All the same notes apply re my modifications of some sections of the translation, additional notes and hyperlinks.
3. Tacitus and Josephus
The information we get from Ehrman about Tacitus and the Testimonium Taciteum, which he highly values, on 2 (two!) pages of the book is not enough to keep skin and bones together. We are only briefly informed about the content and the historical background of this testimony, but about the problems with it Ehrman has almost nothing at all to say. Ehrman speaks of the Roman historian Tacitus and his “famous Annals of Imperial Rome in 115 CE” (p. 54) and the passage that reports on the burning of Rome and the subsequent persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. According to Ehrman, Tacitus is said to have considered Nero the arsonist, but this is not true. If Ehrman had studied the text more thoroughly, he would have noticed that although Tacitus assumes that Nero was interested in the burning of Rome, he leaves the question of guilt in the balance – unlike Suetonius, to which Ehrman presumably refers. In any case, there are mass executions of Christians, here called “Chrestiani“, some of whom are torn apart by wild dogs and others burned alive to illuminate the imperial park at night. In this context, there is now also talk about the author of this name, Christ (the “Chrestus”, as the magnifying glass on the cover of this website shows), who was “put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”
Ehrman sees here a testimony to the historicity of Jesus, even though he admits that the text does not speak of Jesus but of Christ and that it is based on Christian sources. Moreover, Ehrman suggests that some mythicists argue that the Testimonium Taciteum was not written by Tacitus but interpolated “by Christians, who copied them [Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius]” (p. 55).
Unfortunately, however, he keeps the arguments they put forward for this viewpoint to himself – if he knows them at all. Ehrman considers these arguments to be a merely a trick to explain everything that doesn’t fit the bill as a later falsification.
Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it.
However, the radical critics who speak of interpolation will certainly have given reasons. What are they?
Since Ehrman remains stubbornly silent, let’s name a few. They arise from a (literary-critical) consideration of the context in which the passage of Tacitus is embedded. The 42-43rd chapter was about Nero’s lively building activity. After the fire in Rome, the emperor first used the situation to create new parks and gardens, and then to build houses and apartments according to a new, more spacious design. Chap. 45 continues this theme after the section on the persecution of Christians with an introductory “interea” (meanwhile). Now it is emphasized that the money for the building projects came primarily from the provinces and that even some temples in Rome were robbed of their gold to finance the emperor’s projects.
The text that has been handed down thus offers an extremely strange train of thought: Nero has the Christians burned, the people have pity on them – “meanwhile” (interea) the Roman Empire is being plundered. It is obvious that such a nonsensical train of thought could by no means have been the intention of the narrator. Between chapters 44 and 45 there is no connecting point to which the “interea” could refer. If it is to establish a meaningful connection, it can, in terms of content, only tie up to Ch. 43 but not to 44: Rome is being rebuilt – in the meantime the empire is being plundered for it! Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it. Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 3: Tacitus and Josephus”
I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. The original German review is linked at the end of the post. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too. All additional notes in those boxes are mine as are the quotation boxes within the main text.
2. Pliny the Younger
The mountains are in labor, a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth. (Horace, The Art of Poetry)
Ehrman goes to great lengths to introduce us to the sources which, in his opinion, reliably attest to the existence of a historical Jesus. To quote Horace, “Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.” Before the curtain finally opens and reveals a considerable number of Jesus witnesses to the curious gaze of the reader, a series of preliminaries and fundamental methodological considerations must be made. What we learn in the relevant chapters about the value and worthlessness of historical sources is indeed informative, but will have little new to offer to all those who have attended a historical proseminar once in their lives. Be that as it may, Ehrman advocates good and healthy principles, such as that multiple testimonies please the heart of the historian, or that “disinterested” and independent sources deserve preference over others, etc. (p. 41) – one only wished that he himself would also give them due consideration in the later sections. In a section on sources that we do not have, he also admits that we do not have authentic illustrations of Jesus, nor scriptures written by himself, nor eyewitness accounts (p. 49).
 Hurtado 2007, pp. 2-3: “If correctly dated to about 200, the Aberkio inscription (found in Hierapolis) remains perhaps our oldest identifiable Christian inscription. Although in some older publications one finds certain references to the catacombs and catacomb art of the second century, it is now generally accepted among experts that these too should probably be dated to sometime in the third century”.
 Theißen, Merz 1997, p. 160f. All that can be said about it is that it is possibly the site visited by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria sometime between 381-384 AD, which has been given as the house of Peter since Constantinian times. Everything else is conjecture and belongs at best in a travel guide, but not in a serious scientific work.
This is all well and good but could be further elaborated when applied to specific cases, which Ehrman certainly does not feel is necessary. Ehrman could have taken the trouble to make clear to the reader the full extent of the difficulties in which the defenders of Jesus’ historicity find themselves when they refer to external witnesses. For example, it is correct that no authentic images of Jesus have been handed down. But far more interesting is that the type of Jesus in the portraits we possess almost completely resembles the portraits of other late antique healers, so that archaeologists even today find it difficult to distinguish Jesus from, for example, Attis or Orpheus. With regard to the question of possible models for the Christian Saviour, this should not be an unimportant observation. As I already mentioned in my book Falsche Zeugen: Außerchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand (only in German; False Witnesses. Non-Christian Testimonies Tested, 2011 (Alibri)”, I have already shown that from the 1st to the middle of the 2nd century no archaeological evidence for the existence of Christianity can be found at all. For Graydon F. Snyder, the Christian faith as a cultural-historical phenomenon only dates from around 180 AD according to the archaeologists. Even that reference to Roman catacombs and catacomb art, with which one used to love to argue in former times, is no longer possible. The archaeologists, Larry W. Hurtado points out, who formerly dated the whole of Christian catacomb art with confidence to the 2nd century, now suspect it probably only originated in the third century . Speculations about a supposed “House of Peter” are based on dubious speculations and are only significant in so far as they contribute, not significantly, to the revival and promotion of the tourism industry in the “Holy Land”. 
Moreover, it’s a pity that Ehrman goes far too little into detail when asked about the “sources we don’t have”. For example, there is no reference to the so-called Remsburg List, which can impressively demonstrate to anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into the position of the mythicists how ignorance about the man from Nazareth and the Christian community reaches deep into the second century. Even if it can be objected that the ancient sources also keep silent about many other people, it makes a difference about whom they keep silent. After all, according to the Gospels, the effect that Jesus had during his brief activity in Galilee and Jerusalem was so overwhelming that even non-Christian contemporaries who were religiously open-minded, such as Philo or Plutarch, could hardly overlook it. There is constant talk of the “great crowd” that accompanies Jesus in his ministry and witnesses his miracles and healings, whose fame spread throughout Galilee (Mark 1:28) and beyond (Matthew 4:24). The New Testament scholar Gert Theißen reckons with “miracle stories … outside the followers of Jesus” and with “popular shifting and enrichment” of the miracle stories, thus assuming that a special Jesus tradition had formed in the population. Should nothing at all – apart from the Christian tradition itself – have survived?
But Ehrman now thinks that this is not the right way to approach the question. Before one can ask whether Jesus did miracles, one must “decide” whether he existed at all (p. 43).
But how can this question be “decided”? Based on which criteria? The problem is that Jesus is portrayed in all the ancient testimonies as a divine miracle worker or as a (semi-) divine being. That applies – with one exception (Tacitus) – also to the few non-Christian testimonies.
That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.
For the rest, it all depends on what is meant by “miracles”. Those “miracles” to which Jesus owes his fame according to Christian sources, and which are said to have led whole nations to seek him out, are first and foremost healing miracles or healings. Even if we do not know how they came about, we need not question the existence of such a phenomenon any more than we do the existence of other ancient miracle healers. But Ehrman does not even do this much; for example, he states on p. 269 that Jesus “developed a reputation for being able to heal the sick and cast out demons.” Shouldn’t we ask then, why the person responsible for such sensational healings was not given any attention by pagan authors? The question is valid but obviously doesn’t give Ehrman any comfort. That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.
This information seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman is withholding it from us does seem a little manipulative.
Finally, Ehrman also refers to Justus of Tiberias, although he calls him “Justin of Tiberius” (p. 50), a Jewish historian living and working in the second half of the first century, who, like Josephus, wrote a history of the Jewish people in the first century after Christ. Ehrman mentions that his books “did not survive”. Whether this refers to the work of later Christian censors and book burners, he leaves open. However, he fails to address the crucial point. Although the writings of the historian from the immediate neighbourhood of Jesus’ supposed residence have indeed been lost, we know at least from a paper of the Christian Patriarch Photius from Constantinople (9th century) what was not in it: “He does not mention the coming of Christ, nor his deeds, nor the miracles he performed. This information does seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman withholds it from his readers does come across as a little manipulative. Indeed, it would not seem easy for advocates of the existence of a historical Jesus to explain why a first-century Jewish historian from Galilee forgot the famous man from the neighboring city in his writings.
The number of non-Christian witnesses who, according to Ehrman, should prove the existence of Jesus is very small. Usually New Testament scholars cite a canon of six texts at this point:
the twofold testimony of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Ant 20,200 and Ant 18,63-64, so-called Testimonium Flavianum),
the testimony of the Roman historian Tacitus on the burning of Rome and the Neronian persecution of Christians (Ann 15:44;),
the report of the Roman governor Pliny the Younger in a letter to the Emperor Trajan and his reply (ep 10,96-97;)
two passages from the work of the Roman historian Sueton (Suet. Claud. 25,4; Suet. Nero 16,2)
a letter of the Syrian Mara bar Serapion to his son Serapion, which was only recently brought into play, and which is said to have been written sometime after 72 AD,
and an ominous passage from the lost historical work of Thallus (after 50 AD), which has only been preserved in excerpts in Julius Africanus and Georgius Synkellos.
In Ehrman’s case, the already very small number is reduced even further to the four witnesses Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius, although only Josephus and Tacitus, and possibly Pliny, are of significance. This decision, which Ehrman does not discuss further, is very wise, since not many can be impressed by the excluded two guarantors anyway because of their questionable dating.
Anyone who thought that Ehrman would enter into a conversation with the radical deniers of a historical Jesus and discuss in detail the handwritten tradition, origin and earliest testimony of his four sources or even shine with new points of view will be disappointed. His statements merely repeat what has been known for decades anyway, and contain nothing that has not long since been considered or refuted by the radical deniers of Jesus since Arthur Drews. The authenticity of the sources is loudly claimed but not proven. What remains is, at least as the testimony of Josephus and Tacitus shows, that Jesus lived and was executed by the Roman governor of Judea. “That, at least, is a start.” (p. 56) Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 2: Pliny’s Letter”
The following translation of Hermann Detering’s review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has been sent to me and I am thrilled to be able to make it available on this blog. It is over 7000 words, too long, I think, for a blog post, so I am posting here just the first part of the review. The rest to follow. I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. I have also replaced the English translation of Detering’s German language quotes of Ehrman’s words with the original English versions. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too.
Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources
1. Bart Ehrman’s book, Did Jesus exist?
The introduction to the book ushers us into the following scene: Bart D. Ehrman, PhD, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, actually wanted to write a completely different, more important work, namely about how a Jewish end-time prophet named Jesus became a divine being or God. But then he was startled by some emails. He suddenly found himself taken up by a scene that was apparently unknown to him until then: Mythicists who appealed to his authority for their claim that there had been no Jesus! Reason enough for a conscientious “New Testament scholar” to take a closer look at the matter.
Although Ehrman had by then read “thousands of books about Jesus in English and other European languages, the New Testament and early Christianity,” he was “like most colleagues completely unaware of the extent of sceptical literature [on the subject]” (p. 2). For a professor of theology and biblical scholar who should be up to date and in daily conversation with his students, this long phase of ignorance is astonishing enough, especially since the question of the historical existence of the man from Nazareth must have occurred again and again in the mass of Jesus literature he read. For example, in The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, often quoted by Ehrman, in which this very subject is dealt with on many hundreds of book pages. This book and others should at least have curbed Ehrman’s boundless surprise and shown him that the question “Did Jesus exist?” is not an entirely fanciful one, and that New Testament research has been periodically occupied with it. Moreover, it is not just since yesterday that the question has been on the agenda of those American “humanists” who read his books and with whom, according to his own statement, he has been in contact for a long time.
However, not everything Ehrman writes should be taken quite so literally. The reader of his book, which is written in a casual conversational tone, has to get used to this and other contradictions. The “casual conversational tone” is not meant as hidden criticism: one should be grateful for the good readability, especially since it saves German readers with “mediocre” English skills a lot of reference work in the dictionary. The fact that the casual presentation and simple language always turns into pure superficiality is, of course, the other side of the coin that we still have to get to grips with.
Instead of immediately shining with new perspectives and objective examination of the mythicists’ theses, Ehrman deals with the mythicists and – again and again with pleasure – with himself. Ehrman about Ehrman – a broad field… The professor strives for clear demarcation:
There — the “breed” (Ehrman in an interview*) of mythicists, a shadowy group that shies away from the light, concocting dark conspiracy theories in the worldwide channels of the network. With a few exceptions, neither academic degrees nor titles legitimize them to make a meaningful contribution to the difficult historical and religious-historical problems with which Professor Ehrman and his peers have struggled for decades at the forefront of science. In addition, loud, brash and aggressive in appearance, enemies of religion, atheists, and thrown from cliff to cliff by half-knowledge, stupidity and error. Avanti Dilettanti!
Here — the “New Testament scholar”, in the full splendour of his academic titles, honours and prizes, among his numerous students, whose questions he answers conscientiously and competently, proven author of numerous non-fiction books, who as such receives tons of e-mails (“Like most authors, I receive tons of e-mail”, p. 94) (apropos, how do you actually weigh e-mails?). A textbook example of biblical scholarship and theology as he is – imbued with his subject matter, which includes reading the Bible by him daily in the original Greek or Hebrew; who has been studying and teaching for over 35 years and “I don’t plan to stop any time soon” (p. 36). Yes, why should he? Does anyone want to stop him? The mythicists for instance?!
And yet no apologist! Ehrman wants to be understood as a pure historian, who is only interested in historical evidence. “I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting any Christian cause or agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings and my life and views would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed… The answer to the question about the historical existence of Jesus will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal” (p. 5f). Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 1 of Hermann Detering’s review”
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.
Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death. . . .
But that is not all. There are still other independent Gospels. The Gospel of John is sometimes described as the “maverick Gospel” because it is so unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Gospels continued to be written after John, however, and some of these later accounts are also independent. Since the discovery in 1945 of the famous Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, scholars have debated its date. . . . [A] good portion of Thomas, if not all of it, does not derive from the canonical texts. To that extent it is a fifth independent witness to the life and teachings of Jesus.
The same can be said of the Gospel of Peter, discovered in 1886. . . .
Another independent account occurs in the highly fragmentary text called Papyrus Egerton 2. . . . Here then, at least in the nonparalleled story, but probably in all four, is a seventh independent account. (Ehrman, 75-77)
Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others. And these are just the ones we know about, that we can reasonably infer from the scant literary remains that survive from the early years of the Christian church. No one knows how many there actually were. Luke says there were “many” of them, and he may well have been right. (Ehrman, 83)
We have a number of surviving Gospels—I named seven—that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions. (Ehrman, 92)
Indirectly, then, Tacitus and (possibly) Josephus provide independent attestation to Jesus’s existence from outside the Gospels although, as I stated earlier, in doing so they do not give us information that is unavailable in our other sources. . . . As a result of our investigations so far, it should be clear that historians do not need to rely on only one source (say, the Gospel of Mark) for knowing whether or not the historical Jesus existed. He is attested clearly by Paul, independently of the Gospels, and in many other sources as well: in the speeches in Acts, which contain material that predate Paul’s letters, and later in Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement. These are ten witnesses that can be added to our seven independent Gospels (either entirely or partially independent), giving us a great variety of sources that broadly corroborate many of the reports about Jesus without evidence of collaboration. (Ehrman, 97, 140f)
. . .
A Single Source
Significantly almost every scholar who pushes for the authenticity, and the early dating, of various extra-canonical items, does so with the argument that these texts were part of the core tradition of early Christianity: in other words, that they are not independent witnesses to the historical Yeshua. (Akenson, 552)
The Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John not alternative independent witnesses, but slightly variant editions of a single source: both are found within the Christian interpretative tradition and, as we have seen (Chapter Nine), this tradition required that for Yeshua of Nazareth to be come Jesus-the-Christ, he had to be identified as a Passover sacrifice. Thus, we have here a single tradition, not a multiply-attested set of historical observations. Emphatically, this does not mean that the single-source tradition is wrong, merely that it is not confirmed by the self-repetition of certain points within the Christian scriptures. (Akenson, 553)
Some scholars have suggested that cella in of the para-biblical books – such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter – intermixed with ”Q” and Mark and the unique portions of Matthew and of Luke in the biblical equivalent of the primal soup from which all life is said to stem. Some few others throw into the stew a “Cross Gospel” which is an hypothetical document, said to underlie the Gospel of Peter. Just how far out of control this is, and unrelated to anything a professional historian would recognize as a testable hypothesis or as having probative value, is illustrated by the following summary of his own theory of the formation of the Gospels, put forward by John Dominic Crossan, one of the best-known of Roman Catholic biblical historian
The process developed. in other words, over these primary steps. First, the historical passion, composed of minimal knowledge, was known only in the general terms recorded by. say, Josephus or Tacitus. Next, the prophetic passion, composed of multiple and discrete biblical allusions and seen most clearly in a work like the Epistle of Barnabas, developed biblical applications over, under, around, and through that open framework. Finally, those multiple and discrete exercises were combined into the narrative passion as a single sequential story. I proposed. furthermore, that the narrative passion is but a single stream of tradition flowing from the Cross Gospel, now embedded within the Gospel of Peter. into Mark, thence together into Matthew and Luke, and thence, all together, into John. Other reconstructions are certainly possible. but that seems to me the most economical one to explain all the data.
– a strange brew indeed. (Akenson, 573)
[E]ven if one finds the heuristic-Gospel “Q” useful in understanding the evolution of the biblical text, it docs not constitute multiple attestation by independent witnesses of the sayings or deeds of the historical Yeshua. All the sayings are derived from a unitary source, the extant canonical scriptures, and just as the canonical scriptures are a single witness, so any hypothetical derivative from the canon is pan of the same single unitary source. To be blunt: one cannot obtain multiple independent attestation of the historical Yeshua simply by chopping up the “New Testament.” (Akenson, 574-5)
Compare Akenson’s point with Schweitzer’s:
Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. (See Schweitzer in context for full quote and variant translations.)
Akenson, Donald Harman. 2001. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. New edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ehrman, Bart D. 2013. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne.
A while ago I addressed key points in Bart Ehrman’s eagerly awaited response to Christ Mythicism, Did Jesus Exist? and was honoured that Earl Doherty accepted an invitation to post his initial responses to the book here, too. I had much more to say at the time about Ehrman’s efforts but let it all drop since so many others were busy doing the same thing.
I have gradually been getting to know a little more of Frank Zindler’s work since then, and comparing it with what Ehrman himself wrote about it. That, in part, led me to write a defence of Frank’s right to write a chapter about his personal correspondence with Bart Ehrman. A couple of readers disagreed with me on that point, but we will have to agree to disagree. I am still deciding if I will write a post on that chapter about the Zindler-Ehrman correspondence and what it quite fairly tells us.
This evening I revisited the following passage written by Bart Ehrman, but by now I have learned more about Frank’s own arguments. It’s hard to know how to say how I felt without sounding trite. I think it is a good thing not to forget the outrageously unprofessional and scurrilous ways in which Bart Ehrman treated the arguments of mythicists. Those mythicists have every right to reply and defend themselves. That’s not stooping to the level of Ehrman’s unprofessionalism. It’s the right thing to do. If the result is not a stand-alone compendium of mythicist arguments, that’s a loss, but at least we will hear the defence of those Ehrman has so blatantly misrepresented. (Richard Carrier calls Ehrman a liar, a probable liar, or a suspected liar, at least seven times in his chapter.)
Here is what Bart Ehrman wrote about one of Frank Zindler’s points. I will follow this with the quotation from Frank’s own book which Ehrman claimed to be reading and citing.
The [Mithras] cult was centered, Zindler claims, in Tarsus (the hometown of the apostle Paul). But then the astrologers involved with the cult came to realize that the zodiacal age of Mithra was drawing to a close since the equinox was moving into Pisces. And so they “left their cult centers in Phrygia and Cilicia . . . to go to Palestine to see if they could locate not just the King of the Jews but the new Time Lord” (that is, they invented Jesus.* Zindler says this in all sincerity, and so far as I can tell, he really believes it. What evidence does he give for his claim that the Mithraists moved their religion to Palestine to help them find the king of the Jews? None at all. . . . This is made up. (p. 212, DJE?, my highlighting)
The asterisk marks where Ehrman leaves his endnote marker: Zindler, “How Jesus Got A Life”, p. 66
Note that Ehrman distinctly leads his audience to understand that he, Ehrman, is reading Zindler’s argument as published. He implies he knows the context. He is not relying on a couple of decontextualized extracts. He gives the impression that he has read in Zindler’s original words exactly what he has outlined — that the Mithras cult astrologers left their cult centres and moved to Palestine and invented Jesus. Ehrman believes Zindler is arguing that the Mithraic cult moved to Palestine and invented Jesus.
Richard Carrier, PhD, has essentially endorsed Tom Verenna’s “scathing review” of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus with one caveat: his complaints “may be a little excessive.” (I discussed earlier the blatant “wrongness” of Verenna’s review.) But we must stress that Verenna had only praise for the contribution from Dr Richard Carrier.
Carelessness with people’s reputations
Carrier (with a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University) reinforces Verenna’s ethical discomfort that Frank Zindler chose to publish email correspondence between himself and Ehrman:
Verenna raises some valid concerns worth mulling, such as about Zindler’s use and publication of his correspondence with Ehrman.
Thus even Dr Carrier demonstrates that he is not as thorough in the reading of what he is reviewing as he should be. He, like Verenna, quite overlooked Zindler’s own note at the point of introducing this email exchange:
I thank Professor Ehrman for graciously having granted me permission to reprint here his messages, provided only that I “acknowledge that they were emails, not written intended for publication.”
Because of their careless oversights (accompanied, one must presume, with a lack of interest in seriously checking to see if their grounds for darkening Zindler’s character were real) both have recklessly cast slanderous aspersions upon the integrity of Frank Zindler.
[The nature of the emails and how Frank used them are outlined in a comment below.]
Academic professionalism or strictly business?
One might wonder about the professionalism of a scholar who publishes a scathing review of a book to which he has contributed and advises his readers they are better off not bothering with it. (Professionalism, in my view, extends to treatment of one’s colleagues as much as it does to how one approaches one’s job.) But Dr Carrier clears the air on this point at the outset of his review. His relationship with the other contributors of this volume, and in particular with its editors, is entirely a business one. He stresses that he sold the rights to his article to them so they could make use of it: Continue reading “Richard Carrier’s Review of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus”
Edited with a few additional remarks 4 hours after first posting.
This post is a response to Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. I read this review before I received my own (Kindle) copy of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth, so I was dismayed when I began to read the book to find that I had been completely misled as to its character and content. Fear that that same review may influence many negatively towards the contributors of the book is what is compelling me to write this response now. (Apologists like McG are quite eager to lap it up uncritically.)
The review levels five charges against Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth:
“resorting to a personal attack . . . nearly 600 pages of venom and rhetoric . . . full of venom and disgust”
“The title of this volume bespeaks the purpose: it is a series of essays with the intent to character assassinate.”
“And Price’s attempts to link the contributors of the volume, in all, and those who support the so-called ‘Christ Myth Theory’ with minimalism is a void one.”
“Price also gives D.M. Murdock too much credit. He is guilty of inflating her credentials in many respects and, while they are friends, it is distracting. He writes, for example, that ‘her chief sin in Ehrman’s eyes would appear to be her lack of diplomas on the wall’, but that is an oversimplification of what Ehrman argues.”
“Also there is a surprising amount of personal correspondence. Frank produces some 75 pages for his first contribution and more than half of it consists of various email exchanges between Ehrman and himself. This troubles me as I am not so sure that such a move is ethical. . . . In my humble opinion, it is wholly unwelcome that Zindler dedicated so much space to these emails and also formulated a polemical argument around them; it is quite unfortunate that this appears in this volume.”
I’ll address these in reverse order.
5. Unethical email disclosures?
I was shocked to read this and feared that Frank Zindler may have overstepped the mark when I read this accusation. So I was particularly keen to read carefully how Frank does introduce these email exchanges with Bart Ehrman. I was greatly relieved to learn that Tom Verenna’s aspersions were entirely misplaced. Here’s what I found. Frank attaches the following note at the point of publishing the first email response from Bart Ehrman:
I thank Professor Ehrman for graciously having granted me permission to reprint here his messages, provided only that I “acknowledge that they were emails, not written intended for publication.”
I do wonder, however, about the ethics of publishing an image of a personal message from Frank to the reviewer. Did T.V. seek F.Z’s permission for this?
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.
– 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,
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.
I recently caught up with Michael Turton’s review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? — all too belatedly. His remarks apply to probably most historicist scholars who have commented on the mythicist question. But this section struck me as worthy of catching a wider attention:
In reality, the mythicist-historicist debate is a clash of competing interpretive frameworks, a clash over the same body of data over which there are divergent interpretive views — one of which claims success because it has powerful social support. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the social and historical sciences.
Readers who are familiar with the history of science can probably name many examples of how social approval in a historical or human field for a given interpretation of the data hindering consideration and acceptance of new ideas. The struggle to overcome the Clovis First interpretive framework that came to dominate North American archaeology until about three decades ago is a good example (the battle is still ongoing, and will likely end when the last of the Clovis Firsters dies off). Another good example is the way paleoanthropology was changed by the influx of females in the 1960s; the interpretive frameworks had been dominated by males and their points of view. Every August in the US we see another example of the clash of competing interpretive frameworks over how the atomic bombings of Japan should be understood.
Thus, the reader should be aware that the clash between mythicists and historicists is not a clash between loons similar to those who think the moon landings were faked and NASA, or between Creationists and real scientists, as Ehrman would have it. That is mere rhetoric, lazy, cheap shots.* In evolutionary biology or climate science the methodologies are robust and testable and the evidence overwhelming and the Denialists on either part are essentially anti-science. Historical explanation is not like scientific explanation (though it may draw on it), and scholars who bluster that mythicists are like Creationists are (probably deliberately) making a serious category error.
In historical Jesus studies both mythicists and historicists learn the same ancient languages and study the same texts, using the same methodologies. Both sides keenly appreciate and esteem good scholarship and hold basically the same set of New Testament scholars in high regard, including Ehrman himself. I suspect that if you compared the bookshelves of most people writing on mythicism with Ehrman’s own, they would look very much alike. None of the major mythicist writers can remotely be described as anti-science or anti-scholarship. Again, the problem is not denial of reality, but a clash of competing interpretive frameworks. . . . . Continue reading “Michael Turton on the Mythicist-Historicist Debate”
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 withoutGod. 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 . . . .
It might surprise some people to know that, even several years after Darwin and Wallace made public their independent discoveries and insights regarding natural selection, the vast majority of Lamarckians were not persuaded. Similarly, some die-hard Steady-State proponents never embraced the Big Bang. Fred Hoyle was promoting variations of his Steady State theory, publishing papers as late as 1993. Even in the “hard” sciences it often takes a new generation to come of age before the paradigm can shift.
More often than you might expect, progress requires this combination — the old guard dying off and new scholars coming of age, cutting their teeth on promising new research — for new ideas to take hold. And take note, I’m not talking about ideas that form the basis of our self-identity, our place in the universe, or our salvation. It’s simply human nature to hold on to ideas that have worked well for us, especially if we’ve held them for decades. Consider, then, how difficult it would be to change your mind if it meant the difference between eternal bliss and rotting in a hole in the dirt until you’re dust.
The limited utility of scholarly consensus
Scholarly consensus in any field has somewhat limited usefulness. It tells us what most people think within a given field at a given time, but does it really give us an insight on fundamental, universal truths? Probably not, but it at least gives us a starting point.
A little over seven years ago Mark Goodacre at his NT Blog asked, “What is consensus?” Tied up in that question, of course, are related questions pertaining to how we determine consensus, what is its value, whom do we ask, and so on. By all means, if you haven’t read it, you should, and while you’re at it, you should check out his follow-up post, “Less of a consensus on consensus.” It’s unfortunate that some of the links Dr. Goodacre refers to are no longer available. At the bottom of this post, I’ll provide a list of alternate links made possible by the Internet Wayback Machine.
In Dr. Michael Pahl’s original post (see Wayback link below), he asked four probing questions:
The Casey-Holding Theory of Pauline High-Context Culture
We were treated recently to another dose of apologia run amok in Maurice Casey’s “frightful” diatribe against Earl Doherty. Following in the footsteps of fellow apologist, J.P. Holding, Casey explains away Paul’s silence regarding the earthly Jesus by a misapplication of Edward T. Hall’s cultural context paradigm (ref. Beyond Culture).
According to the Casey-Holding Theory, Paul was silent about Jesus in his epistles because (quoting Casey):
Paul’s epistles were written in a high context culture, which was homogeneous enough for people not to have to repeat everything all the time, whereas American, European and many other scholars belong to a low context culture, which gives them quite unrealistic expectations of what the authors of the epistles ought to have written.
By the time Paul was writing his letters “in a ‘high-context’ realm,” Holding states:
There was no need for Paul to make reference to the life-details of Jesus or recount his teachings, for that had been done long ago.