Part II: The Mythicists’ Claims – One: A Problematic Record
.COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Admitting to problematic Gospels
- Gospel authors unknown
- Fallacious analogies:
- Obama’s birth certificate
- The Hitler diaries
- Clinton’s presidency
- George Washington
- Discrepancies and contradictions in the Gospels
- Radically different pictures of Jesus
- How much of the Gospels is fictional?
- Form criticism and the argument of Robert Price
- The criterion of dissimilarity: is it applicable in the Gospels?
- Doubly strong claims? — multiple attestation and dissimilarity:
- P.S. Claim 2: Nazareth Did Not Exist
* * * * *
Chapter Six: The Mythicist Case: Weak and Irrelevant Claims
Claim 1: The Gospels Are Highly Problematic as Historical Sources
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 177-190)
The present chapter will look at the typical arguments used by mythicists that are, in my judgment, weak and/or irrelevant to the question. (DJE? p. 177)
With that, Ehrman embarks on a direct attempt to discredit some of the arguments on which mythicists like myself base their contention that Jesus did not exist.
Problematic Gospels as Historical Sources
After allowing that the great number of manuscripts of the New Testament documents we possess, as compared to copies of other ancient writings, has nothing to do with whether they are reliable or not, Ehrman makes a pretty heavy set of admissions:
- we do not have the original texts of the Gospels, and there are places where we do not know what the authors originally said;
- the Gospels are not authored by the persons named in their titles (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) but were written by people who were not followers of Jesus but lived forty to sixty years later in different parts of the world;
- the Gospels are full of discrepancies and contradictions;
- the Gospels report historical events that can be shown not to have happened.
. . . even though the Gospels are among the best attested books from the ancient world, we are regrettably hindered in knowing what the authors of these books originally wrote. The problem is not that we are lacking manuscripts. We have thousands of manuscripts. The problem is that none of these manuscripts is the original copy produced by the author (this is true for all four Gospels—in fact, for every book of the New Testament). Moreover, most of these manuscripts were made over a thousand years after the original copies, none of them is close to the time of the originals—within, say, ten or twenty years—and all of them contain certifiable mistakes.
But in Ehrman’s view,
. . . for the question of whether or not Jesus existed, these problems are mostly irrelevant. (DJE? p. 180)
Inconsistent and contradictory Gospels
Well, let’s see. The Gospels do not agree in their wording, or in the inclusion of certain passages in all the extant copies? “So what?” Ehrman asks. It doesn’t matter, for example, if some copies of John are missing the pericope of the woman taken in adultery, this hardly has any bearing on whether Jesus existed or not.
Taken individually or even as an illustration of a principle, he may be right. But what if the overall picture of many types of inconsistencies indicates that each evangelist had his own agenda, and the singular pericopes which his Gospel contains can be seen to be his own invention? What if the vast majority of pericopes are built on identifiable Old Testament precedents with no identifiable history remembered? What if pericopes limited to only some manuscripts of a Gospel would indicate a practice of adding to earlier versions willy-nilly? What if many pericopes are significantly changed from one Gospel to another, suggesting a picture of extensive revision to a documentary record upon which we have no eyes at all for the first century and more of its existence? What does the vast freedom of redaction indulged in by each successive evangelist say about their overall concern for history?
Such things are hardly irrelevant.
This type of “problem” does indeed undermine the fundamental reliability of these accounts, not excepting the existence of their central character. If writers in the early days could play so fast and loose with ‘history’ and sources, with no word or deed of that central character spared revision, what does that say about the stability and reliability, the basic roots, of any supposed traditions these stories are supposedly based upon?
Obama’s birth certificate
As an example of the totally inapplicable analogies Ehrman often offers, he suggests that some problem in the wording of President Obama’s birth certificate would not undermine the knowledge that he was born. Of course not. That’s because I’ve seen Obama myself on television many times, as have millions of others. There are indeed separate evidences for his existence that are completely reliable. And that birth certificate can be examined contemporaneous with his life.
But if no one alive at some point in the future had actually seen Barack Obama, and they had copies of his alleged birth certificate which came from a century or more after the presumed original, and those copies contained huge discrepancies one from another and could moreover be set beside histories of the 21st century which made no mention of him, well . . . I think we could see that the situation would be quite different.
Gospel authors unknown
Ehrman admits that the attributions of the four Gospels are certainly false, and of the other books of the New Testament, only eight are considered written by their named authors. (Seven, of course, he attributes to Paul. He doesn’t identify the eighth, though I can’t imagine which one he has in mind. Revelation?) This is a case of “misattribution” or deliberate forgery. He does note that Jesus’ followers were probably illiterate peasants, whereas the Gospels were written by “highly-educated, Greek-speaking Christians from outside Palestine.”
But it is difficult to accept that a situation in which we have a set of documents constituting our basic witness to an historical Jesus all lacking a time and place and author that we can attach to them is irrelevant to the question of existence for those documents’ central character, especially when the rest of the New Testament authors give us virtually no corroboration for the Gospel story, let alone for that central character.
Why indeed do we not have any biographical writings by those closest to an historical Jesus? Not a single disciple could have sat down on his front porch in older age and penned or dictated his eyewitness memoirs? (The apologetic canard that they all died for their faith is not borne out in the record.) No critical scholar I know of credits later Christian tradition that Mark ultimately goes back to Peter’s recollections, or that Acts was written by a companion of Paul. If that sort of thing were actually the case, it is hard to imagine that such a tradition, if known at the time of writing and even if false, would not have found expression in the documents themselves.
Ehrman is not the first to use the analogy of the “infamous Hitler diaries,” initially declared authentic by experts, then exposed as forgeries. That, however, says Ehrman, has no bearing on whether Hitler existed or not. But how do we know that, how can we make such a statement? Because we otherwise know that Hitler existed. I do wish apologists would stop offering analogies which involve the principle of begging the very question under debate. The Hitler diaries as forgeries do not cast doubt on Hitler’s existence, it is claimed; therefore the Gospels as forgeries—not only in regard to their authors, but in regard to their details whose reliability as actual history has shrunk to virtually nothing—do not in themselves cast doubt on Jesus’ existence.
That’s fallacious nonsense. If we had no reliable historical evidence that a Hitler existed, no other documents besides the diaries that testified to him, then we could indeed question whether the diaries were fiction from start to finish. If we had correspondence from Germany penned in the 30s and 40s which provided no information about the involvement of an Adolf Hitler in the events of the period, but referred to him as some kind of inspirational spiritual figure driving the Nazi takeover and conquests, we could then quite legitimately regard the diaries as a fictional or allegorical rendition of that spiritual inspiration.
Discrepancies and contradictions
Ehrman admits that the Gospels are full of discrepancies and contradictions. But again, this is irrelevant. Ehrman mentions the great discrepancy between Jesus’ declarations about himself in John—labelling himself God—and the Synoptic authors who “seem to have forgotten that part.” But his admission that this is a big discrepancy doesn’t go far enough. Are we to believe that two separate traditions could be so far apart, that the one man supposedly behind them both, especially the virtual non-entity Ehrman and other critical scholars today seem to be opting for, could be presented in two such radically different ways?
Is it not more sensible that an idea could enjoy radically different embodiments in various versions of a fictional story, that multiple writers could allow themselves these divergent presentations, precisely because they were not basing them on an historical man about whom anything was known, but one who served as a symbol of the movement itself? That parts of their creation are the allegorization of a spiritual concept in order to illuminate it and provide lessons to the community?
Once again, Ehrman offers a blatantly invalid analogy. If we get widely divergent accounts of Bill Clinton’s presidency, would this speak to his non-existence? (Although I doubt that whatever divergency Ehrman has in mind is as wide as the accounts of Jesus.) I’d prefer an analogy more like: even if we have widely different accounts of a world-wide flood in the epic of Gilgamesh and the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, does this mean that we should have doubts about the occurrence of the flood, or the existence of either Utnapishtim or Noah? You’re darn right it does. Of course, when you fashion a proper analogy like this which doesn’t involve begging the question, you are liable to come up with a different answer.
Since we can trace the later Synoptics back to a single genesis of their story in Mark, and John in its basic tale of a Galilean preacher and crucified man also looks to go back to Mark, my analogy is quite apropos, since historians of ancient times tend to see the Hebrew Noah’s Ark tradition as based on earlier Mesopotamian versions like that in Gilgamesh and probably further back on other precedents in the prehistoric Middle Eastern region, such as the flooding of the basin of what is now the Black Sea from the Mediterranean.
Non-historical elements in the Gospels
.as a recasting of a biblical precedent?.
Nor is Ehrman bothered by the amount of obviously fictional events found in our canonical Gospels. He mentions the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke, with its non-historical world-wide census; or the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem by Herod otherwise unknown to history; or the ruthless Pilate being said to have released the robber and murderer Barabbas in lieu of Jesus.
Perhaps not wishing to alarm his readers too much, Ehrman passes up detailing anywhere near all the Gospel elements which critical scholars today regard as fictional: virtually all of Jesus’ miracles, the cleansing of the Temple; the betrayal by Judas—indeed, his very existence; a burial by Joseph of Arimathea who could well be Mark’s invention, too; the resurrection appearances as a historical return of Jesus in a human body, and so on. Not to mention at least three-quarters of the sayings attributed to him.
Does all this invention of Gospel details have anything to do with the issue of whether Jesus existed or not? According to Ehrman, it does not. But that is clearly blinding oneself to an important consideration.
First of all, what can we identify as an actually occurring event in Jesus’ life? Virtually nothing. As far as I can see, Ehrman has not committed himself to pointing to a single Gospel event and declaring it reliably authentic in its Gospel presentation. When pressed, about the only thing critical scholars declare as reliably known is that Jesus was crucified. Not a single event of the ministry can be critically judged as presenting historical memory, no miracle account, not even the baptism. The entire recounting of trial and execution is allowed to be entirely fictional, put together out of scriptural elements. Nevertheless, we definitely know that the crucifixion itself happened.
But does this logically follow, let alone with any assurance? If every detail is invented (or at least we cannot point to any detail we can say was not invented), then we need to answer a few prominent questions. Why did nothing from Jesus’ earthly career survive in the tradition? Why not a single aspect of the crucifixion which had no scriptural basis? Why no miracle tradition, even embodying exaggeration, which does not present itself in a standard literary form and as a recasting of a biblical precedent?
And if no actual tradition survived, requiring everything to be constructed out of scripture, what got the movement off the ground, what kept it going? What was being passed along orally, in proselytizing activity to win over new converts in far-flung places, before a literary life was constructed from scriptural sources? To imagine that every Christian apostle held the same alleged Pauline attitude, ignoring a life on earth and preaching entirely in terms of the revelation of heavenly realities and mystical meanings, would be a ludicrous scenario and simply incredible (though this is precisely what the epistles present).
One would surely have to maintain that oral traditions about Jesus’ life were being bandied about, used in everyday missionary work and ritual observance in established congregations. How could some dusty apostle preaching in the marketplace make any headway without them? Of course, we already know that none of this ground-level tradition shows up in the epistles. But why does none of it show up in the Gospels?
- If some amount of ‘history remembered’ had to be the lifeblood of the early movement (otherwise none of it makes any sense), why do apparently ivory-tower evangelists present nothing but rehashed Old Testament material?
- Why are their different versions of Jesus so two-dimensional? So much like wind-up mouthpieces for their own agendas?
- Why for the Synoptic authors is he nothing more than a re-channelled Moses with an implausible trial and execution tacked on?
- Why does John’s Jesus sound like a megalomaniac speaking of himself in grandiose terms, a character no author should have expected would ever be accepted as an historical portrait?
There is virtually no human color, no individuality. Everything about Jesus serves one or another purpose for the evangelists—often contradictory ones. And the same void is present not only in the epistles, but even in Q, the much-touted ‘earliest picture of the genuine Jesus.’ The latter is nothing but a bare-bones collection of teachings not all that original, and a few anecdotes, both of which are no more than representative of what the movement itself is engaged in. (Q specialist William Arnal admits that Q’s Jesus is undifferentiated from the general body of Q prophets). The lack of a Jesus personality is so marked in Q that someone like J. D. Crossan must take refuge in saying that the early movement’s focus was entirely on Jesus’ sayings and not on his person.
Ehrman’s appeal to a handful of Gospel events as “alleged episodes which did not happen” hardly does justice to the void in the entire early record, including the Gospels, on any identifiable elements which did happen. Yet all this is supposed to be “irrelevant” to the question of Jesus’ existence.
Once again, what is irrelevant is Ehrman’s analogy with George Washington. Yes, we can point to anecdotes about Washington which are generally believed to be false and apocryphal, such as cutting down the cherry tree. But is his crossing of the Delaware equally apocryphal? What about being elected the first President—can we find no corroboration or basis in history for that event? Such analogies involve the very certainty of existence which Ehrman is trying to give to Jesus by placing him in the same category as the analogous figure. That is a flagrant begging of the question, something which Ehrman clearly and alarmingly does not recognize.
Tackling Robert M. Price
In an opening salvo (the main battle will come in the next chapter) against Robert Price’s contention that the Gospel accounts contain nothing but legendary material, Ehrman declares that this is “only marginally relevant to the question of whether Jesus existed.” And he finds fault with Price’s claim and his methodological approach. By way of background, Ehrman refers to the form criticism of the early 20th century as practiced by the likes of Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius. They envisioned that traditions about Jesus, when passing through early Christian communities, adopted certain forms that were shaped by those communities—their Sitz im Leben—their “situation in life.” Furthermore,
One of the implications of this view is that early Christian communities told stories about Jesus only when these stories were relevant to their own communal life situations. (DJE? p. 186)
In other words, such communities did not bother to remember and pass on stories about Jesus which they had no use for in their own “life situations.” They didn’t bother with traditions just for the sake of remembering and passing on something about Jesus. According to the form critics, “communities tell stories only when they advance their own self-interests in one way or another.”
(I can’t pass up a short digression here. If early Christian communities facing communal life situations allegedly appealed to stories about Jesus when they were relevant and useful to those situations, where is the evidence of any such practice in the epistles? In the only body of evidence we have in which we would expect to find such a practice, namely the communities of Paul and other epistle writers who faced very serious and divisive “life situations,” this form-critical principle is shown to be a fantasy, for no appeals to such Jesus stories are anywhere in view.)
The criterion of dissimilarity
Ehrman does not agree with Price’s contention that only relevant Jesus stories were told, and he notes a criterion created by the form critics: the criterion of dissimilarity. In other words, can we identify in the preserved traditions elements which did not conform to a community’s self-interests, so that we might say that such traditions were probably genuine to Jesus more or less as they stand, since they could not be shown to be created or reshaped by the community to serve its needs? If we can identify traditions that are dissimilar to the community’s interests, we can assume they were not its own invention and thus they could be said to go back to Jesus. As Ehrman puts it, “Stories like that were probably told simply because they were stories about Jesus that really happened.”
The problem is,
Price’s modus operandi is to go through all the traditions of the Gospels and show that each and every story of Jesus can be shown to meet some need, concern, or interest of the early Christians, so there are no stories that can be shown to go back to a historical figure, Jesus. (DJE? p. 187)
Ehrman disagrees, but he does so on a basis which is self-serving. He has just stated that the criterion of dissimilarity is used to indicate—once a tradition is identified as dissimilar to the community’s interests—that it should therefore be considered probably authentic, a story told about Jesus simply because it really happened. But if Price is right about there being no identifiable examples of dissimilar stories, then he is correct in saying, as Ehrman reports him doing (above), that “no stories can be shown to go back” to an historical Jesus using the criterion of dissimilarity.
But Ehrman objects that this is a misuse of the criterion, for it cannot be used to indicate that Jesus did not say or do something. An example of dissimilarity with the community’s interests can indicate that a certain story or saying could be genuine to Jesus, but another story or saying that is similar to those interests is not thereby proven to be not genuine to Jesus. After all, he might actually have said or done something which was in keeping with the community’s later concerns.
This is quite logical, but it is a misrepresentation of Price’s argument, at least as Ehrman presents him. Price’s point is that nothing in the Gospels can be identified with any surety as being genuine to Jesus, because all of it bears “similarity” to the various communal interests; thus the criterion of dissimilarity cannot come into play. And so all of the Gospel content may be seen as “legendary,” that is, traditions created or shaped by the community and attached to their Jesus figure. Price is not saying that because no dissimilarity appears, this proves that all the traditions have to be inauthentic. Some might theoretically, as Ehrman argues, be genuine by coincidence, happening to coincide with community interests. Price is not claiming certainty, as Ehrman seems to suggest. He is simply saying that genuineness has no visible means of support.
Ehrman wants it both ways. Scholarship has created a criterion that could tend to identify genuine sayings or deeds of Jesus. But if that criterion is found to have no application, this must in no way be allowed to indicate the opposite. It is like the perennial ‘proofs’ of God’s existence never making any allowance for contrary ‘proofs’ that could indicate his non-existence. The handiest form of positive criterion is that which has no negative or falsifiability dimension.
Moreover, what Ehrman fails to understand is that, even if coincidence were theoretically possible, it is up to him and historicist scholarship in general to demonstrate some basis on which we could judge that some of the traditions are coincidentally genuine. Price has not misused the criterion; he has set it aside as proving nothing, and having no effect on the argument that all the traditions of the Gospels could be seen as products of the community; there is nothing to prevent that option from being adopted, since they all bear the supposed “legend” indicator of similarity.
Ironically, historicist scholarship has itself created this two-edged piece of methodology.
Doubly strong cases? Multiple independent sources AND criterion of dissimilarity?
Having outlined his criterion of dissimilarity, Ehrman now goes on to apply it in ways and with examples that are highly dubious. He begins, as usual, by appealing to his vast array of “independent” sources, such as his “seven surviving Gospels” and “multiple independent witnesses to the life of Jesus.” In such a world of independence, finding a given story present in many sources makes it much more likely to be historically genuine.
Moreover, if a given story with “independent” multiple appearances can also be seen as fitting the criterion of dissimilarity, then we have a doubly strong case for genuineness. Ehrman gives us three examples of this combination.
The first is the multiple attestation of Jesus’ crucifixion, an event which would not have been a desirable aspect of the faith, since who would want to “make up” a crucified messiah?
Thus, in addition to its multiple witnesses, the crucifixion is an element “dissimilar” to the community’s interests. Therefore, it really happened.
But is the Gospel story historical, or only a story? That’s our basic question. All the ‘repetition’ of a story which can be seen as based on the first written version does not constitute multiple independent sources, let alone corroboration. We need external support. But for all of Ehrman’s ‘independent sources’ which allegedly fed into the Gospels, the only one we can reasonably feel secure about, namely Q, ironically fails to provide that support, as it lacks any story of a crucifixion whatsoever. So does a spinoff to early Q, the Gospel of Thomas.
Moreover, the pre-Gospel record which shows no dependency on or connection with Ehrman’s alleged earlier sources for the Gospels, namely the epistles, fails on two accounts.
- First, it does not corroborate the story of the crucifixion in the Gospels, because it gives us no such story. Not a single detail of the Gospel trial and crucifixion scenes appears anywhere in the first century epistles. Not even a time, place and agency (except for Paul’s demon spirits). Thus Paul does not figure in the ‘multiple attestation’ to that story, as Ehrman claims. (We can also dismiss his inclusion of Josephus and Tacitus in that attestation, since at the very least the latter could be derived from Gospel-based hearsay, and Josephus’ Testimonium cannot be shown to be anything other than a Christian insertion in its entirety.)
- Second, is the crucifixion of Christ in the epistles something that can be regarded as “dissimilar” to communal interests? Hardly. Paul is constantly waxing enthusiastically on the wonder of Christ’s sacrifice as “God’s wisdom.” It is the avenue to salvation and the guarantee of eternal life. It is found in holy scripture and revealed by God himself. Is there any suggestion anywhere in the epistles that Christian believers were ever disillusioned or embarrassed by a crucified messiah, something which then required a vast rationalizing and reinterpreting to make acceptable? No.
The criterion of dissimilarity in regard to the crucifixion can only be employed by forcing it on the record as a whole in totally unjustifiable ways.
Ehrman’s second example is even weaker. Mark, Paul and Josephus (i.e., in Antiquities 20) “independently” testify to Jesus having a brother named James; John testifies to him at least having brothers, if unnamed. To simply assume that Paul is referring to a “sibling” is to beg the question when there are two available interpretations, and to list Josephus is to ignore the debate over interpolation. So this is anything but clear multiple attestation.
But to also maintain that such a reference fits the criterion of dissimilarity because it would not relate to the community’s interests is really pushing the concept. Can there not be ‘neutral’ elements in a story or historical account? Salome’s dance has nothing to do with the faith, but are we thereby required to consider it historical, especially when Josephus has nothing to say about this alleged cause of the Baptist’s beheading?
On the other hand, not even neutral-looking elements are truly neutral. The interests they serve are the interests of the writer in crafting his story. No novelist ever throws in a completely irrelevant item serving no purpose. What is more natural than giving one’s central character a family, which includes brothers? And the anecdote in Mark 6:1-6 which introduces that family and those brothers can indeed be seen to fit Mark’s interests and to “promote his agenda,” for he is presenting a proverbial event of a prophet not held in honor in his home town and among his kinsmen. Such kinsmen are then introduced with the proper reaction in order to embody the point of the passage.
Is James merely a name plucked out of the air, or might Mark have pressed into service the legendary Jerusalem pillar witnessed in Paul who was known as a “brother of the Lord”? Who knows? But this is hardly a case of any meaningful use of the criterion of dissimilarity.
For his third example, Ehrman points to the tradition that Jesus came from Nazareth. That, too, is allegedly multiple: Mark, Q, John, L, M. Since we have clear literary chains of dependence between all the Gospels and their components (including the apocryphal ones), we can regard this as a single-source element. And I am aware of no reference to Nazareth in any reconstruction of Q.
Was an origin in Nazareth something dissimilar? Ehrman maintains that this was something that needed to be “explained away.” (John pours scorn on the idea of the messiah coming from Nazareth, while Matthew and Luke in their nativity stories still have Jesus home-based in Nazareth even though they need to have him born in Bethlehem because of the prophecy in Micah.)
But once again, Ehrman fails to look at things from within the context of the story first created by Mark. Because of the chain of literary reworking, some evangelists had to cope with an element that had already been established within the story line. Something becomes “dissimilar” to later writers’ interests in regard to an earlier fictional feature. The baptism of Jesus is another good example. Mark seems to have invented it, while evincing no sign that it was dissimilar to his interests. In fact, it would have fit as the symbolic paradigm to the ritual baptism of the community itself (in contrast to Paul, who fails to employ such a useful historical event). Later evangelists had a different take on its suitability.
We all put slants on our accounts of other people, Ehrman suggests, though I hardly think this is tantamount to creating “legends” about them, not on the scale found in the Gospels. He maintains that some Jesus stories have historical cores identifiable by scholarship.
Shaping the story is not the same thing as inventing the story. (DJE? p. 190)
But this is merely the statement of preferred principles. Ehrman has yet to convincingly demonstrate that some Jesus stories do have historical cores, or to explain why so much of the early record presents evidence that for a wide range of writers—the ones who really provide a window onto the initial thinking of the movement—no such cores existed.
Claim 2: Nazareth Did Not Exist
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 191-197)
As for Ehrman’s next point of discussion, the claim by some mythicists that Nazareth did not exist in the time of Jesus, I am not going to weigh in on that question, as I have never made a study of it. It may be that, as Ehrman suggests, this point is genuinely irrelevant to the debate over Jesus’ existence.
. . . to be continued
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