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Monday, October 02, 2017

Why Bart Ehrman's Telephone Analogy Rings False




Who was Jesus?  Erhman relies on “criteria” to answer that because, in common with most scholars, he does not accept a straight-forward reading of the gospels.  What are his grounds for rejecting the portrait those four books draw of Jesus? 


A Liberal Creation Myth 

Ehrman believes the “real Jesus” was an apocalyptic prophet who thought the end of the world was just around the corner.  While the gospels are the best sources we have for his life, and careful application of criteria can extract true historical facts from them, he doubts they are very reliable.  That is because the stories of Jesus were not written by his original followers, certainly not by eyewitnesses.  In fact, they were passed around the Mediterranean for many years before finally being written down, by people who not only did not personally know Jesus, but had not even met his friends.  Thus we need wise critical scholars (Ehrman refers to Dale Allison, John Meier, Paula Fredriksen, E.P. Sanders, and Geza Vermes as important peers, and indeed Fredriksen wrote a blurb for his book) to sort fact from fiction:

”The reason we need books like these is that the Gospels cannot simply be taken at face value as giving us historically reliable accounts of the things Jesus said and did.”[6]

Ehrman presses the fact that “you will not find fundamentalists at the forefront of critical scholarship.”  Given that he defines “critical scholarship” as that scholarship which does not take the gospels “at face value,” and fundamentalism as the act of doing so, his list of leading scholars becomes a bit circular.  Of course scholars who take the gospels largely at face value are unlikely to be found leading the ranks of those who do not take the gospels at face value.  Nor would one expect the head of the Steak Venders of America to be a vegetarian.  Ehrman does not mention scholars like Craig Blomberg, Richard Bauckham, Craig Evans, Craig Keener, Gary Habermas, Larry Hurtado, Ben Witherington, or N. T. Wright here, top scholars who keenly defend a strongly (if not naively) historical read of the gospels.  

So why should we caucus with the former set of scholars against the latter and doubt the general historicity of the gospels?  Ironically, Ehrman’s complaint is in part just the opposite of that which Aslan and Carrier lodge.  The problem with the gospels is not that their authors were poorly-educated, but that they were well-educated and far-removed from the class consciousness of Jesus’ first followers:

“The followers of Jesus, as we learn from the New Testament itself, were uneducated lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine . . . (The authors of the gospels) were highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians of a later generation.  They probably wrote after Jesus’ disciples had all, or almost all, died.  They were writing in different parts of the world, in a different language, and at a later time.”[7]

But in fact, the gospels never suggest that Jesus’ first followers were “uneducated.”  One is described as a tax-collector, and another was married to an important servant in the high priests’ family.  In pointing to upper-class links, the gospels are credible: sociologist Rodney Stark argues that most successful new religious movements are founded by members of the upper classes.  Nor is there any reason to deny that Jesus’ first followers spoke Greek: surely many did, given their proximity to centers of Greek culture.   

Ehrman is engaging in a popular bit of skeptical parlor magic here, trying to create space between Jesus and the gospels.  One common way to create that space is by exaggerating the gap between Jesus’ life and the writing of the gospels.  Fredriksen, for instance, wrote that the Gospel stories were “told and retold” by generations” that died off, one after the other, before being written down.[8] And indeed, Ehrman attempted to create chronological space in his debate with Timothy McGrew:

Bart Ehrman: "If you want to talk about the kind of evidence in the New Testament, what we have are documents written fifty years later, by people who . . . "

Tim McGrew: "I'd put them a bit earlier."


Ehrman: "By people who are not eyewitnesses."

McGrew: "I'd disagree there, too."

Ehrman: "OK, so let's say they're written by eye – by people who have gotten their stories 20 years later from eyewitnesses."  

McGrew: "Or who were eyewitnesses themselves."

Several times here, McGrew checks Ehrman as the latter attempts to stretch out space between Jesus and the authors of the gospels.  Ehrman assumes a later date than is conventional, at least for Mark – most scholars put the writing of the first gospel from thirty to forty years after the events they record.  (A few say ten.)  He also assumes that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses.   McGrew challenges him on both points, and Ehrman said “OK,” as if he were ready to concede those points for the sake of the argument he was preparing, a “parallel Jesus,” the Polish rabbi, Baal Shem Tov.  (Whose story we shall analyze subsequently.)  But having said “OK” to McGrew, and begun the word “eyewitnesses,” Ehrman suddenly remembers that the story he is preparing to tell – of Tov – is actually not by eyewitnesses at all, and so changes in mid-sentence to “by people who have gotten their stories from eyewitnesses.”  (Which is also not true of Baal Shem Tov, we shall see.) 

How many generations can die out in three to four decades?  Are we talking about human beings, or mayflies?

Ehrman creates more literal, geographical space, as well as positing cultural gaps in First Century social networking.  He suggests the following theory of how the written accounts of Jesus’ life came into being (tripling Aslan’s estimate of the ancient literacy rate in the process, incidentally, though in debate with Bauckham he has also used the 3% figure):

“These stories circulated.  Anyone who converted to become a follower of Jesus could and did tell the stories.  A convert would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor; if she converted, she would tell her husband; if he converted, he would tell his business partner; if he converted, he would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor . . . And on and on.  Telling stories was the only way to communicate in the days before mass communication, national media coverage, and even significant levels of literacy (at this time only about 10 percent of the population could read and write . . . “)[9]

The authors of the gospels had no chance to check facts before writing, removed as they were from those facts not only by class and language, but by distance, time and social connections: 

“The stories were being told by word of mouth, year after year, decade after decade, among lots of people in different parts of the world, in different languages, and there was no way to control what one person said to the next . . . Eventually, an author heard the stories in his church say it was ‘Mark’ in the city of Rome.  And he wrote his account.  And ten or fifteen years later another author in another city read Mark’s account and decided to write his own, based partially on Mark but partially on the stories he had heard in his own community.  And the Gospels started to come into existence.”[10]  

Elsewhere, Ehrman tells the story this way:

"You are probably familiar with the old birthday party game, 'telephone'. . .  Invariably, the story has changed so much in the process of retelling that everyone has a good laugh . . . Imagine playing 'telephone' not in a solitary living room with ten kids on a sunny afternoon in July, but over the expanse of the Roman Empire (some 2,500 miles across!), with thousands of participants, from different backgrounds, with different concerns, and in different contexts, some of whom have to translate the stories into different languages over the course of decades.  What would happen to the stories?"[11]

Like many myths, the charm of Ehrman’s account of how the gospels came to be lies in its simplicity.  I call it a “myth” not just in the anthropological sense that it is a “story about origins,” but also in the common sense of “certifiable nonsense." 

Mind you, I agree with Ehrman’s premise that stories passed from person to person and across cultures are likely to become corrupted.  The historian Polybius said he “either witnessed events myself, or talked to people who witnessed them,” for fear of writing “hearsay based on hearsay.”[12]

But consider.  As we pass these stories about Jesus from country to country, editing, inserting, mixing and dosey-doing while engaging in the world’s longest chain of hearsay whispering (involving thousands of players over thousands of miles, several decades and multiple languages), how high a priority would Mark’s church in Rome place on getting names of minor characters in Palestinian Israel correct?  A bit below “getting signatures from all the Roman gladiators before they left for the eternal Coliseum in the Sky” but above “visiting sailor bars in all the cities named for Alexander the Great,” one would think.  One would not expect a gospel written in the haphazard, twenty-rounds of musical-chairs-then-pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey manner Ehrman describes, to accurately record exact names in use among Palestinian Jews.

And yet, as Cambridge historian Richard Bauckham shows, they do. 

Neil Shenvi borrows data provided by Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 39-92) to turn Ehrman’s argument on its head.  Here is his chart of the most common names in the gospels and Acts, and as found in ossuaries from that century in Palestine:[13]


So the frequency of the three most popular male names in the earliest books of the New Testament appear in the same order as archeological data shows those names did, indeed, appear at that time in Palestine.  Furthermore, the percentages are remarkably close.  In addition, three of the next five names also appear among the five next most popular names.  Even the respective percentages are tight.  Are we really supposed to believe some anonymous Matthew, Luke or Mark in Rome ten or twenty rounds of telephone tag removed from Palestine got all these names correct?  Shenvi argues:
“If this analogy really is a good one, then we could also ask ‘What would happen to the names of people in those stories?’  The answer would not be: ‘We'd see 1st century Palestinian names reproduced with the proper frequencies across all four gospels.’  So I think Bauckham's work shows fairly definitely that this picture of how we got the gospels is wrong.  Either oral transmission is far more accurate than Ehrman describes, or the gospels originated close to Jesus, both temporally and geographically.  In neither case does the 'telephone' analogy seem accurate.”
Ehrman’s objection thus collapses to dust, and confronts us with the opposite challenge, as Shenvi implies.  Evidently the gospels are not the product of the corrupting processes proposed. 
Evidently they transmit data from First Century Palestine with remarkable fidelity.  If rumor was that reliable on minor details, why not on the main events that the gospels report? 

By making hagiographies easily available in one “pond,” and by searching for new parallels, Bart Ehrman helps broaden, then winnow, our search.   We shall examine his claims carefully.  Despite his soft voice and genuine expertise, his arguments tend to be highly biased against Christianity, sometimes to the point of falsifying or obscuring important facts.  More examples shall appear in coming chapters.  

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