Scholarly Fallacy of the Week: Bart Ehrman’s False Dichotomy

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by Neil Godfrey

The hermeneutic of charity is what some New Testament scholars (e.g. Richard Bauckham) have termed the goodness, the rightness, of believing a testimony by default — unless and until we are given a reason to doubt it.

It is usually opposed rhetorically to the idea of the hermeneutic of suspicion.

Charity and suspicion. The words clearly resonate with the ideals of the highest teachings of biblical love: “charity” being the best of gifts and “suspicion” being antithetical to that Christian virtue according to 1 Corinthians 13.

In fundamental logic, however, we might align these concepts with something more neutral and objective for analysis: the false dichotomy.

Bart Ehrman may shun the term “hermeneutic of charity” (I don’t know but I’m assuming he does) but he falls right into that same soft bed of roses no matter what their name. He does this many times, and so many New Testament scholars do, too, but we have a right to expect the highest standards from the highest paid professions.

In Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman falls within the wake of so many of his peers by setting up the so-called evidence of Papias as

  1. either reliable enough to be used as “an important source for establishing the historical existence of Jesus”
  2. or it is nothing but a bald-faced lie

This is a most unscholarly view of things. It has nothing to recommend it. It breaks all the fundamental rules of how historians are expected to analyse the value of their sources. It is nothing but a logical and methodological fallacy. But it is so commonly encountered in the writings of New Testament scholars that one would be excused for thinking it is a simple truism.

Here is how Ehrman presents his case based on the supposed evidence of Papias:

Papias was a church father of the early second century whose writings survive for us only in fragments, as they are quoted by later Christian authors. . . . Papias is an important source for establishing the historical existence of Jesus. He had read some Gospels although there is no reason to think that he knew the ones that made it into the New Testament. . . . But more importantly, he had other access to the sayings of Jesus. He was personally acquainted with people who had known either the apostles themselves or their companions. . . . Eusebius makes the point emphatically . . . . (p. 98, DJE?, my emphasis)

Ehrman then quotes the well-known sayings. See Fragment 1 (second paragraph) and Fragment VI at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/papias.html

Papias makes two significant claims. One concerns the Gospels, two of which are apparently thought to belong to Mark and Matthew; the other concerns his acquaintance with people who had known the original apostles. Ehrman disputes the claim commonly found in New Testament scholarship that Papias is referring to our canonical Gospels of Mark and Matthew. He must dispute this because he wants to make Papias an independent source for the historicity of Jesus. (In disputing this common understanding Ehrman is coincidentally siding with a good number of mythicists against his own peers, here! He keeps quiet about that, however.) Ehrman holds fast to the second generally accepted tenet from Papias, though — that he personally knew people who knew the apostles.

He then continues to underscore the importance of these as confirming historical evidence:

This is such a valuable report because Eusebius is quoting, and then commenting on, the actual words of Papias. Papias explicitly states that he had access to people who knew the apostles of Jesus or at least companions of the apostles . . . . On one point there can be no doubt. Papias may pass on some legendary traditions about Jesus, but he is quite specific — and there is no reason to think he is telling a bald-faced lie — that he knows people who knew the apostles (or the apostles’ companions). This is not eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus, but it is getting very close to that. . . . This then is testimony that is independent of the Gospels themselves. . . . And this time it is a testimony that explicitly and credibly traces its own lineage directly back to the disciples of Jesus themselves. (pp. 100-101, DJE?, my emphasis)

So there it is. It’s either White or Black. There can be no doubt. (And of course, just to make sure you choose the right one, white hats are the good guys and black hats are the baddies. Shining truth or bald-faced lie. Liar, lunatic or noble lord.)

I had always understood the key to scholarly progress was that all conclusions are to be considered tentative pending further evidence or understanding. But no, not when it comes to the scholarly need to establish evidence for the historical existence of Jesus that “explicitly and credibly traces its own lineage directly back to the disciples of Jesus themselves.”

Is there no witness for truly valid scholarly method and logical argument?

In this particular instance the last one I read made his voice heard in 1904. How this principle of sound scholarship has long been swept aside! This scholar is making the point with specific reference to Papias’s remarks about the Gospels, but the principle he addresses is applicable to all of the claims attributed to Papias.

With regard to the recurrent inclination to pass off Papias’s remarks about the first two Synoptists as “ancient information” and to utilize them in some fashion or other, a somewhat more general observation may not be out of place.

The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document.

General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

It is no different with Christian authors.

In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . . how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity? . . . .

This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. I have broken up the paragraph for easier reading. Italics are original.

In other words, we know absolutely nothing about this name Papias from the writings of Papias himself. We only know what others chose to attribute to him.

  • We have no way of even knowing if Papias was the author’s real name or a nom de plume. (I don’t know how many children were ever named Papias, a name that sounds like “father” to me, back then.) That is, we have no way of knowing who or what Papias was. Was he a literary creation? Was he a late creation who was set in an earlier time for narrative effect? What was his agenda? We know these are all important questions to ask of names whose works we do know a lot more about.
  • We have no way of knowing if Papias was writing a Hellenistic novel filled with spectacular and silly stories. But we do have some fragments that suggest he might have been doing just that. See fragment III for example, and Eusebius’s note that Papias was known for being stupid. Should we suspect Papias of telling a bald-faced lie when he says Judas bloated up like a balloon and was burst asunder by a chariot?
  • We have no way of knowing if what he wrote was considered even by readers of his own day utter nonsense not worthy of being given any credibility at all. We do know it was not preserved, though.
  • We don’t even know when the works attributed to Papias made their first appearance or when they were composed. Many authors create a narrative voice that is set in a much earlier time than that of the real author.

In other words, we know virtually zilch about the provenance and authorship of the works of Papias. And this is as much as even the professional historians know!

No matter, Ehrman is quite prepared to say on the authority of Papias that there are some things beyond doubt! We have no reason to think Papias was a bald-faced liar so what he says must be valuable historical evidence and we would be churlish, hyper-sceptical, if we feel reluctant to accept his self-witness as literal historical truth. There is no alternative. You are with Papias or against Papias. You are either charitable or suspicious. Schwarz is dead.

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12 thoughts on “Scholarly Fallacy of the Week: Bart Ehrman’s False Dichotomy”

  1. Reading that passage, I was reminded of Richard Bauckham’s blithe assertion in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses“ that “There is no reason why we should adopt this [Eusebius’] prejudiced attitude towards Papias.” I would have thought that we have no reason to label it a “prejudiced attitude” given the fact that Eusebius had access to all of Papias’ work combined with the fact that the few snippets of Papias that survive would seem to confirm Eusebius low opinion of his intelligence. I was disappointed to see Ehrman making the same argument.

  2. Papias on Judas?

    Just read page 108 of Did Jesus Exist? and gawp in wonder at Bart’s logic.

    Matthew and Luke contradict each other.

    So Judas really did kill himself, and just look, there is a Potter’s field!

    That page is astonishing in its Craig-like wonder at the reportage of the New Testament.

    1. Here is the section from page 108 Steven is referring to:

      These two accounts of Judas’s death cannot be reconciled. In one Judas buys the field, in the other the priests do; in one it is called the Field of Blood because Judas bled all over it, in the other because it was purchased with blood money; in one Judas dies by hanging himself, in the other he falls headfirst and bursts open in the midst. These differences show that Luke had an independent tradition of the death of Judas, which was at least as early as the one in Matthew. There are reasons for thinking that at the heart of both stories is a historical tradition: independently they confirm that a field in Jerusalem was connected in some way both with the money Judas was paid to betray Jesus and with Judas’s death. Moreover, it was known as the Field of Blood. Matthew calls it a “potter’s field.” Is it possible that it was actually a field of red clay used by potters, and so— because of its color—called the Field of Blood, which in one way or another was connected with the death of Jesus’s betrayer?

      By the same simple (simplistic) logic Matthew and Luke independently confirm that Jesus was born of a virgin and was resurrected from the dead. This sort of simplistic reasoning is what New Testament scholars generally call “historical method”.

      No consideration at all is given to the possibility that Luke is weaving together multiple versions (including Matthew’s) into a new account. That is, that he is attempting to “catholicize” the various extant narratives by bringing elements from each together into a new story. I have wondered if his inclusion of Jesus being sent to Herod by Pilate is an attempt to weave elements of the Gospel of Peter into a new Gospel. It was in the Gospel of Peter that Jesus was crucified by Herod.

      Nor is any consideration given to the possibility that the variant accounts are evidence of different ideological or theological messages. Luke’s gospel removes all attention from Jesus’ baptism by mentioning it only as an afterthought. Is this an attempt to undermine the view of some Christians that Jesus became the Messiah or was only granted God’s powers at the baptism? Is there some similar possibility with his Judas variant?

      Was the final redactor of Luke-Acts wanting to produce a version of the death of Judas that tied in with the prophecy he wanted to use to justify the appointment of Matthias to replace him in Acts?

      Why, in other words, are NT scholars so often able to see only in black and white?

  3. BART
    These differences show that Luke had an independent tradition of the death of Judas, which was at least as early as the one in Matthew.

    How did Ehrman date these stories? Magic?

    And why does Papias contradictory account not also count as an independent ‘tradition’, at least as early as the one in Matthew?

    And how come something just has to be written in a work which found its way into the New Testament to be called a ‘tradition’?

    1. Steven, your comment on McGrath’s blog was far more hard-hitting. I really do need to visit FRDB a lot more to keep myself up to date. That Ken Humphreys response to Ehrman’s book is a classic:

      Steven wrote (cavorting faithlessly on McGrath’s blog):

      Ken Humphrey’s did way more damage to Bart’s reputation than Price ever did.

      Or rather, Humphrey’s pointed out where Bart changed into William Lane Craig-lite.


      Read page 108 of Did Jesus Exist? and weep over what Bart has been reduced to saying….

      Matthew and Luke contradict each other about Judas…


      (wait for it, wait for it)


      They contradict each other, so what can we conclude from that?


      Time’s up.

      Here is the answer….

      It must be true!

      Because Matthew and Luke contradict each other, they must be speaking about real events.

      ‘The two utterly irreconcilable deaths of Judas (Matthew; Acts)? For Ehrman they stand not as two examples of palpable fraud but as evidence for “an early historical tradition.” (page 108). Would he tolerate this sort of self-serving nonsense from mythicists?’

  4. According to Eusebius [2.15] Peter learned about Mark’s gospel and was delighted about it.

    He found out via ‘revelation of the spirit’, which was the only method available to him because he was dead at the time.

    Eusebius cites this story as coming from both Clement and Papias.

    Using Ehrman’s logic this story of ‘revelation of the spirit’ must therefore not only be true but doubly true because Clement’s story is added to that of Papias’.

    All via Eusebius of course.

    At 3.39 Eusebius recounts how Irenaeus misinterprets and gets wrong the words of Papias when he [Irenaeus] says “Papias had listened to John…” when Eusebius cites Papias as saying “in the preface to his work [he] makes it clear that he was never a hearer or eyewitness of the holy apostles and tells us that he learnt the essential of the Faith from their former pupils.”


    • Eusebius.
    • Cites Papias.

    • Who cites unknown persons – in the words of Papias [via Eusebius] “anyone who came to me who had been a follower of the presbyters”].

    • Who, apparently, claimed to be followers of ‘holy apostles’.

    Or, as Papias [according to Eusebius] puts it:

    ” …..what Aristion and the presbyter John, discipes of the Lord, were still saying”

    Who is this Aristion specified as a disciple of the Lord and still, apparently alive enough to be referred to as ‘still saying”?

    Apostles and disciples seem to be a mixed bunch.

    There is more in this vein, some worse, but this should be sufficent to rebut any claim that Papias is a valid witness to anything.

    To cite this mish mash of 4th hand rumour , [1] Eusebius via [2]. Papias via [3] unknown followers via [4] unknown apostles or disciples, as historical evidence of anything is a abrogation of historical methodology and responsibility.

    1. The weirdest thing about the reliance on Papias is that if we agree to accept this sort of testimony as dispositive, then Origen in Contra Celsum 1.47 destroys the idea that James in Gal 1:19 was a biological brother of Jesus and uses Paul himself as his source:

      “Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine.”

    2. “To cite this mish mash of 4th hand rumour , [1] Eusebius via [2]. Papias via [3] unknown followers via [4] unknown apostles or disciples, as historical evidence of anything is a abrogation of historical methodology and responsibility.”

      If any links in that chain are a bust, then the whole argument is bunk. Even if we have 90% confidence in all of those links, the argument as a whole is only about 66% certain.

  5. How exactly did Peter find out about Marks gospel if tradition says Peter did in the mid 60s and Mark supposedly wrote his review after the destruction of jerusalem in the early 70s? How does one explain such a reversal of time?

    1. Good question.

      From Irenaeus [Adv Her III 1.2.] as cited by Eusebius.
      “After their passing [Peter and Paul] Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter transmitted to us the things preached by Peter.”

      So Pete is dead but manages to find out about the gospel of Mark and is, in Eusebius’ words;
      “…delighted at their enthusiasm and authorized the reading of the book in the churches”

      How did he find out, despite being dead?
      As Eusebius explains:
      “It is said that, on learning by the revelation of the spirit what had happened the apostle was delighted …etc…..”
      It is said that
      by revelation of the spirit [a dream a vision whatever]

      Easy ain’t it?

      But it must be true.
      Must it not?

      1. I guess this example shows just how differently people in the past nearly two thousand years ago defined truth. The comment shows that E is not even worried or ashamed of using such a source as rock solid proof. Its sad that no where in his latest book Bart never gives any insight into just how church leaders and others established their faith in Jesus both as a God and as a historical person to begin with.

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