This is Bookmarks. You’ll get a little look into what the show is reading right now in order to prepare for upcoming shows and get a glimpse into some upcoming books, many times before they’re released.
This 3rd edition of Bookmarks is on Dr. Bart Ehrman’s just released Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. I hardly think Dr. Ehrman needs an introduction as so many skeptics of religion have read at least one of his books and many more have heard of him, but let’s get one out of the way just the same and then move on to some thoughts about the book.
Dr. Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A scholar of the New Testament, he has both a Masters of Divinity and Ph.D from Princeton Theological Seminary where he received magna cum laude honors. He has written numerous scholarly and popular level books on the New Testament, early Christianity and the question of the historical Jesus (HJ). His popular level books are eminently readable introductions to the field of New Testament studies and HJ scholarship. Misquoting Jesus, about the science of textual criticism that gives us an understanding of how the books of the New Testament have been changed over time to reflect the religio-socio-politico beliefs of copyist scribes reproducing the books by hand; Lost Christianities, a book that explodes the notion of Apostolic Succession by showing that the traditional notions of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” are empty of meaning given that in many cities in the early years of the Church what was in fact the accepted common form of Christianity was “heretical” Christianity while “orthodox” Christianity was either non-existent or a minority view; and Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, about the historical-critical methods HJ scholars apply to the Gospels in an attempt to discover an historical core to the obvious myths and legends; these are particularly recommended. Now to the book itself.
Dr. Ehrman has previously written a book on the subject on the question of the historical Jesus (the aforementioned Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium), so why has he written this book? In fact he tells us why in the first pages. He says he gets 3 or so emails a week from people asking him if Jesus really existed and that he figured it was about time to address the “mythicist” (those persons that believe that there never was any sort of historical core to the Gospel stories reflecting the existence of a person named Jesus) claims that he did not.
Dr. Ehrman provides fresh insights, however, when he addresses the claims of the mythicists. While I don’t place myself in either the historicist or mythicist camps, I find myself with furrowed brow at some of Dr. Ehrman’s responses to the mythicists’ claims. He begins, for instance, by pointing to what he believes are some irrelevancies invoked by the mythicists. They are that we don’t have the original texts of the Gospels, we don’t know the authors of the Gospels, the Gospels are filled with discrepancies and contradictions, and that the Gospels contain non-historical materials. To each of these Dr. Ehrman is in complete agreement but believes they are irrelevant to whether or not a historical Jesus existed. Now, certainly what Dr. Ehrman means is that, despite the fact that these are the facts of the matter when it comes to the Gospels, HJ scholars have a methodology that allows them to pick their way through the minefield that these facts produce for the endeavor. But what occurs to me is that it is precisely because of the relevance of these facts that HJ scholars require a methodology to pick their way through that minefield in the first place! But there are deeper issues.
As he goes through these facts to defend his belief in their irrelevance he offers some analogies to make the point. He avers that, just because Konrad Kujau forged the Hitler Diaries doesn’t mean that Hitler never existed, that just because there are several books about the Clinton presidency that each disagree in certain key details doesn’t mean that Bill Clinton never existed, and that the fact that we know that some of the stories written about George Washington didn’t happen doesn’t mean that Washington himself never existed. But– have you spotted the problem?– we have massive amounts of contemporaneous evidence including material artifacts and writings by each of them in their own hand. It hardly seems irrelevant, then, that if we had the same quality of evidence for the existence of Hitler, Clinton, and Washington as we have for Jesus (and with the same period of time removed from the purported events), we surely would find it reasonable to at least discuss whether they existed, and maybe even leave it an open question worthy of considered debate. But it turns out that this isn’t even my biggest concern while reading.
Even if you accept Dr. Ehrman’s critiques of the mythicist’s positive arguments against the historicity of Jesus, the biggest missed opportunity for me is with his (and the other HJ scholars’) positive case for historicity. Here briefly while referring to the expanded exposition in his earlier Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium and certainly in that book, Dr. Ehrman explains the historical-critical methodology that HJ scholars use to navigate that minefield created by the (irrelevant?) facts about the Gospels described above. The problem is that while Dr. Ehrman repeatedly tell us that there are almost no scholars with training in the New Testament (Robert Price is one) that defends the mythicist position or even takes it seriously, there are scholars with training in the New Testament that question whether the historical-critical methodology in use by HJ scholars can actually lead us to the kind of firm claims that they make about Jesus. Scholars like Stanley Porter, Gerd Theissen, Christopher Tuckett, and Dale Allison are all trained in the New Testament and have serious questions about the methodology. And there is much more commentary by scholars besides (for a good list of sources for the discussion on the issues with the methodology see note 7 to Chapter 1 of Richard Carrier‘s forthcoming Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest of the Historical Jesus). Once you read this material you won’t be blamed for sympathizing with Dale Allison who says that the criteria are “seriously defective” and that they “cannot do what is claimed for them.” For me, the lack of any engagement or even acknowledgement of the existence of this aspect of the discussion is, again, a big missed opportunity.
Dr. Ehrman is certain that Jesus did exist and believes the methodology employed by HJ scholars establishes that he did (within the normal error bars inherent in the historical endeavor of course). The book’s subtitle and the Table of Contents lead you to believe that he’s going to here lay out the case that Jesus did exist and answer the mythicist arguments that allege that he did not. I would have enjoyed that book immensely, but that will have to wait for this is not that book. More than a few times does Ehrman say things like “I’ve addressed that in another context” or “I’ve written about that elsewhere” or “I have already discussed the matter at greater length in my earlier book”. And this isn’t a slight against the man. The discussion of whether there ever existed an historical Jesus covers a lot of ground and a lot of that ground Dr. Ehrman has indeed already covered in previous books to which he refers in the pages of this one. I only mention it because the book seems not to live up to the promise of the subtitle and Table of Contents. That’s not to say he doesn’t discuss the relevant issues at all; it’s just that they get a light treatment when what you want to have in order to understand the issues is the deeper treatment promised by the subtitle and the Table of Contents.
Hopefully we’ll get Dr. Ehrman’s thoughts on a couple of these issues. Interestingly, Dr. Ehrman published a piece at the Huffington Post publicizing his new book. That piece has been roundly criticized for what are alleged to be logical fallacies and errors of fact. One of those critics of that HuffPo piece of Ehrman’s, Dr. Richard Carrier, will be joining us on the show soon and we’ll certainly be asking him to comment on some of these issues. So stay tuned for that as well.
In the end, no matter what your position is on the historicity of Jesus, this book is still certainly worth a read because it’s the only instance I know of where an NT expert and HJ scholar have engaged at all really with any of the mythicist arguments. But when you do read this book you’ll really need to read Dr. Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium as well as some of the critical commentary on the methodology he defends as establishing that Jesus did exist.
Make sure and check out our interview with Dr. Ehrman where we’ll get him to talk with us about the book. That interview will be available 3/25 for the first time at 5PM Pacific/8PM Eastern!