Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.7
Telling the Gospels Like It Is
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Should “faith documents” be treated as legitimate historical sources?
- Are the Gospels independently based on oral tradition?
- Matthew and Luke’s story is Mark’s story
- Hearing about Nazareth and Jesus
- Should we trust accounts of George Washington but not Jesus?
- Equating Luke and Plutarch, or Luke and Philostratus
- Mark as sole source for a life of an earthly Jesus
- Luke and Matthew’s “special material” (“L” and “M”)
- John’s dependence on the Synoptics
- Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Egerton as “independent accounts”
* * * * *
In his Chapter 3, Bart Ehrman says that he will present “common knowledge” about the Gospels which mainstream New Testament scholars “have known for a long time.” He asks how anyone can complain about making the public more knowledgeable on these matters. Mythicists would heartily endorse that thought.
Gospels as Historical Sources?
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 69-78)
Ehrman’s Preliminary Comment
Ehrman claims that
. . . once one understands more fully what the Gospels are and where they came from, they provide powerful evidence indeed that there really was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. (p. 70, DJE?)
In a “Preliminary Comment on the Gospels as Historical Sources,” Ehrman acknowledges that the Gospels “are filled with non-historical material, accounts of events that could not have happened,” that they have “many discrepancies in matters both great and small” and “contradictions all over the map.” On the other hand, there is “historical information in the Gospels,” but “it needs to be teased out by careful, critical analysis.”
To support his contention that the Gospels “can and must be considered historical sources of information,” whether by conservative congregations or by atheists/agnostics who dismiss them as faith documents with no value as history, Ehrman urges that they be recognized as literature, written by human beings in response to the human times they lived in. Such authors had no intention of producing sacred scripture. They “were simply writing down episodes that they had heard from the life of Jesus,” some of which may have been historically accurate, others not. “They had heard reports about Jesus; they had probably read earlier accounts of his life; and they decided to write their own versions.”
Ehrman inserts another reference to the intentions voiced in the Prologue of the Gospel of Luke, a topic I’ve dealt with earlier, pointing out why those statements cannot be taken at face value. Luke and the other evangelists, admits Ehrman, were not disinterested and unbiased, but
they were historical persons giving reports of things they had heard. The fact that their books later became documents of faith has no bearing on the question of whether the books can still be used for historical purposes. (p. 73, DJE?)
No bearing? Hardly. Being documents of faith — and on what grounds is Ehrman claiming they did not begin as such? — may not justify ruling them out as totally valueless, but it is a warning to use extreme care in evaluating whether anything in them is reliable history.
Does Ehrman regard the Passion in Mark’s Gospel as containing anything ‘historical’ when virtually every part of it, even at the level of individual phrases, can be shown to be dependent on — often a verbal borrowing from — a scriptural passage? (That has been recognized since around 1980.) If there is no “history remembered” (and no external corroboration not dependent on those Gospels), how do we securely perceive an actual historical event behind it? Because “Pilate” and “Caiaphas” are involved? Any fictional story can contain historical elements and characters.
Ehrman’s constant emphasis on “hearing” about what Jesus said and did as the basic channel through which the Gospel content passed is not only curious, it’s quite misleading, especially regarding the later evangelists. The old view that the Gospels are basically a recording of oral traditions circulating in Christian communities is no longer in vogue — indeed, it’s untenable. A compromise might have been that Mark was dependent largely on oral tradition, but that the later evangelists essentially redacted Mark (with the exception of John’s ministry), with Matthew and Luke inserting the contents of a written collection of sayings into that redaction.
However, even that can no longer be held now that it is realized that the bulk of Mark is not built out of oral traditions, but as a type of midrashic construction out of scripture. Did oral tradition remember and transmit the miracle of the loaves and fishes by casting it entirely in terms of similar miracles attributed in the Hebrew bible to Elijah and Elisha? Was not a single historical detail of the crucifixion scene available to Mark that he was forced to splice together scriptural lines like “They divided my garments among them and for my raiments they cast lots” (Psalm 22;18), and chopped-up bits of Psalm 22:7-8: “All who see me jeer at me, make mouths at me and wag their heads.” If nothing was remembered with any details, forcing Mark to render things this way, what constituted ‘oral tradition’?
Why only one version?
As noted before, if oral tradition held sway, we should have wildly different Gospels reflecting the oral traditions which reached, were sifted, then cobbled together by different communities. Matthew, Luke, and John in his Passion should not have followed in virtual lock-step with the structure and content created by Mark. The way Ehrman presents it, often with language that looks purposely designed to lead the uninitiated reader down the garden path, the Gospels are essentially independent, each drawing on oral traditions. (I thought he was concerned with letting the public in on what scholars have known for a long time? It certainly isn’t that the Gospels are independent compositions out of oral tradition.)
We have already seen that historians, who try to establish that a past event happened or that a past person lived, look for multiple sources that corroborate one another’s stories without having collaborated. And this is what we get with the Gospels and their witness of Jesus. (p. 75 of DJE?)
Oh yes, and maybe along the way they had a glance at Mark.
It is almost (but not quite) universally thought among New Testament scholars that both Matthew and Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark and used it for many of their stories of Jesus. (p. 75 of DJE?)
For many of their stories? Matthew and Luke’s story of Jesus is Mark’s story. Since both clearly had Mark open on their writing tables, apparently along with a copy of Q, this is indeed “collaboration,” even if Mark wasn’t around to know what part he played in it. As for the so-called “special material” assigned to both Matthew and Luke (“M” and “L”), there is no good case for regarding it as anything but their own constructions. (In an article in Free Inquiry, Robert Price judges Matthew’s parables to be from his “own hand” while Luke’s parables “share similar narrative features,” indicating that there was no “L” source either.)
Indeed, how could we independently identify what Luke may have “heard” which he then wrote down? The entire non-Gospel record of the first century is silent on virtually all the Gospel material, on any crucifixion of Jesus on earth or by an earthly agency (outside of the widely acknowledged interpolation in 1 Thess. 2:15-16). No oral traditions about Jesus’ Passion are in evidence anywhere before Mark; nor are the characters of his Gospel story: Mary, Joseph, Mary Magdalene, Judas, Joseph of Arimathea, any apostles who are identified as having been disciples of Jesus. Nothing is in evidence to be “heard,” by Luke or any other Gospel writer.
Ehrman singles out the motif of “Nazareth” as Jesus’ home town, criticizing mythicists for denying that Nazareth even existed in Jesus’ day, and “refusing to take Luke’s and the other Gospels’ word for it. . . . But the reality is that Luke inherited oral traditions about Jesus and his connection with Nazareth, and he recorded what he had heard.” One wonders where he ‘heard’ it, because there is no mention of Nazareth outside Mark and his redactors, and there is besides no archaeological support for Nazareth in the first century. But I apologize on behalf of all mythicists for “failing to take the Gospels’ word for it.”
Jesus and George Washington
Ehrman tries an analogy:
We don’t dismiss early American accounts of the Revolutionary War simply because they were written by Americans. We take their biases into consideration and sometimes take their descriptions of events with a pound of salt. But we do not refuse to use them as historical sources. Contemporary accounts of George Washington, even by his devoted followers, are still valuable as historical sources. To refuse to use them as sources is to sacrifice the most important avenues to the past we have, and on purely ideological, not historical, grounds. (p. 74 of DJE?)
It is hard to believe that Ehrman could possibly think that this analogy is valid, despite sneaking in the phrase “devoted followers.” Americans writing about George Washington and the Revolutionary War are not promoting a faith movement. Washington is not touted as a Son of God. I don’t remember any account of the War in which the good General crossed the Delaware — on his feet. And since Ehrman has spoken of early American accounts (plural), we can assume he would acknowledge that many different accounts of the War corroborate each other, without it being the case that all the rest are literarily dependent on the first one written. We can also assume that the first account was not put together by reworking elements of earlier American colonial history. I am sure that all the accounts contained a goodly amount of recognizable “history remembered” from the Revolutionary War itself.
Nor, I think, would a study of all the correspondence of the founding Fathers in the decades following reveal a total void on the actions of George Washington in the War and his subsequent career, speaking about him only in some cosmic fashion with no sign of a life on earth, let alone its details. If all this were true about accounts of Washington, we would have very good historical grounds to set them aside as useful historical sources. Ideology would have nothing to do with it.
Ranking Luke with Plutarch
Ehrman further claims:
Luke’s writings about Jesus carry no more or less weight than the writings of any other ancient biographer (Suetonius, for example, or Plutarch) — or, perhaps a more apt comparison, of any other biographer of a religious person, such as Philostratus and his account of Apollonius of Tyana. (p. 74 of DJE?)
No less weight? If Ehrman thinks that the unknown author of the Gospel of Luke can be placed on the same level as a Plutarch, or a Suetonius, the discipline of historical research is in real trouble. If he regards the Gospels as ‘biography’ in the same category as Lives of the Caesars or Life of Aemilius Paulus, he has crucified the term biography.
As for Philostratus, there are notable similarities between his Life of Apollonius of Tyana and the Gospels, in that both contain supernatural and miraculous claims about their subject, and both contain mythic and romance elements. To the extent that Philostratus contains such things, we are much exercised to extract reliable history from him, just as we are from the Gospels. However, we have reason to know that he used existing biographical sources. Nor did Philostratus fabricate every feature of his ‘biography’ from earlier writings on other topics and figures. Moreover, this author is not anonymous, and we know a fair amount about him, including where and when he wrote, providing some basis on which to judge his writings. In fact, we have other writings of his, other “Lives,” so we can assume a much greater degree of confidence that their subjects did live, however embellished they may have been.
In the end, each case must be judged on its own characteristics. But to merely set one composition of the ancient world against another and declare on a loose basis that they’re both alike, so we can read our estimation of one into the other, is hardly a commendable methodology. Since the Gospels do contain mythemes found in other ancient accounts of gods and heroes who undoubtedly did not exist (like Attis and Hercules), why does Ehrman resist setting them side by side with the Gospels and calling these accounts equivalent?
The Gospels and their Written Sources
Having presumed a ‘concession’ that the Gospels should be treated as historical sources like any other sources by biased authors (Plutarch was biased?), Ehrman now proceeds to build a house of assumptions surrounding them.
We nasty mythicists have taken the extensive literary dependence between the Gospels and declared that essentially we have only one story of Jesus, that of Mark: one source, not multiple sources. Ehrman objects:
Nothing could be further from the truth. Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death. So while in their shared material they do not provide corroboration without collaboration, in their unique material they do. (pp. 75-76 of DJE?)
So somehow Luke had access to a selection of traditions, as found in his ‘unique material.’ Many postulate this “L” as a written source, although Ehrman has been suggesting that Luke has “heard” independent oral traditions about Jesus. But if Luke had his own distinct source channels, why did they not include variants and notably different ‘takes’ on the central components of the Jesus tradition that he took from Mark? Why was his hearing so limited? Why is he dependent entirely on Mark for those central components, simply improving and tweaking what he found in his predecessor? Incorporating Q was his other major source, but this was not part of his ‘unique material’ since it was shared with Matthew.
Consider Luke’s other unique material concerning the Nativity and elements of the death and resurrection scenes. Was his entire pre-natal scene (chapter 1) derived from source material, oral or written? I know of no scholar who suggests such a thing. Its scriptural basis is recognizable; the whole business is patently not something that was formed and passed on in oral tradition. When we get to chapter 2, was the world-wide census and travel to Bethlehem, giving birth in a manger, all the features of the Nativity unique to Luke, something he gained from a source (in extensive contradiction to Matthew’s ‘source’)? Or was it simply his own construction (as was Matthew’s considerably different version of a nativity)?
What about the hearing before Herod during Jesus’ trial, which no one else records and can be seen as illustrating the ‘prophecy’ of Psalm 2:2? Or the Road to Emmaus appearance of Jesus, utterly unlike any other post-resurrection scene? Were they products of tradition Luke “heard”? Or were they his own literary invention, as is most likely the case with all of the special “L” materials? Certainly Ehrman’s unexamined declaration that they “record independent traditions about Jesus’ life, teachings and death” is completely without supportive justification.
The art of bamboozling
This summary statement is typically woolly and looks meant to mislead:
These Gospels [Matthew and Luke] were probably written ten or fifteen years after Mark, and so by the year 80 or 85 we have at least three independent accounts of Jesus’ life (since a number of the accounts of both Matthew and Luke are independent of Mark) . . . (p. 76 of DJE?)
So Mark, Matthew and Luke are “independent accounts of Jesus’ life,” conveying the implication that those accounts, taken as a whole, are corroborative. But then Ehrman defines “independent accounts” as merely a subset of ‘accounts’ — now referring to a number of alleged traditions — presented by Matthew and Luke, namely the “M” and “L” material. Are those subset traditions now supposed to render the “three accounts of Jesus’ life” to be “independent” as a whole? Moreover, those unique subsets of ‘accounts’ are the opposite of corroborative, since they are different between Matthew and Luke, with one showing no sign of the other. Are they attesting to two different lives? Because Matthew and Luke present such diverse material as attesting to the same man, does this constitute a reliable witness to such an alleged historical man? This is all quite unconscionable. Even Ehrman’s lay readership is surely not so stupid as to fail to recognize when they are being bamboozled.
An independent John?
To this “independent” pile, Ehrman adds the Gospel of John, since so much of its content before the Passion is unique to itself. This material is certainly “independent,” but here Ehrman has overreached himself. Can we really assume that this material represents a branch of oral tradition about Jesus — the same Jesus as the one in the Synoptics — having nothing in common with them and portraying nothing like the same character traits? John’s teachings of Jesus (he doesn’t really have any, except to proclaim himself) are hardly a witness to the same historical prophet. There is absolutely no corroboration here.
Ehrman claims that John does not appear to have received his accounts from the other three Gospels.
(This) is equally true of John’s account of Jesus’ death. (p. 76 of DJE?)
Well, I and others would beg to differ. The layout of the Passion story is essentially that of its original version in Mark; minor differences (such as the day of crucifixion, or the issue of breaking the legs) can be identified as changes conforming to John’s own scriptural interests and theology. There are Markan fingerprints on John’s Passion, such as Mark’s common device of intercalation as seen in the interrupted “denial by Peter” scene.
And John ‘corrects’ Synoptic elements in his own preferred and obvious way: for Jesus’ silence before Pilate he substitutes a defiant accused; for Mark’s fearful Jesus in Gethsemane asking for removal of the cup of suffering, John’s Jesus declares himself fearless and purposeful; Simon of Cyrene is tossed out in favor of a firm statement that Jesus carried his own cross. And did John ignore Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist in his Last Supper scene because such a tradition failed to reach his ears? Or did he remove it because he wanted no sacrificial atonement attached to Jesus’ death, a meaning he never gives it? (The “flesh and blood” motif of chapter 6 relates instead to ingested ‘knowledge’ of God which Jesus brings from heaven.) Even in the ministry portion, the occasional dependence on Mark can be demonstrated (see Robert Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, p.227-8).
Unlimited “independent accounts”
L and M
For Ehrman, the Gospel of John gives us “four independent accounts of Jesus’ life and death,” with again a backtracking from the sweeping implication of these words to this confusing qualification: “(Matthew and Luke being independent in a good number of their corroborative stories . . . )”
Yet the unique, ‘independent,’ material in Matthew and Luke is precisely not “corroborative,” since it’s unique to each. Again, just because it supposedly refers to the same literary character by two different authors who are building on a single original story is no guarantee that it represents circulating traditions about an historical figure. No element of “M” is corroborated by “L” or vice-versa.
Thomas and Q
The early record, as presented by Ehrman, is replete with further “independent accounts.” The Gospel of Thomas, none of whose sayings content is regarded (I think correctly) as sourced from the Synoptics, stands as Independent Account No. 5, although scholars see some kind of literary relationship to an early form of Q1 (to which extent it is not “independent”).
But what is Thomas an “account” of? Certainly not to the life and death of Jesus, for it offers nothing biographical and says not a word about any death or resurrection (the same goes for Q). Thomas’ bare-bones “Jesus said” tags and the odd set-up line placed in the mouth of an apostle are an easily-seen secondary layer to a simple, unattributed sayings collection, which earliest Q also looks to be. Those two “sources” witness only to a collection of sayings.
Gospel of Peter and the Egerton Papyrus
Ehrman claims that the fragmentary Gospel of Peter is “widely thought (to) preserve an independent narrative, drawn from other, non-canonical, sources.”
Widely thought? That’s news to me.
J. D. Crossan’s clever attempt to see a pre-Markan original version within the extant portion of Peter has not been accepted by anything like a majority of scholars, who simply see it as an imaginative reworking probably of Matthew, supplying an actual portrayal of the resurrection of Jesus with a sky-high talking cross and enlarging the ‘guards at the tomb’ scene.
(Does Ehrman really imagine that the former speaks to oral traditions circulating about Easter Sunday? Not even the milder post-resurrection scenes in the canonicals corroborate each other.)
For Ehrman, independent sources lurk everywhere.
Because the Gospel of Peter handles the scene of Pilate washing his hands differently than Matthew, this must point to a source lying behind them both, rather than Peter simply taking Matthew’s ball and running with it. But since Peter differs in detail from the canonicals, this makes it Independent Account No. 6.
And by bringing in the fragmentary Egerton Papyrus as Independent Account No. 7, since of its four episodes in the life of Jesus one is not found anywhere else, the whole exercise has become almost comical.
The complete illogicality of Ehrman’s presentation can be seen in his summary comment to this section:
. . . even if some of these sources are dependent on one another in some passages — for example, Matthew and Luke on Mark — they are completely independent in others, and to that extent they are independent witnesses. And so it is quite wrong to argue that Mark is our only independent witness to Jesus as a historical person. The other six accounts are either completely or partially independent as well. (p. 78 of DJE?)
But this is assuming that those “independent” passages can be presumed a priori to represent genuine witness-traditions about an historical figure rather than literary inventions of the writers, which is begging the question.
And by now, Ehrman has confused his usage of the word “independent.” He makes it equivalent to “not attested to anywhere else” and then thinks to link this with another meaning of “separate attestations — i.e., corroboration — to the life and death of Jesus,” as though he can move seamlessly from one to the other and ignore the contradiction in terms.
A different addition to a storyline does not automatically make that story factual; the addition of chapter 1 to Luke’s Markan base hardly makes it a corroborative ‘witness’ to anything. If Mark is the first supposed attestation to an earthly life and death in a movement already decades old, and we see a practice and chain of dependency proceeding from him to include all sorts of variants on his basic story, with additions fabricated from scripture or derived from a lost collection of sayings whose roots remain in obscurity, where is the multiple independent witness to the life of an historical Jesus?
It exists in Ehrman’s imagination.
. . . to be continued