Bart Ehrman on Mythicism

As many of you will be aware, Bart Ehrman is working on an ebook about mythicism.

If you would like a foretaste, here is a radio interview on YouTube with Bart Ehrman on the subject, in which the host Reginald Finley tries to suggest mythicism might have some plausibility to it, and digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole as Ehrman shows up Finley’s ignorance on the topic and refuses to allow him to simply raise doubts without addressing the topic and the evidence in a serious historical manner.

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As might be expected, mythicists are happy about this. Earl Doherty writes, “Great. Finally something that will give mythicism a shot in the arm. After all, if someone like Bart Ehrman feels the necessity to take it on, that implies a certain degree of legitimacy. It can no longer be dismissed as a fringe crackpot theory not worthy of mainstream scholarship’s attention.”

Sigh. Just like creationists.

  • http://thechurchofjesuschrist.us/ Joel

    Maybe, just saying, you should, you know, right a book on the matter….

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Joel, if I feel like after reading Ehrman’s book there is still more to be said, maybe I will…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I love Doherty’s response. I suppose he must think that racism has a certain degree of legitimacy whenever a mainstream source addresses it. It is fitting that it is only an ebook.

    • http://www.simon-cozens.org/ Simon Cozens

      I am dismayed by your anti-ebook discrimination.

      Oops, damn, I’ve just given it a certain degree of legitimacy.

  • Geoff Hudson

    I would dispute Erhman’s statements:

    1. That Paul makes disinterested comments about Jesus’s family such as James. 

    2. That Paul wrote Galatians.  

    • Just Sayin’

      Disputing’s easy; providing evidenciary support a lot harder.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    And of course, mythicists deny that they are like creationists. But if having a legitimate scholar explain why your writings are of no scholarly merit is a sign that your work is “worth taking seriously” then the same would have to apply to the creationists whose claims reputable scientists have addressed, if only to debunk them.

  • Gakuseidon

    Ehrman has painted a big red circle mark on his chest, at least from a mythicist perspective. How long will it take for them to start referring to Ehrman as an “apologist”?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Their more likely tactic is to accuse Ehrman of still being shaped by his Christian background without realizing it. Why it seems plausible to them that someone who breaks free from their Christian background enough to become agnostic about the existence of God would still be shackled to Christian assumptions regarding the existence of Jesus is hard to fathom. But so is everything else mythicists claim…

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  • Geoff Hudson

    Does anyone know if Bart Erhman is a Jew or from a Jewish background?

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      His upbringing was Episcopalian, apparently fairly nominal. Why?

      • Geoff Hudson

        No anti-Jewish sentiments, but I thought he may have had Jewish connections.  Eisenman is Jewish and he has fallen-short of saying that James was Jesus, at least in his books, but to me personally he did say that. 

            

  • Geoff Hudson

    Has anyone read the latest eye-glazing posting (No.4) by Niel Godfrey on Roger Parvus’s The Letters Supposedly Written By Ignatius of Anticoch?  http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/4-the-letters-supposedly-written-by-ignatius-of-antioch-4th-post-in-the-series/  I think I have just about got the gist of what Parvus wrote, but no doubt Neil will correct me if I haven’t.  According to Neil, In his 2007 book (I haven’t read it), Parvus argues in great detail that Perigrinus (not Ignatius)  wrote a letter to Antioch not Rome, and that Perigrinus was on his way to Antioch and martydom.  Thus early in the second century, a writer produced a genre of letter to a different place from that originally stated, ascribing it to a different writer from that originally stated, and decribing a journey in the opposite direction to that originally stated.   

    I have been saying on blogs going way back before 2007, that Pauls’ journey to Rome was James’s journey to Judea, and that Paul’s meeting with the church in Jerusalem, was James’s meeting with the priests in Jerusalem, and that Paul’s epistles to to the Gentile world in various places of the Mediterranean, were originally letters which James wrote to prophets in Jerusalem.  

    The early first century seems to have been a fertile time for the production of fraudulent works.  Needless to say, I was stunned to see that Parvus has come up with a similar idea. I wonder where he got it from.

  • Anonymous

    I look forward to seeing how Ehrman treats this topic as it was his writings that first clued me in to how problematic our sources for the historical Jesus really are.  I don’t expect  him  to  embrace mythicism, but I wonder whether he’ll portray historicism as the slam dunk that so many seem to think it is.

    • Geoff Hudson

      He has already given two criteria in this video.  He says:

      1. Paul makes disinterested comments about Jesus’s family such as James.  2. Paul wrote Galatians.

      I view these statements as arguable from the point of view that there is no historical Jesus, and no Paul.   

      • Just Sayin’

        Any statements are arguable.  It’s providing supporting evidence that matters.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Vinny, as I have said before, I don’t think that the probability of a historical Jesus is a “slam dunk.” I have always said that there is room for doubt. What I have emphasized is that a historical Jesus is the best option when one carefully considers the evidence and proposed alternative interpretations of that evidence offered by mythicists. I have also said that the evidence very clearly does not support the claim that mythicism is more likely to be correct. And so I can understand why someone might say that they don’t feel we can know that Jesus existed with a sufficiently high degree of certainty for them to feel satisfied. I might disagree, but it could be a rational conversation. Mythicism, claiming that we can know that Jesus didn’t exist, or that interpretations of early Christian literature that suggest that the earliest Christians didn’t believe Jesus to have a been a historical figure, are what goes beyond the range of rational views into the realm of the dubious and, at times, the kooky.

    • Anonymous

      And so I can understand why someone might say that
      they don’t feel we can know that Jesus existed with a sufficiently high degree
      of certainty for them to feel satisfied. 
      I might disagree, but it could be a rational conversation.

       

      If it is possible to rationally discuss the shortage of indisputable
      evidence for the historical Jesus, why isn’t it possible to rationally discuss
      the alternative hypothesis?

       

      Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas Veranna give the following
      list of seventeen different reconstructions of the historical Jesus that have
      been proposed by one scholar or another:   (1) an
      itinerate preacher, (2) a cynic sage, (3) the Essene’s righteous rabbi, (4) a
      Galilean holy man, (5) a revolutionary leader, (6) an apocalyptic preacher, (7)
      a proto-liberation theologian, (8) a trance-inducing mental healer, (9) an
      eschatological prophet, (10) an occult magician, (11) a Pharisee, (12) a rabbi
      seeking reform, (13) a Galilean charismatic, (14) a Hillelite, an Essene, (15) a
      teacher of wisdom, (16) a miracle-working prophet and (17) an exorcist.  Assuming for the
      sake of argument that each of these reconstructions is equally probable, then
      the likelihood of any specific one of them being correct is only 5.9%.

       

      I suspect that
      the correct way to think about mythicism is to add it to the list as an
      additional possible reconstruction.  If
      we take it as one of eighteen equal possibilities (again merely for the sake of
      argument), we would only assign it a probability of 5.6% which is pretty
      small.  The odds that some reconstruction
      that posits a historical Jesus is correct would be 94.4%, but mythicism might be
      as probable as any specific reconstruction.

       

      I appreciate that
      the consensus of scholars is against mythicism, but it seems to me that the
      consensus of scholars is against any specific reconstruction.  None of them satisfactorily explains
      all the data although some may account
      for more than others.  If the possibility
      that Jesus was an occult magician or a proto-liberation theologian can be rationally discussed, it is
      very hard for me to see why the possibility that Jesus was a myth should be
      beyond the pale.

       

      Mythicists may not have a satisfactory explanation for how
      the gospels evolved or why Paul refers to James as the brother of the Lord, but
      I don’t think any historicist has a satisfactory explanation for why none of
      the first century writings outside the gospels indicate that Jesus was a recently
      deceased miracle working teacher. 

    • Anonymous

      “And so I can understand why someone might say that they don’t feel we can know that Jesus existed with a sufficiently high degree of certainty for them to feel satisfied.”
      This sounds like the view of Robert Price, at least from what I’ve heard from him.  And Dr. McGrath knows this already, but in case anyone suspects me of being a mythicist, I assure you that I am not. 

  • http://goulablogger.wordpress.com/ Chuck Grantham

    Does Earl Doherty think all those books about “The DaVinci Code” got written because Dan Brown is such a compellingly factual author worthy of mainstream scholarship’s interest? 

  • Anonymous

    I think this clip is somewhere between 1-1.5 years old; I know that Ehrman and Price have gotten together and warmed up (a bit more) to each other since then.  This doesn’t affect Dr. McGrath’s underlying argument, but I’m not sure Ehrman would stand by the stuff he says in the middle of the clip any more.

    I also think there’s a difference between Price’s mythicism and Doherty’s.

  • Anonymous

    Are there other historical figures who were believed widely within two centuries of their existence to not have bodies, or have a body made of star material, to not leave footprints and to not relieve themselves of bodily wastes?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @VinnyJH:disqus , it is possible to discuss alternatives rationally, and I have been doing so. But if, having examined an alternative, it is incompatible with some of the evidence, and fails to make better overall sense of the evidence as a whole, is there any reason to continue considering it ad nauseam?

    On your other point, I think that the reason we have so many different interpretations may be precisely that a single person can be, in at least certain respects, many different things at the same time. If someone writing about the life of Mother Theresa were to work under the impression that she was a devout Catholic, and then come across evidence of her wrestling with serious doubts, that would not necessarily mean that the initial view needs to be discarded. It could be that she was generally devout but experienced periods of doubt; it could be that being devout and having doubts are not in fact incompatible with one another; and so on.

    Here are the categories you listed: (1) an itinerant preacher, (2) a cynic sage, (3) the Essene’s righteous rabbi, (4) a Galilean holy man, (5) a revolutionary leader, (6) an apocalyptic preacher, (7) a proto-liberation theologian, (8) a trance-inducing mental healer, (9) an eschatological prophet, (10) an occult magician, (11) a Pharisee, (12) a rabbi seeking reform, (13) a Galilean charismatic, (14) a Hillelite, an Essene, (15) a teacher of wisdom, (16) a miracle-working prophet and (17) an exorcist.  

    Some of them are less plausible than others, but let me try nevertheless to address as many as I can. #1 is not a category that is at odds with many of the others, and it can be wholly subsumed under #2. The same goes for #4, which is just about his geographical origins, and is arguably not a distinct category from #13. Since by “rabbi” you presumably mean a teacher, then that is not a different category from 2,3,6,7,11,12,14 or 15 – the only issue there is which teaching attributed to him is authentic and which among that is most characteristic. Since we have stories about other rabbis who allegedly performed healings and exorcisms, #8, #10 and #17 – which themselves may overlap – can also overlap with other categories.

    And so I think that the disagreements about how Jesus is best categorized may be giving a misleading impression to those outside the field, which is that this is a debate about which material is authentic and which is most characteristic, coupled with an attempt to relate Jesus to other figures of sorts known to have existed in that time.

    What also needs to be said is that if any of that material about him is historically authentic, then there was a historical Jesus, however little we may feel we know about him. Mythicism, on the other hand, depends on showing that all the material that claims to offer information about Jesus is best explained as “pure fiction” and not merely fictionalized or dramatized accounts about a figure who at one point existed. And I would hope that anyone familiar with the relevant material and with mythicist writings would agree that they have not demonstrated that.

    • Anonymous

      But if, having examined an alternative, it is incompatible with some of the evidence, and fails to make better overall sense of the evidence as a whole, is there any reason to continue considering it ad nauseam?

      Personally, I am not sure that there is any reason to discuss much beyond what Christians believed about Jesus somewhere around the middle of the second century.  I think that there are simply too many gaps in the record before that point to do anything more than speculate about the chain of  of events that gave rise to those beliefs.  There are just too many writings in which Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t even make an appearance (no pun intended).

      If agnosticism or minimalism is the objectively correct historical position (whatever the hell that might mean), then historicists are overestimating the evidence for their position and underestimating its vulnerability.   I think this may explain the persistence of mythicism as much as anything.

  • Anonymous

    So a person who felt that the gospels were a fictionalized re-rendering of Josephus’ account of Jesus, son of Ananus would believe in a historical Jesus of Nazareth by this account.

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  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Mikhail, Robert Price’s view is that the Gospels are entirely creations based on Jewish Scripture. In essence he takes the procedure we can see at work in, say, the Lukan infancy narratives, and tries to crowbar absolutely everything else into that same procedure.

  • http://frjody.com Jody Howard

    Bart Ehrman is from an Episcopalian background, but had a conversion experience in High School and became a fundamentalist and attended Moody Bible institute where he began to doubt inerrancy.  Personally, I think this explains some of his more popular works which seem to be addressed more to the past that scarred him than to mainstream faith (in other words, his blanket criticisms of Christianity often seem to actually be criticisms of those who would hold to inerrancy etc… and his work isn’t all that earth shattering to mainline folk, either because they’ve already heard what he has to say elsewhere, or because they recognize enough to know that scholars always disagree so there’s no need to take Ehrman as the last word).  Granted, perhaps some of the breathlessness can be chalked up to the marketing of his publishers and the attitudes of the media rather than Ehrman himself (I can’t speak to the content of Ehrman’s popular works for the most part, just how they’ve been presented.  I like his historical intro to the NT as well as his reader etc… and find them very helpful)

    That said, his popular book on the tails of “The Da Vinci Code” (can’t remember the title at the moment) was also helpful. 

    On the one hand, it’s troubling that “Mythicism” (first time I’ve heard this term) may gain some legitimacy from this, but on the other, it’s helpful to have someone come right out and say that no serious historian doubts Jesus’ existence, because I know I’ve ran into a number of folks who feel intillectually superior because they are aware that “Jesus is a myth and there’s no evidence for his existence” (there’ve also been a few who were/are convinced Jesus was both a hindu and a druid-not sure who’s worse, though the second group tends to be more fun).

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesfmcgrath James McGrath

    Thanks for that comment. For those who may not know how Ehrman’s background has shaped his outlook, a summary can be useful, and the same is probably true for most scholars!

    Also of related interest, the Review of Biblical Literature has new reviews up of a book built around conversations between Bart Ehrman and Dan Wallace about the reliability of the New Testament.

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  • David

    I think I might get Ehrman’s book.  Personally, I always wonder why Mythicists have such an emotional investment in the idea of Jesus not being historical, I mean, it’s like they need it to be true, and anyone who says something contrary is automatically verbally abused and attacked.  Like I’m sure they’d take my post right now as “proof” I’m a Christian, when, in reality, I’m not, I wasn’t raised in a religious home, and religion has never been an issue for me, at least, while growing up (I’m from England). 

    Personally, after seeing some of the Mythicist websites, my own view is that they need a psychiatrist more than anything else, to work through their neuroses (I mean, scholars investigate things all the time, but, they don’t seem to get emotionally caught up in them).  Most of the Mythicists also, though not always, seem to come from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds (I guess, they can renounce the Christian label all they want, but, the fundamentalist attitude is harder to break, most of them, I bet, if they were still Christian, would be attacking liberal and gay Christians, other religions, and, Atheists!). 


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