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The incredible shrinking argument
on April 6, 2012
(Review for MIT's The Tech) - Back in November 2009, I reviewed a book by Earl Doherty, Jesus: Neither God nor Man, which discusses at length his theory about the origins of early Christianity without invoking a historical Jesus. After calling Doherty's theory marginally superior to the predominant view, the atheist philosopher Richard Carrier stated in his review of Doherty's work that "the tables have turned." A refutation to Doherty's theory, Carrier said, would require developing a single, coherent theory in favor of Jesus' historicity that can explain all the evidence at least as well as Doherty's. With funding from both atheists and believers, Carrier himself has taken on the question formally, and his work will soon be published in two volumes.
But he's not the only one who's been busy after the publication of Doherty's work. Bart D. Ehrman, a highly respected New Testament scholar, has taken on the challenge of defending the mainstream view on the historical Jesus from the seditious attacks from "mythicists," new and old. In his new book, Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman sets out to provide that single, coherent theory in favor of Jesus' historicity. Which he does, with less than spectacular results.
Ehrman opens his argument by claiming that the question of Jesus' historicity is all but settled from the start, since to his knowledge no serious scholar -- now or in the past -- has ever doubted the existence of the historical Jesus. By serious scholar, Ehrman means one holding a PhD (exit Doherty) and currently tenured in the field of New Testament studies (exit Carrier). The only bona fide exception Ehrman allows seems to be Robert Price (The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, 2003). Ehrman seems to have no problem with the possibility that holding a counter-mainstream view may affect a scholar's chances for obtaining tenure in the first place.
After calling the idea that Jesus did not exist "a modern myth" made up in the 18th century and with no ancient precedents, Ehrman provides an overview of the fauna of mythicism proponents, from the downright quack to the more scholarly. The quack varieties are ridiculed and quickly brushed aside in a few pages; the more scholarly versions are acknowledged somewhat more seriously, yet outlined only in wide brushstrokes, as preparation for a refutation that seemingly never quite delivers.
Confident of his position, Ehrman lists the evidence we do not have for a historical Jesus: "There is no hard, physical evidence for Jesus ... including no archaeological evidence of any kind" (did you hear that, James Tabor?), nor "any writings from Jesus" (not surprising, says Ehrman, since Jesus probably could not write), and no mentions of Jesus from any "Greek or Roman author from the first century." Ehrman has no problem with this lack of non-Christian references, since the historical Jesus he has in mind should have been invisible to these groups. Trying to "press the issue further," Ehrman makes what may be an unnecessary blunder: he likens the absence of evidence for Jesus with that for Pontius Pilate, a claim that Carrier has already called an "amateur mistake" in light of the extant evidence for Pilate.
Ehrman's defence of the historical Jesus boils down to two arguments. The first is that many "independent witnesses" provide support for the teachings and deeds of a historical Jesus. Unfortunately, what Ehrman calls witnesses are not really witnesses, but at best oral traditions -- different enough to be considered independent, yet similar enough to be understood as referring to the same man -- that served as foundation for the Gospel and other writers several decades later. The strength of this argument lies on the inference that the existence of a physical Jesus could explain why diverse groups of people held such beliefs near the end of the first century. Its weakness is that it explains little that is not explained equally well by Doherty without a historical Jesus.
Ehrman's second argument is based on Paul's claim to have met with Peter and James, whom Ehrman describes as Jesus' closest disciple and biological brother, respectively. Since this meeting happened, Ehrman reasons, it is impossible that a physical Jesus never existed, given that people who do not exist do not have brothers and disciples. But how do we know that the meeting happened? Because Paul says so. The argument is so weak as to be cute. "What I am writing to you, I tell you before God, I am not lying!" said Paul. "When Paul swears he is not lying, I generally believe him," replies Ehrman. Never mind that doubts have been cast upon Paul's account, on the light that such a meeting would bolster his own credentials as apostle of the Christ he never met.
As a self-proclaimed "agnostic with atheist leanings," who nevertheless regards Jesus as "the most important person in the history of the West" (move aside, Aristotle), Ehrman affirms his interest in defending the existence of Jesus stems only from his interest in history. Yet he seems reluctant to extend a similar license to other nonbelievers, as he issues a summary admonition: "Humanists, agnostics, atheists, mythicists, and anyone else who does not advocate belief in Jesus would be better served to stress that the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of modern Christianity than to insist -- wrongly and counterproductively -- that Jesus never existed." Putting aside the gross generalization that all varieties of hellbound minds -- like yours truly -- are out to get Jesus in order to advance some sort of hidden agenda, I agree with Ehrman in what he says next: "Jesus did exist. He simply was not the person that most believers today think he was."
The historical Jesus that emerges from Ehrman's mainstream defense is a purely human, miracle-free Jewish male with a very common name living in first century Palestine, who after an unremarkable youth went on to teach things that many others had taught before; one more apocalyptic preacher, among many others at the time, whose predictions were proven wrong within a generation; one more "troublemaker" crucified like countless others by the Romans after a drive-thru trial during the Pilate administration. Being such, the Jesus that can be reconstructed from history with any certainty is, for all practical purposes, as irrelevant as the mythical one, effectively shrinking the debate on his existence from a grandiose quest with theological implications to an inconsequential and endless exercise in academic hair-splitting.