by Earl Doherty
Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 3
In this post Doherty covers Ehrman’s arguments dealing with:
- the argument from silence and the positive case for mythicism
- why is Paul so silent on the historical Jesus?
- Paul’s “words of the Lord”
- Problematic Gospels and their basis in scripture
- Dependence on Mark / no variety in Passion story
- The question of parallels with pagan salvation myths
- Uncertainty surrounding Jesus’ teachings
* * * * *
Before embarking on “the positive evidence that convinces everyone except the mythicists that Jesus existed,” Bart Ehrman provides “a rough idea about why some of the smarter and better informed writers have said he did not exist.”
The Basic Mythicist Position
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 30-34 of Chapter 1)
Positives, negatives and Ehrman’s silence
Ehrman divides the mythicist arguments into negative and positive, claiming the former are “far more” numerous. This I would dispute, and certainly in my own case. Too much stress is laid by historicists on the supposed reliance by mythicists on the argument from silence. Yes, on my website I have a feature titled “The Sound of Silence: 200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles.” It is meant to highlight and deal individually with the extensive occurrences of that silence and the perplexity—indeed, the impossibility—of such a situation if an historical Jesus had existed, especially in the face of historicism’s blithe dismissal of it as inconsequential or as ‘explained’ by the weakest and most unworkable excuses.
But in my books and website I spend far more space on presenting the positive aspects of the mythicist case than the argument from silence, laying out the actual picture of the early Christ cult movement which the epistles provide, demonstrating that it not only needs no historical Jesus, it actually excludes one. And in dealing with the Q side of things, I demonstrate that the Q record itself shows that no historical Jesus founder was present at the root of the Kingdom preaching sect, but was only developed and inserted into the Q record as the sect and its document evolved, a common sectarian feature.
But that will come later. Ehrman provides a telling description of the fact that no mention of Jesus can be found in any Greek or Roman source for at least 80 years after his death. He also acknowledges the mythicist claim that the two famous references to Jesus in the Jewish historian Josephus are very likely interpolations, without putting up a fuss about it (“If they are right…”)—at least at that moment. He goes on to further acknowledge that mythicists are right to point out that
the apostle Paul says hardly anything about the historical Jesus or that he says nothing at all. This may come as a shock to most readers of the New Testament, but a careful reading of Paul’s letters shows the problems. (pp. 31-32, DJE?)
What he doesn’t add here is that this situation is far from peculiar to Paul. It exists across virtually the entire range of the non-Gospel record from almost the first hundred years of Christianity. One writer’s silence (and peculiar language we will look at) could perhaps be an idiosyncrasy though still curious; the entire flock of them outside the Gospels showing the same curiosities would be so unlikely as to be rejected out of hand. (Ehrman will later try to get around this by declaring that those other silent authors, such as of 1 Peter, Revelation and Hebrews, nevertheless “clearly indicate that Jesus existed.” I will be demonstrating that he is mistaken—and not by claiming interpolation!)
Paul’s silence: problematic; Ehrman’s silence: misleading
Ehrman asks rhetorically:
But [Paul] says very little indeed about anything that Jesus said and did while he was alive. Why would that be, if Jesus was in fact a historical person? Why doesn’t Paul quote the words of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount? Why does he never refer to any of Jesus’s parables? Why doesn’t he indicate what Jesus did? Why not mention any of his miracles? His exorcisms? His controversies? His trip to Jerusalem? His trial before Pontius Pilate? And on and on. (p. 32, DJE?)
Good questions. Here Ehrman inserts the frequent historicist defence that “Paul on several occasions does appear to quote Jesus,” which is a reference to the so-called “words of the Lord” (usually numbered at four, including Ehrman’s mention of “1 Cor. 11:22-24” concerning what Paul calls the Lord’s Supper). He points out that some mythicists explain these as interpolations. I do not, and I’m not sure that too many mythicists claim the other three as interpolations. However, Ehrman also notes that “other mythicists” explain these sayings as “words the heavenly ‘Jesus’ has spoken through Christian prophets in Paul’s communities.”
Here we can note the first of several times throughout his book in which Ehrman attributes to mythicists a certain interpretation, without noting that such an interpretation is also held in some circles of mainstream scholarship. (For example, mainstream scholars Jean Magne and Winsome Munro have argued that 1 Cor. 11:23-26 is an interpolation or part of a larger interpolation.) This is something he can certainly be faulted on, for he has created for the uninitiated the impression that such an interpretation is something flawed or outlandish, held only by mythicists. This reflects a mindset which seems unwilling to credit mythicism with any arguments that can be used in its favor, even if this is to be accomplished through deception or concealment. And it is hard to believe that Ehrman was not conscious of what he was doing and what he was leaving out in these cases.
There is indeed a traditional thread in modern NT scholarship that such “words of the Lord” reflect a practice in early Christian preaching: apostles like Paul made pronouncements which were perceived as coming to them from the spiritual Christ in heaven, communicated through personal revelation and not by passed-on tradition. The very example which Ehrman mentions, the Lord’s Supper words in 1 Corinthians, is prefaced by Paul telling us that “For I received from the Lord…” signifying such a personal revelation. Similar language in regard to the other “words of the Lord” passages conveys the same thing. Rudolf Bultmann, Burton Mack, Werner Kelber are only a few of the scholars who maintain this interpretation, though they usually try to qualify the Lord’s Supper one. (See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.30 and note 15.)
Gospel narratives modeled on scripture
Mythicists point, says Ehrman, to the problematic nature of the four Gospels coming several decades after Jesus’ alleged life, to their “contradictions and discrepancies,” their biased approach to their subject. And to the fact that they have modified their stories, if not entirely invented them, particularly the miracle stories. There is no mention here of the recent work of critical scholars like Robert M. Price, who have demonstrated that almost every pericope found in Mark, not just the miracle stories, and encompassing both the passion and the ministry, has been constructed out of one or more passages in the Hebrew bible. The blueprint has been scripture, not history remembered, not oral tradition—at least there is no identifiable sign of any such input. No wonder mythicists (and others, too) regard the Gospels to be unreliable as providing any genuine picture of the life of an historical Jesus.
Does Ehrman seriously dispute almost 200 years of NT research?
But Ehrman again misleads the uninitiated reader:
Furthermore, many mythicists insist that the four Gospels ultimately all go back to just one of the Gospels, Mark, on which the other three were based. This means that of all the many writers—pagan, Jewish, and Christian—that we have from the first century (assuming Mark was written as early as the first century), we have only one that describes or even mentions the life of the historical Jesus. How plausible is that, if Jesus actually lived? (p. 33, DJE?)
Is Ehrman denying that Matthew and Luke “ultimately . . . go back to just one of the Gospels, Mark”? Is that just a risible idea by mythicists? Markan priority is the mainstay of almost two centuries of NT research. In fact, it ought to be striking that neither Matthew nor Luke betrays any reliance for their own passion story on anything but its predecessor—and first appearance in the entire record—in Mark. They have not incorporated any differing version that we ought to expect would, by their time, have been developed in their own communities through diverse transmission of oral tradition or different emphases on those traditions. (The sometimes claimed reliability of oral tradition to transmit exact remembrances even over time and under variegated circumstances, territory and communities, especially in extended narratives, is simply groundless. And besides, there is no indication in the entire non-Gospel record that any such oral tradition even existed, let alone was being widely and carefully transmitted.)
In the Gospel passion stories we find no differences in the narrative layouts, no changes of emphases. Any little additions or tweaking of details, such as fleshing out the co-crucified thieves or a background for Joseph of Arimathea, or Luke’s invention of a hearing before Herod (hardly historical if no one else records it, the same thing being true of Matthew’s ‘guards at the tomb’), can be put down to the work of the individual evangelist, often patently a reworking of Mark or prompted by scripture. As for John, recent critical scholarship, such as that of Robert Price, Lawrence M. Wills, Norman Perrin, C. K. Barrett, Frans Neirynck, M. Sabbe, Hartwig Thyen, M. E. Boismard, Manfred Lang, Udo Schnelle, has demonstrated quite clearly that the longstanding dispute about whether John’s version of the passion was dependent directly or indirectly on a synoptic source has been settled. It was. (See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 445-8.)
When Ehrman goes on to mention the mythicist claim that the Gospels are also unreliable because they “are paralleled time and again in the myths about pagan gods and other divine men discussed in the ancient world,” he is making a point which he regards as an Achilles’ heel in popular mythicism. And to some extent he is right. The “parallelomania” which has characterized some mythicist writers past and present has been overblown, uncovering a parallel between the Gospel Jesus and the pagan savior god myths under every rock. But some legitimate parallels do exist and are unmistakable; some others have feasibility even given the uncertainty of the record or the artefact. The virgin birth is a good example of a common mytheme in the culture of the time, and many others could be added. With due caution and qualification, these parallels are a legitimate further argument that elements of the story of Jesus are not history remembered, not genuine biography, but fictional traits given to him to create a picture which will resonate with the popular mythology of the day and support the symbolic significance which the evangelists are bringing to their allegorical tale. Ehrman will revisit the topic of such parallels later in the book.
Ehrman’s Chapter Two: Non-Christian Sources for the Life of Jesus
Having outlined the reasons why mythicists do not believe in an historical Jesus, Ehrman proceeds to his “evidence which convinces everyone except mythicists that an HJ existed.” Like most historicist defenders, he chooses to start with the non-Christian witness. I usually take this as a tacit admission that the Christian record itself is a comparatively weak and problematic witness, and indeed Ehrman’s summary of the mythicist reasons for rejecting an HJ has demonstrated why. But is the non-Christian witness any more conclusive?
Admiring the genius of Jesus the teacher
This section is prefaced with a defence of himself against a common accusation levelled against him, by believers more conservative than he, that he is anti-Christian. Ehrman assures the reader that he is an admirer of the bible and that its voice should be listened to, even if imperfect and not inerrant. Some biblical writers, he says, were geniuses (no doubt, as geniuses have been found everywhere and at all times), even if not inspired by God. To those geniuses he adds Jesus.
At the same time, he probably was not well educated. He may have been only semiliterate. But he certainly lived, and his teachings have impacted the world ever since. Surely that is one gauge of genius. (p. 37, DJE?)
The problems with Jesus being a genius
The problem is, the catalogue of Jesus’ ‘genuine’ teachings, as judged by critical mainstream scholarship today, is extremely limited and uncertain. The Jesus Seminar tossed out at least three-quarters of the sayings attributed to Jesus found in the early record (canonical and non-canonical), and critical scholarship since has largely followed suit. This leaves a huge majority of the teachings alleged to Jesus as having been spoken by others. How reliable can the attribution of the minority to him be? The tendency has been, of course, to judge as authentic the perceived “best” of those teachings, a subjective choice which in circular fashion identifies Jesus as a singular and charismatic individual to whom we can attribute such outstanding teachings. This process also makes him innovative. Yet when we examine the supposed innovative and laudable teachings of Jesus, we find that in many cases similar sentiments can be found in figures preceding him, from Confucius to Rabbi Hillel to the best of Greco-Roman ethics. If Jesus’ individuality is thereby undermined, then there is less need to claim that the content of the teachings requires a charismatic, unique individual which supposedly strengthens the case that such an individual existed.
The catalogue of sayings that were attributed to Jesus includes many that are not so commendable, not so tolerant and far-sighted, not so different from a lot of the stuff being bandied about at that time. Naturally, these teachings tend today to be rejected as not authentic to him, on the basis that the good teachings have established a figure who was not likely to have spoken the less admirable ones, another part of the circular exercise. But if a mix of good and bad would be relatively normal in any sect, with the good often drawn from broader or previous sources, then it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that a unique founder is unnecessary, and doubly so when that founder is obscure in nature, hard to detect historically, and is even excluded in some pictures of the faith. It certainly becomes difficult to justify the claim that “he must have existed,” other than by wishful thinking. It certainly becomes a travesty to condemn those who claim that the evidence can suggest otherwise as misguided agenda-driven quacks not deserving a moment’s consideration.
How secure is Ehrman’s one dimensional Jesus?
Make no mistake, Ehrman is not a regular, even liberal, Christian. He does not believe in the resurrection. In fact, he declares: “I certainly do not mean to say that I consider myself either a Christian or an apologist for Christian causes. I am neither.” I am sure that we could find some others of similar outlook among today’s critical scholars of Christian origins, even in Religion departments of major universities and still managing to hold onto their tenure. So this puts Ehrman in the position of defending the existence of a Jesus who has been stripped of almost all that traditional Christianity holds dear. Ehrman believes essentially in a one-dimensional Jesus, Jesus the rabbi, with an emphasis on his apocalyptically-oriented prophecy.
But how secure is the support for that single dimension when it is impossible to be sure what sayings in the catalogue are actually his? How can we feel secure when one entire segment of the record doesn’t even declare him to have been a teacher or prophet, or when the paltry number of words supposedly quoted from him sound like perceived revelation? Where is the ‘impact upon the world’ of these allegedly innovative teachings when the whole non-Gospel Christian world shows no sign of having any knowledge of or interest in them?
Was it only Galilee that ever heard of Jesus’ message?
I don’t know how many Christian preachers I have heard declare as a kind of summation of Jesus’ preaching that “he taught us to love one another.” This may not be that innovative even in the ancient world, but a Jesus without such a teaching in his catalogue should hardly be acceptable in any view of him, past or present. But was it only in Galilee that the early Christians heard of such a thing? We would have to think so in view of James 2:8, or Galatians 5:14, or Romans 13:9, which urge readers to love one another, but fail to appeal to Jesus’ teaching on such a subject. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:9 goes so far as to say: “We are taught by God to love one another”! By any rational standard, this belies any knowledge of a teaching Jesus on Paul’s part, let alone any impact on the early Christian world.
Preaching: the lost power needed to raise the dead
Was a mark of Jesus’ “genius” that he could impel some people to turn him into God and have him rise from the grave to redeem the world’s sins? Aside from the incredibility of such a quantum leap, the only feasible link is missing. For Ehrman, Jesus’ genius resided in his teachings. If he did not actually rise from the grave, then the power that impelled such a reaction to him had to have been his preaching career. This was so impressive that everything else, no matter how lofty, proceeded from it. Jesus the man had to impel his transformation to Jesus the God.
But that fuel for lift-off is nowhere to be found in the epistolary record. Jesus the man is in eclipse; miracles as well as important teachings prophetic or ethical are missing, even when they would have related to issues central to the sect. The very location of his career in Galilee, let alone anywhere else on earth, is likewise missing. Ehrman must defend the highly dubious—indeed contradictory and wholly infeasible—proposition that Paul was so impacted by Jesus’ earthly teaching that he turned him into God while promptly losing all interest in the earthly man. And not just Paul, but apparently every writer and community that was converted to him. (The Q community with its sayings collection cannot be included here because it shows no sign of turning its founder figure into God—possibly excepting a beginning of it in its very latest addition, the Temptation Story—and nowhere does it give him a death and resurrection or even a soteriological role.)
Ehrman at the very least must dissociate Paul and the epistolary communities from any connection with the Galilee-based Jesus figure and tradition, and regard Paul’s faith and soteriology as not based on a human being. We will see whether he does.
to be continued . . . .