Category Archives: Skepticism

A Friendly Atheist

An old man walked into my barbershop the other day. He sat down and started to talk to the guy cutting his hair and he offered up a bit of personal information, namely that he was an atheist. My coworker is a believer as well so he started in on the guy. He shared the gospel with him and tried a few apologetic arguments. I just kept on cutting my client and listening in on their conversation.

The older gentleman stated several times that he envied my coworker’s faith and wish he could believe, but he’s seen too many atrocities (he’s a Vietnam vet) to believe that God exists. He kept saying that if God is real then he should fix the world’s problems. I chimed in and told him to be patient. Everything he’s asking for will happen, just not right now. He repeatedly said that if he was God he’d do things differently and fix all the world’s ills.

I chimed in again and told him that it didn’t sound so much like he didn’t believe in God, but rather that he did believe and was just angry at him. I thought about Doug Wilson’s two tenets of atheism: 1) There is no God; 2) I hate him. Throughout the course of the haircut the guy never got belligerent with us; he didn’t exhibit anger toward us; and yet his hostility toward God was palpable.

When he was done with the cut he got up, paid for the service, had a couple of cookies, and said goodbye. I left him with this food for thought; I said, “You keep talking about what’s wrong with the world and how God should fix it if he’s real. You keep appealing to these things as if we should somehow know why they’re wrong and instinctively agree with you. And we do, but only because there is a standard outside of ourselves that we can appeal to to know what’s right and wrong. I want you to ponder what that standard is and why you keep appealing to it.”

This guy will definitely be back and when he is I can’t wait to have a deeper conversation with him.

B”H

How Jesus Became God (At a Glance)

hjbg.pngEhrman, Bart D.

How Jesus became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

New York: HarperOne, 2014. Pp. ix + 404. Hardcover. $27.99.

Amazon

.

.

With thanks to HarperOne for this review copy!

N.B. I have been working on a review essay of Ehrman’s book on-and-off for a couple of months now. This (long as it might be) is not that.

Bart Ehrman is like the Howard Stern of biblical studies; he’s a shock jock. He’s not a trailblazer by any means, but he has a large audience, and his audience is filled with people who haven’t heard anything about the stuff he writes about in his popular books. From topics like textual criticism to the problem of evil, Ehrman has been antagonizing Christians and their faith for years—now he’s moved to one of its non-negotiable pillars—the deity of Christ.

Ehrman let on about this book in his last one. He told us that he was writing about how Jesus came to be viewed as God by his followers. He’s written about this in various works over the years but How Jesus Became God is the full treatment; or at least as full as it seems we’ll get. Ehrman’s argument is pretty straightforward: Jesus didn’t claim or believe himself to be God and neither did the earliest followers until after they came to believe that he had been resurrected.

That’s pretty much the gist of it. In the beginning was the man, and the man was with God, but the man was not God. Ehrman views Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet; someone who believed he had a unique place in God’s government, but not God himself. But somewhere along the line—very early in fact—Jesus’ disciples started claiming more of him. How was this possible, you might wonder. Well, Second Temple Judaism, like its Greco-Roman neighbors, had very different views of divinity than we do; at least that’s what Ehrman would have us think.

So just like the “pagans” could accommodate divinity on down the line from Zeus/Jupiter to half-breeds like Heracles/Hercules to great philosophers like Plato or the sons of God like the Roman emperor, so too could Jews. The Jews believed in one Almighty God but they also believed in other gods like angels, hypostatized divine attributes (Wisdom; Logos), and the Davidic king. In other words, divinity existed on a scale, and there were no hard lines of demarcation to be drawn between God and everything else.

So Ehrman argues that Jesus wasn’t really unique in the ancient world. There were plenty of divine men and he was one of many. Of course his alleged resurrection made a difference, but Ehrman argues that we have very little reason to believe that Jesus was even buried in the tomb that Christians believe is empty. Nevertheless, this was the impetus for the exaltation and incarnation Christologies that we find in the New Testament.

Ehrman’s not dogmatic on this point, because Paul really kind of screws it up, but it seems to be that exaltation Christology came first and was followed by incarnation Christology. In other words, the earliest confessions, creeds, and speeches have Jesus being exalted to divine status. Only after reflecting on this does his divinity get pushed back further in time until eventually it reaches eternity.

But like I said, Paul kind of messes that up, and Ehrman admits as much. Speaking of Paul, Ehrman restricts his exegesis of the NT to Paul alone, and of that we only see Philippians 2:5-11 given any kind of real attention. Did I mention that Ehrman interprets everything Paul says through the lens of Galatians 4:14, a text that Ehrman claims is equating Christ with an angel? Basically, Paul’s Christology was an angel Christology, and that helps us to make sense of concepts like preexistence and divinity.

Ehrman also looks to the first few Christian centuries to show that beliefs about Jesus weren’t really set in stone. Us modern Christians have inherited, for the most part, a Nicene Christianity. The so-called orthodoxy codified in the Nicene Creed wasn’t quite so kosher in the early days though. At one time, the folks who believe like we do were the minority, but since the victors write the history, we’ve come to know them as heretics since they ultimately lost out.

And so ends my summary of Ehrman’s work. Unfortunately, we’ve heard it all before. I’ve read a lot of what Ehrman has written—not quite all of it—but most. He’s suggested all of this elsewhere and to be honest, other than throwing in the bit about there not being a straightforward evolutionary process whereby Jesus came to be viewed as divine, I can’t say that he’s improved upon his previous work. And I mean this in more ways than one.

To start, Ehrman cites himself more than anyone else. Well, Michael Peppard does get quite a few mentions, but I’ll reserve comment on that for my forthcoming review essay. My point is that Ehrman doesn’t interact with scholars in the field of early Christology and Christian origins. That’s a problem since they’ve preemptively refuted most, if not all, of what he’s argued!

But I’d also mention that he’s standing on the shoulders of giants and even there he doesn’t give them their due. From Charles Talbert, to William Horbury, to Rudolf Bultmann, and Martin Dibelius, Ehrman is simply reiterating old arguments. He does give John Dominic Crossan credit for bits and pieces for what he says about Jesus not being buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Bully for him!

Hurtado is mentioned twice, and once to misrepresent his views. Bauckham is not mentioned at all, which is a shock since what Ehrman argues is directly relevant to every claim Bauckham has ever made about the topic. No interaction with Fee; Wright; Tilling; and the list could go on and on. So-called exaltation Christology is one of the legs of his argument and he doesn’t so much as reference Eskola’s work?!! How is that even possible!

But the names of scholars aren’t the only thing that’s missing; this book is also sorely lacking in exegesis. Like I said above, Ehrman only examines the Carmen Christi in any depth, and we quickly learn that even those waters are quite shallow. How does he manage to gloss over the rest of Paul so easily when he acknowledges that Paul is our earliest source? Where is the attention given to 1 Corinthians or 1 Thessalonians? How does a book that’s supposed to inform us about early Christology and Jewish monotheism lack even a single reference to the Shema? You get the point.

Ehrman also neglects evidence from ancient sources that pretty much torpedo his claims about the burial of criminals in Roman Palestine. He’s clearly familiar with Josephus and yet he neglects to mention directly relevant material to the topic, namely when Josephus said, “Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun” (J.W. 4.317).

But it’s a popular book; we shouldn’t expect it do those things, right? Wrong! Ehrman trades on his credentials as a historian and a scholar. He’s at pains to repeatedly emphasize his training in conservative institutions of higher learning before shedding his Christian vestiges and becoming an objective reporter of the facts as we can know them. If he wants the respect that the letters appended to his name are supposed to grant him, then he has to employ the same methods that anyone else wanting a fair hearing would employ.

And speaking of methodology; did I mention that he lets a dubious reading of Galatians 4:14 drive his entire reading of Paul? Well, he does! How nice would it have been for him to interact with those who have written about angel christology and disagreed with his conclusion (e.g., Hannah; Sullivan; Fee). But there’s also an issue with the parallelomania going on. He makes some pretty flimsy connections between Greco-Roman and Jewish belief and uses the word “divine” as a catchall to do it.

Ehrman never tells us what divinity is or how it is conceived. We’re just supposed to know this intuitively I guess. But that leaves open a number of questions, such as, what makes one divine being greater than another? Or, how about why Jews on the whole didn’t so easily accept Jesus as divine and worship him as God? If divinity was such a readymade category, and Jesus wasn’t unique, then why so much opposition to Jesus devotion?

And while we’re on the subject of readymade categories, can I just note the ad hoc nature of Ehrman’s (following Talbert) christological categories? The NT authors know nothing of such tidy categorization. There’s no exaltation Christology here and incarnation Christology there. Both are ubiquitous throughout the NT and exhibited by authors that are alleged to have only one or the other. But why pit incarnation against exaltation as if the two are incompatible? Philippians 2 shows just how they fit together hand-in-glove!

I could rattle on and on about a number of particular issues with this book, but I think I’ve made my point, and besides, I’m writing a review essay to really put some meat on these bones! At the end of the day the only positive features I can note are the same ones I note of all his popular works: he’s drawing attention to important topics and his prose is top notch; the guy can write! Of this particular volume I’d also add that it has one of the greatest covers I’ve ever seen on a book. Fantastic image! Kudos to the artist who drew it.

Would I recommend this to the average reader? Probably not. Or at least not until I recommended Tilling and Bauckham first. At least then they’d have the wherewithal to see just how much is wrong with this book.

B”H

Nonsense

Against my better judgment I clicked a link Jim West’s blog to the utterly inane ramblings of Jesus mythicist Richard Carrier, which purported to be a review of Maurice Casey’s book refuting mythcism. I won’t link to the “review” because no one should ever have to waste a second of their lives reading anything a mythicist has written, and I really really mean that. They’re insane and we’re all stupider for reading them. For reals.

I haven’t read Casey’s book yet and I’m not sure if I will since refuting mythicists is kinda like shooting the water that the fish in the barrel are swimming in. In any event, I was amazed by Carrier’s first paragraph in which he prattles on about Bart Ehrman saying:

I already exposed all the egregious errors of fact and logic in Bart Ehrman’s sad armchair failure at this. Which evidently provoked him to repeatedly lie about what happened, which I then also documented. I consider him disgraced as a scholar. If you have to tell lies to save face, rather than admit a mistake and do better, you are done in this business. Or certainly ought to be.

I just can’t make sense of how this paragraph is supposed to have any meaning whatsoever in Carrier’s atheistic world. What’s a lie supposed to be without a universal (transcendent) standard of truth and why should it be a problem for Ehrman to do it sans that standard? Carrier is full of self-righteous indignation and yet he can’t possibly account for why that is. He obviously has some sort of code of ethics but he can’t possibly think it’s universal and believe that Ehrman should live up to it. Can he?

B”H

Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

dje.pngEhrman, Bart D.

Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

New York: HarperOne, 2012. Pp. vi + 361. Hardcover. $26.99.

Amazon | CBD

.

.

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.

B”H