Tuesday, April 07, 2009

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

Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, (San Francisco: Harper One, 2009), xii +292 pages. Part One ( the first 60 pages)

Bart Ehrman is both a gifted writer and a gifted lecturer. Perhaps his best gift is the ability to distill difficult and complex material down to a level that undergraduates and ordinary lay folk can understand. It is thus understandable that his popular level books on the New Testament and cognate subjects have been well and widely read, and in age disposed to ‘dis’ the Bible anyway, which is to say, in a generally Biblically illiterate age, Bart’s work has been seen as confirming suspicions already long held by the skeptical or those prone to be skeptical about the Bible and Christianity.

One of the problems however with some of Bart’s popular work, including this book, is that it does not follow the age old adage--- “before you boil down, you need to have first boiled it up”. By this I mean Bart Ehrman, so far as I can see, and I would be glad to be proved wrong about this fact, has never done the necessary laboring in the scholarly vineyard to be in a position to write a book like Jesus, Interrupted from a position of long study and knowledge of New Testament Studies. He has never written a scholarly monograph on NT theology or exegesis. He has never written a scholarly commentary on any New Testament book whatsoever! His area of expertise is in textual criticism, and he has certainly written works like The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which have been variously reviewed, not to mention severely critiqued by other textual critics such as Gordon D. Fee, and his own mentor Bruce Metzger (whom I also did some study with). He is thus, in the guild of the Society of Biblical Literature a specialist in text criticism, but even in this realm he does not represent what might be called a majority view on such matters.
It is understandable how a textual critic might write a book like Misquoting Jesus, on the basis of long study of the underpinnings of textual criticism and its history and praxis. It is mystifying however why he would attempt to write a book like Jesus, Interrupted which frankly reflect no in-depth interaction at all with exegetes, theologians, and even most historians of the NT period of whatever faith or no faith at all. A quick perusal of the footnotes to this book, reveal mostly cross-references to Ehrman’s earlier popular works, with a few exceptions sprinkled in—for example Raymond Brown and E.P Sanders, the former long dead, the latter long retired. What is especially telling and odd about this is Bart does not much reflect a knowledge of the exegetical or historical study of the text in the last thirty years. It’s as if he is basing his judgments on things he read whilst in Princeton Seminary. And that was a long time ago frankly.

It is not sufficient to reply that Bart is writing for a popular audience and thus we would not expect much scholarly discussion even in the footnotes. Even in a work of this sort, we would expect some good up to date bibliography for those disposed to do further study, not merely copious cross-references to one’s other popular level books. Contrast for example, my last Harper book What Have They Done with Jesus? The impression is left, even if untrue, that Ehrman’s actual knowledge of and interaction with NT historians, exegetes, and theologians has been and is superficial and this has led to overly tendentious and superficial analysis. Again, I would be glad to be proved wrong about this, but it would certainly appear I am not. This book could have been written by an intelligent skeptical person who had no more than a seminary level acquaintance and expertise in the field of NT studies itself. And I do not say this lightly, for this book manifests problems in all areas, if one critiques it on the basis of NT scholarship of the last thirty or so years. There are methodological problems, historical problems, exegetical problems, theological problems, and epistemological problems with this book, to mention but a few areas.

My grandmother used to say, “if you can’t say anything nice about a person, then don’t say anything at all.” So let me start the more detailed part of this discussion by saying something positive--- I believe Bart Ehrman is an honest person, who really has been a truth seeker when it comes to the Bible and Christianity. His preface to this latest volume reflects that, and I applaud his honesty and forthrightness, while at the same time pointing out that I was a person who went through the same process of deep study and inquiry whilst in college and seminary and came to very different conclusions than Bart, and it wasn’t because I checked my brain at the door or ceased being a critical thinker on these subjects along the way. Bart and I are different in that I did not come out of a fundamentalist past at all, but we do share not only UNC and Bruce Metzger in common, we also both did English literature degrees in college, which explains to some degree the ability to write and the tendency to do it frequently.

Let me start then with a general criticism about Bart’s entire approach. He begins in his first chapter by bemoaning the fact that the general populus including the church, has been left in the dark about what “scholars have been saying” for lo these many years (over a hundred actually) about the Bible. He puts it this way “the perspectives that I present in the following chapters are not my own idiosyncratic views of the Bible. They are the views that have held sway for many, many years among the majority of serious critical scholars teaching in universities and seminaries of North America and Europe”(p.2).

Now it is always a danger to over generalize when we are dealing with as important a matter as the ‘truth about the Bible’. And frankly it is simply untrue to say that most scholars or the majority of Bible scholars or the majority of serious critical scholars would agree with Bart Ehrman in his conclusions about this or that NT matter. NT scholarship is a many splintered thing, and Ehrman’s position certainly does not represent a majority view, or the critical consensus about such matters. At best, one has to say yes and no repeatedly to what Bart takes as the critical consensus about such matters. Bart Ehrman, like the more radical members of the Jesus Seminar (e.g. Robert Funk cf. Robert Price) represents a minority position which has indeed been very vocal in proselytizing for their point of view. So this book should have come with a caveat emptor--- “Buyer Beware: Hyperbolic claims about what most or the majority of critical scholars of the NT think will be frequent in this tome”. The appeal to authority or expertise in any case does not really settle much. The issue is—what is the evidence and why should we draw this or that conclusion? The other issue is--- why mislead the general public about what “the majority of serious critical scholars” have been saying? Perhaps an end run has been done from the outset--- you define a small circle of scholars as the serious ones, the critical ones, the real scholarly thinkers, the real historians, and then having defined your own group narrowly enough, you then say—“the majority of such people think…” Evangelicals are sometimes just as guilty of this ploy as others, but in any case, it does not help when one misrepresents the actual state of play of things among scholars to the general public.

Bart reminds us early on that the method of studying the Bible taught in most mainline seminaries is “the historical critical method”. It is also, in fact perhaps the main method of teaching the Bible in evangelical seminaries today as well. And two of the major things one is taught, quite correctly in the study of this method are: 1) ancient historical texts must be studied in their original historical contexts to be properly understood; and 2) modern post-Enlightenment historiography is at odds with the historiography of most ancients, particularly when it comes to the issue of God’s involvement in human history.

There is a further corollary—in order to understand the Gospels or Acts, or Paul’s letters, or Revelation, one needs to understand the features and characteristics of such ancient literature—in short their respective genres. The Gospels are written like ancient biographies, not modern ones, or in the case of Luke-Acts like an ancient work of Hellenistic (and Septuagintal) historiography. Unless one knows the conventions and limitations that apply to such literature, one is in no position at all to evaluate whether there are “inconsistencies” “errors” or other problematic features of such literature. Error can only be assessed on the basis of what an author is attempting to do and what literary conventions he is following. Let us take an example Bart uses from p. 7 of his book—the fact that in John the cleansing of the temple comes early in the Gospel account, whereas in the Synoptics it is found in the Passion narrative. He is right of course that some modern conservative Christians have attempted to reconcile these differences by suggesting Jesus did the deed twice--- once at the beginning and once at the end of the ministry. The problem is, that this conclusion is just as anachronistic (and genre ignoring) as the conclusion that the Gospels contradict each other on this point. What do I mean?

If you actually bother to read ancient biographies (see e.g. Tacitus’s Life of Agricola, or Plutarch’s famous parallel lives) you will discover that the ancients were not pedants when it comes to the issue of strict chronology as we are today. The ancient biographical or historiographical work operated with the freedom to arrange there material in several different ways, including topically, geographically, chronologically, to mention but three. Yes they had a secondary interest in chronology in broad strokes, but only a secondary interest in that.
If one studies the Fourth Gospel in detail and closely in the Greek, comparing it to other ancient biographies what one learns is that it is a highly schematized and edited product, and the sign narratives are arranged theologically not primarily chronologically. And whilst this might cause a modern person some consternation, it is not a reason to say that John contradicts the Synoptics on this Temple cleansing matter. The Fourth Gospel begins by showing that Jesus replaces the institutions of Judaism with himself—a theological message (he is the Passover lamb, he is the Temple where God’s presence dwells etc.). The Synoptic writers are likely presenting a more chronologically apt picture of when this event actually happened. But strict chronology was not the major purpose of the Fourth Evangelist, we should not fault him for not giving us information we might want to have, or for focusing on the theological import of the event, rather than its timing. Such was the freedom, within limits, of ancient biographies and histories. I must disagree with the conclusion then when Bart says “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.” (p. 7). False. This is only so if one insists on a flat modern anachronistic reading of the text which pays no attention to what the authors are attempting.

The Gospel of John probably tells us nothing about this chronological issue, the Synoptics probably do, and judged on their own terms and on the basis of their ancient genre, one cannot draw the conclusion Bart does. Period. And unfortunately, this is a mistake Bart makes over, and over again, judging ancient texts on the basis of modern presuppositions about history writing, and what counts as truth or error. In fact, it is not entirely erroneous to say that Bart reads the Bible with the same sort of flat literalistic hermeneutic that he would have used before he did his scholarly study of the text. And I find this passing strange.
Let’s take his next pet example--- the three denials of Christ by Peter, and the cock crows. I quite agree with his critique of those who come up with six denials of Christ by Peter. No Gospel says that, any more than any Gospel mentions two cleansing of the Temple. Bart points to the difference between Matthew and Mark, the latter saying Peter will deny Christ before the cock crows twice, whilst in Matthew it says ‘before the cock crows”. He then asks--- “which is it?” The assumption is: 1) these Gospel writers were trying to be very precise; and 2) these two options are mutually contradictory; and 3) we should ask these sorts of detail questions of ancient historical documents because we have a right to assume that modern historical ways of analyzing this material will help us to get to the bottom of such matters and find the historical truth.

In the first place let’s consider point 2). In fact, if Peter denied Christ three times before the cock crowed at all, then he certainly denied Christ three times before the cock crowed twice!!! But suppose the Gospels writer were not much concerned to give us precise information about the intricate relationship and intercalation between denials and cock crows. Suppose, in terms of historical information they just wanted to make clear that there were three denials and there were cock crows? Of course this is maddening to those who think that we must have precision on such matters, but in fact if an author wants to be general let him be general, and if he wants to be more specific, let him be more specific. Mark may simply have wanted to be more general in his account. And since I think, with most scholars that the First Evangelist is using Mark’s account, he probably knew far more about the Markan intent than we do, and decided to be more specific. He edits his Markan account according to his own presentation of things. I could go through Bart’s examples one by one explaining how insufficient attention has been paid by him to the ancient conventions of such genre of literature, but I agree with him that over-harmonizing on the basis of modern anachronistic considerations is wrong, just as wrong as claiming there are obvious contradictions based on a modern literalist reading of the same texts. And herein lies a very fundamental problem with the ex-fundamentalist readings of Bart Ehrman.

The Gospels are not, and never were intended to be inspected as if they were ancient photographs of Jesus taken with a high resolution, all seeing lens. On the contrary these documents are much more like portraits, and portraits always are selective, tendentious, perspectival. Let me illustrate this point.
One of my favorite Impressionist painters is Claude Monet, and I really love his series of painting done of Rouen Cathedral. These paintings were done in the late 1890s and they depict the front face of the Cathedral from slightly different angles of incidence, and in different lighting. But in each case it is recognizably the same cathedral with the same basic shape, from the same basic frame of reference. Let us suppose for a minute then that the Gospels are like these paintings. Now it would be totally pedantic to have an argument that went as follows: “In this painting Monet depicts the color of the front fa├žade of the cathedral as being gray, but in this picture he paints it as being a yellowish shade, and in this picture a pinkish shade.” Which is it? Surely one must be right and the other depictions wrong.” Of course the proper response to this silly discourse is that they are all right, because they attempt to depict the appearance of the building at different times of day from slightly different angles. And no art critic in their right mind would think of suggesting that one painting was in error compared to the other. My point is simple. The Gospels are not works of modern biography or historiography and they should not be evaluated by such canons.

Nor for that matter are we much helped by evaluating the Gospel traditions on the basis of the canons of modern German form criticism which is grounded in notions about the passing on of oral traditions which simply do not apply to the first century A.D. and in the Jewish setting of the Gospels and Acts (on this point see Richard Bauckham’s fine study Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). Various of Bart’s comments presuppose that most NT exegetes and historians assume that the Bultmannian conclusions about oral history and oral tradition are correct. This is certainly not true now in the way it might have been said to be true specifically in mainline schools in the 70s. On the contrary, there is now a lively discussion about oral history that makes clear that the notion that there was likely a long gap between the events and their being written down, or between eyewitness testimony and their being written down is probably false.

Equally pedantic and unhelpful is Bart’s analysis of Genesis 1 and 2(pp. 9-10), which are generally agreed to be two different ways of telling the story of creation, one more general, and one more focused on the creation of humankind. Besides the fact that Genesis 1 falls into the category of poetry or poetic prose and should not be analyzed on the basis of it being some sort of scientific account of creation, it is frankly not fair game to compare and contrast these two chapters as if they were attempting to say the same thing in the same way writing like modern historians. They are not. Ancient narratological conventions come into play (see now Bill Arnold’s fine commentary on Genesis in the Cambridge series I edit). And now we begin to see why Biblically illiterate folk who are skeptical about the Bible are drawn to the Ehrman analysis. It appears to take the text at face value, and evaluate it by comparison and contrast, without taking into consideration at all issues of literary context or conventions. In other words, it approaches the matter as if one could simply read the English translation of the text without any knowledge of ancient writing conventions and come to important conclusions about historical truth and error. But in fact, this is not only not proper, in most cases it is not possible. The real truth seeker knows that a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you would like it to mean.

Let’s take another example--- Bart’s treatment on pp. 10-11 of Psalm 137. In the first place this is a song, and so should not be treated like a theological or ethical treatise. In the second place, what this song is a revelation of is what is on the heart of the psalmist. In the psalms, human beings speak to, pray to, implore their God in various ways. It is a very truthful and accurate reflection of various things on and in the human heart, including the desire for vengeance. What the psalms are generally not is a revelation of what is in God’s heart or character. But Bart seems oblivious to this point which is commonly enough recognized by commentators on the Psalms. More in depth study of the psalms could have led to the avoidance of this sort of error.

Let’s take now an example from the second chapter (pp. 24ff). Here Bart is comparing and contrasting the relationship between the events that lead up to Jesus’ death as told in Mark and as told in John, and trying to synch that up with the Jewish liturgical calendar in regard to the celebration of Passover, and the Day of Preparation.

A few historical remarks are in order. 1) despite what Bart says, no Gospel suggests Jesus was crucified on Passover, which is to say between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday on April 7 A.D. 30 (or less possibly in A.D. 33); 2) the meal described in John 13 is definitely not the same meal as that described in Mark 14 and the other Synoptics. John 13 is very clear about this--- John 13.1 reads literally “But before the festival of the Passover…” The text does not say how long before. This could easily be a meal at the beginning of the week when the feast of Passover transpired, rather than near its end. And nothing whatsoever is said in John’s story about sharing the Passover elements. This is a striking difference from the accounts in the Synoptics, and I would say the differences are great enough that we must take them to indicate we are dealing with different stories here. 3) Most scholars who have written commentaries on the Synoptics do indeed think that Jesus celebrated his last supper with his disciples on Thursday night, which is to say, on the beginning of the Day of Preparation rather than on Passover day. There was precedent for this in early Judaism in some cases, and some scholars have even argued that Jesus was following the Galilean rather than the Judean liturgical calendar, which is certainly possible and believable. Whether this is so or not, it is notable that there is no mention at all about Jesus and his disciples eating lamb….in any of the accounts. This has led some to conclude, wrongly in my judgment, that even the Thursday night meal was not a Passover meal. 4) one of the major issues in determining when Jesus actually died is the question of which clock an Evangelist is running on--- is it the Roman way of keeping time, or a Jewish and Oriental one? Which hour is the third, sixth and ninth hours, according to the respective Evangelists? Mark’s seems to be based on the Roman way of time keeping, but this may not be the case in John. In any case, all the Gospels in fact are in agreement that Jesus died before sundown on Friday, which is to say, before Passover actually begun, which is to say on the Day of Preparation. 5) in A.D. 30 the day of preparation for the Sabbath was in fact the day of preparation for Passover. It was one and the same day. Therefore, Mk. 15.42 does not in any way disagree with John when it says that Jesus died on the day of Preparation. Correct— and this was Friday before sundown when both Passover and Sabbath began that year. John did not need to change a historical datum to make a theological point that Jesus was the Passover lamb. The point is inherent in a theological interpretation of the actual day Jesus died. In this case, Bart is busily finding contradictions in the text which are a chimera. They are not really in evidence.

Bart carries on in much the same vein in his analysis of the birth narratives. What is of concern to us is not where he sees differences in Matthew and Luke’s accounts, but rather where he finds what he deems to be actual discrepancies. The first of these is that Bart claims that what Luke says in Lk.2.1-3 is clearly historically in error (pp. 34-35). What however does the Greek text of Lk.2.2 actually say--- “this registration happened first/prior to the governing of Syria by Quirinius.” The issue here is the function of the word prote. What it seems to indicate is that the census in question took place prior to when Quirinius was governor of Syria. There was indeed a famous and indeed notorious census which led to the rebellion of Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6, and so Luke would be distinguishing that census from the earlier one when Mary and Joseph were enrolled. Bart also deems the notion of such enrollments as historically improbable, at least in the way Luke tells the story. There are however very clear examples from the province of Egypt of such census taking done for the purpose of taxation. And in fact, the evidence suggests a link with one’s ancestral home. I see no reason why the Romans would do it any differently with the province of Judea. Furthermore, when Augustus decide to go for the full blown Empire deal, he needed much more money for many more troops and armaments.

While Luke may be using rhetorical hyperbole when he says all the oikomene was being enrolled, a rhetorical usage common in Hellenistic historiography influenced by rhetoric, what Luke is referring to is the inhabited Roman empire, outside of Rome itself. In other words, his audience would likely have understood the reference quite easily and naturally. Bart also takes exception to the story of the wise men following the star. He says nothing of the fact that ancients often thought stars were living beings, the heavenly hosts, and it is more than likely that what Matthew is describing is the leading of the heavenly host or angels, of these persons to the birth place. Here again however some latitude must be allowed for ancient story tellers to present their narrative in ways that their audience would understand. While Matthew’s account does not tell us that Nazareth was Mary and Joseph’s hometown, his account is compatible with this fact, which Luke does tell us. The absence of an explanation does not a discrepancy make nor should it lead one to conclude the author thought something different, especially when Matthew tells us that eventually the holy family did go to Nazareth, and why would they pick that wide place in the road out of the blue if they had no prior associations with it? No good reason. The scripture fulfillment text in Matthew is a midrashic attempt to explain the fact that Nazareth was their home. It did not generate such an idea.
Lastly, Bart wants to argue that both Matthew and Luke made up the notion of a trip to Bethlehem independently of one another based on Micah’s prophecy, in order to indicate Jesus’ messianic origins, rather than suggesting he was born in a one horse town in Galilee. The problem with this is that Bethlehem itself was also a one horse town in Jesus’ day, and among other things, the slaughter of the innocents is perfectly in character with Herod’s paranoia as described in Josephus. It was hardly necessary for a messianic figure to come from Bethlehem unless one wanted to insist he was a descendant of David, but as we know from Qumran, there were other Jewish traditions that did not associate messiah with the Davidic line. In regard to the oft parodied story of the slaughter of the innocents, we are only talking about a handful of infants at most in such a tiny village anyway, perhaps 6-8. There is nothing improbable about a birth in Bethlehem at all or a slaughter of a few infants. Jesus was called Jesus of Nazareth because he grew up there from infancy.

Differences there are indeed in the accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. And they are not explained by denying their existence, or resorting to false harmonizing tactics and exegetical gymnastics. We are not however talking about direct contradictions at all here. These narratives are quite compatible in all their essential details, and it is remarkable that two such independent accounts would in fact emphasize the same crucial points--- a virginal conception and a birth in Bethlehem. This did not happen because they were both creative exegetes. It happened because they both relied on historical sources of information about these events. Ehrman’s conclusion that “there are historical implausibilities and discrepancies that can scarcely be reconciled” (p. 34) is saying far more than he knows or the evidence suggests. Had Luke said Jesus was born in Nazareth and Matthew said no he was born in Bethlehem, then we would have a contradiction. But we find nothing like a contradiction in these two accounts—differences do not necessarily equal discrepancies much less equal disagreements. One has to come up with much better examples than this if one wants to claim the accounts can’t be explained or reconciled.

It is the task of a historian, which Bart Ehrman says he is, to get his facts straight. When he takes on the differences in the genealogies there are a few crucial facts he either ignores or is ignorant of. The first of these crucial points is that in Jewish law, if a man adopted a son, that son was entitled to be considered a descendant of his adoptive father, including being a descendant of his step-father’s ancestors. The genealogies in both Matthew and Luke are strange in part precisely because of this legal issue, and more to the point they are strange because both writers want to include the notion of the virginal conception in their accounts, indeed Matthew includes it right in his geneaology, and this may be the only known genealogy where the wife is included in the husband’s geneaology like this!

Bart is right about various of the differences in these genealogies. But he does not correctly explain some of the reasons for the differences. In the first place ancient royal genealogies often were prone to leaving the skeletons out of the list, and so offering an edited version of the ancestry. Something like this is happening in Matthew who wants to suggest Jesus is the seventh son of a seventh son of David, namely the perfect descendant of David. In other words, the form of the genealogy reflects not just historical but also theological interests. The same can be said for Luke’s genealogy and his concern to show that Jesus is not merely son of David son of Abraham, but also son of Adam, and more crucially, son of God. The issues here are not purely historical and it is a form of reductionism to treat them in a purely historical manner. But they were not intended to answer purely historical questions. One needs to read them in light of the conventions of such ancient genealogies, not in the light of modern historical conventions.

Scholars have long debated why these two genealogies differ, and Bart may be right that they both are genealogies connected to Joseph, rather than Luke’s being connected to Mary’s family. But even if this is true, one of them could offer some part of Joseph’s paternal ancestry and the other some part of Joseph’s maternal ancestry. We honestly cannot say. What we can say is there is no basis for the confidence that Bart shows that we have clear contradictions here. More would need to be known about ancient genealogy composition to come to that conclusion. We could carry on with this sort of dialogue with Bart’s list of complaints but we have already dealt with what he takes to be some of the more famous parade examples of clear contradictions. Some of his other examples are much weaker, and can be explained on the basis of the differing editorial tendencies different Gospel writers had, or in Luke’s Acts accounts on the basis of what were the conventions of rhetorical history writing in the first place. About such things Bart says little or nothing, because he seeks to read the text on the basis of modern historiographical conventions, a signal mistake. Ancient texts must be evaluated on their own terms and without demanding of them a precision they never were intended to have.

It is interesting that as the book moves along, Bart stresses here (and later in this study) that he does not think that historical critical study of the Bible should necessarily or will necessarily lead to a loss of Christian faith. I quite agree with this. In fact, I would say in my case that it is precisely the historical, contextual study of the Bible that has strengthened my faith in its truth telling on various subjects of import, not the least of which is the need for and possibility of human salvation. I also quite agree with Bart that teaching students to think and do critical thinking about life and the Bible is a good thing. On these two conclusions we would simply agree. What is interesting is that the more I studied the Bible the less I was prone to accuse the Bible of obvious historical errors and stupid mistakes, including theological errors about a matter as profound as human suffering and evil. To the contrary, I found the Bible rich, complex, varied, and helpful and truthful in dealing with precisely such life and death matters. It would be appropriate then to ask---why exactly did studying the Bible in the same way at seminary and during doctoral work lead Bart Ehrman and myself to such different conclusions? In my case, my faith in the Bible was strengthened, but the opposite seems to have been the case with Bart. “This is a mystery and it calls for profound reflection”. Some of this clearly has to do with presuppositions. Let’s take a theological one that seems to be at the root of some of the differences.

Bart seems to assume that a God who is both almighty and a God of love, would not allow the hideous amount of suffering that goes on in this world. Now this is by no means an uncommon objection to Biblical revelation, but what it seems to assume is a particular sort or deterministic or even extreme Calvinistic view of God, God’s sovereignty, and human life. I can see how extreme suffering and evil is a major problem for such a view of God. It would seem to make God the author of suffering and evil, or at least an uncaring deity in too many cases. Suppose however that God has not pre-determined all things? Suppose God chose to create us in his image with a measure of freedom of choice, the power of contrary choice? Suppose God relates to us relationally and not on the basis of divine decrees? Suppose the vast majority of suffering in the world is a result of human misbehavior or stupidity or sin? Suppose in addition that God does repeatedly intervene in human history to aid and rescue us, without taking away our ability to make viable choices that have moral consequences? It seems to me that part of the issue here is that Bart and I have very different views of the Biblical God and how God actually operates.
Here’s another quandary and quagmire. It appears to me that Bart and I disagree profoundly about the import of textual variants. As Bruce Metzger who taught us both once said--- we know what about 92% of the NT said in its original manuscripts with a rather high degree of certainty. As for the other 8%, very little of theological or ethical consequence is at stake. For example, the Trinity is not at stake if 1 John 5 did not mention it. The deity of Christ is not at stake just because some NT documents do not mention it directly, and some unscrupulous scribes added some clarity to this matter in other manuscripts in ways that distorted some NT manuscripts.

We also disagree rather strongly on the degree of flux in belief and in the handling of NT documents early on. It is simply not true to say that many of the primary Christian doctrines were not affirmed widely until centuries after the time of Christ. It is also not true that any such doctrines hang on only late copies of this or that NT book. When it comes to the issue of textual variants, the development of the textual tradition, and the theological import of such variants, Bart simply over-reads the evidence, or as the British say, over-eggs the pudding.

Now I think I understand why he does this. He rightly gets peeved with those fundamentalists who want to stick their heads in the sand and say, there are no such issues or problems even in the least. But an over-reaction is just that--- an over-reaction. Throughout this book, the real boogeyman that Bart is trying to refute is fundamentalists who hold to a certain wooden and very literal view of inerrancy which hardly takes ancient historical considerations into account at all. I would actually have as many problems with the same people as I have with Bart’s views.

He also does not do justice to a reading of these texts in light of ancient genre, conventions, purposes, history writing and the like, but for very different reasons. The reasons seem to include that he is a ardent convert from fundamentalism to a very narrow and all too modern form of historical critical analysis of these texts-- a form that starts with an inherent skepticism about the supernatural among other things, and assumes that critical thinking equals the ability to doubt this, that or the other ancient datum. I call this justification by doubt. It is no more a valid starting point for evaluating the NT than blind fideism is. Indeed, I would argue that to actually understand an ancient author you must start by giving them the benefit of the doubt and hear them out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into their own world and thought processes before understanding can come to pass. To approach the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion is to poison the well of inquiry before one even samples the water in the old well.

Bart and I furthermore disagree on the issue of pseudonymity in the canon. It is one thing to say there are anonymous documents in the NT, which there are. Hebrews would be a good example. It is another thing to say that there are pseudonymous documents in the NT, forgeries. I and many other critical scholars think this is not so, but Bart is right that many scholars think otherwise. My point is simply this--- there is a healthy debate about that issue amongst scholars. It is not a “well assured result of the historical critical method” on analyzing the NT. I have pointed out at length in my Letters and Homilies of the NT, series the problems that pseudonymity raised in the first century A.D. for both Greek and Latin writers, never mind writers of documents supposed to convey God’s truth. The Gospels as we have them are formally anonymous in terms of their internal evidence, though the Fourth Gospel tells is that the Beloved Disciple (not specifically identified) is the source of the material in that Gospel. We can discuss the merits of the attributes later appended to these Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), but in my view the testimony of Papias is important, and makes evident these attributions already existed in the first century, and in some cases during the time when there were still eyewitnesses. They cannot be dismissed with a wave of a hand, but at the same time one needs to ask--- what were the conventions when it came to appending names to composite documents? This deserves more discussion. In the second part of this post, we will pick up the discussion with Chapter Three. Stay tuned.


James said...

Unless Mr. Witherington has personal knowledge of of the furnishings of Mr. Ehrman’s mind--and how could he--I wish he’d spend less time snarkily insinuating they’re so sparse, and more on the issues at hand.

Let me also mention one of these issues, which might stand for many. Witherington says:

“Had Luke said Jesus was born in Nazareth and Matthew said no he was born in Bethlehem, then we would have a contradiction. But we find nothing like a contradiction in these two accounts—differences do not necessarily equal discrepancies much less equal disagreements. One has to come up with much better examples than this if one wants to claim the accounts can’t be explained or reconciled.”

Historians deal in probabilities. Let’s suppose the historian is drawn from one of the four billion plus of us earthlings who are not Christians of the sort that either read the Bible in simplistically literal fashion, or in Mr. Witherington’s sophisticatedly literal fashion, or who are not Christian at all. Suppose, that is, they read the texts at issue not as believers who regard the texts as revelatory, presumptively authoritative scripture, but as documents of some historical value yet to be determined.

Now suppose this historian knows that claims to be the Messiah are strengthened by the claimant’s having been born in Bethlehem, that few villagers of the time travelled elsewhere to have their babies, and that there’s good reason to suppose that Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Further, he knows that it’s improbable that “wise men” would know beforehand of any birth in a small town in Galilee, let alone be impelled to attend it, let alone by guided to the birthplace by a star. He also knows that there’s no evidence confirmatory of the enrollment reported by Luke, and that such an enrollment isn’t likely to have occurred (there are more convenient ways to raise revenue), and that it’s improbable that a birth be visited by shepherds at the invitation of angels.

Further, he can see that each of these farragos of improbabilities, both Matthew’s and Luke’s, only becomes all the more improbable if they are implausibly thrown together and bent into harmony.

Perhaps as Mr. Witherington suggests, with sufficient bending, distortion, rending, twisting, and contriving, the two accounts can be “explained or reconciled.” But if they are, not by any exegete--only by the creator of a new, third version of events. And from a historical standpoint, sans shaping and presuppositional, non-historical, belief--from a historical standpoint, we are presented simply with a man who grew up (and quite likely was born) in Nazareth, and who is placed at birth in Bethlehem by evangelists whose accounts do not at all differ in their being theologically motivated and highly improbable.

To approach the text with a hermeneutic of presumptive supernatural authoritativeness is to poison the well of inquiry.

Jim Geiger said...

A tour de force... thank you!

JKraftchick said...

Dr. Witherington,
I wanted to take this time to express how much I enjoy reading and following your blog. I am a third year Biblical Studies student at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, British Columbia and have read portions of two of your books for school, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary and your commentary on the Book of Matthew. Anyways, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading your blog, whether it be an article like this, a movie review, a commentary on UNC basketball, or even time spent in Vermont. I particularly enjoyed the first part of this analysis of Jesus, Interrupted and look forward to the sequel(s). Thank-you for blogging and I look forward to many more entertaining and thought provoking blog posts.

-Joe Kraftchick

Sky McCracken said...

Good call, Ben. I always thought that Ehrman took some scholarly liberties in his writing. And while I am not a scholar, I am glad you - a real scholar - are taking him to task on this.


John Anderson said...

Dr. Witherington:

An excellent write-up, thank you! It was by far one of the most enjoyable blogging reads I have had in a while.

I have long been aware of Ehrman--I recall a 'town hall' type discussion he and Richard Hays had about questions raised by the Da Vinci Code, including questions about portraits of Jesus, while I was attending Duke for my MTS.

My next exposure to him, though, came on what is perhaps an interview you know well. It was on the Colbert Report in 2006 (see my blog--click my name--for the video). In that video I found Ehrman to be rehearsing the exact same overexaggerated point over and over again: that we don't have the original manuscripts. If you watch the interview, you can discern a progression that I think indicates a degree of tension and annoyance Ehrman has for Colbert: early on Ehrman casually mentions that we don't have the manuscripts, and there are differences in them; by the end of the interview he is reaffirming this point and saying there are "hundreds of thousands" of differences within these manuscripts. All in all, it was kind of an uncomfortable--albeit hilarious, thanks to Colbert--watch. (I would be curious if anyone knows of Ehrman's response to this interview, its editing, etc?).

Most recently I have looked at his NT intro to compare his method and approach to that of others. It seems to me at least that, while his proposition regarding the expanse of literature that must be included in a NT intro, he has done a fairly responsible job in this volume. I have not, though, read every page. Would you chalk the difficulties in Jesus, Interrupted up to the fact that it is written at the popular level? My hunch, given the many differences you list between the two of you, is you will say no. But I am curious about your response.

Looking forward to the next installment!

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

Ben I am presently reading a liberal work from some of our 'Jesus seminar' brothers [the cover looked good!] I enjoy reading various points of view, I even belive the historical method can deepen ones faith. But when they get into disecting the accepted letters of Paul, or claiming the 'Lukan Paul' is different from the 'Pauline Paul' thats when I read with a skeptical lens. But this discussion was good, when believers are well versed on all the various viewpoints,it should strengthen, not weaken their faith. God bless, John

James W Lung said...

If I didn't know better, I'd be convinced that there is no such thing as a Ben Witherington, but rather that Ben is a pen name for a small army of scholars. I am in awe of your ability to think and write.

Back in the late 70's and 80's, my home church being a reasonable driving distance from the Cemetary at Dook, I used to be treated to wags much like Ehrman. During lent we were taught that Jesus's predictions of His passion in Mark couldn't have really happened, they were rather conjurings of the early church. I learned that when a Professor responds to a question with "you need to know the 'original' language," I need to grab my intellectual wallet to avoid having my intellectual pocket picked by a 'Perfesser' whose personal agenda trumps any residue of honesty that may remain in the his/her self-deluded soul. I have been sneered at as a knucklehead by a backbench player in the Jesus Seminar who gave me the homework assignment of reconciling the "contradictions" between Mark and John when I posed a question that made him uncomfortable.

Fantastic piece, Dr. Ben. Absolutely fantastic.


smijer said...

Just a few notes... Let me preface them with an aside that I have always admired Ehrman's popularizations but was disappointed with Misquoting Jesus on the basis that I felt he lost some academic distance from the subject and implied too strong support for his on views from the textual criticism he presents there. I have not read the new book. Moving along -

There are however very clear examples from the province of Egypt of such census taking done for the purpose of taxation.

I'm familiar of one example from egypt where traveling merchants were required to return to their home for enrollment. I believe it remains historically improbable that, as per Luke, peasants would be asked to leave their home town and return to their ancestral home for registration. This would create unnecessary burdens on both the taxpayers and the imperial census takers.

Going on, aside from the chronologies (harmonization of which requires a strange variant in the reading of Luke) the only blatant discrepancy between Matthew's account and Luke's is this:

Matthew contends that Jesus & family fled to Egypt after the birth, and upon being warned by an angel chose not to return to their previous home in Bethlehem but instead settled in Nazareth - explaining how Jesus of Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem. Luke contends that after the birth,
the family traveled to Jerusalem before returning to their previous home in Nazareth. In Luke, the census is the device that is used to explain how Jesus of Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem. Matthew's account is problematic under the theory that the family resided in Nazareth prior to the birth, and there is a real conflict on whether the family traveled to Egypt or to Jerusalem after the birth.

On further examination, we find that (antecedent) Mark never refers to Jesus as anything other than a Galilean (and neither does later John, for that matter). We find radical differences in Matthew's and Luke's accounts of the birth on every detail apart from its location and the virginal status of Mary. The most parsimonious explanation of all these elements is that the birth and the virginal status of Mary (and nothing else pertaining to the circumstances of the birth) were common to a tradition of which both Luke & Matthew were aware, and that each constructed a narrative to accommodate this tradition. I have a hard time taking seriously an argument that these narratives (or either of them independently) are historical.

Finally, returning to Ehrman - if his book is meant to militate against the hyperliteral reading of the modern fundamentalist, then I don't know how far we can criticize the effort. Clearly he thinks the correct reading is inconsistent with a coherent notion of "inerrancy". For that I don't think he can be criticized. The historical critical reading - even as you present it - is hardly "inerrant" in any coherent sense. It may be possible to preserve the basic historicity of certain passages disputed between your camp and Ehrman's but it leaves the force of criticism that one can't understand a passage (for instance that places the temple cleansing at the beginning of Jesus' ministry) as "true" in the sense of conforming in all aspects to historical reality. The author may not have intended for it to be "true" in that sense - and that is fine - however, against the claim that we can believe the truth of every particular in scripture, that fact lends little assistance.

And, for those passages for which we can hold a high degree of certainty that there is no historical basis, the case becomes more severe, in my view.

Jc_Freak: said...


Thank you for this write up, it was quite enlightening. What is your opinion on the probable influence this book will have?

Jc_Freak: said...


I think there is a major issue of epistemology here. I would give credit to any historian to come to the conclusions that he has. But what Dr. Witherington is speaking out against is A) Mr. Ehrman's lack of the professional demeanor and credentials that your example assumes and B) Mr. Ehrman's stance that his arguments amount to a proof against the texts. Though it is true that a historian may look at the gospels with a skepticism which may be appropriate to the profession, it is untrue that they can then speak in terms of definiteness about their conclusions.

The gospels speak of an improbably situation. My father used to say that if something were not phenomenal, then people wouldn't write about it. Part of the interest in the story is its improbability. And yet, the details of the story is possible, given an openness to the supernatural. Thus, any "disproving" that occurs isn't a matter of historical or textual study, but epistemological persuasion.

James said...

As to professional demeanor and credentials—
I recall nothing ad hominem anywhere in the book, but instead a focus exclusively on the issues surrounding the interpretation of the text. And whether Ehrman’s interpretations are sound or not is the question Witherington addresses after his discussion of Ehrman’s qualifications, and that’s of course entirely appropriate. But accusing another scholar of ignoring the relevant literature is a pretty serious charge. As Stanley Fish noted a couple of days ago in the New York Times, such fusillades are common among well informed and highly rational disputants. They are nevertheless irrelevant. Ehrman, despite the wide swathe he has cut among students of the New Testament, will probably never rate a biography. Jesus, on the other hand, is of great interest. I just wanted to see Witherington get right to Jesus, and skip the excursus into Ehrman’s supposed ignorance. If it’s true Ehrman doesn’t know what he’s talking about, it will come out in the discussion of his interpretation of the texts and the evidence and reasoning that supports it.

As to Ehrman’s claiming to have proved the unprovable, I think instead he does a pretty good job of keeping an important distinction clear, that between what’s flat-out contradictory and what’s merely hard to reconcile. So yes, for instance, there’s no contradiction between saying “the shepherds’ visited” and the “the magi visited.” Nor does Ehrman say there is. It is, however, hard to fit the two accounts together. Other times—I haven’t the book at hand, or I’d cite one or two—Ehrman does find flat-out contradictions, of a sort that don’t greatly trouble Witherington, but are denied to exist by many less informed and sophisticated readers (including, I believe, Ehrman in his younger days), and hence are worth considering.

The large and important question lurking here is how one’s beliefs based on faith may properly be permitted to influence one’s take on historical evidence. The gospels are every person’s historical evidence, they are only believers’ revelation. Ehrman the historian finds it to be improbable that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Maybe he even says it’s close to impossible—I don’t recall. But either way, his argument is based upon a reading of Luke and Matthew as historical evidence, not as revelation. But he is scrupulous in allowing that a person, a reader, of faith may, from their faith perspective, find a basis for belief in the birth at Bethlehem. Still, he’s insistent that the historical evidence is against that locale. No historian could do otherwise than to let the evidence, so to speak, go where it wants to go. If the evidence mounts to the level of proof, well, there it is. If we speak of proof of guilt in criminal cases, I suppose we can speak of proof in historical cases as well.

Jc_Freak: said...

I have not read the book, so I cannot say whether I agree with your assessment of Ehrman or not. My only point is that I don't believe BW3's write up here falls prey to the criticism you give it. He is attempting to discuss more than mere disagreement, but also the epistemological assumptions of much of scholarship, and how many of these assumptions are now under scruntiny.

I also believe that BW3's criticism of the lack of scholarly sources is quite fair and relevant. If (and this is an if. I haven't read the book) Mr. Ehrman does indeed try to make an arguement from authority, than it is a the responsibility of any critique to assess the authority that he is arguing from. BW3 doesn't merely doubt Mr. Ehrman's interaction with scholarship, but also points out the lack of such interaction within the book itself. This is perfectly fair given that an arguement from authority was made.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington,

I just wanted to thank you for beginning this series on Bart's newest book. As a 2008 UNC grad who took Bart's class last spring and is now working on an MA at Fuller (I'm actually the girlfriend of the fool that wrote the humorous blog post about a day in your life...), I know firsthand both sides of Bart--the Bart Christians love to hate and the Bart to whom I can relate to as someone unsatisfied with easy answers who wants to help others think, as well.

I feel you point out many of his errors as a scholar and writer without demonizing the man, and that's something I really appreciate. I have seen many--including myself--struggle in their faith after taking Ehrman's class, and I attribute much of that to his biases, even when presenting the same information you would present in one of your classes. At the same time, I really enjoyed him as a professor (even his arrogance becomes endearing when you get to know him ;o), especially his accessibility to students. I do think a lot of why he's publishing books like this has to do with the money in it... but I know he has a real interest in helping the layperson become more thoughtful about Christianity (i.e., I don't think he's quite as bad a person as many evangelicals insinuate).

I appreciate that there are also other scholars, such as yourself, who are equally interested in providing contributions to such discussions. We need other perspectives to balance out some of the things Bart gets wrong and to keep our brains engaged with some of the important questions that we simply don't have easy answers to.

I might request that your next installment in this series be slightly shorter in length to make it easier to read... ;o)

In any case, I wanted to let you know that your careful reading is appreciated, and I'm going to pass this on to my friends on staff with InterVarsity at UNC, who frequently discuss these kinds of questions with students in Bart's classes.


Duke of Earl said...

James, the shepherds are recorded as having visited close to the time that Jesus was born, that very night even.

The Magi are regarded as having come later, possibly (based on Herod's orders) as much as two years later.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that both Matthew and Luke agree on. If, as Luke claimed, Joseph's family lived there, then family visits even with a young child wouldn't be uncommon.

It was fortuitous that the Magi managed to connect with the family during one of those visits.

JP Holding has a series on harmonising the accounts of the life of Abraham Lincoln that might explain why historians don't have a problem with the Bible, contrary to your claims.

Meanwhile the presumption you demonstrate that people who claim that God acted on their behalf is automatically wrong (you use "improbable" but that's what you mean) demonstrates that you have thoroughly poisoned the well of inquiry.

unkleE said...

I am an interested layperson who has to rely on experts for my information, and knowing which experts to trust is an important element of this.

Ben Witherington says:

"A quick perusal of the footnotes to this book, reveal mostly cross-references to Ehrman’s earlier popular works, with a few exceptions sprinkled in—for example Raymond Brown and E.P Sanders, the former long dead, the latter long retired. What is especially telling and odd about this is Bart does not much reflect a knowledge of the exegetical or historical study of the text in the last thirty years."

Is anyone able to say, fairly, who are the pre-eminent scholars of the new millennium, those most respected and at the centre of scholarship?

I would really appreciate that information please.

Jeremy said...

Does writing a book like - The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings - (for Oxford University Press no less) not count as "the necessary laboring in the scholarly vineyard to be in a position to write a book like Jesus, Interrupted from a position of long study and knowledge of New Testament Studies"? I mean if writing a New Testament Introduction for Oxford University Press doesn't qualify you to write a popular book about the New Testament, I'm not sure what does.

Dan Martin said...

Thanks for this summary, Ben. You mentioned in passing that even Ehrman himself doesn't see these issues as necessarily compromising one's faith, but I think that point deserves a bit more attention. Not being a conservative, verbal-inspiration fundamentalist myself, it frankly wouldn't bother my faith in the slightest, even if it were proven (I am not suggesting it has been proven) that Jesus was born in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem. Sure, it would mean that there is an "error" in the literal history of some gospels. It would also mean that the evangelists erred in seeing the geographical place of Jesus' birth as one of the things foretold by the prophets.

But so what? There are still plenty of prophecies that were clearly fulfilled regarding who Jesus was and what he did. There are still records about what he said and what he did that maintain quite a bit of harmony. The stuff that really constitutes gospel isn't dependent in the slightest, on such "historical" minutiae.

I have heard Ehrman speak a couple of times, it seems to me that he (as you correctly pointed out) is making the same assumption the fundamentalists in my church make: "if there is an error in one thing, you can't trust any of it." I disagree with them both.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jthom18:

The book you just mentioned from Oxford U. Press IS a popular level introduction for the educated lay person. It is not a technical level work at all, its an introductory textbook. So no, that book does not make your case. This is like arguing that because I wrote a similar level book Women and the Genesis of Christianity for Cambridge U. Press, this proves that I must be an expert in that field. No, what makes that clear is the two scholarly monographs I wrote for C.U.P. before Women and the Genesis (namely Women in the Ministry of Jesus and Women in the Earliest Churches), which were the BASIS for the popular level book.

Oxford knows perfectly well that Bart is an excellent writer, and they were interested in making money off his skills in writing popular level books.

Happy Easter!


James Kabala said...

It strikes me as too much of a break from tradition to assert that the meal described in John did not take place on Thursday night, or that John did not intend for it to be taking place then. The "one of you will betray me" and subsequent departure of Judas (with the clear implication that he is off to summon the authorities and does not appear again until the arrest)indicate to me that it is the same meal described in the Synoptics.

Plays and movies based on the Gospels have portrayed the foot washing and the institution of the Eucharist as taking place at the same meal without any difficulties, whether or not they choose to depict the meal as a Seder.

Odith A said...

Dear Prof Witherington,

Nice video you have here. Prof Bock mentioned a bit about this book when lecturing us. I enjoy the work both of you...

Happy Easter

Warmly Regards from Indonesia
odith adikusuma

Quiddity said...

Well, that was an interesting 6,555 word post by BW3.

My position is that the NT should be read with a "soft focus", paying attention to major story elements but not worrying about details (e.g. cock crowing, day of crucifixion) or order (e.g. temple cleansing, rejection in Nazareth). I think we should take seriously Papias' report that Mark wrote down an account, but it was "not in order. And if you grant that Matthew and Luke follow Mark's pattern, then what you end up with is a collection of events, with little order-importance (with the exception that the narrative is bookended with John the Baptist's mission and the Passion).

With that in mind, significant discrepancies like the two genealogies or the two birth narratives indicate that they both should be ignored. Is it really important that Jesus be born in Bethlehem? Who cares what Micah wrote? A historian should work to establish facts based on reports from the time, not on a presumed fulfilled prophecy that is awkwardly fit into a narrative.

As to Ehrman, I find his work to be sufficiently robust and detailed to merit being taken seriously, whatever he has or has not done in academia. I've read a couple of his books, and he handles the Synoptics well. As to the Gospel of John, that's a toughie for anyone to reconcile with the Synoptics. So much of John doesn't even feel like a story, what with the extended dialogues that appear (heavily in ch 5 and 7 - 10). Structurally, John is very different and really feels like it was congruent with Pauline theology (although any genetic relationship seems hard to establish).

In any event, even though I disagree with a substantial amount of what BW3 wrote here, I'm glad he's commenting on the book. It stimulates thought.

Unknown said...

James said the following:

"Further, he knows that it’s improbable that “wise men” would know beforehand of any birth in a small town in Galilee, let alone be impelled to attend it, let alone by guided to the birthplace by a star. He also knows that there’s no evidence confirmatory of the enrollment reported by Luke, and that such an enrollment isn’t likely to have occurred (there are more convenient ways to raise revenue), and that it’s improbable that a birth be visited by shepherds at the invitation of angels."

Okay, let's say we approach this text completely without bias. How then do we assess the probability of wise men being guided to the birthplace of the Jewish messiah by a miraculous event? Likewise, how do we know it's improbable that shepherds will be visited by an angel and likewise invited or guided? We're not biased here, so we're neither assuming the possibility nor the impossibility of the miraculous. It seems that at best we can say that there is a naturalistic explanation and there is a supernatural explanation, unless we beg the question at hand. (There's a difference between saying what verdict we'll reach via methodological naturalism and saying what's rational to believe.) Secondly, there is evidence confirmatory of the census. It's in the Luke text. Of course you meant evidence outside of Luke. But does every ancient document require confirmation of its claims? No, they don't, so again, let's not beg any questions.

The whole account might be dubious from a certain historical perspective on account of there being a simpler naturalistic explanation, but that is a far cry from showing the conservative Christian to be irrational or believing a contradiction.

smijer said...

Tim - how to assess probability of this type event without bias? Well, one approach is to to assess the frequency of such an event occurring in modern times. Over the last decade it's running at a rate of zero percent. Over the last century, the same. Over all of history something similar has been reported a couple of times... weren't there similar stories about Krishna or someone? But those stories are unconfirmed, and disbelieved by most modern people on the basis of low probability. So, an assessment of the frequency of such incident yields a low priority.

As to Luke, since it is his account we are assessing the accuracy of, I don't see how using his account as confirmation bolsters the authority of his account.

BlackSwan13 said...

A bishop walked around England scattering acorns on the path behind him. One day someone asked him why he was doing that. He said that it was to keep the lions away. The person answered that there were not lions in England. The bishop said, "Wow it works better than I thought."

That is the logic of Ben Witherington. I suggest that he might start by reading outside of the circular arguments that make sense to him. George Lakoff has written a great book about how we think from new research in cognitive science. There are many others that show that the 18th Century arguments of Ben Witherington do not make sense in light of new understandings of how the brain works and rationalizes its own preconceived lies and ideas.

I mentioned this to Bart Ehrman once and asked him why the church had been silent for over 30 years about the truth which is over 30 years. Bart Ehrman went to seminary with a good friend of mine, and was taught, and rattled, by a friend of mine who taught him Old Testament in Princeton. What Ehrman has done is opened up and told the truth. It is the first step in trying to understand the complexity of the human mind that will hang on to a lie rather than face the truth. When we can be honest about that, as Mr. Ehrmann has been, we can have some cross disciplinary studies that reach into the deepest areas of human deception - religion.

In a response something I blogged to Gerry Spence (the attorney and author) he wrote "The church, however, is the greatest whipmaster of our culture." After years in seminary, and over 10 years as a minster, and having taught Greek and other college courses I tip my hat off to Mr. Ehrmann. When Bart Ehrmann and Gerry Spence and cognitive scholars start talking together, and honestly we will begin to better understand what it means to be sentient humans. It starts with honesty, as Mr. Ehrmann is willing to do and not philosophical 18th Century mumbo jumbo of Ben Witherington.

Unknown said...

Okay, so by that criterion the probability of the Big Bang is approximately 0. Likewise, Caesar hasn't crossed the Rubicon once in the last 100 years, but should we assign nearly 0 probability to that as well? Clearly not. So one time events cannot have their prior probability assessed based on their frequency of occurrence. And my point about Luke wasn't that Luke's account bolsters the epistemic value of Luke's account but rather that it bolsters the epistemic probability of the events that he reports, unless you beg the question and assume that his account is unreliable until proven reliable. After all, every witness is presumed to provide some support for the events he gives witness to, unless you have reason to suspect his unreliability. Lastly, I don't see how Krishna is relevant.

smijer said...

Timothy, there are a number of ways to assess probability. These normally reduce to estimation based on their frequency of occurrence. There is an extremely low probability of the Big Bang happening in this universe (no one expects to find one in their back yard when they go to walk the dog this morning!), just as there is an extremely low probability of angelic appearances or astrological events heralding births.

You made a statistical statement about these events yourself - you called them "one time" events. With the big bang, we have strong evidence that it did occur as a one time event. I'd say it's fair to call that a one-time event - meaning it happens with extremely low probability. For the stories in question it is difficult to say with certainty whether they are one time events or non-events, so their probability is either very low or none, depending on the correct characterization of them.

It's possible to have reasons, apart from probability, for believing such events took place. However, Ehrman is correct in dealing historically with them as low-probability events. That is a useful probabilistic argument.

It is made more useful by asking more general probablistic questions about incidents "like" this. Ceasar only crossed the rubicon once, making that a low-probability event. But we find that this is of a class of events that happens often - generals lead armies across rivers fairly often, historically speaking. Washington crossed the Delaware. If we generalize further to discuss armies crossing geographical barriers, then we find Hannibal crossing the Alps. This is not infrequent.

Astrologers being led to the birthplace of an important figure by the stars is another matter - it belongs to a class of improbable events. Likewise Shepherds being led there by angels.

It is somewhat facile to say that, "reading ancient literature without bias, one cannot assess the probability of..." some very improbable event, such as the impregnation of Atia by Apollo in the form of a snake. It is not true that the best we can say is that "ther eis a naturalistic explanation and a supernaturalistic explanation". The best we can say is that we have innumerably large experience with human conception coming through intercourse with other humans, plenty of experience with artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, and no confirmable examples or known methods of human conception through intercourse with Apollo in the guise of a snake. We can conclude that such is very improbable. That doesn't rule out the possibility of it, but we must weigh the probability in our historical considerations.

BlackSwan13 said...

Just one more thought for those who may think I didn't engage Ben Witherington with honest intellectual honesty. I would suggest those people who feel they are such scholars to read Donald Wiebe's books to gain an understanding of why the theology discipline is so disrespected among scholars. It is unscientific and apologetic. In universities that is the opposite of scholarship. Most readers here won't take the time the read Wiebe, because, in all honesty, it is too disciplined and scholarly for most seminarians and even those with PhDs from most seminaries!

Sky McCracken said...

Wow Blackswan... that doesn't sound intellectual or academic - that sounds elitist.

But what do I know, I'm not scholarly enough to read - I'm just a pastor.

Tim said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you for the insightful review.

Your assessment of Ehrman's credentials is very appropriate. If he were writing a book on surgical techniques and his medical training was as an allergist, it wouldn't be sniping for a trained surgeon to gently point this out--just as you did.


BlackSwan13 said...

Pastor Sky McCraken. It is not elitist to point out mumbo jumbo of Ben Witherington. It is too bad that there are some people who are actually trying to find the truth. As a Pastor start with honesty. That is all that Bart Ehrmann has done. But thanks for name calling in response to me, it is only one more reminder that I am thankful everyday that all of my children and grandchildren don't attend church.

Sky McCracken said...


My comment of elitism was in response to these words of yours, emphasis mine: "Most readers here won't take the time the read Wiebe, because, in all honesty, it is too disciplined and scholarly for most seminarians and even those with PhDs from most seminaries!"You are welcome to your opinion, of course, but after reading and re-reading it, I find it hard to read such a statement as anything but elitist.

Pax vobiscum.

BlackSwan13 said...


Did you read Donald Wiebe's book? He too is a minister. Just respond whether or not you read it. If you have read it I will then admit my comment was elitist. But telling the truth is not elitist. Yes or no. Did you take the time to read it?

James said...

Assessing Matthew's and Luke's accounts of the birth of Christ, we must notice that they both report a birth at Bethlehem. They wouldn't bother to do so, presumably, unless they took this report to bolster messianic claims on behalf of Jesus. We can reasonably suppose, then, that both evangelists were motivated to place the birth at Bethlehem (even though everybody knew Jesus grew up in Nazareth, that he was of Nazareth.

As to Luke's particular way of getting Mary to Bethlehem--Caesar's registration requirement-Philip Kitcher has a comment:
"The overwhelming evidence is that this [Luke 2:1-4] is a complete fiction. For not only are there no records of a census or a general taxation at this time, but, even if there had been one, this is surely not the way in which it would have been conducted. We know something about Roman attitudes towards the religious lore and ethnic traditions of the Jews--at best they saw them as barbaric enthusiasms. We also know something about the ways in which Romans obtained population counts and how they levied taxes. Instead of moving the population around, they quite sensibly dispatched their own trusted officials. Luke invites us to think of Cyrenius as having done something quite mad. In the interests of administering some kind of census or taxation, he encourages a mass migration so that there can be conformity to the ethnic principles of the natives."

Surely today's believers are centered enough on what matters about Jesus--the message of the Sermon on the Mount, the power of the cross and resurrection--that they can take an entrancing and instructive legend for what it is, and not transmogrify it into a historical monograph.

wabbott said...

Dr. Witherington:
In your post, you make the contrast between pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightment ways of doing history. I'm wondering if you'd extend that to include the ancient practice of mixing historical fact with imaginative elaboration?

Isn't it possible that elements of the Gospels are not historical but imaginative elaboration on the part of the story tellers? Couldn't the 'wisemen' the 'flight to Egypt' be a plot device to make a point?

Or must the post-Enlightenment Christian insist that each element of the story be 100% historical. If so, wouldn't this be making the same category of mistake that Ehrman makes (applying post-Enlightenment standards of 'facticity' to pre-Enlightenment stories)?

Rosebaronet said...

I appreciate the scholarship, and the point about the Historiographical and literary Convention of the ancients. I agree, if it was Tacitus or Josephus, we should make allowance for the conventions of the time, but we are not, we are talking about the Bible, people are using the Bible not as an ancient text, but "Inerrantly inspired" Words of God that still justify submission of women to men, so what do you mean that post-enlightenment analysis isn't applicable. If people ever treat Bible as ancient text subjecting them to historical context and convention, then sure, but people are not. So if the conservative (evangelical) branch of the population insists on using Bible anachronologically, why do you oppose scholars employing post-enlightenment analytical method on it?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Rosebaronet: Thank you for this comment. My answer is that some Evangelicals misuse the Bible when it comes to the issue of women and their roles, but in fact, even Paul is a strong advocate of women playing important ministerial roles in his missionary work-- see my book Women in the Earliest Churches.



Anton said...

J C Freak wrote:

"The gospels speak of an improbably situation. My father used to say that if something were not phenomenal, then people wouldn't write about it. Part of the interest in the story is its improbability. And yet, the details of the story is possible, given an openness to the supernatural. Thus, any "disproving" that occurs isn't a matter of historical or textual study, but epistemological persuasion."

This kind of reasoning reminds me of the argument N T Wright has made that the more improbable a story looks the more there may be some real history behind it. Like the story about the newly resurrected christian zombies walking around Jerusalem in Matthew 27:52. Makes one wonder why gentlemen like Wright and Witherington don´t become Shia muslims or Mormons since stories about a Imam who is hiding for hundreds of years in a cave until the End time or golden plates hidden away in America are so improbable that they cannot be pure phantasy.

Jc_Freak: said...

"This kind of reasoning reminds me of the argument N T Wright has made that the more improbable a story looks the more there may be some real history behind it. Like the story about the newly resurrected christian zombies walking around Jerusalem in Matthew 27:52. Makes one wonder why gentlemen like Wright and Witherington don´t become Shia muslims or Mormons since stories about a Imam who is hiding for hundreds of years in a cave until the End time or golden plates hidden away in America are so improbable that they cannot be pure fantasy."

I don't think that improbability itself isn't proof of the historicity of something. My point is that it isn't proof against it either. The degree of improbability however can support or weaken an argument for the historicity of a document given the other elements of the argument.

Both Wright and Witherington engage with more than the improbability of the events in their argument, but also the probability of admitting to such events given historical and cultural context of the documents, as while as the rhetorical and literary style of the document itself which deal with the intentions of the author. Considering these details, there is a large difference between the gospels and the book of Mormon.

Anton said...

As far as I have been able to glean from the writings of Wright and Witherington I don´t see that they engage in any serious way with phenomena like miracles. Instead of spending so much time on the thoughts of folks like Lonergan or why we shouldn´t rule out the possiblity of men walking on water from a philosophical viewpoint, I´d rather see a more practical approach were they deal with modern studies in psychology, parapsychology, biology, psychics etc that hardly gives credence to tales about men walking on water, the power of prayer or glossalia. In short - I´d like to see some evidence instead of philosophical ruminations.

EJ said...

Any scholar can claim to "prove" OR "disprove" the bible - as a text standing on its own, anyone can strain logic to justify apparent inconsistencies, or overstate those inconsistencies. When one pulls one's view back from the microscopic analysis, the big questions are whether the bible is truly inspired by God and whether it is entirely inerrent in its expression of God's will for our lives. Those questions cannot be proven nor disproven, in the same sense that one cannot prove nor disprove God's very existence -- it is a matter of faith.

My thinking is that if the bible is the inspired word of God, why does it require so much analysis and reconciliation. If an almighty God was imparting his word on such limited creatures as ourselves, would he not make that word crystal clear to us (not subject to debate)?

If God intends that the bible be used as the single guide to lead us to him, why would he allow it to be so subject to interpretation.