2013-05-04

Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth — Reviewing the review

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by Neil Godfrey

Edited with a few additional remarks 4 hours after first posting.

BartEhrmanQuestHistoricalJesusThis post is a response to Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. I read this review before I received my own (Kindle) copy of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth, so I was dismayed when I began to read the book to find that I had been completely misled as to its character and content. Fear that that same review may influence many negatively towards the contributors of the book is what is compelling me to write this response now. (Apologists like McG are quite eager to lap it up uncritically.)

The review levels five charges against Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth:

  1. “resorting to a personal attack . . . nearly 600 pages of venom and rhetoric . . . full of venom and disgust”
  2. “The title of this volume bespeaks the purpose: it is a series of essays with the intent to character assassinate.”
  3. “And Price’s attempts to link the contributors of the volume, in all, and those who support the so-called ‘Christ Myth Theory’ with minimalism is a void one.”
  4. “Price also gives D.M. Murdock too much credit. He is guilty of inflating her credentials in many respects and, while they are friends, it is distracting. He writes, for example, that ‘her chief sin in Ehrman’s eyes would appear to be her lack of diplomas on the wall’, but that is an oversimplification of what Ehrman argues.”
  5. “Also there is a surprising amount of personal correspondence. Frank produces some 75 pages for his first contribution and more than half of it consists of various email exchanges between Ehrman and himself. This troubles me as I am not so sure that such a move is ethical. . . . In my humble opinion, it is wholly unwelcome that Zindler dedicated so much space to these emails and also formulated a polemical argument around them; it is quite unfortunate that this appears in this volume.”

I’ll address these in reverse order.

5. Unethical email disclosures?

I was shocked to read this and feared that Frank Zindler may have overstepped the mark when I read this accusation. So I was particularly keen to read carefully how Frank does introduce these email exchanges with Bart Ehrman. I was greatly relieved to learn that Tom Verenna’s aspersions were entirely misplaced. Here’s what I found. Frank attaches the following note at the point of publishing the first email response from Bart Ehrman:

I thank Professor Ehrman for graciously having granted me permission to reprint here his messages, provided only that I “acknowledge that they were emails, not written intended for publication.”

I do wonder, however, about the ethics of publishing an image of a personal message from Frank to the reviewer. Did T.V. seek F.Z’s permission for this?

4. Giving D. M. Murdock too much credit?

Robert M. Price, we are told, “inflates” the credentials of D.M. Murdock/Acharya S.

Here is what Robert M. Price wrote of Murdock:

Acharya S. (pen name of D.M. Murdock) is one of the prime targets for Professor Ehrman’s haughty derision. Her chief sin in Ehrman’s eyes would appear to be her lack of diplomas on the wall, nothwithstanding Acharya’s extensive researches, including on-site investigations of archaeological materials, and her extensive documentation of her theories. She dares to plumb the neglected and forgotten works by old writers, separating the wheat from the chaff where these old authors lacked the (more recent) knowledge that would have enabled them to tell the difference. Like a scribe who produces from her treasury of goods old and new [Matt. 13:52], she has a knack for displaying intriguing data neglected by ‘mainstream’ scholars who simply do not know what to make of them. . . .

Nowhere does Price “inflate the credentials” of D. M. Murdock. He bluntly acknowledges her lack of formal credentials and points to the originality of her approach.

Unfortunately Verenna himself then gratuitously launches into a most savage personal attack on the character of D.M. Murdock, expressing total venom and disgust and a clear intent to assassinate her character. (I won’t repeat any of it here.) His attack has nothing whatever to do with anything Bart Ehrman addressed in his book but is largely based upon Tom’s own personal experiences and perceptions of her feelings and intent. Tom calls for respect for anyone with academic credentials (namely Bart Ehrman) but beware his venom if you don’t have those talismans. Tom’s rule that we must always address the arguments alone does not hold, it seems, if you lack the right parchments.

3. Void link with Minimalism?

Verenna’s criticism here is based upon a misreading of Price’s “Introduction”. Verenna expands upon his complaint:

While I do argue that I am a sort of ‘New Testament minimalist’, the difference in all of this is that I’ve not made any anti-academic claims or any statement of certainty. While Thomas Thompson and Philip Davies may be called minimalists, they don’t agree on everything (from dating texts to who may or may not have been historical); the analogy is flawed as what Bob and others are arguing in this volume is that Jesus is a myth, as in lacking any historical function. And one cannot simply combine Thompson and Davies (or Lemche and Pfoh, etc…, into a comparable ‘David Myth Theory’, now can we? To my knowledge there exists no volume published by minimalists arguing against Bill Dever or Gary Rendsburg (as much as they might deserve it).

That last sentence is odd. It infers that there is something undignified or unsavoury about mythicists getting together to publish a combined defence of their work in response to Ehrman’s published attack. We may not have a volume published by minimalists arguing against Dever or Rendsburg, but we certainly will read in the scholarly literature robust published rebuttals of each of Dever’s or Rendsburg’s criticisms of their books and articles! Ehrman did not publish his attack on mythicism in the scholarly literature but in a popular book, so it seems only appropriate that those he critiqued should publish a defence of their arguments in kind.

Verenna appears to be confused over the nature of Price’s comparison of “Mythicism” with “Minimalism”. He emphasizes, as if it is a point of contrast, that “minimalism” consists of views that are very diverse. There is no single “minimalist” argument. One cannot lump the theories of Davies and Lemche and Thompson together as one. Of course not. That’s quite correct. Yet that correct observation is what Price himself points to:

And Christ Mythicism, or New Testament Minimalism, is very diverse.

The third complaint made is the inference that mythicists make statements of “certainty”. Tom says he never does that even though he sometimes refers to himself as “a sort of ‘New Testament minimalist’.” Again there is some misunderstanding here. The work under review is clearly a collation of mythicists who each have quite different views on how Christianity arose. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Christ Myth theory: the question of “how it happened”. That is, how do we validly explain the actual evidence in the most economical manner possible? Thompson, Davies, Lemche, each have their own views on how to account for the Jewish Scriptures and for which they will argue strongly. It is no different with the likes of Price, Doherty, Carrier, et al.

2. The title bespeaks its purpose . . . to character assassinate?

Here is the full title of the book:

Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

Here is the reviewer’s accusation in full:

The title of this volume bespeaks the purpose: it is a series of essays with the intent to character assassinate.”Price makes no secret of this; he states in the introduction that this book represents a ‘counter-polemical’ because Ehrman started it (seriously).

Now that makes Price sound very childish as well as devilish. Here are Price’s words explaining the book’s purpose, just for the sake of comparison. They are in the opening paragraph of the Introduction.

This collection of essays addresses Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? It seeks to serve two purposes. First, most of our authors’ works were discussed in it and we feel obliged to respond, to clear the air of misconceptions and even misrepresentations. Though Professor Ehrman is a true scholar, we fear his treatment of our work was, let’s say, casual (a euphemism, I’ll admit it, for ‘slipshod’). Here we seek to set the record straight, not so much in order to vindicate our views as to make it possible for the reader better to evaluate them. Thus these essays are no polemical in nature, but rather counter-polemical, if there’s a difference. Maybe it just boils down to who started the fight.

Second, we want to take the occasion to provide something of a symposium on the controversial Christ Myth theory, which most of us espouse in one form or another. . .

1. Personal attack?

I confess I have not yet read all of the book. But I don’t believe for a minute that our reviewer read it all either. If he did, if I am wrong, I challenge him to quote from the book to support this serious accusation.

I have read some very cutting and robust responses to Dever and others from the likes of Thompson and Davies in their defence against attacks made upon their work. That is all part and parcel of academic life. I would like to ask Tom Verenna to either support his allegation with quoted evidence or withdraw it.

In the academic literature, if a scholar demonstrates a slipping of scholarly standards in his argumentation he can expect no mercy from his peers. The attacks made against minimalists have been savage and personal. I have not seen Thompson and co respond in kind, though they do respond robustly. Ehrman has made savage personal attacks as to motive and integrity upon mythicists. So far all I have seen in Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth is a robust defence against Ehrman’s treatment of the works of Doherty, Price, Zindler, Salm, Murdock and Carrier.

Here are a few excerpts. If they are not truly representative of the responses of the contributors to this volume then I invite cited evidence to the contrary:

In is controversial book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Professor Bart Ehrman appears addicted to the fallacious ‘appeal to consensus’. (Robert M. Price, chapter 1)

Contrary to Ehrman’s claim, Josephus never refers to Jesus of Nazareth. (Amazingly, Ehrman actually quotes the two disputed Josephan passages in his book where readers can immediately see that Nazareth does not occur in the passages quoted!) This is an egregious gaffe . . . . . (Frank R. Zindler, chapter 11)

But once again, Ehrman is doing his thinking from inside the box. . . . (Earl Doherty, chapter 15)

Ironically the most savage treatment of Bart Ehrman in the book comes from the one contributor whom Verenna says is one of the book’s redeeming features: Richard Carrier.

For those interested in owning this volume, I suppose it has one or two redeeming qualities that make it worth owning.

First, Richard Carrier’s online content has been reedited and is as devastating as ever.

I would be interested to know by what criterion Verenna says Price, Zindler and Doherty are “personally attacking” Ehrman but Carrier is being merely “devastating as ever”. Following are a few Carrier excerpts:

Ehrman again exposes how careless his research for this book was by horribly bungling his treatment of a key source. . . .

Ehrman falsely claims that . . .

Several times Ehrman conceals facts from his readers . . . .

Ehrman often contradicts himself . . . .

It also seems that Ehrman did not do any discernible research into ancient literary or educational methods. . .

Failures of facts and logic, careless neglect of research, ignorance of essential background knowledge, and inattention to the arguments and evidence offered by his opponents, all typify Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. . . .

(Unfortunately the same reviewer has in the past accused this blog of likewise being a litany of personal attacks upon scholars who have the right credentials and banned me from posting any defence against his accusations on his site. So I am predisposed from the outset to be suspicious of his claims that anyone else is on a crusade of “personal attack”, too.)

Conclusion

I hope the above is sufficient to encourage interested readers not to be put off by Tom Verenna’s review. I fear he has quite misrepresented the purpose and nature of the book.

I could say much more. There is his condescending “damning with faint praise” approach to Earl Doherty’s contributions. (Doherty does not have the right credentials, remember, so by nature his arguments cannot be anything more than “cleverly written”.)

I also skimmed another review, one by Richard Carrier. I may treat that more extensively in a separate post. A main concern of Carrier in both this volume and in his online review is that he wants people to distance himself from the other mythicists. But in doing so he tries too hard and stumbles as a result. His attack on René Salm is quite misplaced and little more than a misrepresentation, a straw-man. One expects better from Carrier. Salm does not, contra Carrier, leave readers with the silly scenario of Jews founding a village and naming it after the hometown of the deity of their religious rivals. One wonders how diligently he really did read Salm’s book. But that’s another post.

(There was one other criticism Tom Verenna made and that I have not addressed here. He objects to its supposedly “anti-Christian” theme. I have found nothing to comment on with respect to that “charge”, so maybe I can comment further after I have read the complete volume. Other criticisms he makes are somewhat bemusing: it has no index; one of the contributors part owns the publishing company — the very same sorts of charges that could actually be leveled at the publications of some of the reviewer’s favourite scholars and friend. But those are inconsequential beside the scurrilous accusation that the book’s purpose is “character assassination”!)

14 Comments

  • 2013-05-04 21:41:26 UTC - 21:41 | Permalink

    I omitted one other significant charge leveled against the Zindler-Price volume: It relates to the reviewer’s claim that the book’s purpose is to “character assassinate”.

    T.V. wrote:

    Price makes no secret of this; he states in the introduction that this book represents a ‘counter-polemical’ because Ehrman started it (seriously).

    Now that makes Price sound very childish as well as devilish. Here are Price’s words explaining the book’s purpose, just for the sake of comparison. They are in the opening paragraph of the Introduction.

    This collection of essays addresses Bart Ehrman's book Did Jesus Exist? It seeks to serve two purposes. First, most of our authors' works were discussed in it and we feel obliged to respond, to clear the air of misconceptions and even misrepresentations. Though Professor Ehrman is a true scholar, we fear his treatment of our work was, let's say, casual (a euphemism, I'll admit it, for 'slipshod'). Here we seek to set the record straight, not so much in order to vindicate our views as to make it possible for the reader better to evaluate them. Thus these essays are no polemical in nature, but rather counter-polemical, if there's a difference. Maybe it just boils down to who started the fight.

    I have since added this along with more of the Introduction to the main body of the post. The section covers the stated aims of the volume.

    • 2013-05-05 11:22:35 UTC - 11:22 | Permalink

      I’m still a novice in learning how to read a kindle book. When I added the above passage to the main body of the post I also included other words that, now morning and a fresh cup of coffee have come, I see were actually words by Zindler in the Preface, not Price in the Introduction. Have removed them now.

  • 2013-05-04 23:18:07 UTC - 23:18 | Permalink

    It looks like Tom Verenna has joined forces with Hoffmann, Casey and McGrath, in the same sense that you get quite a few self-declared atheists ranged on the anti-mythicist side, with just as much hostility and misrepresentation directed toward it as one finds in historicist scholarly circles. One of the mysteries of our time.

    Over the last couple of days I have had an exchange with Richard Carrier and other contributors to the collective book and a few onlookers, taking great exception to Carrier’s review published on his blog. It is a rather nasty piece, and Carrier, as he so often does, takes refuge in the claim that he is simply being honest and professional. I had to beg to differ. There is a difference between criticism and mean-spirited criticism, and his “Review of the Long Knives” (as I called it) definitely falls into the latter category.

    Thanks, Neil, for calling out Tom Verenna on his equally nasty and unjustified piece.

    • 2013-05-04 23:34:58 UTC - 23:34 | Permalink

      Well, to be fair to McGrath, he’s not an atheist. He’s an old-earth creationist.

      • 2013-05-05 01:46:04 UTC - 01:46 | Permalink

        The last I heard Tom has disavowed atheism, too, so he is no longer in his colleague Jim West’s “angry atheist” category anymore.

    • 2013-05-05 00:19:07 UTC - 00:19 | Permalink

      Tom’s review is similar to his online gross misrepresentation of Rene Salm’s book on Nazareth. When I questioned Tom about this he quite openly admitted to not having read the book. He had formed an opinion of it from some other writing of Salm’s, he said. Similarly when I challenged him for evidence that this blog is nothing but a string of personal attacks on scholars he pulled out one line from a post over a year old and said he “no doubt” would find many more if he looked. Implying, that is, that he had no intention of looking, let alone supporting his accusation.

      I suspect he did not do much more than glance here and there at a few of the chapters in this book, and that with malicious intent. He looks to me to be playing the game of getting ahead in academia. He’s learning the rules of whose backsides to either kick or kiss.

  • Bob Moore
    2013-05-04 23:34:11 UTC - 23:34 | Permalink

    Thanks Neil. I initially read Verenna’s review thinking this book would be good for me and serve as well as a mythicist introduction to recommend to friends. After Verenna it fell to the bottom of my wish list. Now it’s back up near the top. Thanks for serving to moderate these inevitable vicissitudes.

  • proudfootz
    2013-05-05 00:47:49 UTC - 00:47 | Permalink

    I ordered the book because it seemed to me the over-the-top slams it was getting couldn’t possibly be true. It would seem the anti-mythicists are concerned to nip any discussion of the issues in the bud. Why do they fear and hate ‘mythicism’ so much?

  • 2013-05-05 01:50:14 UTC - 01:50 | Permalink

    @Bob — Thanks. I’m glad I wrote the post.

    @proudfootz — I did suspect that Tom may have been overstating the case to some extent, but I cannot deny I was conditioned by his review to expect some substance, however thin, to his criticisms. His review is as false as his portrayals of Salm’s book and this blog.

    • proudfootz
      2013-05-05 02:35:06 UTC - 02:35 | Permalink

      In my case, being somewhat familiar with some of the authors, it would be out of character for them to submit anything which was primarily ‘character assassination’ – I suspected that if there *were* criticisms of Ehrman these would be supported with examples of Ehrman’s mistakes.

      Based on what I know of Ehrman’s book DJE? it would be difficult to ‘assassinate’ his character – he seems to have committed ‘character suicide’ from his blanket slurs against ‘mythicists’ in the introduction, apparent sloppy scholarship on matters of fact, and misrepresentation of the views of the scholars he names.

  • 2013-05-05 22:48:21 UTC - 22:48 | Permalink

    “Nowhere does Price “inflate the credentials” of D. M. Murdock. He bluntly acknowledges her lack of formal credentials and points to the originality of her approach.”

    Well, yes and no: “Her chief sin in Ehrman’s eyes would appear to be her lack of diplomas on the wall, nothwithstanding Acharya’s extensive researches, including on-site investigations of archaeological materials, and her extensive documentation of her theories. She dares to plumb the neglected and forgotten works by old writers, separating the wheat from the chaff where these old authors lacked the (more recent) knowledge that would have enabled them to tell the difference. Like a scribe who produces from her treasury of goods old and new [Matt. 13:52], she has a knack for displaying intriguing data neglected by ‘mainstream’ scholars who simply do not know what to make of them. . . .”

    Her extensive documentation of her theories is nothing but a smokescreen, often hiding long links of chains – even when quoting church fathers, she often quotes tertiary sources on what they said! In addition, many of her sources are very untrustworthy even then – in the Christ Conspiracy, the most quoted source if Barbara Walker. I have documented and am going on documenting Barbara Walker misrepresenting or misunderstanding sources on several occasions (see http://somerationalism.blogspot.fi/2013/04/index-of-posts-related-to-barbara-walker.html ) When reading a book presenting a thesis such as that espoused by Murdock, this kind of extensive documentation is counterproductive: to evaluate the quality of her work, you’ll have to spend years evaluating the quality of her sources. Many of the sources she provides are, by the way, for obvious claims. More out-there claims, she often fails to provide supporting quotes for: this is like a mathematician trying to prove “P=NP?”, providing documentation for all arithmetic claims he makes, some documentation for algebra 101-level claims, and none whatsoever for anything beyond linear algebra.

    A really notable case in point for this shoddiness is the entire chapter “Etymology tells the story”, which is nothing but fanciful speculation, most of which can be rejected by learning some actual linguistics.

    Her ability to separate wheat from chaff is lacking – her use of these 19th century (and earlier) sources nearly always is chaff. Modern scholars *do* know what to make of these neglected scholars – neglect them!

    • 2013-05-05 23:03:54 UTC - 23:03 | Permalink

      It is quite right to be critical of Murdock’s methods of argument. I have been challenged by her supporters and begun, in response to some of those challenges, to post my own views of some of her work. I have simply not been able to generate enough personal interest, though, to keep up with these posts. Maybe another rainy day will come. And I do not see any room for her methods of argument in any serious discussion of the Christ Myth theory, though little details in some of the older books may be worth picking up and thinking about sometimes. Unfortunately Murdock’s responses to my criticism have been quite nasty personal attacks so there can be no hope of civil debate with her. She appears to take any criticism of her methods as a personal insult. Tom’s criticism in his review of both of Price and Murdock was nonetheless misdirected.

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  • David Conklin
    2014-11-03 22:48:08 UTC - 22:48 | Permalink

    >Robert M. Price wrote of Murdock:

    “Acharya S. (pen name of D.M. Murdock) is one of the prime targets for Professor Ehrman’s haughty derision. Her chief sin in Ehrman’s eyes would appear to be her lack of diplomas on the wall, nothwithstanding Acharya’s extensive researches, including on-site investigations of archaeological materials, and her extensive documentation of her theories. She dares to plumb the neglected and forgotten works by old writers, separating the wheat from the chaff where these old authors lacked the (more recent) knowledge that would have enabled them to tell the difference. Like a scribe who produces from her treasury of goods old and new [Matt. 13:52], she has a knack for displaying intriguing data neglected by ‘mainstream’ scholars who simply do not know what to make of them. . . . ”

    In fact, Ehrman discusses her book on pages 23-24 and then on pages 27-30 and shows that on 23 different points her work is “flawed” or an outright lie. That would be why no mainstream scholar would waste their precious time on her work. If she was duly registered in a mainstream (not extremely liberal, where anything goes) grad school she would be forced to drop-out because of all the “F’s” on her transcript.

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