Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 10
Listening to the Sounds of Silence
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Silence: Why did no-one until modern times deny the existence of Jesus?
- – Does anyone on the early Christian scene deny the existence of the Gospel Jesus?
- – Ignatius’ letters the first to show support for the Gospel story
- Sounds in silence: Or were they?
- – Does 1 John reveal the first dispute over an historical Jesus?
- – Should we expect Celsus to be a New Testament exegete?
- – Trypho’s “groundless report”
- – Sound of Silence: Ehrman fails to hear
- Golden silence of the Rabbis
- – Silent rabbis on Jesus’ non-existence
- The silence of Irenaeus, Tertullian and their heretics
- – Why do 2nd century apologists not attack the Christ cult of Paul as a heresy?
- The sound of transition: From Paul to Orthodoxy
- – The process of transition from a heavenly to earthly Christ
- The sound of diversity: A Logos religion
- – The Logos religion of the 2nd century apologists
- Silence complete: Revisiting Josephus and Tacitus
- – Ehrman’s unsupportable assumptions
* * * * *
Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 94-97)
Later Sources from Outside the New Testament
Silence: Why did no-one until modern times deny the existence of Jesus?
Ehrman spends a few pages at the beginning of his Chapter Four on the old canard which too many historicists seem to think is a knockout blow against the mythicist theory: that no one in all the documents we possess from the earliest period right up to the 18th century ever suggests, or deals with an accusation, that Jesus never existed. A moment’s reflection ought to reveal why this might be the case. (There are in fact a handful of notable exceptions to this silence that I will go into shortly, which puts the lie to Ehrman’s sweeping statement.)
First of all, if an earthly Jesus did not exist for Christians of the Pauline variety of faith in a sacrificed Savior through almost the first hundred years of the movement, how would we expect to find a denial that he had? No one would have been claiming it.
We also have to ask, who would have been in a position to know that Christians were claiming something that was false?
When do we first see that claim surfacing? One can’t point to the Gospels themselves because the very issue in question is whether there is any support for their presentation of a supposedly historical figure and set of events; and their traditional dating is dubious.
The first direct reference by a Christian to an historical man who was crucified by Pilate is found in the letters of Ignatius, which if authentic can be dated no earlier than 107 CE, or if forgeries, some time after that. Is anyone going to be around in Antioch in 107 or later who had been alive in Galilee or Jerusalem three-quarters of a century earlier—with the upheaval and destruction of the Jewish War occurring in the interim—someone who knew everything that happened there in the 10-year period of Pilate’s governorship and was thus in a position to verify that such a figure never existed? A preposterous idea. Christians themselves show no sign of being familiar with the Gospel story, let alone that it had any circulation outside their circles, before the time of Ignatius.
And what reaction would this someone have gotten? A sympathetic ear? Or Ignatius’ “mad dogs” and “beasts in the form of men” who deny that Jesus was the son of Mary, baptized by John, and crucified by Pilate.
Sounds in Silence: Or were they?
While Ignatius’ language may be marginally ambiguous (though there are scholars such as W. R. Schoedel who doubt that he is simply countering docetism), this looks to be one of that handful I spoke of above: a sign that there were people denying new Christian claims that Jesus had lived on earth and suffered in a human incarnation.
The basis of that denial would not have been a personal knowledge of the period of Jesus’ alleged life, but the simple fact that such deniers would have been unfamiliar with any such tradition in their own beliefs as Christians up to that time and could not—or, unlike Ignatius, were not willing to—adopt the new fiction as history.
1 John 4:1-4
Another of that handful is 1 John 4:1-4, where the writer is condemning those in his faith circle who deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, while he himself represents those who believe that he has.
These opposing views, by the way, come to their respective adherents via revelation (“spirits” from God or not from God), with no appeal on either side to history or apostolic tradition, let alone the Gospel story. (Not even Ignatius appeals to apostolic tradition.)
Too soon for docetism
Scholars generally take refuge in the opinion that this dispute too centers on docetism, but that is anything but clear. There isn’t the slightest suggestion of docetism anywhere else in the Johannine epistles, much less a debate over it. And besides, the standard dating of these epistles (which must be placed before the Johannine Gospel) is probably too early—no later than the 90s—to postulate a community grappling with a full-blown gnostic dispute.
Ehrman points to Celsus, writing around the 170s (surviving in Origen’s refutation). Celsus clearly is relying on some knowledge of the Gospels. How would he have been in a position to uncover the truth behind them: that they were not in any way historical documents? Did he have access to today’s entire New Testament corpus and other writings of the period to be able to perform some grand feat of exegesis and realize that the early record pointed to no human founder at all? Again, a preposterous expectation, and Ehrman being a knowledgeable textual scholar should have been able to realize that.
Finally, there is the question of what is meant by Trypho’s remark in Justin’s Dialogue (ch.8):
But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . .
As I discuss at length in Appendix 12 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, the typical historicist argument over this passage is that Trypho “is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” (so Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend, p.170). But the language is far from this specific. And it is not Trypho who is assuming Jesus existed, but Justin, who is creating the dialogue and putting into Trypho’s mouth what he himself believes and to further the argument he is constructing.
But it does suggest that Justin is countering something that contemporary Jews are claiming, and the quotation is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest even to a committed historicist scholar like Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.15, n.35) that “This may be a faint statement of a non-existence hypothesis, but it is not developed . . . ” (It is not developed because that is not part of Justin’s purpose.) The “groundless report” may allude to an accusation that the entire Gospel story with its central character was indeed fiction.
Sounds of Silence: Ehrman fails to hear
Ehrman claims that a document like the Epistle to Diognetus assumes an historical Jesus. He does the same for 1 Clement (which he will deal with in more detail shortly).
If he read my book, he will know that a very good case can be made that these texts do not show any such thing, and certainly not with the clarity he is claiming.
Golden Silence of the Rabbis
The poor rabbis of the Talmud (who show any assumption of an historical Jesus only in the compilations of the 4th to 6th centuries) are also expected by Ehrman to have preserved and voiced an opinion of Jesus’ non-historicity and use it as ammunition against the Christians. (Does he really think they would do so in the 4th to 6th centuries when rabid patriarchs revelling in unlimited power and their bloodthirsty hooligans were on the rampage against the Jews and pagans generally?)
In fact, as I pointed out in Part 6 of this series, it is precisely that sort of silence in the earlier centuries, when Jews ought to have been outspoken about who Jesus really had been in opposition to Christian claims about him, which indicates that the Jews and their rabbis knew absolutely nothing about any such figure. (Trypho, tellingly, responds only to Justin’s presentation of a Jesus who is entirely based on the Gospels; he is given no independent or contrary Jesus traditions which he as a representative Jew might have been expected to possess from Israel’s century-old past.)
If they indeed knew nothing, Jews in the mid-second century would have been equally unable to falsify a Gospel story telling of distant alleged events prior to the Jewish War. For mythicism, their silence is golden.
The Silence of Irenaeus, Tertullian and their heretics
While Ehrman does not touch on this question, I will briefly insert here another claim about silences in the second century. Apologists on the internet have brought up the fact that heresiologists like Irenaeus and Tertullian do not tackle the “heavenly Christ cult” of the Pauline variety as a heresy for its denial of an historical Jesus—or simply for its omission of him. Well, we do in fact see such a condemnation in Ignatius.
What we can perceive in the letters—whether by himself or by someone shortly after his death, certainly no more than a decade or so—is a period of transition from belief in a spiritual Christ to a belief in an historical one. (I trace evidence of this in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.302-4.)
This kind of picture illustrates how the Christ cult represented in Paul and other NT epistles of the first century morphed from one into the other, a process that took place over the course of the first half of the second century, gradually and unevenly. But it would certainly have been completed before the time (late second century and early third) when Irenaeus and Tertullian came to tackle the great threat of orthodoxy’s rival, Gnosticism. (We have lost all of Justin’s anti-heresy works of a few decades earlier.)
By that time, the sacrificed heavenly Christ of Paul would have been lost sight of, and the whole movement and soteriology surrounding him would have been reinterpreted in terms of orthodoxy’s new historical assumptions based on the Gospels.
Even without their preoccupation with Gnosticism, someone like Irenaeus could not possibly have recognized and attacked the heavenly nature of the Christ of Pauline tradition, since this would have entailed the realization that such was the nature of the earliest phase of their own faith movement.
The Sound of Transition: from Paul to Orthodoxy
To tie up this aspect of the situation, it must be noted that the bulk of the writers we know as the second century apologists fail to witness to either side of this heavenly-earthly dichotomy and transition process. Unlike Ignatius, they have no faith in an incarnated Son but only in a heavenly Logos. Unlike Paul’s, their heavenly Son figure is not a sacrificed one; there is no atonement doctrine, no redeeming death of the Logos. We saw hints of this in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul is promoting his own version of the Son as a “Christ crucified,” with the strong implication that he is dealing with rivals and other circles of faith which do not believe in a crucified or sacrificed figure, but simply in a spiritual Revealer Son who saves by bestowing knowledge of God (just as survives in the Gospel of John from before the grafting on of the Synoptics’ human Jesus and his crucifixion).
This stream of thought, which probably arose out of the whole intermediary Son/Logos philosophy of thinkers like Philo, seems to have blossomed as a distinct religious expression in the second century:
- Theophilus of Antioch
- Athenagoras of Athens
- Minucius Felix
- early Tatian
All of them present no sacrificial Son of any sort, nor an incarnated one. (In Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, Appendix 11, I argue that even the Apology of Aristides belongs here, since the passage containing elements of the Gospels can be shown to be an insertion.)
The little-known Discourse to the Greeks, erroneously attributed to Justin Martyr, is a prime example (see JNGNM, p.499) of a Logos religion which can be nothing else, having no connection to a Jesus of either Paul or the Gospels; and the content of its faith can hardly be differentiated from that of those second century apologists.
Later, just as Paul and the other NT epistle writers did, these apologists entered the orthodox fold through reinterpretation—something that has required to this day infeasible scholarly explanations for why they do not present an historical Jesus in their “detailed” accounts of the faith. The apologist Minucius Felix requires an additional dance to explain away his condemnation of the very idea that his faith would be based on a crucified man and his cross: a true smoking gun in the early Christian record.
Bart Ehrman makes no attempt to counter any of my extensive study of the second century apologists in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, chapter 31.
The Sounds of Diversity: A Logos Religion
Justin Martyr’s faith also looks to have begun as simple belief in a Revealer Logos (as we can perceive in his account of his conversion experience at the beginning of the Dialogue with Trypho), and only by the time he wrote his Apology in the 150s and shortly thereafter the Dialogue, had he encountered some Gospels and adopted their Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos on earth. Tatian seems to have followed suit in his later career. All of these writers moved in philosophical circles similar to pagan religio-philosophical groups, not in ecclesiastical ones.
As a body, the second century apologists represent this Logos religion, something quite distinct from the Pauline cult and from Gospel orthodoxy. This entire picture, including the varied Gnostic sects which critical scholars now acknowledge did not simply grow out of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, presents us with an “intermediary Son/Christ” movement—we now label the whole of it “Christianity”—which was extremely diverse and uncoordinated. That is, until the juggernaut that grew from the humble Gospel allegory created by the author of Mark overflowed its banks and swamped the entire landscape, establishing the artificial features it would enjoy for almost two millennia.
Complete Silence: Revisiting Josephus and Tacitus
Ehrman returns briefly to Josephus and Tacitus to make the admission that whatever they knew about Jesus was almost certainly the product of hearsay; they would not have read any Gospels. And it might have been second- or third-hand hearsay. This, however, becomes for Ehrman another source of “independent attestation to Jesus’ existence,” presumably because both would have been repeating Christian opinions attesting to his death under Pilate, and presumably because such opinion was not based on the Gospels.
The latter presumption, of course, cannot be supported, and especially not given Ehrman’s acceptance of traditional scholarly dating for the Gospels, which is that Mark had been around since shortly after 70 and the rest of them by the years 80-100. Even given my own and others’ dating of Mark about 90, there was ample time for Mark, or even Matthew, to have had some impact in Rome by 115 when Tacitus was writing the Annals, although hardly when Josephus was writing the Antiquities by the early 90s.
The other grand assumption which cannot be supported is that the references to Jesus in Josephus and in Tacitus are reliably authentic to them. I have dealt earlier with the difficulty in claiming an original Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus, along with the “called Messiah” in Antiquities 20, as well as the sheer infeasibility of a genuine Tacitus account of the Neronian pogrom against Christians accused of setting the Great Fire, an event which Christians and later Roman historians alike know nothing about for centuries.
Without a reliable Josephus and Tacitus, the silence on an historical Jesus across the entire swath of the ancient world, Christian, Jewish and pagan, is complete. As I say in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.461):
After the events depicted in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus of Nazareth and the great panoply of characters surrounding him sleep in a silent limbo for many decades. Their resurrection comes only at the beginning of the second century, when Mary and Pontius Pilate steal from the shadows onto the pages of Ignatius of Antioch’s letters. That resurrection is rather a whimper than a bang, for it would be many decades more before the Gospel events emerge fully into the light.
. . . to be continued
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