Tag Archives: Did Jesus Exist?

Goodacre-Carrier Debate: What if . . . . ?

I have finally caught up with the comments by Dr Mark Goodacre [MG] and Dr Richard Carrier [RC] since their radio discussion on the view that Jesus did not exist.

While RC, without the burden of having to mark student papers, is able to add around 7,000 words of recap and elaboration to the case he made on his blog, MG is confined to making only a few brief comments, at least one of which is no better than the disappointment we found in Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

A horrible thought occurs to me. What if it’s never going to get any better? Is this the best we will ever hear from the historicists?

No-one is faulting MG for doing his job. What is disappointing for many, I think, is that it is just at the point where his input is most urgently needed that he is too busy to respond. Will there ever come a time when he (or anyone) will engage with the questions his claims have left hanging?

He himself has rightly said:

– Sorry to those who were disappointed with the show, or my part in it. Please bear in mind that this is just a show, a conversation, a chat, a debate even; it’s not a “case”. I must admit that I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with Richard, who is clever and lively and whose discussion of method repays reflection. However, any such conversation is only going to be partial, frustrating, incomplete.

I am sure most of us enjoyed also listening to MG’s calm and pleasant manner in the way he engaged with RC. I am sure we all appreciated MG taking the time to be a part of this program. But unless there is some follow up from the historicist side even slightly comparable to the extent of RC’s followup, I think most of us will remain frustrated that one side of the debate is going to be forever partial, incomplete.

Maybe we have to face up to the reality that the historicist case is always going to be like that — that it will always lack the ability (including ability to find time) to advance a complete response to mythicism.

Interpolation: the same old . . .

Take this point for starters. MG in his latest response wrote:

– I think it’s worth underlining that the idea that 1 Thess. 2.14-17 [in which Paul appears to be saying that the Jews in Judea crucified Jesus] is an interpolation is made without any manuscript / textual evidence. Conjectural emendations are always possible, especially in weakly attested works, but should be avoided in cases like this where the impetus appears to be to eliminate a key piece of evidence, the apparent location of Jesus’ death in Judea.

Such a statement

(1) sidesteps the point I made about this passage and which (presumably) was partly the prompt for MG’s response here,

and it

(2) misrepresents the actual argument for interpolation. read more »

Now an eBook: Doherty’s Rebuttal of Ehrman’s Case for the Existence of Jesus

The End of an Illusion:

How Bart Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?” Has Laid the Case for an Historical Jesus to Rest

[Kindle Edition]

This book-length rebuttal by Earl Doherty to Bart Ehrman’s much anticipated and unexpectedly disappointing case for an historical Jesus (“Did Jesus Exist?”, published March 2012) first appeared in installments from March to August 2012 on the Vridar blog (under copyright), and is now being offered in e-book form, with extensive minor revisions.

It addresses virtually every claim and argument put forward by Ehrman in his book, and demonstrates not only the faultiness and inadequacy of those arguments, but the degree to which the author has been guilty of a range of fallacy, special pleading, and clear a priori bias against the very concept of mythicism and those who promote it.

In “Did Jesus Exist?” historicism has demonstrated the bankruptcy of its case for an historical Jesus, read more »

Jesus and the Mythicists: Earl Doherty’s Concluding Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 34

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Ehrman’s Conclusion

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Are humanists and atheists engaged in a religious exercise?
  • Humanist and atheist activism against religion
    • The humanist self-definition
  • Going against received wisdom
  • The Jesus “problem” for historicists
    • Replacing all the fantasy Jesuses with the ‘real’ one
  • Is the mythicist agenda anti-religion and anti-Christian?
  • Ehrman’s and traditional agendas
  • An historical evaluation of religious tradition

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CONCLUSION

Jesus and the Mythicists

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 332-339)

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Ehrman’s reaction to humanism

Similar to his situation in having had little knowledge of Jesus Mythicism before he undertook to write a book in opposition to it, Bart Ehrman seems to have had little contact with or understanding of humanism before being an “honored” guest recently at the national meeting of the American Humanist Association, where he received the Religious Liberty Award. He learned that they “celebrate what is good about being human.” But another aspect of humanism also struck him:

But a negative implication runs beneath the surface of the self-description and is very much on the surface in the sessions of the meeting and in almost every conversation happening there. This is a celebration of being human without God. Humanist is understood to stand over against theist. This is a gathering of nonbelievers who believe in the power of humanity to make society and individual lives happy, fulfilling, successful, and meaningful. And the group is made up almost exclusively of agnostics and atheists. . . . (DJE? p. 332)

Evidently, Ehrman does not realize that the humanist movement arose as a response to religion, as a rejection of its traditional all-encompassing and rigid dictations . . . .

read more »

11. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Three Voices . . . Papias

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Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 11

Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 1: Papias

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COVERED IN THIS POST:papias3

  • Papias’ Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord as revealed by Eusebius
  • Papias’ uncertain chain of oral transmission
  • Had Papias read any Gospels?
  • Papias’ “Mark” and “Matthew”: not the canonical Gospels, and not read by Papias
  • Papias quotes nothing from any version of our Gospels
  • The bizarre things Papias does give us as sayings of the Lord
  • By c.125, no written Gospels have reached the bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor

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Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 98-101)

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PAPIAS

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Ehrman now turns to three Christian writers of the late first and early second centuries who “convey information about the historical Jesus and certainly attest to his existence” in alleged ways which are “independent” of the Gospels. The first is Papias, a Christian bishop in Asia Minor writing around 120-130 CE, for whom we rely on Eusebius two centuries later, since Papias’ one known work is lost.

Despite Eusebius’ judgment that Papias was “a man of very small intelligence,” what is quoted from his Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord is supposed to represent good evidence of an historical Jesus. Ehrman quotes from Eusebius’ quote of Papias introductory words (History of the Church, III, 39.3-4), in which we learn:

that Papias will give an orderly account “of all the things I carefully learned and have carefully recalled from the elders. . . . Whenever someone arrived who had been a companion of one of the elders, I would carefully inquire after their words, what Andrew or Peter had said . . .

Juggling Elders, Companions and Disciples

Of key interest here is the question of what Papias meant by these “elders”. Scholars will admit to an ambiguity, that “elders” may not refer to the disciple followers of Jesus subsequently named (as some older scholars have preferred to read it), but only to earlier Christians who themselves had known those disciples of Jesus. (That is, “inquire after their words” refers back to the preceding “elders,” but not to the men he goes on to name, which are two different groups and layers of tradition.) This would give us a chain of:

disciples → elders → companions of elders → Papias

And indeed, such a chain would make better sense given the amount of time between the disciples’ activity supposedly following Jesus’ death and Papias himself.

that Papias enquired of anything said by “Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew” or “any of the other disciples of the Lord.” But then he goes on to refer to things said by “Aristion and the elder John, disciples of the Lord.”

This is exquisitely confusing. read more »

8. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Existence of Non-Existent Sources for the Gospels

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Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.8

The Existence of Non-Existent Sources for the Gospels

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Those “sources” of the Gospels
    • How obvious?
    • Downplaying what scholarship knows
    • Enter Q with a cardboard cutout Jesus
    • Oral tradition hypothesis fails the prediction test
    • How one story became four
    • Luke’s and Matthew’s special sources
      • “You can’t be serious!”
      • Hiding and hoping?
    • Insupportable claims for Mark and John
      • John’s sources were unique . . . the problem
    • Evolution of Jesus
    • Who invented Jesus?

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Written Sources for the Surviving Witnesses

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 78-83)

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Those “sources” of the Gospels

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. . . our surviving accounts, which began to be written some forty years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, were based on earlier written sources that no longer survive. But they obviously did exist at one time, and they just as obviously had to predate the Gospels that we now have. (pp. 78-79)

Obviously?

This is a curious statement. Usually one uses the term “obviously” only after one has indicated the basis for the obviousness. But since any sources of the Gospels would indeed “obviously” predate the Gospels without that point needing demonstration, perhaps Ehrman is taking the obviousness of written sources as equally self-evident.

But our knowledge of such sources is extremely limited. Once again, the Prologue of Luke is appealed to: those “many” earlier authors who had compiled narratives about the life of Jesus. One of them, of course, is indeed “obvious”: the Gospel of Mark. But this is a source that we do have, and so it falls outside the range of those claimed by Ehrman which “no longer survive.” What we are looking for is evidence that written sources of the life of Jesus predated Mark, sources on which the Gospel content is based.

Ehrman downplaying what scholarship knows

Ehrman does acknowledge a debt to Mark by Luke:

But he certainly liked a good deal of Mark, as he copied many of Mark’s stories in constructing his own Gospel, sometimes verbatim. (p. 79)

Yet once again, we see Ehrman down-playing something well known to scholarship. “[H]e copied many of Mark’s stories” makes it sound like Luke cherry-picked some of these to fit into his own composition, whereas the very heart and spine of Luke’s own Gospel is Mark’s story. Luke has actually used a little over 50% of Mark. (Matthew used almost 90%.) Without those Markan parts, Luke’s (and Matthew’s) story would not exist. There would be nothing to hang their own parts upon. This bears repeating: on a fundamental level, Mark and Luke and Matthew do not represent multiple accounts of Jesus’ life, let alone independent ones. They are the same account, with Luke and Matthew each recasting it with editorial changes and additions to fit their own and their community’s agenda.

Enter Q (with a cardboard cutout Jesus)

read more »

7. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Telling the Gospels Like It Is

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Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.7

Telling the Gospels Like It Is

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Should “faith documents” be treated as legitimate historical sources?
  • Are the Gospels independently based on oral tradition?
  • Matthew and Luke’s story is Mark’s story
  • Hearing about Nazareth and Jesus
  • Should we trust accounts of George Washington but not Jesus?
  • Equating Luke and Plutarch, or Luke and Philostratus
  • Mark as sole source for a life of an earthly Jesus
  • Luke and Matthew’s “special material” (“L” and “M”)
  • John’s dependence on the Synoptics
  • Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Egerton as “independent accounts”

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In his Chapter 3, Bart Ehrman says that he will present “common knowledge” about the Gospels which mainstream New Testament scholars “have known for a long time.” He asks how anyone can complain about making the public more knowledgeable on these matters. Mythicists would heartily endorse that thought.

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Gospels as Historical Sources?

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 69-78)

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Ehrman’s Preliminary Comment

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Ehrman claims that

. . . once one understands more fully what the Gospels are and where they came from, they provide powerful evidence indeed that there really was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. (p. 70, DJE?)

In a “Preliminary Comment on the Gospels as Historical Sources,” Ehrman acknowledges that the Gospels “are filled with non-historical material, accounts of events that could not have happened,” that they have “many discrepancies in matters both great and small” and “contradictions all over the map.” On the other hand, there is “historical information in the Gospels,” but “it needs to be teased out by careful, critical analysis.

To support his contention that the Gospels “can and must be considered historical sources of information,” whether by conservative congregations or by atheists/agnostics who dismiss them as faith documents with no value as history, Ehrman urges that they be recognized as literature, written by human beings in response to the human times they lived in. Such authors had no intention of producing sacred scripture. They “were simply writing down episodes that they had heard from the life of Jesus,” some of which may have been historically accurate, others not. “They had heard reports about Jesus; they had probably read earlier accounts of his life; and they decided to write their own versions.

Ehrman inserts another reference to the intentions voiced in the Prologue of the Gospel of Luke, a topic I’ve dealt with earlier, pointing out why those statements cannot be taken at face value. Luke and the other evangelists, admits Ehrman, were not disinterested and unbiased, but

they were historical persons giving reports of things they had heard. The fact that their books later became documents of faith has no bearing on the question of whether the books can still be used for historical purposes. (p. 73, DJE?)

No bearing? Hardly. Being documents of faith — and on what grounds is Ehrman claiming they did not begin as such? — may not justify ruling them out as totally valueless, but it is a warning to use extreme care in evaluating whether anything in them is reliable history.

Does Ehrman regard the Passion in Mark’s Gospel as containing anything ‘historical’ when virtually every part of it, even at the level of individual phrases, can be shown to be dependent on — often a verbal borrowing from — a scriptural passage? (That has been recognized since around 1980.) If there is no “history remembered” (and no external corroboration not dependent on those Gospels), how do we securely perceive an actual historical event behind it? Because “Pilate” and “Caiaphas” are involved? Any fictional story can contain historical elements and characters.

Ehrman’s constant emphasis on “hearing” about what Jesus said and did as the basic channel through which the Gospel content passed is not only curious, it’s quite misleading, especially regarding the later evangelists. The old view that the Gospels are basically a recording of oral traditions circulating in Christian communities is no longer in vogue — indeed, it’s untenable. A compromise might have been that Mark was dependent largely on oral tradition, but that the later evangelists essentially redacted Mark (with the exception of John’s ministry), with Matthew and Luke inserting the contents of a written collection of sayings into that redaction. read more »

How could Ehrman possibly have read the books he cites?

This is an extract from my previous post. Since that post is very long there is a significant section there that I fear could easily be overlooked. Bart Ehrman has indignantly declared he read all of the books he discusses in his book Did Jesus Exist?

How, then, could he possibly have confused the mythicist argument of Wells with that of Doherty. The two are opposed to each other. But Ehrman appears to have picked up a garbled account and attributed half of Doherty’s argument to Wells!

Here is the relevant section from my previous post. There are many more shoddy and false statements by Ehrman about what Wells writes that I address in that post, but I have singled out here just this one point. read more »

The Facts of the Matter: Carrier 9, Ehrman 1 (my review, part 2)

Let’s sit down and look at the score sheet. Richard Carrier kicked 11 “errors of fact” at the net of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?

Carrier says he could have kicked many more but that it was getting dark and the referee told him he had limited time.

Since beginning to write this post I have learned Richard Carrier has posted his own reply to Ehrman. But I have avoided reading his response so as to continue with my own thoughts for my own “review” of Ehrman’s book.

Here are the “errors of fact” Carrier kicked at Ehrman’s book, in order:

  1. The Priapus Bronze
  2. The Doherty Slander
  3. The Pliny Confusion
  4. The Pilate Error
  5. The “No Records” Debacle
  6. The Tacitus Question
  7. The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
  8. That Dying-and-Rising God Thing
  9. The Baptism Blunder
  10. The Dying Messiah Question
  11. The Matter of Qualifications

Here are the “errors of fact” Ehrman attempted to defend, in order:

  1. The Priapus Bronze, or Cocky Peter (Or: “A Cock and Bull Story”) (in a separate post)
  2. The Matter of Qualifications
  3. The Pilate Error
  4. The Tacitus Question
  5. The Dying and Rising God
  6. The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
  7. “No Roman Records”
  8. The Doherty “Slander”
  9. The Pliny Confusion

That means goalie Ehrman stood there texting on his mobile while two went through uncontested:

  1. The Baptism Blunder
  2. The Dying Messiah Question

Keep in mind that these “Errors of Fact” in Carrier’s critique of Ehrman’s book are not the only, nor even necessarily the most, serious faults in Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? But I cannot cover everything in one post so I deal with these before moving on in a future post to the even more significant errors and fallacies of Ehrman’s work. read more »

6. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Jewish Sources

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Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.6

What Did Jews Have to Say?

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Philo of Alexandria
  • Josephus
    • the Testimonium: entirely interpolation or an authentic residue?
    • is an authentic residue “neutral”?
    • is the Testimonium intrusive or a digression?
    • silence of Christian commentators on Testimonium before Eusebius
    • how could Josephus have felt ‘positive’ or even neutral toward Jesus?
    • is the Testimonium’s language the language of Eusebius?
    • changes to the Testimonium and its location
    • the case of Antiquities 20
  • The Jewish Talmud
    • why are there no traditions about Jesus going back to the 1st century?

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Non-Christian References to Jesus

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 56-68, Jewish Sources)

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Philo of Alexandria

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Deutsch: Philo(n) von Alexandria English: Phil...Bart Ehrman, in his survey of the non-Christian witness to Jesus, turns next to the Jewish category. He first dismisses the silence about Jesus in the writings of the philosopher Philo of Alexandria as something unsurprising, since by his death (probably by 50 CE), Christianity had not yet penetrated to Egypt. That may be the case, but this does not mean that a philosopher living in Egypt, just around the Mediterranean corner from Palestine, especially one whose philosophy about God and the mediator Logos was a close antecedent to that of Paul, was completely isolated from news of Judean events, or from new ideas being bandied about in the very field of thought Philo was engaged in.

What we do know from Philo’s writings

Moreover, we know from his writing that Philo was familiar with Pilate and his objectionable activities in Judea. He would not, of course, know about every rebel or criminal executed by the governor, but considering the developments which supposedly followed this particular execution, and considering his interest in the sect known as the Therapeutae to which the early Christian community in Judea would supposedly have borne a strong resemblance, it would not be infeasible for him to have noticed the latter and especially what was presumably being made out of its human founder.

We have writings of Philo up to the year 41 CE, but it could be argued (Ehrman does not) that, even had he taken notice, commenting on that notice was something he simply didn’t get around to doing. The silence in Philo is therefore not overly significant, it’s just another void to add to the overall picture.

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Josephus

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The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius ...
The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston’s translation of his works. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the most important Jewish historian of the era is another matter. Josephus has been a battleground in the ‘clash of titans’ and understandably so. The last half-century of scholarship has focused mainly on whether the passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum in Antiquities of the Jews, Bk.18 contains an authentic original by Josephus which Christians later only made additions to. This is a bandwagon which virtually every New Testament scholar these days has hopped onto, as though the maintenance of an authentic original is seen as crucial to Jesus’ existence.

What scholars used to say

It should be noted, however, that prior to the Second World War, many scholars were quite willing to postulate that Josephus made no reference to Jesus at all. See, for example, Maurice Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?, p.35 (that both passages can be “suspected of interpolation”); or Charles Guignebert, Jesus, p.18 (“It seems probable that Josephus did not name Jesus anywhere”). The latter, in regarding the Testimonium as a complete forgery, suggested: “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter” (Ibid., p.17).

Who proofread this book? I

Curiously, Ehrman says he will deal with Josephus’ two references to Jesus “in reverse order,” gives us a brief description of the Antiquities 20 passage, then “before dealing with” the mythicist claim that it’s an interpolation, he switches over to the Testimonium in Antiquities 18, calling it the “second passage.” One gets an impression more than once in this book that Ehrman simply went with his first draft, and without benefit of editor.

The suspicious passages

Though most of the present readers will know this passage like the back of their hands, I’ll give Ehrman’s rendition of it according to “the best manuscripts”:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Antiquities 18.3.3) [DJE?, p. 59]

The problem parts of this passage, as Ehrman recounts them, are well known: read more »

Fight Club! Historical Jesus Scholars Take On the Christ Mythicists!

25-934902-twb030211brophy02_t325Here they come. The advance warning was R. Joseph Hoffmann‘s Mythtic Pizza and Cold-cocked Scholars. He promises that within a week (apocalypse coming!) we will see on his blog “three essay-length responses to Richard C. Carrier’s ideas: The first by [R. Joseph Hoffmann], the second by Professor Maurice Casey of the University of Nottingham, and the third by Stephanie Fisher as specialist in Q-studies.” I haven’t been this excited since I was a little kid in side-show alley at our city’s annual exhibition. Recall the tremors as I came to the tent-boxing pavilion. You knew you were approaching it when you heard the war-like beating of a bass drum. On a raised platform iron-faced and red and gold robed boxers stood in a row beside the drummer yelling out the challenge for anyone to dare enter the ring.

Hoffmann whets our blood-craving appetite by announcing the intellectual weapons to be pitted against each other. Those championing the historical Jesus have “the complex evidence of textual and linguistic studies” and “hermeneutics”. (By “hermeneutics” I think he might mean in particular the full spanner-set of criteriology: the criteria of embarrassment, double dissimilarity, multiple attestation, coherence, etc.) Against these we have the mythicists using scientific method:

these same folk who hold up the scientific method to religionists want to walk past the complex evidence of textual and linguistic studies as though it weren’t there. ”Hermeneutics” for them is just a word theologians like to throw around to impress seminarians . . .

Textual and linguistic studies as weapons for historicity? I think that must include those incisive analyses that identify Aramaic words in the Gospels or lying behind the current Greek words. I wonder how the scientific method will compete against that slam-dunk evidence that the Gospels really were quoting the Aramaic words of an Aramaic speaking historical Jesus? It’s going to be a tough fight. read more »

Jerry Coyne’s (Why Evolution Is True) Comments on Carrier’s Review of Ehrman

Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution Is True fame has posted on his blog his own comments on Richard Carrier’s review of Ehrman’s book.

Here is his conclusion:

In other words, Ehrman’s book is important to Americans only insofar as it can be taken to support the tenets of Christianity.  Since it doesn’t, even by Ehrman’s admission, I’m a bit baffled at the attention it gets. I conclude that all the kerfuffle rests on this: Christians conflate the existence of a historical Jesus with the existence of a divine Jesus.

And, of course, there are important questions about how one adjudicates ancient history.

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Richard Carrier’s Review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

Updated an hour and again seven hours after original posting.

This is a serious error, because it makes Ehrman’s book into nothing more than falsified propaganda. It is his responsibility as a scholar to have read these writings and accurately represent them to his readers so they don’t have to read them themselves. That he doesn’t do that erases any scholarly value this book could have had. Here, for example, the key point is that Doherty engaged himself like a competent scholar, used mainstream scholarship extensively, and correctly identified where his conclusions and interpretations differed from the scholars he cites and from mainstream scholarship generally. Ehrman hides this fact from his readers, and even misleads his readers by declaring exactly the opposite. Where else does Ehrman completely hide and misrepresent the views, statements, and methods of the mythicists he criticizes? If we cannot trust him in this case (and clearly we can’t, since what he says is demonstrably exactly the opposite of the truth), why are we to trust anything he says in this book?

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Richard Carrier has now posted his own review of Bart Ehrman’s book: Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic. (This links to the review.)

This is his introduction:

Having completed and fully annotated Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Harper 2012), I can officially say it is filled with factual errors, logical fallacies, and badly worded arguments. Moreover, it completely fails at its one explicit task: to effectively critique the arguments for Jesus being a mythical person. Lousy with errors and failing even at the one useful thing it could have done, this is not a book I can recommend.

Happily Richard acknowledges the extensive series of rebuttals of Ehrman’s book by both myself and of course Earl Doherty as among those worth reading.

read more »

4. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Chapter 2 continued

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Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 4

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In this post Doherty covers Ehrman’s arguments dealing with:

  • Probability in history and the burden of proof
  • Ideal evidence historians want against what they actually have
  • Ehrman downplays the problems with the (lack of) evidence
    • Unsuccessful comparison with Pontius Pilate
  • Absence of eyewitness accounts
    • Late date of the gospels
    • Ehrman overlooks problems with Luke’s Prolog
    • Ehrman overlooks scholarship on origin of the Gospel of Luke
    • Ehrman fudges reference to the backbone of New Testament scholarship (Markan priority)
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Preliminary Remarks

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 37-39 of Chapter 2)

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In yet another preface to his discussion of the non-Christian witness to Jesus, Ehrman examines some of the principles involved in historical research. No, it is not like science which can repeat experiments and get observable results.

Technically, we cannot prove a single thing historically. All we can do is give enough evidence (of kinds I will mention in a moment) to convince enough people (hopefully nearly everyone) about a certain historical claim . . . . (p. 38, DJE?)

Burden of Proof

True, all we can really establish is “probabilities” based on judgments about the evidence. And yes, I agree with Ehrman and against Price and some other mythicists that the burden of proof does not lie entirely on the historicist side. As Ehrman quotes E. P. Sanders: “The burden of proof lies with whoever is making a claim.” The problem is, historicists have a habit of maintaining that no burden lies on their side, or else (too often) that adequate ‘proof’ is to be garnered simply through majority opinion, the authoritative consensus which scholars past and present have adopted that an historical Jesus existed. When asked to actually present an adequate case for the existence of the Gospel Jesus, the demand is too often brushed aside as ‘already proven’ or by simple dismissal as an axiomatic non-starter, dissented to only by those driven by an “agenda.”

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The Kind of Evidence Historians Want

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 39-42 of Chapter 2)

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Ehrman asks what kind of evidence historicists look for, and rely upon, to establish the existence of a given person in the past. He enumerates a “wish list.” Hard, physical evidence, such as photographs. Obviously, none of the latter are available for Jesus, but Ehrman goes further and admits that there is no physical evidence of any kind. No archaeological evidence; again, probably not surprising. No contemporary inscriptions, no coins. Fine. No writings: perhaps a little less natural, but perhaps he was illiterate; or if he could read, he could not write, although Ehrman fails to note that there was nothing stopping him from dictating (it wasn’t a far-fetched idea to Eusebius some centuries later who quotes clearly fabricated correspondence between Jesus and an Edessan king).

Ehrman focuses on the most common form of written witness: documents about a person. The more the better, and best that they be independent and corroborative. At this point, he once again fails to make it clear that the four Gospels are anything but independent and corroborative. They are all dependent on Mark, with one reasonably perceivable lost source, the Q document extractable from Matthew and Luke. John, too, is dependent on Mark for his passion story, and where he is not dependent on a Synoptic source, namely in his portrayal of Jesus’ ministry and the content of his teaching, he is not corroborative. For he gives us a drastically different set of teachings by Jesus, thereby casting doubt on the authenticity of any of the teachings of Jesus, for how could John take the liberty of going off on such an alien tangent from the others, totally ignoring them, if the others were real and reliable?

Another preferred feature of written records is proximity in time, the closer the better. Leaving aside efforts by conservative scholars, the standard dating of the Gospels, all of them following soon after the Jewish War, is not close proximity, especially given the disruptive effects of that war on all of Palestine. A considerable number of mythicists prefer to date all the Gospels well into the second century, but even if a compromise is adopted (I and others like G. A. Wells, with demonstrable reasons, would date Mark to around 90, with the rest following over the next two to three decades; see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.400f), we have nothing resembling proximity. And another wish-list preference, disinterest on the part of the writers about their subject, is as far from the actuality of the Gospels as one can get.

*

The Sources for Jesus: What We Do Not Have

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 42-50 of Chapter 2)

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No Witness to Jesus in the First Century

Ehrman attempts to address this lack head-on. But he makes observations which are patently a down-playing of the real situation. No Greek or Roman author in the first century makes mention of Jesus? No matter, read more »

Review: Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?” – Apologetics Lite (by Ken Humphreys)

Ken Humphreys posted what I think is a brilliant review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? on the Freethought and Rationalism Discussion Board, or FRDB, on 5 April. (Or was it first posted on Ken’s own website, JesusNeverExisted?) Steven Carr’s comments alerted me to it on FRDB, and when I read it I was envious. I wanted it posted here, too. So with permission here it is:

The charges thrown at Ehrman in recent years from Christian conservatives – that he is a “sensationalist”, a “misleading” popularizer, who “over-interprets” texts and is motivated by a “hatred of religion” – now, in his latest book, he hurls further down the food chain. It is not he but the mythicists who deserve these tags. In Ehrman’s eyes the “colourful ensemble” of mythicists merge seamlessly with conspiracy theorists, holocaust deniers and internet junkies in a “global cottage industry” of dangerous pseudo-scholarship (it was a mythicist, don’t you know, that influenced Lenin – that’s how dangerous is mythicism).

Ehrman, peerless scholar of New Testament texts, has dragged himself away from more favoured concerns to draw a line in the sand on the question of Jesus. No, he is NOT a mythicist himself, the direction towards which all his books pointed and as many of his fans were beginning to think. “No, no – Jesus most certainly existed” – a mantra Ehrman repeats endlessly – and was, (Christians please note), “the most important figure in the history of Western civilisation” – a statement scarcely true if, as Ehrman argues, the “man” was a parochial and deluded doom merchant, hostile to the family and fond of prostitutes and drink who was summarily executed after a two-minute trial before Pilate. In this book the professor from North Carolina provides cold comfort for any of his Christian fans and his arrogant dismissal of the entire corpus of mythicist scholarship will cost him supporters elsewhere.

The positive side to all this is that Bart – an accredited scholar, as they say – has been compelled to acknowledge that the very existence of Jesus is “one of the most pressing questions in the history of religion” and deserving of investigation. Mythicism, warns Ehrman darkly, is “seeping into the popular consciousness at an alarming rate.”

Ehrman’s case for a historical Jesus could have been presented much more succinctly than in a 368-page book. In fact, that case has been presented much more succinctly – in endless publications from Christian apologists. Ehrman, no longer the believer that he once was, rewrites that apologetics material, minus the supernatural elements. At its heart is the “chronological side-step” (in a debate I once had with Gary Habermas he actually performed the dance): Our extant sources (the canonical gospels) belong here (70s – 90s of the first century); the written sources on which they draw belong here (50s – 60s); the oral traditions which informed the earliest written sources belong here (30s AD!!!) Glory be, “first-hand evidence” from the time of Jesus himself!

Now here’s a weak point (one of many) in Bart’s secularised Jesus world. Having drilled down to the 30s AD, apologists argue that the resurrection is what transformed the frightened disciples into bold evangelists. But having discounted the miraculous as non-historical what can Bart say? Well this: read more »