Tom Dykstra writes “a cautionary tale” concerning the unpleasant rift between mythicists (those who dispute the historicity of Jesus) and historicists (those who defend the historicity of Jesus). His primary exemplars are “historicist” Bart Ehrman and “mythicist” Thomas Brodie, Ehrman and Brodie on Whether Jesus Existed: A Cautionary Tale about the State of Biblical Scholarship.
His first warning is against the overconfidence of the historicists: mythicists do raise some serious questions that historicists ought to take more seriously;
Dykstra offers an alternative approach to the question in an attempt to break out from the “he-did-exist” versus the “no-he-didn’t” polarity that he suggests is buttressed by a an over abundance of confidence that too often surfaces on both sides.
Finally Dykstra excoriates the hostile tone and outright insults fired from both trenches. Yes and no; here I find myself unable to fully agree with Dykstra’s moral of the story.
Dykstra reminds readers of the struggles of past scholars for their critical works questioning the historicity of other biblical characters and events (e.g. Thomas Thompson was to be rejected by the academy for his thesis disputing the authenticity of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob though today his thesis is mainstream).
The message that comes through is that scholars need to be more willing to seriously consider the arguments that challenge the status quo. This is especially so given that scholars who take the historical existence of Jesus for granted at the same time acknowledge that many claims made in the same evidence for Jesus simply cannot be trusted. The most obvious examples are the infancy narratives and portrayal of Pilate as a righteous but weak-willed man.
Dykstra further points to scholars as diverse as Ben Witherington and John Dominic Crossan observing that both the authors of the gospels and scholars of the gospels have been reconstructing the Jesus who personifies their own theological views — hence modern readers are really looking at theology, not history.
Dykstra outlines the key points of Ehrman’s arguments for the historicity of Jesus and points out in each case how Brodie’s challenge to each one leaves the question far from settled.
But at least as important as the arguments themselves, Dykstra points out at some length, are the problematic attitudes of the scholars that set up a barrier against an open discussion.
A prominent feature of Ehrman’s text is repeated expressions of disdain for “mythicists” . . . along with assertions that no reputable New Testament scholar is a mythicist. In a blog post about the book he expresses clearly the confident and dismissive attitude that also pervades the book.
The mythicist Brodie presents a stark comparison:
Like Ehrman, Brodie expresses absolute confidence in the correctness of his conclusion. But he maintains a good-natured sense of humor and a courteous and considerate attitude toward those on the opposing side.
As for the different perspectives, the article takes us through Ehrman’s “pro-historicity” points and pits against them Brodie’s undermining responses one by one.
Thus where Ehrman sees a host of independent witnesses to Jesus Brodie sees a host of variations of a single source. Where Ehrman sees a narrative that no Jew would fabricate (a messiah who is crucified) Brodie finds a narrative that “makes perfect sense as a fresh synthesis of Old Testament texts that ‘deal with the tension between suffering and God’s hope.'”
In these ways Brodie either neutralizes or at least casts doubt on all of Ehrman’s evidence and arguments.
So far so good. It is at the next stage of Dykstra’s article that I find myself taking an ever so slightly different tack — or maybe not.
Reframing the question
Dykstra expresses some discomfort with not only Bart Ehrman’s “certainty” but also Thomas Brodie’s tone of “certainty” that he has the right answer. He proposes a reframing of the question that would lead the inquiry into murkier regions.
Dykstra’s alternative is one well known to cataloguing librarians and I’ll draw on my own professional background to present the question in my way. (You can read Dykstra’s own words on pages 12 and 13 of his Cautionary Tale article). Americans know the movie Schindler’s List and that it was based on the true story of a wealthy German industrialist who protected Jews during the Second World War. Before the movie there was the book, Schindler’s Ark. It was promoted as a true story but library cataloguers (at least those who consistently followed certain international standards for classification) did not shelve it as history or biography but in the fiction secion. Such a decision hurt because the book was clearly based on historical research. The reason for its technical fiction status? It contained creative dialogue. The author had not adhered fully to the norms of historical writing but, being a novelist, added his own fictional touches. Ironically, ancient historians did the same thing. It was standard practice for ancient historians to creatively imagine what key persons would have said and to insert these (“realistic”) fictions into their historical works.
Now there are surely many ways and varying degrees in which novels, works of fiction, are “based on” historical figures. Above we saw how just a few lines can be enough to render an otherwise historical person fictional. At the other end of the spectrum some novelists draw upon their own experiences to create a fictional character: in such cases can we say that those fictional characters are, in fact, “historical”?
To return to ancient literature, we have from the third century a fictional work about Alexander the Great that drew upon popular legends about the famous conqueror. It is generally known as The Alexander Romance or Romance of Alexander. If the only evidence we had about Alexander were this fictional elaboration of his life then the serious historian would be obliged to conclude that there is no evidence for the historicity of Alexander. In absolute terms and from our vantage point we can say that this historian was mistaken. On the other hand, however, if the historian did declare that fictional work as serious evidence for the historical Alexander he would be guilty of a serious error of method and his peers would be well within their rights to reject his conclusions. It’s like the student getting the right answer in a complex mathematical exam question despite demonstrating a failure to understand the correct processes that should have produced the answer: the examiner is right to conclude that the correct answer was entirely a matter of luck (or cheating) and that this time the correct answer should be failed.
Return to the fictional characters and story episodes that an author bases in part on her own life experiences. The only way a scholar can know which details are based on biographical reminiscences is if she has access to other works by or about the author that supply this information. The historian or biographer of the author would be right to bypass the novelistic elaboration of a true detail and rely instead upon evidence found in other writings such as personal diaries or eyewitness reminiscences.
So how does the historicity of Jesus fit in here? We know at least some of the stories in the gospels are pure fiction. Are the gospels, therefore, historical fiction? Is their central character, Jesus, based on a historical person in the same sense other fictional characters (or at least technically fictional ones) are? If so, in what sense and to what degree can we say that Jesus existed?
What if most of the stories and sayings are fictional? What if only 5% of the sayings are accurate? What if there was a historical person behind behind the gospel stories but he never actually preached in parables? What if there was a historical person who was crucified, but virtually none of the details about him that are presented in the gospels are accurate? What if the first Christians chose to use the name Jesus for its symbolic value, even though the historical person’s name was Mordecai? How meaningful and accurate would it be to say “yes, Jesus was a historical person” in such cases.
Dykstra goes further yet with his quandary:
Or to look at it from another angle, what if it’s possible that most of the gospel stories are historically accurate but we can’t be sure? What if determining the historical reality is based largely on guesswork and probabilities and we’re not even sure about the degree of probability? How much difference is there between “yes, of course Jesus was a historical person, but we know nothing certain about him” and “no, Jesus as we know him in the New Testament was not a historical person”? What do expressions like Ehrman’s “of course he existed,” actually mean?
For the above reasons I set out I believe that these problematic questions are actually irrelevant to the question of whether there was in fact a historical Jesus from which the Christian religion emerged. These problematic questions are misguidedly grounded in the attempt to rely upon the Christian literature alone to answer the historicity question. That cannot be done.
To assess the content of any document it is a sine qua non that comparisons must at some level be made with other sources. It is always through comparison that we can ever make any meaningful analysis of any document. There is no way of determining what any writing signifies unless we can first give it some meaning and context and that inevitably means referencing the genre and contents to other works and sources.
The self-witness of a text can never be sufficient for historians. New Testament scholars attempt to defy this fundamental principle by devising and applying criteria. One such criterion is “embarrassment”: authors would never create stories that cause embarrassment to themselves and their readers so if a story in the gospels is judged to have been embarrassing to the early Christians then it must be truly historical. The many problems with such criteria are obvious on just a little reflection and New Testament scholars are generally aware of their weaknesses and even logical circularity. Nonetheless they trust their professional skills to be able to finely balance such criteria and apply them judiciously so that reasonable probabilities of historicity can be arrived at.
But such an exercise gets us nowhere with respect to the historicity of Jesus. The criteria are designed to assess what an already presumed historical Jesus behind the gospels can be thought to have actually said and done.
What this “what if” pondering comes down to is the acknowledgement that IF there is any historical person behind the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark then it is beyond our ability to know anything about him and therefore the question of his existence is historically irrelevant. If the narrative of the gospels can be sourced to other literature and theological ideas then it is irrelevant to the historian if the author also at some subconscious level has a real person as an original inspiration.
The only way we can ever know if there was a real Jesus is if we can have independent verification from a source that we know we can trust as yielding historically reliable information. That means it is not sufficient to have two Christian tracts, each clearly intending to persuade readers to embrace a religious faith, about his provenance, author, audience, we know virtually nothing.
And no, such a standard does not mean that all other ancient historical persons would immediately become suspect because that is exactly the sort of verification we do have — even for all major ancient persons and many minor ones in our history books. The only exceptions are names that historians at some level admit we have only very late sources for or about which we have only very fragile knowledge — and whether such names are truly historical or convenient eponymous ciphers for schools of thought (e.g. some very early rabbis) makes no difference whatever to the history books. I have demonstrated this point many times before and will not enter another a detailed discussion now.
The nature of the existing evidence raises only one question, I suggest, that is open to historical inquiry: How did Christianity originate?
Here is where certain mythicists are adhering more closely to the normative methods of historians in their analysis of the evidence. But they are not the only ones. Some biblical scholars likewise adhere to valid historical methodologies but those scholars do not raise the question of Jesus’ existence. Rather, they explore the origins of the narratives we have in the gospels and also the writings of Paul entirely through comparisons with other relevant literary works. I’m thinking here of scholars like Dennis MacDonald, Charles Talbert, Robert Gundry, Michael Goulder, James Hanges, Troels Engberg-Pedersen and many others. No doubt many of these scholars have never publicly questioned the historicity of Jesus but that proposition remains irrelevant to their methods and hypotheses.
So back to Dykstra’s Cautionary Tale.
After the assumptions and openness or lack of openness to opposing arguments Dykstra targets attitudes. We have seen his censure of Ehrman’s expression of disdain for mythicists and praise for Brodie’s courtesy. But the white hats are not exclusive to the mythicist side nor the black to the historicists. Dykstra presents Michael Goulder as the epitome of grace and humour:
For Goulder, incarnation belief is fundamentally nonsensical in the same way that for Ehrman mythicist belief is fundamentally nonsensical. Yet Goulder never takes offense at or derides incarnationists. When he dismantles beliefs that he sees as nonsensical, he does so playfully. Imagine the different impact Ehrman’s book would have had on its readers if he had rendered his arguments in a manner similar to this extract from Goulder:
Modern kenotic theologians, like Professor E. L. Mascall or Fr. H. McCabe, seem to opt instead for vacuity: Jesus is metaphysically the Word of God, in his person, in his ego, but his human nature or consciousness is not affected by this. I will return to Mascall shortly, but perhaps I may make the general point with a parable. Returning from abroad with a friend, I hear that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedlam is Lord Beaver. ‘What!’, I say, ‘A new V-C?’ No, replies my friend, ‘the old V-C, Sir Robert Badger, must have become a peer’. In the distance Lord Beaver looks like Sir Robert, and the voice is similar, and the same conspicuous probity governs all his actions; but on closer acquaintance the differences seem obvious. ‘Oh’, says my friend, ‘he must have had a face-lift; and his voice is pitched deeper because of the new dignity; and he will have had a new central nervous system put in for the job: but It is the same chap.’ Soon I feel driven to ask ‘But what is in common between the V-C we knew and the V-C we know?’ If I am told, ‘Nothing. But metaphysically they are the same: It is a paradox’, two consequences will follow: first, I shall feel totally mystified, and second, I shall suspect that what began as a misidentification is being maintained from a reluctance to confess error.
Goulder could have accused his opponents of incompetence or dishonesty, but didn’t. Saying “I feel totally mystified” by the opponents’ position conveys a similar degree of dissatisfaction with that position, but with a very different emotional feel to it.
That’s the feel you get from reading Brodie’s book. His epilogue directly responds to Ehrman’s book, and in it he dispassionately summarizes Ehrman’s arguments and responds to them without engaging in any kind of personal attack.
Then there is Carrier, but here Dykstra does not cite scholarly publications but rather blog posts.
Another unique feature of the controversy over Jesus’s historicity which reflects more generally on the field of biblical studies is the ill will which many on both sides bear toward the other side. Responses to both Ehrman and Brodie are marked by expressions of disdain and outrage. Richard Carrier’s condemnation of Ehrman’s book is an example:
It is for all the reasons documented in this article (which are again just a sample of many other errors of like kind, from false claims, to illogical arguments, to self-contradictions, to misrepresentations of his opponents, to errors of omission), especially this book’s complete failure to interact with even a single complete theory of mythicism (which alone renders the book useless, even were it free of error), that I have no choice but to condemn this thing as being nothing more than a sad murder of electrons and trees.102
Ehrman’s book is so full of egregious factual errors demonstrating his ignorance, sloppiness, and incompetence in this matter, it really doesn’t even need a rebuttal. It can be thrown straight into the trash without any loss to scholarship or humanity. It is, quite simply, wholly unreliable.103
Yes, Carrier is certainly blunt and abrasive in his blog posts but do notice a significant difference. Carrier was responding to Ehrman’s formal (“scholarly”) publication, not a blog post. Carrier demonstrates no such abrasiveness in his own scholarly publications, nor even in his live debates that I have seen online. Ehrman’s sins are practised in the scholarly arena. Given that one regularly finds other biblical scholars recommending Ehrman’s anti-mythicist publication I suggest this is a detail of some significance.
Another detail of significance, I believe, is that while Carrier’s blog posts can be caustic they do not resort to name-calling or personal insults. Re-read Carrier’s criticisms above: they are all directed at the contents of Ehrman’s book and method of argument. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for much of the criticism from Ehrman. (And I’m not going to mention Casey, McGrath, Hoffmann, West and others.)
Should Carrier be so blunt? Obviously the historicists would have a smaller target if his style were more like Brodie’s or Goulder’s. But a core difference is that there really is a breach of personal civility and professionalism, one is tempted to even add honesty, on the part of Ehrman in his professional/published criticism of mythicism, and the same is megaphoned in the land of the blogs.
My point is not to say both are at fault but that one side started it or is worse than the other. No.
I think it is a mistake to relegate Carrier and Ehrman to the same “they’re all as bad as each other” corner and keep them there until “they both learn to lift their game”.
I don’t think the problem is simply a matter of bad manners or lack of tact.
When the historicist scholars do not treat mythicist arguments with fairness (insofar as they only appear at most to address distortions or small facets of those arguments) and when they resort to personal insults, we are not encountering a momentary lapse in standards but an attempt to polarize the entire mythicist-historicist debate. You are with us or against us. Here is what happens to you if you question the conventional wisdom. The mythicist arguments are not addressed. They are distorted and excluded while their proponents are insulted.
The response of a mythicist to this treatment is unsurprisingly acerbic. What is surprising is that only one mythicist (as far as I am aware) is singled out for the rudeness of his calling a spade a spade in a nonscholarly forum.
Obviously Carrier’s tone in his blog responses to Ehrman is not going to win Ehrman over to a civil discourse. This is no doubt disappointing to many who would love to witness a serious debate between Ehrman and Carrier. But given Ehrman’s failure to seriously address the mythicist arguments in his book it is doubtful that any such debate was going to happen anyway. (In the real world there is also the little matter of the fees Ehrman charges for appearances.)
I find myself agreeing with Raphael Lataster who argues that the question of Jesus’ historicity is not going to gain traction in the traditional field of biblical studies. Scholars in religious studies are in a better position to understand the nature of religions and their historical emergence. Classicists, historians of the ancient world and scholars of religion carry less a priori institutional and theological baggage. Not that biblical scholars need to be excluded, but their contributions (like any others) will focus on the questions of how to explain the nature of those sources that are earliest to Christianity’s origins.
In the course of this post I noticed that Tom Dykstra’s article references both this vridar blog and me. I come in for some criticism insofar as “some [of my articles] are polemical in tone”. So perhaps I should ask myself if my views here are in part self-serving. I do know I have made a conscious effort to tone down some of the polemics as I discovered the blog was garnering more attention than I originally expected and as I learned through experiences wiser ways of engaging with certain persons. This blog is just a place where I like to set out certain issues that are on my mind. I learn, I change, I stuff up at times. The above are my views as of November-December 2015. Who knows what 2016 will bring?
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