|Sent on:||Friday, April 26, 2013 4:26 PM|
“ONCE UPON A TIME…”
BART EHRMAN AND THE QUEST OF THE HISTORICAL JESUS OF NAZARETH
Edited by Frank R. Zindler and Robert M. Price
Published by American Atheist Press 2013
Review by Tim Campbell
Once upon a time there was a man named Jesus who lived in Nazareth in Galilee. He began a religion that today numbers more than two billion members and is called Christianity.
Or maybe not.
I was raised in a religious home (Roman Catholic) and even when I began my journey away from religion (I am now an atheist and do not believe in tribal gods), my inclination was to accept the dogma that there was at least a historical Jesus. I did not believe that he was any sort of divine magic being sent to Earth by God to die in order to save me from my sins—that premise fell down hard when I was about 18. But I always figured that there was a historical figure lurking as the basis for the myths. An ordinary human man who was insignificant during his lifetime, but whose significance grew-or originated-- as gospel writers and epistle writers and later church apologists added layers of myth and magic to his story until eventually the Jesus of doctrine and the Jesus of history were two entirely different men, joined in given name only!
However, there has been a wave of predominantly atheist or agnostic scholars who have looked at the Bible and at other sources and have concluded that not only was the magic Jesus the product of imagination, so too was the historical man! Such writers as Robert M. Price, Frank Zindler, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, David Fitzgerald, and others have become the modern vanguard of the so-called Jesus Myth movement. These folks have brought expertise in different fields and different levels of expertise to the field and have collectively written numerous volumes of books, articles, blogs, emails, and tweets, all declaring that the historical Jesus never existed, was in fact the product of early Christian imaginations and theology.
Needless to say, these contentions—and the slightly disconcerting fact of a paucity of actual evidence supporting the existence of Jesus—have thrown down the gauntlet at the feet of the supporters of the Standard Model of New Testament Studies and challenged the idea that Jesus was a historical person.
Professor Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He is an admitted agnostic and the author of more than twenty books, most of which illuminate the many errors and contradictions and additions and forgeries and blatant dishonesties that characterize the New Testament. One would suspect that Professor Ehrman would be solidly in the Mysticist camp or at least sympathetic.
In 2012, Professor Ehrman published DID JESUS EXIST (HarperOne, publisher) in which he proceeded to support the historicists, defended the historicity of Jesus, and while giving begrudging credit to the scholarly qualifications of a small handful of Mythicists, derided the majority as being whacky loons who lacked the education and specific background needed to intelligently study and comment on the origins of Christianity and the existence of the religion’s nominal founder.
I reviewed that book and found BE’s arguments to be compelling, but I did think that his conclusion was simply a bit too certain. His book’s last sentence was “Jesus did exist, whether we like it or not.” His conclusion was also a declaration that the so-called Mythicists were not following proper methods and were basing their own conclusions on their atheistic anti-theology agenda.
Gauntlet laid down; challenge accepted! In 2013, the rebuttal comes forth!
BART EHRMAN AND THE QUEST OF THE HISTORICAL JESUS OF NAZARETH is a 567 page collection of essays written by the above-mentioned Mythicists as well as by D.M. Murdock. The collection is edited by Robert M. Price and American Atheist Press Editor Frank Zindler, both of whom contribute significant essays to the book.
Their purpose, as stated by FZ in his foreword, is to provide an opportunity for those Mythicists who were cited and criticized in DJE to respond. Since there is variation among the Mythicists as to their views and hypotheses, there is variation among the essays. Some are dispassionate and attempt to demonstrate the case AGAINST a historical Jesus and against the existence of his historical hometown: Nazareth; others are cutting and personal in their response to the nature of B.E.’s own comments about them.
Robert M. Price opens with an introduction and then his essay, “Bart Ehrman: Paradigm Policeman”. An intelligent and reasoned look at what Erhman has written and how DJE was seen by Price and others among the Mythicists. From his introduction: “First, most of our authors were discussed in it (DJE) and we feel obligated to respond, to clear the air of misconceptions and even misrepresentations. Though Professor Erhman is a true scholar, we fear his treatment of our work was, let’s say, casual (a euphemism for ‘slipshod’).”
David Fitzgerald’s “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up” is a particularly well-reasoned and entertaining essay asking “is the Jesus of history any more real than the Jesus of Faith?”
Both Richard Carrier and D.M Murdoch point out many of the factual errors that B.E. allegedly made in DJE. After checking the references, I have to agree with them, at least to a degree.
In DJE, B.E. writes about Pliny’s letters to the Emperor Trajan (DJE P.51-52). B.E. states definitively that in LETTER 10, Pliny discusses Roman laws regarding the gathering of groups. Designed to prevent conspiracy and insurrection, city fire brigades are thus prohibited from “gathering” so as a result, villages are burning to the ground. And local Christians are also violating this law when they gather for their worship.
Carrier points out that this was not part of a single letter, but rather two letters (33 and 96) from Book 10 of Pliny’s letters to Trajan. And more, the letter 96 regarding Christians is not so much a commentary regarding their gathering, but a request for guidance or approval of the methods in which Pliny is punishing and interrogating those who are accused of being Christian.
Pliny DOES mention that these people worship “Christ as god”, possibly a reference to an actual person, but that is open to debate as Pliny was writing long after Jesus would have been alive!
A small error perhaps, a typo or a mistake, but somewhat surprising to me as I have spot-checked facts from a number of B.E.’s earlier books and have always found him to be spot-on!
B.E. also comments on D.M Murdoch’s claim in her previous work that there exists a bust of a man with the head of a cock and an erect penis with large balls serving as nose and chin, and that bust is apparently a symbol of St. Peter and is held in secret by the Vatican. B.E. derides this claim as being made up.
So, in her rebuttal “The Phallic Savior of the World Hidden in the Vatican”, she shows that in fact such a bust DOES exist. It is NOT a symbol for St. Peter, but is rather a Roman-era bronze of the god Priapus. Not Peter, but the penis-head bronze DOES exist!
Frank Zindler contributes several essays, but his prominent contribution is a collection of almost one-sided email exchanges between him and B.E. that took place over some three years. Interesting for Ehrman’s studied lack of response to Zindler’s heavily detailed emails and mounds of supporting documentation. It becomes obvious that B.E. does not take Zindler or Zindler’s ideas very seriously. The problem, as I see it, is that B.E. comes from a rigid academic background heavy with New Testament studies and history, while F.Z. is a scientist, not a NT scholar, who has self-taught his way to a competence in the field that B.E. apparently does not recognize.
In a later essay prophetically titled “Is Bart Ehrman Qualified to Write about Christian Origins” F.Z. points out that B.E. comes out of a heavily fundamentalist background: Moody Bible College, Wheaton College, and Princeton Theological Seminary. Zindler’s contention is that these are not the educational institutions likely to look favorably on any attempt to consider Jesus to be anything less than a historical person—if not actually the Living God!
One of Mythicism’s contentions is that there are numerous parallels between elements of the fantastical Jesus story and the tales of similar gods throughout the region. The idea of the “dying and rising” god would seem to be a genesis for the death and resurrection of Jesus. But B.E. denies this parallel (DJE, P.228), giving instead an apologetics argument that since these other dying and rising gods (like Osiris) do not exactly parallel the Jesus Easter Weekend, there can be no influence on early Christian writers from these other tales.
Richard Carrier rebuts this, but I needed to check out the stories for myself. After reading a few basic summaries online and then reading the story of Osiris and Isis in EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY by Geraldine Pinch, I can certainly see the similarities and parallels between Osiris and not only the death/resurrection of Jesus, but also the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, and the concept of Jesus sitting in judgment of the dead (with the good being admitted to an everlasting life of joy!). Looks like a dying/rising god to me!
There is more, lots more, but you get the idea; now hopefully you will go forth and buy both books, and look forward to the next round!
IF DJE was Round One, B.E. AND THE QUEST is Round Two. One hopes that either B.E. or another equally respected historicist will enter the fray with Round Three. However, this reviewer hopes that the ad hominem insults and rhetoric from both sides will be muted—at least a little bit!
To be blunt, both sides have arguments. Neither side has proof. Neither side has certainty no matter what they might say or write—and no matter how certain they may be in their own minds!
But be aware; this book is a rebuttal to an attack and the catapults have been unleashed! I enjoyed both books, but this topic demands a longer essay from me than most readers would like to see from a reviewer! I have no horse in the race and I share a commonality with both sides in that both B.E. and the Mythicists do not believe that if Jesus existed, he was a divine agent or magic being. If anything, I also find B.E.’s position to be surprising for the reason I shall give below.
You may skip the rest of this essay as I go into more detail. I recommend this book, but caution you that you will need to read B.E.’s DID JESUS EXIST first and keep a copy of DJE and the Bible handy as you read the essays in B.E. AND THE QUEST… I have all three books sitting next to me now along with EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY by Geraldine Pinch and PLINY THE YOUNGER COMPLETE LETTERS translated by P.G. Walsh! If you intend to fact-check or simply look deeper into the issues raised by both sides, then these books will be essential, along with a shelf or two filled with previous work from these scholars!
And yes, they are all scholars. Credentials may be varied and some may be a bit off the mark, but Bart Erhman, Robert Price, and the others are all serious about their work.
Now, my own ideas on the subject of a historical Jesus:
First, the evidence for a historical Jesus.
Ok, that did not take long!
Sorry, I could not resist! On a serious level, the evidence is truly scarce. To quote David Fitzgerald’s essay: “Christianity has had a good, long run, but we are long past the point where it’s reasonable to be agnostic about the so-called Jesus of Faith. It is ridiculous to pretend that the lack of historical corroboration of the spectacular Gospel events—let alone the New Testament’s own fundamental contradictions—aren’t a fatal problem for Jesus the divine Son of God.”
And: “Despite centuries of historical scholarship scrutinizing a figure millennia old, we have not been able to come up with a single verifiable fact about Jesus. Not one…Our only sources are nowhere near trustworthy… many people assume there were scores of contemporary historical witnesses who mentioned Jesus…the truth is that there are exactly—none.”
And Bart Ehrman knows this. In fact, I first became fully aware of this fact through reading Bart Erhman’s many books on the origins and early history of Christianity.
The closest sources we have are two: the writer of the Gospel of Mark and the writer of the letters and epistles of Paul. And both of those are writing with a theological agenda, not as objective historians relating actual history. All of the other gospels and books of the New Testament were written later and the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John are very much derived from Mark, only with additions and changes many of which contradict each other (both of the magic birth stories in Matthew and Luke are absurdly contradictory of each other—as B.E. suggest in his books, read them both side by side).
Mark opens his gospel with the baptism of Jesus and does mention Jesus as “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Mark gives no further background on Jesus. Was he unaware of the amazing events that surrounded the coming of this divine being? Or had those stories just not been made up yet?
We can be confident that Mark was probably not writing history when we look at his Jesus-Death Scene. Jesus’s alleged last words are “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (copied by Matthew for HIS death scene) Oh, the pathos! Except that Jesus, after being beaten and scourged and hung on a cross for three hours to be slowly asphyxiated and bled out, somehow has the presence of mind AND the lung strength to cry out the opening line from Psalm 22! Impossible? No, not impossible, but not very likely! And since Jesus has an entirely different “last words” in Luke (Father into thy hands I commend my spirit”), it is obvious to any reasonable person that NOTHING in the New Testament is free from question or skepticism!
Paul admits that he never actually met Jesus, except in visions and dreams. However, he does claim to have met with Peter and James (even stating that James is the brother of Jesus).
This can count to some degree as evidence of sorts, but given the propensity of later Christian writers to forge and edit and change and add to the earlier writings, we have to add more than a little salt to the writings of these two men, and to be blunt, neither man has great credibility, even presuming that they actually wrote most if not all of what we read of them today!
And that’s it. There is absolutely zero corroborating evidence. No contemporary mentions of Jesus, no busts, no pictures, no writings from, not even an interview on Fox News! The closest we come to the historical Jesus (other than an obviously phony mention that was added to the work of Josephus sometime in about the Fourth Century) are references from the SECOND Century that are simply references to Christians. This is evidence that Christianity and Christians existed in the Second Century, but not exactly evidence that their odd little religion was based on a historical leader/teacher/preacher.
My conclusion is simply that there is no verifiable or unimpeachable evidence supporting the existence of a historical Jesus. That does not rule out the possibility that he existed, but if he did actually walk the earth two thousand years ago, he was a very insignificant figure, unnoticed by his contemporaries who did write about the era. As I stated at the beginning of this review, Jesus’s eventual significance would have evolved from the efforts of later theological writers who added the fantastical and unbelievable layers of magic and myth onto the shoulders of this illiterate backwater preacher. So, possible, but not even close to certain.
Because disproving the existence of a man who may or may not have existed two thousand years ago and failed to leave any solid lasting trace of himself is itself a difficult if not impossible task, I have to say that the Mythicists’ arguments are strong—some are very convincing. But again, plausible and possible, but not certain.
A quick word about B.E.’s assertion of an “atheist agenda”. Not sure if there is such a thing, but if there is, good! Given the past fifteen hundred years of Christian abuse of power, and their own agenda of orthodoxy, proselytization, and control of everything from government to personal thought and conduct, it is about time that atheists stand up and push back. At least in this country, the fundaloons and their ilk are not permitted by law to hang witches or burn heretics at the stake.
And quite frankly, whether there is an atheist agenda or not, the aspirations of non-believers has nothing to do with the strength or veracity of the evidence for or against the existence of a historical Jesus. My unbelief and a desire to see decisions no longer made on the basis of the equivalent of throwing chicken bones onto a dirt floor does not increase the evidence for a historical Jesus. Not one jot and tittle! Of all people and of all scholars of the New Testament, I would expect Bart Ehrman to know this! The motives of the Mythicists can certainly be examine and questioned, but if their facts are correct, then their arguments must be given as much weight as that given to the scholars who come from the seminaries and bible colleges. Perhaps more weight!
From the scientific perspective, based on the data—or lack of—I cannot confirm or disprove either side’s basic contention! That said, the fact that the historicists are unable to offer any solid, acceptable evidence to support their contention, on the demonstrated dishonesty and lack of credibility among many of their “witnesses”(considering that ALL of their witnesses are well removed from the actual events) and the fact that the burden of proof is on the claimant, means that we have to reject their “theory” that Jesus was a historical person at least until such time that they can offer such evidence!
I will be very interested in seeing how Professor Erhman and/or other historicists respond to BART EHRMAN AND THE QUEST OF THE HISTORICAL JESUS OF NAZARETH. I personally like both Bart and Robert Price and have enjoyed their published works. I would love to see them discuss their disparate views of Jesus without rancor. Over a beer or a Scotch perhaps!