I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.
I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.
I was asked to comment on a Facebook post last night by a friend and fellow elder. The topic of the post was Jesus’ name. The writer said that the reason people aren’t seeing results to their prayers is because they’ve been calling on the wrong name. You see, his name isn’t Jesus, which is manmade, it’s Yahweh. If we call on Yahweh rather than Jesus we should see results.
The comments that followed proceeded to call Jesus “Yahshua” and take Hosea 4:6 out of context, suggesting that if people continued to call him Jesus then they’d perish for their lack of knowledge. A couple of people from my church were arguing that it doesn’t much matter what variation of his name we use so long as we know him. I just came in and added a little background to that claim.
I noted how the Hebrew name is Yehoshua. How in the Aramaic bits of the Bible we read Yeshua. How in the NT—which I’d think would be paramount in such a discussion—it’s Iesous. In Latin it’s Iesvs. And finally English translates it as Jesus. We’re English speakers. Why wouldn’t we use the English name? If we were speaking Italian we’d say Jesu. If we were speaking Spanish it would be Jesús.
In any event, I did note that we’d never call him Yahshua for reasons I didn’t want to bore anyone with. But readers of this blog don’t mind being bored. In short, people have this weird penchant of finding out that the Hebrew name for God YHWH and its shortened form YH exist and all of a sudden they want to insert it where it doesn’t belong. It’s not that Yah never appears in Hebrew names; it just never appears at the beginning of them. For example:
Ma’aseYah = Maaseiah (Neh. 12:42)
MichaYah = Micaiah (Neh. 12:42)
Z’charYah = Zechariah (Neh. 12:42)
MalkiYah = Malchiah (Neh:12″42)
AzarYah = Azariah (Neh. 12:33)
Sh’maYah = Shemaiah (Neh. 12:34)
MatanYah = Mattaniah (Neh. 12:35)
SherevYah = Sherebiah (Neh.12:24)
ChashavYah = Hashabiah (Neh. 12:24)
BakbukYah = Bakbukiah (Neh. 12:25)
OvadYah = Obadiah (Obadiah 1:1)
AchazYah = Ahaziah (1 Kings 22:50)
S’raYah = Seraiah (2 Sam. 8:17)
At times Yah also appears in combination with hu making the form Yahu as in:
YeshaYahu = Isaiah (Salvation of the Lord)
YirmiYahu = Jeremiah (The Lord casts)
EliYahu = Elijah, and (My God is the Lord)
YoshiYahu = Josiah (The Lord rescues me)
Chizkiyahu = Hezekiah (My strength is the Lord)
Now when the shortened form of YHWH does appear at the beginning of a personal name it’s used in combination with a verb and we see Yeho, not Yah, so:
Yehoshua = Joshua
Yehoachaz = Jehoahaz (2 Kings 10:35)
Yehoyachin = Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24:6)
Yehoyakim = Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34)
Yehoshafat = Jehoshaphat (2 Chr. 17:3)
Yehochanan, which is a longer form of Yochanan = John (Neh. 12:42)
Yehoram = Jehoram (1 Kings 22:51)
Yehoyada = Jehoiadah (2 Sam. 818)
Yehotzadak = Jehozadak (1 Chr. 6:14 [1 Chr. 5:40 MT])
But the point is that the “Sacred Name” movement is built on some bad information. And more to the point, the referent is more important than the name by which he’s referred. As long as he knows us and we know him then he’ll answer however we call. Jesus is as much Lord over language as anything else.
If you’re the type of person who enjoys watching invalids get beat with sticks then you’ll want to check out The Jesus Process: A Consultation on Method, Myth, and Madness in New Testament Studies. In this case, Jesus mythicists are the invalids (no surprise there), and R. Joseph Hoffmann; Maurice Casey; and Stephanie Fisher are the people with the sticks (= historical Jesus scholarship that proceeds according to accepted historical-critical methodology — so no complaints about confessional bias allowed).
(HT: Chuck Grantham)
And we will demonstrate that we rationally worship the one who became the teacher of these things to us, and who was born for this, Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judaea at the time of Tiberius Caesar. For we have learnt that he is the son of the true God, and we hold him in second place, with the prophetic Spirit in the third rank. For it is there they declare our madness to be manifest, saying we give the second place after the unchangeable and eternal God and begetter of all to a crucified man, as they do not know the mystery in this, to which we urge you to give your attention, as we expound it.
Apology 1.13.3-4 (Minns & Parvis translation)
Ehrman, Bart D.
Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
New York: HarperOne, 2012. Pp. vi + 361. Hardcover. $26.99.
With thanks to HarperOne for this review copy!
Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth is Bart Ehrman’s attempt to treat “mythicists” (i.e., people who deny the existence of Jesus) with respect and take their arguments seriously, “if for no other reason than to show why they cannot be right about their major contention” (4). On the one hand I can see why people might find a book like this necessary—mythicists are a vocal minority that make plenty of noise on the internet but have thus far failed to receive a fair shake from those in the academic community—so why not have a credentialed scholar address their arguments? But on the other hand, mythicist arguments deserve to be ignored, and for every internet mythicist there’s ten internet apologists who have dealt with their nonsensical claims in some way, shape, or form (most notably J. P. Holding of Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry, who has been debunking mythicist bunk for at least a decade).
So who is this book for? Ehrman recognizes that he won’t convince the mythicist of Jesus’ existence because they just don’t want to be convinced, and Christians certainly need no convincing, so this is a book for people on the fence; for those who have never really looked into the subject but could possibly be persuaded by the mythicist if they’re ignorant of the evidence in favor of Jesus’ existence. And who better to present the evidence than Bart Ehrman? He’s a credentialed scholar who has published broadly in the field of New Testament studies. He’s acquainted with all of the relevant ancient and modern languages that one needs to be in order to assess the evidence and arguments relevant to the topic. And let’s not forget that Ehrman is “not a Christian, and [has] no interest in promoting a Christian cause or Christian agenda. [He is] an agnostic with atheist leanings” (5) so we can rest assured that he’ll handle the evidence fairly, right? Riiiiight…
Did Jesus Exist? is divided into three major sections. The first section discusses the evidence for Jesus. After first introducing the reader to mythicists and their arguments (chapter 1), Ehrman proceeds to look at early non-Christian testimony about Jesus in Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, Josephus, and the Talmud (chapter 2); the Gospels (chapter 3); the rest of the NT and some of the Apostolic Fathers (chapter 4); before rounding the section out with an argument based on two key data, namely that Paul knew companions of Jesus (Peter & James) and that Jesus was believed to have been crucified, which of course, is not something that people would make up if they were creating some kind of hero to follow (chapter 5).
The second section turns to the arguments that mythicists mount against the existence of Jesus. Ehrman first deals with a number of arguments that he deems irrelevant to proving whether or not Jesus existed, such as the problematic nature of the Gospels as historical sources; the alleged non-existence of Nazareth; claims about the New Testament being haggadic midrash on the Old Testament; or the Gospel authors borrowing their stories from pagan myths about divine men (chapter 6). Ehrman proceeds to address supposedly relevant but insubstantial arguments about Christians creating Jesus based on pagan beliefs in dying/rising savior gods; inventing him as the personification of Wisdom; or his being a cosmic being who was not believed to have lived in the recent past (chapter 7); but these strangely resemble the arguments of the previous chapter. One wonders how they’re any more relevant.
The third and final section is devoted to identifying the historical Jesus. Ehrman first introduces the reader to the various Jewish groups in existence during the first century (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Fourth Philosophy). He then gives a brief summary of Jewish apocalypticism before sketching out some of the criteria of authenticity used by historical Jesus scholars (chapter 8). This sets the stage for the penultimate chapter where Ehrman’s presents Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, a view he has argued at length in his monograph Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. The concluding chapter notes the ironically religious nature of humanists; the problem with trying to transpose the historical Jesus into modern culture; and the mythicist agenda, which is to undermine Christianity by destroying its center, again, an ironically religious endeavor. In the end, Ehrman considers himself a historian, and historians have to ask historical questions rather than theological or religious ones. This is why he can’t co-sign the mythicist agenda no matter how much sympathy he might have with it.
So how successful was Ehrman in accomplishing what he set out to do, which was present the positive evidence for the existence of Jesus, while debunking the arguments of mythicists? If we judge his success by simply pointing out the evidence then he has succeeded. He has pointed out the evidence. But if all one is looking for is evidence, then again, the internet is littered with apologetic websites presenting the same evidence. Was Ehrman successful in debunking mythicists? I guess, but that’s not really all that impressive given the inane nature of mythicists and their arguments.
In truth, Ehrman has created more problems with this book than he’s solved. He recognizes that he won’t convince mythicists of Jesus’ existence (5); it’s not like they’re unaware of this evidence. But he’s lent his name and credentials to addressing a group that is best ignored. I get that he believes that they should be taken seriously (4, 132)—he’s wrong—but as he points out (20-21), the vast majority of scholars with any kind of relevant training don’t take them seriously, nor should they! Calling mythicist literature “highly intelligent and well informed” (2) or G. A. Wells, Robert Price, and Richard Carrier “serious authors” (30) is only likely to egg them on and encourage them to keep churning out their nonsense. Oh, and it’s quite simply false! Mythicists are de facto not “serious authors” as long as they’re writing about mythicism, and mythicist literature is de facto neither intelligent nor informed.
But let’s address a couple of other issues, and please, permit me a few rabbit trails if you will. If Christians think they’ve found a friend in Ehrman because he has defended the existence of Jesus they can think again. He’s as much an enemy of the faith now as he’s ever been. Sure, he’d have us believe that he’s to be trusted because he has “no vested interest in the matter” and his “life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed” (5 cf. 333), but that’s nonsense with a capital non-! To start, contrary to Ehrman’s protestations (1, 23, 110, 170, 183, 231-41), Jesus is, in fact, God. The Bible tells me so. Ehrman might not be able to ask theological questions (231, 262), but I am. So had Jesus never existed then this world that he created (John 1:1; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:3; Rev. 3:14) and sustains wouldn’t exist either. In such a case Ehrman’s view would be very different than it presently is because it wouldn’t exist!
But let’s suppose that Jesus wasn’t God and didn’t create the universe and everything in it; let’s, for the sake of argument, pretend to be Unitarians and say that he was just a man that may or may not have existed. What are the chances that a movement devoted to him would have even gotten off the ground had he not existed? Slim, I’d bet. How much slimmer are the chances that a third of the world’s population would claim to be followers of said man? Even less! The point here is that had Jesus, even a merely human Jesus, never existed, then Ehrman never would have been converted to Christianity and subsequently apostatized. His life would be very different, or, at least the beginning of every popular book he’s written would be! And let us not forget that Ehrman has made a career of teaching and writing about Jesus, and for all his qualifications, he’s hardly qualified to do anything else! Could you imagine the existence of this book if the mythicists were right about the non-existence of Jesus? Yeah, me neither.
Now back to the question of Ehrman’s success against the mythicists. Just how successful was he really? Throughout this book Ehrman assures us that the Bible is an uninspired (37) collection of errant human texts that are full of contradictions (33, 36-37, 71, 179, 183) and historical problems (184); containing Gospels written after the fact by biased followers of Jesus (73) who were not eyewitnesses to the recorded events (46-50, 101, 268); and somehow this is his best source for making a case that Jesus existed?!! It’s no wonder mythicists won’t be impressed by Ehrman’s arguments; he constantly cuts his legs out from beneath him. One can argue, as Ehrman does, that Scripture needn’t be correct in everything it says in order to glean some historical info, but as John Frame cogently argued 40 years ago, “No Scripture, No Christ.”
Evidence isn’t brute fact; it has to be interpreted within one’s worldview. The Christian can simply say, “God said it, that settles it,” and I defy you to find a better apologetic than that. The evidence is certain because God said it in Scripture and God’s not a liar. The best that Ehrman can do is “probably” because he’s stripped his best sources of their inherent authority. Jesus probably existed, and most scholars with training in the relevant fields would agree, but so what? “Probably” will always leave enough room for the mythicist to feel confident in their doubt. “Probably” still requires faith on the part of the believer, and Ehrman is still a believer, just not a Christian one. The problem is that his faith is not placed in something ultimate and unerring (God and his word) but rather in his own ability to make the best guess.
This, of course, speaks to the inconsistency of Ehrman’s worldview. He places his faith in the flawed canons of historical criticism and trusts in sources that he doesn’t consider all that trustworthy to begin with. In truth, one could argue that the mythicist is more consistent with the atheist worldview than Ehrman is, even though they’re ultimately inconsistent as well. But this is what makes it so amusing to watch Ehrman wax eloquent about just how religious humanists and mythicists are (332-34) right before launching into a sermon that I’ve heard preached by no less than a dozen pastors about creating Jesus in our image and likeness (334-36). Ehrman is essentially arguing against idolatry, suggesting that if Jesus looks like Christians then they’ve invented him in their image, but he doesn’t seem to consider that just maybe Christians have been conformed to his image and made to look like him (Rom. 8:29)!
Back to Ehrman being an enemy of the faith. Throughout the book Ehrman comes against historic orthodox Christian beliefs about Jesus. He tries to do some damage control by saying that he doesn’t consider himself anti-Christian or an attacker of Christianity (35-37), but rather an attacker of a particular flavor of Christianity, namely “highly conservative Protestant Christianity, whether fundamentalism or hard-core evangelicalism” (36). So the pages are littered with pejorative references to fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, which are repeatedly paired together throughout the book (35, 47, 69, 71, 168, 178, 179, 231) as if they are the same thing, yet he strangely contrasts fundamentalists with radical skeptics (72) while acknowledging similar approaches to handling the Bible. How come the skeptics aren’t fundamentalists but the evangelicals are if their methods are the same?
But the constant references to conservatives and fundamentalists are really smokescreens (aside from being ad hominem). He’ll say something like, “other than conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, scholars are unified in…” (47, 231). The idea is that there is some kind of consensus on whatever the issue, but he never tells us how many conservatives evangelicals and fundamentalists are being written off in comparison to the scholars who hold the opposing view and he never approaches anything even resembling an actual argument for why the non-conservative evangelical/fundamentalist view is to be preferred. And let’s be honest, Ehrman says he’s not writing to convince the convinced mythicist, but secretly he is. These kinds of jabs are there as a way to say, “Hey, I’m still one of you; you’ve just gone a bit overboard.”
So Ehrman is confident that Jesus existed. So what? His confidence is certainly not in the Jesus of history, who is one and the same as the so-called Christ of faith. To adapt a verse from the Letter of James, “You believe that Jesus existed, you do well—even the demons believe and shudder!” (Jas. 2:19). Concluding that someone named Jesus existed in first-century Palestine is about as remarkable as concluding that water is wet or that even bad pizza is still kinda good. Unless Ehrman’s conclusion led him to a recognition of and submission to the Lordship of Christ then we have to wonder what exactly he’s accomplished. It’s not as if mythicists will be silenced by Ehrman’s case; they’ve been aware of this evidence forever and it hasn’t fazed them at all. And it’s not as if Ehrman is doing something in this book, in terms of collating this evidence, that hasn’t been done in dozens of other books or on most apologetics websites the world over. So what has he really accomplished? Other than once again proving that he can take somewhat technical subject matter and render it into readable prose, I’d say he’s accomplished book sales, which entail more money and fame, but other than that I can’t think of anything else.
God’s Equal: What can we Know about Jesus’ Self-Understanding in the Synoptic Gospels?
Library of New Testament Studies 446
London: T&T Clark, 2011. Pp. xviii + 270. Hardcover. $130.00.
With thanks to Continuum for this review copy!
Many New Testament scholars take for granted that John’s Gospel presents a “high” Christology while suggesting that the Synoptics never quite reach such heights. Take a representative argument from Bart Ehrman who suggests that Jesus was first declared to be the Son of God at his resurrection, but his exalted status kept getting pushed back as time went on. So in Mark he’s declared Son of God at his baptism; in Luke and Matthew at his birth; and in John in eternity past.1 We see Jesus progress from “a man who was empowered by God to do mighty things”2 to the Word of God, who “existed with God in the very beginning, before the creation of the world… before coming into this world as a human being.”3 Ehrman says:
This is the view that became the standard Christian doctrine, that Christ was the preexistent Word of God who became flesh. He both was with God in the beginning and was God, and it was through him that the universe was created. But this was not the original view held by the followers of Jesus. The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our Gospels, only in John.4
This is a fairly common view of the development of NT Christology among critical scholars. Enter Sigurd Grindheim, who unabashedly goes against the grain in his monograph God’s Equal: What can we Know about Jesus’ Self-Understanding in the Synoptic Gospels?, and turns this argument on its ear. Grindheim seeks to determine what we can know about what Jesus thought about himself from the things that he reportedly said and did. He employs the standard criteria of authenticity (with an emphasis the criteria of multiple attestation and dissimilarity) in examining the sayings of the historical Jesus and key events in his ministry.
Based upon Jesus’ brining God’s kingly rule to the earth through, e.g., exorcisms (chapter 1); performing miracles according to his own power (chapter 2); possessing authority to forgive sins (chapter 3); standing in judgment over the final destiny of people (chapter 4); speaking with equal or greater authority than the Law (chapter 5); and interacting with his people as God interacted with Israel (chapter 6), Grindheim concludes that Jesus is every bit God’s equal. He shores up his argument with reference to Jesus’ self-descriptions as e.g., Bridegroom, Mother Hen, King, or Sower (chapter 7) before comparing Jesus’ words and actions with the various mediatory figures in Second Temple Judaism (chapter 8). Unsurprisingly, Grindheim finds that no other figure possesses the inherent authority that Jesus does.
Grindheim goes on to examine the Father-Son relationship between God and Jesus (chapter 9); the Son of Man designation (chapter 10); and finally Jesus’ charges against the Temple (chapter 11). The results of these chapters are mixed in that Grindheim concludes that there is subordination in the relationship between equals; that Son of Man is probably invested with more meaning than merely “the human one” and refers to Jesus individually rather than to the people of God collectively, but he’s inconclusive on the connection to Daniel 7; and whatever Jesus’ attitude toward the Temple tells us, whether it be that Jesus was against the temple authorities, the religious practices taking place, or that he merely envisioned the eschatological rebuilding of the temple and sought to enact it, “the temple traditions in the Synoptic Gospels do not provide independent evidence for [his] thesis.” (217)
God’s Equal is a welcome contribution to the field of NT studies in general and Historical Jesus/Christological studies in particular. Grindheim succeeded in challenging many things that I have always taken for granted. For example, in the opening chapter he highlights how Jewish expectation wasn’t for a Messianic kingdom, but rather for God’s kingdom. When Jesus talks about establishing the kingdom of God he presumes the role of God for himself, not of some divine mediator. Likewise, Grindheim persuasively shows in the following chapters that Jewish eschatological hopes were for God to heal, deliver, perform miracles, etc., not the Messiah. In texts that speak about the forgiveness of sins it is always God who forgives sin. At best, an intermediary can pronounce forgiveness, but the agent of forgiveness is always God. Second Temple literature generally depicts God as the final eschatological judge and yet this is a role that Jesus claims for himself.
In his examination of intermediaries in Second Temple literature Grindheim shows that the parallels between them and Jesus are trumped by the parallels between God and Jesus. This is an important point that goes largely unmentioned in scholarly publications. In fact, before Grindheim’s monograph I have only seen this line of argument substantially developed in Chris Tilling’s unpublished doctoral thesis, although Tilling focuses on the Pauline corpus. So Grindheim is to be commended for traveling a fairly uncleared path. His overall thesis is compelling, but that’s not to say that it’s without shortcomings, some of which I will enumerate below.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with this volume is that Grindheim never explains what he means by “equal.” In other words, how does Grindheim understand the equality between God and Jesus to exist? Sure, he shows the bankruptcy of deference to mere agency whenever Jesus speaks or acts as God, but he goes on to describe Jesus’ relationship to the Father as “one of submission” (169) and asserts that there is “a clear hierarchy” (184) in the relationship, so is it on ontological grounds that the two are equal? He appeals to the Father-Son relationship so perhaps he understands Jesus’ submission as filial and nothing else, whatever that might entail. We’re never told, and if left to guess, I think we’d have to assume that Grindheim has ontological equality in mind.
But then what of the submission and hierarchy? How are we to understand that? Grindheim leaves unexamined the various statements in the Synoptics about Jesus coming into the world or having been sent by the Father (e.g., Matt. 10:40; 15:24; Luke 4:18, 43; 9:48; 10:16; Mark 1:38; 9:37; et al.) Simon Gathercole suggests that “when the language of “sending” is used, it is clearly to focus on the fact that the envoy stands under the authority of God.”5 So does Grindheim have submission and hierarchy in terms of authority and power in mind? If so, then doesn’t that undercut his main thesis? Again, Grindheim could have been much clearer on this point.
There’s also the issue of too easily glossing over certain problematic passages. For example, Matthew 28:18 says, “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’” Grindheim doesn’t treat this saying in its own right and only mentions it in connection with Matthew 11:27. He says that this “saying of the risen Jesus in Mt. 28.19 [sic] cannot be used as the basis for our understanding of what the historical Jesus said in Mt. 11.27 par.” (181) But why not? Why would we not interpret a less clear statement in light of an explicit one? Or, laying aside our understanding of Matthew 11:27, what do we do with Matthew 28:18? What are we to make of the risen Jesus being given authority if he always possessed it prior to his death and resurrection?
Another area in which Grindheim’s language could have been tightened up was in the repeated references to Jesus thinking/claiming he could “take God’s place” (1, 3, 53, 122, 123, 131 [2x], 133, 169, 182, 184, 204, 220, 221). One gets the impression that Grindheim is suggesting that Jesus believed himself to have been displacing or replacing God but nothing in the Gospels supports this and by the end of the book we realize that Grindheim doesn’t believe this to be the case either. He says, “His implicit claims to authority are so strong that one wonders if he thought he was YHWH, or if he thought he was a second god who had appeared on earth to take YHWH’s place. This is evidently not the case, however, as he repeatedly expresses his complete submission to the Father.” (220)
I offer these critical reflections in anticipation of what those less persuaded by Grindheim’s overall case might argue, not as one attempting to overthrow his position, with which I find myself in large agreement. I only desire to see as substantive an engagement with these issues as Grindheim shows with his dialogue partners throughout this volume. In general, I’m appreciative for the attempt to fill a lacuna in Christological research; may Grindheim and others continue plumb the depths of the Synoptics in search of a robust Christology.