Review of Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? Part Two

Review of Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? Part Two April 13, 2012

This is the second part of my review of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, in which I discuss the second and third parts of the book. The first part of my review, on the first part of the book, can be found by clicking anywhere on this sentence.

The first part of the book focused on making the positive historical case for there having been a historical Jesus of Nazareth. The second part of the book focuses on specific mythicist claims, and the first chapter in this section is dedicated to claims that are weak and/or irrelevant. By way of illustration of the need to identify and set aside irrelevant arguments, Ehrman looks at one often used by conservative Christians, namely the claim that because the New Testament writings are frequently attested, therefore they are reliable, and explains why the supposed logic of the claim does not work (p.178).

The first mythicist claim Ehrman turns to is that the Gospels are highly problematic as historical sources. He agrees – and then proceeds to show why the point is irrelevant to the question of whether there was a historical Jesus. That some material is forged about an individual does not mean that all of it was forged, and the fact that we do not know who wrote something likewise does not mean that a historian cannot determine whether or not it is likely to contain historical material. So too with discrepancies, which Ehrman (like all historical scholars) acknowledges are present in large numbers and on matters both large and small (pp.182-183). The Gospels contain nonhistorical material. But historians are adept at examining sources that contain a mixture of historical information and legend and distinguishing between the two. Even when one sets aside not only the clearly unhistorical but also the uncertain, material remains that shows itself to be of historical value. The use of historical critical methods places significant amounts of material under a question mark – but some mythicists wrongly claim that if doubt has been raised about something, it has been demonstrated to be more likely ahistorical. That is not so across the board.

The second major claim Ehrman addresses is that Nazareth did not exist. On the one hand, it is irrelevant, because if Jesus was not from Nazareth it doesn’t mean that he was from nowhere (p.191). On the other hand, this claim is connected most recently with Rene Salm, who is not an archaeologist and who had the misfortune of publishing his already problematic claims about this subject a year before archaeologists uncovered a house from the time of Jesus in Nazareth (pp.196-7). But even before this decisive evidence was uncovered, it was clear that the attestation of the existence of the village in later Jewish sources could not be accounted for in terms of Jews deciding to create a village borrowing its name from Christians! In examining the methods used by mythicists in arguing these cases, and the credence that is given to a musician over actual archaeologists, is every bit as egregious as the tactics conservative Christian apologists use.

The third major claim that Ehrman examines is that the Gospels are “midrashic” paraphrases of the Jewish Scriptures. The ultimate problem with the argument is this: “The fact that a story about a person has been shaped according to the mold of older stories and traditions does not prove that the core of the story is unhistorical. It simply shows how the story came to take its shape” (p.198). And so the claim is at best irrelevant, but in some instances it clearly also does not fit the evidence. Ehrman can hardly contain his bemusement as Robert Price not only appeals to unconvincing similarities between Gospel narratives and accounts in the Hebrew Bible, but even stretches as far as Zoroastrian material in order to find some possible basis for the invention of the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (pp.203-204).

Claim #4 which Ehrman addresses is that Jesus was invented on the basis of pagan “divine men.” Ehrman begins by indicating why historians set aside the claims of miraculous birth and other supernatural occurrences connected with certain figures – such as Apollonius of Tyana – but include that they existed. Ehrman then proceeds to trace the penchant of mythicists for making up and exaggerating parallels between Jesus and other figures, going back to the 19th century. Authors like Graves and Zindler are shown to have simply invented stories about allegedly parallel stories, beliefs, and practices for which there is simply no evidence at all. Yet the claims about such parallels continue to be repeated. This is not to say that there are no similarities, but merely that some are interesting, some are superficial, and some are made up. And so under such circumstances the claim of wholesale borrowing is yet one more instance of apologetic fabrication rather than a conclusion justified by evidence and scholarly analysis.

The same is true of the focus in the next chapter, that Jesus was invented on the basis of dying and rising gods. In both cases, secondary sources have popularized the view that there are striking parallels between Jesus and other figures. Many of the claims continue to be repeated today by people who fail to realize that some of them have no primary source in their support, and the secondary sources that popularized many of them were viewing the evidence from a perspective familiar with Christianity and thus looking for such parallels, in some cases finding them where the evidence on closer examination does not support them. Recent studies have either challenged the notion that there were gods who died and rose again at all – most purported examples did one or the other, not both – or have cautiously suggested that such cults may have existed in some places but were not widespread and are not well evidenced. Neither scholarly viewpoint places such cults in Palestine where Christianity arose.

But there is a more fundamental reason not to think that Jesus was not invented on the basis of dying and rising gods. In our earliest sources, Jesus is not a god. It is not so much ironic that atheist mythicist apologists and conservative Christian apologists argue against this mainstream conclusion of historical scholarship. Time and again mythicists believe Christian claims that historical critical scholarship calls into question – that Jesus was always believed to be divine, that the supposed predictions about him in Jewish Scripture offer a precise fit, and so on. In ignoring the methods of historical scholarship, mythicists are actually seen time and again to fall into pitfalls of the gullible, because they are not availing themselves of the safeguards that allow scholars to try to avoid simply reading early texts through the lens of later beliefs, or finding in them what we wish to. While even those using scholarly methods are not immune to such missteps, those who eschew scholarly methods unsurprisingly do far worse.

Turning to the claims of Earl Doherty, Ehrman explains the Jewish context of Jesus and the movement centered on him, and explains why the significance of resurrection in a Jewish context makes it unlikely that Paul had in mind a figure from some time in the ill-defined past. While generously not lumping Doherty together with Murdock, Freke, and Gandy, Ehrman does point out that Doherty’s 800-page book is so filled with errors that it would take a 2400-page book to address all the problems (p.252). Among the issues are Doherty’s claims to know things about the mystery religions that we cannot, and that there was a single ancient viewpoint (Platonism) that would supposedly have been reflected in the mystery religions (pp.252-255). And there is at any rate no evidence that mystery cults were present in the regions where Christianity first appeared. The evidence from Judaism offers a better and different context than the one Doherty posits, but even without that context, Paul and other early Christian sources simply do not say what Doherty makes them out to. (For those interested, I’ve been blogging through Doherty’s book in even greater detail on this blog, and agree with Ehrman that the claims Doherty makes about what early Christian literature says are false/wrong, and the errors in the book are egregious and painful).

In the third part of the book, Ehrman asks whether we can know more than the absolute bare minimum, such as the name of this figure and that he was crucified. Ehrman answers yes, and outlines the scholarly consensus about the Jewish setting of Jesus (including information about other groups that existed in his time), explains some of the key things historians look for in material to assess its historicity, and then surveys briefly the evidence that Jesus was an apocalypticist who wrongly expected the dawn of the kingdom of God in the near future, his ethical teaching as a response to that expectation of the imminent end, as well as who he associated with and what he said about and did in the temple. In the process, Ehrman suggests that it is likely that Jesus himself indicated his expectation that he would be installed as king when the kingdom dawned.

Ehrman concludes the book by talking about the mythicist agenda and whose interests seem to be driving it. The reactions on blogs from some biologists who are atheists has appalled me, and seems to confirm Ehrman’s point. That academics who devote significant attention to defending science education would then jettison those principles and listen to random fringe voices about a matter of history is disturbing and dismaying. While Ehrman is sympathetic to the opposition to traditional religion that drives mythicism, and understand why some would seek to use the claim to complete ahistoricity to knock the legs out from under Christian claims. But Ehrman rejects their claims about Jesus for two reasons: First of all, because they are not true, and getting history right matters to him. But secondly, because the accurate information that genuine historical scholarship produces is far more effective in countering the claims of any and all of those who try to wield or appeal to Jesus to serve their contemporary interests or turn him into a figure of our time.

Ultimately, mythicists “are not doing history; they are doing theology” (p.338). They are seeking to counter a religious viewpoint, and in doing so are allowing their conclusions to be driven by those religious (or better anti-religious) concerns rather than historical ones. (I would add to this that there are certainly mythicists who do not fit this category – but in almost all cases the views that they hold have come ultimately from someone who was more concerned with religious polemic than historical evidence.)

The reactions of many mythicists to Ehrman’s book, and the manner of response seen in some comments on this blog and elsewhere, says a lot. Several have pointed out what may or may not be errors, or at least examples of imprecision, in the book, in a manner that suggests they think that being capable of error means that everything one writes can be summarily dismissed. Apart from it being the case that, if this were so, mythicism would clearly have been discredited by multitude of the errors that each of its proponents has been guilty of, there is a more fundamental point. Scholars make errors. Scientists make errors. The greatest minds in these categories are not infallible – Einstein, Darwin, Newton, and any others one might name. That Stephen Jay Gould may have allowed his admirable opposition to racism to bias his treatment of certain data does not mean that he is incompetent and to be dismissed with regard to everything he says. It means that he is human. But because they are mostly former fundamentalists, one distinctly gets the impression that mythicists are still on a quest for inerrant sources of truth, and that dismissing mainstream scholarship on the basis of its lack of inerrancy is foolish. Hopefully those who are genuinely seeking after truth will realize that seeking the truth can only mean getting as close to the truth as we fallible human beings can muster, using the tools and methods (whether in science or history) that help us to account for our own shortcomings and biases and draw the best conclusions that we can. Bart Ehrman’s book offers a fantastic example of a scholar doing precisely that, explaining how historical conclusions are reached – and where the claims of denialist critics are wrong or irrelevant – in a manner that allows the reader to understand the relevant evidence and why the consensus is so strong about this particular topic. I highly recommend this book.

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