30. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism — Part 30 (Did Mark Invent Jesus of Nazareth?)

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by Earl Doherty


Did Mark Invent Jesus of Nazareth?



  • How much did Mark invent in his Gospel?
  • John’s dependency on the Synoptics
    • John’s changes and innovations
    • Lazarus and the Signs Source
  • How independent of Mark are Matthew and Luke?
    • Robert Price on no “M” and “L” sources
  • Trusting Luke’s Prologue again
    • Ehrman’s fantasy world of “many Gospels” before Mark
  • Rehashing arguments which render an historical Jesus “fact”
  • Postscript


* * * * *

Did Mark, Our First Gospel, Invent the Idea of a Historical Person, Jesus?

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 259-263)


Mark building on Q traditions

Mantegna's St. Mark.
Mantegna’s St. Mark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the final section of his critique of individual mythicists, Bart Ehrman addresses the question of whether Mark invented his Gospel character. Insofar as he has my specific position in mind, he doesn’t quite get it right, as usual.

It is widely thought among those who hold such [mythicist] views that the Jesus of the Gospel tradition—the Jewish teacher and prophet of Galilee who did miracles and then was crucified by the Romans—is an invention of our first Gospel, Mark. . . . This view is suggested in several places by Wells and is stated quite definitively by Doherty: “All the Gospels derive their basic story of Jesus of Nazareth from one source: the Gospel of Mark, the first one composed. Subsequent evangelists reworked Mark in their own interests and added new material.” (DJE? p. 259)

I do not say that “the Jewish teacher and prophet of Galilee who did miracles” is the invention of Mark, but rather of the Q community which preceded him, although that invention was not in the form of any narrative life story, but simply as the alleged originator of a bare collection of the community’s sayings and a few anecdotes, with no biography, let alone a personality, in view.

The scope of Mark’s invention was to give this imagined figure a biography

Unlike Wells’ acceptance of an historical sage at the origin of this kingdom-preaching movement (which spread over much of Galilee and southern Syria), I maintain, working from the content of Q itself, that such a figure came to be envisioned by some of the community only in the later course of its development. The scope of Mark’s invention was to give this imagined figure a biography, a narrative ministry, and to add to his symbolic life the wholly fabricated event of an earthly crucifixion in an historical setting, probably to allegorize the Christ cult’s heavenly crucifixion of the spiritual sacrificial Son. Thus, it is true to say that the author of Mark invented the character we know as Jesus of Nazareth.

Mark supplied the “basic story” without, it seems, having possessed a copy of the Q document which reflected the sect, but he was a party to many of its traditions which were recorded in Q. Matthew and Luke, each redacting Mark’s story from different communities within the movement, had copies of the document and filled in Mark’s missing material. John, though introducing much material original to himself or his community, is dependent on the Synoptics for his basic story of an earthly Jesus.


Is John dependent on the Synoptics?

Ehrman chooses to begin his rebuttal on this question. He declares:

[T]here are solid reasons for doubting that the Gospel of John is based on Mark or on either of the other two earlier Gospels, even though the matter is debated among scholars. But the reality is that most of the stories told about Jesus in the synoptic Gospels are missing from John, just as most of John’s stories, including his accounts of Jesus’s teachings, are missing from the synoptics. When they do tell the same stories (for example, the cleansing of the Temple, the betrayal of Judas, the trial before Pilate, the crucifixion and resurrection narratives) they do so in different language (without verbatim overlaps) and with radically different conceptions. It is simplest to assume that John had his own sources for his accounts. (DJE? p. 259)

the “simplest” solution is to assume that John himself has made the changes and innovations

I beg to differ. Considering that the Gospel of John has a slew of elements which differ, often to a considerable degree, from the Synoptics, as well as his own catalogue of unique features, the “simplest” solution is to assume that John himself has made the changes and innovations. And since those changes and innovations can usually be seen as consistent with an identifiable Johannine agenda and outlook, this hardly speaks to a range of previous sources only he had contact with and which just happened to show that consistency.

Besides, if there are “solid reasons” to maintain something, it is not likely that the matter would still be capable of being “debated among scholars.”


Alterations by John

The day of the crucifixion

To take a primary example, if John has the day of the crucifixion take place on Passover eve rather on the next day as in the Synoptics, is this liable to be a separate tradition—one of the two being erroneous on such a matter as the day of Jesus’ death in relation to the Passover? Or has he purposely changed the Synoptic story so as to have the sacrifice of Christ coincide with the slaughter of the Passover lambs in the Temple, and thus create a piece of symbolism he has an interest in?

c. 1437-1446
c. 1437-1446 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The piercing of Jesus’ side

Does he have the soldiers pierce Jesus’ side because he happened to receive a tradition no one else did? Or—as he himself points out—is this dependent on Zechariah 12:10, “They shall look upon him whom they have pierced”?

Has he made the point that Jesus did not have his legs broken because he saw several proscriptions in scripture about bones not being broken as applicable to his Jesus?

Why the missing Gethsemane and Eucharist?

And what about Gethsemane, missing in John? Did the evangelist inherit a tradition about the night Jesus was arrested that made no mention of such a scene? Did he receive an account of the Last Supper which left out Jesus’ establishment of the eucharist? Did another tradition include a couple of those eucharistic motifs as part of one of Jesus’ controversies with the Jewish authorities (Jn. 6:30-58)?

the author of the initial version of John still regarded his Jesus character as symbolic of that earlier christology and not as an historical figure

Or does the snipping of Gethsemane fit better with John’s reluctance to portray his Jesus as in any way possessing doubts or weaknesses? Did the eucharistic scene serve no purpose in a death which the author did not wish to portray as a sacrificial atonement? Were the “body and blood” motifs better transferred to a scene in which John could portray Jesus as the representative of God, the Revealer of the Father, with the “eating of the bread” representing not Jesus’ material body but the “bread of life,” the knowledge of God brought by the Son, and the “drinking of the blood” another symbolic motif of ‘ingesting’ saving divine knowledge (as we find in the Odes of Solomon, probably somewhat earlier from the same geographical region).

Was all of this the basic Johannine christology of a spiritual Revealer Son who imparts salvation, prior to its adoption and adaptation of the Synoptic historical Jesus probably early in the second century? I have elsewhere suggested that, given the dramatically different nature of the Johannine Jesus, the author of the initial version of John still regarded his Jesus character as symbolic of that earlier christology and not as an historical figure.


The Johannine teachings and miracles of Jesus

Or are the teachings in John the expression of his own community which he has inserted into the Synoptic framework?

Speaking of those dramatic differences, does Ehrman really think that the teachings in John, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to those of the rest of his “multiple independent sources,” were separate traditions by someone or some group who preserved teachings totally unlike every other source of Jesus’ teaching?

Would this evangelist never have encountered any Synoptic-like teachings in his array of separate Jesus traditions?

Or are the teachings in John the expression of his own community which he has inserted into the Synoptic framework, jettisoning the latter’s teachings of Jesus as of no interest to him or his community? Just as the atonement concept had no application within a Revealer Son christology and salvation system, and why he treats the crucifixion of his Jesus as a “glorification,” not actually a part of his official work on earth (see 17:4).

Mosaic in Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. I...
Mosaic in Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And what of Lazarus? Is the raising of a man from his tomb after lying dead for four days a tradition none of the Synoptic sources would happen to have taken notice of? Or is it John emulating the Synoptics with a miracle of his own which outdid them all?

Perhaps if there was a so-called Signs Source, this was a collection of miracles which the Johannine community itself believed it had enjoyed, witnessing not to the teaching and legitimacy of an historical Jesus, but to its spiritual Son (and Logos), the Revealer of God and imparter of eternal life through knowledge (which is why the Fourth Gospel is often seen as proto-gnostic). They would simply have been converted by the evangelist into miracles of the new Jesus character.

(Since scholars have detected an earlier stratum within the Johannine Prologue, they have postulated an earlier Logos hymn which made no mention of John the Baptist or the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Such a hymn would be consistent with faith in an entirely spiritual Revealer Son, prior to the induction of the Synoptic Jesus into the picture.)


Dependence confirmed

Once again, did Ehrman actually read Jesus: Neither God Nor Man? There I offered many indicators within John that he is dependent on the Synoptics.

The Markan fingerprint of intercalation: Peter’s denial

A common observation by those scholars who propound such a dependency is the Markan fingerprint found in John’s ‘denial by Peter’ scene during the Passion. In a device known as “intercalation,” Mark has a habit of sandwiching two parts of one anecdote around an intervening anecdote, to make the two interact, to provide a contrast and a moral. His denial by Peter is split into two parts, with Jesus’ interrogation by the Jewish authorities placed in between. John does precisely the same thing. Coincidence? Some scholars doubt it.

John’s literary reactions to the Synoptic Gethsemane, trial scene and Simon carrying the cross

There are also a few examples of John reacting to Synoptic precedents, making his preferred changes to them. John actually tells us why he rejected Gethsemane: “Should I say, Father save me from this hour? No, for it was for this purpose that I came to this hour!” [12:27] And: “The cup the Father has given me: shall I not drink it?” [18:11]

This is a literary response to a literary invention by Mark which John did not approve of. It’s a slap in the Synoptic face.

Similarly, John also repudiates Jesus’ meek silence before Pilate by having him engage in a disputation with the governor.

He also rejects Simon of Cyrene because Jesus is quite capable of carrying his own cross all the way, thank you very much. Jesus “carried his own cross,” John declares.

The literary conflict over the baptism of Jesus

And as is often observed, John excises any baptism of Jesus by the Baptist. Yet he can still make use of the Synoptic feature of the descending dove. Is the latter liable to have come by itself through some independent tradition? And since Mark has clearly created his baptism scene out of scripture, including the dove and the voice from heaven (no sign of any baptism for Jesus exists before Mark, even in Q, and certainly not in the epistles), this makes John’s excision of the baptism but his retention of a Markan element from it, once more, a literary response to a literary invention.

At every turn, we see the fourth evangelist making literary changes. . . . There is no sign of oral tradition at work here, independent or otherwise.

Robert M. Price supplies a few more indicators of John’s use of the Synoptics in his Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.447-8). At every turn, we see the fourth evangelist making literary changes to fit his needs. There is no sign of oral tradition at work here, independent or otherwise. As for Ehrman’s fantasy ‘Aramaic source-roots,’ these have been shown in earlier instalments to be dismissible.


Synoptic redactors of Mark

Ehrman hedges his bet on John by declaring:

Whatever one decides about the Gospel of John, it is clear that Matthew and Luke used narratives of Jesus’s life and death that were independent of Mark. The sources I have called M and L contain accounts, not only of Jesus’s words and deeds but also of his Passion, that differ from those in Mark. (DJE? p. 260)

First of all, M and L, if they were external sources, would be no more “narratives” than Q is. A short ‘narrative’ within a controversy or miracle anecdote hardly makes an overall collection a narrative account in the sense of the Gospel of Mark. However, as I have noted in an earlier instalment, it is anything but clear that M and L are not simply the respective products of Matthew and Luke themselves. Robert M. Price says:

The new Matthean parables look to me to come from Matthew’s own hand rather than some preexisting “M source,” and the same is true of the uniquely Lukan parables…which all share similar narrative features; in other words, no “L source.” [“The Problem of the Parables,” Free Inquiry April/May 2012]

And Ehrman’s characteristic naivete once more rears its head:

Luke explicitly informs us that “many” authors before him had produced accounts of the things Jesus said, did, and experienced. Mark by itself is not “many.” Other Gospels, in addition to Mark, were produced. It is regrettable that some of Luke’s other predecessors did not survive, but there is no reason to think he is lying when he says that he knows about them. (DJE? p. 260)

Erhman fails to take into account a relatively common alternate theory regarding Luke: that an original Luke was significantly redacted by an ecclesiastical editor toward the middle of the second century

So now, on the basis of trust in the Prologue by an alleged author who has apparently lied at many turns about the ‘historical’ nature of his material, Ehrman is forced to postulate that Luke, supposedly written around 80 CE, must have been preceded by other Gospels besides Mark. (He accepts Q, with no Lukan dependence on Matthew, so it cannot be Matthew he is referring to.) As noted earlier, he fails to take into account a relatively common alternate theory regarding Luke: that an original Luke was significantly redacted by an ecclesiastical editor toward the middle of the second century, at which time the Prologue was added (and Acts was written by the same editor).

In fact, the very reference to ‘many preceding accounts’ is one thing which suggests that the Prologue comes from a time when there were indeed many accounts known to the writer, mainly those now regarded as apocryphal and mostly no longer extant: in other words, well into the second century. As for this editor’s reference to oral traditions preceding these many Gospels, this simply reflects the beliefs of the time, a century later, about the recording and transmission of traditions about the supposed historical Jesus.


Ehrman’s Summation

Ehrman winds down to the end of the chapter by simply rehashing some of his earlier claims about sources and traditions:

  • Stories about the historical Jesus’ life were continually being told right from the earliest times.
  • Paul knew Jesus’ own brother and his closest disciple, and so he must have been hearing and passing on those early traditions.
  • Paul received traditions from those who knew Jesus (as in 1 Cor. 11:23-4, despite Paul saying that he received this particular ‘tradition’ from the Lord). He “received” his gospel of dying, burial and rising (1 Cor. 15:3-4) from those who had been followers of Jesus, despite his firm declaration in Galatians 1:11-12 that he received his gospel from no man, but through revelation.
  • Acts preserves traditions about Jesus which are very “primitive” and precede Mark, despite there being nothing in Acts’ speeches which could not have been derived from the Synoptics. (Ehrman’s appeal to Acts’ alleged portrayal of Jesus’ adoption to sonship at the point of resurrection is anything but clearly visible in the text, and would make no sense in the context of an authorship by the writer of Luke.)
  • Hebrews and 1 John “stress the earthly life of Jesus,” despite the former placing Jesus’ words and deeds entirely within scripture, and having nothing to say about an earthly crucifixion while focusing exclusively on a sacrifice in a heavenly sanctuary. (And despite telling us outright in 8:4, and even 10:37, that Jesus had never been on earth.) As for 1 John, only the bare ‘fact’ of him having come in the flesh is stressed (4:1-4)—and that in the face of those who deny it.
  • A couple of formulaic words in Aramaic found in the Gospels demonstrate that these are remnants of whole anecdotes that were originally told and transmitted in Aramaic, undoubtedly within entire accounts of Jesus’ life in Aramaic.

With Ehrman at the wheel, even Markan priority as the first Gospel written becomes roadkill.

. . . even though Mark is our earliest surviving Gospel, his was not the first such narrative to be propagated. Luke is no doubt right that there were “numerous” such accounts before him, and there were certainly others after him. (DJE? p. 263)

Does Ehrman genuinely believe all this? Is he merely playing to his gallery? Was this book really peer-reviewed, as he claims?



Having thoroughly demolished the mythicist case and pronounced the historicist creed, Ehrman will turn his attention in Part Three to establishing exactly who and what the historical Jesus really was, now that his existence has been demonstrated as “fact.” This is a movement “from the remarkably firm ground of virtual historical certainty to greater depths of uncertainty.” Considering that there have been three extensive quests to resolve this question plus one recently aborted one, all of which have served to accomplish little more than to reveal just how great those depths of uncertainty really are, one wonders at the certitude which has proceeded out of them for the most fundamental question of all.


. . . to be continued


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16 thoughts on “30. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism — Part 30 (Did Mark Invent Jesus of Nazareth?)”

    1. John Knox, Marcion and the New Testament, seconded by J. T. Townsend in (New) Perspectives on Luke-Acts (ed. Charles Talbert). I’ll have to dig a little deeper to see if Pervo or Tyson actually specify a church redactor for the Prologue.

  1. You know Earl, whether I agree or disagree with you on some points [eg ‘Q’] there is no doubt you bring a greater depth of analysis to your work than just about anybody else out there, tenured scholar or not.

  2. I wasn’t aware of claims that Ehrman’s book was peer reviewed.

    As it seems important to know the names of the peers who reviewed Carrier’s Proving History, shopuldn’t we have the identities of Ehrman’s reviewers?

    1. I can’t quote here, because I read so much comment on Ehrman’s book, by him and others, when it first came out (including on his prior Huffington Post article), and I don’t have perfect recall! But I am sure somewhere along the line either Ehrman himself or someone claiming to be in the know said that he had at least a couple of established historicist scholars read his manuscript. In other words, it was “peer reviewed”.

      1. Mark Goodacre seems to have read and commented on the manuscript. The book mentions this as well, I believe.

        “Of course a lot of the discussion comes on the back of the new book by Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, which I was lucky enough to read and comment on in manuscript.”

        (Mark’s reply to Marcello Jun at 4:51 PM)
        ” Yes, Bart was kind enough to share it with me in manuscript.”

        1. Goodacre is saying, it seems to me, that Ehrman shared it with him, which means it was reviewed by and commented on by a peer. However, in peer review, the publisher calls upon their own reviewers for the process. That’s how I have seen it work. My wife is a reviewer for an academic journal in her field and at least in her case, it is anonymous (not that one couldn’t find out who the reviewer was).

          1. Indded, a “peer reviewed publication” is not just a publication that has been reviewed by a peer prior to publication, rather it’s a publication that has gone through a formal process in which the editors/publishers selects one or (usually) more anonymous referees to review, fact check, evaluate its significance etc. The anonymity of the process is considered essential so that people can express their opinion freely without fear of repercussions.

            Of course quite often one can guess who the referees were especially in rather technical and specialized fields, if there are about 50 (say) people in the world that understand or care for your stuff then you probably know most of them—you’ve met them in conferences, and/or you have exchanged emails—so it’s not that hard to guess.

    2. Bart Ehrman lists the names of several peers who “carefully read [his] manuscript” prior to its publication. In the opening paragraph of his “Acknowledgements” section he lists:

      • Radd Ehrman, classical scholar at Kent State University, and Bart’s brother
      • Jeffrey Siker, Loyola Marymount University
      • Judy Siker, San Francisco Theological Seminary
      • Mark Goodacre, Duke University
      • Maria Doerfler, from the graduate program at Duke, Bart’s student and research assistant extraordinaire
      • Jason Combs, from graduate program at University of North Carolina, Bart’s student and research assistant extraordinaire
      • Kelly Ehrman, Bart’s daughter
      • Roger Freet, HarperOne editor

      Bart writes: “All of these have carefully read my manuscript and suggested I make (innumerable) changes….”

      1. Yes, but handing the manuscript around and asking for comments is not a peer review process. As Nikos points out, anonymity is important to the process. An anonymous reviewer can be much more critical than some handpicked pals. And, besides, a publisher might have reviewers who are not already biased in favor of the manuscript’s propositions.

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