Bart Ehrman has a new critic. I have just been notified (thanks, emailers!) of a new paper uploaded to academia.edu by a philosophy lecturer at the University of Oslo,
by Narve Strand (link is to CV).
I especially liked his conclusion since it expresses my own stance perfectly:
We don’t even have to hold this as a positive thesis, only to point out that Paul believed in this figure and that nothing follows from this about his existence. A consistent ahistorical stance here is like atheism: The only thing we really need to show is that the historicist doesn’t have real evidence that would make his purely human Jesus existing more probable than not.
Narve’s engagement with Ehrman’s arguments are spot on. Here is the beginning of his response to Ehrman’s appeal to criteria of authenticity:
Ehrman of course would say he doesn’t take the New Testament as good, reliable evidence. Not straightforwardly, anyway. His take is more sophisticated: The trick is to get behind the author and his agenda, digging out the real nuggets of historical information by a special set of authenticity-criteria. But: If the text itself breaks the basic rules of evidence (cf. E1-4), how can introducing more rules help? You can’t milk good, reliable information from bad, unreliable evidence (NE1-3) like that. To think that you can, like Ehrman clearly does (e.g. ch. 8), is sheer alchemy.
Bad evidence plus bad evidence equals bad evidence. Multiple attestation of hearsay is still hearsay. Here the rule is totally useless.
Ehrman lets his lay readers down badly, a point I am glad Narve brings to wider notice:
The insufficiency and unreliability of authenticity-criteria is well-known in biblical studies (see e.g. Allison 1998; 2008; 2009; Avalos 2007; Bird 2006; Le Donne 2002; Porter 2000; 2006; 2009). By not reporting this simple fact to his lay audience, Ehrman creates a false or misleading impression of the state of research in his own field.
On Ehrman’s two “knock-down” arguments,
Ehrman believes there are two knock-down, drag-out arguments against those who doubt Jesus was a purely human being who died around 30 CE:
(1) The fact that all the earliest sources speak of him as being crucified, and
(2) Paul’s mention of James as the “brother of the Lord” (ch. 5).
This would indeed be good, reliable evidence if two or more of the sources did speak of Jesus as “a purely human being.” Except, they don’t. None of the earliest sources speak of him as having a purely human birth or career, so how could he then have been a purely human prophet-teacher with biological brothers? It simply doesn’t make sense.
Not long ago we posted about Ehrman’s claim to have multiple sources for Jesus — albeit hypothetical ones. Narve elaborates on the problem:
In no way should we now be using purely hypothetical sources (like “Q”) to outweigh actual sources (Paul) or use later ones (the Gospels) to substantiate earlier ones (Paul again). Especially if there’s genuine scholarly doubt if the hypothetical source in question is a source (see e.g. Goodacre 2002 on “Q”) and the later sources can’t be treated as independent, reliable in any meaningful way. Ehrman doesn’t seem to care about any of this. And no, he doesn’t present the case against the use of purely hypothetical or later unreliable sources either. Fact is, Paul nowhere speaks of Jesus as a “prophet” or “teacher” who had “disciples,” was dragged to court by the “Sanhedrin,” tried before “Pilate” and then crucified by “the Romans.” In fact, he doesn’t clearly refer to anything that would lead us to believe Jesus was “a purely human being” who existed and died around 30 CE. None of the very earliest, pre-gospel sources do! (see e.g. Martin 1991 (ch.2). This consistent negative trend in the earliest sources should have given Ehrman pause at least. You’ve guessed it: He doesn’t even mention it. Instead, he uses the Gospels to “fill in the blanks” in Paul, making him say things he never did. Is Ehrman’s hypothesis really so weak he has to fudge the evidence like that?
And when we turn to the earliest known source about Jesus. . . .
Against (2): So what do we find when we go to the earliest known source (Paul) and take him at face value (e.g. Phil. 2:6-11)? That Jesus
• Was a divine-like being (en morphê theou)(2:6)
• Who “emptied” (ekenôsen) himself (2:7), was
• “Made” (genomenos) in the “likeness” of a human (homoiômati anthrôpon)(2:7)
• And in that appearance died on the cross (2:8) and
• Became Lord of all things (2:9-11) and
• God’s adopted Son (Rom 1:16) because of this
That doesn’t sound like a purely human being who had a natural birth and human career at all. In fact, Paul goes out of his way to say Jesus wasn’t really a human being. Now suddenly Ehrman is very eager to invoke scholarly disagreement again: The disagreement is so totally huge, in fact, that he can’t even tell us what it consists in! (p. 174) Biblical studies isn’t rocket science. Any reasonable person can see for himself the only thing Paul clearly isn’t talking about here is “a purely human being.” He even uses a special word “made” (genomenos) instead of the usual “born” (gennaô)(see also Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3) to mark off Jesus’ coming into the world. The word suggests direct manufacture (by God) as opposed to natural birth . . . .
You can download the 14 page paper here.
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