Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bart Interrupted--- A detailed Analysis of 'Jesus Interrupted' Part Two

Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, (San Francisco: Harper One, 2009), xii +212 pages. Part Two ( pp. 61-75).

In his first rate analysis of Edward Gibbon’s classic 18th century study, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a work which set the pattern or paradigm for modern historiography with its basic skepticism or agnosticism about all things non-empirical, Jaroslav Pelikan in his The Excellent Empire brings to light some of the fundamental problems with Gibbon’s way of approaching history, which leads to flaws in his analysis of Constantine and the decline of the Roman Empire. It will be worthwhile to listen to a few things that Pelikan points out.

Gibbon in explaining why he treated ‘ecclesiastical history’ in the very same manner he treated all history writing says the following “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon the earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.” (cited by Pelikan p.36).

It is indeed the job of the historian to analyze history as it was, not as we might like it to be. And it is fair to say that the NT does not shy away from displaying its own dirty laundry. Luke, in Acts is perfectly candid about various of the problems the early church had (see e.g. the story of Ananias and Sapphira), and Paul in his letters is constantly recounting the troubles he had with his churches. These writers were not people likely to guild the lily or make things up out of whole cloth, unless you believe that people are regularly prepared to be martyred for things they know are lies.

The earliest Christians writers were, almost without exception, educated Jews, who passed on early Christian traditions in a thoroughly Jewish manner and had a high regard for the truth of things. As much as we might enjoy today a Dan Brown novel suggesting gigantic conspiracies and cover-ups as an explanation for early Christian history, these sort of explanations do not do justice to the actual historical data that we have, whether we are discussing the data within the NT itself, or the story of the copying of its manuscripts and its later ecumenical councils and canon. And justice is what must be done with historical data, otherwise what is written is a travesty or a tragedy or both.

Evelyn Waugh, the novelist once commented on why Gibbon’s history made such an impact on subsequent treatments of the same subject of ancient Rome and early Christianity. He stressed that it was Gibbon’s style, his eloquence, memorable phrases, wry sense of humor, clarity that led to his work having the impact it did—“that is what style does—it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers”. A person who has that gift of communication but is skeptical about the content he is writing about “might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors.” (Pelikan, p. 40). In other words, he might well be guilty of revisionist history writing, something we’ve seen a lot of in recent years with the rising tide of Gnostic gospel discussions.

There are then three dangers we learn of when reading and critically analyzing Gibbon’s classic work: 1) history writing that either dismisses or is dismissive of the role of God in human history, claiming that that is not a part of the historian’s task, even if there is considerable evidence to the contrary, and 2) because of its skeptical bent, history writing that is prone to revisionism of a sort that distorts rather than dissects and correctly analyzes what happened back then and back there; 3) history writing that conveys 1) and 2) in a clear and eloquent and understandable fashion such that the clarity of the explanation makes it appear that the conclusions are obvious and should go without challenge. This of course is the power of good rhetoric—it persuades without necessarily providing the detailed evidence and analysis necessary to prove one’s point.

It is of course true that any historian knows that one is dealing with probabilities and possibilities. But it serves no good purpose to rule out some possibilities in advance of actually doing the historical analysis. In other words, it is narrow-minded rather than open-minded to start with a skepticism about the role of the divine in human history, and write one’s history guided by that skepticism. That, as it turns out, is bad historiography, not good critical historiography.

On the other hand, it is equally a mistake to do historical analysis in a gullible manner, ascribing all manner of things to the divine, when a sufficient human cause can be detected and described. Writing the story of early Christian history should neither be an exercise that could be called ‘Gullible’s Travels’ nor an exercise that could be called ‘the Skeptic’s Revisionist Speculations’.

There needs to be an openness to all the data as we have it, and a willingness to give the ancient writers the benefit of the doubt in the same way one would do with an admired contemporary colleague or friend in one’s field. Without sufficient native sympathy for the material or its author, the tendency to bend or distort is considerable, and the results unfortunate. The acid of skepticism has a corrosive effect. It leads one to find contradictions and faults at every turn, even when they aren’t there. It leads to atomizing and vivisecting a group of texts in a manner that prevents one from seeing the whole and its interconnectivity because one has divided it into so many discrete parts.

This methodology leads to result rather like the familiar parable of the five blind me all feeling different parts of the elephant. The first says “an elephant is like a horn” for he felt the tusk of the elephant. The second says “an elephant is like a rope” for he felt the tail of the elephant. The third says “the elephant is like a hose” for he felt the trunk of the elephant. The fourth says “the elephant is like a giant leaf” for he felt the ear of the elephant. The fifth said “you’re all wrong, the elephant is like a wrinkled old man” for he felt the knee of the elephant. One needs to see the parts in relationship to the whole in order to be able to assess the whole. The point is, while there is some truth in what each person said in this case, without a vision of the whole, one cannot properly analyze the significance of the parts and the differences in data and interpretation.

As we turn to Ehrman’s chapter entitled “A Mass of Variant Views” let is start with a statement on p. 63--- “Paul wrote letters..he did not think he was writing the Bible….Only later did someone put these letters together and consider them inspired.” Here we are dealing with a half truth appended to which is a false conclusion. It is quite right to say Paul did not think he was writing canonical books. He did however think that both his oral proclamation and his writing were inspired by God’s Spirit, and he says so repeatedly in these letters. The notion of inspiration is not something that came later and after the fact. Indeed, Paul was convinced from the outset that his preaching was the living word of God, and his writings likewise inspired. I have dealt with this subject at length in my book The Living Word of God, but what will have to suffice here is a simple quotation from one of Paul’s earliest undisputed letters, 1 Thessalonians--- 1 Thess. 2.13 reads as follows: “And we also thank God continually because when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”

Early Christianity, from Pentecost on (see Acts 2), was a pneumatic movement, a movement of prophets and Spirit inspired teachers and preachers and apostles. It was a movement profoundly convinced that it had a new and late word from God that the world needed to hear. The leaders of this movement believed not only that the OT was inspired by God and so God-breathed (see 2 Tim. 3.16), they believed that their own words and writings were likewise inspired by God. This is precisely why in a text like 1 Cor. 7, Paul can quote the very words of Jesus on divorce, and then put his own words right beside them as equally authoritative and inspired and true. Now of course a secular historian can be skeptical about whether what Paul says is true or not, but what is absolutely not historically true is the notion that only later someone put these documents together and considered them inspired. That would be a false analysis of the historical data.

Bart pleads in this chapter that each Biblical author be allowed to speak for himself. I quite agree with this up to a point, But these Biblical authors did not think they were operating in a social vacuum. They believed they were part of a movement, and they relied on traditions, oral and written, from those who had come before or were their contemporaries. Bart’s modern and individualistic approach to each Gospel ignores the collective nature not merely of ancient culture, but also the tight-knit nature of the early sectarian split off movement from Judaism, called Christianity.

So when Bart says of Mark “he certainly did not think that his book should be interpreted in light of what some other Christian would write thirty years later in a different country and a different context” (p. 64), he is in fact going against the historical evidence we have which suggests the earliest Christian leaders knew each other, and sought, despite difficulties, to consult with one another, and work together. They wrote their documents as tools for evangelism and discipleship with one eye on their source material and one eye on their audience. Consider for example the preface to Luke’s Gospel, Lk. 1.1-4---

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to write an account of the things that have happened among us [notice the ‘us’], just as they were handed down to us by those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the Word (notice the sense of inspired speaking and writing), I too, having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, decided to write an orderly account for you noble Theophilus, so that you might know the certainty of the things you have been taught”

This is the spirit, and character of the way Luke approaches his source material, recognizing he is dealing with historical sources, and many have come before him compiling the eyewitness data. Considering how similar Luke’s Gospel is to Mark’s and Matthew’s in terms of the big picture, it is hard to doubt that Mark had a similar approach to sacred tradition and the writing of his Gospel. This is what we would expect from early Jews who had a reverence for their sacred traditions oral and written.

Let us mention a point of congruence with Bart’s analysis. Bart is right that the modern synthetic approach to the Gospels, which blends all the accounts together in one’s mental blender leads to distortions or neglect of the particular perspectives this or that Evangelist is highlighting. I quite agree with this point.

Each Gospel portrait of Jesus should be allowed to have its own flavor and character. The question is whether these four portraits are compatible, or whether they provide us with such divergent views of Jesus that we need to speak of one portrait contradicting or correcting the other. Bart thinks we do need to speak in that way, and I disagree.

And again the problem is Bart is atomistically analyzing these accounts as if they were meant to be photographs, not portraits and interpretive works of art. So for example Bart rightly points out that the portrait of the death of Jesus in Mark is stark and dark. Jesus says nothing on the cross except “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. We are dealing with theological history writing here. Not theology written up as history, but theological interpretation of a history that itself is inherently theological, involving the divine.

Does this account somehow contradict, say the Lukan account where Jesus speaks to his fellow crucifixion victims? Well no, it does not. Why not? Two reasons. None of the Gospel writers is pretending to present an exhaustive account of what happened. And all of the Gospel writers are writing from a particular angle of incidence, a particular point of view. They have their own themes and theses they wish to highlight and like other ancient biographers and historians they assume a certain amount of literary license and freedom in editing and arranging their material. In other words, they are not pretending to be neutral or ‘objective’ in the modern sense of those words. They are committed believers. The question then becomes do their ‘points of view’ and faith commitments lead to a distortion of the historical evidence, or to the contrary do they lead to a profound and sympathetic understanding and interpretation of the evidence? I would suggest the latter.

One of the key assumptions guiding the comparison of the Markan and Lukan crucifixion accounts is revealed by Bart on p. 68—he assumes that the Gospel writers are portraying Jesus at the exact same moment on the cross, or that each of them are portraying the whole crucifixion experience. Frankly, neither of these assumptions are warranted. In each Gospel, only a precious few verses is devoted to what happened and what was said when Jesus was on the cross. But in fact these same accounts also tell us that Jesus was on the cross for three or more hours!

It is a classic error to mistake the part for the whole, or to assume that two different angled interpretations are meant to represent the same instance. Neither of these assumptions are warranted. Luke gives us more of what Jesus said on the cross, Mark, considerably less. It is perfectly possible that Jesus went through a gamut of emotions on the cross, moving from God-forsakenness to acceptance, to forgiving others etc. Any one who has done some counseling and pastoral work with the dying knows that a dying person does indeed often go through a variety of responses to his demise, even in a short period of time. None of these sort of dynamics are taken into account in Bart’s analysis. The Gospel writers are not suggesting Jesus was “all these things at once”. They are presenting different portions or aspects of the crucifixion experience, and nothing more.

If Bart had wanted to discuss the degree of freedom exercised with historical source materials, he would have done better in comparing the differing words of the centurion at the cross. Did he say “Surely this is the Son of God” (or perhaps ‘a son of the gods’), or did he say “Surely this was a righteous man” as in Luke? Conservative Christians most definitely need to come to grips with these sorts of real differences in the account, and avoid explaining them by explaining them away.

I take it that Luke’s modification of his source is intended to convey the same thing as Mark’s original—namely that Jesus was a righteous person who died a noble death and did not deserve to be crucified, unlike the bandit who was busy cursing his fate. The phrase ‘son of God’ on the lips of an actual centurion was a way of saying that someone had ‘pietas’, piety, righteousness, and probably did not deserve his fate. Crucifixion was considered the most shameful way to die, and the centurion is suggesting that Jesus did not deserve to be shamed in this way. His noble character was reflected in the way he died. In other words Luke, with his concern to show to Theophilus that Jesus’ crucifixion was a travesty of Roman justice (and that Christianity was not at odds with Roman jurisprudence) has rephrased the original words of the centurion in a way that makes plain Jesus’ pietas and righteousness. These two ways of presenting the centurion’s utterance are compatible once one realizes that the centurion is probably not a Christian before his time, nor is he doing a Christian theological analysis of Christ on the cross.

The art of historical analysis involves a judicious assessment not only of differences in an account (and an explanation for those differences can be offered), but a judicious assessment of the important similarities in the accounts. Only so is a balanced assessment possible. Bart, in reacting to the homogenizing tendencies of conservative Christians dramatically over emphasizes, and over interprets the differences in the accounts. The end result is not a fair assessment of either the Gospels as individual iterations of the story of the crucifixion, nor does it lead to a detailed enough assessment of the history behind the Gospel accounts. It is for example, not enough to say—they all agree Jesus died on the cross. No, in fact they all agree he died as a ‘king of the Jews’ on the cross as the titulus says, and that is already a theological matter, not merely a political or historical one. My point is this--- you cannot nicely separate or parse out the history from the theology, precisely because the history is inherently theological in character, and is not merely theological interpreted by the Evangelists.

He goes on to point out what he deems irreconcilable difference between the Easter morning stories about the visit by the women to the tomb. For example he points out that Mark says the women saw “a man” at the tomb, whereas the other accounts say that one or more angels were seen. He takes the reference to “a man” to be a contradiction to the references to angels.

This conclusion I find very odd, since he ought to know that with regularity in the OT and in Intertestamental literature, angels are called and described as men (see e.g. Dan. 9.21; 10.5; 12.6-7). This sort of descriptor is particularly common in Jewish apocalyptic texts like Daniel and like Mark’s Gospel itself. And again, one has to ask the question—when Matthew or Luke read the Markan account, are we really to suppose that they thought they were significantly changing the account by calling those figures angels? I doubt it. Again we are dealing with a wooden sort of literalism on Bart’s part that does not take into account the larger context of such ‘angelic’ material in early Judaism.

With regularity in this book, Bart continues to ask the question--- why have pastors trained in seminary in the historical critical method regularly deprived their congregations of such information as he presents in this book? He suggest perhaps a failure of nerve or a “when in doubt chicken out approach”. I cannot speak for all such pastors, but since I do a myriad of church events all over the country every year in United Methodist and other sorts of churches which have pastors trained in such things, I must say the reason they are not telling their congregations the sort of things Bart is saying in Jesus, Interrupted is precisely because for the most part they do not believe in his radical interpretation of the data. Even those who are very keen on the historical critical method, would not agree with many things Bart says in this book.

No, there is not a conspiracy to suppress the actual truth about the NT in the contemporary church. Rather, there is an exercising of good and balanced judgment to allow the more radical interpretations of the data to go in one ear and out the other, because it is not true to the character of the data as a whole. In fact, I cannot tell you how many pastors who have gone to more liberal seminaries have told me this very thing. They don’t intend to convey conclusions they either disagree with, or have serious doubts about. Good for them. This does not make them cowards or uncritical thinkers.

One of Bart’s larger points is that there are theological incompatibilities between the Gospel accounts. The virginal conception and the incarnation ideas are not reconcilable, and anyway no Gospel, or other NT sources seeks to reconcile them, in Bart’s view. He insists (p. 74): “for the writers of the Gospels, the idea of the virgin birth and the idea of an incarnation were very different indeed.” Really?

The idea of a virginal conception has to do with how Jesus came into this world, by what means, and the answer is by means of a miracle that took place in Mary’s womb without the involvement of a man. This idea says nothing for or against the idea of a pre-existent son of God, and that in any case is not its purpose. John 1 on the other hand does speak of a pre-existent logos, one later called only begotten son of God in this same chapter, who “took on flesh and tabernacled amongst us”. Aha! The account of the incarnation does indeed speak about taking on flesh. This is indeed what the virginal conception story is about—explaining the human and also divine origins of Jesus.

Should we assume that a situation existed where a particular group of Christians knew only the Gospel stories told in one particular Gospel? This is how Bart dogmatically puts it--- “If your only Gospel was Mark--- and in the early church for some Christians it was the only Gospel—you would have no idea that Jesus’ birth was unusual in any way”. (p. 74). Really? Now when a writer makes a dramatic claim like this it is always appropriate to ask- “How do you know this, and if you don’t have evidence to support the idea, why would you assume it is so?”

First of all, the evidence we have suggests that this assumption is simply false. Remember again the preface to Luke’s Gospel. He knows of many other such accounts. He also knows of eyewitnesses and early preachers of the word and he has consulted him. I doubt it is in any way a wise thing to assume that Mark was writing to a group of Christians hermetically sealed off from the other Christians in the Roman Empire and without access to other Christian documents and traditions. Secondly, the very solution to the Synoptic problem that both Bart and I agree is likely, namely that Matthew and Luke used Mark, in itself gives the lie to the assumption that this Christian community only had this one Gospel, and that one only had that one, and so on. This is a myth, not good historical analysis.

But even leaving the Gospel out of account for a moment. Is it really true that only the Gospel of John tells us about a pre-existent one who takes on flesh and dwells amongst us? Well no. In fact we find this idea in some of our earliest Christian documents--- Paul’s letters. Compare for example 1 Cor. 8.4-6 to Phil. 2.5-11. Already in the 50s and 60s Christian writers believed that there was a divine pre-existent son of God who came to earth and took on human form.

It is of course true that Paul does not directly mention ‘the virginal conception’, but what he says is not only compatible with the idea (see Gal 4.4—God sent his son, born of woman, born under the law. Notice Paul does not say, born of a good Jewish man with proper paternity), Rom. 8.3 suggest knows of the virginal conception idea for he says that God sent his son “in the likeness of sinful flesh”. Now what is the point of the word ‘likeness’ in this verse? I would suggest Paul is saying that Jesus really had flesh but it was not tainted with human fallenness the way all other human flesh was (see Rom. 5.12-21). In other words, Paul already knows about the idea of Jesus being conceived in a pure and sinless manner. The attempt to treat the NT writers as if they were ignorant or ignored or were polemicizing against one another or lived in splendid isolation from one another does not work.

The early Christian movement was a tiny sectarian movement dedicated to world evangelism, and working together towards that end. Paul knew Peter and James and John, and others. He knew Mark and Luke and Apollos and others. He is the bridge figure between the various local Christian communities, and as he tells us in Galatians, he even went to Jerusalem to present his own Gospel to the pillar apostles so they would all be in theological accord about the message--- and indeed they were, if by ‘they’ we mean those who ended up writing the NT and apostolic documents.

In fact all of the NT documents can be traced back to apostolic sources or were written by apostles—all of them can be traced to about 9-10 persons who were eyewitnesses or apostles or both. These persons include the Beloved Disciple, Mark, Luke, John of Patmos, Paul, probably Apollos, Peter, James and Jude. 2 Peter is a later composite document made up of material from Peter, Jude, and with a knowledge of the Pauline corpus, but you will notice it does not appear to draw on non- apostolic source material. The claims that we do not know who wrote these books, or that some of them are forged are greatly exaggerated claims, that many historians like myself do not find convincing or compelling on the basis of the actual historical evidence itself.

We have no documents in the NT by the Judaizers, or by the super-apostles Paul combated. We have no documents in the NT then by Paul’s opponents, or James’ opponents or the like. Were there such people in early Christian communities--- yes there were, and their legacy was not preserved except indirectly because it did not comport with the message of the apostles, about which Peter, James, John, and Paul all shook hands on.

The attempt to present the NT writers as examples of dueling banjos does not pass muster when one really analyzes early Christianity in its first century period. There was not the sort of radical diversity amongst these earliest Jewish Christians, unlike some of what we find when the church became largely dominated by Gentiles in the second and succeeding centuries, and major heretics arose like Marcion and the Gnostics.

The attempt to trace radical diversity back into the NT period is doomed to failure, because it is not grounded in a fair historical reading of the original source documents. Equally unfair and historically inaccurate is the notion that high Christology or Trinitarian orthodoxy was something only cooked up in centuries subsequent to the NT era, particularly in the 4th and 5th centuries. To the contrary, we already see a proto-orthodox theology in the NT itself in Paul, in John, in Hebrews, in Revelation. Christ is already view as deity by Paul and other NT writers, and already in various places we hear about Father, Son and Spirit all being called God in the NT. That this high Christology and Trinitarian theology is further developed after the NT era is beyond dispute. But those developments were founded on and grounded in the orthodoxy that already existed in the apostolic era.

Let me be clear. If you do not like these Christian ideas, that is fine. But what you cannot do is say that the earliest Christians did not believe things like the deity of Christ or the virginal conceptions. The attempt to make 4th century Christians the inventors of high Christology imposes a myth of origins on Christianity that amounts to a rewriting of history in a false way. Distaste for this or that theological idea should not be allowed to lead to a truly biased and unhelpful interpretation of the historical facts about what the earliest Christian believed. The transcript of their faith is found in the NT itself, a collection of apostolic and sub-apostolic documents. One is free to disagree with their theological perspectives, but one is not free to say they didn’t hold such views or to suggest that there were widely divergent and contradictory beliefs about such subjects amongst early orthodox Christians. This is simply not true. More soon.


smijer said...

Quite a bit of material to cover here. I wouldn't want to be as thorough in my reply to your essay as you have been in your critique of Ehrman. So, like this morning - just a couple of notes.

Mark, having been the first gospel written, cannot be assumed to have had access to all the same traditions that Luke and Matthew later were aware of. Whether Mark was directly or indirectly aware of Paul, nothing in his writing suggests he was aware of a virgin or Bethlehem tradition. If he was not aware of it, likely the community of believers who first adopted his book were not aware of it either. One possibility is that it emerged in a different community. Another is that it emerged after Mark was written.

Luke professes to have used other sources in which he had confidence - clearly Mark is one of them. Something akin to Q was probably another one. And as I mentioned this morning, it's likely that he added some narrative riffs of his own to a bare bones virgin/bethlehem account, some version of which was available to both him and Matthew.

Nevertheless, when Ehrman says that an early (newly evangelized) Christian might have had no more than a letter or two of Paul and the Gospel of Mark, and therefore might have known nothing of traditions we see emerging in later literature, he could well be correct.

By the way, I do agree with you that we find traces of a high Christology in very early Christian traditions, perhaps as early as Mark - certainly as early as John.

carson said...

Dr. Witherington,

In the middle of your excellent, very helpful post, you have the following minor typo:

It is of course true that Paul does not directly mention ‘the virginal conception’, but what he says is not only compatible with the idea (see Gal 4.4—God sent his son, born of woman, born under the law. Notice Paul does not say, born of a good Jewish man with proper paternity), Rom. 8.3 suggest **knows** of the virginal conception idea for he says that God sent his son “in the likeness of sinful flesh”. Now what is the point of the word ‘likeness’ in this verse?

perhaps: "knowledge" or "he knows"

Please do not approve this comment; I just wanted to share this minor observation with you.

Thanks for the great service you offer so many through your blog!

James said...

Was not Luke a man? As prone to error as the next? Was not Mark a man? As prone to error as the next? Were not Luke and Mark dealing with theological-historical questions of the highest order of transcendent meaning, as far beyond the wit of man as questions can be? Why then suppose that they must agree or did agree? Why not presume instead that, just as Christians today cannot agree on central questions of doctrine, neither could they?

As an instance of a central issue of doctrine, take the crucifixion and its import. On the crucifixion, Mark and Luke disagree profoundly. The whole tenor of Mark’s account conveys a sense of surprise, anguish, disappointment, and despair. Luke’s conveys instead a sense of anticipation, comprehension, resignation, calm, and hope. And, at the end, the accounts very nearly contradict one another: Luke plainly tells us that Jesus’ dying words were “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Mark tells us that at three Jesus uttered the words “My God, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?” Then bystanders ran for wine and wondered aloud if Elijah would intervene, and then Jesus gave a loud cry and died. I suppose it’s barely possible to hold that Mark does not contradict Luke--that the words he reports preceded the words Luke reports. But in my view, this is a strained and tendentious reading. It’s fair and reasonable to conclude that Mark and Luke disagree not only in the tenor of their accounts, but in particular as to the dying words of Jesus--that they contradict each other.

What is there against this discovery of inconsistency and disagreement on a matter of great import?

Witherington remarks that in both accounts theology and history are intermixed and inseparable. I quite agree. But so what? As to both their theological and historical understanding of what has occurred, Mark and Luke disagree intensely. Again, should we be surprised? It isn’t easy for us today, with our frail intellects and stained spirits, to grasp the nature and import of a death supposed to offer salvation to us all. What is the magic in writing within two or three generations of the event that would make Mark or Luke so much abler to grasp its immensity?

Witherington insists both Mark and Luke have their own angle of incidence, that neither is a neutral or objective rapporteur. Just so. Why not then all the more likely they would differ in their accounts?

Witherington adverts to the three hours spent on the cross to suggest that all the reported words of the dying Jesus might have been uttered, but at different times. Surely this is pure desperation--though why the believer should strive to find consistency of understanding of this great moment I don’t see. But if he does, surely he should allow that it isn’t the three hours that are in question, but the hour of three and shortly thereafter--and that it isn’t likely that Jesus uttered, in this short space of time, both the serene words recounted by Luke and the anguished cry recounted by Mark. One might go so far as to say it’s simply not true that Mark’s account of the death of Christ is consistent with Luke’s.

Hail Crom said...

Witherington said...

"Bart pleads in this chapter that each Biblical author be allowed to speak for himself. I quite agree with this up to a point, But these Biblical authors did not think they were operating in a social vacuum. They believed they were part of a movement, and they relied on traditions, oral and written, from those who had come before or were their contemporaries. Bart’s modern and individualistic approach to each Gospel ignores the collective nature not merely of ancient culture, but also the tight-knit nature of the early sectarian split off movement from Judaism, called Christianity."

Cart before horse anyone? Check your assumptions sir. It is amazing how you have such insight into the anonymous gospel writers' intentions and beliefs.

If the community was so tight knit, why do you suppose their was so much heresy and division? Paul was constantly warning of heretics that opposed him and his "gospel". The book of Acts speaks of a Jewish faction that believed differently than Paul did. Read Matthew sometime and show me the gospel of grace in their. Ehrman is correct it pointing out the fact that the New Testament authors had huge theological disagreements. This is so obvious that you have millions of dispensationalist Christians that throw out the gospels and James as being teachings for Jews under the old covenant!

Witherington's problem with Ehrman is simply that he doesn't read the New Testament with all kinds of evangelical presuppositions.

Witherington said...

"The earliest Christians writers were, almost without exception, educated Jews, who passed on early Christian traditions in a thoroughly Jewish manner and had a high regard for the truth of things."

Here we go again, what is your evidence for this claim? Ehrman makes a strong case for his, you simply make your claim without evidence because your preaching to the choir and they only want you to tell them everything is going to be fine, and make big bad Ehrman go away.

Marc Axelrod said...

This guy needs to read Lord Jesus Christ by Larry Hurtado. I thought he clearly made the case for the first century worship of Jesus as Lord. Not that the case really needs to be made, any bloke with a copy of Philippians could figure it out.

I'm currently reading the reprint of What Crucified Jesus by Ellis Rivkin. It's pretty much what I expected. Well written liberal NT scholarship from a Jewish perspective. I'm preaching one service tonight, two sermons tomorrow and one on Easter. Plus, all the Axelrods are descending upon us, so I gotta get the house clean too.

Duke of Earl said...

Bart Ehrman doesn't trouble me. I understand enough about ancient Jewish thought (as described by contextual scholars) to see that the motif of history as story covers most all his objections.

Crom's objections to Paul's responses to heretics ignores what his letters were. Paul was writing corrections to people who were in error. It was that tight knit nature of the community that brought him word and allowed him to correct.

People who believe in Ehrman are indeed the choir he is singing too. People who have become familiar with Ehrman's neofundamentalist handling of the text won't be at all perturbed.

Maldoror said...

There are then three dangers we learn of when reading and critically analyzing Gibbon’s classic work: 1) history writing that either dismisses or is dismissive of the role of God in human history, claiming that that is not a part of the historian’s task, even if there is considerable evidence to the contrary.

Wow, this quite...weird, as an epistemological problem. Tell me of any historian that will seriously count as part of his epistimological approach "the role of God in human history"? How can you actually measure the role of being that is supernatural? What God? How do you actually know which events are part of the human intervention and which are not? I studied history, an as atheist I fail to see why should I consider the "role" of a being I don´t even believe it exists in my work. But even, if I believed, how I am supposed to put that in consideration while working as an historian? You may call it a "naturalist" bias in my epistemolgy, but the heck it is justified.

Jerry from Seal Beach said...

Ben, do you agree with theories that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write their own gospels? I just finished reading Raymond Brown's Introduction to the New Testament and with regard to what Ehrman has written about authorship they would both agree.

And if as an evangelical NT scholar your agree, should'nt there be at least some communication about that from the Pulpit? Is not Ehrman partly right?

Chad Gibbons said...

Hail Crom's post was kind of funny. He wrote this:

Here we go again, what is your evidence for this claim?

In Witherington's earlier post he mentioned Bauckham's work 'Jesus and the Eyewitnesses'. That seems reasonable enough.

I liked the last part of his post the best:

you simply make your claim without evidence because your preaching to the choir and they only want you to tell them everything is going to be fine, and make big bad Ehrman go away.

In the very same sentence that he (wrongly) complains about a lack of evidence, he goes on to make his own claim without any evidence. If he is correct, his insights into the mind of Ben Witherington is downright miraculous!

Dave said...

Well I certainly appreciate all that Ben has to say. It seems the the tone of the article comes across as Bart-bashing, and perhaps arrogant. Yes it does offend my genteel Texas sensibilities -- we prefer to disagree with folks in a less direct manner.

I gather from a post above, that the review/critique would have had more bite and conviction if Ben had not tried to correlate the gospel accounts, after he criticized Bart for doing the same thing.

If it is proper to view each of the gospels as different impressionistic portraits of the same subject, then let's do that. If any "harmonizing" is to be done, let it be at a high level, and not so concerned with corroborating the details of the eyewitness accounts. If we want them to stand on their own, then let them do so.

One of the downsides of the Dallas area is the large number of fundamentalists in the area, even within the UMC! So I understand the blind literalism Bart is so adamantly trying to tear down. And I like that Ben is against this as well, instead he looks for a middle ground.

Andy Rowell said...

Thursday, April 9, 2009
Bart Ehrman on Stephen Colbert show last night. (06:30)

Colbert used Witherington's elephant metaphor but it could be coincidence.

Mike Taylor said...

Thanks Ben, for another detailed review. I remember how I almost laughed out loud (in the bookstore) when I read Ehrman's reasoning in "Misquoting Jesus". He reviewed Mark chapter 2 where Jesus refers to "when Abiather was high priest" when Jesus justifies his disciples’ picking grain on the Sabbath. Since Abiather wasn’t high priest as noted by Jesus, he concluded that Mark or Jesus were wrong or Jesus lied. The shallowness of this logic amazed me. Of course, the audience at the time may very well have understood the idiomatic expression and not considered it a lie at all.

In South America the bus driver would say "Sube no mas" which to us recently arrived Peace Corps folks meant - "Don't come up any more". His actual meaning was "Come up without hesitation." – something we learned and laughed about later. Leave out the culture, literary style, idiomatic context, etc. and it's easy to mistake the meaning. I recommend tht anyone who can, live in a non-English speaking country for 2-3 years (without a break) with only occasional access to English speakers (5 or 6 times per year). You will make many (sometimes funny) linguistic mistakes and misinterpret many things before beginning to get a grasp for what people are telling you. Actually understanding another’s words requires far more than simply being able to translate.

jthom18 said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for your response. But, rather than replying myself perhaps I should see if anyone from OUP would like to respond to your evaluation of their process for choosing authors. "No expertise necessary. Just the prospect for book sales." I jest, but I don't think I completely buy your reply.

All the best,

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

Ben, caught Colbert last night and wrote a quick post-

(1075) Last night I caught a good interview on ‘the Colbert report’. They had Bart Ehrman on, the author of ‘Jesus interrupted’. I had just read a critique of his book on Ben Witherington's site [go check it out, he did a great job. His site is on my blog roll]. Colbert actually used some basic Christian arguments to refute Ehrman. Basically Ehrman is somewhat of an intellectual critic of Christianity, his background is one of ‘fundamentalist’ and as he learned of various criticisms of Christianity he became a vocal opponent. When young kids are brought up in church, taught the basics of bible faith, they then go off to college [Christian ones] and depending on how ‘liberal’ the university is, they get challenged on many of their core assumptions. Now, some of these challenges are good, believers should be familiar with the basic challenges to the authenticity of the faith. We often fail to prepare younger believers for this world. What Ehrman seems to be doing is taking many of these basic challenges and saying ‘see, all true university professors know that there are many contradictions/falsehoods in the bible, it’s a secret that the average bible toting Archie Bunkers don’t know about’. Well, he does overstate his claim. What are some of the basic challenges to the faith? Some teach that the scriptures [gospels] teach contradictions, last night Ehrman said that the crucifixion accounts were contradictory. He quoted from various accounts and said ‘see, one writer has Jesus depressed, the other upbeat’ to be honest, NO gospel shows Jesus ‘upbeat’ on his way to the Cross! But he was basically saying the gospel writers told conflicting stories. Geez, I could have come up with better challenges myself! Or the accusation of plagiarism, I am presently reading a book written by John Crossan, an ultra liberal ‘Jesus Seminar’ brother. They challenge everything about the faith. He chops up the scripture in a way that would make it next to impossible to comprehend. He has the list of the letters that most accept as legitimate [Paul’s] then the list of ‘maybe Paul’s, maybe not’ then those he says were not written by Paul, though the letters themselves claim to be written by him. Is it possible that a letter in the New Testament could have been written by someone else? Sort of like a ghostwriter? To be honest about it, it’s possible. Now wait, I know some of you will write me off for this. It’s possible because 1st century writers did do stuff like this, the official name for doing this is [I know I can’t spell it] called ‘pseudepigraphal’ or something like that. The point is it would not be wrong or deceptive for a first century Christian writer to have done this, it would not be considered lying. Do we have any examples in scripture where stuff like this happened? There are references [not symbolic] that have writers in scripture saying ‘greet those at Babylon’ or ‘to those at Babylon’ and the writer means Rome [I think Peter and John do this?] In these few cases it is understood that they used Babylon because they were writing to areas that they did not want to be exposed, they did not want Rome to know who or what they were writing about. So this is considered acceptable, not a deception. Likewise in the gospels you read one account of Peters denials where it says ‘before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times’ and another gospel says ‘before the cock crows’ well, which one is right? They both are, one is just giving more detail than the other. Is this lying, of course not. It was perfectly acceptable in 1st century biographical writing to do stuff like this. Biographies are held to different standards then intense historical accounts. That is not to say the gospels are not historical, it’s just to say the writers were writing biographies and it should be understood that way. Even Colbert [a Roman Catholic believer] brought this out in his mock challenge to Ehrman, he used the classic elephant example. Four blind guys all give different descriptions of the part of the elephant they feel. I think believers should be familiar with the historical arguments against the faith, they should not simply respond ‘that’s God's word and that settles it’ while this might suffice for ones personal faith, it does nothing to refute Ehrman, or his disciples! NOTE- I believe all the letters, writings in the New Testament that say who wrote the actual letter, were written by that writer. The problem is some writings do not say who wrote them. But we can still figure out some of them by other means. Luke tells the person he addressed Acts to, that he wrote his gospel account on an earlier occasion. John’s gospel says it was written by the ‘disciple who Jesus loved’. So even writings that do not specifically say ‘written by Matthew’ or Mark or whoever, you still can find hints to who wrote them.

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

Hail it's obvious there is a problem with our dispensationalist brothers, the reason they 'divide' the scritpures the way they do is not because the N.T. has HUGE theological differences, it is becuase of an inablity to see the greater picture of Grace and legal justification along side a biblical 'ortho-praxy'.

James W Lung said...

There are scholars who argue that Matthew preceds Mark and Luke, and that Mtt is a source for both.

Bp. Pike made a very powerful argument for John being the first Gospel to be written.

No one knows which was first. No one knows whether there were any collections of sayings or fragments of writings that served as sources for the gospel writers. No one can know.

In light of Luke's failure to mention the fall of Jerusalem in either of his writings, and even his failure to write of Paul's death, it makes perfect sense that all N.T. writings were complete before the fall of Jerusalem 70 AD.

I'm enjoying Ben's critique of Bart even more than I did Colbert's great elephant story at the end of the interview.

But thank God our faith has nothing to do with the latest consensus of so-called scholars about anything. We have the core of the tradition. Two testaments, etc. We have what the Church has always believed, taught, and confessed based upon the word of God. That is the pillar and ground of all truth, and truths that I will live and die for.

Anybody willing to bet their life that there was such a thing as "Q?"


bob said...

I just looked at stuff by Ehrman for the first time. First, what a very silly webpage he maintains; for a college like Chapel Hill I just didn't expect it to look so much like, well, a TBN studio set:

Geez, come ON....

He seems to be a darling of NPR's Fresh Air program which typically attracts atheism, so no surprise. What I cannot figure out is how someone can be taken soo seriously when his entire academic career seems to be "I don't believe this crap and neither should you.".
Have big universities actually sunk so low that they have to hire a tenured atheist to teach unbelief? Wow. Come a long way from when they used to hire folks like Jaroslav Pelikan. Having heard Ehrman on the web, it just isn't that interesting. Everything he has a problem with, actual believers don't.

I have an example he might like concerning divergent accounts of historical fact. Also a problem of authorship.
Hoagy Carmichal wrote "Stardust" in the 1920's. In a biography of the man I think I counted about four very different accounts of just how he came to write the music. All by Carmichal himself. There is no harmonizing them. They just plain don't agree. Ehrman might well conclude that Carmichal didn't write it at all, or that there are four Carmichals. Or that the song really isn't meant to be one song anyway. Sorry for the confusion the last 80 or so years...Yet, this song was written by someone who was alive less than 30 years ago. What possible hope can Ehrman have of psychoanalyzing authors 2000 years ago in another language?
I guess Ehrman can come to no other conclusions than the ones he does because he doesn't believe, and the gig pays very very well. He has an audience. He will be a distinguished prof for the rest of his life. I can't imagine he won't be very bored, though. He has nothing to say, really.