Tag Archives: Bart Ehrman

The Question of whether Paul was the founder of Christianity: Responding to Bart Ehrman

A welcome visitor to the blog has raised a question along with an answer by Bart Ehrman and I have promised to respond with my own thoughts. My first impression is that Ehrman’s response talks down to lay readers and protects them from the reality of the complexity of arguments and the debates among scholars. Ehrman’s responses also fail to acknowledge the arguments expressed in works he has strongly declared he has indeed read. This is a pity since those arguments actually address and rebut the same points Ehrman repeats with such confidence and authority. I have learned a lot from Erhman’s earlier works and I have often cited his works positively in my posts. But in responding to Ehrman’s post on Paul’s role in Christian origins I think it is necessary to be somewhat critical.

My original hope to address his entire comment in this one post has had to fall by the wayside and I have only time to comment on his opening remarks here. The rest will soon follow.

Bart Ehrman writes:

A lot of people (at least in my experience) think that Paul is the one who should be considered the “founder” of Christianity – that he is the one who took Jesus’ simple preaching about the coming kingdom of God and altered and expanded it into a complicated doctrine of sin and redemption, being the first of Jesus’ followers to maintain that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus that brought about salvation.   This can’t be the case, because Paul was persecuting Christians already before he had converted, and these were certainly people who believed in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Can’t be the case? Bart Ehrman infers that the opinion is the preserve of ill-informed amateurs. I do not understand why he does not openly explain to his lay readers that a significant (if minority) number of scholars do indeed argue that Paul was the founder of Christianity and that it is a lively topic among scholars. Just Google the words Paul – founder – Christianity and you will see many pages of links dedicated to the topic — some by amateurs, but a good number involving serious discussion by scholars, too.

Even worse, when Ehrman simplistically replies that Paul could not have been the founder of Christianity because there were “Christians” on the scene before him, it is evident that he has even forgotten the nature of the arguments involved. As will be seen from some of the following quotations from other scholars, this misleadingly simplistic argument is in fact a straw man and bypasses the points of those who do argue for Paul’s foundational role. (His answer even implies for the unwary that “Christianity” itself as a descriptor was in existence as early as the years between the crucifixion of Jesus and Paul’s conversion.)

Notice the scholarly support for the view that Paul should indeed be regarded the founder of Christianity. (I am not suggesting that the scholars who think this way are a majority. Many scholars oppose the idea of Paul as founder. But the debate is a vigorous one, nonetheless. Just try that Google search to see how vigorous.)

James D. Tabor writes in Paul the Jew as Founder of Christianity?:

Countless books have been written in the past hundred years arguing that Paul is the “founder” of Christianity, sharply distinguishing him from Jesus.

  • Joseph Klausner’s, From Jesus to Paul is one of the first and is still worth a close study, but many others come to mind,
  • Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of the Paul the Apostle,
  • Gerd Lüdemann, Paul the Founder of Christianity,
  • Hugh Schonfield, Those Incredible Christians,
  • and Barrie Wilson, How Jesus Became Christian, to name a few.
  • My own new book, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity explores these and many related questions.

Most important, I see to place Paul in the broader spectrum of the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world as systems of divinization against the background of a dualistic Hellenistic cosmology but within that world I see him decidedly as laying the foundation for a new faith distinct from Judaism in its various forms. (My formatting)

Among titles Tabor did not have space to mention is Hyam Maccoby’s book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986). Maccoby writes:  read more »

Just How Dangerous Is Mythicism?

Demon

Demon

In hindsight, I think we were unnecessarily cruel to Mr. Griffin, our misfit freshman science teacher. Behind his back, we referred to him by his initials, R.A.G., and sang that old “Rag Mop” song. He was a bit of a goof, but to RAG’s credit, he chose an innovative science text intended to take the student on an “odyssey of discovery.”

That high school textbook focused on a mysterious crystalline substance called bluestone. Over the course of the semester, we would test hypotheses and run several experiments trying to identify this stuff. I think it was my friend, Doug Simpson, who very early on sneaked a peak at the instructor’s edition lying on RAG’s desk and who shouted out, “It’s copper sulfate!

RAG was furious.

MacGuffins

You could, of course, consider bluestone as a sort of MacGuffin. To be sure, we were learning basic chemistry; however, the main purpose of the text was to teach us the scientific method. At the beginning the book invited the student to consider the demon hypothesis, the notion that tiny invisible beings were causing our bluestone to react to exposure to heat, dilution in water, combination with other chemicals, etc. After each experiment we’d evaluate the results and alter our hypothesis. Eventually, we would develop a new, more scientific hypothesis — one that better predicted future experiments and more rationally explained our observations.

Our so-called demon hypothesis had some features in common with other early natural theories such as the chemical theory of phlogiston, which postulated an imaginary, immaterial substance released during combustion. But it had even more in common with prescientific theories that required supernatural intervention in the natural world to explain mundane phenomena. We could also draw similarities with the concept of the devil’s advocate, inasmuch as our placeholder hypothesis was obviously wrong and decidedly nonscientific (or even antiscientific).

Pigeons

To hear Dr. James McGrath tell it, no variation of the Jesus Myth hypothesis has merit. In fact, he consistently compares it to creationism. Actually, he always takes care to call it Young Earth Creationism, in deference to Old Earth Creationism and Guided Evolution, pseudo-scientific theories he finds perfectly acceptable.

Incidentally, here on Vridar we did not adequately mark the passage of The Exploding Cakemix, which McGrath has renamed “Religion Prof.” Of course, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Hereinafter, I shall refer to his blog by a moniker that will “retain that dear perfection,” namely The Pigeon Trough. read more »

The Dark Side of the Bart Ehrman-Robert Price Debate

I was in the audience and I was irritated with Ehrman repeatedly interrupting Price during the latter parts of the debate. He also laughed at Price and dismissed him for not accepting Pauline authorship of Galatians.Adam G Vigansky

I am sure Adam Vigansky was not alone. I have read several similar comments. I was also somewhat saddened with Ehrman’s repeated interruptions of Price’s responses to his questions. I thought, “Well, it’s a debate, and debates are adversarial, and this is Bart Ehrman’s ten minutes to use as he wants. But it’s hardly a genuine scholarly exchange of views and I would prefer a respectful hearing of each side prior to challenges being raised.”

I have also read many comments expressing disappointment that Bob Price did not challenge Bart Ehrman more. I felt the same way at the time but in hindsight I have become more philosophical about that. Ehrman was cutting Price off, interrupting him. Why bother trying to engage such a person in a rational discussion? The other party has demonstrated that they are not truly listening but rather are on the look-out for opportunities to jump in and object. We have all had experience with people like that.

That Ehrman chose to turn away in mocking laughter at Price’s views on Paul also told us we were not witnessing a scholarly exchange. It also told us a lot about the limitations of current biblical studies and how even awareness of the history of the debates and controversies in their field have apparently been largely lost and forgotten (as distinct from having been answered and rebutted).

I did the very best I could to communicate some rather difficult ideas in simple terms that were compelling and persuasive. As it turns out, only about half the audience (I asked at the outset) came into the debate convinced that there never was a historical Jesus. The reality is that I will never convince someone like that in a thousand years. . . . .

I also thought that Bob was a little more technical in his 30 minute talk, and that a lot of people may not have understood the nuance and impact of all of his arguments. I’m just guessing about that. I thought he made some interesting points that were absolutely worth discussing. Bart Ehrman

With these words Bart Ehrman reveals his condescension towards mythicists and his distaste for even wanting to hear out the arguments. He is very out of touch with his audience. He fails to realize that many of us are totally frustrated with his “simple terms” of argument because we really do understand and know far more about the arguments of the academy than he can bring himself to admit. Has he really read an Earl Doherty book? Or Rene Salm’s? Or Thomas Brodie? His response to Frank Zindler’s question also testified to the arrogance of his refusal to engage with the arguments that mythicists make, his disdain towards the thought of even acknowledging that those arguments do indeed grapple with the “rather difficult ideas” that he assumes are beyond the ken of his audience.

Bart further demonstrates just how far out of touch he is when he guesses that Bob Price’s talk would have been beyond the comprehension of the audience. He seems to be indicating that he has no idea why Robert Price is so popular and such a draw-card for the audience. He seems to be assuming that Price’s arguments are so complicated that no-one could really appreciate them — but hey, he already says mythicists are a pretty dumb and ignorant lot. And now he is saying that he is quite prepared to believe they follow Price without having any idea what he is talking about!

Then again, given that Bart himself finds it laughable that any scholar could doubt Paul wrote Galatians . . . one does have to ask who it is who has no idea what he is engaging with.

I think Bob Price is right. These guys need to be answered, but as for any attempt at exchange of ideas or real debate? Why bother!

 

Conclusion: Ehrman-Price Debate #3

This post concludes my notes on the Milwaukee Mythicist sponsored debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert M Price. It is based on notes I took as I listened, and since I have not listened to this part of the debate since, I cannot check my notes for accuracy or to add any completeness. Perhaps some readers will find it useful to compare René Salm’s notes. BE = Bart Ehrman and RMP = Bob Price.

There were two ten minute sessions for each of BE and RMP to question the other and this was followed by a Q&A with the audience. I have coloured the topics addressed in BE’s ten minute sessions red, and those in RMP’s blue.

I have inserted my own comments in blocked off sections.


BE did not elaborate and explain how it is that we can know of the existence of Caiaphas and Josephus, or actually compare the evidence for these figures, its provenance, type, authenticity, etc, with what we have for Jesus. A discussion of historical methods requires whole posts. (See Historical Facts and the Unfactual Jesus, also Methodology; Sources; Historiography)

How do we know what happened?

Somewhere either towards the end of Bart Ehrman’s opening presentation or at the beginning of his subsequent allotment of ten minutes to question Robert Price, Ehrman made the following point on the relevance of extant contemporary sources for determining the historicity of ancient persons:

Where do our external (non biblical) sources mention Caiaphas, the most influential Jew of the day, or Josephus? The non-mention of Josephus doesn’t show he didn’t exist.

In responding to Price (RMP), Ehrman (BE) rejected RMP’s argument that scholars pare away the miracles from the gospels to find the historical core. RMP had said stories of the miraculous were said to be beefed up retellings of more mundane events, but BE said that’s not the methodological approach of scholars.

I think BE was implying the use of various criteria of authenticity, e.g. the criterion of embarrassment as the reason we can accept the baptism of Jesus as historical.

Rather, BE insisted, they evaluate every story, e.g. the baptism, to determine its likely historicity. They don’t simply remove the miraculous elements.


Who were the “archons” who killed Jesus? Earthly or heavenly authorities?

Next point against RMP was the claim that “archons” killed Jesus. BE pointed to Romans 13:3 to show that the term archon refers to earthly rulers.

RMP’s point is valid, but it could be coupled with other places where archons definitely means spiritual powers and other accounts of the crucifixion in Paul to undermine the dogmatism of the historicist view.

RMP: but Paul says these earthly rulers should be obeyed because they are there for your good, so he would not be identifying the crucifiers of Christ with archons who do good.

BE: What Paul is saying is that yes, the same kinds of authorities who killed Jesus should be obeyed and you should not do anything to upset those authorities or you risk suffering punishment as did Jesus.


The role of gnosticism

Rejecting arguments because of the date of the author is hardly a valid scholarly method. We would prefer to see the arguments from published criticisms of Schmithals. RMP’s points in his opening talk made a lot of sense.

In response to RMP’s discussion of gnosticism, BE insisted that gnosticism belonged to the second century and cannot be used to build a picture of pre-Christian times. BE also dismissed Walter Schmithals (whom RMP had referenced) as now dated, from the 1950s.


Why question the historicity of the empty tomb?

RMP asked BE how he came to not believe in the historicity of the empty tomb.

We ought not begin with the presumption of historicity or nonhistoricity in any text. The genre, provenance and external witness to the narrative ought always take priority. Resorting to details of contrary customs is not a strong argument by comparison.

BE replied that it was standard Roman practice to leave crucified bodies on crosses and later toss them in a shallow grave.


The Evolutionary model of Christianity

RMP asked BE what he thought or Burton Mack’s model that Christianity did not begin with a resurrection big-bang but with many disparate communities with different ideas eventually coalescing.


What scenario is the more probable?

BE’s question is a form of question begging. To ask which of two options is more probable implies that both options are on the same playing field, both are either in the real historical world, or both are in a certain fictional world, etc.

BE addressed RMP’s discussions in his book (The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems) about probabilities. We have no references in our sources about the activities of a Joshua in outer space. We don’t have stories about Jesus in outer space in the New Testament. All our references always speak of Jesus on earth. Is it not more probable that Jesus was on earth and not in outer space?

Again, we have many accounts of Jews crucified by Romans and no accounts of Jews crucified in outer space. Paul does not talk about Christ in outer space. So again, where lies the probability?

RMP replied that Colossians and 1 Corinthians do speak of a heavenly Christ.

Again, on probability and the baptism of Jesus. BE criticized RMP’s sourcing ideas to the influence of Zoroastrianism. Why is it more probable that the baptism is based on Zoroastrian concepts than to a historical baptism by John the Baptist?

BE continued: Mark was not Jewish, he was not a Jew, so he doesn’t use Zoroastrian influences. RMP: Zoroastrianism was built into Judaism at that time. read more »

That Second Question Frank Zindler Wanted to Ask Bart Ehrman

zindlerWhen the Ehrman/Price Debate sponsored by Milwaukee Mythicists was opened up to questions from the audience Frank Zindler was the first to speak. He had two questions but the rules allowed him time to only ask one. Much of the audience, so I have heard and as seemed quite apparent to me from the video, was quite taken aback by Bart Ehrman’s hostile dismissal of his first question. Frank asked Bart if he had read the book published in critical response to his Did Jesus Exist? since he had given no indication in the debate that he was aware of its criticisms of the arguments he had just repeated. Ehrman brusquely replied that he had read it, “twice”, but that he disagreed with everything it said and he would not respond.

So much for Frank’s first question. Here from Frank Zindler is that second question that he had hoped to ask Bart Ehrman:

Bart, many of us have used your research to support many of our own arguments. For example, in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture you show many examples of anti-Docetic passages in the NT, from the “born-of-woman” Gal 4:4 to the antichrist verses of 1-2 John. Galatians is usually dated to ~54 CE, and if Jesus ever existed, he died in 30 or 33 CE (although Irenaeus claimed he lived into the reign of Claudius, that ended in 54 CE—the very year in which Galatians was written!)

As you know, there are no manuscript variants lacking the born-of-woman gynaikos of Gal 4:4. You have criticized me for claiming interpolation in cases where manuscript evidence is lacking. So……….

According to you own method, the anti-Docetic Gal 4:4 is not an interpolation; it dates to 54 CE if the traditional dating be correct.

So………

If Jesus died in 33 CE, how is it possible that just 21 years later—or even in the very year Galatians was written—there could be widespread forms of Christianity that denied that Jesus had had a body? Was not some form of Docetism therefore the earliest form of Christianity?

 

Other posts discussing Galatians 4:4 — including from a range of scholarly perspectives — are archived at:

The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX

Ehrman-Price Debate #2: Price’s Opening Address

The following is a write up from notes I took at the time of my first listening to the debate supplemented by a second listening earlier today. So there will be more detail than in with my summary of Ehrman’s opener. If anyone thinks I have been unfair to Ehrman then let me know and I may even decide to listen to him again too and add more detail to that post. Or be more certain and fill out details yourself!

Unlike Bart Ehrman Robert Price (RMP) did choose to address the opposing arguments as had been set out by BE in his book Did Jesus Exist? as well as making his case for mythicism. His presentation was written out and read aloud. Being a tightly prepared written speech it seemed to be packed with considerably more detail than BE’s delivery and certainly required more intense concentration to absorb the detail and each point of argument. Ehrman’s spontaneity and speaking without notes was far more dynamic and emotionally moving. So another reason for the greater length of the Price presentation here is, I am sure, the consequence of Price conveying far more detail than Ehrman.

Another stark difference between the two presentations worth noting is that Ehrman spoke dogmatically while Price conceded ambiguities in the evidence and spoke of what paradigm makes most sense to him given the various alternatives given the inability to definitely prove what we would like to be able to prove.

Regularly RMP quoted BE’s words as points requiring responses.

A Modern Novelty?

The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. (Ehrman 2012, p. 96)

RMP is not so sure and cites three ancient indicators: read more »

The Ehrman-Price Debate: Ehrman’s Opening Address

The following is a write up from notes I took at the time of my first listening to the debate. I have not been able to access the online debate since to check the details of the following.

I think most listeners on the mythicist side would have been disappointed because this was an opportunity for BE to address the extensive published rebuttals (Zindler, Doherty, Carrier) to his book, Did Jesus Exist?

Bart Ehrman (BE) opened by saying that he would not address the mythicist argument (“after all, no mythicist arguments have been presented yet”) but instead present the strongest case he knew for the historical existence of Jesus.

But first, he digressed, he would mention just two of the mythicist arguments.

Mythicist argument #1, Nazareth

Do any mythicists argue that the non-existence of Nazareth disproves the historicity of Jesus? BE did not cite any. It is also apparent that he has not read any of Salm’s work on the archaeological work on Nazareth.

One mythicist argument that he said was commonly found among mythicists was that since there was no Nazareth at the time of Jesus it followed that Jesus of Nazareth could not have existed. But on the contrary, BE assured his audience, archaeologists have discovered the site of Nazareth; its existence is not a debated point because they have found there a house, pottery, a farm, coins dated to the days of Jesus.

“Anyone who says otherwise simply does not know the archaeological record,” BE concluded, adding that whether Jesus existed is not dependent on his being born in Nazareth anyway.

Mythicist argument #2, Tale types

Again I think most on the mythicist side would have been disappointed that BE missed the opportunity to address their replies to this old chestnut. The point is not that legendary embellishment means nonhistoricity, but that mythical tropes in the absence of historical evidence points to fabrication.

The second arguments mythicists come up with, he asserted, related to the Jesus in the Gospels being portrayed according to patterns of other figures in the Old Testament and other gods. Such a portrayal was not an argument against historicity for the simple reason that most historical figures — Washington, Julius Caesar, Baal Shem Tov — the have legendary portraits made of them. Octavian (Augustus) was said to be the son of god and performed miracles and ascended to heaven. The lives of famous people are told in stereotypes, such as the divine saviour or the rags to riches stories.

That a person’s life is told according to a type does not mean that person did not exist.

The Case for Jesus Being Historical: One of the Best Sourced Figures of First Century

Jesus is one of the best attested Palestinian Jews of the entire first century. read more »

What Is a Prophet?

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

In biblical studies, we continually read articles, posts, books, etc. in which authors use apparently ordinary words that on closer inspection turn out to be highly specific terms. And unfortunately, some authors will use these specific terms rather loosely, flitting between general and specific usage while blurring important distinctions.

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before when discussing “memory.” Are they talking about ordinary human recollection, or are they talking about memory theory? Are they referring to the psychology of memory or the physiology of memory, or are they talking about social memory? I often suspect memory dabblers of deliberate obfuscation, but I suppose we should err on the side of charity and presume they simply find it difficult to write in ordinary, declarative sentences.

Uncertain terms

On the other hand, some terms are so fundamental that it seems almost insulting to define them for readers. We presume everyone knows what the term “scripture” means. But should we? The same goes for terms that may have multiple meanings, depending on the context. I might assume that you will know what I mean by the surrounding contextual clues. But that could be a mistake on my part.

Recently, while reading Neil’s excellent series on messianism in the first century CE, I started thinking about the terms messiah and prophet. And I wondered how many people know exactly what those terms mean in their various contexts. Both of these terms carry a lot of baggage with them — not only in their popular meanings, but also in the way they’re used in modern Christian churches.

In this post, I’m only going to focus on the term prophet, but we could probably spend the rest of the year churning out posts on terminology that we often gloss over but shouldn’t. Authors have an obligation to make sure their readers understand how we’re using these terms, but often fall short. read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 5: Memory Distortion

Mnemosyne

Mnemosyne, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In our last post, we discussed the genre of the gospels. We saw that Bart Ehrman, at least for this book (Jesus Before the Gospels), chooses to gloss over the issue of genre, and simply assumes that the gospels contain memories of the historical Jesus. Of course, he concedes that those memories may be distorted.

But what exactly do we mean by “memory distortion”? And is it a big deal, or is it just a minor annoyance?

Human memory can fail in two ways. First, we can simply forget the past. Second, our memories of the past can become changed and distorted. These inaccurate memories can contain false details, or they can represent incidents that never happened. Our capacity for distortion affects not only our personal recollection but social memories as well.

The nature of collective memory

In the introductory chapter to Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, Daniel Schacter writes:

A prominent theme in this area of study is that societies often hold beliefs about their pasts that are based on stories and myths that develop and change over time, often bearing little resemblance to the events that initially gave rise to them . . . 

Thus, understanding the nature of collective memory is inextricably intertwined with understanding the nature of memory distortion. Yet here, too, issues pertaining to memory distortion are of more than purely academic concern. For example, recent attempts by various fringe groups to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust have alerted scholars and the lay public alike to the extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory . . . (Schacter, 1995, p. 3, emphasis mine)

At the end of the same book, Lawrence E. Sullivan offers some closing remarks in an essay entitled “Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences.” He writes: read more »

“In Most Worlds, You Don’t Even Exist” — Miracles and Probability

Jesus Walking on Water

Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

Recently, while watching our favorite apoplectic antimythicist discuss “The Case of the Historical Jesus,” something the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature said caught my ear. Here’s what he said:

Historians tend to discount miracle claims and those kinds of things right off the bat, because even if they were to investigate them, the things that people call miracles tend to be things that are inherently improbable . . . But talking about things like walking on water, turning water into wine — most historians won’t even bother discussing those things, because the most a historian ever does is say something is probable. And a historian is never going to tell you that something inherently improbable is probable. And so those kinds of things can be set aside from the outset. (James McGrath, 2016)

Actually, two things drew my attention here. The first is the term inherently improbable, and the second is the claim that historians set aside miracle claims.

Inherently improbable

If you search among books, articles, and academic papers, you’ll find the term inherently improbable used quite frequently in the sciences, liberal arts, religious studies, and the law. But in philosophy (especially logic), you’ll also find people writing about it with some ambivalence.

What exactly do we mean by inherent probability? In his book, Acceptable Premises: An Epistemic Approach to an Informal Logic Problem, James Freeman cites John Nolt’s definition. read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 4: Genre

In the last installment, we covered oral tradition. As I look over the post now, I see that I missed several opportunities to add the adjective, “rich.” Biblical scholars love to write the words “rich oral tradition.” How, you may ask, do they know such details about something based mostly on conjecture? Watch out! If you keep asking questions like that, you’ll earn yourself demerits for skepticism.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bart Ehrman naturally considers it important to expound upon the rich oral tradition™ behind the gospels, because it connects the historical Jesus to the written New Testament. Serious scholars would probably also care about how the evangelists assembled that material. They would ask themselves what the authors intended. Did they think they were writing biographies, histories, hagiographies, novels, or what? Were authors of the gospels even conscious of what they were doing; did they have a plan?

What is a gospel?

An actual historian would most likely start with the written work first, and work back from there. He or she would want to determine the type of document we’re dealing with — i.e., the genre of the gospels. We’ve covered this topic many times on Vridar, including my series about how the consensus changed dramatically over the past century.

As we learned previously, the form critics cared about genre, too. Rudolf Bultmann called it the first task of form criticism. Until we confirm that the gospel of Mark is not a story about Jesus, but a collection of stories about Jesus, we have no solid grounds for dividing the book into individual pericopae (that supposedly came from distinct oral streams).

Oddly enough, the scholar credited as the father of Formgeschichte, Hermann Gunkel, never used the word. Rather, he focused on the Gattung or genre of the literature in the Old Testament. He well understood the need to identify the book of Genesis as a large collection of individual traditions assembled under the guiding hand of gifted redactors. He accepted the prevailing Graf-Wellhausen theory that the Pentateuch is composed of four main separate, written sources: J, E, D, and P. But he also argued that the individual source documents reflect much older oral tradition.

Are the gospels written “memories”?

However, in Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman sidesteps the entire issue, preferring instead to treat the gospels as memories. At least in the case of their readers, the gospels certainly became memories. But he does not provide any sustained credible argument that the gospel stories had been actual memories of their communities, let alone give us any reason to believe that such memories go back to real events that occurred in the life of Jesus.

He introduces his discussion of the canonical gospels not by telling us they are biographies, histories, or whatever. Skipping over the unpleasant task of trying to place the gospels in their literary setting, he simply asserts they are writings that contain memories. Ehrman explains: read more »

Little White Lies: Is the NT the Best Attested Work from Antiquity?

Frederick Fyvie Bruce

Frederick Fyvie Bruce

What does it mean to say that a written work from ancient times is “well attested”? If you browse Christian apologetic web sites, you’ll read that the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is superior to anything else from antiquity. The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) site, for example, tells us that our “New Testament documents are better preserved and more numerous than any other ancient writings.”

This argument, of course, is not new. F. F. Bruce often argued that we hold the NT to an unreasonably higher standard than any other ancient document or set of documents. He lamented that people tend to dwell on the mistakes and discrepancies in the manuscripts. Back in 1963 he wrote:

In view of the inevitable accumulation of such errors over the many centuries, it may be thought that the original texts of the New Testament documents have been corrupted beyond restoration. Some writers, indeed, insist on the likelihood of this to such a degree that one sometimes suspects they would be glad if it were true. But they are mistaken. There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament. (F. F. Bruce, 1963, p. 178, emphasis mine)

As you can see, apologetic victimhood is nothing new.

Ever so much greater

In a more recent work he said that the NT gets unfair treatment. He complained:

The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. (F. F. Bruce, 1981, p. 10, emphasis mine)

In the foreword to the same book, N. T. Wright gushed: read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 2: Form Criticism

In my previous post, I discussed the basic element of Bart Ehrman’s understanding of Maurice Halbwachs, the founder of the study of collective memory. This time, I’d like to focus on his remarks concerning Formgeschichte (form criticism) as it applies to the New Testament in general and memory theory in particular.

Basic Element 2: Form Criticism

“Forget it — he’s rolling.”

♦ Dibelius said what?

This is more like a scholar of American history saying that George Washington wrote the Declaration of Independence.

jesusbeforeBart gets on a roll in Jesus Before the Gospels, as he describes the early form critics. He writes:

The authors of the Gospels—all of them, not just Mark—wrote down stories that had been passed along by word of mouth for years and decades before they wrote. For that reason, when the Gospel writers produced their accounts, they were not simply inventing the stories themselves; but they were also not recording what actually happened based on direct testimony. They were stringing together stories that had long been circulating among the Christian communities. For [Martin] Dibelius, “stringing together” is precisely what the Gospel writers did. The Gospel stories are “pearls on a string.” The authors provided the string, but they inherited the pearls. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 46, emphasis mine)

It would appear that Ehrman wishes to attribute the well-known metaphor, pearls on a string, to Martin Dibelius. When I first saw it, I thought, “I must not be reading that right.” But then I noticed a post on his blog, entitled “The Next Step: Redaction Criticism,” in which he wrote: read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 1: Maurice Halbwachs

jesusbeforeNearly a year ago, while reading Bart Ehrman’s blog, I became aware that he was writing a book on memory. That news gave me no joy. My sense of unease, if not distress, did not diminish even when he said he had spent practically all of his spare time for two years reading up on the subject, because one never knows which Bart is going to show up.

Will we get the Bart who writes careful, well-written, meticulously researched books (some of the best in the genre) or will we get the one who skims the surface, makes inexplicable mistakes, jumps to conclusions, and wastes our time with recycled material? Well, let’s find out.

Basic element: Maurice Halbwachs

Ehrman writes:

[Maurice] Halbwachs had a rather extreme view of how we remember. He thought that literally all of our memories are social memories, that we can’t actually have any personal, private memories, but that every memory we have is necessarily influenced by, shaped by, and provided through our various social contexts. Not everyone agrees with that view, but on one point there is much wider consensus. We—whether as individuals or as members of a collective—“remember” the past because of its value in the present. (Ehrman, 2016, Kindle Location 268, emphasis mine)

I’ll grant you that you can find social memory practitioners today who will (if only for the shock effect) flatly state, “All memory is social memory,” but Halbwachs had a much more nuanced view of the matter. As I said in a previous post, “Halbwachs differentiated between the autobiographical memory of a person and the collective memory within which individuals participate. But neither resides in a vacuum. There exists a symbiotic relationship between each type of memory.”

When we reflect on our personal memories, we rely on social frameworks — language, mores, religious beliefs, shared history, etc. — to make sense of them. On the other hand, collective memory is maintained within the personal memories of the individual minds within the group. Or, more simply: Personal memories depend on social frames for context, while social memories depend on individual brains for storage.

♦ Two Types of Memories

I will cite Halbwachs as I did when I took Ehrman to task last April: read more »