2011-11-04

Bart Ehrman’s failed attempt to address mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

Uppsala, Sweden -- from my visit in 2008

In Jesus Interrupted Bart Ehrman describes his first encounter with people who believed Jesus never existed. Some people from Sweden had emailed him to ask if it were true that he thought Jesus was a myth. Ehrman describes his reaction:

I thought this was an odd question. (p. 140)

Bart Ehrman then comes very close to opening the door on something of utmost significance:

This view may seem strange to an American audience, where the majority of people think not only that Jesus existed but that he was, and is, the Son of God. But in parts of Scandinavia the majority of people thinks that Jesus is a completely fabricated figure, that he never actually existed but was invented by a group of people intent on starting a new religion. (p. 140)

But he does not go through with what, I would have thought, a question that cries out for an explanation: the cultural matrix of belief in Jesus and Jesus scholarship. Sometimes the best way to recognize one’s own assumptions and biases is to view one’s position from the perspective of another culture entirely. I don’t think there is anything “universal” (in the sense of being independent of cultures) about the study of Jesus.

So having begun with the question of historicity I was looking forward to Ehrman’s discussion of that very point. But he didn’t. There is a conceptual disconnect between the theme he introduces in his opening two paragraphs and the rest of the chapter.

What happens is this. After introducing the question of whether or not Jesus existed, and expressing his own sense of shock that such a question could even be asked, and even embracing his predominantly American audience as being like-minded on this question, he proceeds to explain (by way of a responding answer to this bizarre question), how anyone can know anything about what Jesus historically said.

I suggested that . . . there were not three options but four: liar, lunatic, Lord, or legend. Of course I chose the fourth word to maintain the alliteration. What I meant was not that Jesus himself was a legend. Of course not! I certainly believe that he existed and that we can say something about him. What I meant was that the idea that he called himself God was a legend. . . .

But how can I or any other New Testament scholar or historian know what Jesus actually said about himself or about anything else? This is the subject of many, many books, some of them extremely erudite — and very long. I cannot cover the entire waterfront in this chapter, but I can deal with the most important issues as they are discussed by historians of early Christianity, and I can give you a taste of what I think we can know about the man Jesus, not just how he is portrayed in this Gospel or that, but that he himself actually was, in history — the historical Jesus. (pp. 142-43)

Note how subtly the transition occurs. Something Bart Ehrman said in a lecture about the possibility of Jesus being a legend was picked up by some who believed Jesus was a myth. Ehrman explains that by legend he meant that what Jesus was believed to have said about himself was a legend. This then leads into a discussion of how we can know what Jesus said.

And notice what is missing. Bart Ehrman skips entirely the very question facing his Swedish interrogators. They are not asking how we can know what the historical Jesus said. They are suggesting there was no historical Jesus at all. It follows, in the minds of such sceptics, that any methods or studies inquiring into the sayings and deeds of such a figure as as baseless as if they were investigating the historical Balder.

And this is pretty much the way just about every study of the historical Jesus goes. That there was a Jesus is assumed at the outset.

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson)

Part of the problem, I think, may be that we grow up being taught about famous persons in history and we never stop to ask, or we soon stop asking, how we know such people existed. By the time we get to university to study history of such people we will soon become familiar with the evidence. That such people as Julius Caesar existed is immediately apparent to students as they are required to engage with both primary and secondary evidence for his times. I have never studied theology but I imagine that students of theology are told from the outset that they will be studying “the sources” for Jesus, their different points of view and circumstances of composition, etc. If the historicity of Jesus is raised as a question at all I imagine it will be dismissively covered with the usual routine dot-point culprits: Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny, Suetonius. Historicity will be relatively hastily reassured. But I suspect from Ehrman’s opening remarks (about how he and other Americans would find the question “odd”) that many courses in America would not even seriously raise the question. That situation might be changing in very recent years in order to respond to the dissemination of the idea of mythicism through the internet.

Notice how the existence of Jesus is assumed by Bart Ehrman throughout and how he is thinking entirely within the parameters of his culturally nourished belief system and not according to the evidence itself:

How can sources like this [the Gospels - inconsistent, 'late', in places dependent upon one another, biased, etc.] be used to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus? It’s not easy, but there are ways.

The first step is to get a better handle on how the Gospel writers got their stories. If they were living three to six decades after events they narrate, what were their sources of information? The short answer is that the Gospel writers received most of their information from the oral tradition, stories that had been in circulation about Jesus by word of mouth from the time he died until the time the Gospel writers wrote them down. (p. 144)

Notice once again the enormous assumption that was slipped into that second paragraph. The historicity of the narrative is assumed. Ehrman takes it for granted that the narrative of the gospel must have been about a real historical person and set of events.

How do we know? He does not explain. This is assumed. I doubt that his Swedish audience would be persuaded.

How do we know there was an oral tradition from the time of Jesus up to the time the Gospels were written? Ehrman simply pulls that cute ribboned rabbit out of a hat.

On the other hand he could have introduced here a study of comparative literature and shown the relationship between the gospel narratives and parallel narratives in the Old Testament, and perhaps in some cases with other Greek literature. He could have pointed out how each gospel is theologically consistent internally and that this strongly indicates that the stories selected by each author were crafted or adapted to convey a theological message. That is, they were not selected on the basis of the vagaries of whatever had come to the attention of the authors through inconsistent and varying oral traditions.

Neither approach would be radical. Many biblical scholars acknowledge these facts about the Gospels. I suspect it is only the assumption of an oral tradition that is in turn built upon the assumption of the historicity of Jesus that prevents many scholars from drawing the logical — and simplest — conclusion from these two facts: that the Gospels are from first to last creative literature.

He might even have gone further and pointed to studies found among classicist publications that the very name of Jesus was a perfect candidate for such a fiction; and also have pointed to the theoretical deficiencies of all studies that attempt to classify the Gospels in the genre of ancient biography and the theoretical richness underlying a study that places them in the genre of the Jewish novel.

Finally, he might have reflected a moment on how we know any story is based on real events or is a fabrication: external controls. He might have looked a little more closely at the rhetoric of the gospels and the literary devices they deploy to give them an air of historical realism.

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

Against all of the above, perhaps the strongest argument I have encountered to support the core historicity of the Gospel narratives is a fervent: “But no-one would ever have made all that up!”

And the rest follows. The assumption of historicity is used as the edifice for the assumption of the oral tradition.

There is much more to be said and I am not making an effort to answer every question in this post.

But one thing is consistent: Bart Ehrman is no different from probably all other historical Jesus studies I can recall reading (Allison, Borg, Carroll, Casey, Chilton, Crossan, Davies, Edersheim, Fredriksen, Funk, Grant, Keener, Levine, Sanders, Smith, Spong, Tabor, Theissen, Thiering, Vermes, Wright) — Jesus’ historicity is always assumed and never argued.

One scholar even unfortunately protested that the mere fact that we have sayings and deeds recorded about Jesus is evidence of his existence. No one says that the deeds and sayings “recorded” in ballads about Robin Hood or William Tell are evidence of their historicity, or that because we can know about them by the words and deeds recorded about them, we know that they therefore existed! One shudders to think what ruin could result from such fallacious thinking processes in a judge or jury.

Everyone has seen Bart's pic. Here's a fellow Aussie getting in the way of my camera on a boat tour in Sweden

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  • 2011-11-05 05:21:47 UTC - 05:21 | Permalink

    Thanks to Neil for this intriguing post.

    I may be wrong, but it appears that, in the US, Sweden is synonymous with sin. This would probably be the reason why Ehrman attributes the most abominable of all questions to a group of Swedes. However, he is wrong in assuming the mythicist view of Jesus is widely known in the Scandinavian countries. And living in Norway, I cannot imagine the question of the historicity of Jesus would be of popular interest. Admittedly, a vast majority of Norwegians are members of the Lutheran church, but only two percent regularly attend services. Jesus is not a common topic to choose for a conversation starter:

    http://www.newsinenglish.no/2009/09/30/church-attendance-hits-new-low/

    Georg Brandes (1842-1947), an influential Danish scholar of Jewish descent, is probably the only Scandinavian to have written extensively about the mythicist view. Unfortunately, his helpful little book, “Jesus: A Myth” (1926), is largely forgotten today.

    • 2011-11-07 18:34:42 UTC - 18:34 | Permalink

      It was not my intention to diminish the importance of Roger Viklund’s boldly conceived book, “Den Jesus som aldrig funnits” (2008), which opened the eyes of Swedish readers to the many unanswered questions about Christian origins. The debate over the historicity of Jesus may in fact be more salient in Sweden than in other Scandinavian countries.

  • 2011-11-05 15:20:58 UTC - 15:20 | Permalink

    “The short answer is that the Gospel writers received most of their information from the oral tradition, stories that had been in circulation about Jesus by word of mouth from the time he died until the time the Gospel writers wrote them down.”

    Movement from mystery cult to Jewishness is less likely than movement from Jewish movement to mystery cult. If Christianity began as a god-man sacrificed in the heavens by principalities and powers for the salvation of all mankind who would eat his body and drink his blood, how or rather why would it end up turning him into a Jewish rabbi who tried to be the Messiah, entered Jerusalem on a donkey to prove it, caused a disturbance in the temple, and got put to death by Rome for making himself a king (“he says he is Christ, a king….if you let him go you are no friend of Caesar!”, “An accusation written over his head: King of the Jews”) Would Jews be interested in appropriating the mystery cult Savior as their Messiah and moving his crucifixion from the sublunar regions to the earth? Would they desire to make themselves rather than the principalities and powers his executioners? Of course not. But if the movement began as a Jewish Messianic movement whose leader was crucified by Rome for making himself out to be “Christ, a king” and thus an opponent to Caesar, and they tried to somehow carry on the movement after his death, a disaffected convert to Judaism might see in this movement his change to create a spinoff in which the dead Messiah becomes a sacrificed mystery cult god who can offer immortality to his worshipers by their imbibing his body and blood. And so one man–Paul–takes the Jewish movement and changes the crucifiers from Rome to the Jews themselves, making them to be controlled by principalities and powers, and proceeds to put his antisemitism into practice by robbing the Jews of their own Scripture, since he re-appropriates it as his and portrays them as idiots with a veil on their heart who don’t understand their own books, thus making them vagabonds and fugitives on the earth until some mythic time in which they will finally “get it” and “so all Israel shall be saved.” This account of the development of Christianity makes infinite more sense than the impossible movement from mythical mystery religion to Jewish-ish sect that hates Judaism.

    • 2011-11-05 15:34:09 UTC - 15:34 | Permalink

      There is more at stake, in other words, than an explanation of how Jesus came to be worshipped as a deity (all mythicists seem to be concerned with) — there is also the explanation of the development of Christian antisemitism to be explained, and the mythicist concept is unable to explain it. Indeed, embracing mythicism is evidence of a lack of concern for this topic.

    • Jason Goertzen
      2011-11-08 10:01:53 UTC - 10:01 | Permalink

      Robert M Price argues, I think convincingly, that Judaism of the 1st century was not the unified orthodoxy it became in the hands of the rabbis after the destruction of the temple. He envisions a long-surviving cult of Yahweh as a dying and rising son of El Elyon. Jesus’ (and Joshua’s) name *meaning* “Yahweh Saves,” makes this at least superficially plausible, though I have to admit my own inadequate ability to evaluate some of the evidence he puts forward in making his case.

      Regardless, it doesn’t have to have been a non-Jewish mystery cult co-opting Jewish ideas. It could be an already Jewish (though marginal) mystery religion gaining popularity among the gentiles. The later historicizing of the mythical figure would make sense in this context, as would the Jewish themes and reliance on the Jewish scriptures for the creation of these stories.

      Sorry if my altogether amateur opinion adds too little substance, but I thought I would chime in.

      • 2011-11-08 13:33:02 UTC - 13:33 | Permalink

        I think Bob Price’s views are in large part based on Margaret Barker’s work. If you don’t know of that yet you will find some aspects of this discussed at I think some of Bob Price’s views are based on Margaret Barker’s work. I’ve addressed some aspects of her views @ http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews/barker-the-great-angel/

        I am sceptical of a dying and rising Yahweh but there are enough related motifs that have more evidence attached, as addressed by Thomas L. Thompson in The Messiah Myth and some literature that discusses the Second Temple evolution of the idea of an atoning death of Isaac and martyrs along with their post-death vindications and exaltations to glory.

        • Jason Goertzen
          2011-11-09 08:51:26 UTC - 08:51 | Permalink

          I agree–mostly because Bob Price thinks Bob Price’s views are based largely on Margret Barker’s work! :)

          I am equally skeptical of this particular construction of events and agree with Dr. Price that the limited evidence confines us to working hypotheses anyway. But my overarching point was that the mystery cult that evolved into the later, orthodox Christianity could have been a minority sect of Hellenistic Judaism–a mystery religion that already expressed itself in terms of Jewish ideas and mythemes.

  • Steven Carr
    2011-11-05 17:23:11 UTC - 17:23 | Permalink

    REYJACOBS
    …the gospels which are written after Paul utilized his deity concept and his antisemitism to produce this narrative. ‘

    CARR
    I so get it now!

    The Gospels used the deity concept of Paul as a god-man sacrificed in the Heavens, and turned it into a narrative about somebody who entered Jerusalem on a donkey, caused a disturbance .in the temple and got put to death by Rome for making himself a king.

    REYJACOBS
    If Christianity began as a god-man sacrificed in the heavens by principalities and powers for the salvation of all mankind who would eat his body and drink his blood, how or rather why would it end up turning him into a Jewish rabbi who tried to be the Messiah, entered Jerusalem on a donkey to prove it, caused a disturbance in the temple, and got put to death by Rome for making himself a king (“he says he is Christ, a king….if you let him go you are no friend of Caesar!”, “An accusation written over his head: King of the Jews”) Would Jews be interested in appropriating the mystery cult Savior as their Messiah and moving his crucifixion from the sublunar regions to the earth? Would they desire to make themselves rather than the principalities and powers his executioners? Of course not.

    CARR
    I totally so get it now!

    The Gospellers would never have used the deity concept of Paul as a god-man sacrificed in the heavens, and turn it into a narrative about somebody who entered Jerusalem on a donkey, caused a disturbance .in the temple and got put to death by Rome for making himself a king.

  • Beachbum
    2011-11-06 10:30:24 UTC - 10:30 | Permalink

    Neil
    “But one thing is consistent: Bart Ehrman is no different … — Jesus’ historicity is always assumed and never argued.”

    For most mythicists it should be the virtual cornucopia of variant Anointed Saviors, Christ Jesuses, Yeshuas, etc., etc., ubiquitous in the Jewish literature before (Ascension of Isaiah, Cyrus of Isaiah 45:1, Enoch, and several other anointed ones, just ones, etc.) and after the turn of the era (the Jesus of synoptics is Docetic in some verses of Mark, nationalistic in Matthew, Marcionite in some of Luke, something else altogether in John, Gnostic in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, Platonic in Paul’s Epistles, etc.) that should sound the loudest alarm. The reason the Bart Ehrmans of the world don’t discuss (except to assume) the historicity of this anointed savior, Christ Jesus, isn’t because there is absolutely no evidence, primary evidence, in support of its claimed historicity, no. It’s because there are so many secondary sources in evidence of only the literary contrivance that is this character. None of which are anchored in an historical character, that is, none are the same. There is no historical person that can be found in the literature, for there are too many contravening properties for one personality evidencing merely the imaginings and varied opinions of desperate communities of Diaspora Jews. There are some which predate and are, in fact, the precedence for Philo Judaeus’ (25 BCE ~ 50 CE) platonic anointed savior concept, the Philonic Jesus. The concept that may have inspired the likes of Jacob (James), Josh (John), Cephas (Peter?), and of course, if not especially, Saul (Paul) the pillars of the Brethren of the Lord.

    The humanization of the platonic anointed savior was as inevitable as the humanization of the Norse God Odin and his horses into the Santa Claus and his reindeer of today.

    • 2011-11-06 17:53:04 UTC - 17:53 | Permalink

      The Jesus in the Gospels is, as you say, a most UNhistorical person. I attempted to address the literary/fictional character of him and his supports in a post at http://vridar.info/xorigins/Markparable.htm

      • Beachbum
        2011-11-08 17:51:23 UTC - 17:51 | Permalink

        Thanks Neil, for the link to that interesting and informative essay. If I may add one more point in support of the main premise you proffer, I would add that a common literary practice which may have been employed in Mark is the confirmation of the silence; the “in story” rationale for the audience’s ignorance of events portrayed as happening in the past while in an area for which they may have expected to be generally informed.

        In the art of story telling, the author needs to provide a reason for the audience’s ignorance heretofore concerning the events being portrayed as happening within a reasonable locality, and in living memory. This helps the audience suspend disbelief long enough to get lost in the story. One sees this employed regularly in mythology, fairy tales, science fiction, and horror stories. One would not expect to find this employed in what is claimed as an historical narrative like it is in Mk 16:8. If this literary ploy isn’t needed as a rationalization for the audience’s ignorance, then why is the author presenting an historical event as a cascading parable?

        Or, as in this case, in the case of this parable, the confirmation of a reasonable rationalization for the silence comes just prior to the thought provoking conclusion. I think this gives the audience further motivation for reflection on what has been conveyed—the main purpose of the parable as a literary motif.

        I would concede this story was better written than I had previously admitted, if we could find that comic relief, perhaps through irony, was the motive for the symbolism and incongruousness of name selection, or if it could be shown that this Markan parable was used as a Grecian play, and the Triumphal March (Mk 15:15-19) was merely an over-the-top appeal to the audience’s emotional involvement. As an adapted narrative from a play which was adapted from a parable, the actors role would explain the lack of character depth and development as well as improve my opinion of the writer. How about an educational tool; an educational play? But, you are correct as Mark is most assuredly a parable.

        Again, thanks for improving my understanding of the book.

  • Bob Carlson
    2011-11-06 13:52:49 UTC - 13:52 | Permalink

    Ehrman’s wife is a believer, so it wouldn’t be good for marital harmony if he were to consider the ahistoricity issue with more objectivity. Even John Loftus, who runs the bog Debunking Christianity, thinks“there was an original historical founder to the Jesus cult.” He seems to just be going with what most theologists believe on the matter. It is as if the issue is unimportant with respect to Debunking Christianity.

    • 2011-11-06 17:49:32 UTC - 17:49 | Permalink

      John Loftus is on record as saying quite explicitly that he believes mythicism is counter-productive to his personal goal of debunking Christianity. It is not a good tactic. Christians tune out immediately if you hit them with mythicism. John does not want that. So the lack of interest in mythicism on the part of John Loftus is explained.

      The irony is that the Biblioblogging community expelled Vridar from their ranks because it was seen as promoting mythicism, while John Loftus’s blog with the intent to debunk Christianity was embraced. The enemy they know is welcome. They are used to handling atheist crusaders against the faith.

      They can argue with atheists and debunkers of the faith. But the can’t argue with mythicism, so it seems. I hesitate to refer to the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair at Butler University a serious intellectual, but he has made many, many noises about mythicists not engaging with mainstream scholarship or being open to having their views analysed by academics, but I have tried several times (too many times, really) to engage him with my views and those of others such as Doherty and he simply point blank refuses to ever go beyond outright ridicule or insult — with rare exceptions when he thinks he has nailed a mythicist point, but he has proved himself incapable of ever following up a mythicist response to his arguments.

      If he is the only one on the mainstream side who is taking up the anti-mythicist cause today then it is little wonder interest in mythicism appears to be expanding. Such an “academic” is actually doing much to demonstrate that historicists have no arguments.

  • RoHa
    2011-11-28 17:31:19 UTC - 17:31 | Permalink

    “Biblioblogging community expelled Vridar from their ranks because it was seen as promoting mythicism”

    Ooops! Does that mean that by reading and posting here I’ll catch Mythicist germs?

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