Friday, March 13, 2009

Ehrman Corrupted

Continuing my review of Bart Ehrman’s latest book:

“What I want to show is that because of the very nature of the historical disciplines, historians cannot show whether or not miracles every happened. Anyone who disagrees with me–who thinks historians can demonstrate that miracles happen–needs to be even-handed about it, across the board. In Jesus’ day there were lots of people who allegedly performed miracles. There were Jewish holy men such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the circle drawer. There were pagan holy men such as Apollonius of Tyana, a philosopher who could allegedly heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. He was allegedly supernaturally born and at the end of his life he allegedly ascended to heaven. Sound familiar? There were pagan demigods, such as Hercules, who could also bring back the dead. Anyone willing to believe in the miracles of Jesus needs to concede the possibility of other people performing miracles, in Jesus’ day and in all eras down to the present day and in other religions such as Islam and indigenous religions of Africa and Asia,” Jesus Interrupted (HarperOne 2009), 172.

The most impressive feature about this argument is the fact that Ehrman seems to be impressed by this argument. Why he thinks this is supposed to be a compelling argument is a complete mystery to me.

i) What’s problematic about the notion that 1C Jews might be able to perform miracles? Other Jews could perform miracles. Moses, Elijah, Elisha, as well as Peter and Paul–to name a few.

ii) What’s problematic about the notion that pagans could perform miracles? Jannes and Jambres could apparently perform miracles (Exod 7-8). A medium could conjure up the shade of Samuel (1 Sam 28). A demonic could predict the future (Acts 16:16). Witches could strike people dead (Ezk 13:17-23).

iii) What’s problematic about the idea that miracles might occur at present as well as the past? Don’t foreign missionaries report this sort of thing?

iv) Must I be prepared to believe that Hercules can do a miracle? Not unless I believe that Hercules actually exists.

v) Yes, the feats attributed to Apollonius sound familiar. Why is that? Let’s see. Maybe, just maybe, because his biography was written long after the time of Jesus? If you think the parallels are genuine, that’s because a 3C AD biography is aping the life of Christ.

Ehrman knows that. But he’s banking on the ignorance of his gullible readers.

vi) Why does Ehrman think his argument has any teeth? Perhaps this is the unspoken assumption: miracles attest the messenger. Therefore, the miracles of one religion cancel out the miracles of another.

What about that assumption?

vii) Even in Scripture, attestation is not the only function of a miracle. A miracle may be performed as an act of mercy.

viii) Suppose, moreover, that a miracle does attest the messenger. So what? We need to draw an elementary distinction between what is what is right and what is true.

What does witchcraft attest? The reality of the dark side. The fact that demonic or diabolical spirits have paranormal powers. The fact that if you’re in league with the devil, you may acquire black magical powers.

But the fact that something is true doesn’t make it right. Suppose demonic possession confers paranormal powers on the human host? That doesn’t mean we should become devil-worshipers, does it? If Satanism works, that may mean it’s true, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s still pure evil.

ix) The existence of sorcery does nothing to falsify Christian doctrine. To the contrary, this is corroborative evidence.


  1. The more time Ehrman has had to notice the problems with his argumentation, and the more often he's corrected on such matters (including corrections in his own presence), the worse his repetition of those arguments becomes. If he's not being dishonest, then he's remarkably careless, particularly when you consider that he's such a prominent scholar, he knows that many people are observing him, etc.

    I discuss non-Christian miracle accounts, and provide links to some discussions of specific cases (Vespasian, Apollonius of Tyana, Marian apparitions, etc.), here.

  2. There is no question he is a demagogue.

    First, the best example is how he treated "variants" in MJ; he claims over 200,000, etc. while failing to point out that one is a few thousand manucripts counts many times.

    Further, he fails to show how any real doctrine is affected. He knows this, and his mentor Bruce Metzger talked about this long ago, but he does not bring that out in MJ in any clear fashion.

    Second, he keeps pretending that he is not trying to affect anyone's faith, but "just get them to think", while at the same time pointing out (in the last chapter of his latest book) that on his Final Exam he always askes the students a "provocative question"...and we all know that if you don't give a professor like him what he is expecting you are not going to get a top grade. With one hand he denigrates the faith, and then says, "Who? Me? Denigrate anyones faith?"

    So why the charade? I think he knows that if he came out openly as an atheist, it would hurt his reputation in his particular situation.

    (I know it is only anecdotal, but when he spoke here in Lawrence Kansas last year he was talking to a group before his speech and was openly laughting that Christian groups kept inviting him...and paying him speak.)

  3. Please continue reviewing Steve. Much assurance to be gained by reviewing the content of this scholar's skepticism.


  4. This argument does have to be dealt with on some level. There are plenty of credulous individuals today who believe that Benny Hinn really heals people by yelling "fire on you." How do we know that the early Christians and those who wrote the Bible (and preserved it) weren't merely this sort of people? We kind of do know that those who preserved it were this sort of people, since the Catholics have always believed in miracle proliferation, hairs from saints beards healing people, eucharistic miracles of the bread turning into flesh moreso than normal Catholic doctrine because it looks like flesh and bleeds, constant apparitions of Mary, bleeding or crying statues, saints having their heads chopped off and picking them up and walking away. What makes us think the first century Christians were any less cooky than the Catholics of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries and beyond? After all, Paul supposedly healed people by touching handkerchiefs and then distributing them to the people (its in Acts), so why shouldn't we believe that the pope's blessing or Peter Popoff's miracle spring water can really heal? Its just as believable, and the people that buy Popoff's miracle spring water are the same sort of people that believed contemporary tales of Paul's miracles. Somehow, however, we think ancient miracles are worth less scrutiny than current ones and that somehow because ancient people wrote them down they have more credibility than what Peter Popoff writes on his website or what the tesimonials of his followers say on his late night informercials.