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!
. . . . to be continued
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