The Secret Mysteries of the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Mythicists have often gotten upset with me for pointing out that almost no one with any qualifications in the requisite fields of scholarship agrees with them.  I can see why that would be upsetting.  My sense is that some of them think that I’ve been rubbing their noses in it.  But that isn’t really my intent.  My intent is to point out to anyone who is interested – for example, someone who just doesn’t know what to think – that those who are qualified to speak knowledgeably on such subjects are virtually unified on one view (there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth) and opposed to the other (he is a complete myth).Bart Ehrman

So it seems the establishment of the historical existence of an ancient figure requires a level of expertise comparable to physicists who tells us that such things as quarks really do exist. If you’re not a physicist you just have to take the word of the scientists for it.

History and historical evidence was never that complicated when I was at school or doing undergrad studies in ancient, medieval and modern history. And I don’t know of a single figure historians say can only be confirmed by esoteric skills of those trained for many years in the required specialist fields — apart from Jesus.

Now Jesus may have been a historical figure, of course. But to claim academic privilege as the key to being able to prove it strikes me as . . . . well, . . . . [you fill in the blank for yourself].

That the only scholars who supposedly are emphatically and wholeheartedly agreed that Jesus existed happen to be those who are religiously devoted to Jesus or who have been closely associated with an interest in that figure of worship (e.g. ex believers) does not strike me as a strong point in favour of the grounds for Bart Ehrman’s confidence.

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10 thoughts on “The Secret Mysteries of the Historical Jesus”

  1. Bart Ehrman has been claiming to have evidence that Jesus was a historical character and liking those who believe that the character was fictional as akin to holocaust deniers. Ehrman’s scholarship can be demonstrated to be incorrect, for example.

    One of the principles Ehrman’s uses to determine historicity is “dissimilarity”. This approach looks for passages that would be ‘dissimilar’ to what a biased author would be expected to compose and therefore indicate history rather than fiction. (This approach overlaps the one called ‘embarrassment’ – which in NT criticism looks for passages that would be embarrassing to a Christian author.)

    Ehrman cites the baptism of Jesus by John as a ‘dissimilar’ passage. In other words Ehrman claims that the story is likely historical because since John does the baptizing Jesus looks inferior to him and this this not something a biased follower of Jesus would record if it were not true. (Jesus Interrupted P 154 or insomniacs may listen to chapter 9 http://www.archive.org/details/HistoricalJesus )

    While the principle of “dissimilarity” has limited analytic strength under the best of circumstances, Ehrman’s applying it to the baptism story is demonstrably incorrect and exposes a catastrophic weakness in Ehrman’s scholarship – his inability to recognize fictional typology.

    As far as I can determine, Ehrman made no attempt to parse out the typological fiction from the history in the Gospels’ different baptism stories. Had he bothered to go through the process he would have recognized that the entire story of John’s baptism of Jesus was developed out of Malachi.

    I won’t go into every typological detail in the baptism stories but just cite a few:

    The baptism of Jesus and its place in the storyline was chosen to fit it into the sequence of the “New Covenant’ Moses/Jesus typology.

    The location of the story – the river Jordan – and John weird clothes are based upon
    those of his type Elijah in 2 Kings 2.7‐8.

    The actual ‘baptism’ of Jesus was invented to mirror the ‘passing through water’ by the Israelites that led to their laws being given by God from a mountaintop. The passing through water by Jesus leads to the new law giving from a mountaintop – the Sermon on the Mount.

    Moreover, understanding the typology shows that Jesus had to go through water at this point because Israel had been established as a ‘type’ for Jesus in Matthew. 2: 15 – “and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.” Since the nation of Israel was the ‘type’ for Jesus, Jesus must pass through water at this point simply because that is what ‘Israel’ did during the exodus.

    All of the dialogue between John and Jesus is based upon Malachi. John’s ‘firey’ declarations of Matt 3: 7-13 simply repeat the theme of Malachi 4: 1-2. In Matt 3: 13-15 John states that Jesus should baptize him but Jesus replies that John must do the baptizing “to fulfill all righteousness”. Matthew is operating within the Malachi’s ‘new covenant’ typology established in his prior passages and Jesus is therefore “the sun of righteousness who will rise with healing” predicted in Malachi 4:2.

    John’s statement in GJohn where he calls Jesus the “lamb who will take away the sins of the world” is more ‘new covenant typology talk’. In other words, John is predicting that Jesus will become the human Passover lamb whose sacrifice will atone for the “unrighteousness” that ended the old covenant.

    The baptism story does not reflect a tradition of a historical event held by a group of peasant believers in a first century Rabbi Christ. It is a tip to stern fiction written by specialists in typology.

    Following the Roman-Jewish war the Flavian authors of the Gospels simply took Malachi’s story about the end of the ‘old covenant’ and an angry visit by ‘the Lord’, which were preceded by an Elijah ‘type’ forerunner and created a sort of Hebraic cartoon where Malachi’s characters came to life and both behaved typologically to ‘foresee’ the coming of the ‘Son of Man’ in forty years and made predictions about the war and the new covenant between God and the Romans.


    1. Ehrman uses much more than “dissimilarity” to argue for the historicity of Jesus. He also refers to about half a dozen or more hypothetical independent sources.

      A simpler refutation of the use of “dissimilarity” as a means of establishing historicity can be found simply by testing it against other persons fictional, legendary and historical. No other historical figure I am aware of has ever been or can ever be assured of historicity by such a method. Jesus truly is unique!

      Trying to refute the historical method by appeal to a particular interpretation of the gospel narratives is not likely to be effective. Even if the gospels were serious attempts to emulate genuine historical or biographical writing the methodological problems Ehrman and others sidestep would remain.

      No text can of itself offer a verifying testimony of its contents. Never. Always there must be some form of appeal to independent verification. Always. And no, ancient history would not have to be re-written by such a criterion. It is that criterion that lies at the foundation of all broadly reliable historical narratives that are part of our heritage today.

      1. “Ehrman …refers to about half a dozen or more hypothetical independent sources.”

        Does Bart ever elaborate on these ‘hypothetical sources’? Does he ever explain his reasoning for them?

    2. Great book Joe, “Caesar’s Messiah”, I loved it. Matthew, as you say, uses typology to make his case for an historical Jesus. But Matthew is also very dependent on Mark. And Mark too uses Malachi, and Elijah, and John the Baptist at significant dividing points in his Gospel to canonize a Jesus who in Mark’s Gospel is used to canonize Paul and Paul’s Gospel to the sinners of the Gentiles. Many have suggested that Mark is quite critical of the original Jewish disciples and Jesus’ own family, and I suggest also allegorically critical of the “scribes” sent by James and the “chief priests” of the Jerusalem Church Galatians 2:12-14, and critical of the hypocritical Pharisees like Peter who separated [peras] themselves from the Gentile sinners in Antioch. But Mark is also using well respected figures like John the Baptist, and Elijah, and Malachi to make the case for his Pauline Jesus, which in effect also canonizes Mark’s own Pauline Church. The later Gospels and Acts (as many have pointed out) tend to water down Mark’s criticism of the disciples and Jesus’ family because they find it embarrassing. Act’s goes so far as to have Peter sanction Paul’s eating of all things with the “sheet let down” from heaven story, even though we know Peter separated himself from the Gentile table in Antioch when some [scribes of the Law] came from James.

      So while we may not have a lot of detail about the “real” historical Jesus, we can sure figure out from the Gospels, and Acts, and Paul’s letters what people like Mark were up to — canonizing Paul and Paul’s Gospel to the Gentiles, and denigrating the Judaizers of the Ebionite Jerusalem Church. It is as you have so invaluably pointed out, inter-textual narrative criticism that is gradually revealing these things.

    3. Of course it was this episode of Peter separating himself in Antioch that then became the famous 3 time denial of [Paul’s] Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Peter, James, and John could not even watch for the coming of Paul’s Jesus to the Gentiles. Indeed, like the “hypocritical Pharisees” in Antioch, they were like blind guides of the blind who would fall into the pit of Roman destruction for rejecting Paul and Paul’s Gospel to the Gentiles.

  2. “To claim academic privilege as the key to being able to prove it is” [fill in the blank] : “ARROGANT AND SMUG.”

    As I said to Prof. Ehrman in an email to him, the question raised [by Jesus historicists] is larger than his academic discipline. Or, what are the “requisite fields of scholarship” that he refers to? No doubt they are limited to NT scholarship. Shouldn’t they include philosophy, which asks the question, “How do we know what we know?” Shouldn’t they include HISTORY, which starts with historical materials, defined and verified?

    Your readers should read your post, Neil, on Schweitzer [p.401 et seq from Quest for the Historical Jesus], which directly contradicts Ehrman’s elitist remarks quoted above. The NT scholars/historicists often cite Schweitzer, but they seldom accurately represent his conclusion, which washes its hands of history.

    In the 1980s, the scholars in my field (English) also tried to play a game where they developed a language (“theory”) which was validated by the extent to which no one could understand it. It has fallen from favor.

    If an argument is strong, it can be made convincing to lay readers, certainly to intelligent, educated ones. I have read Ehrman’s book, “Did Jesus Exist?” I’m glad he wrote it. I read it carefully. I’m a good reader. I am willing to be convinced, but I was not convinced.

  3. In trying to determine the true history of the Jesus story, I think it is very helpful to paint the possible scenarios and ask “who benefits ?” (qui bono). Like the 911 cover up and its consequences, the missing pieces of the Jesus puzzle were hidden for good reasons. And if the world is misled in the 21st C. while we have literacy and internet, it’s not hard to see how the pre-literate, pre-internet world could have been so easily misled. Focus on the stakeholders and many questions, while not getting decisive answers, get more sensible possibilities. And let’s not forget Carl Sagan’s classic expose “Our Demon Haunted World”.

  4. Sorry Bart, I am perfectly capable of reading and interpreting a text for my self tah very much. The earliest Christian writings don’t contain the bloke you are banging on about and the Gospel of Mark is just too contaminated by magical hooey to be taken seriously as history, besides being on the other side of at least one catastrophic war that would have seriously impaired any chance of the author knowing what actually happened (and done for disputing his fiction along the way). This expert consensus of your’s has largely deconstructed the so-called history as allegory, midrash, mimesis, and pesher. I think the consensus scholar that most brought this home to me and whose work directed much of my later reading on the topic was one Bart Denton Ehrman. He wouldn’t be a relation of yours by any chance?

    Honestly, the man is a bit dense. You can conclude ahistoricity from his own ruddy work alone, and then from his so-called “expert consensus” in support. You do not need to go to mythicist scholars at all. Where does he think the better and non-crank mythicists draw most of their argument or their conclusions from?

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