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?


KWRegan said...

Indeed, the position that if you take out the Resurrection then not much is left was enunciated well by the scholar Shaul Ishtarsus :-) about 54 CE: "if the Messiah has not been raised, then what we have proclaimed is in vain." (I Cor. 15:14, CJB trans.) So I won't disagree with you there.

In his review at the Amazon link you give, mythicist Ken Humphreys states something interesting:

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:

"But then something else happened. Some of them began to say that God had intervened and brought him back from the dead. The story caught on, and some (or all - we don't know) of his closest followers came to think that in fact he had been raised." (page 164).

And this:

"For some reason, however, the followers of Jesus (or at least some of them) came to think he had been raised from the dead." (page 233).

Did you get that? For "some (unknown) reason" they "just began to say" the guy had been resurrected and "the story caught on."

Rather than go "via-positiva" and quote the likes of Gary Habermas and the "minimal facts" update to apologetics we read in the 1980s, let me start with your drift and direct it down a kind of "via negativa" (not in regard to God's nature but in regard to the origin of evidence). You may use Ehrman's construction or this one by Bishop John Shelby Spong, which seems to be the best he has to offer.

Does this kind of germ have a good chance of producing something like the Jerusalem accounts through Pentecost, necessarily as fabrications? Clearly Humphreys is unhappy with those odds. Carrier's review is unhappy in general ("Officially this book sucks."), while a meatier stretch of comments begins here. My own via-negativa view is that I see more confusion than orchestration in the Gospel accounts and Acts, especially after you subtract out the known orchestrative elements in Matthew (Hebraic) and Luke-Acts (pro-Roman).

James F. McGrath said...

I still don't get this objection. The fact that some things about historical figures are almost certainly legends, some things are uncertain, and the rest is a matter of probability, doesn't mean that we cannot draw a few conclusions with a high degree of certainty. I wonder whether you are not still asking Christian rather than historical questions - what good is a Jesus who was merely one of several figures who, during this period, was baptized by John, or wrongly predicted that God's kingdom was soon to dawn? How much do we really know about John the Baptist, other than that he existed and that he baptized people? How much do we really know about the various messianic-type figures mentioned by Josephus and in Acts from the same period? Even less.

If the questions you are asking are historical ones, then every bit of information that is likely to be authentic is precious. If you are still asking "What good is such a Jesus for modern people?" then you are not really asking the same questions that Ehrman and other historians are asking.

Ricky Carvel said...


Where this post is coming from is questioning the assumption.

Start with the assumption that the resurrection did not happen. Ehrman doesn't get that from the gospels, he gets that from elsewhere. But let's start there.

Based on that assumption, the authors of the gospels have either been fed lies (and naively passed them on), or were themselves liars, or were just writing fiction.

Given any of those starting points, you cannot trust any of the material in the gospels as reliable history, unless there is attestation in secular sources.

The best that secular history has to offer is that Jesus was crucified, with no attestation of anything else he said or did.


James F. McGrath said...

I do not buy the "liars, lunatics or lords" sort of argument. People who have religious beliefs often interpret their dreams in certain ways that non-religious people would not, and in antiquity when they did not have modern psychology and other insights, this was even more common. That some became convinced that Jesus had risen, because of whatever reasons, doesn't seem to necessarily invalidate their testimony to more mundane matters. And even those prone to lie may have used sources that did not share that inclination. A historian does not share this all-or-nothing logic of apologetics. They sift, and evaluate each piece of information on its merits, and rightly so.

Ron Price said...

Bearing in mind the fact that the gospel writers were all trying to promote Christianity, the historian must surely start by suspecting everything they wrote. But that doesn't mean that we end up with nothing. Behind the synoptic gospels was a teacher who taught in aphorisms, whose most distinctive teaching was about the imminent establishment of the "kingdom of God" on earth, and who made such an impression on his original followers that they came to regard him as the longed-awaited Messiah. This didn't go down well with the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem who saw it as a threat to peace, so they crucified him. In this understanding of history, the pre-crucifixion Jesus was seen as a Jew and a (mere) human being. It was Paul who elevated him to the status of the Son of God who was raised from the dead, and Mark who weaved this theology into the first written account of the life of Jesus.

Steven Carr said...

I think what James is trying to say is that although obviously the cartoons about Popeye contain much that is not true, there could be a real historical person behind the Popeye stories and so it is just plain daft to say that Popeye dod not exist.