Historical Jesus Studies As Pseudo-History — Bart Ehrman As a Case-Study

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by Neil Godfrey

First let it be clear where I am coming from. This is not an attack on any scholar or the scholarship of theologians in general. It is an attempt to address what strikes me as very muddled thinking in many works about the historical Jesus. That is not a denigration of the scholars in question or the works they have produced. It is forthright attempt to address an assumption or understanding that appears to be generally overlooked. If my views are wrong then I would expect someone somewhere who knows better can point out in a reasoned explanation where and why they are wrong. That would cause me some embarrassment, no doubt, but at least I would be given the opportunity change my views. I resolved long ago to be prepared to take the consequences of striving to be honest with myself in place of living a lie. But if the only response continues to be ridicule or insult or silent dismissal I will have no reason to think my criticism is invalid.

Often when I read a scholarly study of the historical Jesus I am a little dismayed at the woolliness of the ideas addressed. I have slowly become convinced that very few scholars who have written about the historical Jesus have ever studied what history even is. Very often historical evidence is confused with stories or an assumption that a story must be derived from real happenings.

Now I do understand that when Bart Ehrman wrote Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet for a New Millennium (=JAPNM), he wrote it not for his scholarly peers but for a wider public:

Scholars have written hundreds of books about Jesus . . . . A good number of these books, mainly the lesser-known ones, have been written by scholars for scholars to promote scholarship; others have been written by scholars to popularise scholarly views. The present book is one of the latter kind . . . . (p. ix)

The woolliness of thinking about the distinction between the narrative of an event and evidence for a real historical event, and even about the nature of history itself, is a critical consideration given that Ehrman also writes in the same preface:

The evidence itself plays a major role in this book. Most other popular treatments of Jesus rarely discuss evidence. That’s a particularly useful move — to avoid mentioning the evidence — if you’re going to present a case that’s hard to defend. Maybe if you just tell someone what you think, they’ll take your word for it. In my opinion, though, a reader has the right to know not only what scholars think about Jesus . . . but also why they think what they think. That is, readers have a right to know what the evidence is. (p. x)

Since my first draft of this post a new book by Ehrman has appeared (Did Jesus Exist? =DJE) in which he underscores the same fallacies running through JAPNM and adds a raft of new ones. For example, he lists a number of sources that he says historians can rely upon to establish the historical existence of a person while failing to notice that a number of the sources he lists can just as easily be used to argue for the historical existence of several pagan gods and demi-gods. (No wonder he finds they conveniently support the historicity of Jesus!) Equally bad, almost all of them ultimately beg the question of historicity rather than confirm it. I will discuss the logical fallacies inherent in his list in a future post.

What is history?

There are two fundamentals that I learned in about history in my senior history classes.

  1. The first thing I learned in my history class at senior high school was what history is not. History is not a list of facts, dates and events. A list of events is a chronicle, not history. History is the study of past events, an exploration in understanding those events, the composition of a narrative to convey some story or meaning from those past events. Such a narrative invests the “facts” with interpretation and meaning.
  2. The second was that when it comes to ancient history historians can only study questions for which we have enough raw material to research. We can’t write a biography of Socrates examining the range of formative influences upon his thinking and assessing how much of his contribution to Greek philosophy was unique to his own genius, for example.

Let’s unpack these a little.

1. What history is not and what it is

The raw material with which historians work is data, say a collection of original documents and manuscripts. The historian reads this data to arrive at meaningful information — that is, learning what the documents say and what sorts of documents they are. From this information the historian understands that certain events happened in the past to produce this information. That is, someone with certain information and certain intentions recorded events in, say, a church register of baptisms. If the historian can verify that a document really is a valid register, then he or she can declare that the information it contains is evidence of an event in the historical past, such as the birth in 1564 of one person known as William Shakespeare.

Other data examined by the historian in order to turn it into meaningful information, may lead the historian to conclude that he or she has evidence that a person by the same name in the same time period wrote plays.

We are talking here about the raw material historians use.

Nothing we have described thus far is “history” in any meaningful sense. It is all just data, information and evidence of facts that happened in the past.

To write history the historian will make use of this evidence and the knowledge thus acquired of what events happened in the past.

If the historian chooses to write a history about the manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays, he or she will attempt to track down who owned the manuscripts in the past, how they changed hands, how they came to be where they are now, and also study any changes that have been made as manuscripts were copied etc etc etc. The historian is looking for evidence that can be used to piece together a narrative, a story about the manuscripts.

If, however, the historian wishes to write a history about Elizabethan drama, those details will be far less important. Rather, comparisons will be made with the works of other playwrights; political events at the time will be studied; social customs will be investigated. Again, the historian is looking for events that can be stitched together in a narrative. It is the narrative that is the history.

So we see it is not the raw material or the mere events of the past that make history. History is the construction of narratives or explanations of events known to have happened in the past.

History is a study of the past; it is not a chronicle or list of events and dates from the past.

2. The raw materials of the historian

What is advanced as evidence for Jesus are in large part hypothetical sources and “facts” about his life. One can justify an investigation into the origins of Christianity but we hardly have sufficient raw material to study the person of Jesus himself. This is why historical Jesus scholars have manufactured processes they call “criteria” to apply to our sources in an effort to force them to yield “raw facts” with which to write a history or biography of Jesus. The chaotic and conflicting results of these studies is witness to the contradictory nature and fallacies within the criteria and even the process of “criteriology” to “manufacture” the “facts” the historical Jesus scholars want.

I won’t test the patience of readers by repeating here the details. I have addressed them fully in Historical facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with historical Jesus studies two years ago and many times since.

Clearly the focus of interest on “the historical Jesus” addresses the demands of theological, and to some extent broader social-cultural, interests. Scholars have too often, however, compromised valid historical inquiry under pressure of these demands.

Are historians like detectives?

The answer depends. Detectives are called out to the scenes of criminal events. If they discover there was no event at all then those who called them out will have some explaining to do. If the detective studied the crime scene and after seeing the broken window, the muddy footprints, the fingerprints, the ransacked room, the owner of the house lying on the floor badly beaten, and he finally concluded, “Yes, there has been a break-and-enter here and someone has been badly assaulted,” he would probably not be considered the force’s sharpest Sherlock.

On the other hand, if the detective could piece the information together in a way that led to the identity of the criminal and his motive he would have earned his pay cheque.

The latter scenario is comparable to what historians do. They piece the clearly established events together in such a way to create a plausible story that is of some use or interest to others.

Are historical Jesus scholars like detectives?

Bart Ehrman says “we should always think of [the details in the Gospels] as if we were historical detectives” (p. 35, JAPNM).

Historical Jesus scholars, however, spend a lot of time looking for facts about the life of Jesus. They only have a miracle-laced story (appearing in a faith-document) about the baptism of Jesus and no corroboration external to the faith-tradition. So they call upon the Criteria Cavalry to help them out. The criterion of embarrassment steps forward, elbowing to the sidelines his rivals such as the criterion of fulfilled prophecy and the criterion of literary analogy and says, “It would be embarrassing for early Christians to have John baptise Jesus so they did not make up the story: it is probably historical.” Why it would be embarrassing is not always spelled out. Even where it is spelled out the alternative scenarios that would permit Christians to manufacture such a scenario are very rarely considered and weighed.

Thus a hypothetical “fact” is manufactured from a hypothetical premise. This is not good detective work; nor is it good history.

Historians, like detectives, do need to set out the facts before they can begin their work. But manufacturing hypothetical facts from hypothetical premises is not good form. (What historical Jesus scholars are doing is actually manufacturing ideological and social knowledge, a form of propaganda, but this is something to be be explored in another post.)

Consider further . . . .

Is Ehrman’s “historical detective” poring through the box of manuscripts or primary sources to find information that will yield evidence of events, evidence of what happened? Or — to set up an extreme example — is this historian, without realising it, simply reading an Agatha Christie novel and fantasising about “being there” as if the words on the page are windows to the real manuscripts, the real data that will yield information and evidence? Isn’t the Agatha Christie only a fiction anyway? It would be nothing but a mind game to pretend it was evidence for a real crime.

But wait on. Am I trying to say the Gospels are fiction? Well, yes and no. Firstly, I believe the valid approach to the gospels is to approach them agnostically. We should not pre-judge them as either fictional or otherwise. I do not argue, and never have, that we should presume at the outset that the Gospels are fiction or that there is no historical basis behind their stories. But neither is it valid to begin with the converse. Surely either proposition must be demonstrated, and until then the question should be held in limbo.

The whole judicial verdict analogy is inappropriate . . . anyway. In the one case, we have two choices, to put a man in jail or not. In the other, we have three choices: certainty of an authentic text, certainty of an inauthentic text, and uncertainty.

A suggestive argument that nonetheless remains inconclusive should cause us to return to the third verdict . . . . The logical implication would seem to be textual agnosticism, but [often a scholar] prefers textual fideism instead.

Adapted from Robert M. Price; Jeffery Jay Lowder. The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (p. 73). Kindle Edition. With thanks to Tim Widowfield for the quote.

Yet in this particular case Bart Ehrman himself has said that many of the details in the Gospels are “fictional”. No, he does not use the word “fictional”, but he does let us know that we have a right to call them “myths” if we are not oversensitive to the  connotations of that word to a mainstream (presumably American and largely religious) audience:

But one thing has remained constant since Strauss. There continue to be scholars — for most of this century, it’s been the vast majority of critical scholars — who think that he was right, not in all or even most of the specific things he said, but in the general view he propounded. There are stories in the Gospels that did not happen historically as narrated, but that are meant to convey a truth. Few scholars today would follow Strauss in calling these stories “myths”. The term is too loaded even still . . . . (p. 30, JAPNM)

But is a myth really just another word for fiction?

For Strauss, the Gospels contain . . . myths. . . . Today, most people understand a “myth” to be something that isn’t true. For Strauss it was just the opposite. A myth was “true.” But it didn’t happen. Of, more precisely (but put rather simply), for Strauss, a myth is a history-like story that is meant to convey a religious truth. That is, the story is fictional, even though it’s told like a historical narrative . . . . (pp. 27-28)

What a load of gobbledegooky double-speak! From this point on Ehrman speaks of “historical inaccuracies” and “Gospel truths”. Ah, how the fear of the target audience clearly has been wagging the scholarly dog — not just in Ehrman’s case but in the case of all scholars whom Ehrman says think the same way.

To be blunt, the Gospels are clearly filled with myths. Fictions. Leave it to the Orwellian theologians who would like to rename these myths as poetic “truths” or “truths” of a religious kind. Are scholars so squeamish about calling the pagan myths “myths”? Do they refer to the Iliad as consisting of mere “historical inaccuracies” or things that did not happen “as narrated”?

Now we know that in ancient historiography we do read stories of miracles and myths alongside genuine historical narratives. But in most of those cases the ancient historians themselves will express some scepticism about the historicity of the myth or miracle, or at least set apart such tales as open to question by the reader. The significant differences between these histories and the Gospels is that:

  1. we know where the histories originated but we only have guesses about the Gospel origins, who they were written for, by whom and why;
  2. the histories have at some level clearly independent corroboration while the Gospels do not;
  3. the histories are written as history genre (hence the expressions of scepticism in relation to the miraculous and mythical) while the Gospels are clearly faith documents of questionable historical validity.

The historian, like a detective, needs to clearly acknowledge the nature of the sources he or she is reading and to clearly understand the implications of their nature.  A narrative does not by definition have to derive from oral traditions. Oral traditions do not by definition have to originate with historical events. But historical Jesus scholars so very often don’t write as if they understand this. Mythical tales are not necessarily embellishments of real events. We cannot assess a narrative’s origin properly unless we carefully analyze the full range of possibilities. This is what our court system is designed to do: to test all the possibilities behind the testimonies of various witnesses.

I should add here that the historian of Alexander or Cicero or even of Socrates does not have this problem of reliance upon works that are filled with myths or that we must approach with agnosticism over their fictional or non-fictional status.

  1. Firstly, they do not rely upon sources that without exception all hail from one singular faith tradition. (At least Albert Schweitzer could see the logical fallacy of relying entirely upon such documents if one seeks to establish credible historical probability. See the final paragraphs in Schweitzer’s Comments on the historical-mythical Jesus debate.)
  2. Secondly, they do not rely upon sources that ultimately date twenty or more years after the supposed events in question. (The “fact” that Martin Luther committed suicide began to be circulated in hostile circles, according to our evidence, twenty years after his death, and it is because of this twenty year lateness of the appearance of this “tradition” in the record that a staunch Catholic historian insists that  this “fact” be ignored and treated as “fiction”.)

Do historical Jesus scholars consistently distinguish between a narrative tale and a real-world event?

Clearly and emphatically No!

To keep with Ehrman as a case-study, we are informed that

Prior to the Enlightenment . . . virtually everyone who studied the Gospels — whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, or whatever or whichever stripe – understood them to represent “supernatural histories.” That is to say, the Gospels recorded historical events, things that actually happened. (p. 23, JAPNM)

That is true. I fully accept what Bart Ehrman is saying here. The Gospels were for most of our past widely accepted as faithfully recorded history.

So what happened in the wake of the Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment that swept through Europe in the eighteenth century involved a whole new way of thinking and looking at the world. . . . According to these scholars [who were influenced by the rationalistic world-view of the Enlightenment] the miracles of the Bible obviously didn’t happen — since modern people no longer need to appeal to the supernatural the way the ancients did. . . . For such scholars, the Gospels do not therefore contain supernatural histories at all. They instead recount natural histories. (p. 25)

That is, the miracles in the Gospels could be explained by natural means. Jesus did not walk on water: it was night with a strong head wind and the disciples in the boat didn’t realise how close to shore they really were. And so forth. Thus:

Prior to the 1830s, just about everyone understood the Gospels as either supernatural histories or natural histories. (p. 27)

Then along came David Friedrich Strauss. See above. He examined both the natural and supernatural arguments for the miracles, such as Jesus walking on water. If Jesus really walked on water, he was not human like any other human. And if not, there goes the theological basis for Christianity. Was it not only by the shed blood of a deity who came as a true human that we can be saved? Conclusion: the story of walking on water (and the other miracles) was a metaphor to illustrate a spiritual “truth” — that only in Christ or by faith we can rise above all the trials and tribulations of this world. That is, the story was a myth. A fiction. Only those who read theological meanings into it could call it “true”, but of course this meant nothing more than doctrinal “truth”, not historical truth.

Ehrman even compares such stories to falsehoods that are repeated to American school-children as “national propaganda”. Here he cites the story of George Washington as a boy confessing to chopping down the cherry tree. This falsehood serves to teach that the “United States is founded on honesty” as well as to “convey an important lesson in personal morality.” Ehrman explains:

The Gospels of the New Testament contain stories kind of like that, stories that may contain truths, at least in the minds of those who told them, but that are not historically accurate. (p. 31)

That may “contain truths”? Oh come on. It is clear the stories themselves are falsehoods. “Contain” truths? Let’s be blunt again. They are fables that are told to teach lessons that the teacher believes should be taught and that are moral and right and good for everyone. It is a classic case of Plato’s “noble lie”. Be honest! Don’t lie about lying if you’re a scholar. Tell it like it is.

Not “historically accurate”? This is nothing but Orwellian double-speak. That Caesar braved a storm in a small boat might be an historical inaccuracy. But that anyone should walk on water is a myth.

No, we are not talking about “historical inaccuracies”. We are talking about myths as opposed to historical events.

And what is the basis of believing that the Gospels might be records of historical events? Ehrman has effectively told us. Ever since the beginning, certainly “prior to the Enlightenment”, society has believed the Gospels are historical records. Then the primary change that broke in upon us was with the Enlightenment when it was decided among many scholars that they testified of a natural history rather than a supernatural one. The idea that they were “history” of some kind appears to have been too far ingrained to be questioned.

Only with Strauss was their historical character questioned. But Ehrman knows his readers, and the lay and many scholarly readers of Strauss, and that they will dismiss Strauss for this reason:

Before writing Strauss off as a crazed, dismissive skeptic . . . . (p. 27)

Ehrman knows that Strauss offends a world of readers still steeped in some form of religious belief.

The Gospels are still assumed to be some form of record of historical events. And if the most sceptical of scholars concedes this, that scholar can rarely escape the tyranny of the cultural world-view that says at the very least the Gospels were inspired by historical events. Even if they narrate only myths, those myths, it is assumed, were inspired by real persons and happenings.

But it is all assumption.

There are nothing but assumptions all the way down.

There is no evidence.

There are no controls.

It is all belief. Faith. Tradition. Assumption.

Look at Ehrman’s explanation at the conclusion of his discussion pointing out the mythical nature of the narratives of the birth and death of Jesus:

My examples, then, have to do with accounts about Jesus that appear to be contradictory in some of their details. Let me stress that my point is not that the basic events that are narrated didn’t happen. Since these particular accounts deal with the birth of Jesus and his death, I think we can assume they are historically accurate in the most general terms: Jesus was born and he did die! My point, though, is that the Gospel writers have given us accounts that are contradictory in their details. These contradictions make it impossible for us to think that the stories are completely accurate. (p. 32)

Oh dear! Stories of angels appearing and virgin births and the day turning to night at the full-moon are not “completely accurate”? But since they are about a birth and a death and people are born and do die . . . . “I think we can assume they are historically accurate in the most general terms”!!!??

Do I really need to say any more?

Like just about every other historical Jesus scholar I know of, Ehrman simply assumes a story at some level is a record of a historical event in the real world. Sure most of the details are imaginative creations. But no-one can doubt that people really are born (just like Cain and Abel and Methuselah and Achilles and Athena and Dionysus) and really do die (just like Adam and Abel and Methuselah and Achilles and Heracles and Dionysus).

The explanation of how historical Jesus scholars work according to Bart Ehrman in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium is flawed at the most fundamental levels. In subsequent chapters Ehrman details more minutely the ways he and his peers arrive at “historical details” about Jesus. I hope to address those details in future posts. I will also look at his explanations of historical methods and sources of historical Jesus scholars in his new book, Did Jesus Exist?

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Historical Jesus Studies As Pseudo-History — Bart Ehrman As a Case-Study”

  1. The truly frightening thing is that Ehrman is considered one of the *most* critical (“liberal”) of New Testament scholars by other American New Testament scholars … which is to say that most of the rest are not critical at all. They even have a website (“ehrmanwatch”) where they try to challenge everything Ehrman says. And this is considered “scholarship.”

  2. A really bad example with WS. In 1564 a man named William Shaksper was born. There is absolutely zero evidence that he ever wrote anything other than missplling his name six times.

    1. And there’s absolutely zero evidence that anyone named anything else but William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Marlowe’s name was spelled many different ways as well. Who is your choice for the secret author of *his* plays?

      1. Whoever wrote these plays, what matters to modern academia and progressive producers is that this Dead White European Male was a “racist”, “antisemite”, “sexist”, “proto-fascist”, “monarchist”, possibly even a “secret papist”, responsible for all the xenophobia about “breed” and “fortress”, quite incompatible with a truly multicultural society and offensive enough for the police to prosecute anyone quoting this stuff or possessing copies of it.

  3. Obviously someone or some people wrote the plays attributed to WS. And equally the writings attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter and Jude.

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