How Ehrman’s Gospel “Truth” Gives a Pass to Trump’s “Truth” of Fake Videos

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by Neil Godfrey

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
At least one of the videos was later described as “fake” by a Dutch news outlet. Sanders said that didn’t matter. “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”Sanders continued, criticizing reporters for pressing her on whether Trump should verify the content of videos before sharing them with his 43 million followers on Twitter.“I’m not talking about the nature of the video. I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she said. “The threat is real, and that’s what the president is talking about.” (Gabby Morrongellio, Sarah Sanders defends Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets: ‘Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real’ in The Washington Examiner, Nov 29, 2017)

I’ve heard something like that before.

Think . . . .

Yes, that’s right, I remember now. That’s the logic used by scholars who attempt to defend the “fake” stories in the gospels as being somehow “true”.

Bart Ehrman earlier this year wrote about True Stories That Did Not Happen and reminded his readers of what he wrote nearly twenty years ago:

There are stories in the Gospels that did not happen historically as narrated, but that are meant to convey a truth. . . . But the notion that the Gospel accounts are not 100 percent accurate, while still important for the religious truths they try to convey, is widely shared in the scholarly guild . . . .

Can there be such a thing as a true story that didn’t happen? We certainly don’t normally talk that way: if we say that something is a “true story,” we mean that it’s something that happened. But actually, that itself is a funny way of putting it. . . . 

In fact, almost all of us realize this when we think about it. Just about everyone I’ve ever known was told at some point during grade school the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. As a young boy, George takes the ax to his father’s tree. When his father comes home, he demands, “Who cut down my cherry tree,” and young George, who is a bit inclined toward mischief but does turn out to be an honest lad, replies, “I cannot tell a lie; I did it.”

As it turns out (to the chagrin of some of my students!), this story never happened. We know this for a fact, because the person who fabricated it — a fellow called Parson Weems — later fessed up to the deed. But if the story didn’t happen, why do we continue to tell it? Because on some level, or possibly on a number of levels, we think it’s true.

On the one hand, the story has always served, though many people possibly never realized it, as a nice piece of national propaganda. . . . The United States is founded on honesty. It cannot tell a lie. . . . 

On the other hand . . . the story functions to convey an important lesson in personal morality. People shouldn’t lie. . . . . And so I myself have told the story and believed it, even though I don’t think it ever happened.

The Gospels of the New Testament contain stories kind of like that, stories that may convey truths, at least in the minds of those who told them, but that are not historically accurate. (Ehrman, B. D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. pp. 30-31)

More recently, in Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (2016) Erhman goes so far as to describe historical truth in the sense of factual truth as a matter of “dry, banal, and frankly rather uninteresting to anyone except people with rather peculiar antiquarian interests” in “brute facts“. (p. 229)

Same with the ugly stories of Judas.

Are these accurate memories? They may be true to the idea that Judas was a very bad man who got what he deserved (as the early Christian storytellers heartily believed), but the specific memories themselves are surely distorted. (Jesus Before the Gospels, p. 26)

Gospel of Peter speaks of a loud voice from heaven, the heavens opening, two angels descending, the stone in front of the tomb rolling away, three persons emerging, two so tall that their heads reach the sky, with the middle one even taller and whose head is lost “beyond the heavens”, with a cross following. Another heavenly voice asks the cross if it has preached to those who sleep and the cross replies, “Yes.”

Excerpt From: Bart D. Ehrman. “Jesus Before the Gospels.” iBooks. A few pages later he describes a dramatic resurrection scene from the apocryphal Gospel of Peter:

This is an absolutely astounding account. Whether the author wanted his readers to take it as something that literally happened is anyone’s guess. How we wish we knew. Whatever its status as a literal description of a historical event, the account is clearly filled with deep symbolism. . . . 

What a splendid way for early Christians to remember Jesus. (p. 38)

Just like the fake video that Trump retweeted. That, too, was “filled with deep symbolism”.

Should we care if it is not historically accurate?

It might matter to people whose only concern is to know what really took place in the past. But why should that be a person’s only concern? Shouldn’t we be concerned also about other things? . . . . 

Can’t “truth” be bigger than the bare-bones question about what happened before now? . . . 

Why should historical accuracy be our only concern in any realm of discourse outside, of course, of history itself? . . . .

We need always to remember ourselves that memories do not need to be historically accurate to be vivid and meaningful . . . 

The “distorted” memories of Jesus—by which I mean memories that are not accurate in the strictly historical sense—are just as real to those who hold and share them as “true” memories (that is, historically true).

(Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, pp. 39-40. My italics and bolding in all quotations)

Yes, as Sarah Sanders also more recently reminds us, the video does not have to be “historically true” in order for it to be “true” and “meaningful” for Trump and many of his supporters.

Speaking of Trump followers, I am reminded of something else Bart Ehrman explained:

They were for the most part simple Christians who had heard stories about Jesus that had long been in circulation, stories about who he was, what he taught, what mission he came to fulfill. These stories about the past had always been told in light of how the storytellers perceived the relevance and significance of Jesus for the present. Those who held, preserved, and shared memories of Jesus did so because he meant something to them and their struggles. It was precisely those memories—stored, recalled, and shared by Christians encountering these struggles—that made it possible for them to make sense of the world and their lives. (Jesus Before the Gospels, p. 216)

Ah yes, a fake video can indeed help many fearful “simple” ones to “make sense of the world” of seemingly random terror attacks and fearful rumours the feel are swirling around their lives.

Both Sanders and Ehrman share the view that there is something far more important that being overly concerned with getting “the historical facts” right:

The comment I sometimes get from readers that I find disheartening is this: they often tell me that if there is something in the Gospels that is not historical, then it cannot be true (in any respect), and if it is not true, then it is not worth reading. . . . 

In my view, the early Christian Gospels are so much more than historical sources. . . . 

Yes, these memories can be recognized as distorted when seen from the perspective of historical reality. But—at least for me—that doesn’t rob them of their value. It simply makes them memories. All memories are distorted. . . . 

that doesn’t mean that we should then throw them all away because they are not completely trustworthy. . . . 

At the end of the day, I find it troubling that so many people think that history is the only thing that matters. For them, if something didn’t happen, it isn’t true, in any sense. Really? Do we actually live our lives that way? How can we? Do we really spend our lives finding meaning only in the brute facts of what happened before, and in nothing else? . . . .

Do we really think that the brute facts about the past are the only things that matter? . . . . 

(Jesus Before the Gospels, pp. 227-228)

Dickens’ Dream by Robert Buss. (Dickens surrounded by his characters)

Does the “truth in novels” cover the sin of “meaningful fake news”?

Ehrman appeals to Charles Dickens’ novels as examples of untrue stories that do indeed convey truths about the lives of so many of the poor in England in his day. Ironically, in making such an appeal, Ehrman fails to notice that it is because Dickens is writing as a novelist, writing what every reader knows to be fiction, that gives his stories such imaginative and ideological power. Stop and think if Dickens had attempted to pass off his stories as “true”. They would have been exposed as frauds and been dismissed, ridiculed, trashed, never to have any of the social impacts that they did as known fiction!

Ehrman does not appear to have thought through his analogy very carefully:

Is literature unimportant because it does not deal with the brute facts of history? . . . .

Well, that’s different, you say, because it’s fiction. Yes indeed, it’s fiction. And fiction can be life-transforming because it is full of meaning, even though it never happened. . . . .

can historical discoveries undermine the power of great literature? . . . . 

Literature speaks to us quite apart from the facts of history. (p. 228)

Literature has power as fiction because it is honest and known to be fiction and therefore speaking to human experience generically, if you will. Or else it is said to be based on real factual history and is appreciated because it is so “true to the facts”. Either way, literature must be honest. I recall the national scandal that erupted when Australian novelist Helen Darville was discovered to have lied about the “historical truth” of her book, The Hand that Signed the Paper. She passed off her book as “true”, or at least as herself, the author, as literally descended from the main characters in her story about Stalinist Ukraine. Darville was stripped of her literary award and was obliged to republish her book honestly. No doubt there are many similar stories.

One last word from Ehrman:

Yes, they can be scrutinized by historians who want to get a better sense of what actually happened in the life of Jesus. That’s what I do for a living. But if they were only that, they would be dry, banal, and frankly rather uninteresting to anyone except people with rather peculiar antiquarian interests. The Gospels are more than historical sources. They are deeply rooted and profound memories of a man, memories that ended up transforming the entire world. (p. 229)

That’s a more eloquent way of saying what Sarah Sanders says about Trump’s retweet of a fake video. Ignore the fakery. It’s the meaning and symbolism that counts.

What I suggest is that we be honest with the gospels and stop falling in line with apologetic rationales for them.



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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “How Ehrman’s Gospel “Truth” Gives a Pass to Trump’s “Truth” of Fake Videos”

  1. I have thought much in the past about Ehrman and what causes him to give a free pass to some degree of historicity in the gospels and Acts, rather than being narrative fiction. He mostly speaks of “sources”, and doesn’t seem to want to allow for a fictive element. I have commented on his blog posts before where he will reference “L” and “M”, instead of the more simple solution that the sources were Luke’s and Matthew’s imagination. He usually answers something like “scholars have good reasons for thinking this”.

    My impression is that, like myself, he came out of a fundamentalist background and some of the many years of studying at places like Moody Bible Institute has stuck. He doesn’t want to see those years as totally wasted. Fair enough, I guess. But your post shows the result rather starkly.

  2. perhaps Preseident Trump’s video retweets can be a seen as parabolic.
    How ofn hav I seen “this picture is *based* on a true story.” – This is wurding is diffrunt t saying “this is a true story” which itself does not guarantee brute truth either.

    The truth can be gleand thru the video prompts seing how the sharē’ah sees it eg the penalty for homosexuality. Islam is not based on any muslim view but on Muhammad, the Quran, hadēth. And Muhammad is the exemplary acme of human civilisation whu states whot is halal and whot is haram.
    Homosexuality is haram eg https://islamqa.info/en/38622 .
    That is the “truth”. But hey, everywun wants t shoot the messinjr.

  3. Mythicists are not immune to this, unfortunately.

    Take erudite, intelligent mythicist luminary Robert Price, for instance. He’s one who falls for Donald Trump’s “fake news” shenanigans.

    Your analogy is spot on, theoratically speaking. It fails, I feel, to take into consideration how ideologies and cognitive dissonance are subconscious and instinctive, not intellectual or rational, reactions.

  4. Ehrman, Bart (24 October 2017). “The Son of Man, Pericopes, and the Complexities of Biblical Scholarship”. ‘The Bart Ehrman Blog’. “[Comment by UserId::Bart October 27, 2017] Yes, Luke definitely altered the stories/sayings he received in light of his own agenda. But that wouldn’t be lying exactly; it would be more like spinning.”

  5. Is this Trumpian approach by Bart Ehrman toward the historicity of the New Testament books found in historical scholarship by others for manuscripts outside the New Testament? How prevalent is this approach in historical scholarship?

    I would add that Bart Ehrman also uses this Trumpian approach for the Testimonium Flavianum: Yes it is an interpolation. And yes we need to throw out the “Jesus the Super Christ” content. But the “Jesus the Clark Kent” content is valid as supportive historical evidence.

    1. I cannot say. I can’t think at the moment of any other area of historical scholarship that relies for its foundation of historical evidence texts of unknown authorship, of uncertain date, and of a genre that leaves open to question the fitness of seeking to establish historicity on the basis of its narrative contents despite absence of independent supporting evidence.

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