4. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Chapter 2 continued

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by Earl Doherty


Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 4


In this post Doherty covers Ehrman’s arguments dealing with:

  • Probability in history and the burden of proof
  • Ideal evidence historians want against what they actually have
  • Ehrman downplays the problems with the (lack of) evidence
    • Unsuccessful comparison with Pontius Pilate
  • Absence of eyewitness accounts
    • Late date of the gospels
    • Ehrman overlooks problems with Luke’s Prolog
    • Ehrman overlooks scholarship on the origin of the Gospel of Luke
    • Ehrman fudges reference to the backbone of New Testament scholarship (Markan priority)

* * * * *

Preliminary Remarks

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 37-39 of Chapter 2)


In yet another preface to his discussion of the non-Christian witness to Jesus, Ehrman examines some of the principles involved in historical research. No, it is not like science which can repeat experiments and get observable results.

Technically, we cannot prove a single thing historically. All we can do is give enough evidence (of kinds I will mention in a moment) to convince enough people (hopefully nearly everyone) about a certain historical claim . . . . (p. 38, DJE?)

Burden of Proof

True, all we can really establish is “probabilities” based on judgments about the evidence. And yes, I agree with Ehrman and against Price and some other mythicists that the burden of proof does not lie entirely on the historicist side. As Ehrman quotes E. P. Sanders: “The burden of proof lies with whoever is making a claim.” The problem is, historicists have a habit of maintaining that no burden lies on their side, or else (too often) that adequate ‘proof’ is to be garnered simply through majority opinion, the authoritative consensus which scholars past and present have adopted that an historical Jesus existed. When asked to actually present an adequate case for the existence of the Gospel Jesus, the demand is too often brushed aside as ‘already proven’ or by simple dismissal as an axiomatic non-starter, dissented to only by those driven by an “agenda.”


The Kind of Evidence Historians Want

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 39-42 of Chapter 2)


Ehrman asks what kind of evidence historicists look for, and rely upon, to establish the existence of a given person in the past. He enumerates a “wish list.” Hard, physical evidence, such as photographs. Obviously, none of the latter are available for Jesus, but Ehrman goes further and admits that there is no physical evidence of any kind. No archaeological evidence; again, probably not surprising. No contemporary inscriptions, no coins. Fine. No writings: perhaps a little less natural, but perhaps he was illiterate; or if he could read, he could not write, although Ehrman fails to note that there was nothing stopping him from dictating (it wasn’t a far-fetched idea to Eusebius some centuries later who quotes clearly fabricated correspondence between Jesus and an Edessan king).

Ehrman focuses on the most common form of written witness: documents about a person. The more the better, and best that they be independent and corroborative. At this point, he once again fails to make it clear that the four Gospels are anything but independent and corroborative. They are all dependent on Mark, with one reasonably perceivable lost source, the Q document extractable from Matthew and Luke. John, too, is dependent on Mark for his passion story, and where he is not dependent on a Synoptic source, namely in his portrayal of Jesus’ ministry and the content of his teaching, he is not corroborative. For he gives us a drastically different set of teachings by Jesus, thereby casting doubt on the authenticity of any of the teachings of Jesus, for how could John take the liberty of going off on such an alien tangent from the others, totally ignoring them, if the others were real and reliable?

Another preferred feature of written records is proximity in time, the closer the better. Leaving aside efforts by conservative scholars, the standard dating of the Gospels, all of them following soon after the Jewish War, is not close proximity, especially given the disruptive effects of that war on all of Palestine. A considerable number of mythicists prefer to date all the Gospels well into the second century, but even if a compromise is adopted (I and others like G. A. Wells, with demonstrable reasons, would date Mark to around 90, with the rest following over the next two to three decades; see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.400f), we have nothing resembling proximity. And another wish-list preference, disinterest on the part of the writers about their subject, is as far from the actuality of the Gospels as one can get.


The Sources for Jesus: What We Do Not Have

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 42-50 of Chapter 2)


No Witness to Jesus in the First Century

Ehrman attempts to address this lack head-on. But he makes observations which are patently a down-playing of the real situation. No Greek or Roman author in the first century makes mention of Jesus? No matter,

the fact is again a bit irrelevant since these same sources do not mention many millions of people who actually did live. Jesus stands here with the vast majority of living, breathing human beings of earlier ages. (p. 43, DJE?)

I don’t think so. The vast majority of living, breathing human beings of his era were not turned into gods almost immediately upon their deaths. They did not give rise to a faith movement which we find spread across the eastern empire barely a decade later. Ehrman admits that in view of the Gospel picture, it would be incredible if attention was not paid to Jesus; but he counters by noting that one must first demonstrate that the Gospel picture of miracles and fantastic deeds is factual, something which he and most modern critical scholars reject or seriously reduce.

But it matters not what the man may or may not actually have done in his life—though it does matter that no one can reasonably explain the huge discrepancy between a life lived in obscurity and what was made of him after his passing. That posthumous impact should have brought him to the attention of historians, ethicists, satirists, commentators of various sorts. Ehrman earlier spoke of the impact upon the world of Jesus’ teachings, if nothing else. But that impact does not show up until the dissemination of the Gospels, well into the second century. And the impact upon the world and its literate observers of the recent transformation of a humble man into a resurrected redemptive divinity is nowhere in sight outside the Gospel story until the second century. The redemptive divinity part does not even appear in the reputed references — certainly not their claimed ‘authentic’ residues — by Josephus.

Ehrman tries unsuccessfully to convey a similarity between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. The latter was arguably the most influential Roman political figure in Palestine during the first half of the first century. But we have no record of anything written by him; the Roman archives possess no account that has survived of any of his decrees, judicial judgments, accomplishments — the same situation we face with Jesus. And he is for the first and only time mentioned by any Roman historical work in the reference to Christ and Christians early in the second century in the Annals of Tacitus.

Yet it is hardly to be overlooked that Josephus, as Ehrman admits, tells us quite a bit about Pilate’s deeds, as does Philo in his Embassy to Gaius, complaining about Pilate’s nefarious activities as governor. He tells us more even than Josephus does, without there being any identifiable dependence of one writer upon the other. Both also enjoyed a disinterest in their subject in any positive direction. Moreover, coins were issued in Pilate’s governorship, and there survives an archaeological artefact: an inscription on a stone fragment bearing his name and position as prefect. This is far more witness, not to mention reliable witness, than Jesus enjoys, and if this is the best analogy Ehrman could come up with, it only highlights how difficult it is to explain away the dearth of awareness of Jesus by anyone in the first century.

Ehrman really reaches when he notes that no mention survives in the first century of the historian Josephus, as if this overrides Josephus’ extensive mention of himself. Considering that Josephus is the only Jewish historian extant from that time, we can hardly point to other writers who could have mentioned him yet did not. And when mention begins to be made of Josephus in the later second century by Christian writers, it is to comment on what he had to say in his writings. (Regrettably, this did not include any comment on either of his alleged references to Jesus, nor did it include mention of Tacitus’ alleged reference to Christ, Christians and their persecution by Nero for setting the Great Fire.)

Ehrman concludes this section with a summary remark:

It is possible that he simply made too little impact, just like the overwhelming mass of people who lived in the Roman Empire of the first century. Many Christians do not want to hear that Jesus did not make an enormous splash on the world of his day, but it appears to be true. (p. 46, DJE?)

It only “appears to be true” in the eyes of historicists who must come up with some such explanation to account for the utter silence in the contemporary record. But again, this does not solve the discrepancy between such a man and what was immediately made of him, which was not “like the overwhelming mass of people who lived in the Roman Empire of the first century.” And it contradicts Ehrman’s own evaluation that Jesus, at least in his teachings, did have a considerable impact.


Are the Gospels Eyewitness Accounts?

Ehrman gently breaks the news to his readers that the four Gospels are not eyewitness accounts, and not written by the names attached to them. (His language and tone here and elsewhere makes it clear that his primary intended readership is not the scholarly community — which is too bad, because if it were he might not have engaged in some of the dubious antics he is guilty of.) Studies he quotes indicate it is highly unlikely that any of Jesus’ disciples, or figures like Mark and Luke, would have been literate, let alone have the capacity to compose complex narratives. (The literacy rate among Jews in Palestine has been calculated at 3%.) Nor is there any sign of first-person accounts, as though a participant eyewitness were speaking. Then there is the question of language and the quality of the Gospel writing:

The native tongue of Jesus, his disciples, and most people in Palestine was Aramaic. But the Gospels were written not in Aramaic but in Greek. And in very good Greek. Highly proficient Greek. The authors of the Gospels were unusually well-educated speakers and writers of Greek. They must have been from the relatively higher classes, and they almost certainly were from urban areas outside Palestine. (p. 48, DJE?)

Then there is the question of dating. With Mark supposedly around “70 CE or so” and Matthew, Luke and John following up to 95 CE, their authors, Ehrman admits, could not have been followers of Jesus and likely not even followers of the original apostles. He theorizes that they were people who over time “may have” heard stories about Jesus through oral tradition and perhaps had some written sources, finally deciding to write them down in a narrative. He refers to Luke’s Prologue which “explicitly states that he knows of earlier written accounts of Jesus’s life.”

This trust in the accuracy and reliability of the Lukan Prologue ignores a couple of considerations. Luke’s reference to the “many” who have written accounts of Jesus that have been “handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” is hardly to be taken at face value. Considering that Ehrman can enumerate only Mark and Q as records of Jesus accessible to Luke, the “many” would be an exaggeration. It also dubiously suggests that the writer regards his sources as actually the product of eyewitnesses, which would seem to contradict how Ehrman has styled the evangelists’ work and what they were working with.

Failure to mention critical scholarship

Alternatively, it actually indicates that Luke (or at the very least this Prologue) comes from a later time than Ehrman’s standard dating; indeed the very words “handed down to us” suggest a period of time when the speaker is separated from long-gone sources. Indeed, some critical scholarship judges that canonical Luke may involve more than one phase of composition: an earlier version (Ur-Luke) which may have been the one Marcion used, and a later version by orthodox church circles, perhaps around the 150s, in which amendments and additions were made, including the Prologue. Either alternative renders the Lukan author or editor anything but accurate and reliable. Ehrman fails to mention this.

Fudging critical scholarship

He also looks to fudge the idea of Markan priority:

Luke explicitly states that he knows of earlier written accounts of Jesus’s life (1 :1-4), and there are very good reasons for thinking that both he and Matthew had access to a version of Mark’s Gospel, from which they derived many of their stories. (p. 48, DJE?)

Very good reasons? A strange way to refer to the established backbone of New Testament scholarship for almost two centuries. If it weren’t for Mark, Matthew Luke and John would not exist, most probably no historical Jesus would exist in the Christian mind today. As I said in the original The Jesus Puzzle, “Without Mark’s creation, Paul and the Christ cult he spent his life preaching would have vanished into the sunken pits of fossilized history.”


to be continued . . . .


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7 thoughts on “4. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Chapter 2 continued”

  1. Whatever happened to our beloved “dustbin of history”? It was doing fine and didn’t show any need to be unceremoniously pushed out of the linguistic nest by a pushy cuckoo stealing its place with “the sunken pits of fossilized history”.
    Where are those sunken pits anyway? Are there pits that are not sunken, say, like “elevated pits”? And “fossilized history”, how does it look like? Like stratified rock or delicate transparent amber?

    Not the shadow of a doubt, without Mark, it would have been good-bye to the new hero on the block, Jesus.

    But even with Mark, and all the other gospels and Christian tales, the Christian cult would have disappeared like all the others eventually have, this time in the classical dustbin, (the sunken pits being strictly reserved for Mark and his imitators) without the intervention of Helena, mother of Constantine, who prodded her son to lift the outlaw status of Christians, and the fanatical, superstitious Spaniard Theodosius who naively swallowed the “holy” talk of the ambitious bishops.
    It took 1,000 years of Greek and Roman history to build the Roman Empire, and all of a sudden, the new religion was given the keys to an immense ready-made territory that it could exploit relentlessly and where it had free leave to destroy all competition.
    The new Catholic Church rode piggyback on the Roman Empire, and that was the only miracle of Christianity. All the rest was talk and tales, although they played their part, and Mark deserves full credit for putting the tale in circulation.
    The Emperors gave the Jesus tale the chance to develop into a real institution sanctioned by real imperial power and not just prayers, blessings and excommunications.
    As Alfred Loisy famously commented: “Jesus was announcing the Kingdom of God [in Mark et al.], it is the Church that came.” But only thanks to the two Roman Emperors.
    This is what happened when the sunken pits didn’t swallow Mark and the other gospels because of malfunction.

  2. Hope you are all doing well. Looking forward to the complete ebook. Two suggestions leap to mind:

    1. Affordability (blush)
    2. Don’t leave out a copy of the DJE article from HuffPo (set the tenor).


  3. “If it weren’t for Mark, Matthew Luke and John would not exist, most probably no historical Jesus would exist in the Christian mind today. As I said in the original The Jesus Puzzle, ‘Without Mark’s creation, Paul and the Christ cult he spent his life preaching would have vanished into the sunken pits of fossilized history.’”

    I think that if it weren’t for the Dead Sea Scrolls, there would have been no Gospel of the Hebrews. And if it weren’t for the Gospel of the Hebrews, there would have been no Mark.

    In addition to the more obvious similiarities between the Scrolls and Jewish-Christianity (e.g., descriptions like “the poor,” “the Way,” “the New Covenant,” “Damascus,” and “the Righteous One”), a plausible origin of the “two ways” idea in the Didache may be the “two spirits/ways” in the Community Rule.

    The overall “vibe” of the Didache strikes me as Jewish-Christian (such as the abstention from “things sacrificed to idols” in 6:5; cf. 1 Cor 8, Acts 15:29), and, like later Ebionites, it appears to depend on the Gospel of Matthew or something resembling it.

    As Clayton N. Jefford writes in a chapter titled, “The Milieu of Matthew, the Didache, and Ignatius of Antioch: Agreements and Differences” (in “Matthew and the Didache: Two Documents from the Same Jewish-Christian Milieu?” ed. by Hubertus Van Sandt):

    “Arguments that the Didachist actually is dependent upon some version of Matthew are no longer the majority view but, instead, scholars now tend to believe that the two authors have drawn from a common collection of local, Jewish-Christian material” (p. 36).

    I agree with this belief and suspect that this “local, Jewish-Christian material” was the Gospel of the Hebrews, and that this gospel was the “Q” source used by Matthew and Luke, and there are indications that it may have been known to and countered by Mark.

    I think that not only did Mark (and other early writings like the Epistle of Barnabas, which uses the “Two Ways” from the Didache despite being anti-Jewish Christian) save “Paul and his Christ cult,” it also banished Jewish Christianty “into the sunken pits of fossilized history.” But I am persuaded that the origin of this religion is the Dead Sea Scrolls’ sect and that now all is not lost.

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