Book Club: Ask Bart Ehrman Anything II

Andrew Sullivan —  May 13 2014 @ 5:02pm

Below is the second installment of Ehrman’s responses to Dish reader questions (the first part is here):

What do you make of the evangelical response to your book, How God Became Jesus?

For a somewhat fuller response, see my blog post. Here I can say that the five evangelical Christians who responded are all good scholars. The purpose of their book was to engage my historical claims at a number of points. Some of the responses I found to be interesting. I ehrman_bart_12_020didn’t actually find any of them convincing, and on the whole I have to say that I was disappointed by the book. What I had hoped was that the book would provide a different historical narrative from the one that I laid out in How Jesus Became God. The respondents regularly accuse me of engaging in “bad” history, but they don’t themselves engage in any historical reconstruction at all. So how is one supposed to compare their views with mine?

The book really is little more than an attack on this point or the other in my discussion. I would love to see how they can imagine that their thesis, that God became Jesus, can be established on historical grounds, rather than theological or religious grounds . My view is that it is impossible for historians to demonstrate what God has done: that’s the province of theologians. If what they want to do is present a theological perspective that differs from my historical one, I have absolutely no problem at all with that. What I object to is their decision to embrace a theological perspective and claim that it is history.

What if anything might change your mind and cause you to again become a believer?

Hmmm … Good question!

I guess a revelation from the Almighty would do it! I’m actually, personally, prone more to belief than disbelief, and would prefer, at the end of the day, to be a believer. Maybe one day I’ll become one again, even though at this stage of my life, I doubt it. For it to happen, realistically, I would need to come to a more comprehensive, synthetic understanding of how this world makes sense if there is a God who is in some sense (any sense) active in it. For me, right now, that simply doesn’t seem to be the case. So many innocent people suffer unspeakable agony and horrific deaths each and every minute, hour, and day – ravaged by starvation, drought, epidemics, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, not to mention war and violence. I simply do not see the hand of God in any of this. I do know what the “answers” are that people give – I used to give them myself, all the time. I just can’t believe them anymore. Maybe at some point that won’t matter to me, although I do side more with Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov on this one, as I explain in my book God’s Problem….

Which religions, if any, deal better with the problem of evil and suffering than Christianity?

I’m not sure any of them deal with it in a way that I find intellectually satisfying, although since I wrote my book God’s Problem I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they have found Buddhism to be much better on just this issue.

Given your thesis that Jesus was not buried in a tomb, based on the evidence that the Romans would not have allowed it, what do you make of the archaeological evidence of crucifixion victims in tombs?

Great question! Unfortunately, we have only one piece of archaeological evidence to go on and it simply doesn’t tell us what we would like to know. In 1968 the remains of a crucified man, named Yehohanan, were discovered in Israel. His skeleton – ankle pierced with an iron stake from crucifixion – was decently buried in an ossuary. This shows, it is argued, that it is conceivable that something similar happened with Jesus. I would agree that this makes it conceivable. Unfortunately, as I have also pointed out, we do not have even the slightest bit of evidence to tell us what happened in Yehohanan’s case, and so we have no way of knowing if it is analogous to the case of Jesus.

Why was an exception made in Yehohanon’s case to place his body in a common tomb? Was his family well-connected? Was he an aristocrat? Was he crucified on the birthday of an emperor (Philo says that such persons were allowed burial)? Was he crucified for insurgency against the state (like Jesus) or for a lower crime (it makes a big difference!). Moreover – was he placed in a tomb the very day he was crucified? We have no way to know. Was his body left to decompose and be eaten by scavengers (the usual punishment) before being entombed? We don’t know. In other words, precisely what we would need to know in order to know if Yehohanan’s case was similar to that of Jesus we don’t know.

What we do know is that there is no evidence that Jesus was executed on the birthday of an emperor; he was not an influential person with high connections (he was not even known in Jerusalem before he appeared the week before); he did not have powerful family members who could intercede on his behalf; his own followers had fled from the scene; and he was not crucified for low-level crimes but on political charges of insurgency. Whatever was the reason that Yehohanan was given a decent burial, it is hard to think why an exception to normal Roman practice would have been made in the case of Jesus (especially given what we know about Pontius Pilate).

I should also say that other scholars have pointed out that since there were thousands of crucified victims in antiquity, and these are the only skeletal remains of a crucified victim to survive, it appears that Yehohanan’s case was highly exceptional, not typical.

What do you think of N.T. Wright’s work on the historical Jesus and early Christianity?

Tom Wright is incredibly prolific and is a brilliant spokesperson for traditional, conservative Christianity. He is also an erudite scholar of enormous breadth. But as it turns out, I disagree with him on almost everything! We have only had one real public debate, dealing with the problem of suffering and how it should affect one’s faith in God. We did not at all see eye to eye. Tom has a kind of global vision of Scripture where he makes the entire 66 books add up together to one grand narrative that he sees as a revelation from God. I see 66 different books written by different authors at different times for different reasons with different messages and different understandings of God, the world, the human condition, and so on. Tom and I simply aren’t on the same page.

It’s seems almost impossible, when writing a book like this, to keep personal biases out of the work. Can you describe how you thought about separating the two during the writing of the book?

My view is that everyone has biases, that there is no way to escape having biases, and that the people you need to look out for are the one who claim that they don’t have biases! Those are the people who want you to agree with them since, after all, they are simply being “objective.” But in fact, they have biases like everyone else, so that their claim is simply a rhetorical strategy.

At the same time, I think there are some biases that are more appropriate for some kinds of research than others. The biases of a historian – e.g., that the past did happen, that there is evidence that some things happened and other things didn’t, that some evidence is better than other evidence, and so on – are appropriate for doing history. On the other hand, the biases of a theologian – e.g. (depending on the theologian) that God both exists and is active in the world and has affected the course of historical events – can be very useful for doing theology, but they are not useful for doing history. And so my view is that a person with those theological views needs to keep those views in check when doing history, just as there are probably views of the critical historian that are not useful for those wanting to do theology.

When I wrote How Jesus Became God I tried to be careful not to make theological claims one way or the other. In the book I do not indicate whether Jesus really was / is God or not, whether he really was raised from the dead, whether he really is living today in heaven, and on on. Those are all theological claim. But my book is a historical account. My view is that Christians and non-Christians can agree with the history I lay out, even if they come to different theological conclusions. (I know that’s the case because before I sent the book into my publisher I gave it to four scholars to read for comments about how to improve it; all four were Christians; all four had no problems with its historical views)

Read the entire Book Club discussion of Ehrman’s book here.