Ehrman hides the facts about Doherty’s argument: Part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman accuses Earl Doherty of being “driven by convenience” and “simply claiming” that a Bible verse that contradicts his thesis “was not actually written by [Paul]”.

At the same time Ehrman admits that the particular verse is disputed by many scholars, but then in his ensuing discussion he hides (sic!) from his lay readers the reasons they dispute it.  Ehrman even conveys the false impression that all of the scholarly dispute is merely over a few words tagged on at the end of the verse; but surely knows that this is (to use his own damning words from another context) “simply not true”. I find it impossible to imagine that his simplistic and misleading discussion of this text would ever pass peer review were it submitted to a scholarly journal. No matter. He obviously thinks it is all his lay readers need to know; and that information that is only partial, or that is suppressed entirely, will serve more effectively to undermine Doherty’s credibility.

Ehrman’s accusation

Doherty refuses to allow that 1 Thessalonians — which explicitly says that the Jews (or the Judeans) were the ones responsible for the death of Jesus — can be used as evidence of Paul’s view: it is, he insists, an insertion into Paul’s writings, not from the apostle himself. (Here we find, again, textual studies driven by convenience: if a passage contradicts your views, simply claim that it was not actually written by the author.)  (p.  my emphasis)

Notice Ehrman is unambiguously “informing” his readers that it is entirely Doherty’s own self-serving opinion that “refuses” to allow a particular verse to be considered original to Paul. The only reason we are led to believe, and this is on the authority of the highly reputable popular author Bart Ehrman, that Doherty rejects the originality of this verse is “simply” because it “inconveniently” refutes his argument. Doherty “simply claims” a verse is a forgery because, Ehrman assures us, he finds it contradicts his argument.

This is not an isolated accusation. Earlier in his book Ehrman similarly claimed:

One way that some mythicists have gotten around the problem that this, our earliest Christian source, refers to the historical Jesus in several places is by claiming that these references to Jesus were not originally in Paul’s writings but were inserted by later Christian scribes who wanted Paul’s readers to think that he referred to the historical Jesus. This approach to Paul can be thought of as historical reconstruction based on the principle of convenience. If historical evidence proves inconvenient to one’s views, then simply claim that the evidence does not exist, and suddenly you’re right.

This is a mischievous falsehood. Earl Doherty and G. A. Wells are NOT the ones who claim that certain verses are interpolations in order to “get around” contradictory evidence to establish their case. The arguments for the two verses they cite (I don’t know that there are any more than two) being interpolations are long-standing and well established by Ehrman’s own scholarly peers.

First I will quote what Doherty himself says with respect to his reasons for rejecting the authenticity of this verse in 1 Thessalonians.

In my next post I will return to Bart Ehrman’s own attempt to argue for this verse’s genuineness and demonstrate how Ehrman misleads his less well-informed readers about the real reasons many of his own scholarly peers believe the verse was indeed an interpolation.

Doherty’s argument

In the opening chapter of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man Doherty sets out the broad outline of the argument to come:

So let’s begin. From the record of what the New Testament epistles do not say, we will look at a puzzle piece that may be called “The Missing Equation.”

Those 22 documents in the latter part of the New Testament contain almost 100,000 words. They are the product of about a dozen different writers . . . In them, one encounters over 500 references to the object of all these writers’ faith: “Jesus” or “Christ” of a combination of these names, or “the Son,” plus a few to “the Lord” meaning Christ.

Even if these writings are “occasional” — and some of them are more than that — is it feasible that in all this discussion and defense of the faith, nowhere would anyone, by choice, accident or necessity, happen to use words which would identify the divine Son and Christ they are all talking about with his recent incarnation: whether this be the man Jesus of Nazareth known to us from the Gospels, born of Mary and died under Pilate, or some other ‘genuine Jesus’ unearthed by modern critical scholarship? As astonishing as such a silence may seem, an equation such as “Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and Messiah” is missing from all the early Christian correspondence. The Jesus of the epistles is not spoken of as a man who had recently lived.

There are two passages in the epistles which present apparent exceptions to what has just been said, plus a third that could which could be claimed to fall into such a category [but this one is not a question of interpolation], and they will be addressed immediately so as not to compromise the argument.

One is 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16. After a statement that the Thessalonian Christians have been mistreated by their fellow countrymen just as the Christians in Judea have been persecuted by their fellow Jews, we read this additional comment about those Jews:

. . . 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God’s will and enemies of their fellow-men, 16 hindering us from preaching to the gentiles to lead them to salvation. All this time they have been making up the full measure of their guilt, and now retribution has overtaken them for good and all. [NEB]

That last sentence would seem to be an obvious allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened after Paul’s death and many years after 1 Thessalonians was written. The sentiments in those two verses are also very uncharacteristic of Paul, in both his language and feelings towards his fellow Jews as expressed elsewhere in his letters. For these reasons, many scholars have judged those verses to be an interpolation, something inserted into the text at a later date. This, by the way, is the only passage in the entire corpus of New Testament epistles which assigns to the Jews any responsibility in the death of the Christ. (See Appendix 1 [p. 657] for a full discussion of the question of authenticity of this passage.)  (pp. 17-18)

The appendix is an approximately 1600-word essay on the scholarly arguments.

That 1600-word appendix begins:

Many scholars have dismissed [1 Thess. 2:15-16] as an interpolation by some later editor or copyist. They do so on two grounds.

One is the very apparent allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem in verse 16, an event which happened several years after Paul’s death. . . .

. . . the language is “arguably un-Pauline.” It speaks venomously of the Jews . . . Paul nowhere else expresses such consignment to perdition about his fellow Jews, whom he expects will in the end be converted to Christ. Rather, this is characteristic of language of 2nd century Christianity. (pp. 657-58)

The appendix concludes with the names of “some of the scholars who regard the passage as an interpolation”:

  • Birger A. Pearson: “I Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971). 79-94.
  • Burton Mack: Who Wrote the New Testament? p. 113
  • Wayne Meeks: The First Urban Christians, p. 9, n.117
  • Helmet Koester: Introduction to the New Testament, vol. II, p. 113
  • Pheme Perkins: Harper’s Bible Commentary, p. 1230, 1231-2
  • S. G. F. Brandon: The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, p. 92-93
  • Paula Fredriksen: From Jesus to Christ, p. 122

So Doherty lays it all out on the table from the opening pages of the opening chapter. If you believe in your heart of hearts that these verses, despite all of their anomalies within their larger Pauline context, are authentic to Paul, then before you waste your time reading what you know you will never accept, you can throw the book in the bin right now. Case closed. But if you are of a more “liberal” inclination and are prepared, at least for the sake of argument, to roll with a good number of highly prominent names in the field of biblical scholarship (Mack, Meeks, Koester, Fredriksen . . . ), then you are welcome to continue.

What’s especially to be noted is that Doherty summarizes the reasons a good number of academics judge these verses to be not Paul’s:

  • the implied reference to the destruction of the Temple (70 c.e. — after Paul’s death)
  • the grossly anti-semitic tone of the verses (e.g. they declare that Jews are enemies of all humankind)
  • the sentiment that there is no hope but ultimate doom, death and hell, for the Jews (Paul anticipated their ultimate salvation)

And one more anomaly of these verses, but one that is unattributed:

  • these are the only verses in the epistolary literature where the Jews alone are singled out for blame for the crucifixion of Jesus

So, the inauthentic status of these verses has credible scholarly warrant.

Given all of the above, it is mischievous at best to suggest that Doherty’s argument hangs upon his own idiosyncratic drive “for convenience” or that he “simply claims” that “inconvenient” verses are interpolations.

But it gets worse. For Ehrman to sustain his accusation that mythicists such as Doherty and Wells are “driven by convenience” and “simply claim” these verses to be un-Pauline, he must hide from his readership what his own scholarly peers do in fact say about the authenticity of these same verses. He will therefore inform the readers only of his own idiosyncratic (I would be surprised if his argument as presented in Did Jesus Exist? has ever passed peer-review) reasons for believing the passages to be authentic.

This will be the topic of my next post, part 2.

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11 thoughts on “Ehrman hides the facts about Doherty’s argument: Part 1”

  1. That was astonishing by Bart, who is one of the world’s leading experts on exactly why many scholars think 1 Thessalonians 2 contains an interpolation, and proof-texts Romans 1:18 in the worst fundie manner (even though he has the grace to admit that it is about pagans not Jews, but surely then it can’t be relevant to a passage about Jews.)

    And if we are talking about interpolations, Bart’s honesty leads him to write in ‘Peter , Paul and Mary Magdalene’ (page 134), ‘Throughout the letter, Paul speaks of Jesus’s (second) coming. (2:19,3:13,4:14)

    Notice that Bart has to interpolate the word ‘second’ in brackets, as his honesty does not let him write that Paul is speaking of a second visit by Jesus.

    Of course, if Bart has to interpolate the word ‘second’ in to the text, to align it with his historicist beliefs, then it becomes a lot easier to think that a Christian scribe might also conceive of aligning a text to fit historicist beliefs. If I can see something happening in front of my eyes, I find it easier to think that it might happen.

  2. Ehrman ‘One way that some mythicists have gotten around the problem that this, our earliest Christian source….’

    Wait a minute. I’m sure Ehrman claimed we had lots of sources which predated Paul. ”We have already seen that at least seven Gospel accounts of Jesus, all of them entirely or partially independent of one another, survived from within a century of the traditional date of his death.

    These seven are based on numerous previously existent written sources, and on an enormous number of oral traditions about him that can be dated back to Aramaic sources of Palestine, almost certainly from the 30s of the Common Era.”

    Is Ehrman now admitting that nobody spoke about this oral tradition, and that we cannot see these invisible written sources, which Ehrman can date back to Aramaic sources , in much the same way that people can trace Fawlty Towers back to Spanish sources, because of the Spanish puns and language used in some of the episodes.

    1. One might almost think that Ehrman is conceding that all those pre-Pauline sources he has identified in the Gospels are entirely academic.

      For the benefit of those who have not read Ehrman’s book, he identifies the following as independent (understand the meaning of independent!) pre-Gospel sources:

      • The Sayings Gospel of Q
      • Special material used by Matthew — M
      • Special material used by Luke — L
      • Traditions known to the author of John’s gospel
      • The very early traditions that were later included in the Gospel of Thomas — sayings argued to go back prior to 50 CE
      • Another very early tradition that found its way into the Gospel of Peter
      • Another tradition that found its way into the Egerton 2 papyrus
      • A pre-Markan Passion Narrative
      • The Signs Source used by John’s Gospel
      • Aramaic sources pre-dating and used by the Gospel of Mark
      1. I should add that I have nothing particularly against the hypotheses that many of these may indeed have been Gospel sources. Even if we could be certain any of them did exist we would be no closer to an historical Jesus. The starting point will still always be a matter of debate. Was it an historical Jesus or a diffuse religious idea that had several manifestations? Further, that they could all be combined into a single religious literature certainly indicates they were not independent from the get-go.

  3. When a discussion of Ehrman’s remarks about 1 Thess. 2:15-16 first appeared on FRDB a week or so ago, I made this comment:

    Some reasons not to go along with Bart Ehrman in trusting in the authenticity of 1 Thess. 2:15-16:

    Romans 11 speaks of Elijah’s words about the Jews who have killed Gods’s prophets, but Paul inserts no mention about them having killed the Son of God himself. In 11:7-12 he speaks of the Jews having “blind eyes and deaf ears”—not to Jesus’ own person and preaching but, as Romans 10 has just presented it, to the voice of apostles like himself; he refers to this as their “failure” but no failure in regard to murdering God’s divine messenger. Strange that an authentic Paul, according to Ehrman, can speak of God’s wrath coming upon the Jews for killing the Lord Jesus in 1 Thess., yet here that wrath and killing are nowhere in evidence in Paul’s mind.

    Why would Paul say that it was the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus? That indeed *would* be “truly odd on the pen of Paul.” He constantly says that Jesus was crucified. Did he truly believe that the Jews had crucified Jesus, or that they had a legal right to do so, or that crucifixion was their practice? Could he possibly have believed that the Romans had no role, or possibly have been ignorant of it? If it be suggested that he deliberated twisted history to demonize the jews, that would speak to an utter rejection and vilification of those Jews, something not borne out in the rest of his writings, or even contradicted by them, such as in Romans 11:

    I ask them, has God rejected his people? I cannot believe it!…did their failure mean complete downfall? Far from it! [NEB]

    Ehrman, of course, fudges Paul’s words by declaring that he meant that the Jews were “ultimately responsible” for Jesus’ death, even if the Romans performed the crucifixion. In fact, Paul nowhere else states that *anyone* on earth was responsible for Jesus’ death, but that it was the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:8), which is judged by many of today’s scholars and virtually all the ancient commentators, to be referring to the demon spirits. (This is reminiscent of those who claim that Paul in 1 Cor. 11:23 meant by “for I received from the Lord” to mean, not the plain meaning of personal revelation from the Lord by Paul himself, but that these words ultimately derived from Jesus.) No doubt, Ehrman at some other point in his book has accused me of being the sole human on earth to interpret “rulers of this age” in that way.

    Strange that Ehrman can seize on Paul’s authentic use of the term “wrath” of God in a general sense to make it specifically apply to Jews in order to authenticate their ‘killing of the Lord Jesus’, yet he cannot on the reverse side take into account the many indicators in Paul that such sentiments as 1 Thes. 2:16 are likely INauthentic.

    (Whereas it is precisely in a time later than Paul, namely early in the 2nd century, that we could envision an interpolator being precisely guilty of twisting history—or rather the account in the Gospels—in order to demonize the Jews who by then were in a state of alienation from the Christian movement. Can Ehrman truly believe that Paul would have called the Jews “enemies of their fellow-men”?)

    Nor is Ehrman’s argument about no textual evidence of an absence of 2:15-16 in surviving manuscripts very compelling, considering that a good century could have elapsed between interpolation and our first extant witness to the epistle. Unlike the Gospels, I can envision no compelling reason why 1 Thessalonians should have been that widely copied before the late 2nd century so as to have a copy lacking the passage liable to come down to us. Ehrman asks why such “older copies” were not copied, but he as a textual expert is surely familiar with the common occurrence that when passages were missing or regarded as erroneously worded (consciously or unconsciously), a scribe in the process of reproducing them often added missing words or ‘corrected’ differences in wording he was already familiar with. As for Marcion, even if he included the epistle in his canon, we cannot tell if it included or lacked the passage in question.

    1. DOHERTY
      Ehrman, of course, fudges Paul’s words by declaring that he meant that the Jews were “ultimately responsible” for Jesus’ death, even if the Romans performed the crucifixion.

      It is remarkable that Ehrman accuses sceptics of simply denying that passages originally existed because they do not like them, while he himself simply denies that when ‘Paul’ says the Jews killed Jesus, the text means the Jews killed Jesus.

  4. Ehrman would have his readers think that we have informed scholarly views versus mythicist fancies. But Birger A. Pearson (who “popularized” the scholarly view that 1 Thess. 2:15-16 is an interpolation with his 1971 pubication) shows that the “mythicist” interpretation is indeed squarely within the mainstream of scholarship (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1508972):

    Though Paul undoubtedly knows the current tradition concerningthe persecution of the prophets– he quotes the basic “proof-text” for this tradition, i Kings 19:10, 14 in Romans ii:3– he never attributes the death of Jesus to the Jews.” I Corinthians 2:8 is the best example of Paul’s own view: Jesus was brought to his death by the demonic “rulers of this age” who did not know that by so doing they would defeat themselves in the process. And even if one wants to take the phrase ol [rulers of this age] in i Corinthians 2:8 as a reference to purely human agencies, then one can credit Paul with historical accuracy in pointing to the Roman imperial authorities as responsible for the crucifixion rather than the Jewish people.

    And in his comparison of the thought in Romans with that of 1 Thess. 2:16 he concludes:

    The passage [1 Thess 2:16] excludes categorically any possibility for the Jews except the naked wrath of God.

    I find it astonishing that views expressed freely in the scholarly arena are hidden from view if they appear in support of a mythicist position.

  5. 2 comments:

    1. Wells does not assert that these verses are an interpolation since his theory does not require this, as he believes that Paul thought Jesus had been on the earth in some unspecified past time period and thus coudl’ve been crucified by Jews. He discusses the matter in one of his books (I forget which one).

    2. Ehrman, in his “Misquoting Jesus,” in one chapter where he discusses the fact that Christian anti-semitism didn’t emerge until the 2nd century, and even claims that some lines in the Gospels were later interpolations despite there being no extant texts that lack them, he also quotes 1 Thess 2:13-16 without acknowledging the obvious possibility that they could also have been interpolated. The cognitive dissonance was startling.

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