Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Ehrman follies, part 2

The second installment of Ehrman has been posted:

I'm going to comment on the next installment of Ehrman's debate:


My comments will be a sequel to what I said regarding his first installment:



Ehrman cites stock "contradictions" like raising the daughter of Jairus and the cleansing of the temple. Having recently discussed these myself, I won't repeat myself here. 

I should stress that the views I lay out here are not unique to me, as if I’m the one who thought all this up. On the contrary, the views I will be laying out here are those held by virtually every professor of biblical studies who teaches at every major liberal arts college or research university in North America. Take your pick: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Kansas, University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota, University of Florida, Amherst, Middlebury, Oberlin — literally, pick any top liberal arts college or state university in North America, and the views that I will be sketching here are pretty much the sorts of things you will find taught there.

Ah, yes, the power of secular groupthink. 

The Gospels are obviously full of supernatural stories. And for scholars prior to the Enlightenment, these stories were actual events of history. They really happened. If you had been there, you would have been able to record them with your video camera...

Somewhat misleading. Yes, a video camera would be able to record the supernatural events. That, though, doesn't mean the Gospels narrate them from the perspective of a cameraman. Writing is a different medium than photography. You can see several things happen simultaneously (e.g. watching football), but writing is sequential. Even if you can watch several things happening at once, you can't write about them all at once (or read about them all at once), but only one at a time. 

Moreover, the field of vision contains lots of background detail that's extraneous to the main event. A narrative will omit most of that. 

The sciences were on the rise, and scholars began to realize that one does not need to appeal to the activities of God to explain the events of the world. Lightning strikes, floods, and droughts were no longer thought of as direct interventions of God into the world; they were seen as naturally occurring climactic conditions.

i) Since when did pre-Enlightenment believers think natural evils has to be direct divine interventions? To the contrary, didn't they pray that God intervene to prevent or end a natural evil? In order words, they might just as well view a natural evil as something that happens on its own unless God steps in to stop it. 

Unless they thought lightning, flooding, and drought were divine judgments, there'd be no reason to presume these were direct divine interventions. Take the annual flooding of the Nile. Did they think that was a direct divine intervention, or the ordinary course of nature? 

The emphasis during the Enlightenment was on the possibility of human reason to understand our world and the nature of life in it.

ii) Is Ehrman ignorant of the fact that Scripture and historical theology have a concept of ordinary providence? 

iii) Ehrman posits a false dichotomy. To deny that lightning, flooding, and drought represent "divine divine interventions" doesn't preclude "activities of God to explain events of the world". A washing machine relieves humans of having to launder clothes by hand. But that doesn't eliminate the need for someone to invent the washing machine. Ehrman is such a simpleton. 

Medicine was developed, and proved to be much more efficient in solving human illness than prayer and hope. 

Medicine antedates the Enlightenment by centuries and millennia. It's just that we've gotten better at it. 

Astronomy developed and people came to realize that the earth was not the center of the universe. 

Viewing the sky through a telescope doesn't tell you whether or not earth is the center of the universe. After all, the universe surrounds the earth. Everywhere you look, in every direction, is outer space. So how could you tell from a terrestrial frame of reference whether the earth was or wasn't at the center of the universe? 

That's based more on a theory of cosmic origins–like a ripple effect, where our solar system is an outer wave in relation to the point of origin. 

Eventually, scientists realized that the world was not created in six days and that humans were not simply created out of the dust, but evolved from lower forms of primates, which were themselves evolved from yet other forms of life.

Which disregards evidence to the contrary. 

If we no longer needed to appeal to “miracle” to explain why we got over the flu, or why it finally rained last week, or why the solar system was formed, do we need to appeal to miracle to understand the Gospels?

i) In Scripture, rain comes from clouds. Observers could actually see that happen. 

ii) People routinely recover from the flu. That's not inherently life-threatening. Why would pre-Enlightenment believers assume that's a miracle? 

iii) In addition, there's a need to distinguish between folklore and what theologians believed. 


What’s going on here is that John cannot be historically accurate if Mark is historically accurate. In John Jesus dies the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten, when preparations were underway for the meal that evening; in the earlier account of Mark, Jesus actually ate the meal with his disciples that evening and was killed the next day.

Ehrman doesn't even mention possible harmonizations. For instance:


Even though we continue to call the Gospels “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” we do not know who the authors actually were. Each of the Gospels is completely anonymous: their authors never announce their names. The titles we read in the Gospels (e.g., “The Gospel according to Matthew”) were not put there by their authors, but by later scribes who wanted to tell you who, in their opinion, wrote these books. 

How does he know that? Was it customary for 1C books to circulate anonymously? 

But for well over a century scholars have realized that these opinions are almost certainly wrong. The followers of Jesus were uneducated, lower-class, Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee; these books, however, were written by highly educated and well trained, Greek-speaking, elite Christians living in cities in other locations.

i) There's increasing evidence that literacy was more widespread in the 1C. For instance:




ii) Ehrman's framework is simplistic. For instance, some well-educated Latino Americans are bilingual. They can read and speak Spanish fluently, but they make mistakes if they attempt to write Spanish. 

There's considerable evidence for bilingualism in 1C Palestine. Moreover, even if the disciples were unable to write, they could dictate their Gospels to a scribe. 

They were not eyewitnesses to the events they describe, and do not ever claim to be.

The narrator of John's Gospel claims to be an eyewitness. Moreover, you don't need to be an eyewitness to have access to firsthand informants.

For nearly 100 years scholars have realized that the Gospel writers acquired their stories about Jesus from the “oral tradition,” that is, from the stories about Jesus’s life, words, deeds, death, and resurrection that had been in circulation by word of mouth, in all the years from the time of his death. The Gospels were written between 70–95 CE — that is 40 to 65 years after the events they narrate. This means that the Gospel writers are recording stories that had been told and retold month after month, year after year, decade after decade, among Christians living throughout the Roman empire, in differing places, in different times, even in different languages.

i) He states that as if it's a demonstrable fact, but he doesn't explain how he knows that to be the case. For instance, people typically write autobiographies at the end of their public life. Yet that's a firsthand account. No intervening links. No word of mouth. 

ii) Moreover, his dating scheme is hardly a given. Consider John Wenham's Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

There are lots and lots of detailed differences like this that you will find once you start reading the Bible horizontally. Just take another seemingly small instance. In Mark’s Gospel, at his Last Supper, Jesus informs Peter that he, Peter, will deny Jesus that evening three times “before the cock crows twice” (Mark 14:30). In Matthew we have the same scene, but here Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times “before the cock crows” (Matthew 26:34). Well, which is it? Is it before the cock crows or before it crows the second time? 

That just means Mark is more specific than Matthew. A general statement doesn't contradict a specific statement. For instance: "the parking lot had a 100 cars"; "the parking lot had 10 red cars". The second statement doesn't contradict the first. 

To say "before the cock crows" is not to assert it won't happen before the cock crows twice, as if "before the cock crows" is meant to deny or negate before the cock crows twice. That would only follow if you assume Matthew intends to contrast his statement with Mark's, or correct Mark's statement. But Matthew has a habit of simplifying Mark. He routinely abbreviates Mark–probably to free up space for his additional material. There's only so much you can fit onto a single scroll. 

Again, it seems like a picayune detail: but why the difference? What is more interesting (and possibly important), is that in the different Gospels Peter actually denies Jesus to different people on different occasions. So, what is going on?

Why does Ehrman imagine that's a problem? If more than one person questioned Peter, he'd deny Jesus to more than one interrogator. 

Indeed, it's easy to see how that could happen. Peter is standing around the fire with some other folks. Most of them don't pay any attention to him until one of them questions him. But now that he's been singled out, that exchange prompts others to take notice and question him. That's a perfectly natural dynamic.  

So, first of all, probably most Jews today are descended from King David, given how genealogies work. Did half the Jewish population of the world descend on Bethlehem?

What's his basis for that claim? 1C Jews belonged to twelve different tribes. Even within David's tribe, to say someone descended from the tribe of Judah hardly means he descended from David. Although that's possible, that's not necessary or even probable. There's no presumption to that effect. 

Finally, if Luke’s account is right about the birth of Jesus, then the one other account that discusses it in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, cannot also be right. Read Matthew’s account: what happens after Jesus is born? In Matthew, Herod decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem because he doesn’t want any competitors for his throne as “King of the Jews.” But Joseph is warned in a dream and he escapes with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they stay until Herod dies. But if that’s right, how can Luke also be right that they stayed in Bethlehem just 41 days (eight days till the circumcision; 33 days before the rites of purification) and then returned to Nazareth? If Luke’s right, then Matthew can’t be, and vice versa.

This is just bizarre. In Matthew, Herod's order occurs over a year later. There's plenty of lead time for Jesus to be circumcised, and Mary to be purified, before the Holy Family skips town. It's as if Ehrman is so sure the Gospels must contradict that he can't even think straight. 

Who goes to the tomb? Is it Mary by herself, or with other women? If with other women, how many women? And what are their names? (As is true for this and all the other points I made, the answer in each case will appear to be: “It depends which Gospel you read!”)Do they find that the stone is already rolled away from the tomb (before they arrive) or does it roll away after they get there?Whom do they see there? A man? An angel? Two men? Two angels?Do they ever see Jesus himself there?What are they told there – that they are to go tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee? Or that they are to remind the disciples what Jesus told them when he was in Galilee?That is, are the disciples to go to Galilee (about a four-day walk north) to see Jesus, or are they to stay in Jerusalem to see him?Do the women tell anyone? (Take special note of Mark 16:8. The original Gospel ended with that verse – as will probably be indicated in your Bible. It says, “And the women said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that’s where it ends. If the author doesn’t really mean that they never told anyone, why does he say that they didn’t tell anyone? And if he thinks they did tell someone, why doesn’t he say so?)Do the disciples ever learn that Jesus has been raised (take note of Mark’s account)?Do the disciples go to Galilee? Or do they stay in Jerusalem?Does Jesus appear to them just on the day of his resurrection, and then ascend to heaven? Or does he make appearances for a period of time?Does he ascend on the day of the resurrection or 40 days later (see Acts 1)?

You know, I've never been impressed by the alleged discrepancies regarding what happened on the first Easter (or thereafter). I've never felt it was a realistic expectation that we should be able to harmonize their accounts, even if all four accounts are completely accurate.

Take a comparison: suppose three or four people attend their high school reunion. After they return home that evening, they jot down a diary entry about what happened. 

Unless you already knew that these were accounts of the same reunion, you might be unable to tell that from their respective entries. It's highly possible, even probable, that there'd be no overlap at all insofar as each diarist might mention having seen or spoken to different classmates than the other diarists. No two entires might even mention a single classmate in common. And even if they did, there's no expectation that they'd all mention the same set of classmates. 

Each of them attends the reunion hoping to see certain classmates. They don't care about all the others. While they are there, they bump into other classmates. But they only have time to talk to a sample. There are many classmates at the event whom they never notice. They can honestly say they didn't see them, even though everyone was at the same event. 

Likewise, people arrive at different times and leave at different times. There's no way we could reconstruct the actual sequence from the diaries, not because they are contradictory, but because there are too many different possibilities to determine which represents the order things actually happened. 

By the same token, it's not as though the women and the disciples had an appointment to reconnoiter at the tomb at say, 7AM on the first day of the week. Indeed, none of them was even expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. People arrived individually, or in small groups, at different times. It wouldn't be surprising if some people came back more than once to see it again. And the accounts are admittedly selective. 

Here, it is very important to pay attention to Luke’s explicit chronological statements. On the day of the event, the women tell the 11 disciples what they heard from the two men at the tomb (24:8). “That very same day” Jesus appears to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus (24:13–32). “At that same hour” they went and told the disciples in Jerusalem what they had seen (24:33–35). “As they were saying this” (24:36), Jesus then appears to the disciples, shows them he has been raised from the dead, and gives them their instructions, which include the injunction that they are to “stay in the city” until they receive the promised Spirit from on high (24:49). He then takes them to a suburb, Bethany, and ascends to heaven. The disciples then return to Jerusalem itself and worship in the temple (24:50–53). And that’s where the Gospel ends, on the day of the resurrection, in Jerusalem.

i) Lk 24 reflects narrative compression. It's a summary of events that Luke will flesh out in Acts 1. By this point, Luke is probably running short of space on his scroll. And this is a teaser for the more detailed account in Acts 1–like movie trailers. 

ii) As one commentator notes, "although the events of vv1-35 are set on resurrection Sunday (see vv1,13,33), vv36-53 are absent time references. J. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Eerdmans, 2015), 738. 

As you probably know, the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke also wrote the book of Acts. It is interesting, and puzzling, to read the first chapter of Acts immediately after reading the Gospel of Luke. Even though Jesus ascends to heaven on the day of his resurrection in Luke, we are told explicitly in Acts that in fact he stayed on earth for another 40 days...

Acts doesn't "explicitly" (or even implicitly) say that he stayed on earth for another 40 days. It says nothing about his whereabouts in-between appearances to the disciples. 

According to Matthew, at the moment when Jesus died there were a number of enormous, cataclysmic, mind-boggling events that took place: the curtain in the temple was ripped in half (we have no record of this occurring, by the way, even though Jewish authors talk extensively about the temple at the time and would have been very interested indeed, if part of it had been destroyed!);

i) There's nothing "enormous, cataclysmic, mind-boggling," about a torn curtain. 

ii) The temple had two curtains. One screened the sanctuary from the outer court. Tearing that curtain would be more public. The other screened the sanctuary from the inner sanctum. Only priests would be privy to that. 

iii) Since this is a sign of divine judgment (and portent of future judgment) on the religious establishment, it's not something the establishment would broadcast, although rumors would leak out. 

iv) A torn curtain is hardly equivalent to "destroying" part of the temple. It's not like structural damage. 

v) Ehrman is disingenuous. For instance, Josephus narrates ominous portents on the eve of the temple's destruction, but Ehrman surely dismisses that as superstitious legend. So why would he take corroboration of this event any more seriously? 

there was a massive earthquake; “the rocks were split” (it’s hard to know what that means exactly);

How is a local earthquake "enormous, cataclysmic, and mind-boggling"? I've lived through two dramatic earthquakes, but they weren't "enormous, cataclysmic, or mind-boggling." 

and, most breathtaking of all, “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52–53).

No doubt that's mind-boggling. It was meant to be. But it's not "enormous" or "cataclysmic". Ehrman indulges in hyperbole. 

Really? Are we supposed to think that masses of people came back to life and started walking around Jerusalem on the day that Jesus was raised? And no one else — whether Jews at the time, or Romans, or Christians, or even the other Gospel writers — thinks this is important enough to say something about? What is going on here?

i) Matthew doesn't say "masses of people" came back to life. Notice how Ehrman deliberates exaggerates Mt 27:51-53 to make it less believable. 

ii) They'd be unrecognizable to strangers. Imagine if your grandfather rose from the grave. How many people would have any idea who he was? How many people would even know that he rose from the grave? Only surviving friends, neighbors, or relaties would realize what had happened. And it would depend on who they appeared to. 

1 comment:

  1. I wonder very seriously if Ehrman has even considered Dr. Richard Bauckham's work in "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses". It seems like he has never bothered to read that very important work.

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