Did Jesus Exist? The Debate Continues

Did Jesus Exist? The Debate Continues March 29, 2016

just say no jesus

Thinking FRANK-ly About Jesus (Chapter 8)
Debating Historicity of Jesus: Frank Zindler’s blog dedicated to the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth never existed.

Mark your calendars! The Price-Ehrman debate is actually going to take place! Dr. Robert M. Price and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman are going to duke it out over the question, “Did Jesus Exist?” Sponsored by Mythicist Milwaukee, the debate will take place on Friday, October 21, 2016, from 6-9 pm in Turner Hall, 1034 N 4th St., Milwaukee, WI 53203. Details at: http://www.mythicistmilwaukee.com/buzzed-belief/

Some weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of doing a podcast with Mythicist Milwaukee, a group of Jesus-Myth scholars and enthusiasts who are proving to be a condensation nucleus attracting to itself an ever larger percentage of activist Jesus-Myth scholars. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at some time in the near future it might catalyze the formation of a new learned society that would sponsor scholarly meetings in which Mythicist scholars might present papers, share data, and form an expanding body of knowledge and theory. Perhaps it might even publish a journal or annual proceedings volumes. From its first issue, I would expect its scholarship to equal that of the Journal of Biblical Literature published by the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL)—the major academic society publishing biblical research in English for well over a century.

But I digress. In the Mythicist Milwaukee interview I was asked who I thought would win the up-coming debate in October between the New Testament scholars Robert Price and Bart Ehrman. (To my pleasant surprise, I learned that it is Mythicist Milwaukee that is sponsoring that debate and has come up with the large sum of money required by Ehrman to schedule the debate on the historicity of Jesus.) To understand my immediate response—to wit, that Price would be the winner—it is necessary to explain the long build-up to the debate. I must digress again.

In 2009, I commenced an email correspondence with the New York Times best-selling author and New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman. The occasion for my first note was to congratulate him on becoming an Atheist. For several decades, I had been following his career, both in his published books and in his papers given at annual meetings of the SBL. Projecting the trajectory of his work into the future, I fully expected him eventually to become not only an Atheist but a Mythicist as well: it seemed the inevitable implications of his research. (I also predicted the same—correctly—for Robert Price, whom I had been monitoring at the same time.)

To my surprise, although I suspected that Ehrman had not yet become a Mythicist, it turned out that he was vigorously opposed to Mythicist ideas and proved to know virtually nothing of the two-centuries-long scholarly history of Mythicist research. So, over the next three years I tried to make the Mythicist case to him. I gave him a copy of my earlier book The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, and photocopies of all the Mythicist articles I had published over the previous twenty years or so. (Those articles were later reprinted in my collected short works, Through Atheist Eyes: Scenes From a World That Won’t Reason. Vol. I: Religions & Scriptures. )

Then, in 2012—after several years of email discussions—Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth appeared. What a shock! A substantial part of that book proved to be a total trashing of several of the chapters of Through Atheist Eyes. (I had supplied the four volumes to him the previous year.) What did he make of the evidence I had supplied to him during the previous three years? The very existence of most of it was ignored, and he even alleged that I had “made up” the bits of evidence that he did note—in confused and distorted form!

Of course, I was not the only target of Bart’s attack. All of the scholars respected by Mythicist Milwaukee also were exposed to withering and unfair criticism—so outrageous in the case of the late D.M. Murdock (Acharya S) that it quite possibly could have been actionable at law. In response, I enlisted the aid of Robert Price to be my co-editor and co-author, and received critiques of the New York Times best-seller from Dr. Richard Carrier, D.M. Murdock, Earl Doherty, David Fitzgerald, and René Salm, and I proceeded to publish a rejoinder to Ehrman.

Our answer to Ehrman appeared the following year, in 2013, and took the form of a 600-page book: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (American Atheist Press). That book not only provides complete rebuttals to Ehrman’s false charge as well as answers to all his serious questions, it presents much new research that completely deconstructs and demolishes Historicist arguments.

Since Robert Price was my co-editor in the production of that book, he is in complete command of all the evidence presented in that volume. Due to the fact that Ehrman steadfastly refuses to read any of the many rebuttals to his book, it will be a catastrophe for him when he’s confronted with all that evidence in the debate. (Although I gave Bart a copy of our book as soon as it was published, to date there is no indication he has deigned to read it.)

So, let me return to the question, “Who do you think will win the Milwaukee debate?” Well, Bart’s book showed quite clearly that he has no concrete evidence to indicate that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived—how could he? So, he can only rely upon arguments that depend upon “indirect evidence,” such as imaginary Aramaic manuscripts, implausible multiple independent sources for the Gospel tradition, and other aery fantasies. Worse yet, his own research shows again and again the non-historical nature of the canonical Gospels. Nevertheless, he would have us suppose that the Cheshire-Cat smile that remains after scholars (including Bart himself) have whittled away more and more of the substance of the Jesus story from the realm of authenticity—yet he wants us to believe that spectral smirk is the vestige of an erstwhile Jesus of Cheshire, even if not a Jesus of Nazareth!

As bad as this all is for the likelihood of Bart’s success in the debate, there is the very fatal flaw in Historicist logic that I demonstrated in my chapter “Bart Ehrman and the Art of Rhetorical Fallacy.” Bart—like all Historicists and Biblical apologists of every degree of religiosity—must depend upon the fallacy of informal logic that Medieval logicians termed ignotum per ignotius: trying to explain the unknown in terms of the even more unknown!

Thus, while the scientist Benjamin Franklin explained lightning in terms of the better-known parlor-trick phenomenon known as electricity, the theologians of his day tried to explain it in terms of the even less known—indeed, unknowable—wrath of a righteous Jehovah who for inscrutable reasons had a grudge against church steeples.

Beyond the ignotius fallacy, there is the problem for Bart that this debate will be framed as a scientific debate. In science, the burden of proof falls upon the party affirming the existence of a thing or process. The negative party need do no more than show that the evidence presented by the affirmative is inadequate, fallacious, fraudulent, or logically incoherent. We can be quite certain that if adequate evidence for Jesus of Nazareth existed, Bart would have used it. It will be easy to show that the “evidence” he offers is both inadequate and fallacious, and falls afoul of the ignotius fallacy.

As I have indicated, Bart depends upon completely hypothetical, lost Aramaic manuscripts whose existence is far less demonstrated than the existence of Jesus of Nazareth! Further, he depends upon “Matthew” and “Luke” having private information that wasn’t known to “Mark,” whose gospel they plagiarize almost completely. Since Matthew and Luke had to steal the whole ham-hocks and potatoes of the story and passed it off as theirs, why wouldn’t our first suspicion be that they just made the extra stuff up in order to make a taller tale?

Then too, there is the problem of educational backgrounds. While Price has had a very broad education and is a voracious consumer of information and ideas in a wide range of subjects (including science) that impact an understanding of Christian origins, Ehrman has had a much more narrow education and cannot get the chill of a Moody Bible Institute beginning out of his bones. He vigorously defends his narrow academic turf against the intrusion of ideas from other disciplines, thus tying one arm behind his back. As a consequence, he cannot discern the nature of the elephant whose left ear alone he has been trained to study.

Ehrman is a skilled debater and master of rhetoric, but so is Price. In the rhetorical war, I perceive both men as about evenly matched. However, when the two are compared with regard to evidence there is a startling mismatch that will, I think, prove Bart’s undoing. Price’s light saber is fully charged and vaporization-ready. Ehrman’s flintlock, by contrast, is filled only with lots of smoke-producing powder but contains no shot.

Dr. Frank Zindler is the past interim President of American Atheists, a member of the American Atheists board of directors, the chief editor of American Atheists Press, and an esteemed academic and activist.

(Photo credit: Eric Lin via Flikr; https://www.flickr.com/photos/phonescoop/214501602/)

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