Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Snap: Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?"

I'll start with what would be the most obvious point from me: No, Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist? (DJE) has no prospect of displacing my own edited volume, Shattering the Christ Myth (STCM), as the most thorough volume on the subject of the existence of Jesus. Far from it. Though Ehrman does cover exactly the same range of subject matter within that question -- everything from "pagan copycat" charges to the "silence of the epistles" canard to the existence of Nazareth -- he does so overall with such breezy incompleteness that we may easily predict that the mythicist crowd will immediately claim he didn't come anywhere close to doing the job.

Which of course, he did not, and yet for good reason. In DJE I detected something in Ehrman's tone that I didn't find in his other books: A sort of hapless, "why me," "what the %&$#@ am I doing this for" exasperation which, if I drew Ehrman as a cartoon to represent it, would have him lying on the floor with his tongue hanging out. Not that he wasn't right to be this way, which represents the paradox of dealing with the mythicists. Their clear objective is to confuse and overwhelm readers with so much information -- so much of it bad information -- that it would take, as Ehrman rightly says, three times as much effort to refute them point by point.

Years ago, when G. A. Wells made the mistake of writing a response to my evaluation of him, I noted that Wells was rather typical of those whose chief tactic is to "hurl the elephant" -- throw out a huge complex of ideas and arguments all at once in order to make their ideas seem more formidable. It was for this reason that I determined that STCM would be as comprehensive as it was -- the way to reply to a hurled elephant is to have a blue whale at your disposal to hurl back. Under such pressure, Wells and other mythcisists like Doherty, Price, Humphreys, and even Murdock collapse like a house of cards.

DJE, as noted, doesn't succeed in this respect; it serves as warthog rather than elephant. Even then much of it seems to be padding, especially the last chapters where Ehrman goes on about Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. And yet Ehrman can hardly be blamed for this. Even as lacking in honesty as I consider him to be, I believe he doesn't deserve to waste time on issues like this one. It takes a lot of time, patience, and fortitude -- and a good deal of personal masochism -- to deal in detail with such inanity as the Christ myth theory.

As expected, and even as Ehrman predicted, the process of fundy atheists throwing him under the bus has already begun. It's sort of fascinating and amusing to watch, and we might comment on it here again in the future. For now, I'd like to spend this Ticker entry discussing the contents of DJE which struck me.

18 -- One new bit of information DJE offered to me: Robert Price has released a new book titled The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. Naturally, it's not with a credible academic publisher; American Atheist Press is doing the job. It's available by Kindle and I've already picked it up. (A word search shows that neither I nor STCM are mentioned – and that Tacitus is dismissed as merely repeating hearsay. Nice of know Price is continuing his personal tradition of violently ignoring or dismissing anything that would cause his insane theories any difficulties.)

49 -- One of Ehrman's more frequent themes has to do with the paucity of information about ancient persons as a whole as a retort to the alleged problem of lack of information about Jesus. On this page, for example, he notes that although there are no eyewitness accounts of Jesus (he of course dispenses, we think wrongly, with the relevant Gospels), there are also none of Pontius Pilate. He rightly notes that low literacy is part of the reason for this, as well as the simple lack of survival of source material.

54 -- Naturally, I was interested in comparing Ehrman's treatments of certain subjects in DJE with my own in STCM. One I'll compare with is Tacitus. Ehrman spends barely three pages on Tacitus, half of which is descriptive. Then he spends a paragraph on the notion that Annals 15.44 is an interpolation, rightly noting that this is not believed by any classicist or historian, and suggesting that mythicists just don't want the passage to be there. That's likely true, but it doesn't do much for an argument.

From there, Ehrman goes off the deep end: Whereas STCM spends pages establishing Tacitus' reliability and professionalism as a historian, Ehrman simply decides that Tacitus based his information on hearsay, and even -- incredibly -- accepts as valid the argument that Tacitus wrongly identifies Pilate as a procurator (the alleged significance of this as assigned by mythicists is debunked in detail in STCM). In this at least Ehrman plays himself right into the mythicists' hands.

66 -- Ehrman also notes that the argument that Jesus' miraculous powers ought to have drawn the attention of historians, and he answers with the expected response from him that the historical Jesus actually had none. Our own answer is quite different, which is that a snob like Tacitus would immediately discount such notions as false and not dignify them with a report, even if they were true. Even so, since mythicists share Ehrman's disbelief in the miraculous, this is an argument they are compelled to modify or reckon with. Indeed it reflects a hidden inconsistency in their own epistemology!

134 -- A critical argument of many mythicists -- particularly Wells and Doherty -- relates to epistalory silence about life details and other aspects of Jesus. Ehrman rightly notes that such things mean little even on the surface: There is no reason for Paul to mention certain sayings; the epistles were written to people who had long been Christians and knew about these things; and Paul is also silent about a lot of his own personal information. Here Ehrman did a fairly good job, even if a summary one, but there is no mention of the NT world as a high context society -- a coup de grace to mythicist arguments in this regard.

167 -- Interestingly, Ehrman takes on some of Richard Carrier's claims in his Not the Impossible Faith (NIF) concerning the idea of a humiliated messiah. In this Ehrman is on the same side as I am where I responded to NIF in its online version. What makes it interesting moreso if that if he is aware of NIF, he must also be substantially aware of what and who Carrier was responding to -- yet there's no hint or explanation of it whatsoever. Hmmm...

(Update for those looking for problems: And no...I'm not "miffed" about it. I simply find it curious given Ehrman's use of arguments that somewhat resemble mine in TIF with respect to crucifixion. Why would I be "miffed"? Because I want to sell TIF? Gee, if people look up Carrier's book because of Ehrman, they'll learn about mine too, right? Guh...golly... :D )

193 -- Rene Salm's Nazareth-myth is also briefly treated but here as well Ehrman does a fairly good, even if summary, job of it.

199 -- Ehrman also makes much the same response I do (borrowed from Albert Lord originally) to those who claim the story of Jesus was ripped off from the OT: It would be easy, he says, to tell the story of Richard Nixon using the template of a Shakespearian tragedy -- especially of one is allowed to select freely from the bard's vast works.

212 -- Alleged correspondences between Jesus and Mithra are another of my fave projects. Ehrman spends only 2 1/2 pages on this, much of it descriptive, but he does well to make the point succinctly that there are no Mithraic texts that show Mithras was born of a virgin on 12/25, died to atone for sin, and was raised. I'd have liked to have seen more detail, but at least the footnote refers readers to the works of Mithraic scholars (Beck and Ulansey).

244 -- On the downside, Ehrman responds to one of Wells' theories that Jesus was based on the figure of Wisdom in Jewish literature, and this section offers some amazing howlers, and also resorts to dodgy answers such as Col. 1:15-20 not being applicable because Paul didn't write Colossians, and dismisses the direct designation of Jesus as Wisdom in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 as meaning only that Jesus' acts embodied God's wisdom -- the same excuse made by some Unitarians, which fails to respect Paul's direct language of equivalence. Ehrman also does not grasp that meaning of Paul designating Jesus as God's "power" in context (it's also an indication of hypostatic identity), and doesn't even touch the consistent equivalence of Jesus with the Proverbs 8 figure (and that of intertestamental Jewish works) throughout the NT.

252 -- Some detailed attention is offered to Doherty's thesis of a "spiritual realm" in which Jesus was thought to be crucified. My own treatment of Doherty's other arguments made it unnecessary for me to discuss it in STCM (some of my guest writers do), but Ehrman does well to point out that Doherty's thesis in this regard is simply created out of whole cloth. Unfortunately it's not all complete: He dismisses Doherty's suggestion of 1 Thess. 2:14-16 as an interpolation by merely saying it is a explanation of convenience for Doherty.

332 -- Ehrman recounts a personal story in which he received an award from the American Humanist Association and was surprised by two things. The first was how "religious" many of the atheists and agnostics there were -- and I find it significant that Ehrman fails to recognize the same symptoms in himself, even as mild as his "fundy atheism" is. The second surprise he has was how many of them were mythicists -- and how many of them were surprised that he wasn't one.

That's what struck me most from DJE; I'd say that most readers won't want to order it, but it might be worth a look in your local library, which is sure to carry it. I'll be keeping an eye on it and what the atheists out there say about it -- it's sure to make for an interesting time.


  1. Interesting indeed, the best part of about this whole thing is Ehrman's status as one of the premier if not the premier popular skeptic of Christianity among atheists. How will fundy atheists deal with the fact that their foremost expert just showed them up for the ignorant masses they are?

  2. I've never read Ehrman, but I'm aware of his background. How much credibility does he have?

  3. @Ross His scholarly work is fair. His popular works are full of half-truths and errors, mostly the former, and he speaks out frequently on topics he has no business talking about (problem of evil, divine titles of Jesus, etc) -- his specialty is textual criticism.

  4. The great irony here is that while Ehrman is spot on in his evaluation of the unreasonableness of the standards set by Jesus mythicists for Jesus to exist (and only applied to the existence of Jesus), Ehrman himself exhibits the same myopia when discussing the reliability of the NT texts. I'm not even speaking of whether the NT we have is true but only that it accurately represents the originals. When asked in his recent debate with Dan Wallace what it would take for him to believe we can be sure we have an accurate depiction of the texts, his answer was functionally equivalent to needing a photocopier in the first century AD. In other words, Ehrman does in his textual critical evaluations the same thing that mythicists do with the existence of Jesus. I think a certain passage about motes and beams should come to mind about now.

  5. I've commented before that there seem to be two Bart Ehrmans. One is a scholar, competent in his field who should be listened to, the other is a skeptical apologist who frequently makes claims that can be refuted by reference to the first Bart Ehrman (as Dan Wallace did in debate).

    Is Bart Ehrman suffering from split personality syndrome?

  6. The one thing that struck me is - why is Ehrman rejecting the resurrection, but accepting the crucifixion as fact? They're in the exact same texts and clearly part of the exact same traditions. Obviously, the reason is that resurrection is a miracle and crucifixion is not, and he doesn't personally believe in miracles. But then he's rejecting the resurrection not as a historian, but as an agnostic. He certainly has that right, but he seems to pretend his rejection is on historical grounds, which its clearly not. None of his "three criteria" would lead to a rejection of the resurrection.

  7. The analogy to Nixon seems apt to me. However, I'm wondering if you have a response to Doherty's answer to Ehrman's analogy. He says:
    "Surely the reader can recognize the flaws in this analogy. First of all, Nixon’s story is amenable to the shape of a ‘downfall of a great man’ tale because Nixon’s actual life itself was the downfall of a great man. We know that. We “want to shape the story” of Nixon as a downfall tale because that is what it was. No one is going to cast Nixon’s biography in the shape of F.D.R.’s presidency in order to portray him as one of the great Presidents, because he was nothing like Roosevelt. (Just as the historical Jesus, in Ehrman’s view, was in reality very little like Moses.)
    "Ehrman speaks of having facts of Nixon’s life fitting the downfall mold, “and the facts that don’t fit can easily be bypassed or altered to make them fit.” But how much liberty do we really have to portray Nixon in ways and with anecdotes which are not only completely fictional but clearly belong to some former President? Ehrman can hardly be suggesting that a biography of Nixon is going to contain nothing that is recognizably a genuine aspect of Nixon’s life.
    "Like all of Ehrman’s attempted analogies, this one fails on the “begging the question” flaw, for we know that Nixon existed, and we can identify elements in any biography of him which are historical and enjoy other corroboration. If we did not, and nothing in an alleged biography of him could be verified as authentic, then we might have good reason to question his existence.
    "Once again, if writings from the period of Nixon’s alleged life did not present him as a human being, did not themselves give us traditions about his administration and actions in an earthly context, if chronicles of the U.S. Presidency failed to make any room for his term of office, or if Watergate and the secret tapes were never mentioned, Nixon mythicists would have every reason to hold their heads high in the face of hostile historical Nixon defenders."

    His comments in the last paragraph seem weak, as you have shown in detail. However, how would you respond to his contention that the analogy does not hold, given that Nixon's life invited this pattern, rather than having to "shoehorn" his life to fit the mold? Is this analogy actually begging the question, since those details of Nixon's life are attested outside of a narrative that makes him fit such a mold?

    Thanks, Jake

  8. Doherty is so out of his mind that he wrote his own self-refutation. "Nixon’s story is amenable to the shape of a ‘downfall of a great man’ tale because Nixon’s actual life itself was the downfall of a great man." Yes, precisely. And Jesus' life is the story of someone with a motive to re-enact OT themes and accounts, for the purpose of validating himself as Messiah. Doherty always has been clueless about this aspect of their social world.