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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Did Jesus Exist? A Review of Bart Ehrman's New Book

  • He never wrote anything.
  • He never served in public office.
  • Except for brief comments by Josephus and Tacitus, there is nothing outside the New Testament and other Christian literature that even mentions him.
  • Paul seems only to care about him as a theological figure.
  • That goes for the gospels as well.
  • Many of the stories about him are either fantastic or appear to have antecedents in other literature.
  • The gospels do seem to read as stories in which Jesus is a character as opposed to biographies in which Jesus is a real person.
So...did Jesus exist, or was he from start to finish a product of creative imagination?

Wait a minute.  Do people really doubt the existence of Jesus?  

 

Apparently enough do to capture the interest of one the foremost scholars of early Christian literature, Dr. Bart Ehrman.  






 















He even has delayed plans on writing a book that he really cares about (how did Jesus become God)  to deal with this issue.   He writes:
Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being.  When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously.  Of course Jesus existed.  Everyone knows he existed.  Don't they?
But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder:  Why are so many people asking?  My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles--misquoted rather--as saying that Jesus never existed.  I decided to look into the matter.  I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.  p. 2
He goes on to say that none of this literature is produced by 
"scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world)."  p. 2
Who are these folks?  Dr. Ehrman writes:  
"The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be "mythicists"--that is, those who believe that Jesus is a myth."  p. 3
From Dr. Ehrman's point of view, Jesus most certainly existed.
Jesus did exist.  He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic.  But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him. p. 6
In addition to the argument that the "mythicists" are outside the academic beltway, Dr. Ehrman makes his case in three movements that constitute the three sections of his book.   

In the first section, chapters one through five, he presents the evidence for the historical Jesus.  Some of this evidence includes:
  • Non-Christian sources, Tacitus and Josephus mainly.
  • Seven surviving gospels "that are completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions.  These all attest to the existence of Jesus.  Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data--for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem." p. 92
  • Later Christian sources: Papias, Ignatius of Antioch, 1 Clement, Acts (Jesus tradition and speeches), non-Pauline epistles, and Paul:  "Paul does indeed show that he knew Jesus existed....Paul mentions that Jesus was born; that he was a Jew, a direct descendant of King David; that he had brothers, one of them named James; that he had a ministry to Jews; that he had twelve disciples;that he was a teacher; that he anticipated his own death; that he had the Last Supper on the night he was handed over; that he was killed at the instigation of Jews in Judea; and that he died by crucifixion.  He also refers on several occasions to Jesus's teachings."  pp. 129-130
  • Suffering messiah.  "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.  They had to deal with it and devise a special, previously unheard of theology to account for it." p. 173
In section two, chapters six and seven, he presents and rejects the views of various "mythicists".  These first four claims he calls "irrelevant":
  • The Gospels are Highly Problematic as Historical Sources.  Dr. Ehrman's response:  "...the evidence of the historical Jesus does not in the least depend exclusively on whether this, that, or the other Gospel story is historically accurate.  It is based on other considerations, which I set out in the earlier chapters, including the witness of Paul and the speeches of Acts, which long predate the Gospels."  p. 190
  • Nazareth did not exist.  Dr. Ehrman's response: "The historicity of Jesus does not depend on whether Nazareth existed.  In fact, it is not even related to the question.  The existence (or rather, nonexistence) of Nazareth is another mythicist irrelevancy."   p. 197
  • Gospels are paraphrases of Old Testament.  Dr. Ehrman's response:  "It is one thing to say that a story has been shaped in light of an account in the Hebrew Bible.  It is another thing to say that the event never happened at all or, even more, that the person about whom the story is told never existed."  p. 206
  • The Nonhistorical "Jesus" is Based on Stories About Pagan Divine Men.  Dr. Ehrman's response:  "There certainly are similarities between what pagans were saying about their divine men and what Christians were saying about Jesus....But the parallels are not as close and as precise as most mythicists claim.  Nowhere near as close.  True, some similarities are significant.  But that is not relevant to the question of whether there really was a Jewish teacher Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate....When Christians told stories about Jesus, they shaped the stories in light of stories they already knew." p. 215
He then addresses some "Mythicist Inventions" such as that Jesus was invented as a dying and rising god, that we was invented as a personification of Jewish Wisdom, that he was an unknown Jew that lived 100 years before Paul, and others. Dr. Ehrman finds none of these claims persuasive.   For instance in regards to Jesus as an invention of the dying/rising god, Dr. Ehrman writes, "The earliest Christians did not think Jesus was God."  p. 230   

In section three, chapters 8 and 9, he provides a sketch of his version of the historical Jesus.   This is a great section in which he describes the historical method, discusses the historical situation including Jewish Apocalypticism, and agrees for the most part with Albert Schweitzer:
"As Jesus fads come and go, as new Jesuses come to be invented and then pass away, as newer Jesuses come to take the place of the old, the real, historical Jesus continues to exist, back there in the past, the apocalyptic prophet who expected that a cataclysmic break would occur within his generation when God would destroy the forces of evil, bring in his kingdom, and install Jesus himself on the throne.  This is the historical Jesus.  And he is obviously far too historical for modern tastes.  That is why so many Christians today try to reform him."  p. 336
Dr. Ehrman's book deserves to be read.  He also provides a helpful bibliography of both mythicist literature and historical Jesus (and related topics) literature.   Dr. Erhman believes that he has provided a rock solid case.   It could very well be that Dr. Ehrman is right.

I find his apocalyptic Jesus really depressing.   That Jesus is hard to preach.  I am not sure if we have to have Jesus resemble Harold Camping to be a real guy.   We might be skeptical of a Jesus we admire, but we might also be skeptical of a Jesus we despise.  It may be equally hard to accept that Jesus is an onion.  Peel off each layer of fiction until you get to...nothing?  Give this country preacher a break!  I have to encourage the folks, you know?     

I do think this book will open this debate wider, not settle it.  All I mean by saying that is that movements that are outside the academy grow when they get a response from someone "inside the beltway" like Dr. Ehrman.   The mythicist movement is certainly uneven.   Much of it as Dr. Ehrman points out is amateurish.  But there are credible academics (Carrier, Price, Thompson and others) whose arguments may get better, more refined, and more accepted over time.   More may join them.  

I have one quibble with this book.  I do not think it is fair to call those who question the historicity of Jesus conspiracy theorists as the dust jacket states.  Now and then Dr. Ehrman's tone is a bit harsh:
It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure.  Again, this is not a piece of evidence, but if nothing else, it should give one pause.  In the field of biology, evolution may be "just" a theory subscribed to, for good reason, by every real scientist in every established university in the Western world.  p. 5
Evolution gets stronger every day.   Evidence for the historical Jesus?  Hardly on par.   Again, Dr. Ehrman could be exactly right.  What can I know?  I am not a scholar.  That truth leads me to this observation:  Dr. John Dominic Crossan also thinks Jesus is an historical person.   He devotes a few pages to the historical question of Jesus near the end of his new book, The Power of Parable:  How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.   

But the Jesuses these two scholars (Dr. Ehrman and Dr. Crossan) come up with seem to be two different guys.   Both Drs. Crossan and Ehrman have all the credentials and they both have access to evidence and they possess the tools and the skills to evaluate that evidence that I will never have.   But these experts disagree on some pretty significant things.  For example, are the apocalyptic "son of man" sayings from the historical Jesus or are they fictional?   When the experts disagree about what is historical about the historical Jesus, amateurs like me are easily confused.   It shouldn't be a surprise that we might make the next step (whether it is logical or not) and say to ourselves:
"If this one thinks this part is fiction and that one thinks that part is fiction, then maybe both are partly right, and it is all fiction." 
I am not there.  I am just saying that I understand how people can get there.   As I see it, there is a great deal of uncertainty in this work.   

There is a personal issue at stake.  Jesus to me is more than an historical person (or an interesting fiction).   If I am going to spend time with him, I am going to find a way to make him matter.   In the end maybe we all shape Jesus, even if unconsciously, to an image that we need, whether good, bad, or non-existent?   If each of the gospel writers, and Paul, and others reformed him, why not continue that good work?  

Thanks to Dr. Ehrman for bringing this scholarship to the public.  The cost of doing so is that we amateurs might take it where scholars never intended.

This review is a stop on the TLC Book Tour

33 comments:

Steven Carr said...

Wow. From the review of the book, it seems mythicists are going to make mincemeat of it.

Didn't Bart put any effort in to come up with answers to mythicist arguments?

Dennis Maher said...

I hadn't seen anything about this book. Bob Price introduced me to the idea that Jesus didn't exist in '01 and I was shocked. All of this does seem to be further support of what you allude to at the end: Martin Kahler was right: there was no historical Jesus; all we have to deal with is the historical Christ. I prefer Paul Verhoeven's take on the real Jesus.

Jodie said...

It is a surprising question. There is much more evidence Jesus existed than just about any other historical character from that period.

The real question is one of relevance. Jesus is a religious figure. Or rather, a figure in the history of religion.

Folks get more emotional about Jesus than any other figure in history save perhaps Mohamed. (Did he ever really exist?) Even people who say he never existed say so with a passion they reserve for nobody else.

Whatever else you say of him, whether he ever existed or not, and what he really taught and did, one thing is for sure:

Jesus matters.

Whit Brisky said...

If Jesus never existed, or if most of what is written in Scripture is untrue, or at least unreliable, what is the point? We would know nothing of God, except what we make up ourselves. And we would know nothing of the human condition, or morality, or justice but what we poor humans come up with ourselves. Are we not then exactly like those wicked men in Romans 1 who surpress the truth, exchanging the glory of God for idols, the truth of God for a lie, and natural sexual relations for unnatural ones?

Oh wait.

Jodie said...

John,

Who are your new friends?

I left off one PS. Very nice review. Thanks.

Alan said...

There's an old notion in computer programming: GIGO, or garbage in, garbage out.

Another way of saying it in this context is that if you try to ask science questions of faith, you'll only get nonsense answers out, and vice versa.

So, simply applying a modern understanding of historical texts to ancient texts that were never built to bear that weight in order to lay a foundation for faith will surely fail.

(And to compare history to real science is, in every way, GIGO. There is no way we can ever know the answer to this question in the way that we know something scientifically.)

Unfortunately, people appeal to science and misapply scientific methods and reasoning for everything these days because faith is no longer enough to convince. It is a disservice to science and an insult to faith.

Honestly, the question itself seems rather silly to me, as I live here in a world that actually exists (a la Wittgenstein.) This world I live in has about 1.8 gazillion Christians all believing more or less 90-95% of the same thing, rather than a world that is only mere speculation. Can anyone point to any real substantive difference between this world and the hypothetical world that would be the case if Jesus hadn't existed? (Or if one believes Jesus didn't exist, and THIS is the world we see as a result of that non-existence, how would this world have been different if he had?) It's hard to imagine a hairsbreadth of difference between the two worlds regardless of which one you think we live in.

Chris W said...

Hi John, thanks for the review of Ehrman's book. It looks good.

Re: you're worries about the apocalyptic Jesus, see Dale Allison's work for a good defense of this Jesus. Crossan comes out looking pretty weak. See especially the epilogue to Allison's Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian prophet; Jesus comes out looking like an inspiring religious figure, even if his is a bit different from the Jesus of Chrisitan orthodoxy. Also helpful is EP Sanders' The Historical Figure of Jesus, a summary of his scholarly work written for a for the general public.

Cheers.

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

Hi John -- Thanks for reviewing this book. I read Ehrman's blog about it on Huffington Post yesterday. I have come down on the side of Crossan and most of the Jesus Seminar and do not agree that Jesus was an apocalyptic "prophet" who predicted his own death (as Ehrman does). I tend not to study what I consider to be "conservative" Christian scholars because I am not a conservative Christian.

However, I will forward a link to this to the "mythicists" in my UU congregation. We could have a very interesting adult spiritual enrichment class on this . . . of course, then I'll have to read the book!

Whit Brisky said...

Conservatives are the ones with the closed minds?

John Shuck said...

@Steven He did include his responses to much more detail than I can provide in a review. I think it will open up interesting discussion and provide opportunity for mythicists to make their case.

@Dennis I am going to review Bob Price's book Christ Myth as well. Probably Dom Crossan's too. Did you like Verhoeven? What was it in particular?

@Jodie It doesn't appear to be much external evidence (outside the gospels). Much of the argument centers on how one regards the gospels, NT, and early extra NT writings as having or being independent sources.

@Alan Good points. I didn't like the implied comparison that those who question the historical Jesus are similar to creationists who question evolution.

@Chris W Thanks for that! I will check out Allison. I have to say, though, and I admit it is a faith statement rather than a historical thing...that I like Crossan's Jesus. It could very well be that Allison's or Ehrman's or Schweitzer's or EP Sanders' Jesus is more accurate. But we really don't have proof either way. This whole thing is loaded with speculation. I love the Jesus who with subtle parable takes on the empire for the cause distributive justice. Call me a silly romantic!:)

@Sea Raven I agree regarding Crossan's Jesus as I wrote above. A case can be made beyond faith questions that the JS Jesus is plausible. I find the whole thing fun, fun, fun, and I am having fun reading Robert Price too. My big question is not a narrow whether or not Jesus existed, but how do we read these texts that are for the most part "parables about Jesus" to use Crossan's phrase. I would like to see more people with an emphasis on literature approach the gospels as narrative creations.

Away I go. I am having fun at Westar. Sexuality, marriage, family is the topic. I will post a blog about it soon. Ta ta!

John Shuck said...

This is a hot topic. Richard Carrier provides a critique not of the book that just became available yesterday, but of Dr. Erhman's article in Huff Post.

John Shuck said...

Richard Carrier link

John Shuck said...

@Sea Raven

I just caught your comment about "conservative Christian scholars" and I am not sure if you were referring to Ehrman. He used to be but now he is an agnostic. His Jesus is not the church's Jesus. No resurrection. No miracles. His Jesus was delusional thinking that God would intervene, bring in the kingdom and give Jesus the crown. If conservative Christians look to Ehrman for a champion, he would make an odd ally.

Jodie said...

John,

"It doesn't appear to be much external evidence (outside the gospels)"

That's a funny comment you made - about "external" evidence. A whole ton of evidence ends up bound together and because its bound together somehow it's not evidence?

By weight its about 100x the evidence that Alexander the Great ever existed.

But I suppose he could have been the figment of the imagination of a military junta that wanted to appear like a legitimate Decidership.

It would be a much easier case to make than to claim Jesus never existed.

And you'd get an F in History for trying to make it.

"The Christians did not invent Jesus. They invented the idea that the messiah had to be crucified." - Ehrman.

Now THAT is a challenging statement.

John Shuck said...

Jodie,

I am not making an argument. The terms external and internal are not mine. External simply refers to anything outside the Christian literature as I understand others' use of the term including Ehrman and Crossan. Internal refers to Christian literature. That's all.

Jodie said...

John,

OK, but the way you put it, it seemed you were thereby wanting to discount it, somehow.

I'm not making an argument either really, just pointing out that the History of events even as recent as 2000 years ago is like putting together a puzzle with most pieces missing. We think we can tell what the picture is. Sort of.

The puzzle around Jesus has more pieces than most. Probably because from the outset, that was a pile of pieces folks felt it was important to save for posterity.

And I for one, as a member of that posterity, am grateful that someone was thinking of me, 2000 years ago.

John Shuck said...

@Jodie I am not sure what you mean. If someone is thinking of you 2,000 years ago, that appears to be a theological statement.

As far as historical statements regarding a figure of history, that is a different deal.

A more profitable question to me as opposed to whether Jesus existed, is to look at the sayings and deeds attributed to him and ask questions about them.

Some are low hanging fruit. For example, raising Lazarus after four days in the tomb, turning water to wine. I would call those stories "parable" or legend or fiction. If that is not common ground with you then I will have to back up and ask if anything in the gospels is not historical for you and go from there.

Jodie said...

John,

I was thinking of the authors of the Gospels. They were thinking of "posterity" when they committed their stories to pen and paper. And I am that posterity. They didn’t know they were thinking of me, but I do.

I am not troubled by the historicity question of the Gospels and Letters. I come to my faith and to the Scriptures from a different angle.

My starting point is prayer. The Jesus I know is the Jesus I know primarily through prayer. He is alive, and its kinda muddled whether I am praying to God, with Jesus, or in the Holy Spirit, so I get the confusion, but there is a place one goes to pray, and a presence there that is vastly greater than me, or the world I live in. He or She is at once a person I can talk to, a Spirit I can breath, and the Infinite Infinity of all Infinite Realities that embraces me.

I find the Jesus of the Gospel stories to be consistent with this Jesus I know from prayer. When God wears a face, he wears the face of this Jesus I read about and encounter in the biblical text. But I don’t draw my faith from the text. I read the text through the lens of a faith that comes from someplace else, a place I know in prayer, but also a place that cradles all of nature like a mother holds her child.

I guess I am a mystic at heart.

So I find the Bible stories plausible. Jesus may really have fed the 5000 with two loaves and three fish and turned a wedding in Cana into the biggest bash anybody had thrown in memory. The twelve disciples really did eventually overthrow the Roman Empire, did they not? Which is harder?

Did all those things happen in the same sense that I happened to go to work today and have lunch at a Mexican Restaurant by the sea? Or are they processed memories of stories and events seen years later, through the destruction of Jerusalem, past through the ecstasy of Pentecost, and the trauma of the Crucifixion? Did they get written down all at once, or did they amalgamate, like a flake of gold that grows into a large nugget as it tumbles and smashes its way down a river bed, tortured by floods and droughts, picking up more as it goes along, until someone pans it out as a thing of great beauty and worth?

They are all these things, I feel. Is the resurrection of Lazarus a parable, a myth, a historical account, or a legend? Memory, invention, or inspiration?

I would say "yes".

All that, and more. Tell me if at the end of the day, reality itself is nothing more than God’s fiction written on the pages of our lives?

John Shuck said...

Today at the Westar gathering, Bishop Spong talked needing to go "beneath the language and find the experience."

So on one level it doesn't really matter whether it is history or parable because we can find the experience either way. On another level, finding the language (the Jesus) that works, that speaks, that challenges, that reveals, is the task for each.

I do know that for me being challenged on this (whether by Ehrman's rather unattractive Jesus or the 99% parabolic Jesus) is a good thing even as it doesn't feel comfortable.

I know the kind of Jesus I like, who is home for me, but I really don't have to defend my view that much, because I am probably for the most part defending myself.

What I find boring is the nastiness of the scholars fighting over this, calling each other names, and what all. If I don't like it in others, I should check to see if I do the same.

I have fun with all the intellectual stuff (history, fiction, etc.) because it helps me learn new things, but for me, Jesus matters. Somehow and somewhere in all this mix and mess of Jesus lore, I find meaning, or to say it in an old way, my name is known.

heathertlc said...

Thank you for taking the time to read and review this for the tour. As you say, there is always the danger that "we amateurs might take it where scholars never intended" but I think you do a good job steering away from that.

John Shuck said...

Bart Ehrman spoke with me for my radio program, Religion For Life. It will air in a few weeks.

Jodie said...

very cool

Vinny said...

How can it be irrelevant that the gospels are highly problematic sources that may have been lifted in large part from Old Testament stories and pagan myths? I will concede that it's not dispositive, but it's certainly relevant.

As far as Nazareth goes, it's non-existence wouldn't prove Jesus's, but Jesus being born in Nazareth has always struck me as one of the better invocations of the criteria of embarrassment. Whether it existed is relevant to the strength of the historicist case.

Claiming that something is irrelevant merely because it is not dispositive is the kind of fallacy more characteristic of apologetics than scholarship.

Jodie said...

Vinny,

You seem to be highly uninformed even of the basics. There is a certain price of admission to the discussion, you know.

Vinny said...

No Jodie, I don't know what the price of admission is. Please instruct me on the basics. Explain to me how we can be more confident about the existence of a man who went unnoticed during his own lifetime by all but a small group of illiterate peasants than we can be about emperors and generals whose activities were widely known by prominent and literate contemporaries.

Jodie said...

Common Vinny,

You should at least know where Jesus is said to have been born.

As to your question, I am not sure I agree the presupposition of the question. This "unnoticed" man changed the entire course of human history.

Somebody noticed him.

There is more written about him, with better and older records of those writings than just about anybody of his time, including those great emperors and generals you speak of. All literature we have from antiquity arrives to us second and third hand at best, usually much worse than that, in bits and pieces recovered centuries later. We hold the writings about Julius Caesar to a much lower standard of accuracy and faithfulness to the original than we hold the writings about Jesus. Because, at the end of the day, as important to history as Julius Caesar may have been, he matters much less to us today than Jesus does. And most of what we think we know comes from relatively recent known works of fiction. The details about his life and times don't matter so much one way or the other. Yet, while they are not nearly enough to prove he even really existed, nobody doubts that he did.

Vinny said...

Yes Jodie. I should have written “Jesus being from Nazareth” rather than “Jesus being born in Nazareth.” You got me there. Of course, I don’t know of any real historian who thinks the nativity narratives provide reliable historical data so I don’t see how it makes any difference. BTW, it’s “C’mon Vinny,” not “Common Vinny.” Unless you are extremely meticulous in your own writing, it is wise not to nitpick.

No doubt we have better manuscript traditions for the New Testament than we have for any document in antiquity, but how does that help us to know that Jesus existed? If I had a manuscript of Gone with the Wind written in Margaret Mitchell’s own hand, that wouldn’t make it any less a work of fiction.

Where do you get the idea that we know about Julius Caesar from recent works of fiction. What about his own writings? What about coins bearing his image? What about inscriptions? I think your understanding of the historical evidence is way off.

The problem is that Jesus enters the historical record not because anybody noticed anything that he did during his life. He enters it because of things that someone claimed that he did after he was dead. Paul didn’t know Jesus. He didn’t care what Jesus said or did during his life. He didn’t care when or where Jesus lived or died. All Paul cared about was the theological significance of supernatural events that Paul thought had occurred after Jesus death. For all practical purposes, Jesus enters the historical record because one or more people claim to have encountered his ghost. For what other person is our earliest source anything like that.

It is true that much of what we know about figures in the ancient world comes from writings that were composed long after the fact. For example, the earliest extant biographies of Alexander the Great were written hundreds of years after his death. But these surviving biographies were based on earlier biographies that were written during his lifetime or shortly thereafter. We know this because they tell us that’s where they got their information. Where does our earliest source on Jesus tell us he got his information? Divine revelation.

None of this proves that Jesus didn’t exist, but it does show why we cannot have the same kind of confidence in Jesus’ existence that we can have for prominent and literate people who activities were known to other prominent and literate people within their own lives. Those are the kind of people that leave a clear mark in the historical record.

Jodie said...

Vinny,

That's better.

The comment was most of what we >>think<< we know. Not scholars mind you, just the guy on the street. Like famous quotes nobody ever said.

You said too much to address all at once.

I think your premise is that people made Jesus up. Nobody can prove that statement to be false. My point is that the same could be said of just about anybody from that time period. It doesn't help.

There is of course the business you call "seeing the ghost" of Jesus. That's not exactly how that works, but I'll go with it.

Most people who, pardon the expression, come to Jesus, come to the living Jesus. Only then do they develop an interest in the Jesus of the Gospels. The reason the Jesus of the Gospels even matters is because they already know Him, and know him to be alive in the present. That’s why it’s a religion.

To be fair, that is not the only approach. That is why I say only "most" people. The paths are many.

You said, "Where does our earliest source on Jesus tell us he got his information? Divine revelation. "

I am curious what you are referring to here.

If you mean Paul, he knew more than he lets on. The story about Paul starts with him having Christians killed. This would have been an extreme reaction to the teachings of an errant Rabbi, even in those days. He must have known something about them and what they believed and taught. But he does claim that most of what he knows about Jesus he gets straight from the source. It’s a claim that elevates his authority to be equal to that of the disciples, with whom he is arguing about whether you needed to be a Jew first, before you could become a Christian. They thought you did. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah after all. Eventually, after the Romans killed off most of the Jewish Christians, Paul’s approach prevailed.

The oldest source we have on Jesus is probably the Q source, of which we do not have a separate copy, but which appears to be imbedded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is not considered to be divine revelation.

Unless you talk to the Fundamentalists. They will tell you the whole Bible is divine revelation of literal truth, cover to cover. For them, that's a take it or leave it proposition not open to debate. So we oblige, and either take it or leave it. No need to argue.

But I don't recommend you base your faith on that premise.

Jodie

Vinny said...

Jodie,

I am mostly agnostic about a historical Jesus. I don’t think that there is any way to determine what was made up and what might actually go back to a historical person.

I am referring to Paul and Galatians where he insists that he learned the gospel by divine revelation and that men taught him nothing. After he received his revelation, he went out and preached for three years before he even bothered to go to Jerusalem to meet with any of his predecessors in the faith. Throughout his epistles, the only sources that Paul cites for his teachings are direct divine revelation and the scriptures. He never even hints that anyone who actually knew Jesus ever told him anything of value. If that was our earliest source for any other person, I think it would create some uncertainties in any historian’s mind.

I’m sure that Paul knew a lot of things that he didn’t put in his letters, but we can’t claim those things as evidence. For example he never tells us anything about why he was persecuting Christians prior to his conversion. There is no way to know whether it had anything to do with the things they claimed Jesus had taught. (In fact there is no indication that Paul even knew that Jesus was a teacher.) It might have been any number of things about their beliefs or practices that offended Paul’s conservative sensibilities.

Unfortunately, Q is not a source we have. It is like those first biographies of Alexander the Great. Our sources are the biographies written hundreds of years later. The difference is that we don’t have to infer the existence of those earlier biographies because the later ones tell us about the earlier ones and they cite them. On the other hand the authors of the gospels don’t tell us what their sources were so all we have are hypothetical reconstructions of the sources.

The problem with inferring the things that Paul knew but didn’t tell us and inferring the sources that the Evangelists used to write the gospels is that we have to start with the premise that there was a historical Jesus behind the stories. If we were to start with the premise that there wasn’t we would come up with very different reconstructions of what Paul knew and what sources lay behind the gospels. Since the inferences we draw depend on the premises we start with regarding historicity, we cannot claim that those inferences constitute evidence of historicity without being incredibly circular.

As I said, I am agnostic about a historical Jesus and it wouldn’t surprise me if someone can make a convincing case for his existence. I had really hoped that Ehrman would do it because I don’t being on the fence on the question because I tend to get identified with the mythicists and I think many of them are foolish as well. I’m still waiting for my copy of the book to arrive, but I’m not optimistic based on what I have seen so far.

Jodie said...

Vinny,

That was a good response. I can respect 'agnostic'. It's fair and honest, and nothing wrong with it.

No "buts".

Jodie

VinnyJH57 said...

Jodie,

Fair enough. And may I say that I don't have any problem with someone who allows their personal spiritual experiences to shape their conclusions. I only object if they expect me to use them to shape my conclusions.

BobO said...

It is not true Nazareth didn't exist at the time of Jesus. The myth theory guys & the scientist who hold & write books on that view are wrong. Richard Carrier seriously doubts Jesus existed but is very fair about reading the evidence in a balanced, unemotional way. Carrier agrees with those who find support that Nazareth existed during Jesus' time including that a list of small villages from a late 1st/early 2nd century Jewish Temple which includes Nazareth as making it VERY LIKELY that Nazareth existed. Carrier also finds NO problem accepting the passage in Tacitus as genuine. Jesus Myth QUACK Ken Humphreys says the Tacitus passage "just jumps of the page as a forgery" and many Jesus myth supporters like to point out that the forgery in Tacitus is confirmed because Tacitus identifies Pilate as "procurator" rather than "perfect". But as most historians note: Tacitus was likely just using the title Tacitus' readers where using in 110CE for that office and further more, Pilate had THREE titles: Governor, Perfect & Procurator. Before the Pilate Stone was found in 1961, a number a historians, especially in Europe & the Soviet Union, doubted Pontius Pilate existed. Where are his papers; letter, decrees etc? Where was he buried? When did he die? Where was he born? The very few mentions of Pilate are brief and/or problematic & much of what we know about Pilate comes from the gospels which, to these historians, is pure fantacy.

Also on note is the fact that all Jesus myth supporters I've read except Joseph Atwill hold the both passages in Josephus about Jesus are forgeries. Except Earl Doherty holds that the "James brother of Jesus called Christ" passage is genuine only in that "called Christ" wasn't original & later appeared in the margin & later still, was moved over into the narrative!! But it is ONLY a guess. Doherty, like ALL Jesus mythers, have NO support for their claim or proof, but theory ONLY!! Most Josephus experts who are not Christian such as Louis Feldman, Ph.D, Alice Whealey, Ph.D & Gary Goldberg, Ph.D (actually an amateur Josephus scholar for 30 years; his Ph.D is in Physics) hold that the famous "TF" was written by Josephus but later a Christian scribe was probably offended by it & made a few minor changes (minor interpolations). Indeed Goldberg at his wwwDOTjosephusDOTorg website offers evidence that Josephus actually just copied much of what he wrote at the "TF" from a Christian source document also used by Luke for a small part of his gospel.

The problem with Josephus, Tacitus & Philo is they ALL come down to us from Christian scribes. The Jews saw Josephus as a traitor & didn't preserve his writings. Early on, pagan Rome did, but not long after, Rome converted to Christianity & it was left to the Christians to preserved his writings with the oldest extant copy of Josephus dating to only the 10th century. Tacitus to the 11th & much of Tacitus' work is lost & not extant.

Some Jesus myth supporters find Josephus, Tacitus, Philo NOT trustworthy!! Why? Because they have, for centuries, passed through the hands of Christians whom some Jesus myth people find as liars & cheats. Lying for Jesus & evil.

So the Jesus myth side has NO proof that Jesus didn't exist as a human being. The other side which includes Ehrman, Crossan, Borg, Mack & all of the skeptical NT scholars & historians except Price & Carrier; who has a Ph.D in ancient history but I consider a NT scholar also, have NO knock out punch!!!

Thin-ice said...

@whit brisky: So I was an evangelical for 46 years, a Bible college grad and missionary for part of that, and then I de-converted. I'm whatever you want to call me: agnostic, atheist, unbeliever? I don't

So why should I (or you) care what Paul says in Romans 1? It's patently absurd: if a person doesn't believe in God, then he/she is a sexual pervert? Starts to worship idols? Has no morals? As the billboards say, you can be "good without God". Re-examine your christian pre-conceptions with brutal and unflinching rationality, and you will begin to understand.