Jesus Before the Gospels Review Part 3

If you are a Christian, Jesus should the primary leader of your life.  But what if Jesus isn’t who the Gospels claim He is?  Author Bart Ehrman has written a few books set out to discredit Christianity, the bible, and the foundation of our beliefs.  Guest blogger, Tom Tozer, has taken on the claims of Ehrman’s latest book. Let’s get plugged into leadership and see what Tozer has to say! Part 3 for Part 1 Part 2

Chapter 3 begins with the von Liszt experiment which I already mentioned. It doesn’t get much better. Ehrman mentions some other “memory studies,” although I’m not entirely sure that’s what they amount to. One, for instance, involved a plane crash into a building in the 1990s, before phone video and other ubiquitous handheld video was available. There was no film of the crash. Nevertheless, weeks after the crash, someone asked hundreds of people whether they had seen video of the plane crashing into the building. A significant percentage said yes. Ehrman thinks this is a big deal, but I fail to see how. No one doubts that the plane crashed into the building. The only issue this might expose is whether people who claim to witness an event actually were direct witnesses. However, there is nothing here to suggest they were inventing events.

Next he discussed something about alien abductions, which Ehrman claims involve “many” people. He mentions the number 100. That doesn’t sound like many in a nation of 300 million. That “study” does seem to go more directly to the issue of eyewitness credibility, and it is most interesting for the fact that no such events were reported prior to movies and television shows about aliens. In other words, the “memories” had to be socially plausible before they started occurring. People didn’t invent stories of experiencing aliens until the existence of aliens had been suggested to them. That’s pretty interesting. But I think it actually cuts the other way for Ehrman’s thesis. The question, as applied to Jesus, is this: Were resurrections of crucified Messiahs ever socially acceptable? Was this a widespread idea that would have created the suggestion in the disciples, like TV shows created the suggestion in the abductees? For this alien abduction study to tell us much about Jesus, Ehrman would have to offer evidence that resurrected-Messiah stories were widespread prior to Jesus’ time so as to create the suggestion in the apostles. Of course, he doesn’t offer such evidence.

Ehrman only glancingly deals with Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’. He really deals with none of Bauckham’s research, but just asks a lot of “oh really?” questions, as if those were responses. What “response” he does give is utter speculation stated as though it were known fact- who the Gospel writers were (not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, clearly!), what their sources were (not eyewitnesses! No sir!), none of which Ehrman can possibly know. In fact, he concedes, on page 103, that “some of the basics about Jesus” were well known, especially the crucifixion and resurrection, in the early church as made plain by Paul’s letters. Seems to me those are the most important facts of all about Jesus. The lack of stories about Jesus’ life in Paul’s letters is a non-event, I think. Paul did not need to retell stories that were well known, and the purpose of his letters were more along the lines of encouraging church leaders and church governance. He was not writing homilies about one of Jesus’ parables or healings.

Several items in the chapter stand out.

First, Ehrman attacks Papias’ credibility. Papias states that Mark wrote Mark as the memoirs of Peter. Ehrman cannot allow this to stand because it destroys his entire hypothesis. If the Gospels record eyewitness accounts, 95 percent of Ehrman’s book is irrelevant.   But the way he attacks Papias is utterly ineffective. Ehrman notes that Papias records a saying of Jesus that is not recorded in any of the Gospels. It goes something like this: The days will come when a vine has ten thousand boughs, and each bough ten thousand branches, and each branch ten thousand clusters, and each cluster ten thousand grapes, and each grape will cry out to bless the Lord. Ehrman seems bemused by this. “Really? Jesus taught that?” he asks mockingly.

Uh, yeah, I don’t know why Jesus would not have taught that. That parable – which I’d never heard before – works perfectly with the parable of the mustard seed becoming the bush that takes over the field. Jesus could have meant it as a description of the church in 100, 1000 or 2000 years later and he was using it to encourage the disciples. Who knows? But there’s nothing weird about the parable at all. It may well be genuine. It is not inconsistent with anything Jesus said. But Ehrman thinks it “sounds weird” and so must be false, I guess.

The second thing that stands out is how Ehrman picks a Lukan introduction to make it seem as though Luke did no personal investigation of the facts. There are translations of Luke 1:1-3 which state that Luke investigated, and some which state that he “followed” the facts. The word used in Luke 1:3 is parēkolouthēkoti, a combination of “para” which one Biblehub’s lexicon defines as “beside, or in the presence of” and akoloutheó, defined as “accompany, attend or follow.” Seems to me “investigation” is closer than mere “following” and the word definitely conveys personal presence of the author in the following.” But Ehrman can’t have Luke investigating anything, and so, unsurprisingly, chooses the latter translation. It isn’t even tricky.

Next, Ehrman’s response to the fact that all four Gospels had names when Irenaeus was writing (and another list, from the same time, found hundreds of miles away) is to fabricate a scenario where someone writes a book for his church from stories they tell there, and then that gets passed around, and so on. Ehrman writes, “there was no name attached to the books” [what books?] “The author was writing an account based on what he heard.” [what author? What did he hear? From whom?] “Within months most of the people reading the book would not know its author” and “no one cared who the author was” and “there was no discussion of the matter for many many decades.” Etc. etc. etc. Evidence?

The most egregious part of the chapter is in the last four pages. Ehrman backs his way into agreeing that names of the Gospel authors and their association with each book makes sense. (pp. 125-128). But he does so by assuming that later name-suppliers combed through the books for clues about what names to invent for them. For instance, he admits it makes sense that Matthew is called Matthew because it contains the call of Matthew, and seems the “most Jewish” of the books. He claims that the Gospel of John had to be named John because, well, it couldn’t be named for Peter because Peter is named in it alongside the beloved disciple who claims authorship at the end. He says Luke makes sense for Luke because it appears to be written by Paul’s traveling companion, who appears to be a gentile, and since Paul mentions his companion the gentile Luke in a letter, that name fits. Finally, Ehrman says Mark makes sense to be named for Mark, because since the time of Papias everyone thought Mark wrote down Peter’s memoirs, and they couldn’t name it Peter because there already was an heretical Gospel of Peter, so they adopted the name Mark for it since Mark was already associated with Peter through Papias.

Hilariously enough, all of that actually explains exactly why the traditional authorship makes sense. But you can either assume the names make sense because of the historical data, or you can assume that a cabal of later editors conspired in a fascinatingly byzantine fashion to make up names because it matched that historical data. I guess you’ve got to do the latter when you’re Ehrman and you’re trying to sell books. But the former seems simpler.

About the Author :
Tom Tozer is a lawyer in the Chicago suburbs and one of A.W. Tozer’s many grandchildren.  He is married with three daughters, and has taught confirmation classes for almost 20 years.  He has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from University of CHicago as well as a J.D. from Indiana University, Bloomington.  He recently converted to the Catholic faith.


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