Friday, April 6, 2012

Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" (2); Why would he make that up?


In the classic South Park episode All About Mormons, Joseph Smith tells various people about the supernatural comings and goings in his life. Not everyone believes him, but those who do say "Sure. Why would he make that up?" I think that the most disappointing thing in Did Jesus Exist is that Bart Ehrman resorts to a similar argument:
Before the Christian movement, there were no Jews who thought that the messiah was going to suffer. Quite the contrary. The crucified Jesus was not invented therefore to provide some kind of mythical fulfillment of Jewish expectation. The single greatest obstacle Christians had when trying to convert Jews was precisely their claim that Jesus had been executed. They would not have made that part up. (Did Jesus Exist? p. 173)
To illustrate the problems with this argument, let's recast it:
Before the Mormon movement, there were no Protestants who thought that there might be undiscovered books of scripture that were every bit as inspired, inerrant, and authoritative as the books of the Bible. Quite the contrary. The single greatest obstacle Mormons had when trying to convert Protestants was precisely their claim that Joseph Smith had found another New Testament of Jesus Christ buried in western New York state written on Golden Plates. They would not have made that part up.

If we must believe that there was a historical reality behind the concept of a crucified messiah because we think the idea would have been absurd and offensive to most Jews of the time, why shouldn't we believe that there was a historical reality behind the Golden Plates?

According to Ehrman this is one of the especially key points that "shows beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt that Jesus must have existed as a Palestinian Jew who was crucified."  (P. 144)  I'm sorry Dr. Ehrman.  I love your stuff, but this can't be a good argument.

In support of this claim, Ehrman makes the very same kind of argument from silence for which he berates the mythicists.  "We do not have a shred of evidence to suggest that any Jews prior to the birth of Christianity anticipated that there would be a future messiah who would be killed for sins--or killed at all--let alone one who would be unceremoniously destroyed by the enemies of the Jews."  (p. 170)  Should we expect to have evidence of what every single Jew prior to the birth of Christianity anticipated?  How could we possibly know such a thing.

Let me suggest what seems to me to be a perfectly plausible scenario. 
There is a devout Jew named Saul living in the first century who really really wants a messiah to come and overthrow the Romans.  Every time he hears about someone claiming to be the messiah, he gets his hopes only to have them dashed when the Romans crush the troublemaker.  He struggles to understand why this keeps happening again and again.  Then one day, a thought pops into his head, "Maybe this is part of God's plan."  He searches through the scriptures and he finds all those same verses that Christians always cite as prophecies of Jesus' passion.  One night he has a dream in which he sees an exalted heavenly being who tells him "I had to suffer for Israel's wrongdoing but now God has raised me up and I'll be coming back to kick some Roman ass."
Voila!  There's your crucified messiah without there having to be any specific historical person behind it.

Do I think that's what happened?  I don't know, but I don't see how we can possibly know beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that it couldn't have happened.  The scenario that Ehrman and others lay out basically amounts to Jesus' followers stumbling onto the idea of a crucified messiah as a result of grief induced hallucinations that they experienced after his crucifixion.  I find that perfectly plausible.  What I find implausible is the idea that historians can be so sure of what every first century Jew thought as to be certain that no one could have possibly stumbled on the idea in any other way.


10 comments:

  1. 'The single greatest obstacle Christians had when trying to convert Jews was precisely their claim that Jesus had been executed. '

    Really?

    The Jews had rejected Jesus once, according to Ehrman.

    Why would they be bothered by how he died?


    The Saviour of the Nation was expected to usher in a 1000-year Reich , not shoot himself in a bunker.

    Nobody expected the Fueher to die in a bunker.

    According to Ehrman, the reason people reject Hitler nowawadays, is because he died in a bunker.

    The Fuehrer was not supposed to die in a bunker, and so that must be the reason people reject Hitler....

    If Jews rejected the Christian crucified Messiah because he was crucified, that means they did accept the other aspects of the Christian Messiah.

    So Jews must have been accepting Christian interpretations of scripture about the Messiah , and then walked away when Christians pointed out that scripture prophesied that the Messiah would die.

    If Jesus had existed, Jews would have rejected Jesus the second time for exactly the same reasons they (according to Bart) rejected Jesus the first time - because of what he had said and done.

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  2. Bart Ehrman: The single greatest obstacle Christians had when trying to convert Jews was precisely their claim that Jesus had been executed.

    It should be noted, by the time Christianity was being recorded (Paul’s letters), the conversion of Jews was being abandoned, and the focus had switched primarily towards Gentiles. One could feasibly argue the Jews did reject this particular claim, for this particular reason, hence requiring the religion to modify its intended target.

    Not really the best argument in light of how it all played out.

    However, I am personally convinced in a historical Jesus primarily because of the crucifixion. Does Ehrman focus on this point?

    To explain…imagine you were creating a hero within today’s culture. Within the fiction, you want your hero (wrongfully, of course) accused of a crime—what crime would you pick? Perhaps murder, espionage, even possibly rape (Noting Stephen R. Donaldson.) In the end they will be vindicated. But what is one crime you would never use, not even in a fiction, not even with an eventual clearing up? Child rape. That is considered so reprehensible in our society; no one would even want a wrongful charge used against the hero.

    In the same way, in the first Century society, crucifixion was considered an anathema—a cursing, a terrible way to die. If you were going to create a messiah—a fiction—there were other ways to have him die that are just as sufficient for the story without the necessity of crucifixion. In the same way our fictional hero story only needs the hero to be accused of a crime—since we are picking the crime, why pick one with such terrible reputation?

    Further, if the initial proclaimers were focusing on Jewish responsibility, it would seem stoning (considering Romans didn’t stone, and Jews didn’t crucify) would have been far more applicable. And notice how the story works just as well with Jesus being stoned (we could still have all the lovely beatings, and drag out the pain, etc.) as crucified.

    It does seem to me, this one data point, the Christians were (reluctantly) stuck with—Jesus was crucified.

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  3. Romulus murdered his brother.

    The worst of all crimes in that age.

    So why would they make it up?

    Dagood does have a point about how a crucified criminal became the Messiah/

    It would be like us today claiming Lee Harvey Oswald was the True President of the United States, after he had committed the terrible crime of killing a President.

    You wouldn't do that unless Lee Harvey Oswald really had killed JFK.

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  4. Dagoods,

    A few thoughts:

    (1) Crucifixion is a punishment while child rape is a crime. As horrible a punishment as it was, couldn't the victim still be viewed as innocent?

    (2) As horrible as we think child rape is and as unlikely as we might think it that a child rapist might be viewed as a hero, if we had evidence of a phenomenally successful story with a child rapist as its hero, wouldn't we have to reevaluate our initial assumptions? You seem to be saying that we can be sure that the horribleness and shame of crucifixion would have deterred someone from inventing a crucified hero, but it seems to me that given the success that the story enjoyed, we cannot say that the horribleness was as big a deterrent as we might once have thought.

    (3) Here's a hypothesis:
    You've got this first century Jew named Saul who really really wants the messiah to come to kick the Romans out of Palestine. Every time a claimant comes along, Saul gets excited, only to be disappointed when the Romans crush the trouble maker. He can't figure out why this keeps happening and then one day the thought pops into his head "Maybe this is somehow part of God's plan." That night he has a dream about this heavenly being who says to him "They crucified me, but I'm coming back to kick some Roman ass." Voila! A crucified messiah without a specific historical person as its source.

    My guess is that the crucified hero idea caught on because it appealed to the poor and the disenfranchised of the Roman Empire. Whether someone might have been imaginative or creative enough to see its appeal or whether someone might have just stumbled on the idea accidentally, I don't see the slam dunk that there had to be a specific historical individual in the mix. It's plausible, but I don't think it's necessary.

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  5. Vinny,

    Yes, there is a difference between punishment and crime—I was trying to bring (by analogy) a modern-day equivalent to the first century perception of crucifixion. We don’t really have a modern punishment equaling how crucifixion was seen; it is why I used the closest thing we currently have—child rape.

    Vinny: …if we had evidence of a phenomenally successful story with a child rapist as its hero, wouldn't we have to reevaluate our initial assumptions? …. but it seems to me that given the success that the story enjoyed, we cannot say that the horribleness was as big a deterrent as we might once have thought.

    But remember, the death was not the import of the story—the fact Jesus was returning (which consequently required his being alive again in some way) was the key. He could have died by Roman beheading—still have the same hero. Could have died by Jewish stoning or hanging—still have the same hero. In keeping with my hero-fiction-crime analogy, the “crime” s/he is charged with is irrelevant—it is only part of the story. Our hero becomes a hero for completely different reasons. The idea they were charged with a crime bolsters some aspect of the story--but we could use murder, armed robbery, disorderly person, etc.--and the hero story stays the exact same hero story.

    Jesus is the “hero” for coming back, “saving” all the correct persons, and vanquishing the Christian’s enemies. It is only subsequently the Resurrection (intentionally capitalized) became important, and many, many years later before they glamorized the crucifixion and wore crosses about their necks. At the time, they just needed Jesus to return.

    Remember, the myth position requires they make up the entire story—including how he died. While a crucified messiah DID eventually catch on, at the time the person is creating the story there is no way to predict that. If one was going to make up a story, including how Jesus died, and appeal to the masses—why not use beheading? Why not use stoning? Both would equally work, and you avoid the added distraction and discomfort of crucifixion.

    Obviously we are both entering speculation, and certainly there are hypothesis where someone would use crucifixion. To me, it is more plausible they would avoid crucifixion (primarily because it is so unnecessary, and only causes unnecessary difficulties) unless they were using a particular person as the core, who was…unfortunately…crucified.

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  6. Dagoods,

    Let me come at this from a different direction. How many times have you heard a witness testify to something that you believed to be a lie and said to yourself "Why would he tell such a ridiculous story? He would have been much better off just telling the truth."? It just seems to me that people make up stories all the time that include details that work counter to the story's purpose.

    I might be persuaded that you can know a particular person well enough to say with some certainty that he or she would not have invented a particular detail in a particular story, but I have a hard time seeing any basis to assert that no 1st century Jew would and/or could have invented a crucified messiah just because another form of execution would have been more logical, even if it would have been a lot more logical. There only needs to be one person to invent the story and others to believe it without any evidence.

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  7. Vinny,

    Far too many times, I have seen people lie (alas, many my own witnesses and clients) when the truth would be sufficient. However, the vast, vast majority of those times, the person had a purpose they felt would improve their position by lying. Perhaps they thought by countering my own position—if I was claiming they did not see something, they may simply claim they did because they are opposed to me—perhaps they think the truth will make them look badly, etc. Lies tend to have purpose.

    Heck, people start “sanding” (it is what we call it—taking the rough edges off) their story the first time I meet them in the office. Only what they must acknowledge, they do. Here, what I am saying is people made up all kinds of stories about Jesus, because it improved their own position or tickled the ears of others. The one item they could not lie about, because it was attributed to this Jesus fellow, was that he was crucified.

    Vinny: … but I have a hard time seeing any basis to assert that no 1st century Jew would and/or could have invented a crucified messiah just because another form of execution would have been more logical… [emphasis added]

    And I would agree…I cannot eliminate ALL First century Mediterranean citizens from coming up with a crucified messiah. I am making a plausibility argument. I start with the premise people recorded as acting in History as historical were real. Whether John the Baptist, Alexander the Great, or even Noah. Upon further information, that initial premise may modify. If the person is identified solely in fanciful stories—like Hercules—I modify my assessment to their being mythical.

    Of course, this can be further complicated in persons, such as Jesus or perhaps Robin Hood, who have a historical core, and legendary developments occur. And we can quickly reach a point where it becomes impossible to consistently differentiate between the legend and the truth.

    Be that as it may, Jesus is recorded as a historical person acting in history within 100 years of his existence. (Albeit with so much legend, it may be difficult to say much beyond “Jesus existed” and end with that!) With that in hand, I look to see if whether it is more likely than not, whether Jesus existed. The one data point I cannot seem to get around is this crucifixion. Is it possible a person came up with a crucified Messiah? Certainly. Is it more likely—does it preponderate—that a person would? In my mind, for the reasons listed, it does not.

    Therefore, to stay consistent with my method, as it is more likely than not a person would only utilize a crucifixion if they were stuck with that data point, the personage of Jesus is based upon a person who was crucified.

    I hope that is clear.

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  8. It is clear and it is quite reasonable. I was really hoping that Ehrman would make that kind of measured case for Jesus' existence.

    I agree that most lies have a purpose. However, sometimes people badly misjudge the extent to which a particular lie will help their purposes. A crucifixion may be pretty far out on the scale though for someone to misjudge its effect.

    I think that accepting the existence of people who are recorded as acting in history is a reasonable starting point. However, I might then ask myself how this person came to be recorded as acting in history. In the overwhelming majority of cases from the ancient world it will be because during the person's life, he had some sort of impact on prominent and literate people. Jesus seems to have been unnoticed during his life and only enters the record because people began claiming that he did supernatural things after his death. I think that makes him a little trickier to deal with.

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  9. Vinny: Jesus seems to have been unnoticed during his life and only enters the record because people began claiming that he did supernatural things after his death. I think that makes him a little trickier to deal with.

    “A little”? You…sir…are a master of the understatement.

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  10. Dagoods,

    You might be able to develop the skill, too, if you didn't spend your days dealing with clients and juries who can't be trusted to understand subtlety.

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