August 31, 2012

Comments on Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?

I have so far managed to read only several pages of excerpts from the introduction and second chapter of Bart Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?, so this will not be a review of the book as such. But I have also read much of what Ehrman himself has had to say about the book since it was published earlier this year, and I have read some reviews both pro and con, as well as some of Ehrman's responses to the negative reviews. And so, I think I have a good idea of whether and why Ehrman apparently fails to properly defend his affirmative answer to the title question.

Among the remarks I found most revealing was this excerpt from one of Ehrman's replies to Richard Carrier:

I did not write this book for scholars. I wrote it for lay people who are interested in a broad, interesting, and very important question.  Did Jesus really exist?  I was not arguing the case for scholars, because scholars already know the answer to that question.  I was explaining to the non-scholar why scholars think what they do. [I have corrected an obvious typo.] (

But the reasons for the scholarly consensus are one of the problems raised by ahistoricists: The scholars themselves have no better reasons for defending Jesus' historicity than the ones lay apologists have been using all along. All evidence, including discrepancies in the documentary testimony, is interpreted on the assumption that Jesus did exist. In particular, Paul is interpreted on the assumption that the Jesus Christ about whom he wrote is the same Jesus Christ about whom the gospel authors wrote. Within academia no less than in the church pews, a real Jesus of Nazareth is simply taken for granted, treated as almost axiomatic. It is intellectually acceptable to dispute almost anything that was ever said about him, except that the stories were, in some way or other, about a real man. Deny that one thing, and you have put yourself beyond the pale.

Ehrman calls himself a historian, and have no quarrel with his self-identification. I have watched several of Ehrman's YouTube videos. He is fond of reminding his audiences that history cannot gives us certainties, but only probabilities. He is quite right about that. But one of his friendly reviewers noted: "Ehrman states several times [in Did Jesus Exist?] that history is not a science." That is true, though, only on a too-narrow definition of science. Science itself deals only in probabilities. Some of its probabilities get mighty close to unity, but a lot of them don't, and all are subject to revision in the light of new evidence.

If any study of the past cannot be science, then paleontology is not a science. Historians must work under methodological constraints that don't hinder the work of physicists or chemists, but then so must paleontologists. Ancient documents and archeological finds are just the fossils of past human activities, which we cannot now observe. The scientific writing of history is just the production of theories attempting to explain the existence of those artifacts. Those theories cannot be experimentally tested, but if properly formulated, they can be falsified by discoveries of more documents or other artifacts.

There are, even now, a plethera of theories about the origins of Christianity. Evangelical Christians have one. Pentecostals have another, and within their ranks the theories of Trinitarian and Oneness Pentecostals differ in some details. Roman Catholics have their own theory, and the Orthodox churches another. Scholars belonging to non-Christian religions have their own theories, and I have no idea how many theories have been propounded by scholars, including Ehrman himself, having no religious affiliations. I'm not saying they all equally deserving to be considered scientific, but nearly every modern sect of Christianity attempts, or pretends to attempt, to use scientific methods to prove that their version of Christian history is the best way, considering the documentary evidence, to explain how Christianity got started.

As Kuhn reminded the world, there is no such thing as a theory-neutral interpretation of any evidence. Facts do not speak for themselves, except to say "We exist." Your worldview (equivalent to what Kuhn called a paradigm) will tell you, among other things, what counts as a fact. It will also affect your assessments of certain probabilities, which in turn will influence your judgment of the cogency of some inductive arguments.

None of this justifies the kind of epistemological relativism that says all opinions are equally valid, or that objective facts don't even exist. Circular arguments cannot justify anything, under any paradigm that is conducive to survival, and historicist arguments tend to be rife with circularity. This is a problem to which Ehrman seems obdurately oblivious. I offer just one example: his assertion that "Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did."

I have seen equivalent statements offered, time and again, as if it were the killer argument against mythicism, as if, no matter what other problems historicism might have, this one datum by itself were enough to end the debate. It is not, because only facts can be data, and this statement is not a fact. It is an interpretation of facts. Paul never said that James was Jesus' brother, and he never said that Peter was Jesus' closest disciple. Paul did say that he knew a man named James, and he did refer to James as "the lord's brother." By that latter phrase, could Paul have meant anything other than "male sibling of Jesus of Nazareth"? Probably not, if any conventional secular theory of Christian origins is correct (and certainly not, if the orthodox Christian view of the church's history is correct). But conventional theories presuppose Jesus' historicity, which is precisely the issue of this debate. An argument against mythicism must attack the plausibility, all things considered, of Paul's having in his mind some alternative meaning of "the lord's brother." Just how improbable is it, really, that he could have meant something other than "sibling of Jesus of Nazareth"? I have seen no argument for the answer "very improbable" that does not ultimately beg the question.

The appeal to Paul's acquaintance with Peter is even more blatantly circular. Furthermore, it might contradict a position he took 22 years ago. Most of his readers are bound to assume that he is referring to Paul's references to Cephas. Now, in 1990, Ehrman published an article titled "Cephas and Peter" in the Journal of Biblical Literature, in which he concluded:

Paul's testimony must be construed as prima facie evidence and cannot be discounted becauseof what is said in later sources, written by those who did not know Cephas, or by general improbabilities that may seem to attend to the case. . . . When Paul mentions Cephas, he apparently does not mean Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus. ("Cephas and Peter," Journal of Biblical Literature 109, no. 3 (1990), pp. 473-74.)

Of course, Ehrman could have changed his mind since he wrote that. Real scholars actually do that sort of thing, and Ehrman is a real scholar. However, Ehrman himself says in the same article (p. 467) that there are only two reasons to doubt his conclusion: (1) an assumption that John 1:42 is historically reliable; and (2) an assumption that 2,000 years of Christian consensus that Cephas = Peter cannot have been mistaken. So far as I can tell, he was right about that: Without those assumptions, we have no reason to think Paul thought Cephas was Jesus' chief disciple.

Alternatively, perhaps when Ehrman says that Paul claims to have known Peter, he has in mind the two mentions of Peter in Galatians 2:7-8. And, perhaps he makes this clear in some part of the book I have not read yet. It's still a question-begging argument, because here is everything Paul has to say about that Peter:

On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. (NIV)

Was this Peter, then, one of Jesus' disciples? It certainly could be reasonable to think so, if we assume that there was a historical Jesus. But we cannot claim that Paul says so, because he does not. It furthermore stretches impartial credulity to think Paul would have had so little to say about Peter if he had been Jesus' closest disciple. If Ehrman is saying in effect, "Paul tells us that he knew Jesus' closest disciple, and I don't mean Cephas," then he has a lot of explaining to do to show why it is unreasonable for some of us think Paul tells us no such thing.


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