Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Ehrman follies

I'll comment on some statements that Bart Ehrman made in a recent interview:

In some cases I will rearrange his statements to collate statements on the same topic. That will make the review more logical and less repetitive. 

I never argue that the empty tomb and the appearances somehow are incompatible and cancel each other out, or that they are in any way incompatible. My view instead is simply that they are two different traditions and it’s important to recognize their differences. It has long been noted that the apostle Paul speaks of Jesus’s appearances, but never mentions the story about the women going to the tomb and finding it empty. Strikingly, the Gospel of Mark tells the story about the women going to the tomb to find it empty, but never mentions any stories about Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances.
In the Gospels (and Acts), the empty tomb functions to show that Jesus really was physically raised from the dead. But, strikingly, it never leads anyone to believe. (And why would it? If a body was buried in a tomb and later it was not there, would someone immediately say: “He has been raised from the dead?” Of course not. They would say: “Grave robbers!” Or, “Hey, I’m at the wrong tomb!”)
On the other hand, the resurrection appearances function to show that Jesus really did come back to life. And it is these appearances, and only these appearances, that cause people to believe.

i) If Jesus did rise from the dead, then you'd expect two outcomes: an empty tomb and post-Resurrection appearances of the risen Christ. These aren't two different traditions. Rather, these are two logical consequences of the same underlying event. Of course, Ehrman denies the event, but the point is that you don't need to appeal to two different traditions to account for this twofold phenomenon. Rather, if Jesus rose from the dead, that would have both results. His death would empty the tomb and he'd appear to acquaintances to attest his resurrection.

ii) In addition, the Gospels record that Jesus predicted his resurrection. So it's not just empty tomb accounts. That must be complemented by predictions which explain why the tomb will be empty. 

iii) The fact that Pal doesn't mention the women finding the tomb empty is such an old chestnut:

a) Paul is writing a letter, not a biography.

b) Paul is writing to Christians who already knew about the life of Christ.

c) It's a mark of Paul's integrity that he doesn't say more than he knows. He doesn't make up a story. 

The book is about how we go about the incredibly difficult process of knowing what the authors of the NT wrote, given the circumstance that we don’t have their original writings, or copies of those originals, or copies of the copies of those originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of those originals.
That book was less about how specialists reconstruct the NT text (the theme of the Metzger book) than it was about the enormity of the textual problem (as presupposed in the Metzger book). Yes, we have abundant evidence for the text of the NT. But very little of that evidence is early, and much of it is highly problematic.

I find that very deceptive:

i) This isn't like anecdotes that are passed down by word-of-mouth. Rather, when a scribe copies a text, the text furnishes an objective standard of comparison. It's not like relying on memory. Or secondhand memories. 

ii) If a scribe introduces the wrong word into the text, that will usually be detectable, because using the wrong verb or noun will generally make the sentence nonsense. The next scribe will be able to see that there's something wrong with the sentence. And he will be able to see where the problem lies. The wrong word will stick out. A detectable error is generally a correctible error. You can usually figure out what the original word was. 

We do this all the time when we run across typos. We can spot the mistake and fix the mistake. 

iii) Even if we're unsure what the original word was, yet because communication tends to be redundant, you usually get the gist of what the sentence meant even if one word is wrong.

iv) In addition, we have thousands of manuscripts. There are usually many manuscripts that contain the right word for every manuscript that contains the wrong word. 

I have long been struck by the fact (which historians generally take to be a fact) that Jesus died around the year 30 CE, but the first surviving account of his life was not written until around 70 CE (the Gospel of Mark; Matthew and Luke were maybe 10–15 years later than that, and John may another 10–15 years after even that). 
So, where did the Gospel writers get their stories of Jesus from? There are compelling reasons for thinking that the authors of our Gospels were not eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life (none of them claims to be). They were living in different countries, in different communities, speaking different languages, decades later. And so how did they get their stories?
For nearly a century now, scholars have argued that they got their stories from the “oral tradition.” That is, people told and retold the stories, until the Gospel writers heard them and wrote them down.
The reason there are so many differences (and similarities!) in the Gospels is that the stories they narrate were being told by word of mouth, year after year, decade after decade, after the disciples had come to believe that Jesus had been raised. What happens to stories that get circulated this way? They change. People forget things. They misremember things. They invent things. Happens all the time. It happened to the stories of Jesus.
It is true to say that many parts of the New Testament show knowledge of first-century geography, religion, and culture. But how could it not show this knowledge? It was written by first-century authors! Presumably, they knew about the geography, religion, and culture of the first century! But that doesn’t mean that what they say is historically accurate or not. Suppose I were to write a novel, or even a biography, about someone who lived in my home town of Lawrence, Kansas. Presumably, I would know about the main street (Massachusetts), the location of the university (on the hill), the basic size of the place (middlin’), the industries in the area (e.g., the Lawrence Paper Company), and so on. Would that make the stories I told about my protagonist true? Of course not. I could simply be making stuff up. If in 2,000 years an archaeologist digs up Lawrence in order to see if my novel is “true,” well, the location of the university on a hill would have no bearing on whether my stories about a professor who taught at the university are true or not.

The problem with his illustration is that his fictional story about Lawrence, Kansas is based on his firsthand knowledge of the town. That's his hometown, where he grew up. That's why, even if the story is fictional, it will contain many historically accurate details. 

But that's precisely where the comparison falls apart when he says the Gospels were written decades after the fact by authors who weren't eyewitnesses, or had access to firsthand informants. Under that scenario, it's puzzling that the Gospels would contain so much accurate information about a time and place decades earlier. Information that archeology can corroborate. All the more remarkable when you consider the random preservation and discovery of corroborating evidence. 

So, about five years ago it occurred to me that scholars of the Gospels would be well served to learn more about what we know about oral cultures, and about story-telling practices, and more broadly about memory. How do we learn things? And remember them? And reimagine them? And forget them? And invent them? And retell them? And then the person we tell a story to: how do they learn, remember, reimagine, forget, invent, and retell them? And the person they tell a story to: how do they…? And so on.

He acts as though he's breaking new ground on a neglected topic. Evidently, Erhman doesn't bother to read standard monographs of the historical Jesus that discuss memory studies, viz. Dale Allison, Reconstructing Jesus, Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.

The view is that even if miracles did happen in the past — let’s simply grant that they happened — there is no way to establish that they happened using the historical disciplines (i.e., to show they are, using your term from earlier, “objective historical truth”). Again, that’s not a result of atheist, anti-supernaturalist presuppositions. It is the result of historical method. Historians simply have no access to supernatural activities involving the actions of God. Only theologians (among the scholars) have access to God. Theologians can certainly affirm that God has done miracles, but they are affirming this on theological grounds, not historical grounds.
The past is everything that happened before now. History is what we can establish as having happened before now. Miracles may be in the past. But they cannot be established as having happened. Big difference.
Historians, by the nature of their craft, have no access to any activities of God. That is the purview of theologians. Historians do not have tools to access the supernatural. That’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way it is. Historians also have no way of establishing if a poem is beautiful, if I love my wife, if there is dark matter, if the Pythagorean theorem is true, or anything else outside the realm of “history” (please remember, “the past” is not synonymous with history). To believe in the resurrection of Jesus is a religious commitment. It is a belief. It is no more susceptible of historical “proof” than is the claim that there is only one God (or that there are two; or 24).

i) A miraculous past event would be a certain kind of historical event. If history can establish the occurrence of past events, why can't history establish the occurrence of miraculous past events? If they happened, they are past events. In that respect, they are just like other past events: something that happened in the past. 

ii) Likewise, the type of evidence would be the same: testimonial evidence. 

iii) Suppose Ehrman lived in the time of Christ. Suppose he witnessed Jesus walk on water, change water into wine, multiply the loaves and fish, or raise Lazarus from the dead. Is he saying an observer would have no access to the event itself? He could see it happen right before his eyes. He could see what things were like right before the event, and what things were like right after the event. 

He could see and feel that Jesus was really dead. He could see and feel that Jesus was really alive. Presumably, that would suffice to establish this as having happened. 

iv) Perhaps he'd say that's different because we're dealing with reported miracles rather than miracles we can see for ourselves. And there's a degree of uncertainty with respect to secondhand information. But even if we grant that distinction for the sake of argument, that's not a categorical difference between historical events in general and miraculous events in particular. In both cases, a historian is dealing with reported past events. Yet Ehrman wants to say there's something qualitatively different about miracles that render them inaccessible. 

v) Or does Ehrman intend to distinguish between the occurrence of an event and the interpretation of an event? A historian could establish the occurrence of a miraculous event qua event but not the occurrence of a miraculous event qua miraculous? A historian is disqualified from classifying the event as miraculous. He can't access supernatural agency in the sense that a historian can't establish that God caused it. Is that what Ehrman is groping at? 

If so, why can't a historian "access divine activities" from the effects of divine activities? If there's historical evidence for the effects, why can't a historian infer the cause? For instance, historians routinely attribute certain effects to personal agency. They go behind the event to the source. 

vi) Apropos (v), consider a definition of the miraculous. Here's how J. L. Mackie unpacks the concept of the miraculous:

What we want to do is to contrast the order of nature with a possible divine or supernatural intervention. The laws of nature, we must say, describe the ways in which the world–including, of course, human beings–works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it.
Even in the natural world we have a clear understanding of how there can be for a time a closed system, in which everything that happens results from factors within that system in accordance with its laws of working, but how then something may intrude from outside it, bringing about changes that the system would not have produced of its own accord, so that things go on after this intrusion differently from how they would have gone on if the system had remained closed. All we need do, then, is to regard the whole natural world as a being, for most of the time, such a closed system; we can then think of a supernatural intervention as something that intrudes into that system from outside the natural world as a whole. 
However, the full concept of a miracle requires that the intrusion should be purposive, that it should fulfill the intention of a god or other supernatural being…It presupposes a power to fulfill intentions directly without physical means. The Miracle of Theism (Oxford 1982), 19-22.

Suppose we grant that definition for the sake of argument. Since Mackie was a prominent atheist philosopher, I'm not tilting the scales in favor of Christianity by using his definition. (I disagree with his notion that a miracle must bypass physical means.)

In that case, a historian can classify a past event as a miracle if it meets the definition: an event that happened, but would not have happened if the natural world was left to itself, as opposed to outside agency (i.e. supernatural intervention). 

Let's consider how Erhman tried to justify his position ten years ago:

I’m just going to say that miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works. They are so highly improbable, their probability is infinitesimally remote, that we call them miracles. No one on the face of this Earth can walk on lukewarm water. What are the chances that one of us could do it? Well, none of us can, so let’s say the chances are one in ten billion. Well, suppose somebody can. Well, given the chances are one in ten billion, but, in fact, none of us can.
What about the resurrection of Jesus? I’m not saying it didn’t happen; but if it did happen, it would be a miracle. The resurrection claims are claims that not only that Jesus’ body came back alive; it came back alive never to die again. That’s a violation of what naturally happens, every day, time after time, millions of times a year. What are the chances of that happening? Well, it’d be a miracle. In other words, it’d be so highly improbable that we can’t account for it by natural means. A theologian may claim that it’s true, and to argue with the theologian we’d have to argue on theological grounds because there are no historical grounds to argue on. Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did.
I wish we could establish miracles, but we can’t. It’s no one’s fault. It’s simply that the canons of historical research do not allow for the possibility of establishing as probable the least probable of all occurrences. For that reason, Bill’s four pieces of evidence are completely irrelevant. There cannot be historical probability for an event that defies probability, even if the event did happen. The resurrection has to be taken on faith, not on the basis of proof. 
Read more:

But that's confused in multiple respects:

i) Using Mackie's definition, a miracle is improbable with respect to what could happen when nature is operating as an isolated system, absent outside "interference". 

ii) That, however, doesn't mean a miracle is improbable given divine intervention. 

iii) Why does Ehrman assume it's unlikely that God will interfere with natural order? What's his justification for that supposition? 

iv) I'd add that even if we frame the issue in terms of natural laws, unless we define a law of nature in contrast to divine agency, there's no reason to say divine agency "violates" a law of nature. Why can't divine agency sometimes be in accordance with the laws of nature? 


  1. 1. Paul mentions that Jesus was buried and that he was raised from the dead. Since resurrection meant physical resurrection to Jews of the time then Paul must have believed in the empty tomb/grave even though he does not provide a narrative about the women visiting the tomb on Easter morning.

    2. Mark 16:7 has the young man/angel tell the women that Jesus is going ahead of the disciples into Galilee where the disciples will see him. Mark is aware of the "two different traditions".

    3. You don't need "access" to God to determine that God raising Jesus from the dead is the best explanation for the evidence we have. I don't need access to Pontius Pilate to know he crucified Christ so why should it be different for God? Such vague statements is why people suspect Ehrman of having anti-supernaturalist presuppositions.

    1. Thanks, Jayman. Your comments are always thoughtful and appreciated.