Ehrman sacrifices Paul to launch his attack on mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (Photo credit: Wikipedia): Necessary for the gods to allow the Greeks to attack Troy

This is the third post in my series addressing Bart Ehrman’s rhetorical back-flips on his past writings and those of his scholarly peers in order to attack mythicism.

I quoted Ehrman in my earlier post, Ehrman explains: Doherty Could Be Right After All, insisting that Paul “was not principally dependent upon Plato”. No decent person would want to think that Ehrman was playing word games or simply being disingenuous here by specifying the name “Plato” and adding the qualifier “principally”. The context of his following sentence makes it abundantly clear that he is directing his readers to think that Paul was dependent upon Jewish traditions and scriptures in contradistinction to pagan philosophies.

Not even Paul was philosophically trained. To be sure, as a literate person he was far better educated than most Christians of his day. But he was no Plutarch. His worldview was not principally dependent on Plato. It was dependent on the Jewish traditions, as these were mediated through the Hebrew scriptures. (p. 255, Did Jesus Exist?)

But Ehrman is a well-read scholar so he knows very well that there is an abundant scholarly literature discussing the influence of ancient philosophy on the thinking of Paul. Is he turning his back on all this scholarship solely to attempt a punch at Doherty? Some of the literature addressing this that I have discussed in posts here:

Troels Engberg-Pedersen: Paul and the Stoics

Th. D. Niko Huttunen: Paul and Epictetus on Law

Abraham J. Malherbe: Paul and the Popular Philosophers

Engberg-Pedersen sees remarkable similarities between the Stoic concept of Logos/Reason and Paul’s concept of Christ as a life-changing power, specifically “from above”, “in whom” the convert dwells. (Compare the expressions “in Christ”, “Christ in you”.)

Huttunen argues for Paul’s debt to Stoicism for much of his theological teachings about the law. (This Stoic model was indebted ultimately to Plato and his discussion of ethics and the good life in his Republic.)

Here are some remarks from Malherbe’s book testifying that scholars past and present have acknowledged Paul’s debt to his Greek culture and even to the philosophies of the day. Judaism was not his sole matrix and surely Ehrman knows all this.

Modern scholarship was not the first to discover Paul’s indebtedness to Greek culture. His letters, even on a superficial level, have many affinities with the popular philosophy of his day, especially as it was represented by Stoicism and Cynicism. . . .

During the last hundred years, New Testament scholars have shown that many aspects of Paul’s life and letters are illuminated with they are examined in the light of Greco-Roman culture. There can no longer be any doubt that Paul was thoroughly familiar with the teaching, methods of operation, and style of argumentation of the philosophers of the period, all of which he adopted and adapted to his own purposes. . . .

The points of similarity between Paul and his philosophic competitors may be stressed to the point that he is viewed as a type of hellenistic philosopher. (pp. 67-68)

Ehrman himself has acknowledged the plausibility of all of this. So why does he build up the rhetoric in his attack on mythicism to lead readers to shut their eyes to all of this? Here are Ehrman’s own words from Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, pp. 103, 107:

[A]s a Jew in the Diaspora, Paul would have been surrounded by people embracing religions other than Judaism. Paul, unlike Jesus or Peter, was raised in a non-Jewish, “pagan” environment. . . .

Paul actually came from a Greek-speaking, rather than Aramaic speaking, environment. . . . It is clear that Paul must have come from some relatively large urban setting in the Jewish Diaspora, and this may have been Tarsus. . . . Tarsus was known as one of the great philosophical centers of the empire, one of the two or three best places for a person to develop his philosophical and rhetorical abilities. . . .

So why, then, does Ehrman portray a very opposite rhetorical picture of Paul when arguing against mythicism? Compare the above from his 2006 publication with the following from Did Jesus Exist?

One thing that we do know about them [the mystery cults], however, is where they were located and thus, to some extent, where they exerted significant influence. We know this from the archaeological record they have left behind. Among all our archaeological findings, there is none that suggests that pagan mystery cults exerted any influence on Aramaic-speaking rural Palestinian Judaism in the 20s and 30s of the first century.

And this is the milieu out of which faith in Jesus the crucified messiah, as persecuted and then embraced by Paul, emerged. There are no grounds for assuming that Paul, whose views of Jesus were taken over from the Palestinian Jewish Christians who preceded him, held a radically different view of Jesus from his predecessors. (p. 256, Did Jesus Exist?)

Does Doherty deny the Jewishness of Paul’s thinking as Ehrman would lead his readers to think? Here are Doherty’s words:

There is no question that Pauline Christianity contains important elements which are deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures and cultural heritage. At the same time, the nature of the salvation it offers, the sacramentalism involved, the features of its saving deity, are heavily derivative on non-Jewish precedents. But that is what religious syncretism is all about. Different beliefs and practices are combined to create something new, not with any overtly conscious intent, but because over time the human mind is continually generating fresh ideas out of what it assimilates from the past and the environment. . . .

Elements of Paul’s Christ Jesus bear too close a resemblance to the savior gods of the Greco-Roman mystery religions to allow it to be claimed that one has nothing to do with the other. There may be no evidence of overt “borrowing” directly from the mysteries on the part of Paul . . . yet it is undeniable that both phenomena are expressions of similar needs and impulses; both are branches of the same [conceptual world]. (p. 127, JNGM)

Is Bart Ehrman so offended by the very idea of mythicism that he is quite prepared to deny the research of his own scholarly peers, and even deny what he himself has written, if he suspects any of that might become tinder for a mythicist flame?


Thanks to Marcello and Steven for alerting me to the earlier Ehrman publications.

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  • Evan
    2012-04-08 11:12:26 UTC - 11:12 | Permalink

    “Ancient people had a more nuanced sense of truth and falsehood; they too had stories that they accepted as ‘true’ in some sense without thinking that they actually happened. Most scholars today recognize that the majority of educated people in ancient Greece and Rome did not literally believe that the myths about the gods had actually happened historically. They were stories intending to convey some kind of true understanding of the divine realm and humans’ relationship to it.”

    Forged Chapter 2

    Ehrman also is sure that Paul was educated:

    “… as a literate person, he (Paul) was far better educated than most Christians of his day.”

    DJE Chapter 7.

    Yet nowhere does he mention why Paul doesn’t see the story of his Jesus Christ as all other educated people of the Greco-Roman world did. In fact, he never even discusses the problem. Ehrman is also clear that dismissing evidence contrary to one’s opinions is shoddy scholarship that he calls “scholarship of convenience.”

  • Blood
    2012-04-09 00:18:28 UTC - 00:18 | Permalink

    “There is no question that Pauline Christianity contains important elements which are deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures and cultural heritage.”

    Not really. Paul has only a superficial understanding of Judaism, derived entirely from the Septuagint, not the Hebrew Bible (which actual Pharisees used). All of Paul’s arguments are designed to denigrate Jews and mainstream Judaism. If this person was Jewish, he is the worst race traitor of all time.

    • 2012-04-09 23:19:06 UTC - 23:19 | Permalink

      “There is no question that Pauline Christianity contains important elements which are deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures and cultural heritage.

      Ehrman of all people should know that the Jewish “cultural heritage” by the time of Paul included a bunch of pagan syncretism. There’s the Wisdowm figure in Ben Sirach, The Logos, the concept of Hell and the afterlife (a point of division between Pharisees and Sadducees), and even the entire genre of “end of the world” like apocalypses/revelations wouldn’t exist without Jews’ interaction with and borrowing ideas from their wider pagan matrix (e.g. latter half of Daniel).

  • Beachbum
    2012-04-09 04:18:40 UTC - 04:18 | Permalink

    Further down on page 107 of Bart Ehrman’s, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, Ehrman writes,

    “In fact, Paul gives no clear indication at all that he was familiar with distinctively Aramaic/Hebrew modes of interpretation: he is thoroughly at home with the Greek Septuagint, on the other hand.”

    Ehrman seems to be indulging in extreme circularity in his latest offering by claiming that there is no evidence that Greek philosophy influenced Jesus the character in 20s and 30s CE, but the whole concept of the Word or Logos is directly derived from Greek thought. If I had to guess, I would describe Ehrman as panic stricken; I’m honestly embarrassed for the man.

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