Bart Ehrman-Michael Bird Debate & Comments on Mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman-Michael Bird Debate & Comments on Mythicism”

  1. Strange that both gentlemen refer to the gospel of Mark to derive views of the earliest Christians. Mark was written – at least – 40 years after the events it describes. And these are the years of interest to this discussions! Even more flabbergasting that Ehrman refers to Acts to get this early view!

    And neither scholar even mentions the letters of Paul, who – as most scholars claim – is our earliest Christian source! Perhaps his views don’t ‘gel’ well with theirs?

    1. I’ve spoken to theologians educated in Europe at the end of the last century, and they would likewise pretty much ignore Paul when it comes to filling in the details of Christian origins. When i’d ask why they haven’t mentioned Paul, there’s not really any answer besides something like ‘the gospels present our best idea of how christianity started’, and maybe you’ll get a reference to Acts. When i point out (not that they don’t know already) that Paul is our earliest source on christianity, and surely his writing has to be involved, if not leading in any explanation of christian origins… There’s not really a comeback. It almost seemed like his brain went something like “yes, that sounds very reasonable, but i got nothing’.

      Acts also came up with this same person, but he seemed genuinely suprised that some scholars consider it made-up church history. Kept asking “what the goal of the text was” if that was the case.

      Just one datapoint, sprinkled with speculation from my side, but still.

  2. Apart from the stupidly stupid comments on mythicism, this is well worth listening to. Thank you. I have reread some of Turton and Carrier this week and now think Mark and Paul are both equally adoptionist and pre-existent. I think the point about the daimons recognizing him is well made. Mark’s is a Pauline gospel. Paul believes that a pre-existing spirit with God descends to the realm of corruption, not treating equality with God as a thing to be grasped, and through is crucifixion is raised by God to be Jesus Christ the son of God. But what both Bart and Byrd get wrong is that humans (after death) can become sons of God. That after all is the whole point of Pauls theology and the way to get there is the whole point of Mark’s Gospel. I remember in church singing “Now are we the sons of God.. for we know that we shall be like him” And in Roman society an adopted son was just as good as a natural one (think Scipio Aemilianus, Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius adopted son Nero preferred to Britannicus). Jewish and Greek attitudes to adoption is less clear to me. Possibly Pauls innovations were to say that Jesus only became son of God after the Crucifixion, and that this enabled us to follow him too to eternal life. Perhaps the pillar desciples still followed Philo’s view that the Christ was fully son of God from eternity. Or maybe Paul also agreed with Philo on this and Bird is right that Paul thought he was always son of God but only with power and to be proclaimed to all after the resurrection..

  3. Well, at least mysticism is now important enough to be mentioned, and reviled. Rather than completely ignored.

    I’ve been talking with Bird and Hurtado for a while on the blogs, mentioning mysticism now and then. Though they’re still strongly rejecting the mythicist conclusion, they’re somewhat more receptive to the lead-up arguments.

    Hurtado more than Bird; the self-confessed evangelical Bird being in fact, being rather despised even by anti mythicists.

    What most theologians or religious historians will listen to, are criticisms of most of the individual elements of the Bible. They’re just not ready to face the conclusion that the whole is false. Or face the strong possibility that Jesus specifically, was not real at all. That’s about the last element or straw they are really holding on to.

    1. I had to grin when Bird cites a point Gathercole’s had made elsewhere that including conjecture makes one’s presentation all conjecture, then proceeded to persistently offer conjecture.

  4. Bart is very careful not to hurt the religious sentiments of his fundamentalist audience. He wouldn’t dream of disparaging his debate opponent’s scholarly opinion. On the other hand, Jesus mythicism is a stupid stupid idea you find on the internet! Carrier’s peer reviewed book, Price’s work, Brodie’s book.. meh!

    It will be interesting to see what he has to say in his debate with Price.

    1. I worry that his debate with Price will prove to be a waste of time. I do hope I am wrong, but I cannot see him making any progress beyond the mocking smear of DJE. Can anyone really see Ehrman moving beyond smirks and eyebrow raising and victim games?

      Will there really be a mutual cross-examination of each other’s arguments?

      1. Personally i’m hoping the format will allow for interruptions or a direct discussion of sorts where Ehrmann can be stopped in his tracks whenever he wants to dismiss a particular argument *he* thinks is obviously mistaken. If there’s anything we really don’t want to hear, it’s Ehrmann making a questionable assumption in his first sentence and then building on it for 15 minutes before Price can step in. We could just as well buy Ehrmanns books if that’s what it is going to be like.

      2. I think Bart Ehrman would emphasize Jesus’ humanity over his divinity. For instance, Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross quoting Psalm 22 does not portray Jesus as a divine being calmly expecting resurrection. Also, the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane shows Jesus in despair, disagreeing with God’s plan and petitioning against his being a part of it, clearly showing Jesus is not one and the same with God. Finally, Jesus identifies with humanity in the way he constructs The Lord’s Prayer. Things like this, along with passages that identify Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet, are probably the things Ehrman suggests the next wave of atheists should be focusing on (and not things like The Christ Myth Theory). Ehrman would probably contend that Jesus is clearly not depicted as a god or The God, but rather as a human prophet (Mark 6:5) with human failings, such as drinking too much alcohol (Matthew 11:19), and even disagreeing with God’s plan and his role in God’s plan (Mark 14:32-42)

        1. That would be classic Humanistic theology: Jesus was a real human being, but just a human being.

          This has long been a somewhat useful position. One which in fact dominates religious scholarship today. It dominates because it has been politically, socially useful to scholars, in finding a compromise between critical scholarship, and the huge number of everyday believers. It allows scholars to say many critical things about Christianity – without however, entering the final taboo zone. Of saying that Jesus did not even exist.

          Humanistic theology is probably the main foundation for the current popularity of Historical Jesus. However, it has certain drawbacks. Among other things, it seems motivated in part not by the evidence. But by political expediency: the practical need not to offend one billion believers too, too much. It says many critical things about Jesus. But it still agrees that he was at least, real.

          So it seems motivated by compromise, and not by real scholarship.

          1. What is truth? Sometimes we say “true” means “correct.” Sometimes it means “exemplary,” like a “true friend.”

            Derrida Teaches there is no such thing as “truth,’ just “point of view grounded in bias.” For example, when Republicans and Democrats debate in politics, one side is not “right” while the other is “wrong,” one side just has a “Republican bias,” while the other side has a “Democratic bias.” One side will win because they get the most votes, but that doesn’t make their position the “true one.” Or, take the example of the Supreme court: Late judge Antonin Scalia didn’t rule as he did because his positions were true, he ruled as he did because his rulings agreed with his “Conservative, originalist bias.” There isn’t just one “truth” when there are “conservative” and “liberal” Supreme court justices. Recalcitrant evidence can disconfirm a point of view, but agreeing evidence can only support, never “prove,” a bias driven point of view. Every point of view is biased because they always carry along with them uncritically accepted assumptions that are considered “self evidence.” A self evident proposition is just one that no argument is being given for. We often say certain things are “obvious,” but we have all thought things that we believed were “obvious” that we later changed our minds about. As Derrida said, obviousness is evidence of the “feeling” of certainty, not of the “truth.”

            Ehrman said “But I’d say that it is true that Obama is the President, even if it can’t be established as true or false if he’s a *good* president.” This is a good illustration of what I was talking about. If you ask the Republican presidential candidates (Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich), Obama was a terrible president. If you ask the Democratic presidential candidates (Clinton, Sanders), Obama was a wonderful president. These are all judgements grounded in bias. It is not objectively “true” Obama was a “good” president, but rather it is “true” from a “liberal point of view.”

            But perhaps there is a higher kind of truth (aletheia). Plato says about the essence of truth, that we have our guiding perspective, and we follow the implications of that perspective down the path which it leads, until we reach a block in the road (aporia), and experience wonder (thaumazein) that our guiding perspective has lead us to contrariety, and must hence rethink our guiding perspective. For Plato, this wonder (thaumazein) is experienced by encountering something that is beyond being, the idea of the good (idea tou agathou). “Epekeina tes ousias,” “Beyond Being,” is a phrase from Plato’s Republic 509b. The idea is that what starts out as “real” for us is the guiding perspective that we have (on whatever issue). We explore the implications of that perspective until it leads us into contrariety (Plato repeatedly shows how it happens in the early Socratic dialogues). Plato says the philosopher experiences wonder (thaumazein) when he or she realizes his or her guiding perspective, when followed, leads into contrariety which the guiding perspective can’t resolve. As a result, the guiding perspective must be rethought. For example, it would be like a religious person examining their religious theology to the point they become an atheist. The “beyond being” is the surplus that overthrows the guiding perspective.

    2. One day, Ehrman’s apparent disdain for the Internet will probably be enough, just in itself, to keep the serious scholars of our online future, from taking him too, too seriously.

    3. I read recently that Erhman’s wife is quite religious and goes off to church with a family friend, so he has at least one personal reason to not offend the religious.

  5. It’s interesting that Bird has no problem seeing the obvious parallels between Jesus’ behavior and the Hebrew Scriptures, yet when someone who doubts Jesus’ existence says the same thing it’s considered wild-eyed. I don’t think Ehrman even challenged him on that point.

  6. I was shocked to hear both Ehrman and Bird explicity say that the Jesus/Christ myth position was simply “stupid”. Bird initiated that comment first and got Ehrman on board with it. “Stupid” means in this context — not a thing going for it – not plausible, etc. But “their” position is flawless?! You have got to be kidding me!

    I have learned much from Ehrman, but he (and Bird) are really out of line for saying such a thing. As a former student of scholars like Thomas Thompson and Robert Price and many others of similar persuasions regarding the Bible I found their comments to leave a bad taste in my mouth, especially with Ehrman whining about others he knows who are “nasty” to him regarding his own views.

    I thought the debate was okay and I learned a thing or two. I think Ehrman and Bird need to be called on the carpet for making such a sweeping statement about the whole Jesus Myth being simply a stupid idea and suggesting to the audience through their rhetoric in a subtle ways that anyone who holds that view may be regarded as “stupid” as well. They don’t want to attack personally those who hold that view but they sort of poison the audience against even considering the view because they will be reading or hearing “stupid” things.

    So sad! So sad!

    I hope Dr. Price is made aware of this video so he and others can see what Ehrman already thinks about alternatives very carefully argued for by other scholars. Given the influence of Ehrman’s and Bird’s comments the Jesus Myth position will suffer more dismissal.

    So sad! So sad.

    Thanks again Neil for your very instructive posts and everyone who throws in their two cents.

    1. Yes, Ehrman, McGrath, Bird, West, Hoffmann, Hurtado, and not a few others, seek to keep mythicism off the agenda, out of court, in outer darkness, by means of dismissive insult — conspiracy theory, like creationists, like fundamentalists, mythicists are all former fundamentalists and once a fundamentalist always a fundamentalist, like Holocaust deniers, Jesus deniers, mythers, mythtics, stupid — . . . it’s all about controlling the agenda by means of intimidation and threats of ostracism.

      I had to disappoint some others a while back when I could not work up any enthusiasm for a Price-Ehrman debate when it was first raised as a possibility. I cannot see the point having read Ehrman’s book and articles on the question. A debate presupposes some sort of mutual respect for the ideas being exchanged. All I can envision is Ehrman saying his piece and ignoring Price’s piece or simply tossing it aside with a wave of a hand and a gesture.

      I notice Ehrman was quite prepared to write a lengthy blog post and share it for free (no financial donation required to read it in full) when he was offended by an anonymous Amazon review suggesting he was guilty of plagiarism and suppressing previous scholarship in his new book “Jesus Before the Gospels”. He is clearly outraged that the internet allows people to say what they like in a public space when they show him in a questionable light. And this is the scholar who got away with publishing outright falsehoods and gross distortions about a number of mythicists in his book attacking mythicism.

    2. Even somewhat useful scholars like the popularist scholar Bart Ehrman, get their book sales and classroom students, from talking about the ever-so–popular Jesus. And by retaining some tie, no matter how remote, to at least the moderately believing community. Which is huge. And buys many books.

      In this situation, Ehrman is motivated to be somewhat critical of the Jesus legend. But not TOO critical. Since that would cut into book sales.

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