Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.8
The Existence of Non-Existent Sources for the Gospels
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Those “sources” of the Gospels
- How obvious?
- Downplaying what scholarship knows
- Enter Q with a cardboard cutout Jesus
- Oral tradition hypothesis fails the prediction test
- How one story became four
- Luke’s and Matthew’s special sources
- “You can’t be serious!”
- Hiding and hoping?
- Insupportable claims for Mark and John
- John’s sources were unique . . . the problem
- Evolution of Jesus
- Who invented Jesus?
* * * * *
Written Sources for the Surviving Witnesses
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 78-83)
Those “sources” of the Gospels
. . . our surviving accounts, which began to be written some forty years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, were based on earlier written sources that no longer survive. But they obviously did exist at one time, and they just as obviously had to predate the Gospels that we now have. (pp. 78-79)
This is a curious statement. Usually one uses the term “obviously” only after one has indicated the basis for the obviousness. But since any sources of the Gospels would indeed “obviously” predate the Gospels without that point needing demonstration, perhaps Ehrman is taking the obviousness of written sources as equally self-evident.
But our knowledge of such sources is extremely limited. Once again, the Prologue of Luke is appealed to: those “many” earlier authors who had compiled narratives about the life of Jesus. One of them, of course, is indeed “obvious”: the Gospel of Mark. But this is a source that we do have, and so it falls outside the range of those claimed by Ehrman which “no longer survive.” What we are looking for is evidence that written sources of the life of Jesus predated Mark, sources on which the Gospel content is based.
Ehrman downplaying what scholarship knows
Ehrman does acknowledge a debt to Mark by Luke:
But he certainly liked a good deal of Mark, as he copied many of Mark’s stories in constructing his own Gospel, sometimes verbatim. (p. 79)
Yet once again, we see Ehrman down-playing something well known to scholarship. “[H]e copied many of Mark’s stories” makes it sound like Luke cherry-picked some of these to fit into his own composition, whereas the very heart and spine of Luke’s own Gospel is Mark’s story. Luke has actually used a little over 50% of Mark. (Matthew used almost 90%.) Without those Markan parts, Luke’s (and Matthew’s) story would not exist. There would be nothing to hang their own parts upon. This bears repeating: on a fundamental level, Mark and Luke and Matthew do not represent multiple accounts of Jesus’ life, let alone independent ones. They are the same account, with Luke and Matthew each recasting it with editorial changes and additions to fit their own and their community’s agenda.
Enter Q (with a cardboard cutout Jesus)
One (or rather a group) of those additions is the one source that “no longer survives” which modern scholarship as a whole has good reason to conclude did exist, though there is a sizeable minority of that scholarship which rejects this conclusion. This is the hypothetical document scholars call “Q” which they can detect lying behind certain common passages in Matthew and Luke which they do not get from Mark. But such a source is simply a sayings collection attributed to Jesus (there are a couple of larger anecdotes, seen to be constructed at some point out of earlier discrete sayings); it in no way gives us an account of his life, let alone any mention of a death and resurrection. Jesus as an individual is in fact missing in much of it, with indications that such a source or founder figure has been introduced only in the course of the Q sect’s evolution. (Jesus: Neither God Nor Man presents this argument in detail, covering a number of chapters.)
The Oral Tradition hypothesis fails the prediction test
I have touched on this situation earlier. If, as part of a large and notably uncoordinated (the record itself shows this) sectarian movement of the time, Luke’s or Matthew’s community owed its origins to oral traditions about Jesus’ life and death, each would inevitably have formulated its own version of that life and death, its own focuses on features of the Jesus story and how to preserve and tell it. There is also no reason to think that each community would not have created its own written account of that story, with all those unique focuses and literary renditions. (Why should Mark’s community alone have come up with such an idea, impulse or need?) Yet neither Luke nor Matthew presents any such different, let alone unique, foundational version. Each simply took Mark as his starting point, his blueprint, as though he had never known a story, oral or written, about a life of Jesus before he encountered a copy of Mark. And to have two separate evangelists (and John partially) present such a picture, such a virtually infeasible situation in their literary creations, confirms this insight.
How one story became four
What we have here is the opposite of what Ehrman is trying to claim. Mythicists are indeed right. The four Gospels, inasmuch as they purport to tell the story of a man on earth who preached, prophesied, worked miracles and underwent a death and resurrection, are simply one story with differing incidental details and organization. Once that story materialized in the sect’s mind, it would inevitably have been expanded. How? By pulling into its orbit all manner of teachings, prophetic pronouncements, anecdotes about miracles performed by the sect’s prophets, controversies with the establishment, etc., and attaching them to the newly formulated Jesus figure. Some of this took place in Q’s evolution, some of it in the creation of the Gospels.
New Testament scholarship has long recognized this process, this wholesale adoption of Jesus and the attribution to him of disparate elements from truly independent (non-Jesus) sources. What they have not recognized is that this Jesus is an entirely fabricated figure, partly imagined by the sect through common sectarian tendencies, partly utilized by Mark to fashion an allegorical story about the sect as a whole and its new spiritual truths. Those truths also encompassed the entirely separate cultic Christ sect as preached by Paul, with Mark bringing Christ’s heavenly sacrifice to earth and allegorizing it in a tale of crucifixion by Pontius Pilate with the connivance of the Jewish authorities. Syncretism in spades!
Luke’s and Matthew’s “other sources”
As we’ve seen, unlike Price and others, Ehrman opts for regarding Luke’s “L” material not as his own creation but as a separate written source, or group of them, perhaps including oral elements as well. As I asked earlier, why would such an ‘independent’ source be so selective, containing nothing about the other, more important areas of the Jesus story which Luke would surely have chosen to incorporate? (The same goes for Matthew.)
Ehrman undercuts any chance of being taken seriously here by one of the examples he gives of a Jesus story dependent on a source:
But (Matthew) too includes many stories found only in his Gospel: the visit of the wise men to worship the infant Jesus, for example, and the parable of the sheep and the goats at the last judgment. These then must have come from Matthew’s special source(s), which scholars have therefore labeled M. (p. 81)
Now, I have encountered no mainstream scholar who even remotely believes that the visit of the magi is an historical element within an historical nativity, and I would bet any amount of money that Ehrman doesn’t believe it either. But if Matthew is using a made-up element in a made-up tale, there would be no secure way anyone could tell whether the invention was in a previous source Matthew used or whether he was responsible for it himself. If the former is possible, so is the latter, and probably more so. (I have quoted Robert Price who perceives a common hand—the evangelists’ own—in the “special sources” of both Matthew and Luke.) But Ehrman must present only the former scenario, the source idea, because to include the latter would indicate that this element of his “M” material could admittedly have been Matthew’s own creation, thereby opening the door to all of it being his creation.
My money would be on the Nativity as entirely Matthew’s creation. The worship of the ‘holy’ child is a mytheme found in other settings, notably in the Luxor mural, where three figures, representing important officials or dignitaries, pay homage and bring gifts to the Egyptian royal infant, also symbolizing the god Horus. As part of the involvement of Herod in Matthew’s nativity scene, they are also a device to alarm Herod into inquiring about this child and leading him to the slaughter of the innocents, which holds up a mirror to the story of Moses in Exodus. This comparison between Moses and Jesus is a major element of symbolism in Matthew’s Gospel as a whole.
Ehrman hiding and hoping?
In an example of typical Ehrman fudging, the magi are an integral part of the story, so it is disingenuous for him to say that “the visit of the wise men to worship the infant Jesus” is an example of the content of the “M” material—which (as with Luke) he suggests could be a combination of sources—rather than the nativity scene as a whole. But a complex interwoven story like this cannot be transmitted through oral tradition, and its interests point toward it being Matthew’s creation rather than the creation of some unknown source.
Much the same goes for the second element Ehrman throws our way: the parable of the sheep and the goats at the last judgment (25:31-46). This, too, is something too complex to transmit through oral tradition, and its nature fits very well with the rather bleak fixation on righteousness of Matthew himself. All of this Ehrman has to conceal from his readers, or at least hope they won’t notice. (Just how many nativity scenes were floating around? one wonders. Did Luke have access to an entirely different one some unknown source had created? What about the one in the Ascension of Isaiah 11, which has Mary giving birth at home in Bethlehem and not even realizing ahead of time that she was pregnant?)
More insupportable claims for Mark and John
Ehrman champions both oral and possibly written sources for Mark. For John, he posits “an earlier written account of Jesus’ miracles (the so-called Signs Source), at least two accounts of Jesus’ long speeches (the Discourse Sources), and possibly another passion source as well.” He appeals to April DeConick’s study of the Gospel of Thomas, which argues that the core of Thomas goes back to “a Gospel in circulation prior to 50 CE.”
One should note here that Ehrman fails to clarify for the uninitiated reader that the word “Gospel” when applied to a known sayings collection does not mean a Gospel of the narrative kind, like the familiar canonical four. These sayings ‘gospels’—like Thomas and Q—are simply collections of sayings with no overall narrative elements; thus they do not present a “story” of Jesus.
This applies even to the posited sources for John. The “Signs Source” is a collection of miracle tales, the “Discourse Sources” a collection of extended sayings—if either in fact existed. But even if they did (and including sayings collections like Thomas and Q), they do not constitute stories of Jesus, independent or otherwise, for it is difficult to peer behind the curtain of their incorporation into the Gospels (or, in the case of Thomas, into the second century expanded version with a gnostic-like stratum extant today) to be able to identify what form they originally took or to whom they were previously attributed. We cannot tell what sort of revision was made to these supposed sources used by the evangelists. Consequently, for Ehrman to claim that they not only existed but can be confidently identified as relating to an historical Jesus figure is insupportable and a monumental case of begging the question.
If John’s sources were unique . . . .
Should we, for example, be suspicious of a collection of Jesus’ miracles circulating as far as northern Syria where the community of John is usually located, when not a single reference to any miracle performed by Jesus can be found in the entire epistolary record of the first century? Should we think that someone prior to John created a Discourse document which supposedly recorded traditions about Jesus’ sayings, when the particular voice of Jesus in John is heard absolutely nowhere else? (We have to assume that sayings like “I am the Resurrection and the Life” were completely unknown elsewhere.) Where would such a compiler have garnered this utterly unique set of sayings? It was hardly a case of collecting “oral traditions” circulating about what Jesus said.
Thus, our theoretical compiler would have had to create this body of sayings and discourses out of his own mind, though probably as an expression of some particular outlook or religious philosophy limited to his own community or circle of congregations (the Johannine community is often regarded as a separate and unique expression on the early Christian scene).
But then, this theoretical compiler would not represent an “independent source” about the historical Jesus and his teaching, but rather an isolated phenomenon, and who is to say what sectarian concept this compilation originally represented, or to what sort of Jesus figure it was attached, historical or mythical? Who is to say whether these “Signs” were not a record of the community’s own miracles in support of their unique Christology about a heavenly figure? Who is to say whether the sayings dimension in John was pre-Johannine, or whether John is simply incorporating into sayings and discourses the ideas and expressions about a spiritual Revealer Son current in his own circle?
The evolution of Jesus in Q and Thomas
Similarly with Q and Thomas. One can trace the evolution of a Jesus founder figure throughout the successive strata in Q (as has been done in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man), pointing to no specific historical figure at the root of the Q sect. And a Gospel of Thomas stripped of its “Jesus said” tags and reduced to its core “wisdom” stratum (equivalent in large part to Q1 and no doubt bearing some literary relationship with it on the mid-first century scene) cannot be securely identified with any historical figure, let alone the one from the Gospels.
Yet Ehrman has simply pointed to all these ‘sources’ and designated them as reflecting the historical figure he is trying to defend, and in the same breath proceeds to make part of that defence the existence of all these independent witnesses to him. A gigantic circular exercise.
Who invented Jesus?
Thus, this summary statement by Ehrman is based on reasoning shot through with fallacy:
We cannot think of the early Christian Gospels as going back to a solitary source that “invented” the idea that there was a man Jesus. The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced. Where would the solitary source that ‘invented’ Jesus be? (p. 82)
Once we realize that Ehrman’s concept of “independent” is exceedingly questionable, and that he has not even attempted, let alone proven, a case that all these sources can only be identified with an historical Jesus, his lethal blow against mythicism loses its force. The “invention” of the historical Jesus of the Gospels was first begun in the Q sect as an artificial wisdom-preaching apocalyptic prophet who had first spoken the sayings and performed the deeds of the Q preachers themselves. As Q specialist William Arnal admits (see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.349-51), he is in Q simply one of a “collective,” indistinguishable as an individual from the body of Q preachers, what they do and what they teach. And thus he becomes something which is undifferentiated from the Q community.
Mark took that ‘symbolic Jesus’ (to what extent he regarded him as entirely symbolic cannot be said) and expanded him in a biographical direction, essentially creating a life for him. And as part of that life, he wedded him, again in symbolic fashion, to the spiritual Christ of the Pauline cult by leading him to a sacrificial death and redeeming resurrection on earth. Magnetic forces drew to this appealing creation over many decades other expressions on the religious scene, so that to speak of a “solitary” source as inventing the historical Jesus is clearly simplistic.
But when one presents only simplistic questions, one can only produce simplistic answers.
. . . . to be continued
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