Saturday, March 15, 2014

Jesus & reality, part two

The opposite view, supporting the historical reality of Jesus, from Bart Ehrman.

In a recent blog post on the Jesus as myth theory, I reviewed a book by Robert Price who tentatively holds the myth position (i.e. that there was no historical person with the name or characteristics of Jesus), and puts the best case he can for it. But it is far from the mainstream, and Bart Ehrman, an equally if not better-versed(!) scholar recently wrote the opposite position in "Did Jesus exist?", kindly linked by a commenter on that previous post. Ehrman's is the better organized and better argued book, and makes the more pursuasive case. Indeed he brings up some very interesting topics, like the traces of other languages in the Greek of the gospels, and the Jewish understanding of a messiah. But there are some interesting themes that come up from the synthesis of both positions.

Ehrman offers numerous strands of evidence that Jesus was a real, historical person. They include the fact that the mythicists mis-represent the evidence of Paul. Paul did indeed quote Jesus's sayings, about three times. It is not much, but more than the "none" claimed by the mythicist position. And more importantly, Paul clearly says and knows of Jesus as having been a true person, killed by crucifixion. Paul says he met with two of the apostles, even though he only met Jesus in a vision. So at least Paul is clearly convinced of Jesus's reality, which was incidentally as true prior to his conversion as it was after, since his earlier opposition to the Christians was (Ehrman speculates) due to the traditional Jewish position that the messiah would be a powerful king, not someone nailed to a cross by the Romans. In either case, a real person was the object of scorn or adoration.

Secondly, everyone else who reports anything about the Jesus movement likewise regards Jesus as a real person, whatever they think about it. Ehrman cites Pappias, Ignatius, Josephus, as well as the gospel writers, Paul, the non-Pauline letters / acts, and all the later church leaders. Even the gnostics, however way-out their theology, didn't say he didn't exist, only at worst that he seemed like a real person, while actually being a god. So that is broad agreement, among those we know anything about, that the core of the Jesus tradition was of one mind on this matter.

Thirdly, Ehrman puts quite a bit of credence in the gospels as historical sources, at least to the extent of, firstly, agreeing on the historicity of Jesus, and secondly, of integrating and drawing on what appear to be numerous oral and written sources in the movement (Q, sayings, M, L, and Luke's claimed numerous other sources, etc.) that were by that time, of about 40 to 60 years after the putative death of Jesus, rather separate, even conflicting, traditions, each, however, agreeing on this central point. Some even carry traces of their source in the Aramaic language, which is significant in dating their origin well before the transition to the Greek of the gospels, back to the Palestinian Jesus movement.

There is a great deal more, of course, but that is a brief capsule that indicates that, in any normal historical sense, one has to accept that the bulk of evidence, despite its scanty & distant nature, supports the historicity of Jesus.

Where I would bring back Price's work is in his critique of the gospels as anything like historical documents. While Price's contention is that the midrash-ic and mythic nature of the gospels point to the entirely mythic nature of their protaganist, one can easily take a less extreme position. Which is that the failure of Paul to mention much of this material, (which Ehrman subjects to extensive defense, not entirely successfully in my view), its so-often unbelievable nature, and its heavily templated nature, based on passage after passage of the old testament, indicate that most of it was made up by the later Greek authors (and their various oral sources) who followed the time-honored practice of classic historians of putting words in people's mouths, presenting likely scenarios, and generally creating what they thought was the case, rather than documenting what was actually the case. In this case also heavily larded with their own theological agendas, which are so clearly different among Mark, Luke, and John. After all, no one had tape recorders. The problems of accurate history are truly enormous in this kind of setting.

Stories about Jesus multiply and expand in fabulousness over time. When traced back, do they hit the Y-intercept at zero, or at some point of positive factuality?

Price also makes a point that Ehrman expounds on at some length, which is the rapidly inflating nature of Jesus over time. At first, he had a brother, taught in the Jewish tradition, was thought a wise person, maybe a healer and philosophical deviant, and was finally killed by the Romans. Then he became the Jewish messiah, then rose from the dead, then the redeemer of sins, then the redeemer for all people, then the son of god, then literally born of a virgin by the direct seed of god, and eventually co-substantial with god, etc. Paul didn't give a fig for any birth stories. That mythology, among so much else, was clearly added later on. There is no question that the vast majority of the later understandings, creeds, and traditions- as is usual in any social movement, let alone a religion- had nothing to do with the originating facts of the matter, in any historical sense, versus in an archetypal sense.

So we are left with a more narrow debate, if one is interested, on the nature of the original Jesus movement, and, if one wants to engage in science fiction arguments, whether the various miracles attributed to Jesus happened. The Jesus Seminar is, to me, looking a bit better on that front, throwing out the mythical bathwater, while retaining something of the oral traditions that may or may not have flowed from the person or at least immediate time period of Jesus. Yet it should still be said that they are groping in the historical dark. Making the case for the bare historicity of Jesus is a far different matter than judging every jot of the gospels and other traditions. Ehrman writes extensively of the novelistic (historical novel, in this case) nature of the gospels, partaking both of invention and oral transmission, little of which itself originated in fact. But what was the proportion?
"Once we move from the fact of Jesus's existence to the question of who he really was, we move from the remarkably firm ground of virtual historical certainty to greater depths of uncertainty." -Ehrman

What is the significance of all this? The mythicist position is a bracing and useful one, in the spirit of offering a counter-hypothesis to the conventional wisdom. But it does not withstand sustained scrutiny. I might add that Robert Price has another skeleton in his closet, which is flagrant denial of climate heating. It makes one wonder about his critical judgment in general, despite his great knowledge and humor.


  1. Burk,

    “What is the significance of all this? The mythicist position is a bracing and useful one, in the spirit of offering a counter-hypothesis to the conventional wisdom…”

    That is exactly what the Intelligent Design people would say or the UFO true believers as to why their existence is useful.

    “…But it does not withstand sustained scrutiny.”

    Then please tell us why it is useful or bracing? Let’s just be honest here: It is “useful” and “bracing” to you for the same reasons the ID, creationist, or Da Vinci Code people find their views also useful and bracing—pure ideology. It has nothing to do with objective facts or sound historical methods.

  2. Darrell-

    That is a fair question. I think there are two reasons. First is the dubious nature of all this evidence. I personally would not have dug into this topic were it not for the interesting conflict between mythicism and realism. It has helped me to refine the wheat from the chaff- wheat that is reasonably secure, but in the midst of a great deal of chaff. Second is the extreme nature of the opposing camp. Christians in general and inerrantists in particular go way overboard in their credulousness of their religious corpus. It is thus useful and instructive to explore the opposing hypothesis, in a sort of dialectic to get to the truth.

    ID and creationism, disappointing and alarming as they are, likewise perform a useful function in encouraging more careful analysis of the proper evidence of evolution, have refined my thinking, and probably that of many people in & out of the field. But "teaching the controversy" is not for school children.. (given the weight of the evidence and expert opinion), it is for serious thinkers and scholars who have the ability to entertain opposing views and leisure to delve into the evidence. Likewise, the myth hypothesis is not one to teach in the schools either- the Jesus Seminar consensus seems like a more proper kind of basis.