Bart Ehrman is certainly one of the most popular of “liberal” biblical scholars, but not even he can escape a logical fallacy that bedevils both the fundamentalist extremities (e.g. see my earlier post on Evans’ criteria) and mainstream of early Christian studies.
In Jesus, Interrupted, he has a section headed Criteria for Establishing the Veracity of Historical Material.
Point 3 in this section is: It is better to cut against the grain.
Here he asks a question without, apparently, grasping the circularity underlying it:
How might we account for traditions of Jesus that clearly do not fit with a “Christian” agenda, that is, that do not promote the views and perspectives of the people telling the stories? Traditions like that would not have been made up by the Christian storytellers, and so they are quite likely to be historically accurate. (p. 154)
This is flawed on multiple grounds. It is the same “logic” or argument that one sees at the root of much fundamentalist rhetoric.
To take just the most obvious level of error in this post, the argument in essence is saying nothing more than, “Since we can’t think of why a Christian author would have said X, he must have written it because it really happened and he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, come what may.”
In other words, there is the presumption of historicity. The argument for historicity is circular.
It’s the same fallacy as N.T. Wright et al use for the resurrection. “The disciples would not have made such and such up, therefore it had to be true.” Or even, “No Christian would make up the story of a man of God being persecuted and betrayed by those closest to him and dying a shameful death (forget Joseph and other biblical characters, the Psalms of David, and the stories of the Maccabean martyrs), and who was so venerated he had to be followed and honoured by all, so it had to be true.”
The specific example Bart Ehrman uses to illustrate his point in fact is probably the best one to demonstrate its logical flaw.
You can see why Christians might want to say that Jesus came from Bethlehem: that was where the son of David was to come from (Micah 5:2). But who would make up a story that the Savior came from Nazareth, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of? This tradition does not advance any Christian agenda. Somewhat ironically, then, it is probably historically accurate. (p.154)
René Salm, and others, have shown that there is a very plausible reason why the town of Nazareth was eventually linked to Jesus. See my previous post on The Nazareth Myth, and of course www.nazarethmyth.info. It was more than likely in order to deflect credibility from Jewish Christian sect(s) with a similar sounding sectarian name that had no geographical association at all. See an old Crosstalk exchange.
All written composition has an agenda of some sort. People write with a purpose, an intention. That is, with an agenda. One cannot write otherwise. The historians’ task is to investigate the agendas of what is written. And if one finds that the agenda is to record certain types of historical facts about Jesus, then we can add those to the history of Jesus and Christianity.
But we expose our lack of imagination, and unscholarly bias, if we presume to know an agenda has to be X simply because it does not fit in with the explanation we have designed and called Y.
(See also the book details for The Nazareth Myth)
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