Bart Ehrman’s Concise, Informative Summation Of The Case Against New Testament Reliability On Jesus’s Alleged Resurrection

A barrage of key details in less than 10 minutes.

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H/T: Common Sense Atheism

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Otishpote

    The gospels are not historical sources. They are allegorical fictional novels. As such, they are not capable of providing any evidence at all for an historical Jesus.

    The gospels do not even have an appearance of being histories. Ancient historiographical works typically began by giving the authors’ credentials, yet none of the gospels do so. The gospels provide no account of how the authors know many of the details they are telling, in particular there is no “Jesus later told us what he had prayed when he was alone”, “or Mary informed me that…” Even more telling, there is no explanation given for why there are discrepancies between the different gospels accounts. This is in spite it being obvious that later gospel writers were aware of the written text of an early gospel, and deliberately modified details in certain passages while repeating other passages from the earlier gospel word for word. In actual historical writing, disagreement with one’s sources is typically explained, not simply glossed over with silent changes. Furthermore, the gospels never suggest how the reader can research further to verify some of the facts presented. There are no directions to the tomb, or instructions on how to contact people who were healed. Rarely are any more details given than are needed to provide a minimal degree of verisimilitude for the narrative.

    In contrast to the lack of evidence that the gospels were intended to be read as historical works, we find abundant evidence that the gospels were written to be short fictional novels. In the gospels we encounter the typical all-knowing narrator, literary allusions to earlier fictional works, literary techniques like dramatic irony and reversals of expectation, characters with names that coincidentally fit their roles in the story, and many scenes with allegorical significance. Furthermore, when the later gospels revise details from earlier gospels, it never once appears to be done with the motive of improving historical accuracy, but rather with the motive of improving flow of the story, removing narrative inconsistencies, or revising a theological, philosophical, or moral implication. That is, the revisions made by later gospel writers were intended to make the gospels serve better as entertaining and theologically illustrative fictions.

    Now once we understand the gospels are not in any way part of the historiographical genre, it becomes apparent that we are not justified in using them as evidence for the historicity of any events or persons they mention. If we want to investigate the possible historicity of the mentioned events or characters, evidence for such would have to come from elsewhere. But the gospel themselves tell us no more about an historical Jesus than the superman comics tell us about an historical Clark Kent.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Otishpote

  • Otishpote

    Statements about Jesus in the Pauline epistles all appear to be either statements about a mythical cosmic Christ, or interpolations by the second century redactor. (The Pauline epistles as we have them are significantly longer than the versions used by the early Christian “heretic” Marcion. Furthermore, the biblical scholar Paul-Louis Couchoud in his article “The First Edition of the Paulina” has argued convincingly that various passages in the Catholic version of the epistles derive from the corresponding passages in the Marcionite version and not vice versa. So we do have good evidence that the Pauline epistles contain extensive interpolations. Couchoud’s arguments still stand and have been reinforced by several subsequent scholars. Thus, the ancient allegation that Marcion shortened the epistles is false; rather it was the Catholics who were using a redacted version of them.) In the end we find Paul gives us no evidence for an historical Jesus either. He tells us he gets his knowlege of Jesus from OT scriptures and directly from the spirit, not from the testimony of earlier apostles. Paul has Jesus crucified by demons, not by the Jews or Romans. Paul speaks of a future coming of Jesus, without ever referring to it as return, or a “second” coming – as later Christians refer to it. These and many other details in Paul make it clear that his Jesus was very different from the Jesus of the gospels. I am persuaded that Paul was talking about a mythical demigod, not any historical person.

    The New Testament book of Hebrews also describes Jesus in terms incompatible with an historical Jesus. For one, a statement is made that he has no mother. But more importantly, Hebrews describes Jesus sacrifice as occurring in a mythic heavenly realm, taking place in the perfect heavenly temple not made by human hands. Jesus is contrasted with the priests on earth, with the implication being that a heavenly high priest is far superior. If the author of Hebrews had been aware than Jesus had a ministry on earth, it is implausible he could have discussed this in the manner that he did. Hebrews 8:4 is especially telling, for there the author of Hebrews states that if Jesus were on earth (an off-the-cuff hypothetical that the author clearly implies is absurd) he would have no work to do.

    Evidence from non-Christian writers turns out to be just as useless for learning anything about a supposed historical Jesus. Some, like the first passage in Josphesus are interpolations, some like the second passage in Joseph refer to someone else entirely in a different time and place from Jesus of Galilee. Some of the accounts are written too late, and derive from second or third century Christian belief. Other quotes from non-Christian sources, like the reference to “Christians praying to Jesus as if to a god”, serves merely as evidence for the existence of Christians but isn’t evidence for an historical Jesus. It also fits well with the conclusion that the earliest Christian concept of Jesus was simply as an unseen mythical Son of God. I doubt that Jesus was thought of as historical until years after the first gospel was written when its fictional and allegorical narrative started to be misunderstood to be an historical account.

  • Otishpote

    My favorite blog on the subject is http://vridar.wordpress.com/ written by Neil Godfrey.

    I also recommend Earl Doherty’s informative, well researched, and well-thought through arguments in his book, “Jesus: Neither God Nor Man”.

    Robert M. Price’s “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man” address the topic from a different angle than Doherty does, but converges on many of the same conclusions. This is essential reading for anyone even slightly curious about the subject of what the gospels really say about any historical Jesus, and is interested in a balanced perspective.

    I also highly recommend a very long but very informative article by R. G. Price, found online at

    http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/gospel_mark.htm

    The most valuable part of the latter article is how he demonstrates that Mark used the Old Testament scriptures in a particular and controlled manner when building his allegorical story. It appears that Mark really wants to reader to think about the OT passages he alludes to – they are meant as clues to understanding the deeper meaning behind Mark’s narrative. In contrast, the later gospel writers, such as Matthew and Luke, are sloppy in their use of the OT, merely citing the OT for the sake of citing it, and not because it says anything actually relevant at that point in their narratives.

  • Mary Young

    “Thus, the ancient allegation that Marcion shortened the epistles is false; rather it was the Catholics who were using a redacted version of them.”

    That doesn’t make much sense. The redactional agenda of Marcion was obvious: remove references to an OT God. Marcion also kept one Gospel, Luke, and did away with all Old Testament Scripture. He keeps those areas of the Pauline epistles that conform to Luke-Acts. Does it also follow that the entirety of the New Testament, Mark, Matthew and John were interpolations into the canon? No. If Marcion’s redactional agenda in shortening the Pauline Epistles weren’t so obvious maybe what you’re saying would be likely, but why would statements that are incomptabile with other letters of Paul (since we all know he wasn’t entirely consistent) and not consistent with the Gospels be interpolated later? If you want to argue that Marcion’s texts are authoritative over our earliest manuscripts of the letters, there has to be a good reason why those changes would have been made. And to add historicity to the account POST-2nd century (since Marcion was late 1st early 2nd century) doesn’t make much sense considering there were fairly well-established Christian communities already at that time.

    And don’t you think it’s rather strange that Paul would travel around getting arrested, persecuted, and killed for an allegory? I believe that the Chronicles of Narnia are an allegory, but not strongly enough that I would die for them. Paul certainly paid a significant price to live and die for a person whom 1) he takes pains to prove actually lived in the flesh and 2) simultaneously doesn’t think really lived. Paul’s language about the heavenly priesthood, the Temple not of human hands: they were all to take attention away from phyiscal enforcement of Jewish law i.e. Paul didn’t think Gentiles needed to be circumcized or observe food laws. You’re taking those metaphors out of their immediate context, which is discussion of the law, and making it seem like his entire account is allegorical – a conclusion which no honest reading of the text would reveal (even if you doubt the veracity of what he’s saying.)

    If people believed that Jesus was mythical and unseen, you have to account for the spread of the cult of Christianity out of the belief of the Apostles who claimed to be companions of Jesus. How is it that as early as 70 (maybe earlier), which only would’ve been about 40 years after Jesus’ death, Jesus made the radical transformation from allegorical, unseen, son of God (with a popular Jewish name) into a fairly anonymous Palestinian itinerant preacher? And though Paul says that everything he learned was from revelation, that is more easily explained by his goal of proving his authority over and against Apostles who WERE companions of Jesus and who were often at odds with Paul’s theology. He even recognizes that James was the brother of Jesus and Peter his companion.

    There are a lot of genres detectable in the Gospels: novels, miracle stories, sayings collections. You even see obvious attempts to mimic popular historical writing in Luke-Acts, but the general scholarly consensus is that while the Gospels are not a completely new and unique genre, there is also something subtly different about them than the popular historical novel. Namely, that they demanded utter and complete devotion and conversion toward the hero of their story and that they were believed to be historical enough that a powerful cult developed in their wake. There is a novel written about a miracle-worker strangely born of a virgin named Apollonius of Tyana, too, but his narrative wasn’t peppered with moral teachings and a call of martyrdom and total devotion.

    No one is saying that we can, should, or do treat the Gospels are sources for the historical Jesus. But patchwork scholarship that tries to fit them in one genre to “prove” that not only we, but the earliest Christians were confused about the “real” meaning behind the text and theories that Marcion, who trimmed away most of our canon, was actually the original canon don’t seem convincing. It seems more likely that people, namely the apostles, whoever they were, followed an itinerant preacher around named Jesus. They believed in some way that he was God or that he was God’s son and they told stories about him and developed life around his teachings in conjunction with Jewish law. An oral tradition developed and a large enough cult developed that they slowly came to be seen as distinct or dissenting from their Jewish counterparts. Through missionary work this cult spread the the Gentiles and it was highly theologized by Paul, who also believed what he read/heard.

    I think it’s easy enough to say “The Gospels aren’t historical” without making shoddy claims about the allegorical reception of the earliest Christians.

  • Otishpote

    Here is a concise video explaining one of the examples Couchoud used to demonstrate the dependency of the Catholic version of Romans upon the Marcionite version. That the redactor misunderstood the original author’s intent in Romans 1:18 is very clear.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDnqbtgZWh8&w=640&h=390

    This example alone could just be a fluke. But Couchoud gave other examples also, and dozens of further examples have in the years since been brought forth by other critical scholars. The cumulative case is very compelling: the ancient allegation that Marcion shortened the epistles is false; rather it was the Catholics who were using a redacted version of them.

    A recent translation of Couchoud’s article is here:

    http://www.radikalkritik.de/couch_engl.htm

    I’ll let you read Couchoud for a brief discussion of the redactional agenda of the interpolator.

    On other points:

    Marcion did not have a copy of Luke. He had an expanded version of Mark that was later further interpolated and expanded to become the gospel we now call Luke. Acts was written in the second century in response to Marcion, in order to boost the perceived legitimacy of the Roman church. I refer you to “Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle” by Joseph B. Tyson.

    “Paul certainly paid a significant price to live and die for a person whom 1) he takes pains to prove actually lived in the flesh”

    First, much of the “life” of Paul is legendary, largely based on false claims found in the book of Acts. Second the gospels did not exist in Paul’s time, so he wasn’t “dying for an allegory.”
    He had deep religious convictions that had nothing to do with an historical Jesus, and those inspired his labors and sacrifices. He likely followed in the same pattern as many other Jewish and Romans traveling teachers long before him.

    Also Paul does NOT take pains to prove that Jesus actually lived in the flesh. For one, Romans 1:2-6, is not Pauline. It was added by the same interpolator who added 1:19-2:1. Secondly, the “born of woman” reference in Gal 4:4 is also an interpolation. But even if we took Gal 4:4 as original, in context it it would simply be part of Paul’s talk about all the faithful being Abraham’s seed (Gal 3:26-29). The woman from whom Christ and his faithful brothers and sisters are born of is “the Jerusalem which is above” (Gal 4:26). Furthermore, in Gal 4:19, Paul also referred to his readers as being mothers of Christ with the words, “until Christ is formed in you.” Paul makes it explicit (Gal 4:24) that he intends all of this to be taken allegorically, not literally.

    “Don’t you think it’s rather strange that Paul would travel around getting arrested, persecuted, and killed for an allegory?”

    R.G. Price argues that the first gospel, an early edition of Mark, was written by a disaffected follower of Paul’s movement. I am not yet persuaded to agree with him on this point, but it is apparent that the author of the first gospel already knew the Pauline epistles.

    See: http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/gospel_mark.htm

    It is unlikely Paul himself ever knew the gospels. The only point of commonality between Paul’s Jesus and the gospels is the crucifixion, which Paul never locates on earth. Furthermore, for Paul, it is the archons (demons who rule different spheres of the cosmos) who crucify Jesus. Paul also refers to the Eucharist, but doesn’t place it in the gospel context. He refers to it as if he learned of it simply from a spiritual revelation. (It was an ancient tradition that different sects interpreted their own ways in terms of their own mythology.)

    For a better summary of what Paul taught about Jesus: http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_myth_history.htm

    and

    http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_myth_followup.htm

    “Paul’s language about the heavenly priesthood, the Temple not of human hands: they were all to take attention away from physical enforcement of Jewish law i.e. Paul didn’t think Gentiles needed to be circumcized or observe food laws.”

    That is from Hebrews, which was not written by Paul. But anyway, here it seems you simply not understanding or addressing the point I had made. Hebrews never places Jesus’ sacrifice on earth, and describes it in terms that make no sense if it were on earth. At this point I’ll just refer you to Earl Doherty’s in depth discussion of how Jesus is described in Hebrews here: http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/supp09.htm

    “Namely, that they demanded utter and complete devotion and conversion toward the hero of their story.”

    That simply is NOT true for Mark’s gospel, wherein Jesus represents the things of God, including the temple and teaching of the OT, all anthropomorphized. It is the Kingdom of God that Mark calls the reader’s devotion to, and not the symbolic Jesus character of his story. Later gospels deviated from Mark on this and other points. See again, http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/gospel_mark.htm

  • Otishpote

    It also needs to be kept in mind, as explained in Bart Ehrman’s book “Lost Christianities”, that there was no original Christian sect. Christianity was from its very origins diverse. The interaction between Jewish and pagan thought spawned many small cults and it took years for these to coalesce into wider movements both gnostic and orthodox, as they debated ideas and exchanged texts with each other.

    Judaism, also, was very diverse at this time, besides the well known Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene sects Josephus describes several others with very diverse beliefs and practices. Many Jews at the time were still believers in old Greek Orphic mysteries. (It is likely through them that many Orphic concepts came into Christianity.)

    Ideas from the Essenes, Stoics, Pythagoreans, and Jewish philosophers like Philo had a big influence on Christianity. For example, the Jew Philo, heavily influenced by Plato’s philosophy, developed the idea of the cosmic logos, for philosophical reasons. Many Jews adopted Philo’s logos idea and combined it with a Son of God concept derived from many passages in the OT. Also added to the mix was the Essene’s talk of new priesthood in the line of Melchizedek (they thought the established Temple priesthood was corrupt and illegitimate), and Jewish talk of a heavenly Joshua figure (the later can be found several places in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jesus and Joshua are different transliterations of the same name, and Jews were already talking about “Jesus” before Christianity came on the scene – referring to a reappearing of the Old Testament’s Joshua the successor of Moses.) These are just some of the older lines of thought which evolved into the unseen heavenly Jesus figure found in the earliest strata of Christian writings.


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