2012-05-14

Ehrman Confesses: Scholars Never Have Tried to Prove Jesus Existed

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by Neil Godfrey

Thomas L. Thompson, Professor of Theology, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and editor of biblical studies journals, wrote in 2005 that historical Jesus scholars have always just assumed that Jesus existed:

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson)

Now Professor Bart Ehrman has said the same thing. He even says he believes he is the first scholar ever to set out a sustained argument to prove Jesus existed!

I realized when doing my research for the book that since New Testament scholars have never taken mythicists seriously, they have never seen a need to argue against their views, which means that even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it. Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise. How do you prove that someone from 2000 years ago actually lived? I have to say, it was terrifically enlightening, engaging, and fun to think through all the issues and come up with all the arguments. I think really almost any New Testament scholar could have done it. But it ended up being lucky me. (Did Jesus Exist as Part One, accessed 14th May, 2012, my bolding and italics)

Can you imagine a biologist or paleontologist posting on a blog “no-one has ever tried to prove evolution”? Or a physicist saying “no-one has ever tried to prove the laws of physics”?

And note, further, the way Ehrman implies he went about this novel exercise of actually, for the first time in his life, trying to set out “a sustained argument” that Jesus existed. No references are made to historical methodologies. He simply sat down and thought it all up off the top of his erudite head. That he had never thought this through before, his neglect of historical methodology, even elementary logic, shows through when he writes some excruciatingly embarrassing pages in chapter two of his book Did Jesus Exist?

I should not be surprised. Another New Testament professor of theology who specializes in the profundities of the intersects between Dr Who and Jesus has tossed at me titles of works about historical methodology several times now, insisting that if I read them I will see the error of my ways and learn that historical Jesus scholars work just like any other historians. I have always been mystified by his efforts and his response, because each time I have quoted back to him pages from those same books demonstrating how out of touch New Testament scholars are from normative historiography only to see him go purple, attack my sanity and accuse me of deviously misquoting them — without ever explaining how I have misquoted them. It is obvious he himself has never read more than a few pages of only one or two of the several books he has recommended I read. Nor should I be surprised at his response since another professor of religious studies, Scot McKnight, has published on the general ignorance among theologians of how history really works outside their religious enclave.

Ehrman has never stopped to think about what evidence we need to prove the existence of historical persons. He begins his discussion by saying that photographs prove that Abraham Lincoln really existed. Oh my. He was evidently thinking on the fly here. All a photograph can do is inform us what a historical person looked like. If we did not know by other means that Abraham Lincoln really existed or who he was a photo of him would be meaningless. This is as bad as a professor of Dr Who-Jesus intersects arguing we know someone existed in the past because of the writings about their sayings and deeds. Indeed, I can prove by such evidence that God himself existed, and all the other gods too, by applying the criterion of embarrassment to their recorded words and deeds to see which ones must be authentic and therefore must be proof of a truly historical figure!

I look forward in future posts to examining Ehrman’s inchoate efforts to grapple for the first time in the history of New Testament scholarship with a serious effort to think how we know Jesus really must have existed after all!

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. . . . to be continued

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Neil Godfrey

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8 Comments

  • Bob Carlson
    2012-05-14 12:44:49 GMT+0000 - 12:44 | Permalink

    Nevertheless, his faith in the fact that Jesus existed is buoying him and allowing him to get on with the next phase: a new book on how Jesus became God. 🙂

  • Bob Carlson
    2012-05-15 03:04:49 GMT+0000 - 03:04 | Permalink

    Quixie has added an incisive review of the Ehrman book.

  • Klaus
    2012-05-16 02:23:33 GMT+0000 - 02:23 | Permalink

    Oh, I found her responses to Ehrman’s book too:

    Acharya’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Book ‘Did Jesus Exist?’
    http://www.freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=25719#p25719

  • Klaus
    2012-05-16 02:20:16 GMT+0000 - 02:20 | Permalink

    Humm, Acharya S has been pointing out that New Testament scholars assumed a priori that Jesus must have existed and go from there without ever proving the claim since 1999 in her first book, “The Christ Conspiracy” page 16:

    “It is because of such irrational beliefs and prejudicial demands that many people have rejected Christian claims as being incredible and unappealing. Nevertheless, numerous such dissidents have maintained that behind the fabulous fairytales found in the gospels there was a historical Jesus Christ somewhere, an opinion usually based on the fact that it is commonly held, not because its proponents have studied the matter or seen clear evidence to that effect. This “meme” or mental programming of a historical Jesus has been pounded into the heads of billions of people for nearly 2,000 years, such that it is assumed a priori by many, including “scholars” who have put forth an array of clearly speculative hypotheses hung on highly tenuous threads regarding the “life of Jesus.” Such speculators often claim that a historical Jewish master named Jesus was deified or “evemerized” by his zealous followers, who added to his mundane “history” a plethora of supernatural qualities and aspects widely found in more ancient myths and mystery religions.”

    In her mythicist position video at around 7 minutes she says:

    “… New Testament scholars assume a priori that Jesus must have existed and work from there, without substantiating the initial claim first. When it comes to mythicism, there’s a huge oversight by academia that ignores the elephant in the room. Learning about mythology and the mythicist position is not a requirement for theologians or New Testament scholars in order to get a Ph.D. Academia has failed to give mythicism and astrotheology the attention they deserve…”

    http://web.archive.org/web/20150720001814/https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKW9sbJ3v2w

  • 2012-05-16 18:13:30 GMT+0000 - 18:13 | Permalink

    Larry Hurtado writes an interesting article http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/the-quest-for-the-mark-community/

    All you have to do is substitute historical Jesus for ‘community’ in the following and you will get a good picture of the present state of affairs.

    Of course, the one thing you are not allowed to do is question the search for the historical Jesus based on the texts. You can question the communities behind the text, but not the Jesus behind the text,

    ‘“The Markan community has failed to provide even the semblance of a control on readings of the Gospel of Mark. . . . .The reason for this is that virtually every scholar who discovers a Markan community behind the Gospel . . . discovers a different Markan community.”

    The Markan “community” is “the product of highly speculative, viciously circular and ultimately unpersuasive and inconclusive reading.”’

    ‘Numerous NT scholars have posited a “community” behind various NT writings. E.g., there is a whole industry devoted to identifying a community behind the Gospel of Matthew, and also behind the Gospel of John. Then, there is an vigorous body of scholars eagerly positing a Q-community, and even proffering an elaborate and multi-stage social history of the community! And all this totally (or pretty much so) on the basis of the individual text in question. Scholarly inferences are one thing, but I do wonder if the whole enterprise has got a bit out of hand.’

  • 2012-05-17 17:20:24 GMT+0000 - 17:20 | Permalink

    Awkward.

  • 2013-12-03 04:47:02 GMT+0000 - 04:47 | Permalink

    Interestingly, if any of them did any real detective work, the only thing that would even be close as a historical reality would have to be a Galilean rabbi who started one NEW major stream of Judaism in the first century. There IS one. However, not much of his story resembles Jesus, although perhaps a few small bits of bio might have been seconded to create a literal Jesus.

    Josephus mentions one such Galilean rabbi over half a dozen times. Trouble is, that rabbi started the zealots. His birth would have been roughly two decades earlier than 7B.C. or even 1A.D. or even the time of Quirinius. Having mentioned Quirinius, Luke seems to have used a bit from the known founder of the zealots who had some event take place at the time of Quirinius.

    What does Acts (I’m going with it being 2nd century) tell us about the founder of the zealots? That he was a failed messiah and his followers dispersed. Which would have been quite accurate to a 2nd century view of things.

    But Judas the Galilean was all too human.

    Other than that, I can’t really see a case for an actual existing Jesus. The path of actual creation of the story seems to indicate something going from either the Essenes or the Samaritan side of things, through the Gnostics, before it ever got to the proto-Orthodox. To me, the whole subject now sounds like it was the comic industry of its day…and the heap of writings both Gnostic and Orthodox/Catholic would make DC Comic’s Crisis on Infinite Earths look tame. Take it from someone who understands the principle of “suspension of disbelief,” but now Jesus comes across more as a Superman Christians try to make us believe is real.

    Imagine a few hundred years in the future the only remaining source of information being comics…just imagine the religions a future world would make out of Superman.

    Sort of like what happened when the Library of Alexandria was burned and all the independent records were destroyed.

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