Wednesday, May 2, 2012

DJE? (10): It's Not What Ehrman Read, It's How He Read It

In his review of Did Jesus Exist?, Richard Carrier suggests that Bart Ehrman didn't read Pliny and hadn't understood Plutarch. Ehrman responded that he has read Pliny many times and that he has taught seminars on Plutarch.

While I have no reason to doubt that Ehrman has read all the things he says he has read, I wonder whether the problem is that he has never tried to think about them from a mythicist perspective.  As a former fundamentalist, Ehrman has no trouble recognizing the fundamentalist implications of anything he reads in Pliny or Plutarch or Tacitus.  He knows how any source might be used by someone who believes that the Bible is inspired and inerrant. Ehrman has never been a mythicist though so I don't think that he is as adept at spotting the mythicist implications.

In a comment to a post titled The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant?, I asked Erhman the question I posed in a previous post here, i.e., how can our certainty about Paul thinking that James was Jesus' biological brother be any greater than our certainty about the textual integrity of Galatians? Ehrman answered that all of our manuscripts include the reference to James as "the brother of the Lord" and that "we know from other sources that the James who headed the church in Jerusalem was in fact known to be the brother of Jesus." This prompted  the following exchange between Steven Carr and Dr. Ehrman:
Carr:      Out of curiosity, which sources would they be? Luke/Acts, the Epistle of James, Jude? Does Josephus ever claim James was the head of the church?"

Ehrman:  In the NT, just Acts. But later traditions of the second century are uniform in making this claim, I believe. And they got the idea from *somewhere*!

Carr:      Acts claims that James the brother of Jesus was a church leader. Where does it say that?

Ehrman:  Ah good point. Acts does indicate that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and it does differentiate this James from the disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, but it never explicitly says he was Jesus’ brother.

I was rather taken aback by this as was Steven.  How can Ehrman cite Paul knowing the biological brother of Jesus as one of the key points that shows "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt" that there was a historical Jesus and not even notice that the only other New Testament book that talks about this James doesn't identify him as Jesus' brother?   I have no doubt that Ehrman has read Luke and Acts countless times, but apparently he never thought about the fact that while Mark 6:31 explicitly gives James as the name of one of Jesus' biological brothers, the author of Luke drops that reference.  Luke knows that Jesus has brothers, but he never tells us any of their names.

This is what leads me to believe that Ehrman has never thought about the mythicist implications of the things he has read.  Perhaps he simply assumed that there weren't any, but plainly if the question of Jesus' existence turns on whether the leader in Jerusalem named James was the biological brother of Jesus, it matters that the only two references in the New Testament don't say the same thing.   If you are going to rely heavily on Galatians 1:19, you need to have some explanation for why Acts doesn't corroborate.

As I pointed out to Dr. Ehrman, the simplest reading is that the James in Acts 15 and 21 is James the son of Alphaeus mentioned in Acts 1 and Luke 6, and that the author doesn't bother to mention his father in the later chapters because James the son of Zebedee had been killed off in Acts 12.  With only one James left in the story, there was no need to identify his father in order to distinguish him.  Occam's Razor would suggest that this is a simpler solution than positing that the author is introducing a third James into the narrative without bothering to distinguish him from the ones who had been mentioned earlier in the story.  This interpretation is not mandatory, but it seems to be the most natural.

Dr. Ehrman responded to this with the well known "everybody knew it" defense:
Well, if everyone knew who James was, there may in fact be no reason to identify him — especially if it is his custom to identify some other James (son of Alphaeus) with an identifying marker precisely becuase he wsa *not* well known.
I have never thought that the "everybody knew it" defense was a particularly convincing argument when used to explain why Paul is so silent about the historical Jesus, but I think it is even weaker with respect to Luke/Acts. At the beginning of his gospel, Luke says that he is writing his gospel because earlier works were unsatisfactory. I have to think that he expected his work to be the definitive account. When Luke/Acts departs from Mark, I think we have to assume that the author thought that Mark had gotten something wrong.

My good friend Dagoods is also less than impressed with the argument
“Everyone knew it” is a failed methodology. The Acts author narrows the “James” in 12:2 as “James, brother of John” and the “James” of 1:13 as “James of Alphaeus.” But this method alleges the author did NOT list “James” of 21:18 as “James, brother of Jesus” because everyone knew it? It would seem to follow, that meant no one knew who James, brother of John was. Or who James, son of Alphaeus was.

Don’t forget, Luke/Acts knew Jesus had brothers, but does not list their names. Even though his source (Mark) DOES indicate there is a brother to Jesus named James. Under a straight reading of Acts, the better argument is that James of 21:18 is James, son of Alphaeus—NOT the unknown “brother of Jesus” who never is identified by Luke/Acts.

See Also the author’s treatment of “Philip” in distinguishing between “Philip the Disciple” and “Philip the Evangelist” that equally shows a tendency to make distinctions for intended recipients.

I’ve been on the fence regarding Ehrman’s scholarship in reading these reviews, but if he really did use the method “everyone knew it” for arguing the silence on James in Acts; I find this devastating to his credibility. This is Mythical Skepticism 101 stuff.
Well, Ehrman really did use the "everyone knew it" defense and it leads me to think that he really didn't put enough effort into thinking about about the mythicists' arguments.  He shouldn't have been surprised when someone pointed out that Acts does not corroborate a biological relationship between James and Jesus, and he should have been ready with a stronger reason for discarding Acts.


  1. Yup. Ehrman's just not primed to have a debate about mythicism yet. Oh well.

  2. On a related note, when James White was preparing to debate Ehrman I emailed Ehrman and provided several links to White's criticism. I advised him to prepare a bit. Get familiar with White's argumentation style. I told him atheists often didn't prepare for White and did worse than they should have. He emailed me back a simple "thanks" without really any indication he'd bother to look at the links I provided (as I recall).

    When I heard the debate I was pretty disappointed in Ehrman. White made it known that it was obvious Ehrman didn't prepare at all. I think he pretty much openly admitted it, saying that he really doesn't prepare for stuff like this. He seems to think he knows it all. So Ehrman's performance was not great, and White would crow about his victory for weeks on end.

    Contrast with Robert Price who debated White subsequently. Price destroyed White. White did no crowing at all. Very muted. So Price's efforts basically spared us from having to listen to White gloat and beat atheists over the head for weeks on end. My impression is that Ehrman is quite talented and capable, but also possibly he has a false impression that he's prepared and ready when he really isn't.

  3. Jon,

    I actually didn't think that White really landed any blows against Ehrman, but Ehrman certainly didn't carve him up the way Price did.

    I think the difference between debating fundamentalists and debating mythicists, is that Ehrman spent a good part of his studies as a fundamentalist so he knows exactly how they think, what arguments they are going to make, and where the holes are in those arguments are. He can probably do alright even without preparing very much for them. I think maybe he assumed he could do the same thing with mythicists, but never having been one, he was not nearly as adept at figuring where the holes in the arguments were.