Review part 3: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Addressing the Case FOR)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. — Isaac Asimov

Properly read, the books arguing for the historicity of Jesus by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey present a strong case for being agnostic about the existence of Jesus. — paraphrasing Raphael Lataster

Part One of Questioning the Historicity of Jesus addresses the case for the historical existence of Jesus. The first difficulty here is finding the best and strongest scholarly arguments for Jesus’ historicity:

I have long searched for good cases for the Historical Jesus. I sought fairly recent, peer-reviewed academic books or articles, solely/primarily focussed on arguing for Jesus’ historicity, written by secular scholars in relevant fields. Not one source met these criteria. I would have loved the opportunity to critique books focused on this topic written by a James Crossley or an Aaron W. Hughes, and published with Oxford University Press, but such books – perhaps like Jesus – do not exist; so I have settled for two popular books written by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey. (Lataster, p. 29)

Those books are Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (2012) and Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths? (2014). Long time readers of Vridar will be aware of many posts covering in detail both of those works. Lataster’s criticisms overlap with much that has been posted here and by others, such as Richard Carrier. Even some of the scholarly quotations I posted here alerting readers to professional disagreements with the methods of Ehrman and Casey are also found in Lataster’s book. The arguments are so flawed that it hardly seems worth the trouble addressing them again, but I’ll try to outline the main points Lataster focuses on.

The sad part is that Ehrman has such a high reputation for critical acumen.

I respect the man, and I respect the rest of his work. On this topic, however, his work fails to impress . . . (p. 31)

Most of us know the failings: well-poisoning, false dichotomies, speculations on the motives of unknown authors, inconsistency in relying upon hypothetical sources for his own arguments but condemning appeals to hypothetical sources for opposing arguments, insisting that hypothetical sources included information upon which his argument depends, reliance upon speculation, circular reasoning, fundamental errors of logic, selective naive readings of the sources, the possible to probable fallacy, misrepresentations of the Judaism of the Second Temple era and unjustified generalizations about religious groups. Lataster dissects each of the above failings in Did Jesus Exist? but interestingly goes further and contrasts Ehrman’s failings there with his books written before and after that one:

Before and after writing that book, Ehrman was and is capable of proper critical research on the biblical texts. But for some reason, during the writing of Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman’s standards dropped remarkably, only for the ‘old Ehrman’ to return soon after, as if he suffered from a fugue state. I suspect that Ehrman consciously or unconsciously realised that the case for Jesus would be very poor indeed if he consistently applied his critical approach and all of his vast knowledge to this question, leading to this strange Jekyll and Hyde situation. (p. 71)

Other scholars may have stressed other “proof points” for Jesus’s historicity (e.g. the “core” of a Josephan reference to Jesus) but Lataster shows how Ehrman effectively demonstrates the inadequacy of such material as clear evidence for Jesus.

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Ehrman’s critical awareness of the limitations of the sources that we do have (the gospels, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius) leads him to explain why in none of those can we find secure grounds for believing Jesus to have had a historical existence, and that having dispensed with those sources he falls back on hypothetical sources behind the gospels. Continue reading “Review part 3: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Addressing the Case FOR)”