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Raining on Bart Ehrman’s Easter parade

"Raining on Bart Ehrman’s Easter parade" Continued...

Michael F. Bird
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Michael F. Bird
Similar is Sean Freyne: “Either we accept that the early followers of Jesus had some interest in and memory of the historical figure of Jesus as they began to proclaim the good news about him, or we must abandon the process entirely.” Approaches like Ehrman’s, which begin by casting doubt on the historical value of the Gospels for reconstructing the life of Jesus, but then proceed to formulate a hypothesis about the historical Jesus anyway, are essentially creating a vacuum and then filling it with scholarly fiction.

Alternatively, I would advocate that the Gospels are generally reliable and coherent sources for studying the historical Jesus. As long as the early church knew the “Lord Jesus” to be the same as “the crucified one,” the historical Jesus was always going to be properly basic for the church’s faith. The things Jesus said and did pre-Easter mattered for what the church believed and said about him post-Easter.

That is not to deny that the Gospels are documents designed for proclamation, theologically loaded, and written to create faith. The Gospels are, then, the interpretation and application of the memory of Jesus for readers in the Greco-Roman world. A memory was carried by eyewitnesses and was put into the custody of corporate interest in the Jew from Nazareth. Thus, what the Gospels produce is not the transcript for CNN-style video footage of Jesus’ career. A better analogy is that they offer a dramatic representation, much like a documentary drama, of Jesus’ actions in the past and his voice for the present available through the corporate memory of Jesus. Consequently, the memory of Jesus deposited in the Gospels bequeaths to us both authenticity and artistry, fact and faith, history and hermeneutic. The objective of the Evangelists was not to write a life of Jesus to satisfy modernist demands for detail, nor was it to offer an image of Jesus that they pretty much made up to satisfy their own ideological bent. The Evangelists intended to narrate a story and evoke the significance of one called “Jesus,” Israel’s Messiah and the world’s rightful Lord.

Second, Ehrman is dependent on the use of several “criteria” to establish the authenticity of stories about Jesus in the Gospels. Generally speaking, criteria of authenticity are useful as a way of trying to figure out which traditions in the Gospels go back to Jesus. I’ve used them myself at times, but like others I’ve become increasingly aware of their limitations and become convinced that they do not offer a path to an objective history of Jesus. For a start, trying to sort out the authentic traditions from the inauthentic traditions is not really that easy, for the simple fact that the history of Jesus has been thoroughly welded together with the early church’s proclamation of Jesus at every point. Trying to separate the history from theology in the Gospels is a bit like trying to separate blue from red in the color purple. What is more, many of the criteria have been critically examined and found to be inadequate as a way of establishing the historical or unhistorical nature of any given unit in the Gospels. Dale Allison speaks with candor on this: “The older I become, the less I trust anyone’s ability to answer this sort of question, to trace the history and origin of a particular saying. … It is not so easy to establish that any particular saying goes back to Jesus, and it is not so easy to establish that any particular saying does not go back to him.”

For case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.” This criterion is well-known and has received a devastating barrage of criticism to the point that I am, to be frank, at a loss as to why Ehrman continues to use it. It jumped the shark about the same time that the TV show Dawson’s Creek did. In extreme cases some scholars looked for a double dissimilarity, whereby a tradition is authentic when it is dissimilar to both Judaism and to the early church. Ehrman wisely uses it in its less extreme form and only applies it to dissimilarity from the early church.

But even then it verges on the ludicrous. Think about it. A story about Jesus or as a saying attributed to Jesus is only historical if it does not sound anything like what the church was saying about Jesus. What historian would say that the historical Plato is different from what the platonic school said about Plato? Who would say that reliable information about the Teacher of Righteousness who founded a community by shores of the Dead Sea can only to be found when material attributed to him in the Dead Sea Scrolls sound nothing like the Dead Sea Scrolls? Who thinks that the real John Wesley can only be retrieved by searching for un-Wesleyan things that Wesleyans said about John Wesley? The criterion of dissimilarity posits a huge rupture between a movement founder and his or her subsequent movement that is simply absurd. You end up with a Jesus who said, thought, and did nothing that his earliest followers believed that he said, thought, and did. Jesus becomes a free-floating iconoclast artificially insulated from the movement that took its name from him, claimed to follow his teachings, and memorialized his deeds and actions.

Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s interview with Bart Ehrman on this weekend’s edition of Listening In, a production of WORLD Radio.

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