Daily Archives: 2012-03-25 15:15:15 UTC

Bart Ehrman’s First Attempt to Grapple with Mythicism

Uppsala, Sweden -- from my visit in 2008

This is a first on Vridar. I am repeating a post. The following I originally published 4th November 2011 under the title, Bart Ehrman’s Failed Attempt to Address Mythicism. But given that the hot topic of the moment is Bart Ehrman’s more dedicated attempt to discredit mythicism I beg for understanding and forgiveness.


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 recognise 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. read more »

Historical Jesus Studies As Pseudo-History — Bart Ehrman’s Jesus As a Case-Study

First let it be clear where I am coming from. This is not an attack on any scholar or the scholarship of theologians in general. It is an attempt to address what strikes me as very muddled thinking in many works about the historical Jesus. That is not a denigration of the scholars in question or the works they have produced. It is forthright attempt to address an assumption or understanding that appears to be generally overlooked. If my views are wrong then I would expect someone somewhere who knows better can point out in a reasoned explanation where and why they are wrong. That would cause me some embarrassment, no doubt, but at least I would be given the opportunity change my views. I resolved long ago to be prepared to take the consequences of striving to be honest with myself in place of living a lie. But if the only response continues to be ridicule or insult or silent dismissal I will have no reason to think my criticism is invalid.

Often when I read a scholarly study of the historical Jesus I am a little dismayed at the woolliness of the ideas addressed. I have slowly become convinced that very few scholars who have written about the historical Jesus have ever studied what history even is. Very often historical evidence is confused with stories or an assumption that a story must be derived from real happenings.

Now I do understand that when Bart Ehrman wrote Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet for a New Millennium (=JAPNM), he wrote it not for his scholarly peers but for a wider public:

Scholars have written hundreds of books about Jesus . . . . A good number of these books, mainly the lesser-known ones, have been written by scholars for scholars to promote scholarship; others have been written by scholars to popularise scholarly views. The present book is one of the latter kind . . . . (p. ix)

The woolliness of thinking about the distinction between the narrative of an event and evidence for a real historical event, and even about the nature of history itself, is a critical consideration given that Ehrman also writes in the same preface:

The evidence itself plays a major role in this book. Most other popular treatments of Jesus rarely discuss evidence. That’s a particularly useful move — to avoid mentioning the evidence — if you’re going to present a case that’s hard to defend. Maybe if you just tell someone what you think, they’ll take your word for it. In my opinion, though, a reader has the right to know not only what scholars think about Jesus . . . but also why they think what they think. That is, readers have a right to know what the evidence is. (p. x)

Since my first draft of this post a new book by Ehrman has appeared (Did Jesus Exist? =DJE) in which he underscores the same fallacies running through JAPNM and adds a raft of new ones. For example, he lists a number of sources that he says historians can rely upon to establish the historical existence of a person while failing to notice that a number of the sources he lists can just as easily be used to argue for the historical existence of several pagan gods and demi-gods. (No wonder he finds they conveniently support the historicity of Jesus!) Equally bad, almost all of them ultimately beg the question of historicity rather than confirm it. I will discuss the logical fallacies inherent in his list in a future post.

What is history?

There are two fundamentals that I learned in about history in my senior history classes.

  1. The first thing I learned in my history class at senior high school was what history is not. History is not a list of facts, dates and events. A list of events is a chronicle, not history. History is the study of past events, an exploration in understanding those events, the composition of a narrative to convey some story or meaning from those past events. Such a narrative invests the “facts” with interpretation and meaning.
  2. The second was that when it comes to ancient history historians can only study questions for which we have enough raw material to research. We can’t write a biography of Socrates examining the range of formative influences upon his thinking and assessing how much of his contribution to Greek philosophy was unique to his own genius, for example.

Let’s unpack these a little. read more »

Richard Carrier interview

Bayes theorem

Bayes theorem (Photo credit: disownedlight)

Richard Carrier is interviewed by John Loftus on “Debunking Christianity”and the topic is mythicism and the place of Bayes’ Theorem. If mathematics helps clarify the thinking of many then it can only be a good thing. I personally have not seen that it is necessary, and that worthwhile thinkers routinely seek to identify and account for the assumptions, the details and identifying fallacies in their arguments. Good arguments do make explicit all the assumptions etc without the need for mathematics to draw them to our attention. That one is reading a story about an event and not directly accessing an event, the ability to examine the nature of the story itself, for example, or being able to justify clearly why an argument is “not persuasive or plausible” instead of just saying “that’s not plausible or that’s weak”, or why an event is more or less probable, and the careful weighing (with intellectual honesty) the alternative explanations, and that any chain of reasoning ultimately has to factor in its weakest link. . . .

The good and diligent historians do make these things explicit and clear. It is the muddle-headed ones, one might say, that don’t. If Bayes is going to help the latter then that’s not a bad thing. I really do think that much of the problem among theologians who identify themselves as historians have never really been “trained” in historical studies and have never been trained in logic or philosophy. Clear thinking skills — as evidenced by the regularity of circular arguments, special pleading, unexamined assumptions — seem minimal in all too many of their works that relate to “the historical Jesus”.

But as Richard implies, such clarity of thinking does not come to us naturally. It does take a lot of “training”. But I don’t agree that this sort of training need by the preserve of “experts”. Those with enough interest and effort can learn how to improve their ways of thinking and how they read works and formulate their own ideas. (And much of that training can come from wide reading of the very best in the field.)

Here are a few excerpts of the bits that particularly appealed to me: read more »