Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.9
Form Criticism and the Sources of the Gospels
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus
- The Fallacy of Form Criticism
- The Written Evidence of Common Patterns Versus the Oral Hypothesis
- Literary Construction out of Scripture, not Oral Traditions
- Traditions in Thomas and Q — not independent
- The Path to Jesus is Paved with Good Assumptions
- How Ehrman Dates the Sources to the Day After Jesus
- From Contradiction and Confusion to Total Chaos
- The Aramaic Origins of (Some) Oral Traditions
- Aramaic originals?
- An Aramaic Son of Man?
* * * * *
The Oral Traditions About Jesus
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 83-93)
Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus
In a section entitled “Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus,” Ehrman encapsulates the traditional scholarly approach to analysing the content of the Gospels, and sets these beside the current views he is espousing. But there are inherent contradictions in his scenario.
The Fallacy of Form Criticism
The “form-critical” approach, or “form criticism,” has sought to understand how the various stories about Jesus took shape as they were being “transmitted orally.” Scholarship has long observed something curious, says Ehrman:
Why is it that so many miracle stories seem to follow the same basic pattern? A person comes up to Jesus, his or her problem (or illness) is described, there is a brief interchange with Jesus, Jesus agrees to heal the person, he does so by a word or by a touch, and all the crowds marvel. Every miracle story seems to have the same elements.
Or take the controversy stories. Jesus or his disciples do something that offends the Jewish leaders; the leaders protest; Jesus has a conversation with them; and the story ends with Jesus delivering a withering one-liner that shows that he gets the better of them. Time after time, same form. (p. 84, emphasis added)
As Ehrman puts it, form criticism has asked: How did the various kinds of stories assume their various forms?
The stories about Jesus came to be shaped in the process of telling and retelling, as they assumed their characteristic forms. This means that the stories were changed, sometimes radically, when they were retold, and thus formed over the years. (p. 84)
Something doesn’t compute here. Ehrman has just told us that all the healing miracle stories, for example, are found in the Gospels in a more or less identical form. But oral transmission over a wide area, within an uncoordinated movement, is not likely to produce conformity. Quite the opposite.
When an apostle of the Christ enters a new town, speaks to a new audience or congregation, he does not check back with head office, or refer to his iPad notes, to make sure that he is telling a given story according to some set precedent or pattern.
The Written Evidence Versus the Oral Hypothesis
In fact, Ehrman has just said that the process is one of “telling and retelling,” in which the stories “were changed, sometimes radically, when they were retold.” And yet he wants us to subscribe to a contradictory end result: that these traditions were “shaped” and “formed over the years” into a product that followed only one consistent form. If there was no established centralized record or requirement of how miracle stories passed on by many mouths in many places through oral tradition were to be formulated, arriving at such a consistency would be utterly unlikely. We would arrive at diversity, not conformity. The unexpected conformity has at some stage been imposed.
That stage, logically, is a literary one. And it is most likely at the composing of the Gospels—in most cases that of the first one, Mark. But if that is the case, the entire methodology of form criticism is undercut, because it becomes very difficult to penetrate back beyond the Gospel stage to perceive the nature or form of the antecedent.
Ehrman has made it tougher for himself by laying emphasis on the traditions being oral, though he postulates some written sources. (We will see how successful he is at that.) We don’t even have non-Gospel controls on uncovering or tracing those antecedents, because there is such a dearth of any oral or written traditions of any kind to be found in the epistolary record—an observation which belies Ehrman’s entire emphasis and reliance on the channel of oral tradition.
Form criticism works to some extent in Q because we can trace the evolution of some of its elements through the succeeding strata, a few times with an outside check provided in the Gospel of Thomas. But that tracing leads to a dead end, because something like the Dialogue between Jesus and John (Luke/Q 7:18-35) shows every sign of being a literary construction undertaken at some point by the Q compilers, negating any thought of it passing through oral tradition, let alone proceeding originally from a record of Jesus. Matthew and Luke have simply taken over that artificial construction from Q.
Literary Construction out of Scripture, not Oral Traditions
As well, another process of “construction” is revealed at virtually every level throughout the work of the evangelists. Their dependence on scriptural precedents for so much of their text is by now well known, although Ehrman virtually ignores the whole question. (Probably too sophisticated—and confusing—for his readership.)
The elements of a miracle story like the loaves and fishes, for example, are very unlikely to proceed from oral tradition, since we can see its fabrication out of miracle stories from the Hebrew bible, in this case similar miracles by Elijah and Elisha. If Mark had some version come to him through oral tradition about a reputed miracle performed by Jesus, why did he make no use of it?
Why do almost all the miracles, as Ehrman tells us, have the same shape and identifiable models from scripture, with nothing appearing to owe anything to oral tradition or history remembered? Why would Mark force them into that same repetitive and artificial mold?
Traditions in Thomas and Q — not independent
Regarding “stories being told about Jesus,” Ehrman says:
If scholars are right that Q and the core of the Gospel of Thomas, to pick just two examples, do date from the 50s, and that they were based on oral traditions that had already been in circulation for a long time, how far back do these traditions go? (p. 85)
But Ehrman surely knows that his designation of Q and the Thomas core (wisdom-type sayings similar to those of Q1) as two independent collections of Jesus’ sayings is misleading, if not outright false. Helmut Koester and others have concluded that
. . . the Gospel of Thomas is either dependent upon the earliest version of Q or, more likely, shares with the author of Q one or several very early collections of Jesus’ sayings. (Ancient Christian Gospels, p.95)
In other words, there is a literary dependence between the two; they are not independent, no more than Matthew or Luke are independent of Mark for their Jesus story, no more than the Q portions of Matthew and Luke are independent collections, since they are the same body of material used by two different writers. Koester has surmised that Q and Thomas both used an ancestral collection, though that, I suspect, is partly based on a desire to posit such a collection, bringing us supposedly closer to a record of the historical Jesus’ teachings. (And there is a problem in Koester’s option which I outline in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.358-9.) In any case, there is no good reason preventing the Thomas sapiential layer from being an offshoot of an early stage of Q, which I argue.
The Path to Jesus is Paved with Good Assumptions
Ehrman, of course, as do most scholars, simply assumes that whatever collection of sayings may have preceded Thomas and Q, it represents a record of the teachings of Jesus, just as they automatically do for Q1 itself. But that is yet to be established; to assume it is to beg the question.
The wisdom root of Q, and thus of Thomas, could simply be the adopted ethics of the kingdom-preaching sect (some of it looks to derive from Cynic philosophy), long before any founder Jesus was envisioned as the speaker. (And a close study of Q, as I present in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, indicates that this is in fact the case.)
But if the assumption is that such collections do go back to Jesus’ preaching, then it’s a simple step, isn’t it, to declare that such material, such witnesses to the historical Jesus, must go back to a very early time following Jesus’ career:
. . . even anyone who just wonders if Jesus existed has to assume that there were stories being told about him in the 30s and 40s. (p. 85)
Thus, lo and behold, through this chain of unproven assumptions, we have arrived at some of Ehrman’s ‘early witness and sources’ of the Gospel traditions, virtually to the year following Jesus’ death as he will shortly claim.
How Ehrman Dates the Sources to the Day After Jesus
Ehrman offers a truly bizarre argument to bolster this tracking down of Jesus traditions to the period immediately after his life:
For one thing, as we will see in the next chapter, how else would someone like Paul have known to persecute the Christians, if Christians didn’t exist? And how could they exist if they didn’t know anything about Jesus? (p. 85)
One begged question is followed by another begged question. All of the sources Ehrman finds behind the Gospels, such as Q and Thomas, special “M” and “L,” John’s Signs Source and Discourses, are declared by fiat to automatically reflect an historical Jesus’ words and deeds.
In support of this, he appeals to Paul’s persecution of Christians, as though this persecution has to have been directed at followers of the Gospel Jesus, when there no sign that any such figure or group is on Paul’s radar.
For Ehrman, there can be only one application of the term “Christians.” But if there is any common characteristic to Jesus mythicism, it is that the Christ of early Christian epistle writers like Paul is not based on the Jesus of the Gospels, on any recent historical man. Before even arguing the point, Ehrman claims the orthodox view and makes Paul witness not simply to an historical Jesus but to early traditions about him, traditions, by the way, which he never shows any knowledge of or interest in. On the sayings of Q and Thomas, on special “M” and “L,” on John’s Signs and Discourses, the epistles are totally silent.
Ehrman then gives a passing nod to the mythicist argument that Paul worshiped a divine Christ and not an historical Jesus, and he promises to discredit this later in the book. But even if the epistles were set aside, Ehrman says, we have “ample reason” to conclude that stories about an historical Jesus were circulating “from a very early time.” On what basis? Why, all those “sources (that) are independent of one another.”
From Contradiction and Confusion to Total Chaos
In the same breath as claiming that “They contain strikingly different accounts of what Jesus said and did,” those sources, Ehrman says, “agree on too many of the fundamentals.”
Which is it?
John is certainly strikingly different in his teachings of Jesus from the Synoptics, so different that both pictures are virtually incompatible, making at least one of them outright invention.
The Synoptics agree on many of the fundamentals because Matthew and Luke (and John in his Passion) are basically copying from Mark. And where they are not dependent on Mark, Matthew and Luke are not corroborative because their “special” material is different, and their Q material comes from a single document and so they are not “independent.”
Amid all this confusion, Ehrman throws his argument into total chaos by declaring that all the fundamentals everyone agrees on “are based on oral traditions,” sweeping aside the clear literary dependencies inherent in the Gospels and in Matthew and Luke’s use of Q. These are dependencies he has already admitted, though with a minimum of focus on them and a maximum of misleading language to convey that they hardly exist.
He sums up:
Aspects of the surviving stories of Jesus found in the written Gospels, themselves based on earlier written accounts, show clearly both that they were based on oral traditions (as Luke himself indicates) and that these traditions had been around for a very long time—in fact, that they had been around since Christianity first emerged as a religion in Palestine itself. (p. 86)
“Aspects of the surviving stories” is particularly woolly. What “aspects” are these? And outside of Q, Ehrman has failed to provide us with a single “earlier written account” preceding Mark, much less that those earlier written accounts were themselves based on longstanding oral traditions and were not themselves dependent on other sources, such as the Thomas wisdom stratum on Q1 and much of Q1 itself on Cynic philosophy. Ehrman’s naïve reliance on the Prologue to Luke (probably the creation of a mid-2nd century revision of Luke) which lays out this alleged process is quite misplaced, as shown earlier.
And Ehrman’s confident declaration that everything goes back to oral traditions ignores the truly large elephant in the room: the clear construction of pericopes all over the place by Mark, further developed by Matthew and Luke, out of passages in scripture.
The Aramaic Origins of (Some) Oral Traditions
An Aramaic Original?
Decades after the abandonment of a thread in scholarly opinion that the Gospels may have been originally written in Aramaic, Bart Ehrman revives it in part by suggesting that some of his “oral traditions” lying behind the Gospels circulated in the days immediately following Jesus in the language of Aramaic. This theory is based on a paltry handful of Aramaic words that appear in the Gospels, supposedly indicating that these words are a survival of originally whole Aramaic oral traditions about Jesus. Further, these words are usually translated by the author into Greek, so that his readers will be sure to understand the meaning.
In the miracle of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:38-43):
Then, taking hold of her hand, he said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means “Get up, my child.”
Ehrman claims that when this story, originally told in Aramaic, was translated by Mark into Greek, the two Aramaic words were left as is, with a translation provided.
But it could equally well be explained as the usage by Mark of a common type of phrase used in faith healing in the Greco-Aramaic culture of the day, including in Q-type practice which Mark would have been a party to, something that might have been more familiar in Aramaic than in anything else.
Bilingual people in our own day tend to intermix phrases from one language into the other, especially if they have a well-used meaning in the other language. If I as a writer (or even speaker) in English use the phrase “raison d’être”, I don’t need to have the reader postulate that I am reflecting a prior source in French, it’s just part of the parlance which English speakers and writers in a bilingual culture often use. (It’s actually handier in the French.) And Mark provides a Greek translation for those of his readers who are not bilingual, maybe gentiles within the movement.
Consider 1 Cor. 16:22, in which Paul (let’s assume this ending is authentic to the letter) says: “Marana tha!”—Come, O Lord!” This hardly is expected to be from Jesus’ mouth. It’s part of the parlance of the prophetic movement of the time (though Paul’s cult was distinct from the Galilean preaching sect). There is no need to imagine that Paul is tapping into some ‘source’ or tradition in Aramaic. Nor is it likely to be a story about Jesus, being called on to “come.” Paul is simply inserting a well-known phrase within a bilingual culture, common in both languages in his apocalyptic-oriented circles (in a faith where Christ has not yet been to earth).
The very paucity of Aramaic words in the Gospels is argument against Ehrman’s claim. An entire Aramaic phase of preaching and faith, let alone one that went back to Jesus himself, would leave a far bigger trail than this. Can one imagine, in a bilingual society such as Palestine was, a ‘record’ of Jesus’ life which would not have been full of preserved words by him in Aramaic, whether authentic or not? And especially in the so-called ‘genuine’ teachings of Jesus supposedly collected in Q1?
An Aramaic Son of Man?
Ehrman has an interesting, if convoluted, argument surrounding one of the “son of man” sayings in Mark (2:27-8). “The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath; therefore the Son of Man is sovereign even over the Sabbath” is the punch line to a story in which Jesus’ disciples, being hungry, picked corn on the Sabbath and were criticized by the Pharisees, to whom Jesus retorted with this saying.
This is one of the “Son of Man” sayings which falls into the non-titular, non-apocalyptic category—or should (see also Mark 2:10 and Luke/Q 9:58). Now, only in English can we make a distinction between “Son of Man” (capitalized) as a title for a future apocalyptic judge which eventually got applied to the Jesus figure, and “son of man” (not capitalized) which was a Semitic euphemism simply for “man,” sometimes used by the speaker as a self-reference. In Greek, both senses employ the same words: ho huios tou anthrōpou. If this saying in Mark had contemporary currency (and one can imagine the prophets of an anti-establishment sect claiming that sovereignty for themselves), it makes perfect sense.
Ehrman claims it does not, because (a) the Pharisees were criticizing the disciples, not Jesus, so whether Jesus himself was Lord (master) of the Sabbath doesn’t answer the Pharisees’ objection.; and (b) the second part of the verse doesn’t follow from the first part.
The therefore in this case doesn’t make sense. Just because Sabbath was made for humans and not the other way around, what does that have to do with Jesus being the Lord of the Sabbath? (p. 89)
Ehrman is technically right on both counts. But the solution is to take the saying (and the others like it) as originally existing in a context in which “son of man” (non-capitalized) meant simply “man”, so that all Mark 2:27-8 means is that, if the Sabbath was made for humans and not humans made for the Sabbath, then a human in general (the “son of man”) can consider himself master of the Sabbath and free to do what needs to be done. Wherever these sayings came from, Mark has imported them into his Gospel and made the phrase “son of man” represent a reference to Jesus. This conversion has created Ehrman’s dilemma. Mark has altered the original saying about humans to direct it toward Jesus himself in his role as the “Son of Man” (in the apocalyptic sense). It would not be the first time that a Christian writer or editor redacted a passage or existing saying and created an anomaly.
Ehrman’s solution is quite different. If Mark 2:27-8 supposedly makes no sense in Greek, he suggests that if “son of man” is translated back into Aramaic using the words “bar nasha” this makes it clear that the phrase really is being used as a self-reference and the confusion between the two understandings in Greek is eliminated. This allegedly indicates that the saying began originally in Aramaic. But if one understands the progress of the saying from the non-titular use in Greek to a titular understanding applied by Mark to Jesus, no ‘back-translation’ need be performed. Mark may have created something confusing, but it might not have seemed so to him. He may not even have noticed, simply carrying over one understanding to the other. (It’s not as if no other Christian writing contains an internal contradiction.)
Of course, it is always feasible that this saying (or the others of its type) did begin in Aramaic, reflecting the bilingual nature of the Palestinian scene. A revolutionary claim like this might have been formulated in Aramaic, though we have no evidence of it. But even if so, there is nothing in evidence which requires us to assign such an Aramaic claim (or even its Greek counterpart) to Jesus. It could as well have been made by the sect itself. Once again, Ehrman is making his argument on the question-begging basis that anything uncovered prior to Mark has to relate to an historical preaching Jesus and thus becomes an early source to be identified with him.
Ehrman undercuts his sweeping claim about Aramaic originals by pointing out that some sayings of Jesus cannot be translated into Aramaic and still make sense. This, he says, is a pointer to such sayings not being authentic to Jesus, who would likely have spoken only Aramaic. But that’s a bit of a self-serving argument. It becomes a device to get around the problem by making the claim unfalsifiable. We’ll postulate an Aramaic original only when it works and serves our need, and reject one when it does not.
Ehrman’s “Conclusion” to this chapter simply repeats all the claims he has made throughout in regard to documentary and oral evidence for the existence of Jesus:
- multiple surviving Gospels—seven, no less—completely independent in whole or in part;
- all of them “corroborate many of the same basic sets of data—for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.”
Well, the latter is not to be found in a vast array of early Christian records outside the Gospels and their auxiliaries, which have nothing to say about an earthly venue or a human agency or a time in history.
Of course, Ehrman is selectively drawing on only cooperative records, and even these he has to twist and distort, and read their predecessors (when he can pull them from the shadows of uncertainty they rest in) as automatically witnessing to an historical Jesus. Q was a major source document for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, yet a Jesus who was crucified by anyone is missing from its reconstructed pages.
Ehrman has a long way to go to dismantle the mythicist case. In fact, he has a long way to go to convince anyone that the historicist case can be defended by anything other than special pleading, fallacious argument and highly questionable methodology.
. . . to be continued