Bart’s trouble

I’ve been reading a little bit of Bart Ehrman’s work, and a little bit about him. I’ve tried to boil down his arguments against the validity, historicity, and relevance of the New Testament. I think they can be summed up in these statements, found mostly in his book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, but he repeats these same arguments through most of his book:

  • The NT gospels were written too long after the events they describe, and therefore are susceptible to the frailties of human memory and distortion.
  • The gospels are tainted with post-Easter doctrine, which could not have been considered before the death of Jesus.
  • The gospels record supernatural activity, which is unverifiable and therefore not historical.
  • The NT manuscripts contain so many variants, and this undermines its credibility.

I’ve only read (and read about) a small number of his books, so perhaps he has more arguments than these. Still, I can start by examining his arguments — not by trying to disprove them, but by trying to figure out just what kind of religious documents would actually meet his criteria.

This post will only address his first point: The NT gospels were written too long after the events they describe.

Bart’s point here is that since the gospels were written anywhere from 30 to 60 years after the time of Jesus, they are undoubtedly the product of oral tradition which changed over time, rather than the accurate recollection of eyewitnesses.

Bart uses the analogy of the party game of “telephone”. In this game, one participant whispers a phrase into the ear of another. The second participant whispers into the ear of a third, and so on throughout the room. The last person repeats the phrase as he or she heard it, and everyone laughs at how the phrase has changed.

Bart says that the stories about Jesus were changed over time, just as the phrase in this game. However, there are so many problems with this analogy! In the game, the phrase is whispered, one time only. It’s not repeated clearly, and there is no room to ask questions. And the phrase is supposed to change — the game wouldn’t be any fun if the phrase was repeated perfectly from beginning to end! And besides, there is one person who knows the truth — the person who started the phrase. Part of the game involves going back to this person and comparing the “truth” with the “distortion”.

The stories of Jesus were not at all like this. I’m sure that some people changed the stories to suit particular needs, but — just as in the game — there is someone (or often, multiple someones) who knew the truth. And Bart apparently assumes that the person writing the gospels (Matthew, Mark, etc) is at the end of the telephone line, not at the beginning. Also, he assumes that the people telling the story — or writing it down — are not interested in reporting what actually happened.

So what are we left with? What should we find in a two thousand year old document, in order for Bart to stamp it as historically accurate?

Well, I guess it should be signed, as in: “I, Matthew, wrote this down.” This probably wouldn’t cut it for Bart. We all know that some of the letters attributed to Paul in the NT are not accepted as being authored by him. So even as Bart bemoans the anonymity of the gospel authors, I doubt he would accept as authentic any self-attribution in them.

Bart has also said that a record of an event should have been written within a very short time of the actual event, so that the eyewitnesses would be able to accurately remember. Just how short a time are we talking about? We know that the testimony of courtroom witnesses can be unreliable just a few weeks or months after the incidents they are describing, and the testimony is often colored by the biases of those witnesses. Bart complains that 30 years is too long a time. What about three years? Three months? Even if the document claimed to be on-the-spot reporting, would Bart accept it as historically accurate?

My point is this: Bart (and others) choose not to accept the historical reliability of the NT gospels. They set up criteria which the documents are guaranteed to fail, and then proclaim the inevitable conclusion as the only one which could be reached.

13 thoughts on “Bart’s trouble”

  1. Suppose that the only information you had about Joseph Smith and the origins of the Latter Day Saints, were stories written by Mormons thirty to sixty years after the events. Suppose further that you lacked any evidence of how and by whom the stories were transmitted and preserved.

    Can you think of any criteria by which you could accept the stories of the Golden Plates and the appearances of the Angel Moroni as historically reliable?

  2. Skipper,

    The post criticizes Ehrman’s criteria. I want to know whether the poster has some alternative criteria in mind and how that criteria would apply to other religious writings.

  3. Good question. Bart spent most of his time in this book explaining why the gospels are not reliable history; he didn’t tell us what does constitute reliable history. I have to read between the lines in order to (try to) figure out what criteria he would accept.

    His contention here is that the 30 years between the events and their documentation is too long a time. 30 years ago, I was a junior in high school, and I would be hard-pressed to remember details about the events of that year. I can see his point!

    However, let’s say that 30 years ago, I met a man who changed my life. He told me I could make a difference in the world. I believed him, and my friends and I dropped out of school and followed him around. We listened while he spoke to different groups. His words were like gold. We heard the speeches so many times that we could even start to repeat them ourselves. I watched him interact with different people, and saw myself starting to imitate him. I started using the same phrases he used. He predicted he would be oppressed by the authorities, and that they would kill him. It happened. Then I saw him alive again. After he left us, my friends and I talked over and debated what he had said. We reminded each other of the events of that brief time. We told others what had happened. We spent the next three decades reviewing, remembering, and rehashing those impactful three years.

    After 30 years, I decided to write down the story. I didn’t have to struggle to remember the events of 30 years ago; it was as fresh in my mind as the day it happened, because I had been living and breathing it from that time to this.


    The above makes more sense to me than the fanciful game of telephone that Bart describes in his book (Google “Chinese whispers” to read about this game). I’m sure you can find scholarly articles which talk about archaeological evidence, language, cultural nuance, etc. I don’t know if you are interested in those things and perhaps already know they are out there.

    My response to Bart is that a 30-year wait does not necessitate a loss of accuracy. I’m interested in your thoughts.

  4. Skipper,

    I can suppose all the things you want me to suppose about the amazing man that you followed for three years and how you spent the following three decades building a community around his life and teachings with others who had followed him, such that when you finally wrote the stories down, the memories were as vivid as if the events had just occurred. The question is whether I can infer from the available evidence that this is the most likely explanation for the existence of the gospel stories.

    While I can imagine the stories being preserved in the way you describe, I cannot think of any verifiable examples of something like that occurring. On the other hand, I think it is fairly easy to document examples of stories being distorted over time either intentionally or unintentionally. That is part of the reason that I raised the example of the stories that Mormons wrote about Joseph Smith and the founding of their church several decades after the fact. If we accepted all their stories at face value, we might easily imagine that their memories were so vivid they could be accurately recalled long after the fact. However, because we have contemporaneous accounts from outsiders who dealt with the Mormons as well as ex-Mormons who left the fold, I think I can be fairly certain that the official version of events is unreliable propaganda.

    Not only am I unaware of any examples of that kind of scenario, I don’t think that it fits with the evidence that we do have for the origins of Christianity. None of the epistles that are thought to predate the gospels give any indication that reviewing, remembering, or rehashing the earthly ministry of Jesus was an important concern within the early Christian communities. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anything within those letters that even indicates that Jesus had an earthly ministry or that he had any disciples. As far as we can tell from these earliest sources, nothing Jesus did prior to the night before he was crucified had any significance.

    I think that what we know about human memory is that even significant events get be altered in a matter of months, much less a matter of decades. I’m skeptical whether memories could be accurately preserved in the way you describe but I’m even more skeptical that there is any evidence to suggest that it happened that way. The primary force in the early spread of Christianity was Paul and he was not an eyewitness. The gospels might have been written by eyewitnesses who had spent decades in communities with other eyewitnesses, but I don’t think that we can corroborate that and there seem to be reasons to think that they weren’t.

    I do think that Ehrman has a tendency to express unwarranted certainty about his reconstruction of the way that Christianity spread, however, I suspect that there is more evidence of stories being transmitted in the way that he describes than in the way that you describe.

  5. Hi, Vinny. You make several points; I only want to address one. You point out that the letters in the New Testament don’t seem to pay much (or any) attention to the life of Jesus. What significance does this hold for you?

    It sounds like you’re saying this pokes a hole in my idea that people did remember the stories. I’m not sure Bart would agree with you.

  6. I think that it is a matter upon which it is impossible to have any certainty.

    Paul never gives any indication that it is important for his congregations to understand the things Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry or that the people who were a part of that ministry carry any particular authority. In Paul’s letters, all that matters is that his congregations correctly understand the resurrected Christ who has been exalted to heaven.

    Because Paul’s letters are our earliest sources for the practices and beliefs of the early Christians, I think it is fair to say we don’t have any evidence that accurately preserving memories of the earthly Jesus was a matter of institutional concern within the early church. Based on the evidence we have, I don’t see any indication that there were any constraints on the stories that were told about Jesus. The only constraints were on beliefs about the risen Christ. People would have been relatively free to invent stories about Jesus to meet the needs of the moment. I think Ehrman might agree with this.

    I also have my doubts that Paul even thought that Jesus had an earthly ministry or that Paul thought that any of the other apostles had been followers of Jesus prior to his crucifixion. As far as I can tell, Paul thought that the other apostles also knew the risen Christ only through supernatural appearances and revelation. I am confident that Ehrman wouldn’t agree with this, however, I’m not sure whether he would dismiss it as completely implausible or whether he would say that it is possible but unlikely.

    To sum up, I think that the early sources are so problematic that we cannot do much more than lay out some possibilities (and I do not claim that this list is exhaustive):

    (1) One possibility is that stories about the earthly Jesus spread without any controls such that it is impossible to know which ones were invented and which ones were rooted in actual memories. I think Ehrman would acknowledge that this is possible.
    (2) Another possibility is that the transmission of the stories was sufficiently constrained that it is possible through critical historical methods to recover some facts about the historical Jesus with reasonable certainty. I think this would be Ehrman’s position.
    (3) A third possibility is that the earliest Christian message didn’t include any stories about the earthly Jesus and that all the stories were either invented later or came from some independent tradition. I am not sure whether Ehrman would dismiss this out of hand or simply deem it very improbable.
    (4) Another possibility is that memories were preserved as meticulously as you suggest. I don’t think that Ehrman would grant much credence to this possibility and I don’t either. While I can find elements in the early writings to support the first three possibilities, I don’t see much to support yours. I don’t think you find any systematic attempts to determine the authenticity of stories about the earthly Jesus until well into the second century. It doesn’t seem to be a concern of the early church.

    Personally, I am doubtful that anything can be known with certainty about the historical Jesus. There might be actual memories preserved in the gospel stories, but I don’t see any reliable way to identify them or corroborate them. I am not a mythicist when it comes to the historical Jesus, but it is probably fair to call me an agnostic or a minimalist.

  7. I think I’m beginning to understand your perspective. If we view the early church through Paul only, then I agree that the earthly ministry of Jesus is not important — and I can understand why. Paul didn’t know Jesus during that time, so it makes sense to me that he would emphasize the death-burial-resurrection instead.

    When I look beyond Paul, I see all sorts of evidence for the importance of the earthly ministry of Jesus. The existence of these four gospels is one set of evidence. Why four, when one should do? — unless the earthly ministry was significant. And these four were not the only ones: the theoretical Q was apparently circulating around, as well as M and L, the sources for Matthew and Luke. The first paragraph of Luke’s gospel even points out that “many” people have tried to write the story of Jesus. That these documents, and others, were written so soon after the life of Jesus — and survived — shows how important the life of Jesus truly was to the early church.

    Paul’s letters don’t discuss the life of Jesus, but we do find this in Peter and John. John says he has seen and touched Jesus, as a sort of marker of his authority. Peter goes so far as to say that they weren’t making this up, but in fact were eyewitnesses. (This of course flies in the face of Bart’s theory.)

    My point is this: the people who claimed to be with Jesus during his time on earth wrote a great deal about it. Paul, who did not know Jesus, wrote very little. If it were the other way around, I think we could both agree that Paul was just reporting hearsay anyway. It might show that the life of Jesus was important to Paul, but I doubt Bart would accept it as historical.

    But to your point that it wasn’t important to Paul, and therefore it wasn’t important to the early church: again, if we look at Paul’s churches only, then I agree. The other disciples did something, though, to extend the church to Africa, India, and other places. They just didn’t write it down, so we don’t really know what they stressed.

    However, Paul’s message is significant: “Jesus rose from the dead, proving that he is Lord and Messiah. What will you do about that?”

    From reading your comments, it sounds like you are more interested in the historical Jesus than the resurrected one. Does the latter presuppose, or depend upon, the former? That is, if we were to somehow find acceptable evidence of the accuracy of the gospels, would that tip the scales toward Jesus as Lord?

  8. Skipper,

    Permit me to suggest an analogy that I find helpful in explaining my thinking about the study of the origins of Christianity: I think that trying to establish what happened in the early years of Christianity is like trying to figure out the picture on a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle when you only have about 73 of the pieces. Some of the pieces we have fit together into discernible clumps, but we don’t know how many pieces are missing between the clumps. We can only speculate as to whether they come from the same basic area or from opposite ends of the puzzle. We can make principled guesses about some of the pieces like the light blue ones being sky and the dark green ones being foliage, but they are still only guesses because those colors can appear on other things as well. Moreover, if we guess right about blue sky and green foliage, it doesn’t really tell us all that much about the rest of the puzzle and if we guess wrong, it can screw up all our other guesses.

    I think of the Pauline epistles as one clump of pieces and the synoptic gospels as another clump of pieces. Unfortunately, I don’t think that it is possible to be sure how many pieces there are between those clumps. I can imagine plausible reconstructions in which there are only a few pieces between the two clumps and plausible reconstructions in which they are widely separated. In one of the latter reconstructions, the earliest Jesus was understood only in terms of the resurrected Christ who was exalted to heaven while the stories of the earthly Jesus developed later. The earthly Jesus was no doubt clearly important to the authors of the gospels and the communities for which wrote, but I think that we don’t have enough pieces of the puzzle to establish that the earthly Jesus was important to the Pauline communities or those for which the epistles of John, James, Hebrews, and 1 Clement were written. It is just one of several possibilities. A lot depends on how much diversity there was in early Christianity which is one part of the puzzle for which we lack many of the pieces.

    You ask me whether a resurrected Christ presupposes a historical Jesus and I have to answer that I am not sure. If I can draw another analogy to Mormonism, Joseph Smith claimed to have an encounter with a heavenly being, the Angel Moroni. Smith believed that this heavenly being had once been a flesh and blood man who walked the earth, but nothing that Smith tells us gives us any reason to think that there ever really was a historical Moroni. Paul also claimed to have an encounter with a heavenly being, the resurrected Christ. As far as I can tell, Paul believed that this heavenly being had once been a flesh and blood man who walked the earth, but he gives so little information about that man that I find it very hard to be certain that Paul really had any reliable information about a historical Jesus. I can easily believe that some of the gospels stories are rooted in the sayings or deeds of an actual historical person, but I can also see how the idea of a resurrected Christ could arise solely from visions or hallucinations even if no one knew anything about the earthly Jesus.

  9. I can understand your puzzle piece analogy. It all leads back, I guess, to the question: how sure do I need to be about something before I take action on it?

    I’m not quite as taken by your analogy to the Mormon origin story. Smith’s visions, and the testimony of the Three Witnesses, don’t compare with Paul’s record of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. If it were the testimonies of one man (Smith) and one man (Paul), I could see that some (most!) would say they both had hallucinations.

    However, Paul points to a number of men, all seeing Jesus a number of times, and even 500 people seeing Jesus at one time. The physical, historical Jesus is of critical importance to Paul, even if the earthly actions of that Jesus are not.

    You seem to be making this statement: “Because the earthly activity of Jesus is not important to Paul, the earthly existence of Jesus is not important either.” I think that conclusion is one Paul would disagree with.

    You sound well-versed in Mormonism. You probably know, then, that the stories told in the Book of Mormon are an historical impossibility. However, compare those stories to the ones told in the gospels: we may choose not to believe the gospels, but they are definitely consistent with the culture, history, and world views common in that time. The gospel stories are well-grounded; they COULD have happened. The stories in the Book of Mormon could not have happened.

    Back to my musing: how sure do I need to be before I take action? Pascal’s wager seems to apply here.

  10. I have only read a couple of books about the history of the Mormons, but I do find the topic fascinating. The origins or Hinduism and Buddhism are lost in the depths of time and the only information we have about the origins of Islam comes from Muslims. Mormonism is by far the biggest religion for which we have good historical data about its formative years that comes from people outside the religion as well as those inside. It gives us a look at the kind of fantastic stories that people are willing to believe without proof and the kind of hardships they are willing to endure for the sake of those stories.

    I fully agree that the Book of Mormon’s stories about the Nephites and the Lamanites are laughable nonsense.

    On the other hand, I think that one could fairly argue that in some ways Joseph Smith’s claims about his encounter with the Angel Moroni and the Golden Plates are as well attested as the appearances of the risen Christ. The New Testament only provides one first person account where someone writes “the risen Christ appeared to me.” The rest are at best second hand and at worst removed from the original witnesses an unknown number of times. On the other hand, I think that we have first person accounts from about a dozen followers of Joseph Smith who personally claimed to have seen either the Angel Moroni or the Golden Plates or both. I suspect that they invented these stories to improve their status within the Mormon community, but some of them stuck to them even after being driven out of the church as a result of conflicts with Smith or Brigham Young.

    Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time, but the story is not corroborated by any of the gospels and we don’t know how Paul came by it. Nor do we have any idea who the people were. I can well believe that Paul sincerely believed the story, but I don’t know whether that gives us much reason to grant it credence. When I went to Catholic grade school in the 1960’s, the nuns used to tell me about the Virgin Mary appearing to thousands of people at Fatima, but the nuns hadn’t been there nor had they talked to anyone who was even though some of witnesses would still have been living at the time I heard the stories. I don’t think the stories I heard constitute very strong evidence of what actually happened in Portugal in 1917.

    As far as how sure you need to be before you take action, that is entirely your decision. Moreover, if you feel that the results of your action confirm your decision, that may well be a valid reason for you to continue your course of action. However, I would still deem the basis for your actions to be your subject personal experience rather than objective empirical evidence.

    I am a bit skeptical about Pascal’s Wager. If God exists, he gave me a brain with which to reason about the world in which I live. I cannot imagine why he would prefer fear-based theism to sincere agnosticism. Moreover, if Christianity isn’t really true, Paul says that Christians are to be pitied above all people. That doesn’t seem consistent with Pascal’s claim that there is no risk to believing wrongly.

  11. Re: Pascal’s Wager, I only meant to affirm that the claims of Christians are worth investigating. I agree that “playing the odds” is inconsistent with the New Testament.

  12. I have read only Mr. Ehrman’s Lost Christianities so far though I have a couple more on the shelf. The interesting point he made in this book was that the Christianity we know today was the only one which could have come out of the 1st Century. Religions need a historical basis – hey, we are kind of Jewish – instead of something completely new, etc. An interesting argument that the cultural setting of the day shaped the understanding of Christianity that survived. In the process he speaks to the other writings of the time, most lost to the ages and known only by the “winners” raging attacks against the heretics of the day. Plus, keep in mind that it was at least 200 years if not more before the books we know as the Bible were generally agreed upon. Shoot, even today the Catholics and Protestants cannot agree on which books belong, i.e. the Apocrypha. I am sure the winners of the culture wars of the day were picking the books that backed their positions. We all know how important it is to claim that God is on your side.

    I hope this note finds you well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *