Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reviewing Ehrman Did Jesus Exist?: Introduction

Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
Bart Ehrman
HarperOne, 2012

I've decided to do a chapter by chapter review of this hefty volume on the historical argument for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth by longtime New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, a thinker and scholar whose previous works I have found both admirable and informative -- his books are generally well written, interesting, erudite, and broad-minded.

When this book was first announced last year, there was great enthusiasm and excitement in the community of mythicists on the internet. This was partly because (1) we knew that no matter how good or bad it was, it would generate new interest in mythicism; (2) such books for lay audiences are uniformly and predictably shallow and bad yet Ehrman is no William Lane Craig or Josh McDowell; and (3) it was by Bart Ehrman. Bart Ehrman! For many of us in the community of interested people who do not subscribe to any of the Historical Jesus views held by the various academic schools, Ehrman has always been a congenial figure, writing about topics such as forgery and the theological diversity of early Christianity that are of great interest to the mythicist community.

Ehrman begins his introduction by explaining how he came to write this book. In this opening section he lays out the first prong of a four pronged approach to defending the historical existence of Jesus while at the same time showing that mythicism is false.

The first prong of this approach is relegating mythicism to the status of crank belief ("conspiracy theorists," he calls them) and reassuring readers that they will be with "the experts" and the majority. This is a purely social and rhetorical tactic -- it consists of placing oneself in the "reasonable center". Ehrman accomplishes this by locating himself in the "center" with those fringe mythicists off to one side and eventually, at the end of the work, the fringe fundamentalists on the other. Thus reassured, the reader can join him in the center where the "reasonable" people reside.

Ehrman's observation that only one New Testament scholar who is a mythicist is part of this rhetorical tactic. In fact Ehrman did not do his homework, there are others, and they could easily have been found, though of course his main point that they are a tiny minority is correct.

Another key aspect of this rhetorical approach is that Ehrman presents mythicism as the result of atheism which is driven by the desire to debunk Christianity. At then beginning of the book he claims that mythicists are driven by an agenda, while at the end, states "It is no accident that virtually all mythicists (in fact all them, to my knowledge) are either atheists or agnostics". This is a gross error, and Ehrman does a profound injustice to the field.

This, as well as Ehrman's failure to locate easily found mythicist scholars, raises an issue we will see throughout the book: striking omissions.

Indeed, it appears that the second and perhaps most important prong in Ehrman's four pronged approach is omission. Simply put, whatever is not convenient to his case...disappears. Why it disappears is difficult to say, perhaps it is deliberate, perhaps not. The usefulness of this approach is that if called on it, Ehrman need merely claim that he didn't have enough space or that it wasn't important. I will have more to say on this topic as we delve into this volume. Let it be sufficient to note that once Ehrman has presented his claim that mythicists are people who cannot be convinced, he then appears to treat them as if they need not be listened to.

Ehrman alludes to the third prong of his approach in the introduction: presenting the historical case for the existence of Jesus. I will discuss this in the relevant chapters.

The fourth prong of his approach to the debate I will discuss at an appropriate point in the review, but it is already garnering much attention over at Neil Godfrey's Vridar.

In reading the introduction, the reader should keep in mind when confronting this flow of rhetoric designed to isolate mythicists on the fringe that it is really as simple as this: there is only one reasonable position, and that is the one supported by evidence generated using robust and reliable methodologies, assembled into the interpretive framework that explains the data most comprehensively and with the fewest anomalies. The reader should hew to that view in assessing Ehrman's presentation, and simply ignore the constant flow of pointless rhetoric.

In reality, the mythicist-historicist debate is a clash of competing interpretive frameworks, a clash over the same body of data over which there are divergent interpretive views -- one of which claims success because it has powerful social support. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the social and historical sciences.

Readers who are familiar with the history of science can probably name many examples of how social approval in a historical or human field for a given interpretation of the data hindering consideration and acceptance of new ideas. The struggle to overcome the Clovis First interpretive framework that came to dominate North American archaeology until about three decades ago is a good example (the battle is still ongoing, and will likely end when the last of the Clovis Firsters dies off). Another good example is the way paleoanthropology was changed by the influx of females in the 1960s; the interpretive frameworks had been dominated by males and their points of view. Every August in the US we see another example of the clash of competing interpretive frameworks over how the atomic bombings of Japan should be understood.

Thus, the reader should be aware that the clash between mythicists and historicists is not a clash between loons similar to those who think the moon landings were faked and NASA, or between Creationists and real scientists, as Ehrman would have it. That is mere rhetoric, lazy, cheap shots.* In evolutionary biology or climate science the methodologies are robust and testable and the evidence overwhelming and the Denialists on either part are essentially anti-science. Historical explanation is not like scientific explanation (though it may draw on it), and scholars who bluster that mythicists are like Creationists are (probably deliberately) making a serious category error.

In historical Jesus studies both mythicists and historicists learn the same ancient languages and study the same texts, using the same methodologies. Both sides keenly appreciate and esteem good scholarship and hold basically the same set of New Testament scholars in high regard, including Ehrman himself. I suspect that if you compared the bookshelves of most people writing on mythicism with Ehrman's own, they would look very much alike. None of the major mythicist writers can remotely be described as anti-science or anti-scholarship. Again, the problem is not denial of reality, but a clash of competing interpretive frameworks.

Because all this is new to him -- Ehrman was surprised to discover this body of literature, he avers -- Ehrman's writing on mythicism often exhibits the level of familiarity shown by an anthropologist who has decided to learn all he can about a mysterious tribe -- by observing them through field glasses at a distance. As far as I know, and I am a moderator of one of the most important mythicist discussion groups on the internet, Ehrman has never participated in any of the discussions in the major mythicist forums (I'd welcome correction on that assertion, btw). Save for Robert Price, whom he apparently contacted for information on mythicism, Ehrman does not seem to have interacted much with any of the major mythicist writers.

In sum, as we will eventually see, this is a surprisingly mediocre book in every way, pairing an enfeebled, ignorant discussion of Jesus mythicism with a similarly impoverished, doctrinaire discussion of the historicity of Jesus. Instead of mind-expanding cataclysm, Ehrman has, sadly, given us mere catechism.

See you soon with a look at Chapter 1.

*The comparison to Holocaust Denial is simply beyond the pale.


Hjalti said...

"None of the major mythicist writers can remotely be described as anti-science or anti-scholarship."

Would Acharya, Freke and Gandy fall in the category "major mythicist writers"?

Jay Raskin said...

Good description.

Unfortunately, I haven't had time to read the book. I'm teaching six courses again this semester and finishing Robin Lane Fox's "The Unauhorized Version." As soon as Summer starts and I'm down to a manageable three courses, it'll be the first book I look at.

If your description of the book is correct, it seems that Ehrman has done a wonderful service for mythicists everywhere. He has in fact presented the best case for an historical Jesus, and as mythicists have long argued, it really isn't a persuasive one.

Michael Turton said...

If your description of the book is correct, it seems that Ehrman has done a wonderful service for mythicists everywhere. He has in fact presented the best case for an historical Jesus, and as mythicists have long argued, it really isn't a persuasive one

Oh yes, DJE is a great service to our side.


Michael Turton said...

Would Acharya, Freke and Gandy fall in the category "major mythicist writers"?

GOod question. Are they anti-scholarship or anti-science?

Hjalti said...

Well, that depends on what you or Ehrman mean by those words. ;)

I haven't read Ehrman's book (or the books of these particular mythicists), so I'm only guessing. But it seems to me that these authors (Acharya and F&G) often make very far-fetched claims without evidence, often don't cite original sources but instead rely on dubious sources (early 20th century spiritualists). Is that being anti-scholarship? Maybe just pseudo-scholarship (if they claim to be scholarly)?

Michael Turton said...

[shrug] I don't think the kind of things that F&G or A.S. do is in any way comparable to denying that humans are heating the earth in order to extend the profits of large companies, or complaining that all scientists in evolution are in a conspiracy to deny that the earth is less than 10 kya, etc.


Rick Sumner said...

I haven't read the book, and don't intend to, in part because I just don't care anymore, and in part because this kind of reception is precisely what I expected.

Its interesting to me that the historiographic bankruptcy is so obvious to those who have engaged mythicism, but hidden from those who have not. I'm not sure that the question can be appropriately addressed by someone who hasn't taken an uncomfortable at their own epistemology, which is less likely to occur in an established researcher. Unchallenged speculation has a way of becoming valid data in the eyes of even the sharpest mind.

Michael Turton said...

I haven't read the book, and don't intend to, in part because I just don't care anymore, and in part because this kind of reception is precisely what I expected.

It's very frustrating. I was really hoping it would be a good book, but frankly I think you've made the right decision. I just want to get all the innumerable problems with the book out there in one place as a convenient reference, and also because I want to flex my muscles so I can update my GMark website.


Manoj said...

Ehrman seems to have interacted with Richard Carrier as well as Price. (Carrier mentions this in his blog. See: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/667.)

Even if you ignore the rhetoric and the misrepresentation of the mythicist position, Ehrman's book builds a very weak case for a historic Jesus, a case riddled with fallacies.

Unfortunately, we are still waiting for the best case that can be put forward for a historic Jesus...

Running Writer said...

Thanks for this. I am glad to have The Sword back Online.

Michael Turton said...

Thanks Jacob. I am still struggling to find a couple of days to do the first chapter. I have to do it at home, because I can't carry my library with me, yet.

Anonymous said...

Well I plan on getting the book but I am reading two right now. Price's
Christ Myth Theory and Problems and Derek Murphy's
Did Jesus Really Exist? Historical Jesus or Pagan Christ - a defense of Mythicism.

David Marshall said...

Of course science and history are different disciplines (indeed the sciences are themselves a variety of disciplines). The relevant similarity is that in both cases there are serious scholars who have earned credibility in the scholarly community by producing important bodies of work, and there are also fringe scholars and wannabees and amateurs on the fringes of scholarship.

All supporters of "Christ mythicism" belong to the latter categories. None or almost none of them is a major historian or Biblical scholar who had contributed significantly to the field, and is taken seriously by fellow scholars.

In that regard, Christ mythicism is not in nearly so good a shape as Intelligent Design. ID does have some major figures, and quite a few reasonably eminent scientists, on board.

Of course it is theoretically possibly that Christ mythicism is still true, but there is no a priori reason to take it seriously, if you care what the scholarly world thinks.

Personally, I find Richard Carrier interesting for the light he inadvertently sheds on just how hard it is to find any real parallels to the gospels in the ancient world. He makes absurd historical claims which sound reasonable to people who have never read the original works he refers to. But read the originals, and the historical credibility of the gospels shines all the brighter:


Michael Turton said...

""But read the originals, and the historical credibility of the gospels shines all the brighter: ""

LOL. Thanks for the comment.