Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mythicism vs. Agnosticism

If you think it more likely than not that Jesus was purely mythical, you are viewed as a mythicist who has “drunk the Kool Aid” in the eyes of most of those who affirm the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.  This tends to be true even if you acknowledge the possibility of a historical Jesus. In my experience, there are only a few historicists who frequent these discussions who will acknowledge mythicism as intellectually defensible in any form.

If you think that the evidence is insufficient to establish that either a historical Jesus or a mythical Jesus is more likely than not, “historical Jesus agnostic” is probably the most generally accepted term and it is how I describe myself.  If you profess agnosticism about a historical Jesus, you will get varying reactions from those who affirm historicity. Some historicists seem to accept agnosticism as an intellectually defensible position. Others think that agnostics may not have yet drunk the Kool Aid, but that they are definitely sniffing the fumes. Others make no distinction between people who decline to affirm historicity and they view agnostics and mythicists as equally nutty.

If you are careful to affirm your agnosticism, you will probably be generally treated with more respect by historicists, although you may periodically provoke their ire simply because it is hard to be agnostic without at least acknowledging the possibility that mythicism is true.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist?" (9) Ehrman's Response to Carrier

Bart Ehrman has responded to Richard Carrier's review of Did Jesus Exist? in a couple of posts on his blog here and here. Happily he responded in the Public Forum so anyone can read them. He admits to a couple of mistakes, insists that he is right and Carrier is wrong about a couple of points, and insists that Carrier is misinterpreting his statements or taking them out of context in a couple of cases. Unfortunately I don't have the expertise to evaluate the substance of all these disagreements, but I do know what I want and expect out of a book by Ehrman.

For me the important issue is how well informed about mythicism someone will be after reading Did Jesus Exist? I knew nothing about textual criticism prior to reading Misquoting Jesus. After reading it I found that I could follow reasonably sophisticated discussions of the topic, ask intelligent questions, and generally spot the difference between someone who knew their stuff and someone who was just bluffing. I have had many debates with internet apologists using Ehrman’s works as a reference and I don’t think that I have ever been caught short due to having an inaccurate picture of the evidence and arguments on either side of a question.

My standard for evaluating all of Carrier’s criticisms and Ehrman’s defenses is whether someone who entered an argument with a mythicist using Did Jesus Exist? is likely to wind up with egg on his face if he relied on Ehrman in the way that I have relied on him in arguments with Christian apologists.

(1) Tacitus: Carrier says that Ehrman got some nitpicky details wrong about Tacitus. Ehrman says that his statements are correct.

Edge: Ehrman. The main thing is that none of this is likely to come up in an argument with a mythicist.

(2) Pliny: Carrier says that Erhman got some nitpicky details about Pliny wrong. Ehrman admits he made a mistake in citation but says that there was no need to go into the other nitpicky details.

Edge: Ehrman. Once again, none of it this is likely to matter in an argument with a mythicist.

(3) Roman records: Carrier says that Ehrman was wrong about what kind of records the Romans kept. Ehrman says Carrier is talking about records that were kept in Egypt and he was talking about what we might expect to find in Palestine.

Edge: Carrier. The general propensity of the Romans to keep records is clearly relevant to the kind of records we might expect to find regarding Jesus of Nazareth. I interpret Ehrman to be saying that Romans didn't keep the relevant type of records at all. “If Romans were careful record keepers, it is passing strange that we have no record, not of Jesus but of nearly anyone who lived in the first century.” (p. 29) I think a person could wind up looking very foolish arguing this point with a mythicist if he didn't know that there were such records kept in Egypt.

(4) The Peter priapus: Carrier says Ehrman was wrong about a penis-nosed statue of Peter in the Vatican’s collection. Ehrmans says the statue isn’t of Peter.

Edge: Carrier. It is important to know whether mythicists are misinterpreting the existing evidence or inventing evidence from whole cloth. Ehrman makes it sound like the mythicists are inventing things: “There is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this which love to make things up.” (p.24) Little is more embarrassing than having someone produce a piece of evidence that you have just accused them of inventing.

(5) Earlier Jesus: Carrier says Ehrman was wrong about whether any sources ever had Jesus living in the early 1st or 2nd century BC rather than the early 1st century AD. Ehrman says that all he meant was that those sources weren’t relevant to Paul's understanding.

Edge: Carrier. Once again, it is important to know whether mythicists are misinterpreting existing sources or inventing stories from whole cloth. Ehrman wrote "[T]he logic of Paul’s understanding of the resurrection show[s] that he thought that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events. I should stress that this is the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all” (p. 251). I think that Ehrman is clearly saying that no such source exists rather than that no such source was available to Paul.

(6) Earl Doherty: Carrier says Ehrman was wrong to say that Earl Doherty fails to acknowledge that the scholars he cites don’t agree with his ultimate conclusion. Ehrman says that Doherty “often gives the impression that the scholars he quotes agree with him on a point when they expressly do not.”

Edge: Carrier. Ehrman is often criticized unfairly by Christian apologists for the "impression" he gives rather than for what he actually says, e.g., "Ehrman makes it sound like we can't know anything at all about the text of the New Testament." Although this wouldn't come up in a debate, it is very disappointing to see Ehrman trying to justify a misstatement about someone else on these grounds.

(7) Dying and rising gods: Carrier says Ehrman is wrong about the dying and rising Gods. Ehrman says he got it right.

Edge: Too close to call (for me). This is obviously a very important issue for the mythicist argument and it comes up many times in the book. I don’t understand the issue well enough to say who’s right, but it doesn’t look to me like Ehrman is as dogmatic as Carrier implies so I don’t think that I would make any blanket statements based on Did Jesus Exist?, and hence I would not wind up with egg on my face when arguing with a mythicist.

(8) Carrier's credentials: Carrier says Ehrman is wrong about the degrees he holds. Ehrman admits the mistake and says he doesn't know where he got the erroneous information.

Edge: Carrier. Although this is never going to matter in a debate, I cannot see any excuse for Ehrman not checking this and the information is easy to find on the internet.

Overall, I have to agree with the substance of many of Carrier's criticisms, although I think that the tone of his review probably left something to be desired.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

HJ Agnosticism (21): Why It's Hard to Know Whether a Historical Jesus Existed

Historicists are fond of point out that supernatural stories were told about many people in the ancient world about whose existence historians are confident such as Alexander the Great.  Therefore, the fact that supernatural stories arose around Jesus of Nazareth isn't any reason to think that he did not exist.

Nevertheless, I think that there is a crucial difference: the supernatural stories arose around Alexander the Great as a result of historical events that occurred within the natural world, not the other way around.  When we strip away the legendary tales that grew around Alexander, we still find a significant mark in the historical record as a result of the things he accomplished during his life.

Jesus of Nazareth, on the other hand, first enters the historical record through the writings of Paul, a man who never knew him.  Our best guess is that he was relatively unnoticed during his own life by all but a small group of illiterate peasants.  He enters the record because Paul and others claimed to have encountered him after his death in the person of the risen Christ whose coming was the beginning of the end times.  This is not the type of event which can be considered subject to historical investigation.

Some time after Paul, stories were written about an earthly Jesus who tramped about Galilee teaching about the coming kingdom of God before reaching an unfortunate end in Jerusalem.  These stories were written in order to serve the propagation of the belief in the risen Christ who ushered in the end times.  The stories of the earthly man are transmitted as a result of the belief in the supernatural event, unlike with Alexander the Great where the supernatural stories arise as a result of the accomplishments of the earthly man.

Historicists say that they use standard historical tools in order to strip away the supernatural embellishments surrounding Jesus of Nazareth in the same way that such embellishments are stripped away from the story of any ancient person.  The problem is that when you strip away the embellishments surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, you strip away the reason that any stories were told about him in the first place.  When you strip away the embellishments surrounding Alexander the Great, you still have a significant mark in the historical record that was achieved independently of the legends and myths.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Atheist Cat


Out of more that 500 posts over 4 1/2 years, the one that has gotten the most hits is Hitler Cat. Let's see how Atheist Cat does.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist?" (8): Paying for Ehrman's Responses

Bart Ehrman has a new blog with a special Members Only area where readers can get access to Dr. Erhman's insights for a fee.  All proceeds will go to charity.  Despite my liberal political leanings, I am enough of a capitalist to say that if people are willing to pay Ehrman for blog content, more power to him!  I might do the same if I thought that I could make any money at it.

I am a little disturbed, however, that Ehrman has announced on his Facebook page that he is planning to put his responses to critics in this Members Only area.  After all, I already paid for Did Jesus Exist?   If there is some critique that merits a clarification or explanation from Erhman, I question the necessity of additional payment.  I rather feel that the arguments in the book should still be under warranty.

Ehrman has already used the Members Only area to respond to Robert Price's allegation that he had his graduate assistants read the books that he discusses in Did Jesus Exist?  (You can read about this hubbub on Ehrman's Facebook page as well as at the Uncredible HallQ and Vridar.)  I'm frankly not worried about this response since I never thought that Price's source for this was particularly credible--a podcast listener supposedly heard it from an unnamed student of Ehrman.  Moreover, I really don't care where Ehrman gained his understanding of the case for mythicism.  If his understanding was accurate and his responses were persuasive, it doesn't matter to me whether he read the books himself or a grad student summarized them for him.  If they weren't, reading the books for himself doesn't make them any better.

On the other hand, I think that Richard Carrier raises a number of points that someone who purchased the book might reasonably expect to have addressed without the need to shell out any more money.

Update:  Ehrman has posted his first response to Carrier in his Public Forum, but indicates that further responses will be posted in the Members Only area.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist?" (7): Carrier's Review

Dr. Richard Carrier has posted a scathing review of Did Jesus Exist? titled Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic.  Interestingly, it doesn't overlap all that much with the posts that I have been writing.  While I have been concentrating on weaknesses in arguments that any layman might appreciate,  Carrier goes after Ehrman for his shortcomings in the field of ancient history and religion.

One of the things I have always appreciated about Ehrman is how careful he is to present the evidence accurately and to deal with counter argument fairly.  I have argued with many internet apologists using Ehrman as my primary reference and I don't think that I have ever been caught short by arguments or evidence that I couldn't have reasonably anticipated after reading Ehrman.  Even if I didn't agree with Ehrman's conclusion, I always felt that I had a clear picture of the evidence upon which it was based and the counter-arguments that might be offered against it.

According to Carrier, Did Jesus Exists? consistently misstates the evidence and fails to inform the reader of the diversity of scholarly opinion on the issues it addresses.  I don't have the expertise or knowledge to critique Carrier, but I can say that I have always found him reliable in the past and that no internet apologist has ever managed to trip me up when I relied on Carrier either.

Update:  Carrier does address one point that I covered in an earlier post, which is the problem with the "nobody would/could have invented it" argument.  Not surprisingly, he does it better.
[T]here is a logical fail here as well, since he bases his conclusion that no Jews would develop a belief in a dying messiah on the premise that no Jews had a belief in a dying messiah, which apart from being a circular argument (all novel beliefs start somewhere; you can’t argue that x would not arise because x hasn’t arisen), and apart from the fact that the inference is refuted by the fact that Jews later did develop such a belief (independently of Christianity, as I also demonstrate in the preceding link) so clearly there was no ideological barrier to doing so, but besides all that, his premise requires knowing what all Jews, of all sects, everywhere, believed or imagined, which knowledge Ehrman doesn’t have (not even close: see my discussion of what I and other scholars have said about such preposterous claims to omniscience in Proving History, pp. 129-34). He even knows his own inference is illogical, because he makes the exact same argument I just did (on p. 193): “how would we know this about ‘every’ early Christian, unless all of them left us writings and told us everything they knew and did?”* Substitute “Jew” for “Christian” and Ehrman just refuted himself.
*  In the quoted passage, Ehrman is addressing Rene Salm's argument that we can infer the non-existence of Nazareth from the fact that early Christians didn't bother to look for it and seemed not to know where it was.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist?" (6): Is Corruption in Transmission Relevant?

I have been a fan of Bart Ehrman ever since reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why in which he describes how errors occurred when scribes copied the New Testament texts and how scholars go about trying to identify those errors.  This was the book that first gained Ehrman widespread attention and aroused the ire of conservative Christian apologists. However, when it comes to Jesus' existence, Ehrman dismisses this as a cause of concern:
I do not need to explicate all these problems here, as I have written about them in more detail elsewhere.  My point in this context is the for the question of whether or not Jesus existed, these problems are mostly irrelevant.  The evidence for Jesus' existence does not depend on having a manuscript tradition of his life and teachings that is perfectly in line with what the authors of the New Testament gospels really wrote. (p.180)
He goes on to say,
If we had no clue what was originally in the writings of Paul or in the Gospels, this objection might carry more weight. But there is not a textual critic on the planet who thinks this, since not a shred of evidence leads in this direction. (p.109)
This sounds pretty reasonable, but I have a hard time squaring this with what he said in a 2008 debate with Dan Wallace at the Greer-Heard Forums:
Can we trust that the copies of Galatians we have are the original copies. No. We don’t know. How could we possibly know? Our earliest copy of Galatians is p46 which dates from the year 200. Paul wrote this letter in the 50’s. The first copy that we have is 150 years later. Changes were made all along the line before this first copy was made. How can we possibly know that in fact it is exactly as Paul wrote it. Is it possible that somebody along the line inserted a verse? Yes. Is it possible that someone took out a verse? Yes. Is it possible that somebody changed a lot of the words? Yes. Is it possible that the later copies were made from one of the worst of the early copies? Yes. It’s possible. We don’t know.
. . . .
What I have said to my colleagues is that we are as close as we can hope to be to what we might imagine as the earliest text. What I have said in popular audiences is we don’t know if we can get back to the original text. And I stand by both statements. We don’t know what Paul originally wrote to the Galatians, and we no hope of getting any closer in the future than we are already now. We have no evidence that can get us any further back than we have already gotten and our earliest evidence is from the year 200, 150 years later. So can we know for certain? No. We can’t know for certain that the text is reliable. You might want to think it is. You might want to hope it is. You might want to say there are intelligent people who say it is so probably it is. But think about it. There are people copying these texts year after year, decade after decade.
Recall that it is in Galatians 1:19 where Paul says that he saw James "the brother of the Lord," which Ehrman says proves that Jesus was a historical person "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt." (p.144) How can we possibly have that kind of certainty if "[w]e can’t know for certain that the text is reliable"?   If it's possible that someone changed a lot of words in Galatians, then it has to be possible that "the brother of the Lord" was added by some scribe to identify which James Paul was talking about and that it wasn't written by Paul himself.

I cannot help but think that there is a bit of inconsistency here.  When debating a conservative Christian apologist, Ehrman insists that everything in Galatians is subject to at least some degree of doubt due to uncertainties about its transmission.  However, when arguing against mythicism, Ehrman insists that we can be certain "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt."

It's very disappointing to see Ehrman argue that way.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist? (5): Nazareth

Another concern I have with Did Jesus is Exist? is how quick Ehrman is to label an argument irrelevant to whether Jesus existed when the worst that can be said about it is that it's not dispositive of whether Jesus existed.  One of the most frustrating examples of this is his discussion of the argument that Nazareth did not exist at the time Jesus is claimed to have lived there (an argument about which I have no strong feeling).  Ehrman writes: 
I could dispose of this argument fairly easily by pointing out that it is irrelevant.  If Jesus existed, as the evidence suggests, but Nazareth did not, as this assertion claims, then he merely comes from somewhere else.  (p.191)
This sounds quite logical except for one thing: Nazareth is frequently cited as one of those things that can be known with relative certainty about the historical Jesus.  Ehrman makes this very point a couple of pages earlier:
Nazareth was a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of, as far as we can tell before Christianity.  The savious of the world came from there?  Not from Bethlehem?  Or Jerusalem? Or Rome?  How likely is that?  And so we have a multiply attested tradition that passes the criterion of dissimilarity.  Conclusion:  Jesus probably came from Nazareth. (p.189)
Now technically I suppose that Ehrman isn't claiming in this passage that Nazareth constitutes evidence Jesus existed.  If he were, his earlier quoted claim would boil down to the self-refuting "If Jesus existed, as the existence of Nazareth suggests, but Nazareth did not, the he merely comes from somewhere else."   Nevertheless, he is citing it as something that we can know about the historical Jesus.  It seems like more than a little smoke and mirrors to claim that the validity of the things that we think we can know about Jesus are irrelevant to whether we can know that he existed.

I will concede that the non-existence of Nazareth would not be dispositive of Jesus' existence, but surely it is relevant.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" (4): Does Paul Quote a Historical Jesus?

There are three passages that are usually cited as proof that Paul knew the teachings of a historical Jesus of Nazareth and they all come from his first letter to the Corinthians.
Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. 1 Cor. 9:13-14.
This teaching is reputed to be based on a passage in Luke
“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. Luke 10:5-7
Next is Paul's teaching about divorce.
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.  But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.  To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 1 Cor 7:10-12
This is thought to be based on a teaching found in Mark.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”      “What did Moses command you?” he replied. They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”  “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.  “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.  He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.  And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:2-12
Finally Paul's description of the institution of the Eucharistic meal:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,  and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Cor 11:23-26
The parallel passage is found in Luke:
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.  Luke 22:19-20  
The first one strikes me as particularly unimpressive.  I think that almost any preacher can independently come to the conclusion that his congregation should support him and that it is the God's will that they do so.  I don't think that Paul needed to have heard an actual saying of a historical person to think that this was what the Lord was commanding.  The second one is more interesting because Paul attributes some of the teaching to the Lord and takes credit for some of it himself.  This suggests that there was some independent tradition concerning divorce that was already known to the Corinthians.

I question whether the tradition Paul knows concerning divorce is necessarily the same one attributed to Jesus in Mark.  Paul's teaching is driven by a couple of elements that aren't found in Mark.  First, he thinks that believers would be better off not marrying at all since the time is short and they should be focusing on the Lord "[f]or this world in its present form is passing away." 1 Cor. 7:30.  He is also addressing the question of whether believers should remain married to unbelievers which isn't found found in Jesus' teaching.   It is certainly possible that Paul's teaching is in some way dependent upon Jesus', but it doesn't seem obviously to be so.

Ehrman also mentions the possibility that someone within one of Paul's communities may have claimed to have received a divine revelation or prophecy which Paul and the community accepted as a valid commandment from the Lord.  Ehrman thinks that this is a reasonable hypothesis for the rapture passage in the first letter to the Thessalonians.
According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 1 Thes. 4:15-18.
However, Ehrman rejects this as an explanation for the teachings on divorce and support of religious leaders for a very curious reason.  "When Paul claims that the Lord said something, and we have a record of Jesus saying exactly that, it is surely most reasonable to conclude that Paul is referring to something that he believed Jesus actually said."  (p. 129)  This seems very circular to me.  Isn't this only the most reasonable conclusion if we have first concluded that Paul actually believed that he knew things the historical Jesus said?  Isn't that what we are trying to figure out here?  Surely we cannot use the assumption that Paul knew the sayings of a historical Jesus in order to prove that Paul knew the sayings of a historical Jesus.

One of the reasons the revelation explanation makes sense to me on the divorce teaching is that Paul ends the discussion with "and I think that I too have the Spirit of God."  I'm just spit-balling here but that sounds to me like the kind of thing you might write if someone else in the community was claiming to receive prophecies or revelations.

With the description of the Last Supper, there can be little doubt that Paul and Luke are part of the same tradition, but there is still a question of which way that tradition flows.  If Paul indicated that he heard about this event from someone who was there, there would be little doubt that he understood himself to be quoting the words of a historical person.  Unfortunately, that's not what Paul says.  Paul says that this was "received from the Lord," i.e., Paul knows this by divine revelation.  While we cannot take such a statement at face value, I think we at least have to allow for the possibility that Paul sincerely believed it to be true.  If the Christian cult practiced some sort of ritual communal meal before Paul came along, he might have believed that its true meaning had been revealed to him and he could have added elements to the tradition that were later picked up by Luke when he wrote his gospel.

In sum then, I don't think that there is any conclusive reason to think that Paul viewed the teachings on divorce or supporting religious leaders as the words of the itinerant preacher described in the gospels.  He does seem to think that is was an actual historical person who instituted the Eucharistic meal, but I think some uncertainty is created by the fact that he claims not to have come by his knowledge of the event in the way that we think people normally come by their knowledge of actual historical events.  I think it's possible that Paul all three passages reflect actual memories of a historical person, but I also think that it's far from the slam dunk that Ehrman makes it out to be.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

HJ Agnosticism (20): On the Scholarly Consensus

Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, many of the finest minds in the field of finance and economics thought that they knew a lot more about how things worked than it turned out that they actually knew. Sadly, many of them still think they do. One of the problems is that the portion of known economic history for which testable data exists is really quite small. So you have lots and lots of experts combing over the same forty to fifty years worth of data and extrapolating all sorts of models and predictions. I think this creates an echo chamber effect which convinces the experts that they understand a lot more than they really do.

I can see a similar problem in the field New Testament studies. We only have a handful of pieces to the puzzle that is the origin of Christianity and no matter how many scholars comb over those pieces and how many times and how finely they comb over them, there is no way to overcome the problem of the missing pieces. However, they may succeed in convincing themselves that they know more than they really do. Happily, if they are wrong, it probably won't lead to the collapse of the international banking system.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" (3): Were Jesus and James Biological Brothers.

Bart Ehrman writes that "two points are especially key.  I think that each of them shows beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt that Jesus must have existed as a Palestinian Jew who was crucified."  (p. 144) One of those points was that no Jew would ever invent a crucified messiah.  As I noted in an earlier post, I don't find this argument convincing.  Ehrman's other key point is that our earliest source Paul claims to have known Jesus biological brother James.  I think that this argument is stronger, but "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt" is really over the top and I am surprised and disappointed that Ehrman would ever claim that it yields such certainty.


One of the things that bothers me about Did Jesus Exist? is how imprecise Ehrman is at times.  He is often accused of giving misleading impressions by Christian apologists, but I have always found him to be very careful to be accurate about the evidence.  However, in Did Jesus Exist? he writes  "Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did." Although this post is going to discuss the question of James, I want to note how inaccurate this statement is concerning Paul and Peter.  Paul never tells us that Peter was Jesus' closest disciple or that he was Jesus' disciple at all or that he even knew Jesus or that Jesus even had disciples.  All we know from Paul is that Peter witnessed an appearance of the risen Christ. 

Moving on to James, lets look at what our first century sources tell us:
  • Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 both say that Jesus had several several brothers, one of whom was named James.  However, James was a common Jewish name and neither Mark nor Matthew give us any information that would help us identify a James mentioned by anyone else as being the same person.
  • Luke indicates that Jesus had brothers, but he doesn't name any of them.  Luke identifies two men named James as being among the twelve apostles, James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus.  The son of Zebedee is killed in Acts 12 and the name James comes up again in Acts 15:13 and Acts 21:18 referring to a man who is a leader among the Christians in Jerusalem.  The father of this James is not identified.  The most natural reading of Luke-Acts is that this is the earlier mentioned son of Alphaeus whose father is not identified because there is only one James still in the story.  There  is no obvious reason to think that Luke would introduce a new James into the narrative without distinguishing him somehow from the one already mentioned.
  • In Galatian 1:18-19, Paul writes "I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother."  This occurred three years after his conversion.  In Galatians 2:9, Paul refers to James as a "pillar" of the Jerusalem community.  Since Paul is perfectly clear that every Christian is a brother (or sister) of the Lord, there would be no reason to call this particular James the brother of the Lord unless Paul thought that he had some unique relationship to the Lord, e.g., he was the biological brother of Jesus.  Although it is hotly contested by mythicists, for the sake of this discussion let's accept that the most natural reading of Galatians is that this James is the natural brother of Jesus in addition to being a spiritual brother.
  • Around 90 A.D., the Jewish historian Josephus wrote: 
    And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus... Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
    Antiquities of the Jews 20-9.  Josephus doesn't say anything about James being a Christian or leading the Christians in Jerusalem.
The issue then is whether we have reason to think that the James who was a leader of the Church in Jerusalem was the biological brother of Jesus referred to by Mark and Matthew. The relevant considerations would seem to be:
  • The most natural reading of Paul is that the pillar of Jerusalem was Jesus' natural brother.
  • The most natural reading of Luke-Acts is that the James in Acts 15 and 21 was not the same person as the James in Matthew and Mark.  Rather, he was the son of Alpheaus.
  • Josephus doesn't help much as he doesn't give us any information that would allow us to identify his James as a leader of the Christian community.  His James could be the James mentioned by Mark and Matthew without being the same one mentioned by Luke and Paul.
The next issue is what the less obvious readings of Luke-Acts or Paul might be.  For Luke-Acts:
  • Luke didn't know that the James he described was Jesus biological brother.  This is possible of course but I don't think it helps the historicists' case.
  • Luke omitted the fact that James was the biological brother because he wanted to downplay James' authority for essentially political reasons.  This is plausible, but I'm not sure we can have any certainty on the point.
  • Luke didn't bother mentioning that James was the biological brother of Jesus because he assumed that everyone knew it.  This is not impossible, but I don't find it very convincing.
We can also imagine alternative readings of Paul:
  • Paul was merely referring to James as the brother of the Lord in a spiritual sense.  Certainly plausible even if not most likely.  Richard carrier thinks that this is the most probable although I don't completely follow his argument on this point.
  • Paul is using "Brother of the Lord" as a title.  Even though all Christians are theoretically saints because they are all sanctified, sometimes saint is used in titular way to designate someone who particularly exemplifies sainthood, e.g., Saint Paul, Saint Theresa, Saint Vincent de Paul.  By the same token, it is possible that some group of early Christians were designated "brothers of the Lord" based on their spiritual qualities.  Possible, but I don't see how we can ever confirm it.
  • Paul simply used "the Lord's brother" to distinguish James from other people who had the same name.  For example one James might have been known "James the Lord's brother" and another might have been "James the Lord's servant" even though everyone in the community was both a servant and a brother (or a sister) of the Lord.   After all, this same James later became known as "James the Just" even though every Christian had been justified by faith.  Perhaps one of the James in the early Christian community had gone rogue and been cast out.  Writing to the Galatians many years later, Paul simply wanted them to know that the James he had met was the good one, i.e., "James the Lord's Brother" rather than "James the Heretic."  Plausible but of course there is no evidence to establish this.
  • Paul didn't write "the Lord's brother."  It was an interpolation by a later scribe who wanted to clear up any confusion about which James was being referred to.  Plausible but unverifiable.
Weighing all the evidence, perhaps we want to favor James being the biological brother of Jesus.   Paul is the earlier source.  Maybe we think that the alternative readings of Paul are less plausible than the alternative readings of Luke.  I can see this as a reasonable conclusion.

What I cannot see is anyone thinking that the issue is settled "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt."  That's just crazy talk.  That would suggest that we are as confident as we could possibly be and that we cannot imagine any evidence that would make us more confident.  Personally, I can think of several things.

  • Luke could have referred to the James in Acts 15 and 21 as "the brother of Jesus."
  • Luke could have named James as one of the brothers of Jesus who was with the apostles in the upper room in Acts 1.
  • Paul could have referred to James as "the brother of Jesus" rather than "the brother of the Lord" and he could have done so several times.
  • Paul could have referred to other brothers named by Mark or Matthew as "brothers of the Lord."
  • Matthew and Mark could have indicated that James became a follower of Jesus.

If any of these things would make us more confident--and I believe that all of them would--then I don't see how we can possibly claim to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt now.  Their is a lack of perspective in Ehrman's assertion of confidence that I find troubling.

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.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" (1)

I got my copy of Did Jesus Exist?:  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth yesterday and I'm enjoying it a lot.   I am happy to say that the article Bart Ehrman wrote for the Huffington Post two weeks ago does not fairly reflect the arguments in the book.  Although he is convinced that Jesus was a historical person, the book does not paint all doubters with nearly as broad a brush as the article.  More importantly, while the article made it sound like historians have a lot more evidence for the existence of Jesus than they really do, I think the book fairly describes the evidence and arguments upon which Ehrman at least is actually relying.  

One of the things I have admired most about Ehrman's books is the way that he lays out the evidence upon which he bases his conclusions.  Even if you disagree with those conclusions, you come away with a good overview of the main points of contention and the arguments that each side is making.  After reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, I found that I was able to follow debates between scholars of textual criticisms and ask reasonably intelligent questions.  I think that anyone who reads  Did Jesus Exist? will get similar insights into the historicist/mythicist debates.

Despite my appreciation of the book and Ehrman, I don't think it is going to be enough to push me off the fence of historical Jesus agnosticism.  While Ehrman is reasonably respectful of Robert Price, G.A. Wells, and Richard Carrier, he does make a lot of mythicism look very foolish.  My problem is with his positive arguments for Jesus' existence.  They seem to me to rely far too much on hypothetical reconstructions of the sources behind the gospels using techniques which scholars invented for the specific purpose of reconstructing the sources behind the gospels.  The evidence still seems awfully speculative and conjectural and the arguments somewhat circular.

Ehrman honestly acknowledges that we do not have the kind of sources for Jesus that historians would like to have and he points out correctly that the absence of these sources doesn't disprove Jesus' existence because we wouldn't reasonably expect to have such sources for a person of Jesus' social status.  The upshot of this according to Ehrman is that historians need to find other ways of establishing Jesus' existence.  To me, however, the upshot of not having the kind of sources historians like and not expecting to have them is that we probably shouldn't expect to have a great deal of certainty about the question.  If there is a problem with the application of techniques that are generally accepted as reliable when considering historical questions, how much confidence can we have in techniques that are developed specifically for determining the historicity of stories about Jesus?

There are many mythicists who have been quick to accuse Ehrman of selling out or knuckling under to religious orthodoxy, but I don't see any reason to question his integrity.  I don't think that his conclusions are driven by a vested interest in the existence of a historical Jesus.  I do think, however, that he may be said to have a vested interest in the methodology of New Testament studies and I think he may be overestimating the degree of certainty that can be achieved by the application of those techniques.  I hope to look at some of those techniques in upcoming posts.

Monday, April 2, 2012

HJ Agnosticism (19): A Very Silly Claim

The blogosphere is buzzing over Bart Ehrman's new book, Did Jesus Exist?:  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.  Historicists are crowing and mythicists range from disappointed to outraged.  Unfortunately, my copy hasn't arrived yet so my ability to comment on Ehrman's arguments is limited.  From what I have seen, however, I doubt that Ehrman will push me off the fence of historical Jesus agnosticism.

There is one claim that I see repeatedly in comment threads that I can address though.  It goes like this:  "There is much more evidence Jesus existed than just about any other historical character from that period."  I hope that Ehrman doesn't make this claim in his book because it is profoundly silly.

Consider for a moment the kinds of people that you would typically find discussed in a book about the history of ancient Rome.  There would be emperors and kings and generals and senators.  There would be people whose activities had a widespread impact on prominent and literate people of their day.  They would be people who were well known to prominent and literate people of their day.  These are certainly not the only people who lived in ancient Rome, but they are the kinds of people who leave a mark in the historical record.  You are far less likely to find discussions of particular slaves or peasants unless it is someone like Spartacus who attracted the attention of the prominent and literate people of his day by leading a rebellion.

The kind of people you are least likely to find discussed are people who passed their lives unnoticed by anyone outside a relatively small group of illiterate peasants.  There can be no doubt that many such people existed, but they tend not to have left individual or unique marks in the historical record.  When it comes to such people, we tend to be limited in our knowledge to the general conditions under which they lived.  We tend to be ignorant of the specific things that particular people said and did. That's the problem with our evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus.  To the extent that historians think he existed, they think that he hung out with a group of illiterate peasants.  To the extent that he attracted any attention during his life from anyone in a position of prominence, he was just another troublemaker put to death by the Roman Empire.

When Jesus first enters the historical record, it is because--to put it crudely--his ghost appeared to someone.  The man who first puts Jesus in the record didn't know him, didn't say where or when he lived or died, and said little to nothing about what he said or did during his life.  Paul's sole concern was with the theological significance of supernatural events that occurred to Jesus after his death.  I can't think of anyone else who made that kind of initial mark in the historical record about whose existence I would be confident 

Historicists like to point out that the earliest extant writings about Jesus were composed nearer to the time he lived than those for other people about whose existence we are confident.  While its true that the earliest biographies that we have for Alexander the Great were written hundreds of years after his death, their authors tell us that the got their information from biographies that were written by Alexander's contemporaries.  Where does our earliest extant source for Jesus say that he got his information?  Divine revelation.  Where do the subsequent sources tell us they got their information?  They don't say.

Does any of this provide proof that Jesus didn't exist?  Of course not.  But it should be enough to deter those who believe he did from making glib claims about how much more convincing the evidence is than for others of that time.