Book Club: Ask Bart Ehrman Anything II

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.

Book Club: Ask Bart Ehrman Anything I

As the first Dish book club draws to a close, the author of How Jesus Became God was gracious enough to answer your questions about his book. Below is the first installment of his responses:

Has changing your mind about a major question, like when Christians believed Jesus to be divine, caused you to rethink any of your other positions about the historical Jesus or early Christianity?

My views of the historical Jesus have not changed at all. Ever since graduate school I have thought that Albert Schweitzer was basically right (though wrong in the details) in understanding Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who anticipated that God was soon going to intervene in history in order to overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good how-jesus-became-godkingdom on earth. That continues to be the most widely held view among critical scholars in Europe and North America. Understanding that Jesus was this kind of teacher/preacher is important for my book, since Jesus almost certainly did not teach his disciples that he was God, but that God’s kingdom was soon to arrive and they needed to prepare for it.

Where my views have changed involves the key question of what Jesus’ followers thought about him after his death. The view I held for many years was that the earliest Christians did not think of Jesus as truly God until late in the first century, when the Gospel of John portrays him as declaring himself to be divine. In doing my research for How Jesus Became God, I became convinced that this was absolutely wrong. The followers of Jesus declared that Jesus was God as soon as they came to believe that he had been raised from the dead. Already at that point they maintained that God had made him a divine being. And that was the beginning of Christology.

Eventually some Christians came to think that it was not at his resurrection that he had been made God, but at his baptism; some came to think that it was earlier, at his conception; and some then came to think that he had been a pre-existent divine being before coming into the world. But it all started not in later decades, but at the very beginning, in the belief that he had been raised from the dead.

You firmly put Jesus in his context as first century Jewish apocalyptic preacher, but are there any ways in which he was different from the other would-be messiahs most of us have never heard of?

Yes indeed! Jesus was certainly different from other ones, for no other reason than that all of us is different from everyone else. So he must, virtually by definition, have been different. His bookclub-beagle-troverarching message was not radically different from the one proclaimed by others (e.g., John the Baptist). But what made him especially different in my judgment is two things. First, he taught that he would be the king of the kingdom that was soon to come (John the Baptist never said any such thing about himself) and that those who followed his specific teachings would be the ones who would enter that kingdom. And second, unlike every other alleged messiah from antiquity, Jesus alone was thought by his disciples to have been raised from the dead. That changed everything, as I try to show in my book.

If the Gospels are as unreliable and contradictory as you make them out to be, why trust any parts of them for information about the historical Jesus?

In many respects the Gospels are like any other historical source for any historical event or person – whether a source from the 50s or the 1950s. Every source has problems, and historians when using sources have to determine what those problems are and how to get around them in order to use the sources to establish what most probably happened in the past. So I don’t believe in having any different approach to the Gospels from that which you would have to any other ancient source – for example, Plutarch, or Suetonius, or Philostratus, or … choose your author!

Scholars have methods for dealing with sources that are contradictory and filled with non-historical information. They are pretty much the methods you yourself use when trying to figure out what really happened when several people tell you different things and sometimes tell you versions of what happened that are obviously biased. You look for elements of their accounts that are consistent with each other (especially if they haven’t conferred to get their stories straight) and that do not reflect the biases they have and that are plausible given everything else you know about the events (general plausibility). That, in rough form, is what historians do when dealing with the Gospels. I should stress that the problem with the Gospels isn’t simply a problem that I have, and these methods for approaching the Gospels are not ones I came up with. All of this is standard material for anyone working in the field of New Testament studies.

Why does the Gospel writer refer to ‘the beloved disciple’ without mentioning his name? Is there a deeper meaning?

That’s been a very long-standing question. Some interpreters have argued that the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel is someone that we know of otherwise – e.g., John the son of Zebedee, or Lazarus, or Mary Magdalene, and so on. None of these identifications is overly persuasive. It is sometimes thought that he is a symbolic figure who is meant to stand over-against Peter in the Gospel (with whom he is often teamed). Others have thought that he is the source of the author’s information for the Gospel, a disciple known to the community in which the Gospel was written who knew Jesus and was the guarantor of the information found in the Gospel, who did not need to be named because he was well known and was simply called, by his own followers, “the one whom Jesus loved.” I’m not convinced by any of the proposals myself, but don’t have a better one to suggest.

Would it be worthwhile to compose a spare, modern “gospel,” focusing squarely on the historical Jesus, including only the best-attested material, and eliminating some of the more dubious content from the later synoptics?

Yes, that has been tried a number of times – most notably by Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Bible (still widely available) and, possibly less notably, and in a different way, by the modern-day Jesus seminar in its book The Five Gospels, which indicates the passages that, in the opinion of the scholars in the seminar, are more likely to be historically authentic.

Could some of the difficulties Islam is having right now be mitigated by textual criticism of Islamic scripture similar to the kind that you engage in?

I wish I knew the answer to that one! But I’m not an expert in Islam, I’m afraid.

What did you think of Reza Aslan’s Zealot, another book on the historical Jesus that’s been in the news?

Aslan is a professor of creative writing, and as a result, and as you would respect, he writes extremely well. Zealot is a real pleasure to read. Unfortunately, Aslan is not trained at the advanced level in the New Testament, classics, ancient history, the history of early Christianity, or any other field of relevance for discussing, authoritatively, the life and teachings of Jesus. And I’m afraid that this shows rather glaringly in his book, as he makes many, many mistakes both about historical detail (e.g, involving Roman history or the history of the early followers of Jesus) and about the Gospels of the New Testament and about Jesus himself. I give lots of examples on my blog in a series of posts that I gave in December (see one example here). The other thing to say is that his overarching thesis is not new, even though he more or less intimates it is. The first scholar of the Enlightenment to write about the historical Jesus (H. Reimarus) had a very similar thesis. I.e., it’s been around since the end of the 18th century and the vast majority of scholars have found in unconvincing, for reasons I lay out, again, at length in my blog.

The second part of his responses will be posted soon. Read the entire Book Club discussion on Ehrman’s book here.