Biblical scholars are reacting uncomfortably to signs of public interest in the view that Jesus did not exist. Not all biblical scholars, though. A tiny few do publicly welcome and accommodate this mythicist view of Jesus with their Christian faith and others who have confessed to being open-minded on the question. (For details see Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicists Agnostics.) But it is no secret that biblical studies is dominated by the Christian faith, both its liberal and conservative wings, so when articles questioning the most fundamental precept of that faith appear in prominent media outlets like The Washington Post, Salon.com, and most recently Macleans, some of those scholars let their indignation and impatience show. Unfortunately for their cause, however, while they focus on defending their traditional assumptions they all too often completely ignore (or misrepresent) the actual reasons many intelligent and educated people continue to have doubts.
My own position on mythicism: Following is my (slightly modified) email reply to someone who recently asked me if I was an agnostic on the mythicist question. —
Yes. It is the best we can argue. The evidence and critical methods we have can only allow us to argue that our New Testament literature can well be explained without recourse to a historical Jesus but that fact does not itself prove their was no historical Jesus. Even some “historicists” admit that the historical Jesus is essentially irrelevant to what became Christianity.
Personally I see no reason to believe in the existence of a historical Jesus but I cannot prove that position, so I must remain agnostic. The best I can do is to demonstrate how the evidence we have for Christian origins can be explained far more cogently without reference to a historical figure.
[A danger some mythicists fall into is an ideological desire to prove Jesus was not historical but the expression of some other deity or cosmic phenomena,] — that is, looking only for evidence to support their theory. That approach is susceptible to confirmation bias. If we can’t find ways to test our hypotheses and identify how they could be disproved then we are not using valid historical or scientific reasoning. [I think a more interesting and profitable pursuit than trying to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus is to explore and understand the evidence that sheds light on Christianity’s origins.]
In this series of posts I will address the public responses of two mainstream scholars, Philip Jenkins and Stanley Porter (who responds jointly with Hughson Ong, a relatively new name in the field), to Brian Bethune’s discussion of Bart Ehrman’s new popular book, Jesus Before the Gospels, in the context of questions raised by Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. The two articles:
- Stanley Porter and Hughson Ong: “Did Jesus Really Exist?” and Social Memory
- Philip Jenkins: The Myth of the Mythical Jesus
Both responses are clearly written with considerable impatience:
In debates about Christian origins, one tiresome canard is going to come up sporadically, and usually, it’s not worth wasting time on. (Jenkins)
Here we go again, chasing after another ill-conceived theory about the Bible, this being one that periodically rises from the mordant ooze. (Porter-Ong)
And both responses completely sidestep Brian Bethune’s core questions. By way of reminder here are those unaddressed questions that arise from Ehrman’s book:
Q1. Almost entirely from the Christian tradition
Ehrman’s memory book, in effect, is more an appeal to the faithful to accept historians’ approach than a new way of evaluating evidence. His list of what historians, including himself, think they can attest to hardly differs from a list he would have made a decade ago:
- Jesus was a Jew,
- an apocalyptic preacher like the man who baptized him, John the Baptist;
- his teaching, rooted in Torah, was delivered in parables and aphorisms;
- Jesus had followers who claimed his message was validated by the miracles he wrought;
- in the last week of his life, Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he caused a disturbance in the Temple that, some hours later, led to his arrest;
- Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor found him guilty of sedition and had him crucified.
However appealing and reasonable such a list is to modern skeptics, it is still drawn almost entirely from within the faith tradition, with buttressing by the slimmest of outside supports—brief references from Roman observers. (My own bolded emphasis and formatting in all quotations)
Q2. Buttressed by the slimmest of outside supports
Bethune then shows us just how slim the most “rock-solid” of those outside supports are:
Consider one item on Ehrman’s list, perhaps the most accepted and certainly the one with the largest claim to historical accuracy embedded within it: Pontius Pilate executed Jesus. Scholars are almost universally on-side, as are most Christian churches. Pilate is the sole figure from Jesus’s trial for whom we have undoubted archaeological evidence, and he’s also, perhaps coincidentally, the only one to become part of the Nicene Creed, the most widely embraced capsule statement of Christian faith: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
But that wasn’t what all early Christians thought.
- The apocryphal Gospel of Peter says King Herod signed the death warrant.
- Others who thought Jesus was nearly 50 when he died believed that happened in the 40s of the first century, long after Pilate had been recalled to Rome.
- The Nazorians, an intriguing sect of Torah-observant early Christians discussed by a fourth-century scholar, believed Jesus died a century before the canonical Gospels, around 70 BCE. (And, since they were descended directly from the first followers of Christ, called Nazarenes before they became known as Christians, the Nazorians cannot be easily dismissed. The Babylonian Talmud, composed by the fifth century, notes the same.)
Yet Pilate is in Mark as the agent of Jesus’s crucifixion, from which he spread to the other Gospels, and also in the annals of the Roman historian Tacitus and writings by his Jewish counterpart, Josephus. Those objective, non-Christian references make Pilate as sure a thing as ancient historical evidence has to offer, unless—as has been persuasively argued by numerous scholars, including historian Richard Carrier in his recent On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason For Doubt—both brief passages are interpolations, later forgeries made by zealous Christians. . . .
The Gospels are forthright in their agendas to serve theological and not historical needs. Mark may have pinned Jesus’s death on Pilate because he knew or believed it to be true, says Carrier, or he may have been practising “apocalyptic math.” [“Apocalyptic math” is a reference to the interest in that day of finding a timetable for the appearance of the messiah in the mysterious numbers in the Book of Daniel.]
Craig Evans interlude
Uh oh, is Carrier befuddling the public with the question begging “interpolation” card? Is he blithely sweeping aside contrary evidence as possible forgeries? That’s how Craig Evans, another mainstream scholar, chose to react to Carrier’s case in a recent debate. But in a live debate situation Carrier was able to respond on the spot and remind the audience that far from any question begging, detailed and abundant evidence for the claim of forgery was used to back up the assertion. (Bart Ehrman himself not very long ago even wrote another popular book demonstrating just how widespread forgery was in the early Christian world.)
When Craig Evans brushed aside Carrier’s assertions he was brushing aside all the evidence and argument upon which those assertions were grounded. That’s not addressing the arguments; it’s reacting to them in a way that leaves the critical public unpersuaded.
Meanwhile, both Jenkins and Porter-Ong quietly leave aside that other detail of concern to Bethune, the problematic theological function of the Christian sources.
Q3. Thinking through Paul’s silence and the Gospels’ details
Bethune thinks through the implications of Paul’s non-interest in the historical Jesus:
Carrier’s rigorously argued discussion—made all the more compelling for the way it bends over backwards to give the historicist case an even chance—is the first peer-reviewed historical work on mythicism. He’s relatively restrained in his summation of the absences in Paul’s letters. “That’s all simply bizarre. And bizarre means unexpected, which means infrequent, which means improbable.” Historicists have no real response to it. Ehrman simply says, “It’s hard to know what to make of Paul’s non-interest; perhaps he just doesn’t care about Jesus before his resurrection.”
Other historians extend that lack-of-curiosity explanation to early Christians in general, which is not only contrary to the usual pattern of human nature, but seems to condemn the Gospels as fiction: if Christians couldn’t have cared less about the details of Jesus’s life and ministry, they wouldn’t have preserved them, and the evangelists would have been forced to make up everything.
Bethune identifies the wobbliness of mainstream scholar’s responses. When Ehrman attempts to squash any thought of using his sceptical arguments to doubt the very existence of Jesus by insisting that the Gospels remain very important documents, Bethune steadies the boat with:
And so they are, to the history of Christianity and Western culture in general, but not to the history of Jesus, as Ehrman’s own foray into memory study demonstrates: Biographical details, the assurance of physical actuality, are the greatest missionary tools.
Ehrman is correct that the stories we read in the gospels served a meaningful purpose for those people who were responsible for first recording and embracing them. If those people were involved in missionary work then the gospel stories serve as ideal templates for them. Bethune:
Soon enough, as the tendencies of human memory predict, the cosmic Christ, like central figures in other contemporary mystery cults, was “factualized” to better attract adherents. Again, given the way social memory is really all about the problems of now, the Gospels display their interest in issues liable to confront any missionary: prophets without honour in their own lands (that is, treated skeptically in their villages, where people remember them); faith healings that don’t always work out (it’s the fault of those who lack faith); why your allegiance should be to your faith family, not your biological kin (Jesus pushed away his own siblings).
So Brian Bethune, after reading Bart Ehrman’s new book on the nature of the evidence we have for Jesus, is left with serious unresolved questions and expresses these in a widely read forum.
Enter the impatient professors
And not only impatient, but indignant.
Unfortunately they let slip a little arrogance and even some bullying that I can’t imagine working well in their favour among honestly questioning bystanders.
Example: Porter-Ong even take Bethune to task for being so misguided as to raise questions posed by Carrier’s arguments and apply them to the implications of Ehrman’s study! Thinking outside traditional paradigms is NOT how their mainstream profession does things! Carrier’s arguments have no business being set against Ehrman’s work. Since Ehrman himself does not doubt the historicity of Jesus Porter-Ong stress that in their view it is invalid to bring the question of the historicity of Jesus into his study.
It is unfortunate, however, that Bethune in his article has totally misconstrued the issue by juxtaposing Richard Carrier’s doubting Jesus’ existence and Bart Ehrman’s advocacy of social memory theory, as well as misrepresenting the utilization of social memory theories in Gospel studies by citing (only) Ehrman . . . . In short, it is not a theory of history and cannot be used to determine historicality (such as whether or not Jesus existed).
The use of social memory theories in Gospel studies is at most for purposes of elucidating and understanding the social constructs and the oral traditioning process of the Jesus stories in the Gospels, and definitely not for arguing for or against Jesus’ existence.
The theory certainly cannot be used to determine “historicality (such as whether or not Jesus existed)” and Bethune clearly is aware of that, but Porter-Ong are choosing to ignore the questions concerning “historicality” that inevitably arise as an unintended consequence of that theory. Porter-Ong further attempt to belittle Bethune and his readers by telling us that they are being foolishly and ignorantly misled by a faddish book written by a popular hack (Ehrman) rather than a real authority on the subject. (I agree that Ehrman has shortchanged other scholars in the field who have been working on social memory long before his own work appeared, but this is irrelevant to the concerns of lay readers represented by the Macleans article.)
Porter-Ong are bold enough to admit that they do not even need to have read Ehrman’s and Carrier’s books to justify their patronizing criticism of someone entertaining questions after having read them both:
It is not our intention here to directly critique Ehrman’s or Carrier’s work, for we have not read them in full yet. Nor is it our objective to join in this ongoing social memory fad . . . .
I like the face-saving “in full yet”. Fact: their criticisms elsewhere in their article leave the more informed lay readers in no doubt that they have not read much of Ehrman’s book (it’s very short and easy to read by scholarly standards) and effectively none of Carrier’s book at all. Yet they bring the full weight of their professional status to bear down heavily on a lay reader who has questions arising from a reading of both.
From admitting to not having read the books the move on to downright ignorance with the following:
Milman Parry and Albert Lord speak of the Serbo-Croatian bards composing new songs in every act of performance, they also say that the new composition is still based and draws upon known “oral formulas” that will fit the metrical lines or patterns of the new song. In short, “an act of creation” does not imply “an act of fabrication.” With respect to social memory theory, it is doubtful whether Ehrman is the appropriate and accurate authority to cite in terms of the scholarly research done on the subject. He may just be, as he has been before, trailing along in public support of the latest fad.
I think that passage is intended to impress the ignorant masses with data that only the erudite professionals would know and that supposedly refutes the entire “social memory” theory. In fact the Milman Parry and Albert Lord work on Serbo-Croatian bards is not about social memory theory as addressed by Ehrman or any of the post-modernist social-memory theorists in biblical studies. I guess such an irrelevant gaffe is to be expected from scholars who in one breath say a certain theory is too complex to be understood well by a populist writer yet in the next breath insist that same theory is a mere fad. They appear not to have bothered with Maurice Halbwachs any more than they have with Ehrman. In sum: Porter-Ong appear to have made their minds up that the gospel authors derived their stories from oral tradition and that oral tradition worked according to a century old study of Balkan bards and no further theories or books that might challenge their conclusions need be seriously addressed or even read. It follows that the only way they can respond to outsiders’ challenges is through intellectual intimidation.
The desperation of the Porter-Ong defence becomes almost amusing with their second point:
[W]e should also understand that historians, while they evaluate the reliability of their sources, also depend on those same sources to do their work. To claim that the Gospel materials contain ahistorical information about Jesus does not automatically negate his existence; this is a huge leap from scholarly studies of historical sources to a denial of an actual historical fact. To be clear, to believe that “eyewitnesses tend to offer the least trustworthy accounts, particularly when recalling something spectacular or fast-moving, like Jesus walking on water” (39) is certainly different from arguing that the multitude of eyewitnesses who saw Jesus walk and live on earth (1 Cor 15:5-8; 1 John 1:1-3) lied about his existence. This kind of skepticism makes it hard to think that we know anything from the past, whether ancient or modern.
Yes, scholars do need to believe in the core historical reliability underlying the gospel narratives or else they won’t be able to do any more work based on the historical core underlying the gospel narratives! Once again Porter-Ong have chosen to remain ignorant of the challenges thrown up by the mythicists. The gospels really are not like other ancient historical and biographical writings. As Bethune rightly implies, historians do not normally rely almost entirely upon theological tracts as the foundation of any other historical reconstructions.
Towards the end of their article Porter-Ong bring out a most absurd claim, so often made in defiance of all we know about the range of literature both ancient and modern, that a narrative set in a real geographical or historical setting should itself be assumed to be essentially historical!
- the fact that archaeological artifacts also attest to and corroborate much historical information in support of the Gospel accounts should also prompt us to study and assess our presuppositions and arguments further, before making any hasty and preposterous conclusions.
Their inability to deal with Bethune’s questions finally collapses into desperate farce:
- if Jesus really did not exist, how about his contemporaries, did they exist? The Gospels indicate that Jesus lived amidst a very dense and multiplex social network. How are we to make sense of this social network, if we say that Jesus did not exist, but that the people in his social network did exist?
Yes, well. . . .
Brian Bethune must be wondering if this is the best the defenders of the historicity of Jesus can do so let’s move on to Philip Jenkins.
Jenkins has an even more blunt response to anyone who ventures into the “far swamps of extreme crankery” . . . .
For the next post….. Part 2