Thursday, June 02, 2016

Why Christians Shouldn't Cite Ehrman to Prove Jesus

These days one often runs across a refugee from the Land of Fantasy History called the "mythicist."  This is a person who claims that Jesus never lived.  Some Christians are quite concerned about the trend in skeptical thought these creatures represent, which they believe (rightly, I suppose) has been growing over the past few years.

I am presently writing a book which deals with the best-known modern mythicist, the historian and radical atheist Richard Carrier -- along with his even more prominent opponent, the famous New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman.

I don't want to say I refute Carrier, because frankly, I have bigger fish to fry -- or catch.  But press me, and I'll confess that I think refuting Richard Carrier should prove one of the minor side-benefits of that book in the eyes of most readers.

Yet one thing I will never do, which I see sincere and good-hearted Christians often do in response to Mythicism.  And that is to cite Ehrman to disprove Mythicism, to show that yes, dad-nabbit, even sensible skeptics affirm that Jesus really lived.

I don't do that, for ten reasons:

(1) Citing Ehrman to prove Christ is an Argument from Authority.  But it's not a very good one, because (in my opinion) Bart Erhman is not a particularly skillful historian.  His primary expertise is as a textual critic, which involves a quite different skill set from that which historians find most useful.

(2) Mythicist critics have responded to Ehrman's book on the historical Jesus, Did Jesus Exist, with a book called Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus.  So anyone who cites Ehrman's book is likely to have this other work flung back in their faces.  What is gained?  Do you really want to take the questioner into the toolies with Doherty, Murdock and other such wing-nuts?  Rather than getting a serious argument about Jesus, instead you get an infinite regress of nuttiness.  Or should we just pretend Ehrman hasn't been answered, and let our questioner find out otherwise for herself?

(3) Bart Ehrman is an enemy of Christianity.  He has probably destroyed the faith of far more Christians than Richard Carrier has.  (Including, it seems, that of people I know personally.)  If we appeal to him to affirm the historical Jesus, do we not tell questioners, "Erhman is an eminent historian who credibly summarizes a reasonable position and can reliably reflect the state of the search for the historical Jesus?"  Ehrman uses the authority we may thus give him to attack the core of our faith.

(4) After carefully examining some of Ehrman's recent arguments against the gospels, I find him (perhaps increasingly) unreliable as to facts, let alone interpretation.  You can't trust him anymore to accurately represent what the obscure books he appeals to even say, let alone what they signify.  Here, for instance, is how he scams his students by telling them only part of what he knows about the popular phony Jesus-parallel, Apollonius of Tyana -- and noticing far less than he ought.  And here are some of the tricks he plays to procure another phony parallel in 17th Century Poland.  

(5) While a poor historian, and a determined foe of the Christian faith, Ehrman sounds moderate, cool, calm and reasonable.  That makes him dangerous, not intellectually, but rhetorically.  People are suckers for confident voices: witness our recent political choices.

(6) There are much better historians who are orthodox.  Why not point to the best?  I would presently put N. T. Wright at the top of that list.  As an historian, he's much wiser, more perceptive, and more interesting than Ehrman.  But there are many other excellent choices: Bauckham, Blomberg, Evans, Keener, Habermas, Hurtado, Witherington.

(7) During World War II, MacArthur didn't attack every island in the Pacific that held Japanese forces, but "island-hopped" his way towards the main Japanese islands.

That's thinking strategically, and I think we should follow MacArthur's lead.  Our goal, we must remember, is to point people to faith in Christ, who did miracles, taught truth, died for the sins of the world, rose again, and will judge the world.  It is not to convince people that someone named Jesus who didn't play baseball was running around Palestine confusing people who spread rumors that turned into a religion after evolving into a giant Rumor Weed that swallowed the whole Mediterranean Basin. That is not even a likely way-station on the way to faith.

People believe in mythicism, I suspect, for one of two reasons. Either they are naive, and do not know how to reason historically or what the evidence for Jesus really is.  Or else they are determined to reject the Christian faith as wholeheartedly as possible, and perceive mythicism as the ultimate in anti-Christian attitudes.

Personally, I suspect the latter sort is more common than the former.

Mythicists of that second kind can't be persuaded by facts or logic: they need a change of heart.  Love will probably do much more for them than words.

(8) The first kind should be open to conventional apologetics for the gospels, or for the less conventional kind I am developing, pointing to all the forensic evidences within the gospels that make the portrait of Jesus we find in the Bible itself historically credible.

The gospels contain, I argue, thirty qualities that make them highly credible as accounts of Jesus' life.  Pointing to the evident nature of the gospels "island-hops" beyond mythicism, landing us at the heart of real issues of truth, and also helps the reader engage with Jesus himself, not with cockamamie theories by 19th Century lords or spurious Egyptian myths.

(9) "But don't we make our arguments stronger by offering favorable quotes from our opponents?  Isn't that why Thomas Nagel and (lately) Anthony Flew are so popular among Christians, and liberal scholars like Allison and Crossan so popular among skeptics?"

I agree with the strategy of citing opponents to prove points in general. Indeed, for the past twenty years, my books have been chalk-full of citations from atheists, Secular Humanists, Muslims, etc.  I even find Ehrman and Carrier useful at times, for instance citing Carrier on the role theism played in early science -- a subject he actually is an expert on.

But I find citing Ehrman harmful not helpful in this case.

One of the most dangerous things one can do, is set a roof loaded with joist and roofing and tar atop a post that is too weak to hold all that weight.  (Having worked in construction, I remember running to escape a two-story wall as it crashed down towards my quickly-vacated position!)  I think citing Ehrman is like putting a two-by-four where a 12 inch square beam needs to go.

With that in mind, let me give two examples to show what sorts of hostile witnesses serve as a solid beam, and which more resemble a flimsy two-by-four.

The pagan historian, Jenny Gibbons, wrote an article about Witch Burning during the Renaissance. I cited that piece earlier today, as I have cited it for years, because it shows clearly that the Christian church was not as culpable as is often supposed for witch-burning.  Gibbons shows, for instance, that legitimate scholarship has cut down the number of victims put to death by the witchhunters from two million to some 40,000.  And most were persecuted on the margins of state authority, not by the Church directly.

Gibbons is a pagan and also an historian, who is troubled by sloppy history on her side, and therefore writes to warn her fellow pagans against it, and point out the real facts in a pretty fair way.  (Though I would add some points to her presentation.)  That's a legitimate way to cite a hostile witness: one who knows the facts, gets you a long ways towards your position, and is generally reliable on the point -- someone you can cite in good conscience. (I know independently that most of Gibbon's facts are correct.)

On the other hand, Richard Dawkins, when he is not accusing Catholic parents of child abuse for teaching their children the Bible, may sometimes be heard admitting that Islam is even more dangerous than Christianity, and that perhaps atheists should at times ally with Christians against the greater threat.

But why should I cite that?  I am confident, as a historian myself, that Christianity is not quite so evil and Islam, but that the Gospel has been the chief liberating force throughout human history, for women, for slaves, and for many other categories of human beings.

Dawkins doesn't know those facts.  He isn't even an historian -- in fact, I pointed out in The Truth Behind the New Atheism that he's terribly incompetent when he tries to act as one.  (Or as a biblical exegete.)  To cite him on so weak a point, a concession as inviting as a warm bucket of spit, would merely render my other arguments more vulnerable.  "Yeah, OK, Islam may be even worse.  But no thanks, I don't want to be hanged or poisoned today!"  The skeptic will merely reply. "I'll stick with my enlightened path to a truly civil society."

And that is the case with Ehrman's "apologetic" for the historical Jesus.  He is really apologizing for a "reasonable" secular humanist position, that is miles away from the truth, and that does not eve point in the right direction.

(10) In the end, I am beginning to see Ehrman as perhaps having become more of a celebrity than a scholar.  No doubt he's smart, well-read, and deeply knowledgable in his own field.  He even trained, as a young man, as a debater.  But like Dawkins, his interests seem  to have outrun his humility, or perhaps his competence.  He plays on his popular brand to expand his market share into new fields, not with the caution or wisdom of a careful scholar, but with a flurry of entrepreneurial activity.

I dislike the celebrity culture.  Move over, Bart, give someone with the patience and humility to get his facts right, a chance.


bethyada said...

I think the hostile witness argument is a good reason. You address this in 9. I agree that a more credible witness is helpful, though the thing about a hostile witness is are they credible in your opponents eyes? Whether they are from your perspective is less relevant.

So the main criteria I would have for a hostile witness is that they are correct in the example you are quoting.

Anonymous said...

I have never used Ehrman for this same reason. Citing Ehrman as a credible source for X means he is a credible source for Y given that it remains within his area of expertise. I think the problem with most who assert that Jesus was a historical person (at the least) is the aversion to citing a Christian scholar, even ones such as James Dunn and John P. Meier, as a credible witness, despite the fact that they both make concessions regarding which parts of the gospels are historically verifiable, or even historical.

David B Marshall said...

There are circumstances in which I would and probably have cited Erhman positively, but only for a claim that packs more punch than "But Jesus really lived!" It's even more fun to cite really radical anti-Christians like Robert Funk, Morton Smith, and Richard Carrier, or even Richard Dawkins, on subjects they really know, making concessions that support the heart of the Gospel.

sparrish said...

David: One problem Christians have is that whenever Ehrman or some other anti-Christian writer publishes something, it is often prominently displayed in the new book section of B&N and other bookstores. Books that defend Christianity usually are stuck in the religion section at the back of the store. There are some exceptions--Strobel and Keller come to mind--but that is how it normally is.

I look forward to reading your book. I just hope that it somehow gets a wide exposure.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks. So true. I did have The Truth Behind the New Atheism in Borders before they went bankrupt - hope my book wasn't responsible.