The Ehrman Debacle and Our “Post-Truth” World

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by Tim Widowfield

Alternate history, alternate reality

“What is Truth?” — Christ before Pontius Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several years ago, I was listening to the Thom Hartmann Program, a liberal talk radio show that runs in the United States. Naturally, I was listening to a podcast, since here in the Midwest only conservative talk radio is permitted on the public airwaves. At any rate, it was before the last presidential election, and Thom was musing about candidates and their public image. He said Democrats needed to be careful not to do something silly like Clinton did — namely, getting a haircut on the tarmac aboard Air Force One, delaying air traffic around the country until he was ready to go.

Hartmann’s heart was in the right place. Dee Dee Myers recalls that the high-priced haircut that stopped traffic was a blow to Clinton’s image. The story, which dominated the news cycle for at least three days, “became a metaphor for a populist president who had gotten drunk with the perks of his own power and was sort of not sensitive to what people wanted.”

Except the story isn’t true. Oh, he did get a haircut on Air Force One, but it didn’t stop traffic. Somebody had to call Thom over the commercial break and remind him. Of course, Thom remembered then that the story was false, but here’s the power of perception in a post-truth world: Reality has become nothing but a shared media experience, and whoever controls that media creates reality.

Media Truth: Bart Ehrman has disproved mythicism

Here in the U.S., there’s a cottage industry that employs a handful authors dedicated to debunking the lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations spewed out by hate radio hosts and right-wing media pundits. In the vacant space created by a delinquent press (sometimes indifferent, often complicit), these authors plug away and dutifully point out each error in an effort to set the record straight.

But it doesn’t do any good. By that I mean the conventional narrative doesn’t change. The record never gets set straight. Whoever tells the story first and loudest gets first dibs on constructing reality. It helps, of course, if the new bit of information confirms peoples’ biases. It’s even better if the details are titillating and salacious.

This is why so many people, even educated people who should know better, think that climate change is a hoax, that Gore said he “invented the Internet,” or that Obama is an atheist-Muslim-Marxist. They’re plugged into media outlets that tell them what they want to hear, and even if they should accidentally flip the channel, mainstream media is too busy telling stories about murders, mayhem, and missing persons to do its job.

Similarly, Dr. Richard Carrier, Acharya S, Earl Doherty, and my buddy Neil have been diligently cataloging the errors in Bart’s Myth-bashing opus. I’m glad. We need to try to set the record straight. However, I don’t expect it to do much good — at least in the popular media — and certainly not within the guild. We won’t be able to change the media narrative that Dr. Ehrman has “dispelled the myth of mythicism.

Yes, Bart is demonstrably, factually wrong on several key points. Yes, his arguments often hinge upon misreadings of the text. And yes, he commits errors that strongly indicate that he didn’t even read the books he says he did.

Debunking doesn’t work

However, it doesn’t make any difference. Debunking doesn’t work, because the message never reaches the mass audience — or if it does happen to reach them, the message is distorted and diluted into “Some people disagree” or “Some people have a different opinion” — or worse. Oddly enough, fighting for the truth can sometimes get you branded as a crank or a whiner.

You’ll know and I’ll know that Bart’s new book is pretty bad at what it attempts to do. But in the alternate reality created by the media, Bart has slain the dragon of mythicism. In an ideal world, Dr. Ehrman would issue a public apology, fire the grad students who did his research for him, and start all over again. But not in this world.

It would be nice if principled, non-mythicist scholars would feel the prick of conscience and say something, or if the small minority of silent, closet-mythicist scholars would stand behind Carrier and Price. Don’t hold your breath.

What is truth?

The usual suspects are already taking their posts at the barricades. Dr. McGrath has rebutted Carrier’s demolition of Ehrman’s HuffPo article — twice, in fact. As near as I can tell his tangled argument is that Bart is right even when he’s wrong, and if he’s wrong, it isn’t his fault; however, of course, he’s right.

Over on the blog that admits Christianity is unsettling, Steven Carr writes, “Ehrman’s research was so good that he didn’t even get the name of Earl Doherty’s book correct.” And good old reliable Joel replies: “Like he needed to . . .”

In other words, so what? So Bart got some things wrong. So he didn’t do his research. Whaddya gonna do about it? Yeah, a lot of what he says in the book is false. Pfffffft. What is truth?

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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31 thoughts on “The Ehrman Debacle and Our “Post-Truth” World”

  1. Sigh. Does this mean that my book-length rebuttal to Ehrman’s book, which I’ve just started and written several paragraphs of, is a complete waste of time and I should take up needlework instead? That all the eye-strain and sleepless nights while I’m composing in my head will be for naught? Will I be reaching only our own choir? Has Ehrman really set mythicism back a couple of decades, even if he did it with false statements, trashtalk, and fallacy?

    It ain’t fair!

    1. Two years ago, I was not aware of questions surrounding the historicity of Jesus. I had till then taken HJ it for granted.
      While reading blogs, I came across this idea and my quest to get a better understanding took me to Carrier’s review of your book.
      After reading both your books (JP and JNGNM) and I bought into your thesis.

      I am half way through Ehrman’s book. I find his two ‘key arguments’ unconvincing. I find his reasoning circular. If these are the best arguments in print for supporting a Historical Jesus, then I am pretty sure people with open minds reading both your book and Ehrmans’ will find your arguments convincing.

      I find issues in Ehrman’s book (which I will blog about soon). But that would be a lay person’s take. I would be interested in your response. I am sure others would as well.

      Sure, it would have helped if Ehrman had his book reviewed by the Mythicists. But Ehrman was perhaps in a hurry to be done with this book so that he can write the one he really wants to write. 😉

      I like to look at this from a positive point of view. Ehrman is taking this discussion mainstream. More people than before now know that Jesus’ historicity has been questioned. I expect Carriers books to do the same.

      I hope you write that rebuttal!

    2. Those who are seeking the truth will find and inconsistency in Ehrman’s work, search for more information, and find a cascade of facts here and elsewhere showing how wrong is book is. If they read further, say the Jesus Puzzle, they’ll be further challenged.

      It is hard, but not impossible to break through the media barrier: if there is enough opposition, the opposition can become a story on its own, and trigger its own flurry of attention. Anyone who thinks that a 2000-year-old religious culture will fall overnight is not being honest with themselves.

  2. Bart seems to have rewritten history by moving the Gospels to before Jesus.

    There is an old saying.

    History is rewritten by the winners.

    On page 97 of Did Jesus Exist, Bart Ehrman makes the following amazing statement, doing his best William Lane Craig impression :-

    ‘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.

    Rather surprisingly, Bart goes into debates to claim that all this astonishing documentation provides no support for any religious claim Christianity makes.

    It is rather a fine-balancing act, praising the Gospels as seven (sic) independent accounts, based on written documentation and oral traditions which go way, way back, and then claiming that nothing in them supports Christianity.

    1. I’ve never quite understood how so many “independent” written traditions can arise from a single, nebulous, free-flowing, “rich” (why is it always “rich”?) oral tradition. If people were continually sharing stories about real historical events, how did the traditions become independent? — so independent, in fact, that some HJ scholars insist that the author of John’s gospel was completely unaware of the synoptic tradition.

  3. > Joel replies: “Like he needed to . . .”

    I am not making excuses for Ehrman’s lack of precision nor am I finding fault with what you have written. But the Mythicists (I count myself one) have much better things to point out than finding fault with a citation.

    Ehrman can trace independent traditions back to the 30s. He is able to date them quite precisely, some of these between 30 and 32! Aramaic stories, speeches in Acts that predate Paul, the two key pieces of evidence and so on and so on. Oh sweet Jesus…

    In a perfect world, Ehrman would have presented the facts that both the sides can agree upon and then provided his arguments. But that perfect world is not where we live…

  4. Take heart. At Why Evolution is True, Ben Goren lights into McGrath for defending Ehrman:

    This is not academic investigation. It is fraud, it is dishonesty, it is lies.

    And here you are, defending the liar, rather than calling him on the carpet for his blatant crimes against academia.

  5. Mr. Doherty, please write your rebuttal. I see Ehrman’s book as evidence that mythicism has reached the “then they fight you” stage.* I don’t think either mythicism or historicism will ever actually be validated as The True Model, because the evidence is so dodgy (theological biases in the writings, interpolations, differing plausible interpretations, etc.), but I think that in the long run mythicism will eventually be acknowledged as a viable model alongside historicism.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if a hybrid theory emerged: “Yes, the mythicists are right about the collage of Divine Intermediary/Judaic Mystery School cults. Some of them, probably starting with Paul, started searching for earthly ‘Plato’s Cave-shadow’ ‘enactments’ of their Heavenly Man’s (or Woman’s, in the case of the Wisdom/Sophia tradition) salvation drama in the heavens the same way they searched the Hebrew Scriptures for ‘hidden’ ‘prophecies’ that revealed his existence and work. They may have adopted sayings from more than one popular figure as ‘words of the Lord,’ but the biography of Jesus of Nazareth (especially his death and rumors among his followers that he was ‘resurrected’ in some fashion or other) eventually became the most popular ‘fit.’ Jesus’ followers partially latched on to the Divine Intermediary theology because it provided an ‘explanation’ for how their Messiah could end up crucified, and still be the Messiah. The two sides waged a battle for preeminence until the proto-orthodox sect managed to kit-bash Divine Intermediary mysticism and Jewish messianic (Jesus-group) fundamentalism together and stamp out purists from either side. So the historicism-mythicism issue isn’t either/or, it’s both/and.”

    Also, I’m guessing that sooner or later some liberal Christian on the Spong end of the spectrum will discover mythicism and think, ‘Aha! The whole thing is a spiritual allegory! Now we can use the parts of the Bible we like, and accept evolution and archaeology without the fundies being able to call us out for hypocrisy!’ Then, a modernized reboot of the original Christianities (if your model is correct) will be reborn. At that point, the argument that “nobody would ever believe in a wholly spiritual Messiah without a historical man to start things off!” argument will die.

    *”First they ignore you. Then they mock you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

    1. I see Ehrman’s book as evidence that mythicism has reached the “then they fight you” stage.

      Eh. I see it more as Bart Ehrman getting tired of people coming up to him after talks and asking him if he really believes that Jesus was a myth like he mentions in one of his books. He used the CS Lewis Liar, Lunatic or Lord formulation and said that Lewis left one out – Legend. Meaning not that Jesus was mythical but that everything we know about Jesus was blown out of proportion and attributed to him wrongly.

      He’s tired of being associated with mythicism because he doesn’t believe it (for a variety of reasons, and from what I’ve read of his previous books and this current one so far it mostly seems to boil down to institutional bias and lingering Christian upbringing). He’s decided to go about disassociating himself with it in a particularly nasty way, but I suppose that by lashing out the way he has he puts some unequivocal distance between himself and the myth position. (I doubt it will work – people will still come up to him and ask how he can believe that Jesus is a myth and NOW he’ll probably get even more people coming up to him to argue about how good the evidence he presents really is. On the plus side, though, he got another book out of it.)

      But I think it will move this discussion out of the niches on the Internet and into the public sphere. Ehrman is a popular writer and his books sell to non-academics. People who see his book aren’t going to be thinking “Ehrman makes a good case for a historical Jesus – that’ll shut up the cranks.” They’re going to think something more along the lines of – “Wait – why is there even a question about the historicity of Jesus? Of course he was real!” and a few of them will read his rationales and think “that’s it? That’s all there is?” and start poking around for more.

      Earl should not only write a rebuttal – he should make sure his books are in print and available to read on the Kindle/Nook/e-book platform of choice. I suspect he’ll be seeing an upsurge in interest now that Ehrman has pointed him out to his broader readership who didn’t know he even existed…

  6. “Reality has become nothing but a shared media experience, and whoever controls that media creates reality.”
    I think the core of this is essential social psychology and arational heuristics. A few simple points:
    1) For a long period of human history being unpopular has been vastly more dangerous than being stupid, wrong or disingenuous. The parallel to this is that a lot of unproductive or foolish people have been kept alive by the surplus of others, if they were popular enough.
    2) People care about having an in-group. This is why ‘counter-culture’ people are, if anything, even more conformist and toolish than the regular human being, because (like a zealous religious cult) they have an extremely close-knit and competitive social status game.
    3) For most people ‘what everyone knows’ is good enough, indeed, almost no one has ever died for believing in god; but a lot of people have died for saying they believe in the wrong one. Given this, being a parrot may well be the safest way to form opinions about social values.
    4) People evolved in very small tribal groups, where big-questions were few, facts were readily available and the chance of someone being wildly disconnected from evidence and consequence were rare. Now it is the norm.
    5) Most people are not well informed or particularly clever, and have no epistemic right to any opinion on anything beyond their favorite color. Nonetheless, the psychological forces of conformity and sheer obstinacy forge a great number of insanely neurotic ‘facts’ and witless defenders.

    All of this is just to say, more or less, that the larger and more intercommunicative human civilization become the more popular beliefs come to be perversely and ridiculously wrong. Especially when someone can use idiot-beliefs to further their own agendas.

  7. Teeny quibble here. It was the Man-Made Global Warming people that got their message out first and most loudly. That has become the “truth”.

    Here in Australia the ABC and Fairfax media are totally committed to selling it. (The Murdoch press is less enthusiastic, but reading their products enables Murdoch to steal your soul.)

    1. A significant number of people in the US are jacked into right-wing media where early, preemptive “debunking” messages from the likes of George F. Will were the first thing they heard. That pencil-necked, bow-tie-wearing, pseudo-intellectual is still repeating the canard that “Global Cooling” was at one time scholarly consensus. It never was. It was a passing curiosity that got some attention in the popular media during the ’70s.

      Any fool knows this, so the people who push for equivalency between the current real consensus about Global Warming and the supposed earlier conjecture about Global Cooling are either liars, hopeless fools, or both.

      1. “A significant number of people in the US”

        In other words, a tiny proportion of the world’s population.

        For most of the world, Hansen and Gore were the first things they heard.

        1. Point taken.

          There’s also a pernicious problem in the US (I’m not sure how prevalent it is elsewhere) to elevate unsubstantiated rival claims as long as they serve corporate interests. A noisome mixture of prideful ignorance fueled by fundamentalist Christianity and bankrolled by selfish plutocrats now blights our political landscape.

          To quote Isaac Asimov: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

  8. I’ve been following Earl Doherty for years. I’ve never seen a cogent case against his arguments; it’s always just unsupported assertions and untruths. All power to your elbow Earl, but most people prefer fairy tales.

  9. I don’t agree that “debunking doesn’t work”. If it didn’t work, there wouldn’t be a growing atheist movement around the world. It does work. It just takes time and persistence and — most importantly — outspoken voices, willing to stand up against backlash, to keep pushing the debunkings into the conversation. More and more we are being heard. This is not a time for despair. We are winning. We are building momentum. It’s not time to slow down, but time to help push even harder. The wall is crumbling now. It may take years to hear the first brick fall, but it will happen. And then there will be a quick, sudden tumbling of the whole edifice.

  10. Ehrman: “ In my view – – anyone – – who does not advocate belief in Jesus would be better served to stress that the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of modern Christianity than to insist – -wrongly and counterproductively – – that Jesus never existed. Jesus did exist. He simply was not the person that most modern believers think he was”.
    Ehrman’s statement in its overall sense, I happen to be in full agreement. However I need to paraphrase it with the following crucial nomenclature corrections relative to his use of the word Christian: “not the Jesus” even of earliest Christianity as well as of the pre-Christian Hellenist Christ cult of 30 CE – 65 CE, partly before Paul who very early converted to this Hellenist group to found Christianity on his Christ of faith myth in the Gentile world, severing Jesus from his Jewish roots as well as from his teachings. “He simply was not the person that modern believers think he was” – more to the point, he was not the figure imaged by the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT. Posthumous Jesus traditions did not begin with Christianity. Account must be taken of the apostolic period: two distinctly different movements, first the Jerusalem Jesus Movement led initially by the key disciples with their intention to again take up the teaching of Jesus, its source being the Sermon on the Mount. This was soon followed by a Jewish Hellenist movement with their notion of the salvific death and resurrection to mistakenly define the significance of Jesus.
    Ehrman, an atheist, was not able to take account of these crucial historical corrections which I believe are consistent with the guild’s understanding of present historical methods and knowledge. I find no significant ideological element in his Jesus figure: the mistaken eschatological fanatic of Schweitzer’s peculiar understanding derived from the writings of the NT, whether or not his Jesus lived is of little historical consequence. Ehrman is making a career of the Jesus puzzle playing it both ways for self- interest.

  11. One statement which I feel quite safe in making: here at Vridar I have seen absolutely no evidence judging from what is written or from related comments to indicate the slightest meaningful understanding of the present position of top NT scholars in Jesus studies. To the extent that Jesus studies is recognized as a legitimate discipline, meaningful historical critique demands that this be taken account of, at least to identify the real target.

  12. Debunking may not “work,” but people like me find it INVALUABLE when qualified folks debunk things like Bart Ehrman’s book “Did jesus Exist.”
    In fact, I am GRATEFUL to all those who try to set the record straight. The whole world may not be set straight, but, when possible, I like to get things right every now and then.

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