The Swamp of Historical Jesus Apologetics

The Swamp of Historical Jesus Apologetics October 25, 2016

just say no jesus
Speaking FRANK-ly About Jesus: Critique of alleged evidence of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

(Ed. Note: This is the 25th post in Frank Zindler’s Speaking Frankly About Jesus blog which is dedicated to the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. This is part Q of a mini series debunking “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus“.)

Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating!

In the previous posting in reply to Philip Jenkins’ “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus,” I examined the falsifications in the texts of Josephus pertaining to “James, the brother of the Lord,” and John the Baptist. Today I wish to do a flashback—I wish to revisit posting Number 17 (PART “i” of my Jenkins rejoinders). In that posting, it may be recalled, I was critiquing Jenkins’ claim that:

“The overwhelming weight of what we know about the emergence of the Jesus Movement between 30 and the 80s, say, shows a potent continuity of historical memory. Bart Ehrman’s latest book… Jesus Before the Gospels raises questions about how far that memory can be reliably used for specific details, for any particular act or saying of Jesus. Fair enough, and let’s debate those points: to say the least, Ehrman is a competent and credible scholar…, although I think he goes too far here. But Jesus’s existence as some kind of myth or false memory? No way. (Obviously, that is not what Ehrman is arguing!)”

In my deconstruction of that paragraph I noted:

“Since Jenkins has in fact no real knowledge of how Christianity began, he appeals to the authority (partly) of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus Before the Gospels. Regrettably, I’ve not yet had time to read that book, but it doesn’t matter. Appealing to authority instead of presenting evidence is a fallacy of informal logic. If Ehrman does in fact have proof of “a potent continuity of historical memory,” why doesn’t Jenkins share it with us? Oh, I forgot an important phrase: “…although I think he goes too far here.” Is Bart coming around to my point of view? I can’t wait now to read his book!”

You probably have guessed it: I now have read Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Before the Gospels, and I can now explain why Jenkins referred to it. I also can take this opportunity to make a quick critique of Ehrman’s latest effort to keep upright while wading around in “the far swamps” of historical Jesus apologetics. Let’s wade right in.

Although I sent him a copy of my Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth when it had been published, it is not likely that Bart ever read my extended critiques of his book Did Jesus Exist? In several chapters I argued that he had too narrow a scholarly background to deal with the subject of Christian origins, and that he needed to be more interdisciplinary in his approach. Specifically, I chided him for not being scientific in his approach. Apparently on his own now, Bart has come to the realization that he has come to the limits of what can be done as just a New Testament scholar and he must now consult at least one scientific discipline to be able to go further in his quest to understand the origins of Christianity and to evaluate the evidence—such as it is—on which reconstructions of the historical Jesus perforce must depend. He makes a laudable effort to understand what psychology, anthropology, and sociology have to tell us about memory and how memories become altered not only in the process of individual recall, but in the process of social transmission of “collective memories” through time.

Bart begins with the unwelcome fact—unwelcome to Fundagelicals, that is—that we have no eyewitness accounts of Jesus, and then he admirably sums up the evidence relating to the unreliability of so much of actual eyewitness testimony. This is pretty bad news for worshippers of the New Testament texts. Then he goes on to deconstruct apologetic efforts to show that ancients living in “oral cultures” preserved amazingly accurate memories of their subjects, and goes into the transformative and distorting effects of transmission of collective memories through various communities and cultures.

How is one to sort out what actually occurred in the past from all the “distorted memories” surviving in variant traditions recording them? Well, Bart has extracted “gist memories” from conflicting accounts, and he gives a number of examples of what might be called “gist criticism” of various stories in the canonical gospels. For example, from the four contradictory accounts of the events leading to the crucifixion (better, the cruci-fiction!) of Jesus, Bart deduces ten “gist memories” of the event, including: (6) After it was dark, following a final meal…with his followers, Jesus was arrested in a garden in the presence of his disciples; (7) He spent the night in custody; (8) The next morning he was brought before… Pontius Pilate, on the charge that he was calling himself king of the Jews; and so forth.

While a scientist must find such inferences risible, I nevertheless must praise Ehrman for realizing at last that he must resort to science to solve the problems of his field of inquiry. It should not be too surprising or blameworthy that in this first attempt he has failed to employ the tools of science correctly. In any case, it is necessary to explain what is wrong with his attempt to employ “gist memory” to support—however feebly—the idea of a historical Jesus.

First of all I must note that Ehrman, like all Jesus historicists, begins by assuming that which is to be proved—the historicity of a Jesus of some place or other. Then he proceeds to treat the New Testament documents as though they are distorted, collective memories of historical events. He doesn’t realize that his entire book is an exercise in counterfactual reasoning—in fact if not in form. Instead of saying “The gist memory indicates that Jesus pissed off the authorities and that led to him being arrested,” he should be reasoning “If Jesus had existed and done something to piss off the authorities, he would have been arrested”—or he should be addressing innumerable similar counterfactual statements. He should have taken as his analytical model a statement such as “If Dorothy had not been konked on the head by flying debris, she never would have met a cowardly lion.”

As I have noted, Ehrman realizes that he needs a scientific approach to historicity questions, but he doesn’t realize that he needs to show that the “historical memories” found in the New Testament are memories of actual historical events rather than evolving collective memories of written texts or of oral, secret mystery lore. He must show that his imagined oral tradition derived from historical events   rather than from secret mysteries handed down by word of mouth from initiate to initiate. Are we dealing with historical memory of events, or historical memory of mythic themes?

So it is that Jesus Before the Gospels provides neither evidence for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth nor any arguments that can do other than undercut Jenkins’ apology. (It is interesting to see that Ehrman seems to have thought better of insisting on the historicity of a Jesus specifically coming from Nazareth, although he clearly still is disregarding the evidence published by René Salm in NazarethGate that show once again that “Nazareth” did not exist when Jesus should have been living there.) Once again, I must ask: if Ehrman’s book is a devastating debunking of literalist claims concerning the New Testament, why did Jenkins devote a whole paragraph alluding to—but never quoting from—Jesus Before the Gospels?

I abandoned Psychoanalysis and Freudian psychology as soon as I began to study physiological psychology back in the 1960s, and so I think trying to psych-out Jenkins’ conscious or unconscious motivations would be not just unscientific and futile, it would simply be an ad hominem abusive-species argument that probably would reveal more about my own darkling tendencies than about the subconscious of our apologist! Consequently, I think that a rhetorical analysis—seeing what the paragraph actually accomplishes—will be a more appropriate way to answer my question.

First, let me consider why Bart Ehrman—the great apostate from Moody Bible Institute beliefs—would be useful to Jenkins’ arguments. Ehrman is the bête noire of the Fundagelicals. A New York Times best-selling New Testament scholar, Bart “knows where the bodies have been buried” and has published a series of books that have been nothing short of devastating to literalist interpretations of the New Testament. Throughout the years, his research has led him not only to Atheism, it has brought him ever closer to a Mythicist position—despite his protestations to the contrary. In Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart saws further and further through the historicist branch on which he has been standing since his Moody Bible Institute days and now is but a hairbreadth away from precipitating from the tree of tradition into the Mythicist criticism camp.

It appears to me that citing Bart Ehrman without quoting him accomplishes at least seven things.

(1) It appears to be appealing to the authority of an acknowledged expert (“Ehrman is a competent and credible scholar”).

(2) It introduces the subject of “historical memory” and gives the false appearance that Ehrman’s new book supports Jenkins’ claim that “The overwhelming weight of what we know… shows a potent continuity of historical memory.”

(3) It correctly indicates that a famous Atheist New Testament critic nevertheless believes that Jesus was an historical figure. It thus commits the fallacy of appeal to authority instead of providing evidence to support a claim.

(4) By the disclaimer “although I think he goes too far here,” Jenkins reassures his intended audience that he has not gone over to the Dark Side (the side of thinking instead of believing!) and that even a notorious heretic agrees with his core belief.

(5) By admitting that Jesus Before the Gospels “raises questions about how far that memory can be reliably used for specific details,” and then saying “fair enough, let’s debate those points”—but then not debating anything Bart has written—Jenkins leaves the reader with an unsubstantiated claim that probably will be falsely remembered by believing readers as a successful rebuttal of Ehrman’s heretical claims. It leaves the impression that Jenkins nevertheless has been able to harvest powerful proofs of the historicity of Jesus from the heresy-harrowed fields of Bart Ehrman’s farm!

(6) Once again, Jenkins has vaccinated his audience to confer immunity not only to Mythicist claims, but also to less radical heresies: “Jenkins has been able to answer Ehrman’s claims,” believers will think; and they will conclude that “I don’t need to read Ehrman’s book; even that heretic agrees that Jesus was real.”

(7) By creating a confusing paragraph structure with two hyperlinks to derail the reader’s train of thought, and by linking together various claims and observations that have no obvious logical connection to each other, Jenkins induces a state of confusion and disorientation in the reader. Instead of trying to analyze the paragraph as I have done here, dazed readers will merely proceed with a mild post-hypnotic suggestion embedded in their minds: “Jenkins has been successful once again.”

One last observation: Jenkins would not want his audience to read Ehrman’s latest book for all the reasons that are obvious to anyone who has read my summary of his book. But there is one more reason—a reason that really surprised me as I read Bart’s book. I learned that Philo of Alexandria had mentioned Pontius Pilate and Tiberius. Although Bart didn’t say where in Philo’s voluminous writings he had done that, thanks to the fact that I own two indexes to the Greek text of Philo, I was able quickly to discover two references to Pilate in his Embassy to Gaius (Caligula) [XXXVIII 299, 304].

Those who have been reading my critique of Jenkins from the beginning will recall that in blog posting Number 20 (Part L) I dealt with Jenkins’ attempt to explain why Philo of Alexandria [c25 BCE–c50 CE] made no mention of Jesus. “But why on earth would he [Philo] have heard of such an affair in a neighboring land at the time, or thought it of the slightest significance…?” Jenkins wrote. Why indeed!

As I read the passages preceding Philo’s references to Pilate I learned something even more important—something I have never seen in any of the brief sketches of Philo available on-line: Philo’s grandfather was none other than Herod the Great, the guy who would have been slaughtering all the babies of Bethlehem when his grandson Philo would have been a teenager or young man! How could Philo not have known what was going on in Judea?!

But to return to Philo’s mentions of Pilate. Philo tells how Pilate had tried to dedicate some gilt shields in Herod’s palace (Philo’s grandfather’s palace!) and how that had caused a tumult due to its presumed violation of the Second Commandment against graven images (the one missing from Catholic Decalogues) and that the Judeans had sent a letter to Tiberius Caesar telling of Pilate’s “acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.” Moreover, Philo indicates he knew the actual content of Caesar’s letter in reply and that it excoriated Pilate!

Clearly, given Philo’s intimate knowledge about the Judean setting of the New Testament stories, his lack of mention of Jesus of Nazareth—or Jesus of anywhere at all—in connection with both Pilate and his grandfather is a very loud argument from silence. Even if Jesus had not performed any of the miracles claimed in the gospels, if he had done the things in Ehrman’s list of “gist memories” it is impossible that Philo would have passed up any opportunity to mention at least some of them. I don’t think Jenkins would want the faithful to read Philo anymore than he would want them to read Ehrman!

Next time: We will examine Jenkins’ reply to the charge that “There are no contemporary references to Jesus in non-literary sources, bureaucratic or otherwise.”

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;

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