When I began reading Bart Ehrman’s new book on the historicity of Jesus, I expected that it would reflect the kinds of scholarly controls that I am familiar with in his other books. However, all one has to do is to turn the next page in his Jesus book to be confronted by another example of bias. I’m not really interested in the historicity of Jesus. To me the question is largely irrelevant. The sources are too tainted, and should be acknowledged to be so, to qualify as sources of reliable historical data. The idea that there was a man who was actually, as Christians have claimed for two thousand years less a decade or two, a representative of a god, is about as implausible as Santa Claus making his once yearly journey to the homes of all the boys and girls in the world. So, whether there was an historical person at the centre of the myth — and that needs to be stressed — at the centre of the myth – of the Son of God, is completely irrelevant to anything that should concern you or me. If there was such a person, he lived a long time ago, and is only loosely connected with the mythology that Christians built up around him. If there wasn’t such a person, the myths remain roughly the same, and have the same import. The mythical Jesus of miracles and profound teachings (most of them, as it happens, borrowed), and his questionable morals, is forever beyond the reach of history. If there was a man, he would not recognise the mythology that grew up around his single human life. The birth and the passion stories are almost entirely prophecy historicised. The rest of the story is composed of sayings and deeds which can only with difficulty be ascribed to a human being. The importance of Jesus is the importance of the mythology that grew up around the name of a man who may or may not have lived in first century Judaea. Trying to pin it on a man is a hopeless gesture of faith or faction. I see no point in it.
For the last couple months I have dipped my toes, from time to time, into the enticing waters of the myth-history question about Jesus. I find the issue at once fascinating and repulsive, for, while it seems that the entire issue is so set about with difficulties and imponderabilities that it can never be settled, it also arouses fierce passions in those who are engaged in the dispute which I find it hard to understand. I had begun to read Bart Ehrman’s book, as well as Robert Price’s and Richard Carrier’s, but each time that I approach them I find that I reach a point at which I find it difficult to go further. I try to attach significance to this — other than a natural tendency to start on projects and to give them up for lack of interest — and, to a large extent, it seems to me that the problem for me lies in the jello like consistency of the materials involved in the discussion, written materials, traditions, and authorities which give a sense of substance to the discussion, indeed, but which also, I am afraid, simply refuse to stay put.
Let me take an example. I am reading R.Joseph Hoffman’s piece “Controversy, Mythicism, and the Historical Jesus,” which he has put up at on his blog. It is his contribution to a consultation on the historical Jesus called The Jesus Process. When I read it first it seemed very convincing. Especially convincing, it seemed to me at the time, were his comments about the contest between history and myth in early church tradition. He contrasts what he calls the “Hollywood parody of the second century church” with
the leaders of a young religious movement struggling against a tide of religious mythicism. The living tradition that Irenaeus defends is historical tradition,
extending from Jesus to John and the very early church fathers like Papias, and the defence against the mythicisers like Marcion and Cerinthus. Hoffmann goes on to suggest that this early historiography of the Jesus movement
includes before the fourth century a critical element that rivals anything in secular historiography.
And here he refers to Papias’s on the evangelists and Eusebius on Papias’s ability as a reporter.
Some time ago I was taken aback when I heard Richard Dawkins say, without any apparent discomfort, that he had thought philosophy a waste of time until he met Dan Dennett. The trouble is that his approval of Dan Dennett was closely allied to his agreement with him. This, it seems to me, is a deeply troubling trend. While I understand that scholarship tends to be a full contact sport, and that not a little blood is spilt in the prosecuting of it, the condemnation of something that you do not understand, without any attempt to understand it, is, in general, to be deplored. I have sometimes made an exception in the case of theology, defending Dawkins against Terry Eagleton’s criticism that he had not studied Duns Scotus and Aquinas on epistemology, but Eagleton’s warning is not something that should be simply dismissed. Here is what he said:
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?
As it happens, I don’t think anything in Eagleton’s specific suggestions in his review would really have helped Dawkins come to terms with the debate between faith and unfaith. If Eagleton thought there was something worthwhile that would really have challenged Dawkins’ criticisms, then he needed to become much more specific than simply to show off his learning.
But this does not diminish the importance of knowing something of your opponent’s strongest case before crowing too loudly about having consigned him to the dustheap. I am reminded of this by two blog posts that were published today or late yesterday, one by Massimo Pigliucci, the other by Bart Ehrman. Professor Pigliucci dismembers Lawrence Krauss’s dismissal of philosophy in an interview in the Atlantic Monthly, whereas Professor Ehrman takes Richard Carrier to task for his rather over the top dismissal of the former’s book, Did Jesus Exist? The Sophists of ancient Greek, perhaps the first self-help gurus known to history, promised to teach their acolytes how to make the weaker argument appear the stronger. Scholarship, however, is supposed to lead to the truth, and sort out the criteria by which the truth in various fields is established, and — while I have indulged in it myself from time to time — brash dismissals of one’s opponents is not the best way through the maze of question and counter-question that can be put on practically any topic you care to name.
To wake up to the smell of academic napalm in the morning it not altogether invigorating, whatever might be thought of the real thing. It doesn’t smell like victory. However, ten minutes after I turned on my computer I was mired in buttals and rebuttals about the Jesus of history v the Jesus of myth — never mind the Christ of faith — and claims and counterclaims about who is competent to discuss this issue, and what particular academic qualifications are necessary in order even to speak upon the subject, let alone charge exorbitant fees to listen in on parts of the discussion. Jerry Coyne points out, with some justice, that if Ehrman chose to respond (sort of) to Richard Carrier’s criticism of his book, he should at least have considered some other aspects of his argument than simply the question whether a penis-headed cock statue resided somewhere in the Vatican archives, especially since this was one of the marginal points that Carrier made in his critique. Meanwhile, R. Joseph Hoffmann attacks P.Z. Myers (amongst others) – Hoffmann, with wonted politeness, calling him the ”atheist blogger and full-time loudmouth P Z Myers” — for his blog post “Carrier cold-cocks Ehrman” (which is, it should be noted, a response to Ehrman’s HuffPo piece touting his new book, and not Carrier’s more comprehensive response to the book itself). Much of the to-and-froing about the historical Jesus seems to come down to academic qualifications and whether those engaged in the discussion have written a book, or are tenured academics, or have the requisite expertise, or not, as the case may be, something that seems to take up as much space as the arguments themselves. And while, of course, one expects people to use critical methods in their study of anything at all, if they want to approach more closely to the truth, this is not comprehensively dealt with by listing a person’s academic credentials.
I think some people misunderstood my intentions regarding my recent post about the historical Jesus: Did Jesus Exist? My answer to that question is no (and I will get to the reasons presently), not because I think like the mythicists (apparently) described by Ehrman in his new book, for historical truth is as important to me as scientific truth, and it is essential that belief that Jesus existed or did not exist is not ideological, but based on a reasonably sober assessment of the facts. And although my reading and knowledge is not extensive enough to give me authority, I have not read a single book that was not written by experts in the field, so I have no knowledge of so-called mythicists or their claims, except by very recent report — although from time to time readers of this blog have suggested such texts to me.
The importance of history, and of accuracy in history, should be evident to everyone who cares about the truth. I gather, from James McGrath’s two part review of Bart Ehrman’s book, that the main focus of the book is directed towards the confutation of those Ehrman calls (or thinks of as) mythicists, largely amateur historians who dispute the academic consensus of those who are counted as experts in the historical-critical study of the Bible and fields related to that study, such as archaeology, textual criticism, socio-historical studies of first century Judaism, etc. There is an honorable place for amateur historians, so their being amateurs cannot be held against them, and since I have not read any of them, I cannot judge as to the accuracy of their work. Bart Ehrman is convinced that their work is based on supposition, confusion and error, and Dr. Ehrman is a scholar of repute, and his judgement must be taken seriously, even if, in the end, we want to question it. But we must have good reasons for doing so, and this cannot be based upon the careless supposition or tendentious (or conspiracy theory type) arguments that Jesus was a mythological figure.
The existence or non-existence of Jesus is not an issue with me, and I still find it hard to understand why it should be an issue with anyone else. I spent years talking about the Jesus of the gospels, his teachings, his life and death, and, believe it or not, his resurrection — which was the hardest part of all — and for a while Robert Funk and his Jesus Seminar interested me strangely, and I attempted to understand the basis upon which the Fellows of the Seminar distinguished between the actual words of Jesus from words put in his mouth by later myth-making and tradition. Of course, the latter exercise has to presuppose Jesus’ real existence as an historical person who not only said things of interest and importance, but whose actual words can be distinguished from sayings that are not reliably attested and cannot be ascribed to the apocalyptic preacher from Galilee.
But still this didn’t lead me to wonder whether Bart Ehrman’s HuffPo article “Did Jesus Exist?” had anything of importance to say. If there is no god, and it makes no sense to speak of god in the absence of its existence — contrary to people like Don Cupitt and Jack Spong — then Jesus, whether as an historical or a mythical figure, must lose traction in the mind of anyone who has said farewell to god. So, when Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne (here and here) and Richard Carrier showed such keen interest I was mystified, and, I suppose, I still am. After all, if there is no god, then, whatever can be said about Jesus, there could not have been a Jesus who was more than an apocalyptic prophet who carried on a ministry of some kind in Palestine, and who anchored a number of mythological beliefs which are not directly related to anything that he said and did. Anything else, besides the sheer humanity of the man, and his wit and wisdom, if any, must be a mythological construction — must be, because there can be no sons of god if there are no gods. The most that the gospels can be is special pleading either for a mythological figure at the centre of a new religious movement, or the myth-making writings of people whose real human leader either died by crucifixion as a pretended messiah figure or even royal pretender, about whom stories were composed that supposedly reflected not only his wisdom, but his wonder-working powers and divine transcendence.