9. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Form Criticism and the Sources of the Gospels

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by Earl Doherty


Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.9

Form Criticism and the Sources of the Gospels



  • Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus
    • The Fallacy of Form Criticism
    • The Written Evidence of Common Patterns Versus the Oral Hypothesis
    • Literary Construction out of Scripture, not Oral Traditions
    • Traditions in Thomas and Q — not independent
    • The Path to Jesus is Paved with Good Assumptions
    • How Ehrman Dates the Sources to the Day After Jesus
    • From Contradiction and Confusion to Total Chaos
  • The Aramaic Origins of (Some) Oral Traditions
    • Aramaic originals?
    • An Aramaic Son of Man?
  • Conclusion

* * * * *

The Oral Traditions About Jesus

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 83-93)


Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus


In a section entitled “Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus,” Ehrman encapsulates the traditional scholarly approach to analysing the content of the Gospels, and sets these beside the current views he is espousing. But there are inherent contradictions in his scenario.

The Fallacy of Form Criticism

The “form-critical” approach, or “form criticism,” has sought to understand how the various stories about Jesus took shape as they were being “transmitted orally.” Scholarship has long observed something curious, says Ehrman:

Why is it that so many miracle stories seem to follow the same basic pattern? A person comes up to Jesus, his or her problem (or illness) is described, there is a brief interchange with Jesus, Jesus agrees to heal the person, he does so by a word or by a touch, and all the crowds marvel. Every miracle story seems to have the same elements.

Or take the controversy stories. Jesus or his disciples do something that offends the Jewish leaders; the leaders protest; Jesus has a conversation with them; and the story ends with Jesus delivering a withering one-liner that shows that he gets the better of them. Time after time, same form. (p. 84, emphasis added)

As Ehrman puts it, form criticism has asked: How did the various kinds of stories assume their various forms?

The stories about Jesus came to be shaped in the process of telling and retelling, as they assumed their characteristic forms. This means that the stories were changed, sometimes radically, when they were retold, and thus formed over the years. (p. 84)

Something doesn’t compute here. Ehrman has just told us that all the healing miracle stories, for example, are found in the Gospels in a more or less identical form. But oral transmission over a wide area, within an uncoordinated movement, is not likely to produce conformity. Quite the opposite.

When an apostle of the Christ enters a new town, speaks to a new audience or congregation, he does not check back with head office, or refer to his iPad notes, to make sure that he is telling a given story according to some set precedent or pattern.

The Written Evidence Versus the Oral Hypothesis

In fact, Ehrman has just said that the process is one of “telling and retelling,” in which the stories “were changed, sometimes radically, when they were retold.” And yet he wants us to subscribe to a contradictory end result: that these traditions were “shaped” and “formed over the years” into a product that followed only one consistent form. If there was no established centralized record or requirement of how miracle stories passed on by many mouths in many places through oral tradition were to be formulated, arriving at such a consistency would be utterly unlikely. We would arrive at diversity, not conformity. The unexpected conformity has at some stage been imposed.

That stage, logically, is a literary one. And it is most likely at the composing of the Gospels—in most cases that of the first one, Mark. But if that is the case, the entire methodology of form criticism is undercut, because it becomes very difficult to penetrate back beyond the Gospel stage to perceive the nature or form of the antecedent.

Ehrman has made it tougher for himself by laying emphasis on the traditions being oral, though he postulates some written sources. (We will see how successful he is at that.) We don’t even have non-Gospel controls on uncovering or tracing those antecedents, because there is such a dearth of any oral or written traditions of any kind to be found in the epistolary record—an observation which belies Ehrman’s entire emphasis and reliance on the channel of oral tradition.

Form criticism works to some extent in Q because we can trace the evolution of some of its elements through the succeeding strata, a few times with an outside check provided in the Gospel of Thomas. But that tracing leads to a dead end, because something like the Dialogue between Jesus and John (Luke/Q 7:18-35) shows every sign of being a literary construction undertaken at some point by the Q compilers, negating any thought of it passing through oral tradition, let alone proceeding originally from a record of Jesus. Matthew and Luke have simply taken over that artificial construction from Q.

Literary Construction out of Scripture, not Oral Traditions

As well, another process of “construction” is revealed at virtually every level throughout the work of the evangelists. Their dependence on scriptural precedents for so much of their text is by now well known, although Ehrman virtually ignores the whole question. (Probably too sophisticated—and confusing—for his readership.)

The elements of a miracle story like the loaves and fishes, for example, are very unlikely to proceed from oral tradition, since we can see its fabrication out of miracle stories from the Hebrew bible, in this case similar miracles by Elijah and Elisha. If Mark had some version come to him through oral tradition about a reputed miracle performed by Jesus, why did he make no use of it?

Why do almost all the miracles, as Ehrman tells us, have the same shape and identifiable models from scripture, with nothing appearing to owe anything to oral tradition or history remembered? Why would Mark force them into that same repetitive and artificial mold?

Traditions in Thomas and Q — not independent

Regarding “stories being told about Jesus,” Ehrman says:

If scholars are right that Q and the core of the Gospel of Thomas, to pick just two examples, do date from the 50s, and that they were based on oral traditions that had already been in circulation for a long time, how far back do these traditions go? (p. 85)

But Ehrman surely knows that his designation of Q and the Thomas core (wisdom-type sayings similar to those of Q1) as two independent collections of Jesus’ sayings is misleading, if not outright false. Helmut Koester and others have concluded that

. . . the Gospel of Thomas is either dependent upon the earliest version of Q or, more likely, shares with the author of Q one or several very early collections of Jesus’ sayings. (Ancient Christian Gospels, p.95)

In other words, there is a literary dependence between the two; they are not independent, no more than Matthew or Luke are independent of Mark for their Jesus story, no more than the Q portions of Matthew and Luke are independent collections, since they are the same body of material used by two different writers. Koester has surmised that Q and Thomas both used an ancestral collection, though that, I suspect, is partly based on a desire to posit such a collection, bringing us supposedly closer to a record of the historical Jesus’ teachings. (And there is a problem in Koester’s option which I outline in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.358-9.) In any case, there is no good reason preventing the Thomas sapiential layer from being an offshoot of an early stage of Q, which I argue.

The Path to Jesus is Paved with Good Assumptions

Ehrman, of course, as do most scholars, simply assumes that whatever collection of sayings may have preceded Thomas and Q, it represents a record of the teachings of Jesus, just as they automatically do for Q1 itself. But that is yet to be established; to assume it is to beg the question.

The wisdom root of Q, and thus of Thomas, could simply be the adopted ethics of the kingdom-preaching sect (some of it looks to derive from Cynic philosophy), long before any founder Jesus was envisioned as the speaker. (And a close study of Q, as I present in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, indicates that this is in fact the case.)

But if the assumption is that such collections do go back to Jesus’ preaching, then it’s a simple step, isn’t it, to declare that such material, such witnesses to the historical Jesus, must go back to a very early time following Jesus’ career:

. . . even anyone who just wonders if Jesus existed has to assume that there were stories being told about him in the 30s and 40s. (p. 85)

Thus, lo and behold, through this chain of unproven assumptions, we have arrived at some of Ehrman’s ‘early witness and sources’ of the Gospel traditions, virtually to the year following Jesus’ death as he will shortly claim.

How Ehrman Dates the Sources to the Day After Jesus

Ehrman offers a truly bizarre argument to bolster this tracking down of Jesus traditions to the period immediately after his life:

For one thing, as we will see in the next chapter, how else would someone like Paul have known to persecute the Christians, if Christians didn’t exist? And how could they exist if they didn’t know anything about Jesus? (p. 85)

One begged question is followed by another begged question. All of the sources Ehrman finds behind the Gospels, such as Q and Thomas, special “M” and “L,” John’s Signs Source and Discourses, are declared by fiat to automatically reflect an historical Jesus’ words and deeds.

In support of this, he appeals to Paul’s persecution of Christians, as though this persecution has to have been directed at followers of the Gospel Jesus, when there no sign that any such figure or group is on Paul’s radar.

For Ehrman, there can be only one application of the term “Christians.” But if there is any common characteristic to Jesus mythicism, it is that the Christ of early Christian epistle writers like Paul is not based on the Jesus of the Gospels, on any recent historical man. Before even arguing the point, Ehrman claims the orthodox view and makes Paul witness not simply to an historical Jesus but to early traditions about him, traditions, by the way, which he never shows any knowledge of or interest in. On the sayings of Q and Thomas, on special “M” and “L,” on John’s Signs and Discourses, the epistles are totally silent.

Ehrman then gives a passing nod to the mythicist argument that Paul worshiped a divine Christ and not an historical Jesus, and he promises to discredit this later in the book. But even if the epistles were set aside, Ehrman says, we have “ample reason” to conclude that stories about an historical Jesus were circulating “from a very early time.” On what basis? Why, all those “sources (that) are independent of one another.”

From Contradiction and Confusion to Total Chaos

In the same breath as claiming that “They contain strikingly different accounts of what Jesus said and did,” those sources, Ehrman says, “agree on too many of the fundamentals.”

Which is it?

John is certainly strikingly different in his teachings of Jesus from the Synoptics, so different that both pictures are virtually incompatible, making at least one of them outright invention.

The Synoptics agree on many of the fundamentals because Matthew and Luke (and John in his Passion) are basically copying from Mark. And where they are not dependent on Mark, Matthew and Luke are not corroborative because their “special” material is different, and their Q material comes from a single document and so they are not “independent.”

Amid all this confusion, Ehrman throws his argument into total chaos by declaring that all the fundamentals everyone agrees on “are based on oral traditions,” sweeping aside the clear literary dependencies inherent in the Gospels and in Matthew and Luke’s use of Q. These are dependencies he has already admitted, though with a minimum of focus on them and a maximum of misleading language to convey that they hardly exist.

He sums up:

Aspects of the surviving stories of Jesus found in the written Gospels, themselves based on earlier written accounts, show clearly both that they were based on oral traditions (as Luke himself indicates) and that these traditions had been around for a very long time—in fact, that they had been around since Christianity first emerged as a religion in Palestine itself. (p. 86)

“Aspects of the surviving stories” is particularly woolly. What “aspects” are these? And outside of Q, Ehrman has failed to provide us with a single “earlier written account” preceding Mark, much less that those earlier written accounts were themselves based on longstanding oral traditions and were not themselves dependent on other sources, such as the Thomas wisdom stratum on Q1 and much of Q1 itself on Cynic philosophy. Ehrman’s naïve reliance on the Prologue to Luke (probably the creation of a mid-2nd century revision of Luke) which lays out this alleged process is quite misplaced, as shown earlier.

Elephant in the room

And Ehrman’s confident declaration that everything goes back to oral traditions ignores the truly large elephant in the room: the clear construction of pericopes all over the place by Mark, further developed by Matthew and Luke, out of passages in scripture.


The Aramaic Origins of (Some) Oral Traditions


An Aramaic Original?

Decades after the abandonment of a thread in scholarly opinion that the Gospels may have been originally written in Aramaic, Bart Ehrman revives it in part by suggesting that some of his “oral traditions” lying behind the Gospels circulated in the days immediately following Jesus in the language of Aramaic. This theory is based on a paltry handful of Aramaic words that appear in the Gospels, supposedly indicating that these words are a survival of originally whole Aramaic oral traditions about Jesus. Further, these words are usually translated by the author into Greek, so that his readers will be sure to understand the meaning.

In the miracle of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:38-43):

Then, taking hold of her hand, he said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means “Get up, my child.”

Ehrman claims that when this story, originally told in Aramaic, was translated by Mark into Greek, the two Aramaic words were left as is, with a translation provided.

But it could equally well be explained as the usage by Mark of a common type of phrase used in faith healing in the Greco-Aramaic culture of the day, including in Q-type practice which Mark would have been a party to, something that might have been more familiar in Aramaic than in anything else.

Bilingual people in our own day tend to intermix phrases from one language into the other, especially if they have a well-used meaning in the other language. If I as a writer (or even speaker) in English use the phrase “raison d’être”, I don’t need to have the reader postulate that I am reflecting a prior source in French, it’s just part of the parlance which English speakers and writers in a bilingual culture often use. (It’s actually handier in the French.) And Mark provides a Greek translation for those of his readers who are not bilingual, maybe gentiles within the movement.

Consider 1 Cor. 16:22, in which Paul (let’s assume this ending is authentic to the letter) says: “Marana tha!”—Come, O Lord!” This hardly is expected to be from Jesus’ mouth. It’s part of the parlance of the prophetic movement of the time (though Paul’s cult was distinct from the Galilean preaching sect). There is no need to imagine that Paul is tapping into some ‘source’ or tradition in Aramaic. Nor is it likely to be a story about Jesus, being called on to “come.” Paul is simply inserting a well-known phrase within a bilingual culture, common in both languages in his apocalyptic-oriented circles (in a faith where Christ has not yet been to earth).

The very paucity of Aramaic words in the Gospels is argument against Ehrman’s claim. An entire Aramaic phase of preaching and faith, let alone one that went back to Jesus himself, would leave a far bigger trail than this. Can one imagine, in a bilingual society such as Palestine was, a ‘record’ of Jesus’ life which would not have been full of preserved words by him in Aramaic, whether authentic or not? And especially in the so-called ‘genuine’ teachings of Jesus supposedly collected in Q1?

An Aramaic Son of Man?

Ehrman has an interesting, if convoluted, argument surrounding one of the “son of man” sayings in Mark (2:27-8). “The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath; therefore the Son of Man is sovereign even over the Sabbath” is the punch line to a story in which Jesus’ disciples, being hungry, picked corn on the Sabbath and were criticized by the Pharisees, to whom Jesus retorted with this saying.

This is one of the “Son of Man” sayings which falls into the non-titular, non-apocalyptic category—or should (see also Mark 2:10 and Luke/Q 9:58). Now, only in English can we make a distinction between “Son of Man” (capitalized) as a title for a future apocalyptic judge which eventually got applied to the Jesus figure, and “son of man” (not capitalized) which was a Semitic euphemism simply for “man,” sometimes used by the speaker as a self-reference. In Greek, both senses employ the same words: ho huios tou anthrōpou. If this saying in Mark had contemporary currency (and one can imagine the prophets of an anti-establishment sect claiming that sovereignty for themselves), it makes perfect sense.

Ehrman claims it does not, because (a) the Pharisees were criticizing the disciples, not Jesus, so whether Jesus himself was Lord (master) of the Sabbath doesn’t answer the Pharisees’ objection.; and (b) the second part of the verse doesn’t follow from the first part.

The therefore in this case doesn’t make sense. Just because Sabbath was made for humans and not the other way around, what does that have to do with Jesus being the Lord of the Sabbath? (p. 89)

Ehrman is technically right on both counts. But the solution is to take the saying (and the others like it) as originally existing in a context in which “son of man” (non-capitalized) meant simply “man”, so that all Mark 2:27-8 means is that, if the Sabbath was made for humans and not humans made for the Sabbath, then a human in general (the “son of man”) can consider himself master of the Sabbath and free to do what needs to be done. Wherever these sayings came from, Mark has imported them into his Gospel and made the phrase “son of man” represent a reference to Jesus. This conversion has created Ehrman’s dilemma. Mark has altered the original saying about humans to direct it toward Jesus himself in his role as the “Son of Man” (in the apocalyptic sense). It would not be the first time that a Christian writer or editor redacted a passage or existing saying and created an anomaly.

Ehrman’s solution is quite different. If Mark 2:27-8 supposedly makes no sense in Greek, he suggests that if “son of man” is translated back into Aramaic using the words “bar nasha” this makes it clear that the phrase really is being used as a self-reference and the confusion between the two understandings in Greek is eliminated. This allegedly indicates that the saying began originally in Aramaic. But if one understands the progress of the saying from the non-titular use in Greek to a titular understanding applied by Mark to Jesus, no ‘back-translation’ need be performed. Mark may have created something confusing, but it might not have seemed so to him. He may not even have noticed, simply carrying over one understanding to the other. (It’s not as if no other Christian writing contains an internal contradiction.)

Of course, it is always feasible that this saying (or the others of its type) did begin in Aramaic, reflecting the bilingual nature of the Palestinian scene. A revolutionary claim like this might have been formulated in Aramaic, though we have no evidence of it. But even if so, there is nothing in evidence which requires us to assign such an Aramaic claim (or even its Greek counterpart) to Jesus. It could as well have been made by the sect itself. Once again, Ehrman is making his argument on the question-begging basis that anything uncovered prior to Mark has to relate to an historical preaching Jesus and thus becomes an early source to be identified with him.

Ehrman undercuts his sweeping claim about Aramaic originals by pointing out that some sayings of Jesus cannot be translated into Aramaic and still make sense. This, he says, is a pointer to such sayings not being authentic to Jesus, who would likely have spoken only Aramaic. But that’s a bit of a self-serving argument. It becomes a device to get around the problem by making the claim unfalsifiable. We’ll postulate an Aramaic original only when it works and serves our need, and reject one when it does not.




Ehrman’s “Conclusion” to this chapter simply repeats all the claims he has made throughout in regard to documentary and oral evidence for the existence of Jesus:

  • multiple surviving Gospels—seven, no less—completely independent in whole or in part;
  • all of them “corroborate many of the same basic sets of data—for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.”

Well, the latter is not to be found in a vast array of early Christian records outside the Gospels and their auxiliaries, which have nothing to say about an earthly venue or a human agency or a time in history.

Of course, Ehrman is selectively drawing on only cooperative records, and even these he has to twist and distort, and read their predecessors (when he can pull them from the shadows of uncertainty they rest in) as automatically witnessing to an historical Jesus. Q was a major source document for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, yet a Jesus who was crucified by anyone is missing from its reconstructed pages.

Ehrman has a long way to go to dismantle the mythicist case. In fact, he has a long way to go to convince anyone that the historicist case can be defended by anything other than special pleading, fallacious argument and highly questionable methodology.


. . . to be continued


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14 thoughts on “9. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Form Criticism and the Sources of the Gospels”

  1. This comment isn’t specifically related to this post but rather to the differences that you and Ehrman have with respect to interpreting statements in the epistles attributed to Paul. I am currently reading the English translation of Hermann Detering’s 2012 ebook concerning Paul. He said:

    With regard to the person of the apostle, in the search for non-Christian sources for Paul one finds oneself in a similar dilemma as in the attempt to document the historicity of Jesus with non-Christian source material: the ancient sources are silent.

    If the existence of Paul is unprovable, then it isn’t known who wrote any of the epistles that have been attributed to Paul, not just those that scholars have agreed were not written by him. I don’t suppose that would necessarily impact the concept that the supposed Pauline community had of a heavenly Jesus, but I assume it would affect the nature of the argument.

      1. I haven’t yet read the entire, lengthy Parvus comment concerning Paul, but I immediately came upon this:

        I am more and more convinced that Marcion’s assessment of the Pauline letters best explains their contents.

        I have just come to the point in the beginning of chapter two in Detering’s book where he hypothesizes that the letters thought to be authentically authored by Paul were really written by Marcion toward the middle of the 2nd century. So far, lots of interesting stuff in that chapter. I have lately been in the habit of reading Vridar posts via the Article Mode of my Kindle, which makes it easier to stay focused on lengthy posts. The disadvantage is that it is good only for reading the posts, not the comments that follow them, as they do not display in Article Mode, which I presume detects the HTML separating the post itself from the comments.

        1. I have so much more reading to do about Paul and so many possibilities to explore. In Doherty’s next post he will be alluding to the argument he makes in JNGM that Paul’s rivals in effect won out and it was their brand of Christianity that came to dominate the philosophical scene of the early to mid second century, as represented by the second century apologists. Was Paul resurrected to prominence by Marcion as the ongoing (but by now modified) counter to this Logos/Revealer form of Christianity. One can understand Marcion’s rivals catching on to the popular appeal of a gospel Jesus narrative that eventually undercut the more esoteric faith of he early apologists.

          1. I am at the point where Detering is making a case that the Pauline letters that came from the Marcionite community were reworked by the Catholic church to fit their philosophy and that the original Marcionite versions were shorter. All of these things, including the people mentioned, are mostly new to me. It seems like Detering’s reasoning is sound, but I really wouldn’t have any knowledge to make me suspect otherwise.

            1. For what they’re worth some other posts on the date or origin of Paul’s letters here are:


              I am sure I posted something else explaining why I was moving away from a second century date for Paul’s letters and accepting them as mid first century products but can’t find it for now.

              1. Thanks for those links. I will check them out after I have digested the Detering book. I am not familiar enough with this stuff for all of it to be easily comprehended. I have just finished reading this:

                All in all, it may have become clear, in any case, that the author of the Pauline letters could hardly have been a Jew, not even a Diaspora Jew alienated from the religion of his fathers, but could only have been a Marcionite, or perhaps Marcion (and/or one/some of his students). In many cited passages what elsewhere has been skillfully retouched, corrected, and eliminated through Catholic redaction of the Pauline letters is glaringly evident: the subliminal defamation of the Jewish God, the creator and Law-giver, by no one other than “Paul,” i.e. the original Marcionite Paul himself.

              2. Bob,

                I question whether Marcionites are responsible for the “subliminal defamation of the Jewish God, the creator and Law-giver” in the Pauline letters. I think that Simonians are better candidates. I attribute the original letters to Simon and his followers, who were the predecessors of the Marcionites in denigrating the Jewish God, the material world he made (including human flesh), and his Law. And Simonians, in line with their negative view of the flesh, were also the predecessors of the Marcionites in their belief in a docetic Christ. I submit that the “Paul” who authored much of the original letters was Simon, not Marcion.

                Given the similarity in beliefs of the Marcionites and the Simonians, it might at first glance seem difficult to choose one community rather than the other as author of the Paulines. To correctly decide we must inspect the letters for beliefs (1) that were held by one of them but not the other, and (2) that cannot plausibly be viewed as proto-orthodox interpolations. I think there is a clear example of such in chapters 2 and 3 of Galatians: the righteousness of Abraham which was obtained by faith without works.

                We know that a person is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ… no one will be justified by works of the Law… Thus Abraham ‘believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness’. You see that those who have faith are the children of Abraham. (Gal. 2:16 and 3:6-7)

                To start with my second criterion first: the Galatians belief in righteousness by faith alone is not something the proto-orthodox would have interpolated into the Paulines. On the contrary, the proto-orthodox went to great lengths to combat this very belief. The letter of James was forged, in part, with that aim in view:

                But do you wish to know, O shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works and faith was completed by the works. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’… You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone. (James 2:20-24)

                The letter of James uses the same keywords that are used in Galatians, it brings forward the same Old Testament figure that Galatians does (Abraham), and it quotes the same Genesis verse that Galatians cites (15:6), but it reaches the opposite conclusion: faith without works is barren. It seems undeniable that some interpretation of the Pauline text was its target and, for that reason, I don’t see any way the Galatians passage can be tagged a proto-orthodox interpolation. They would have qualified it much more clearly with caveats to unmistakably distinguish it from the “faith apart from works” doctrine they abominated. (And there are, of course, other places in the New Testament that the proto-orthodox attack that Pauline teaching. For instance, Mt. 5:19: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” And the proto-orthodox author of Acts of the Apostles cannot resist laying down at least a few kata sarka requirements for Gentiles converts: “namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage”- Acts 15:29.)

                In regard to my first criterion: It is clear that the Galatians passage was not written by a Marcionite. One way that Marcion differed from the Simonians (and, in general, from all other gnostics) was in his total rejection of the Old Testament as a revelation of the unknown God. So there is no way he would have used Abraham and a verse from Genesis to support his beliefs.

                Simon of Samaria, on the other hand, did use Old Testament texts. The proto-orthodox accused him of twisting the meaning of the Old Testament, and of many unjustifiable allegorical interpretations of passages in it. Simonians (and, again, gnostics in general) were particularly drawn to the book of Genesis and its account of creation.

                And the proto-orthodox portrayed Simon as definitely anti-works. Simon taught that “by his grace men are saved, not by just works. For actions are just not by nature but by convention, in accordance with the decrees of the angels who made the world, and they intended to lead men into slavery through precepts of this kind” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1,23,3).

                Thus the justification of Abraham by faith apart from works fits well in the Simonian system. And, as mentioned, appeal to Genesis would not have been a problem for Simon. The Pauline interpretation of Genesis 15:6 may just be another of the twisted interpretations he was accused of. (And note too that in this scenario the very numerous OT quotations in the Paulines need not all be—as Marcion would have it—interpolations by judaizers. The quotes may in large part belong to the original Simonian layer of the letters.)

                So, in my opinion, the history of the earliest collection of Pauline letters went something like this:

                1. The original letters, exhortations, instructions, and so on that make up the letter collection were written between about CE 40 and 130 by Simon himself and later Simonians (e.g. Menander, Satorninus).

                2. In the early 130s a proto-orthodox Christian came into possession of the letter collection and made significant changes to it—including the name change to “Paul”—to turn the letters into proto-orthodox ones.

                3. In the late 130s a wealthy shipowner named Marcion came to Rome and converted, embracing proto-orthodoxy briefly before making the acquaintance of a Simonian named Cerdo. From Cerdo Marcion learned that the letter collection was not in its pristine state, that it had been interpolated by judaizers. Marcion, however, did not fully embrace Simonianism, but instead simplified it. Instead of cherry-picking the Old Testament, he totally rejected it, and set about trying to restore the letter collection to what he conceived its original state to have been.

              3. Well, I’ve finished the book. Detering thinks that the accounts concerning Simon Magus and Paul are about one and the same historical person. The Couchoud book is in his list of references, but Couchoud is not mentioned in the text, just in one of the notes. He also cited the 2008 book by Parvus. Deterings conclusions about Paul seem to have a lot in common with your thinking on the issue. His fourth and final chapter seemed a bit astonishing. He basically bailed out on the issue of the historicity of Jesus and says that the historical facts have little importance; what ultimately matters is Christian spirituality. He also seems to see it as a good thing for European culture that the Catholics out-jousted the Marcionites and other forms of Gnosticism as it would otherwise have been likely that Asian philosophy would have become dominant in Europe. But that doesn’t ruin the first three chapters of the book.

  2. On sources, I would imagine that anyone capable of writing a gospel would be well read in both the Pentateuch and in other Greek literature. While the Torah and early greek philosophy and story telling are part of one interacting Near Eastern culture, a contrast can be made: the gospel narratives are based on the Pentateuchal stories (with, I think, knowledge too of older and newer Greek stories and of some of Paul) whereas the teaching comes largely from Greek dialectics. The stories about the early cynics are more what they should have done and said than history, pungent and memorable, like the Parable tradition shared by early greeks and the earliest rabbis. Is there really a need for a Q document to explain this shared culture? To help answer this we need to look not just at sources but the use made of sources – e.g. what was the purpose of a parable to each author.
    Earl’s latest post has almost persuaded me to believe in Q.

    1. Earl has done a good job of persuading me to leave the Q option a real possibility despite my leanings in the other direction. I do think that many have been quick to side with Goodacre for the wrong reasons. Both sides of the argument need to be studied, and that means knowing Kloppenborg and Mack and such as well as Goodacre.

      1. Interesting comment.
        My scepticism with the Q hypothesis began with the reading of Michael Goulder’s “Midrash and Lection in Matthew” which I got from a library.
        Unfortunately it was in my early days of looking at Christianity and I didn’t take notes and haven’t been able to find the book since.
        Farrer was the next step, similarly no notes damnit, later Drury [who paraphrased the scientist whatsisname by saying that he had ‘no need for that hypothesis” when referring to Q in his work “Tradition and Authority in Luke”] and others.
        For me Goodacre, despite my respect for his work [regarding Q anyway] has contributed little to the authors above.
        I find the HJ presumption of so many of these authors, with its attendant pervasive ‘oral tradition’ panacea, to be offputting and subtly misleading. I presume Goulder’s Q scepticism was a factor in his move away from Christianity, strange [not really] that Spong despite his respect for Goulder did not follow.
        I have little respect for the work of Mack, I have his “Who Wrote the NT?” and find it unconvincing and unscholarly.
        Kloppenborg I have only looked at superficially, lack of opportunity is the reason, and I’m looking for his books. So far I haven’t found his criticism of Goodacre and Perrin persuasive but I’m suspending judgement at this stage.
        I’m still open to Q but very very sceptical of it.

  3. Fantastically written section here, Earl. The deeper analysis of Bart’s section on the Gospels is way more incisive than I could have imagined. Bravo. Keep up the sharp analysis.

  4. I know we do not have the document “Q” but I wonder about such a document. Christians are portrayed as poor, female, oppressed and any number of other ways in various documents. Some apparently are Christians of means as they own houses or buildings where meetings of Christians could be held. If Acts is reliable (and I do not believe it to be as it has religious agendas in spades, as it were) there were Christians in Jerusalem of means. Not these people “of means” could have been literate or wealthy enough to hire a scribe, but how would Q have been produced? Was there a meeting of Christians and one of them jumped up and said, “Hey, gang, I’ve got an idea?” How would the aphorisms, stories, and teachings have been collected? How would they be corroborated? (I can imagine many wanting to contribute, but having nothing, they made something up.) When was this process declared complete? How was the ms. duplicated? How was it distributed.

    With no evidence regarding Q that is concrete, I currently believe it is an artifact of a narrative (a conjecture, not a fact), just as there being an oral tradition regarding Jesus is assumed to have existed. If Jesus is indeed a literary concoction, there would not necessarily have been any sort of oral history. This is the equivalent to claiming Scientology had an oral tradition before being written down.

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