uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ehrman Finally Dispatching With Jesus-Didn't-Exist Skeptics

Bart Ehrman's latest book takes on one of my biggest pet peeves: the skeptical "cottage industry," as he calls it, that suggests Jesus was a fictional character (Ehrman, like virtually every other scholar of antiquity on the planet, calls this nonsense).

I haven't read Ehrman's book yet (it's being released tomorrow), but his introduction is available at the link above. What I look forward to most is Ehrman setting out for a popular audience a thorough understanding of the term μῦθος, most often translated as "myth" today. In just his introduction, he takes aim at the so-called "mythicists" who claim Jesus was only a myth and not a historical person:

"The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be 'mythicists' -- that is, those who believe that Jesus is a myth. Rarely do mythicists define what they mean by the term myth, a failure that strikes scholars of religion as both unfortunate and highly problematic, since in technical scholarship the term has come to mean many things over the years."

Indeed. When I teach mythology to college freshmen, the first week or two is always occupied with defining this difficult term. Most students think it means "something that isn't true," or an "explanation of something" for the ancients that no longer satisfies a modern mind. Some of those meanings can, indeed, be found in the ancient literature. By the time of the material I study, the prose "fictional" narratives of late antiquity, it has come to mean "a fable," much in the talking-animal, Aesopian sense. But the relation between "myth," even in this sense, and "truth" can be the subject of a dissertation (ahem, mine, to be precise), so it's hardly as simplistic as this literature points out.

This isn't new material for Ehrman. Anyone who has heard his lectures or his entertaining take-down of "The Infidel Guy" on YouTube should know his position on the historical Jesus.

In light of those prior remarks, I also expect Ehrman to address what any scholar of antiquity knows: that to contend that Jesus did not exist, with the arguments often used, is to eradicate from existence pretty much any major figure from antiquity. Skeptical "mythicists" often use a methodology I have never seen used by scholars of antiquity. They argue, often on the model of Lord Ragland's scale -- a popular tool for freshman mythology courses but not really one in scholarly use today -- that any figure layered with legend, myth, and fantastical narrative, must necessarily have been invented. This of course overlooks the fact that authors wrote such narratives about historical figures all the time: were we to subject Alexander the Great to this same model, he would probably be deemed purely fictional.

What's particularly galling about this claim about Jesus is that it's so unnecessary. There are plenty of things to critique with respect to Christianity, even with respect to Christianity and history. Just read Ehrman's other books. To stake out such a sensationalist claim, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, merely puts one on par with holocaust-deniers, anti-evolutionists, and those who think the moon landing was film-reel hoax.

Yet persistent the claim remains, which is why Ehrman says he wrote this book. One of the most popular iterations of this industry is the documentary "The God Who Wasn't There," a particularly unfortunate hatchet job that, while trying to humiliate believing Christians by showing their ignorance of ancient deities like Bacchus and Mithras, itself butchers their mythology considerably.

I'm no Christian apologist, as anyone who has read this blog knows, but in the same way I'm averse to the pseudo-intellectual shell games often played by them with respect to the Bible and Christianity, that same aversion should be aimed by any honest scholar toward those polemicists who, in equal fervor for their distaste for Christianity, propagate bad scholarship, ironically in the name of enlightenment.

I'm glad to see Ehrman is just that sort of scholar.


  1. Have you read Bart's article questioning whether Peter and Cephas were the same problem?

    Or Bart's explanation of why Paul could think of the Romans crucifying the Son of God and say that they were God's agents, sent to punish wrongdoers and who hold no terror for the innocent?

    1. I believe I read his Cephas/Peter article a while back. I'm not sure I follow your second question ...

  2. I wonder why Bart now claims Cephas and Peter were 'of course' the same person, hiding from his readers that he himself once questioned their identity.

    And perhaps I was mistaken about Bart's ability to deal with mythicist arguments (apart from being able to hide his own articles from his readers)

    Perhaps Bart hasn't worked out yet how Paul could regard the killers of Jesus as God's agents ,sent to punish wrongdoers.

    1. So on the Cephas/Peter issue, your criticism is that he does not hold the same views as he did more than 20 years ago? I would have to see a citation on his "of course" comment, and reread the journal article, but it would certainly not be uncommon for a scholar to write something calling into question a traditional reading, and then later get persuaded by the evidence otherwise.
      As for the Paul citation, I'm still not clear on what you're saying. Are you referring to a specific treatment by Ehrman (if so, please cite), a specific verse from Paul (if so, again, please cite), and what does this have to do with the existence of a historical Jesus of Nazareth?

  3. So you have no objection to scholars hiding from readers the fact that they once held exactly the opposite views and pretending that people who hold those opposite views are cranks?

    Romans 13 is the famous bit by Paul where he speaks about God's agents.

    As far as I know, Ehrman does not address it, as it is a mythicist argument he does not know how to address.

    I presume that you think Al Qaeeda claim the Americans are God's agents for killing Osama bin Laden...

    If the Romans had killed the Son of God, Paul would have not written about them as God's agents?

    Or would he?

    I guess we will have to read Bart's book not to find out the answer, as he appears to have ducked mythicists arguments head on.

  4. 1. This article you're referring to: how in the world is it related to his position on Jesus as a historical person? All it lays out is the very ancient question of whether Cephas and Peter were the same person, or two different people. Even in a rebuttal to that argument published in the same journal, Allison views it as a question worthy of argument (thus his counter-argument): "Nonetheless, as Ehrman has rightly remarked, the possibility of distinguishing between Cephas and Simon Peter is, in the critical literature, regularly raised only in passing and all too swiftly dismissed. That is, the standard identification is, as a rule, affirmed without benefit of argument."
    2. I don’t see him “hiding” his views at all. To check, I merely referenced the index entry for Cephas of his 2006 book “Peter, Paul, And Mary Magdalene” on my bookshelf, in which he states in a footnote: “At one point in my scholarly career I wondered if Paul’s controversy was with Peter or with someone else also named Cephas. ... Could there have been two with the same nickname, Cephas the leader of the church in Jerusalem and Peter the missionary to the Jews outside of Jerusalem? Well, probably not. It wasn’t a common nickname.” Please cite where Ehrman specifically calls people “cranks” who think Peter and Cephas were two different people. And again, how is this relevant to the historical Jesus?
    3. You can imagine my confusion about your Paul reference, since Romans 13 says absolutely nothing about the crucifixion. I’m guessing you are merely calling Paul on his logic: do we submit to the legal entity that crucified Jesus? This of course ignores the very real and unfortunate anti-Jewish polemic that seems to have begun pretty early (indeed, this might be a witness for it) that blamed the Jews, and not Rome, for the crucifixion. It’s an obvious apologetic that’s been examined ad nauseam in recent scholarship. But again, I don’t see how this pertains to the historical Jesus at all. Many have written about Paul’s ambiguity. If making sense of everything he says (good luck with that) is a prerequisite for general, historical methodology, we’re doomed. So again – how does Paul’s views on political authority pertain to the existence of a historical person named Jesus?

  5. Many thanks to you and Bart for holding to the light the dishonesty of consigning μῦθος to the trash heap of the intellectually impaired. I have read many of Ehrman works as well as those of Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong which are aimed at dismissing the modern assessment of 'myth' as some type of fiction. It is equal to the dishonest approach of the religious who challenge empirical studies and their resulting theories as mere conjectures.