Bart Ehrman and another unprofessional blow at mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

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A while ago I addressed key points in Bart Ehrman’s eagerly awaited response to Christ Mythicism, Did Jesus Exist? and was honoured that Earl Doherty accepted an invitation to post his initial responses to the book here, too. I had much more to say at the time about Ehrman’s efforts but let it all drop since so many others were busy doing the same thing.

I have gradually been getting to know a little more of Frank Zindler’s work since then, and comparing it with what Ehrman himself wrote about it. That, in part, led me to write a defence of Frank’s right to write a chapter about his personal correspondence with Bart Ehrman. A couple of readers disagreed with me on that point, but we will have to agree to disagree. I am still deciding if I will write a post on that chapter about the Zindler-Ehrman correspondence and what it quite fairly tells us.

This evening I revisited the following passage written by Bart Ehrman, but by now I have learned more about Frank’s own arguments. It’s hard to know how to say how I felt without sounding trite. I think it is a good thing not to forget the outrageously unprofessional and scurrilous ways in which Bart Ehrman treated the arguments of mythicists. Those mythicists have every right to reply and defend themselves. That’s not stooping to the level of Ehrman’s unprofessionalism. It’s the right thing to do. If the result is not a stand-alone compendium of mythicist arguments, that’s a loss, but at least we will hear the defence of those Ehrman has so blatantly misrepresented. (Richard Carrier calls Ehrman a liar, a probable liar, or a suspected liar, at least seven times in his chapter.)

Here is what Bart Ehrman wrote about one of Frank Zindler’s points. I will follow this with the quotation from Frank’s own book which Ehrman claimed to be reading and citing.

The [Mithras] cult was centered, Zindler claims, in Tarsus (the hometown of the apostle Paul). But then the astrologers involved with the cult came to realize that the zodiacal age of Mithra was drawing to a close since the equinox was moving into Pisces. And so they “left their cult centers in Phrygia and Cilicia . . . to go to Palestine to see if they could locate not just the King of the Jews but the new Time Lord” (that is, they invented Jesus.* Zindler says this in all sincerity, and so far as I can tell, he really believes it. What evidence does he give for his claim that the Mithraists moved their religion to Palestine to help them find the king of the Jews? None at all. . . . This is made up. (p. 212, DJE?, my highlighting)

The asterisk marks where Ehrman leaves his endnote marker: Zindler, “How Jesus Got A Life”, p. 66

Note that Ehrman distinctly leads his audience to understand that he, Ehrman, is reading Zindler’s argument as published. He implies he knows the context. He is not relying on a couple of decontextualized extracts. He gives the impression that he has read in Zindler’s original words exactly what he has outlined — that the Mithras cult astrologers left their cult centres and moved to Palestine and invented Jesus. Ehrman believes Zindler is arguing that the Mithraic cult moved to Palestine and invented Jesus.

Here is what Frank Zindler actually wrote on page 66. Sit down before you start reading because it turns out Frank was only speaking of a possible background to the Magi Matthew says turned up at the birth of Jesus:

V. The Magi mentioned in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel were Mithraic astologer-priests . . .

The Mithraic clergy involved activity in the astrology of the cult were know as Magi . . . and are depicted as wearing Phrygian . . . caps such as Mithra is supposed to have worn. It is conceivable that some of these Magi, realizing that the age of Mithra was drawing to a close (the equinox would move into Pisces some time during the first century CE), would have left their cult centers in Phrygia and Cilicia, in what is now central and southeast Turkey, from cities such as Tarsus to go to Palestine to see if they could locate not just the King of the Jews, but the new Time-Lord, the ruler of the new age of Pisces. (Pisces was considered to have special connections with the Jews.) It is significant, I believe, that early depictions of the Magi’s visitation of the Christ Child (including one in a church at Bethlehem) showed them wearing Phrygian (Mithraic caps).

Ehrman offers no indication whatever that Zindler was referring to a conceivable scenario to explain the story of the Magi in Matthew 2 — a scenario not unlike one that is often enough found among general commentary on Matthew’s nativity scene.

Not that Dr Bart would care. On page 142 he dismisses those who criticize his work, scholars included, as not worth his time.

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19 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman and another unprofessional blow at mythicism”

  1. FYI, you’ve misspelled Ehrman’s name in the title.

    As for Ehrman’s treatment of Zindler……..I hadn’t read Zindler, so I wasn’t in a position to know how unfairly his views had been treated, but given how unfairly he’d treated the views of others I *had* read, it really comes as no surprise to read this. Just one more piece of evidence that Ehrman barely read–if he even read–the works he was criticizing in this book. :

    1. Dammit, thank you. I was struggling against sleep when I wrote that post and knew I’d regret it. Fixed now.

      I cannot believe Ehrman read the works he claimed he had. Disbelieving him here is much more kind than the alternative.

      1. Maybe kinder than you should be because an academic scholar such as Dr. Ehrman would very well know that some of the stuff he wrote large in his DJE book is not true. And, even if he didn’t know it then (which he did), he certainly knows it now. That he hasn’t admitted it, retracted it, shows that he is defending it as an apologist defends the 2,000 year old imminent return of Christ.

      2. Yeah, ….no…..lol…..Bart Ehrman has been pretty close, and a much less ” I want to prove what I believe” and more….” what the hells going on, that’s not what I’ve been taught as a ” christian, and intended preacher” all these years!??!”…
        Richard Carrier comes off as someone who gets lost in the weeds, as soon as it gets deep at all……and , someone who chose his path and wanted to feel comfortable about it…( no better than some hypocrites I’m surrounded by in Texas)….I disagree, and see much more high respect t from open minded people who just want the facts with Bart, Carrier didn’t like it that someone disagreed with ” the whole Jesus existed,,, thing”???……both have good things about them……Carrier comes off as an ineffective and narcissistic type of ” scholar”…..the opposite goes for Bart……..

        1. I often read these sorts of criticisms of Carrier and I do tend to think that those who make them have not read Carrier’s books or watched him in formal debates with scholars. I can’t help but wonder if they allow themselves to be influenced by the internet scorn that is directed at Carrier when they read the intemperate and unwise blog posts of Carrier. Carrier does himself no favours with his emotional reactions against some of his critics. Generally the content of his criticisms is accurate, but he loses a wider potential audience by failing to keep up the calm and scholarly standards he used in his books and in formal debates.

          In sum, I wish people would focus on the content of his arguments and drop the ad hominem, being careful not to respond in kind to insulting language, whether one thinks the insults deserved or not.

          Do a search on this blog for Carrier’s arguments and you will see that I find plenty to criticize, but also note that I find much criticism of Carrier to be unfair or unfounded. His Bayesian approach has been ridiculed by people who do not understand it and have not even bothered to read his full explication of it in his book preceding his work on Jesus.

          I wish we could critique what needs to be critiqued and embrace what are the positive contributions of his work and simply ignore the ad hominem — from both sides of the debates.

  2. I completely agree with your critique of Ehrman’s scholarship. Students are taught the importance of citation and bibliography, but I think this is mostly for reasons of avoiding plagiarism. Even readers of scholarly material seem to rarely engage with sources and citations in an actual search for truth.

    Did you notice that in the Zindler/Ehrman correspondence, Zindler was just as unable to provide the evidence for his claims about Mithraism? Much of the correspondence was actually pretty funny – they seem to be accusing each other of their own faults while, in that very accusation, being guilty of the same.

  3. I don’t believe that the ‘Magi’ were ever confirmed to be “Mithraic clergy”. This is an assumption. What we do know is that Pliny the Elder had a misunderstanding of who the ‘Magi’ were. I would argue that there is a greater possibility that the Roman worldview at this time used the term ‘Magi’ as a sterotype for any clerical type of individual from the ‘East’. So in my opinion it is clearly obvious that the word, ‘Magi’ cannot be confirmed in the Gospel narative as refering to “Mithraic clergy”.

    Also, the term “Mithraic clergy” is a very broad designation. Most of the material which I have read regarding who the ‘Magi’ were describe them as passing their religion from father to son and never converting anyone outside of their family, so if they were “Clergy” then they might not have been of the evangelistic type.

    It seems clear to me that the term ‘Magi’ was applied to a few different groups which held different ideas and it also seems impossible that we could simply discern that the Gospels are refering indeed to a specific type of “Mithraic clergy”.

    Zindler fails to establish his argument right off the bat by assuming who the ‘Magi’ were.

    1. I am quite open on what or who was in the evangelist’s mind when he spoke of Magi visiting the infant Jesus in the Bethlehem house. It’s not something I’ve investigated and I have not yet read all of Frank Zindler’s arguments. Whatever the most likely explanation, it is impossible to believe Ehrman ever read the chapter he is addressing and so carelessly and totally misrepresenting.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I re-read your critique above and I could easily chock up Erman’s comments to a poorly constructed paragraph which does not separate Erman’s points from the source he is commenting on. It may well be that Erman did read the book but did not write out this section accurately. I could guess that Erman’s perception of Zindler’s work is clouded by the arguments which others have used by citing Zindler, but when Erman goes to write this down perhaps he merges the idea’s into Zindler’s work. Notice how he states, “…the New Time Lord,” he cites this right. He follows the argument to a possible conclusion which is, “Jesus was this Time Lord,” or in Erman’s probable paraphrase, “…that is, they invented Jesus.”

        1. You are very kind to Bart Ehrman. However, there are many indications throughout Ehrman’s book that he did not read the works he is addressing and even quoting. This Zindler-Magi detail is one more of a litany of similar cases.

          I have posted references to a few of these at:

          Did Bart Ehrman Not Even Read the Cover of Earl Doherty’s Book?

          Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book

          The Facts of the Matter: Carrier 9, Ehrman 1 (my review, part 2)

          Emperor Ehrman Walks Naked Through a Storyland Nazareth 4000 Years Old

          So What If Bart Ehrman Did Not Read the Books? His Peers Excuse Him

          I don’t recall if any of those also mention Ehrman speaking of the central thesis of Earl Doherty’s book as “another point Doherty makes” . . . . which does not make any sense as a way of speaking of the whole theme of a book.

          1. Well, this is not my area of focus but I thought I’d give it a go. I have no reason to defend Ehrman since I disagree with the bulk of his work and stance on the Bible. If this is the case. which is that he is not adequately studying the arena of scholarship then it makes sense that his ideas regarding the development of the Gospels are not backed by adequate study as well.

  4. Pingback: » Zindler vs. Ehrman vs. Vridar Labarum
  5. Hello. I’m a first-timer, adding a comment here. Thanks Mr. Godfrey for the great work keeping us informed as to all the hubbub about the “historical” Jesus. As for my comment re: the Magi – if they were of Zoroastrian origin or other, etc. it seems to me there is certainly a symbolic significance clearly at the beginning of the Gospel-that the author is showing how the polytheistic pagan world is submitting, even worshipping the monotheistic Jesus before he really gets going in ministry as an adult smashing the hell out of pagan polytheism! My brief comment here has many implications for the Gospel stories and especially the symbolic stories of exorcism, which are really stories of the victory of the monotheistic Jesus cult/Christianity over every form of paganism! At present I am working on the typology of Joshua as an exorcist in wiping out the pagan nations and Jesus the Exorcist in Mark. It’s going to hopefully be some original work. I don’t want to say to much more about this given the topic we are into now.

    William Benjamin’s Smith’s work in Christ-Mythicism is a must!. I have read most of his works in old journals, etc. His stuff is NOT being incorporated into the present discussions and works on this whole question. Read Smith’s stuff and you will see just how incredibly sound the mythicist theory really is! Get a hold of The Birth of the Gospel. I have read it 7 times now! And it gets better all the time! Neil – Get into it. You are great reviewer of this stuff. I think everyone on this site will benefit greatly from it.

  6. An interesting review of Did Jesus Exist?


    Watch the author , an Ehrman fan, skewer Ehrman’s logic in Ehrman’s astonishingly bad book :-

    ‘“If he is rarely mentioned, it is barely relevant to the question of his existence. It is possible that he simply made too little impact, just like the overwhelming mass of people who lived in the Roman Empire of the first century.”

    If Ehrman believes the Testimonium is authentic, then it means Josephus considered the death of Jesus to be a “sad calamity” that “put the Jews into disorder,” comparable to two massacres he just listed. Jesus can’t be both highly irrelevant and a national tragedy.

    Another independent account occurs in the highly fragmentary text called Papyrus Egerton 2. Here again it is difficult to know how extensive the full Gospel contained in these partial remains originally was; what survives are four episodes from the life of Jesus, one of which has no parallel in the Gospels of the New Testament or in any other known Gospel. Here then, at least in the nonparalleled story, but probably in all four, is a seventh independent account.”


    So because of three garbled sentences about one unreadable miracle on the Jordan River, we have another “independent account”?

    1. REVIEW
      If Ehrman believes the Testimonium is authentic, then it means Josephus considered the death of Jesus to be a “sad calamity” that “put the Jews into disorder,” comparable to two massacres he just listed. Jesus can’t be both highly irrelevant and a national tragedy.

      It’s light-bulb moments like this that demonstrate how ideological are the interpretations of the evidence related to the historicity of Jesus. The evidence has not changed. All that has changed is that we read the converse of a logical point that has been made often enough. That can sometimes be enough to expose the contradictory nature of the foundations of the enterprise.

  7. I only learned recently that there are wide differences between worship of the Indo-European god Mithra and the Roman mystery religion of Mithraism, worshipping Mithras. Sometimes, I get the sneaking impression that these gods are being referred to interchangeably in comparative religious studies of the early Christian age…

    1. Yes, the Persian religion and the later Roman adaptation of Mithraism are significantly different. Reliable scholarly works assume the difference but probably more should be done to keep the distinction clear in wider discussions.

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