Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 5
Because my main objection to a key argument in Chapter 3 of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is a strong and decisive objection (i.e. Ehrman provided ZERO historical facts to support the main historical premise of a key argument), I have felt some concern that my identification or interpretation of the ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels) might have been incorrect or inaccurate. In my view, Ehrman is an intelligent and knowlegable N.T. scholar, so it seems unlikely that he would do such a lousy job of supporting the main historical premise of a key argument.
Because of this concern, I have gone back through Chapter 3, as well as some key parts of Chapters 2, 4, and 5, to double-check myself. As a result of a brief review of these chapters, I have one correction to make to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint, and I also have located key passages that support my identification of, and understanding of, the ABSIG argument in Chapter 3.
First, I will reinforce my identification and interpretation of the ABSIG argument, then I will make a correction to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint about the existence of Jesus.
CONFIRMATION of my Identification & Understanding of the ABSIG Argument
The most important passage supporting my identification and understanding of the ABSIG argument is found in Ehrman’s discussion about oral traditions behind the written sources allegedly used by the authors of the seven “independent” Gospels:
Where did all these sources [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] come from? They could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals. (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
In this passage Ehrman argues against the skeptical view that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers on the grounds that the earliest written sources about Jesus “agree on too many of the fundamentals”, which is a reference to a phrase from a sentence earlier in the same paragraph: “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”. Thus, one reason why Ehrman rejects the skeptical position that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers is that the written sources behind the seven “independent” Gospels “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”.
The roots of this line of reasoning go back to Ehrman’s discussion in Chapter 2 of DJE about the nature of historical reasoning about evidence for an historical event or historical person:
Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points if not in all the details. …if you have multiple sources from near the time that tell many stories about…[a particular historical figure]…that corroborate one another’s stories–then you have good historical evidence. (DJE, p.41, emphasis added)
Clearly, this principle is intended to be applied in the case of Jesus and the Gospels, and clearly the historical reasoning on page 86 of DJE is intended to be an application of this principle to the evidence from the seven “independent” Gospels (and the written sources allegedly used by the authors of those Gospels).
Note that Ehrman refers to “various sources” that “tell many stories” and that “corroborate one another’s stories”. This suggests that Ehrman will go on to discuss various Gospel sources that “tell many stories” about Jesus (especially since the next Chapter is titled: “The Gospels as Historical Sources”), and that “corroborate one another’s stories” about Jesus. The phrase “many stories” ties into a phrase later used in Chapter 3: “many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death”, and the word “stories” clearly applies to the various stories about Jesus found in the seven “independent” Gospels (and their various alleged written sources).
That this is an important part of Ehrman’s historical reasoning in Chapter 3 of DJE is also shown by the emphasis placed on this point by means of repetition of the point by Ehrman in Chapter 3:
All of these written sources I have mentioned are earlier than the surviving Gospels; they all corroborate many of the key things said of Jesus in the Gospels; and most important they are all independent of one another. (DJE, p.82, emphasis added)
Yet many of them [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”], independent though they be, agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death… (DJE, p86, emphasis added)
They [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals. (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
…these independent witnesses [i.e. “a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven…”] corroborate many of the same basic sets of data [about Jesus]… (DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
The historical principle given in Chapter 2 speaks of the requirement that “multiple sources” that are “from near the time” of the person or event in question and that “tell many stories” should “corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points…” in order to provide “good historical evidence” for the alleged person or event.
The ABSIG argument asserts there are seven “independent” Gospels that are based on several “independent” written sources, and that these alleged written sources “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death…”. Clearly, there is an argument in Chapter 3 that is based on alleged Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels, and which makes use of the principles of historical reasoning given in Chapter 2, concerning corroboration of “multiple sources” about “many stories” or “many basic aspects” of the life of Jesus. So, I feel confident that I have presented an accurate interpretation of a key argument by Ehrman in Chapter 3 of DJE.
CORRECTION to my Characterization of Ehrman’s Viewpoint
In the second post in my series on “Did Jesus Exist?”, I raised an objection to Ehrman’s general approach to this question:
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist.
While I still believe that Ehrman was unclear about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?” and I still believe that he failed to adequately clarify the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”, and that he failed to provide a clear definition of the word “Jesus”, I failed to note a few passages where Ehrman appears to indicate at least a partial list of basic attributes of Jesus which clarify the meaning of the word “Jesus” and the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”.
There is at least one passage in Chapter 3 that hints at some basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”:
…they [i.e. “the Gospels”] provide powerful evidence indeed that there was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. We will see in the chapters that follow that this is not the only kind of evidence we have for the existence of Jesus. (DJE, p.70, emphasis added)
In this paragraph Ehrman appears to view evidence related to the specific attributes of (a) living “in Roman Palestine” and of (b) being “crucified under Pontius Pilate” as relevant evidence for answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”. This suggests that these two attributes are basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”, at least for the purpose of answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”. (Since there were numerous people living “in Roman Palestine” who were “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, these two basic attributes are obviously insufficient to formulate a definition of “Jesus”.)
This hint in Chapter 3 is reinforced in the conclusion of Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus at the end of Chapter 5:
WHAT CAN WE SAY in conclusion about the evidence that supports the view that there really was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher who lived in Palestine as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era, crucified under Pontius Pilate sometime around the year 30? (DJE, p. 171, emphasis added)
In the above passage, Ehrman appears to view various attributes of Jesus or aspects of Jesus’s life as being directly relevant to the question of the existence of Jesus. This assumption is even more clear when Ehrman recaps the conclusion of his positive case at the beginning of Chapter 6:
Up to this stage in our quest to see if the historical Jesus actually existed, I have been mounting the positive argument, showing why the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus really did live as a Jewish teacher in Palestine and was crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. It will be equally important for us to learn what the historical Jesus said and did, since the mere fact of Jesus’s existence does not get us very far. (DJE, p.177, emphasis added)
Here it is clear that Ehrman is separating out two different sets of attributes of Jesus or aspects of the life of Jesus. First there are the basic aspects that are tied to the question “Did Jesus exist?”: (a) a Jewish teacher, (b) living in Palestine, (c) who was crucified, (d) who was executed at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Second, there are other non-basic aspects about “what the historical Jesus said and did”.
Clearly, Ehrman has some ideas about which alleged attributes of Jesus ought to be considered basic or essential, and which alleged attributes are non-basic or non-essential. Although there is some consistency in Ehrman’s various short lists of basic attributes, the lists do vary from one passage to another in his book DJE. Furthermore, there is no discussion or justification of any of Ehrman’s lists of basic attributes.
Although I admit that the logic of Ehrman’s viewpoint on the existence of Jesus is not as grossly flawed as I had indicated in the objection that I raised in the second post of this series, I still believe that Ehrman’s failure to make a serious effort to clarify the question “Did Jesus exist?” and to define the word “Jesus” is a major flaw with his positive case for the existence of Jesus.