lived. Recently. And they knew that he had been crucified. But they called him the messiah anyway.

Bart Ehrman on ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ Part Six

Q. On p. 180 you say that because the pericope about the woman caught in adultery is likely not an original part of the Gospel of John, that therefore it probably didn’t happen. Really? Why does that follow? Weren’t there many other things Jesus actually said and did that don’t make the cut of being included in this or that Gospel? Aren’t canonicity and historicity two separate issues?

A. Yes, good point. At that stage of my argument I was using a kind of short hand. The story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery is not in John (or any other Gospel), and does not start appearing in our Greek manuscripts until the fifth century. So if anyone thinks that it is a historical story, s/he has a lot of explaining to do! In fact, I think it can be shown that the story originated as two different stories that were in circulation, independently of one another in the second, third, and fourth centuries, until they were combined in our canonical version; there may be some historical merit in one of these two stories, but the other is almost certainly legendary. That takes a very long article to demonstrate, however, and I will not try to do so here.

What I will say is that just because the woman caught in adultery is such a great story and a favorite of many readers of the Bible does not mean that it’s historical, or that it should be given a privileged place among apocryphal stories that originated outside our earliest sources, later in the Christian tradition. It has to be judged on the same historical grounds as any other story – in this case having as one of its clear disadvantages that we do not have it in its present form until the fifth Christian century – and when it is judged on those grounds, at least in its present form, it does not appear to be historical. (If it was historical, one has to ask why none of our Greek witnesses seems to know about it in its present form until the fifth century.)

Q. You place a good deal of stock in the criterion of dissimilarity, in terms of its ability to validate that something probably happened or was said, but at the same time you stress that this criterion cannot be used to disprove that something was said or done, in the way Robert Price uses it. Explain what you mean by this. Isn’t it also true that scholars like John Dominic Crossan rely too exclusively on the criterion of multiple attestation to establish authenticity (which would eliminate things like the parable of the Good Samaritan automatically) without also using the criterion of dissimilarity to compile a list of probably authentic traditions? In your judgment what is the balanced of proper way to use a combination of such criteria for authenticity?

A. In my view, to establish a tradition about Jesus as historical requires the rigorous application of historical criteria. The three most commonly used include the two you mention: multiple attestation and dissimilarity. The first indicates, as I pointed out in an earlier answer, that any tradition found independently in more than one source has a greater chance of being historical than a tradition found in only one source (since if it is in only one source, that source could have made it up; if it is independently found in several sources, however, none of them could have made it up, and so it must go back to a stage or a tradition antecedent to all three). The second criterion, dissimilarity, acknowledges that the early Christians were modifying and inventing traditions about Jesus, and if so, and if there is a tradition that seems to run *counter* to what the followers of Jesus would have wanted to say about him (e.g., from my earlier answer, that he was a messiah who got crucified), then THAT tradition is more than likely historical (because Christians would not have made it up).

Both of these criteria are what I would call “positive” principles, because they show us what probably is historical, rather than what is not. That is to say, if a tradition is found in only one source (e.g., the parable of the Good Samaritan is found only in Luke), that does not necessarily mean that it is not historical; it means that we cannot establish that it is historical using this criterion. So too, if a tradition about Jesus does coincide with what Christians would have wanted to say about him (e.g., that he was concerned about the poor and oppressed) that in itself does not mean that the tradition is not historical. It means that if you want to show that the tradition is historical, you cannot do so using this criterion.
The traditions about Jesus that are the most plausible are the ones that pass both criteria. Jesus’ crucifixion, for example, passes both; so does his having come from Nazareth; and his having been baptized by John the Baptist; and – well there are others.

The third criterion is equally important, but is a NEGATIVE principle. It says that any tradition about Jesus that cannot plausibly be fit into a first-century Jewish Palestinian context cannot be accepted as historically reliable. The principle is negative because it, unlike the other two, does not decide which traditions are probably historical; it decides which ones almost certainly are not historical. And so, for example, in later Gnostic Gospels Jesus is shown elaborating on the Gnostic myths about where the divine realm and the world we live in came from. Such complex myths cannot be otherwise located in Galilee in the 20s CE. The conclusion is near to hand that Jesus did not really deliver discourses on them, even though the Gnostic Gospels claim he did.

It is a mistake to use the positive criteria in a negative way. If a tradition of Jesus does not pass independent attestation or dissimilarity, we may indeed be suspicious of it – and usually there are other grounds for being so – but it is difficult to make a final statement about it. It simply does not pass the criteria. It would also be a mistake to use the negative criterion in a positive way. If a tradition about Jesus can be fit in his own context, that does not necessarily mean it is historical – it just means it that it could be.
Robert Price, though, uses dissimilarity to rule out everything – almost literally everything – in the Gospels as unhistorical, on the grounds that just about everything could fit some kind of Christian agenda or another. I don’t think the criterion is best used that way.

Other scholars like Dom Crossan try to put to many eggs in the basket of one criterion (in his case, independent attestation). I think one needs to use all the criteria, rigorously, rather than just one or the other.

Q. You makes the case for the conclusion that one cannot simply dismiss a tradition as unhistorical simply because it is tendentious or includes legendary material in it. Why is that sort of all or nothing conclusion that the mythicists sometimes make about a tradition invalid?

A. I think I answered that question in my previous answer. At least I meant to do so.

Q. Mythicists seems to often uses the interpolation theory to explain away NT texts that are inconvenient to their agendas. Yet it is also true that some NT scholars use interpolation theories to the very same end, even when there is apparently no textual basis for the interpolation theory. Explain how the mythicists appeal to interpolation is special pleading, whereas it is not when some NT scholars resort to such a theory (take for example the case of 1 Cor. 14.33b-36, which is displaced in some manuscripts but to my knowledge there are no manuscripts that omit it altogether).

A. A theory of interpolation argues that there are passages in the New Testament that were not originally there, even though they are still found in all the surviving manuscripts. When a passage (whether several verses, a single verse, or part of a verse) is not found in one or more manuscripts, then the decision whether it was originally in the NT is based on textual criticism. Scholars have to decide then which manuscript(s) more likely presents the oldest form of the text. But when all the manuscripts agree, and one wants to claim that they are all wrong with respect to the oldest form of the text, that involves arguing that at a very, very early stage of the transmission of the text (when it was being copied), someone inserted a verse (or verses, or part of a verse) that came to be found in all our surviving manuscripts. That would be what we mean by an interpolation.
In my opinion, there is no reason, in theory, to deny that there could be interpolations in the New Testament – that is, places where all our manuscripts include a passage (a verse, part of a verse, several verses) that was not originally put there by the authors. This is especially the case in light of the fact that we don’t start getting relatively complete manuscripts of the New Testament until well over a century after the books of the NT were written. At the same time, I think that if someone thinks a passage was an interpolation, there needs to be very, very, very compelling reasons for thinking so.

In almost every instance in which scholars have suggested that there are interpolations, I think the evidence is not compelling. The one instance that I think is compelling is 1 Cor. 14:34-35. I don’t need to give the evidence here. But I find it completely convincing. I should say that whether the verses are original or interpolated does not matter much to me personally. And that’s precisely the problem with many instances of alleged interpolation: it often happens that the scholar who proposes an interpolation has a vested interest in the matter, because if the verses are in fact original, then his or her particular view of things/interpretation is more or less destroyed.

That happens to be the case with the mythicists, as I repeatedly show in my book. Whenever there is a passage that contradicts their views, they invariably claim that the passage is an interpolation. This is what I have called “interpretation by convenience.” If a passage contradicts your view, then the most convenient way to deal with it is by claiming that “originally” in fact it supported your view, but someone came along and changed it. And so, for example, some mythicists “take out” the references to Jesus in Paul, claiming they were not original. And on what grounds? Because Paul doesn’t mention Jesus! That, obviously, is circular reasoning. In any event, I cite a number of instances of this kind of proceeding Did Jesus Exist.

Here let me just say that every case of alleged interpolation needs to be considered carefully and on its own merits. In principle, none should be excluded. But to be accepted, there needs to be a LOT of compelling arguments.

Q. Mythicists seem not to take seriously actual archaeological evidence, for example the evidence that Nazareth did exist in Jesus’ day, rather relying on certain kinds of philosophical, logical, and history of religions kinds of arguments to make their case. This seems odd since they are trying to make historical points about someone not existing or something not happening in the past. In any case, you make the point that the historical existence of Jesus does not stand or fall on whether Nazareth actually existed. Can you explain why this is so?

A. Yes, whether or not Jesus came from Nazareth may be an important historical question, but unlike what some mythicists think, the very existence of Jesus does not hang on the answer. As background: many mythicists have claimed that the town of Nazareth in fact did not exist in Jesus day. On that ground, they argue that Jesus therefore must have been made up. But the logic of this statement involves a complete non sequitur. Look at it this way. Suppose the birthers are right and that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. (I think they are way off base and my knee jerks all over the place when they go on and on about forged birth certificates and so on; but suppose they’re right) Would that mean that he does not exist? Or suppose someone could show that in fact I was not born and raised in Lawrence Kansas (where, in fact, I believe I was born, and I know I was raised). Would that mean I don’t exist? If Jesus did not come from Nazareth, would that mean he didn’t exist? It’s a non sequitur.

The other problem, as I spell out at length in my book, is that the mythicists who claim that Nazareth did not exist in Jesus’ day are completely wrong. It did exist. We have indisputable archaeological proof. Ask any archaeologist of Palestine –absolutely any of them. Archaeologists, for example, have uncovered a farm in Nazreth that was functioning at the time of Jesus; and recently they have uncovered a house that was standing at the time; and they have found coins that were deposited there at the time. There is absolutely no doubt that Nazareth existed at the time. It wasn’t a big place. It wasn’t an impressive place. It was a fairly miserable little place. But it existed. I give some of the evidence in my book.

Q. Robert Price’s argument that the stories of Jesus are a giant midrash on OT stories about Moses and others, and so are completely fiction seems to ignore the fact that midrash is a hermeneutical technique used for contemporizing pre-existing stories. Talk briefly about the difference between how stories are shaped in the Gospels and whether they have any historical substance or core or not. (N.B. It appears that Crossan has recently made the same kind of category mistake arguing that since there are parables in the Gospels, that whole stories about Jesus may be parables, pure literary fictions).

A. In Did Jesus Exist? I try to make a major methodological point that there is a very big difference between saying that a story has been shaped in a certain (non-historical) way and saying that the story is completely non-historical. I make this point because authors like Robert Price have claimed that all the stories about Jesus in the Gospels are midrashes on stories found in the OT. By that he means, roughly, that the story of Jesus is shaped in such a way as to reflect a kind of retelling or exposition of stories about persons and events in the Old Testament. For example, the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel shapes the stories about Jesus to make Jesus appear to be a kind of “second Moses.” Like Moses, Jesus is supernaturally protected at his birth when the ruler (Pharaoh/Herod) seeks to destroy him; like Moses he goes down to Egypt as an infant; like Moses he comes up out of Egypt to the promised land; like Moses he passes through the waters (the parting of the Red Sea; the baptism); after which he spends time in the wilderness being “tested” (40 years; 40 days); after which he goes up on the mountain to receive/deliver the Law (Mount Sinai; Sermon on the Mount). The story of Jesus has evidently been “shaped” in light of the author’s knowledge of the story of Moses in order to say something: Jesus is the new Moses.

It is true that a number of stories about Jesus in the Gospels (not all of them though!) have been shaped as a kind of midrash on the OT. But the key point to make is that there is a difference between shaping a story and inventing a story. As I argue in my book, it is very easy indeed for us today to shape stories of important historical figures when we tell about them. And so we have standard sets of motifs: for example, the “rags to riches” story (which presidential candidates often like to use in telling their own autobiography); or the “tragic hero” story. It would be oh so easy to tell the story of Richard Nixon as the tragic hero, whose tragic flaw led to his spectacular downfall.

But would that mean that Richard Nixon never lived? No, you would need to use other criteria (the ones I’ve enumerated) to decide whether he lived or not. So too with Jesus. Even if you could show that all the stories about him were shaped in light of the OT (you can’t show this; but suppose you could): that would have no bearing on whether he existed or not.

Bart Ehrman on ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ Part Five

Q. Two of the real linch pins in your argument that Jesus existed is the evidence from Paul that he knew both the brother of Jesus and Peter, the most important early disciple of Jesus, and secondly, the omnipresent evidence that the earliest Christians all admitted that Jesus whom they followed had been crucified. Why is this evidence so telling, and the attempts by mythicists to dismiss so unconvincing?

A. I dealt a bit with the evidence from Paul in an earlier answer. The short version: even though Paul is not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, he personally knew two people (at least) who were: Jesus’ closest disciple Peter, and his brother James. This is as close as you can get to eyewitness testimony as you can imagine, without an eyewitness actually writing up a report himself. It’s very good evidence.

The other argument is at least as important, even though it’s a bit complicated. Most Christians today think that the Jewish messiah was *supposed* to die and be raised again (showing that he was the messiah). The reality, however, is that ancient Jews had a variety of expectations of who the messiah would be – some thought he’d be a great warrior king like David, others that he would be a cosmic judge of the earth (a Son of Man figure), others that he would be a powerful priest who judged God’s people. In NONE of these expectations was there any sense at all that the messiah would be someone who would be executed by his enemies, squashed by his opponents. Christians who think that is what the messiah was supposed to be have been influenced by OT passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, which seem to speak about a future suffering person whose death will make people right with God. But ancient Jews did not interpret these passages as referring to the messiah (and in fact, the messiah is not mentioned in these passages). On the contrary, for ancient Jews, these passages were decidedly NOT speaking about the messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power, not someone who was weak and powerless.

This means that if the followers of Jesus were going to make up the claim that he was the messiah they would not ALSO make up the claim that he was crucified, since that was the LAST thing that would happen to the messiah. But the reality is that Christians did call Jesus the messiah, and yet did indicate that he was crucified. How can we explain that? If a group of Jews wanted to make up a messiah (as the mythicists claim) they would not have made up a crucified messiah, since there was no such thing as the idea of a crucified messiah in Judaism at the time. And so they must not have made up Jesus. Instead, the historical reality was this: Christians thought that Jesus was the messiah, and they KNEW that he had been crucified. And so they developed the idea that the messiah was supposed to be crucified. (And they started to appeal to non-messianic texts such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 in support of their views.)

That is why Paul talks about the crucifixion as the greatest “stumbling block” for Jews. Most Jews thought it was ludicrous to say a crucified man was the messiah. This is the reason they rejected the Christian message.
In short, Jesus must have existed, and must have really been crucified – since if Christians wanted to convert Jews, they would not have made up the idea that a crucified man was their messiah. But the reality is they had no choice. They thought Jesus was the messiah and they knew he had been crucified, and so they devised the idea that the messiah had to be crucified. Christians today would say that these early Christians were *right*; non-Christians would say they were *wrong*. But for the question of whether Jesus existed or not it doesn’t matter which side of that issue you stand on. The fact that Jesus was declared as the (crucified) messiah shows that he could not have been made up by his Jewish followers. And so he must have really existed, and been crucified.

Q. Various mythicists have tried to argue that in fact there is only one source, namely Mark, that provides evidence that Jesus existed and presumably he made up the idea? Why is this not a fair representation of the evidence, and why do you think it is that various of them hardly even deal with the evidence from Paul?

A. Most mythicists claim that Paul never mentions the historical Jesus or says anything about him, but that he only speaks of a “mythical Christ” who was not a real human being. That is completely wrong. Paul tells us that Jesus was born of a woman, that he was born Jewish, that he had brothers, one of whom was named James (whom Paul personally knew), that he had twelve disciples, that he ministered to Jews, that he taught that it was wrong to get a divorce and that you should pay your preacher, that he had the last supper (Paul indicates what Jesus said at the time), and that he was crucified. Anyone who says that Paul never mentions the historical Jesus or never refers to his teachings simply hasn’t read the letters of Paul

Mythicists also like to claim that Mark is our only source to mention the life of Jesus (on the assumption that Matthew, Luke, and John all base their accounts on Mark). But that is far too simple, for two reasons. One is that Matthew, Luke, and John (as well as the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas) had other, multiple, sources for their accounts, some of which were at least as early as Mark. And so Q provided Matthew and Luke with a good deal of their materials, independently of Mark, as did M and L (each of which may in fact have been multiple sources). John had his own sources (for example, a Signs source for the miracle stories he relates, a couple of Discourse Sources, etc.). Some of these can be shown to have been based on oral traditions (yet further sources) that were passed along in Aramaic – that is, in Jesus’ native land of Israel, rather than elsewhere in the Roman world. That would make them very early (and strikingly, these Aramaic based traditions are found independently in both Mark and John).
And so to limit all references to the historical Jesus to Mark is completely and utterly wrong. It’s easy to see why mythicists would want to do so – if there’s only one source to a person’s life, you can claim that that source made it all up. But if you have numerous independent sources (Mark, Q, M, L, Signs Source, Discourse Sources, Gospel of Thomas and its sources, Gospel of Peter and its sources, etc. etc.), then almost certainly in the claims they ALL make (e.g., that Jesus existed and was a Jewish teacher) have a high degree of historical credibility, unless there is something in those claims that make them historically incredible (e.g., if they claimed Jesus was a Tanzanian born of Irish parents in Jerusalem).

Bart Ehrman on ‘Did Jesus Exist? Part Four

Q. Much weight is often placed on the testimony of Josephus about Jesus and his brother. You argue in the book that at least in an edited form, the Josephus evidence is quite important first century evidence in establishing the existence of Jesus, and presumably also establishing something of when he lived and what he did. Do you see Josephus as a generally reliable historian or put another way a more objective witness since he was not a follower of Jesus?

A. Josephus is an important witness to the fact that there were traditions about Jesus in circulation near the end of the first century outside of Christian circles. He did not get his information from the Gospels, but from other (unknown) sources. So that’s very important. But no one would say that Josephus was objective in his reporting (at least, no scholar of Josephus would say that). He was far from objective! His biases and agenda very much guided his writing. Still, when it comes to what he has to say about Jesus, he was obviously not presenting a biased account in favor of Jesus (in other words, his account is very different from Christian reports that wanted to affirm Jesus for reasons of their own).
When I say this, I am referring to the scholarly reconstruction of what Josephus probably actually wrote, not the Testimonium Flavianum, as it is called, as it now appears in his book the Antiquities.

The Testimonium that we have in the late manuscripts of Josephus has clearly and obviously been “doctored up” by a Christian scribe, since Josephus himself (as we know, e.g., from his autobiography) never became a Christian and so did not himself believe that Jesus was the messiah who was raised from the dead in fulfillment of the Scriptures (as the Testimonium relates).

But Josephus did refer to Jesus, and he does give us some valuable information about him. And he is the first non-Christian source to do so. This is important historical data, as it shows that Jesus was thought of as having lived a real life by the most important Jewish historian of the first century. As such the Testimonium provides us with some much-needed confirmation of information that we can glean from our Christian sources.

Q. Have you considered the recent evidence from the trial of Oded Golan (now over with the defend exonerated) in regard to the James ossuary in which under oath, the head of the IAA was forced to admit that the last third of the inscription (the brother of Jesus part) had genuine ancient patina in it, and then later the IAA lead epigrapher (Ada Yardeni) testified she was convinced the whole inscription James son of Joseph brother of Jesus was a genuine first century inscription? How would this sort of evidence, if genuine, change the discussion of the historical Jesus?

A. I do not think the ossuary provides us with a reliable reference to Jesus. On one hand, I am persuaded by the overwhelming consensus among Palestinian archaeologists, that the inscription is probably a forgery (I’m not an expert on this, as I am not a professional archaeologist; my view is that the professionals are the ones qualified to speak about it. And the experts are pretty unified – or so my colleagues Eric Meyers and Jodi Magness – two of the top experts in the field – tell me). On the other hand, even if it’s not forged, it does not seem obvious to me, or to most other historians in early Christianity that I know, that the inscription has anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth, for all sorts of reasons that experts like Magness have spelled out at length.

Q. In the middle portion of your book, you place a great deal of emphasis on what is usually called the criteria of multiple attestation to demonstrate that Jesus surely existed. Would you explain briefly why historians place so much stock in this criteria, and why it is especially important when dealing with the question of the existence of Jesus.

A. Multiple attestation is one of the most important historical criteria for establishing what happened in the past – not just for historical Jesus research, but for any serious historical research. If the sources to a historical person or event are biased, then it is impossible to know if one of them has just “made something up,” if it is our only witness. But if there are several sources available that independently indicate that an event happened (or that a person lived, etc.), then no one of them could have made it up – since they all report it without having conferred with one another. Some scholars see this criterion as the most important one available for establishing what happened in the past.

And it is extremely useful for establishing the existence of Jesus. If we had only one ancient source that indicated that Jesus lived, we would not be able to make a very strong case. But the reality is that we have lots of sources. Whether or not these sources are biased is immaterial when it comes to this criterion. In addition to Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus – which are not biased in favor of Jesus’ existence, but which are too late to be of supreme importance (since they are so many years after the fact) – we have numerous Christian sources (on which the non-Christian ones are not dependent). In addition to Paul (who is quite clear and explicit that there was a man Jesus!) we have our first Gospel, Mark, itself based on numerous earlier sources, some of them demonstrably circulating at one point in Aramaic, the native language of Jesus.

But there is much more. Matthew and Luke had numerous sources at their disposal in addition to Mark; we call their respective sources Q (for the material found in both Matthew and Luke not in Mark, such as the beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer), M” (Matthew’s special source, or sources; M may have been one document or, more likely, one or more documents and a collection of oral traditions), and “L” (Luke’s special sources). All of these speak of Jesus’ words and deeds. So does John, and all of John’s sources, which appear to have been independent of the other Gospels. As do the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, which I take also to have been independent of the other Gospels.

In short, we not only have lots of sources, we have lots of independent sources, from within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, that are absolutely unified in claiming that he was a Jewish teacher from Galilee. I don’t see how we could have this many sources – some of which can be traced to Palestine, and within a few years of the traditional date of Jesus’ death – unless Jesus really existed. This argument has to be taken in conjunction with others, of course, including the importance of Paul himself, who heard stories about Jesus just a couple of years after his death at the outside (more likely within a year or so), and who actually knew, personally, Jesus’ closest disciple and his own brother. Taken together, these independent sources make a compelling argument for Jesus’ existence.

Bart Ehrman on ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ Part Three

Q. You spend most of the first third of the book laying out the evidence that in fact Jesus did exist, both Biblical and extra-Biblical, both Christian and non-Christian evidence. In your judgment, is there any of this evidence that you find much more compelling than other evidence, or is it simply that we have a wide variety of independent testimonies, and so the cumulative evidence is what is decisive for you?

A. It is obviously important for a historian to look at all the evidence. To most modern people, it is surprising to learn just how little evidence there is for Jesus outside the Christian sources. He is not mentioned in any Roman (or Greek, or Syriac, or… whatever – any pagan [i.e., non-Jewish, non-Christian]) source of the entire first century. Never. That strikes people as surprising. He is mentioned a couple of times within about 80 years of his life by two Roman sources (Pliny and Tacitus; I’m not sure Suetonius can be used). And he is almost certainly referred to twice in the Jewish historian Josephus, once in an entire paragraph. But that’s it for the non-Christian sources for the first hundred years after his death. It’s not much. But it’s something, and since these are not sources that based their views on the Gospels (since these authors hadn’t read the Gospels), it shows that Jesus was indeed known to exist in pagan and Jewish circles within a century of his life.

The really compelling evidence, though, comes in the Christian sources. Mythicists write these sources off because they are Christian and therefore biased, but that is not a historically solid way to proceed. Christian sources do indeed have to be treated gingerly, but they are sources every bit as much as pagan and Jewish sources are. What I show in Did Jesus Exist? is that there are so many Christian sources that can be used by historians that there is really no doubt at all that Jesus at least existed. Just to give an example (so as not to repeat my entire book here): by any credible dating, the apostle Paul must have converted to believe in Jesus within two or three years of the traditional date of Jesus’ death. And Paul knew some facts about Jesus’ life; he knew some of his teachings; he knew his closest disciple Peter; and he knew his brother James. Personally! If Jesus didn’t exist, you would think that his brother would know about it. The historian can not simply ignore what Paul has to say since he was a Christian. Taking his biases into account, we can use his letters for information about Jesus. And among other things, they show beyond a doubt that Jesus existed as a Jewish teacher in Palestine in the 20s CE. Otherwise we cannot explain Paul or his letters. That’s just one important piece of evidence for the existence of Jesus. I’ll discuss more in some of my later answers.

Q. Sometimes you make a distinction between literary evidence and other sorts of written evidence (e.g. records of trials or tax records), and you place especial stress on the former as a way of answering the question of whether or not Jesus existed. Can you explain why you do this?

A. Yes, there is a clear distinction to be made between literary and documentary evidence. The only reason I place special evidence on the former, when talking about the historical Jesus, is that there is no documentary evidence for his existence. (For lots and lots of historical issues, documentary evidence is invaluable; but only when it exists for the issue under consideration. If any did exist for Jesus, that would, of course, be highly significant.) We do not have any birth records or land deeds, no reports of his trial (other than in literary sources), and no death warrant related to Jesus – no documents (or inscriptions) of any kind. All we have are later literary references. And so these are the sources that we have to focus on.

Q. Of what value is the testimony of hostile witnesses to the existence of Jesus, for example the evidence from 3rd-4th century Jewish sources, or the evidence of Celsus’ views of things as cited by Origen? Must we necessarily rule out later evidence (from after the first or second century) if it comes from sources unlikely to have read any NT documents?

A. I don’t think this evidence is very valuable. By the third and fourth century there were indeed debates over Jesus significance – even earlier, as in the writings of Celsus from the 170s. But these hostile pagan (and in some cases Jewish – though the actual Jewish documents are later than the fourth century, even if their traditions can be traced to earlier times). But no one at that point, two or three centuries after Jesus’ death, had any independent access to his existence and life. Pagan authors such as Celsus and Porphyry, as well as their Christian opponents such as Justin, Origen, and Tertullian (the “apologists”) were basing their “knowledge” of Jesus on the Gospels and on oral reports about Jesus that were, for the most part, themselves derived from Gospels.

So the answer is that we do not necessarily have to rule out later evidence. We have to look at it as evidence to see whether it is valuable, important, and even independent. When we examine it closely, alas, it is not (not independent and therefore not valuable). If Celsus, for example, or Tertullian (on the other side) could be shown to have had access to earlier records that no longer survive for us, but which one time did exist and that provided independent testimony to Jesus, that would indeed be important! But, I’m sorry to say, they appear not to have had any such records.

Bart Ehrman on Did Jesus Exist? Part Two

Q. Why do you think it is that some atheists are so adamant about trying to eradicate Jesus entirely from the historical record, by claiming he never existed? It seems they protest too much. Wouldn’t it be just as congenial to their views to argue that yes he existed but: 1) he wasn’t God, and 2) he wasn’t nearly as important as Christianity made him out to be, in particular they might simply deny he was the world’s savior? Why do you think they insist on such an extreme position? It’s like they are haunted by the ghost of Jesus and can’t seem to exorcize it properly.

A). Yes, I long wondered that myself, and in Did Jesus Exist I took a stab at answering it. The mythicists themselves never indicate, of course, why they are so outspoken and even vitriolic in their assertions that Jesus never existed, so all we can go on is educated inference. In my book I argue that it is not an accident that the mythicists are all (to my knowledge) atheists or agnostics who find organized religion highly dangerous. In my view, they have a point about that, as religion has indeed been used for very hateful and harmful purposes over the years, from the crusades and inquisition to the justification of slavery to the oppression of woman, minorities, gays, and other people. So I understand the problem. But the mythicist approach to it seems to be to say that the problem is religion itself (I tend to think the problem is people!); moreover, the one religion they are most familiar with is Christianity. So, in order to pull the rug out from under Christianity (= religion, for them), what better approach than to say that it is complete baseless, unfounded, and built on a myth? If Jesus is a myth, then, in their opinion, Christianity is just a fairy tale not worth believing. And so, to accomplish what they think is a good aim they argue that Jesus did not exist.
I do not see this as disinterested history by people who really want to know what happened in the past. I see it as ideologically driven history by people who have an agenda, and who are willing to “find” what they do in history so long as it meets with their agenda. In my judgment, that is not the best way to do history.

Q. It seems that mythicists place a lot of weight on arguments from silence (e.g. no public records that Jesus existed), but as you point out 99% of all ancients do not show up in records or the literature of the first century, and this tells us nothing about whether they existed or not. Why do you think it is that they refuse to accept the old dictum that absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence? This especially puzzles me about someone like Robert Price who should know better.

A. My sense is that some mythicists think that everyone who believes in Jesus’ historical existence accepts a “believing Christian” view of Jesus, namely, that if Jesus existed he really was the miracle working son of God who really did feed the multitudes with a few loaves, who really did cast out demons, and heal the sick, and raise the dead, and that if there really were a person like that who lived in the first century, somebody from his own day would have mentioned him. On one level, that’s a good point – you would indeed expect such a God-on-earth to be mentioned by someone living at the time. But the fact is that we don’t have a single reference to Jesus from someone living at his time – friend or enemy. We have only documents written by people living later, and almost always by people who believe in him.

So the point the mythicists make is not only that there is silence with respect to Jesus, but that there is unexpected silence. That’s the key.
My response is that this is putting the cart before the horse. As a historian, the first thing to do is to decide whether Jesus existed. If you can show, historically, that he did exist, then and only then can you go on to the next step and ask, “What did he say and do?” If you decide that he did in fact perform hundreds of spectacular miracles (he does them all over the map in the Gospels, of course), then I think you are completely justified in asking: “In that case, why does no one mention him?” But as a historian you may end up saying that he lived a completely natural, non-miraculous life. If that’s true, then it would be no surprise at all that no one mentioned him, any more than that no one mentioned any of his cousins, nieces, or nephews – or indeed, the vast majority of people who lived in his time and place.
But that is a separate question from whether or not he existed. We can show he existed, and it has nothing to do with whether or not he actually existed as a human being.

Bart Ehrman’s on Did Jesus Exist? Part One

In the next few posts we will have a Q and A time with Professor Bart Ehrman about his new Harper book, Did Jesus Exist? which (not surprisingly) has sparked considerable interest. A special thanks to Bart for taking considerable time to answer the questions I sent him.

Q. What prompted you to not merely write Did Jesus Exist? but prioritize it?

A. I had wanted to write the book for some time, for a simple reason. A few years ago I started getting emails from people asking me whether or not I thought Jesus existed. Some of these people indicated that they had heard that I thought Jesus did not exist, and they wanted to know if it was true. In fact, it was nowhere close to being true: I had already written a book in which I argued what I thought we could say with reasonable certainly about the things Jesus said and did (Jesus: Apocayptic Prophet of the New Millennium). And my idea has always been that for Jesus to say and do these things, he had to exist!

In any event, it struck me as important that there was no book-length treatment of the question of Jesus’ existence by someone who was trained in NT and early Christianity, since we NT scholars tend simply to assume that he existed, without feeling any real compulsion to “prove” it. But as I looked into it, I found there was a lot of literature on the other side of the question, mythicists arguing, with an increasing following (especially on the Internet), that Jesus did not in fact exist. And so I wanted to write a book that showed that whatever else one might want to say about Jesus, he certainly existed.

As to why I prioritized it. Well, I try to write three kinds of books: some for scholars, some for college level students (textbooks), and some for a popular audience. My next popular book was going to be on how Jesus became God. That is, how did a relatively unknown preacher from rural Galilee come to be thought of as God – a member of the trinity? It’s a fascinating question, and I don’t think (contrary to what most people think) that the answer is obvious. But it did occur to me that it made better sense to write Did Jesus Exist first, since it doesn’t make sense to talk about how Jesus came to be considered God if he didn’t even live!

Q. In books of this sort, you tend to identify yourself as a historian rather than as a NT scholar, or text critical expert. Is there a particular reason for this?

A. Yes indeed! My training as a NT scholar was largely in theology and exegesis. As a masters student, then a PhD student, at Princeton Theological Seminary, I took course after course in both these fields – especially exegesis. But I also took courses that were focused on early Christian history, starting with Bruce Metzger’s PhD seminar (the first one I had) on the “Canon of the New Testament.”

I was also trained, of course, as a textual critic. But I realized early on in my work in textual criticism that it is impossible really to be competent in that field without having a firm grasp on the history of early Christianity – at least the first three centuries of Christian history, since that is when most textual changes occurred in the manuscripts of the NT, and if you want to understand why the text was changed, you have to know something about the historical circumstances of the scribes who changed it (this need to be historically focused was not as obvious to other textual scholars, although today it is increasingly so). This led me into a deep interest in the history of early Christianity – something that, regrettably, most NT scholars – not just textual critics — are blissfully ignorant about. There is a very unhelpful divide in many PhD programs throughout the world between New Testament and Patristics. But I became deeply interested in both, and have spent most of my career working in both areas (New Testament studies and the history of Christianity up to the early fourth century).

I would say that most of my scholarship over the past twenty years has been more historical in nature than, say, exegetical or theological. I approach textual criticism as a historian (although, obviously, as an exegete as well; a lot of my book Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is straight exegesis; but it is all done from a historical vantage point). And I have written a lot on various aspects of early Christian history. The question whether Jesus existed is not one that exegesis or textual criticism can answer. It is a historical question and needs to be addressed on historical grounds on the basis of historical evidence. That’s why I stress my interest and approach as historical in a book like this.

Ehrman vs. Bock— on 'Forged'

I was unable to do this dialogue which Justin Brierley asked me to do, as I am in the midst of an intensive doctoral seminar on Socio-Rhetorical analysis of the NT, so I am quite happy that Darrell Bock was willing to step in quickly from Germany to do this dialogue.  You will find this discussion interesting, if provocative.  BW3