Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What are you left with?

I just listened to Bart Ehrman's recent appearance on the Unbelievable radio show, with Justin Brierley. Unlike most Unbelievable shows, this was not a debate between two people with opposite opinions, but was rather a Q&A session with Bart, on the subject of his recent book "Did Jesus Exist?"

For those of you who don't know, the book defends the existence of a 'historical' Jesus and is a response to the 'mythicist' position that is increasingly popular on the internet, that the biblical Jesus is a mythical character and is not based on the life of a real person. Authors like Robert M. Price, Acharya S. and, particularly, Richard Carrier have got particularly worked up by some of the things Ehrman said in his books about them and their beliefs, and the debate has got angry and ugly at times. But Unbelievable broke its usual format and didn't have a debate with any of them, perhaps because Bart wasn't prepared to debate on this issue.

The show contained a lot of discussion around the subject of the existence of Jesus, without actually saying anything about the life, character, actions or sayings of the Jesus who apparently did exist. I felt a bit disappointed in this.

Ehrman stated quite categorically that he believes in a historical Jesus, but that there was no resurrection. So what Jesus does he believe in? Not Jesus Christ - Christ being another word for Anointed or Messiah - but merely Jesus, some guy from Nazareth.

I've discussed this before, but come up with no good answer. What happens when you remove the central claim of the Gospel accounts, that Jesus was resurrected and hence validated as Son of God? What are you left with? Miracle stories? Well, I guess if he was just a man you have to remove them from history too. So you end up writing off half the content of the gospels as non-historical, but the important point to note here is that the reasons for doing this have nothing whatsoever to do with a study of the gospel accounts themselves. Nothing in the gospels suggests that one verse is historical and another is non-historical. The distinction is largely arbitrary based on the (non-supernatural) world view of the interpreter. Everything supernatural is written off, everything else might be historical. Is this a good method? Doesn't sound like it to me.

Then you start applying various criteria to the text: the criterion of embarrassment, the criterion of dissimilarity, the criterion of multiple attestation, etc. but I don't think these are actually very good grounds for testing anything. For a start, the criteria pre-suppose that some material is authentic to Jesus and some is inauthentic. But if all of it is inauthentic we will still end up selecting some of it as more likely than other bits, so there is a selection bias. Then again, the opposite works too, if all of it is authentic, the criteria will still lead us to write off some of it. Not very good criteria.

What it all boils down to is this. Whichever set of rules or criteria you use to investigate the text will have an influence over what you decide to be authentic. Someone who prefers one set of criteria will get a different picture of Jesus than someone who prefers a different set of criteria.

So what are you left with?

A man who might or might not have been called Jesus, who might have been born in Nazareth or might have been born in Bethlehem, who might or might not have been baptised by John (probably was), who said some things (though we can't be sure what) and annoyed the Romans such that they killed him (although we can't be sure why).

That's not much to defend in a book is it?