Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Jockeying for Jesus

Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. Edited by Frank R. Zindler and Robert M. Price. Cranford, NJ: American Atheist Press.

I can hardly be considered an objective reviewer of this book, holding Robert M. Price as a dear friend and owing Frank Zindler the favor of a very kind blurb and Amazon review of the book that Dr. Price and I co-authored. Readers obviously have shared interests, too, at least in following Price’s writings: Each book is currently first on the other’s Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought… list on Amazon.com. My review is also hindered by the fact that I have not read the work toward which Zindler and Price’s collection of essays directs its ire, Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (New York: HarperOne).

All this full-disclosure preamble leads to an important opening point: Objectivity seems to be a rare trait in Historical Jesus studies. Indeed, the Zindler-Price book leaves the reader wondering if any of the scholarship supporting the historical existence of the man revered by two billion Christians is more than a thin coat of respectability varnish painted onto agenda- and consensus-driven apologetics.

Robert Price makes that point right on page one, saying that Ehrman “is an apologist for a new orthodoxy, ‘mainstream scholarship,’ the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) magisterium.” Price calls this the “‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ school of biblical scholarship, where nothing out of the comfortable bell curve of theories can be taken seriously.” The author of the next chapter, Dr. Richard Carrier, takes pains to distinguish himself from his fellow skeptics, both in the book and in a blog posting that personally made me cringe. But he pulls no punches in reinforcing Price’s point: “The modern ‘consensus’ that Jesus existed has simply not been founded on any logically valid or properly employed methodology” (p. 15).

According to one of the several fine essays Zindler himself contributes to the book, Ehrman accuses those who deny Jesus’ existence of having an agenda that is served by such denial. But Zindler asks a pointed question in reply: “Is he unaware of the immense monetary agendas served by many who affirm the historicity of Jesus? Does he not realize that most of his [Christ] Mythicist opponents have come completely unwillingly to their positions and that many have suffered professionally and financially in order to serve their ‘agenda’ of denial?” (pp. 230-31). As René Salm notes, “Saying that Mythicists are not professionally engaged academics—as Ehrman does repeatedly in his book—is simply unfair, for a Mythicist may possess all the customary credentials yet still be unable to find work in academe” (p. 330). It is their views rather than a lack of credentials that bars them “from the guild,” Salm says (p. 331).

One can understand why there seems to be an undercurrent of hurt feelings pervading much of this book. For all their diligent efforts, countless hours of probing around dusty writings and dead languages, the Mythicists are left at the edges of the cafeteria looking wistfully at the Historical Jesus table where all the cool kids are sitting. Zindler’s description of the e-mail correspondence between himself and Ehrman (which he republished with permission) feels like the story of one of those poor cafeteria nerds working up the nerve to ask if he might sit at the seemingly vacant chair at that table and show what a worthwhile guy he really is, even without the letter jacket. Mr. Popular looks up at the interloper awkwardly carrying his tray, and asks, “What are your qualifications to talk about first century Palestine in the writings of the early Christians? Or do qualifications, in your opinion, not matter?” (p. 86). For Ehrman, whose very limited replies to Zindler in their lopsided correspondence include requests for Zindler’s curriculum vitae and an explanation for the circumstances of his departure from SUNY (p. 116), qualifications seem to matter a great deal indeed. Or, more specifically, credentials.

What about all the things this amazing man actually knows, and communicated amply in his lengthy, mostly unanswered emails to Ehrman? I’ve had the privilege of sharing one hour of Zindler’s 73 years of life in conversation on the phone, and was overwhelmed at the intelligence and wisdom behind that sparkling voice on the other end of the connection. To see what short shrift this is all given, because of what Zindler calls a “hyperparochial attitude” that seems to have prevented Ehrman from reading “my books and papers because I am not a doctoral graduate of a seminary or similar program” (p. 88) is maddening to read.

But even having the right combination of letters on their diplomas did not seem to earn Drs. Price or Carrier much fair attention from Ehrman. Is that a hasty conclusion for me to make just from reading this book, and not Ehrman’s? Very possibly, and you should weigh it accordingly. But consider Price’s statement that Ehrman “could at least have done me the courtesy of replying to my arguments” (pp. 11-12) and Carrier’s that he “just cherry picks isolated claims and argues against them, often with minimal reference to the facts its proponent has claimed support it” (p. 19).

And Carrier isn’t impressed by the way Ehrman responded to his criticisms, either. On one issue that goes over my head and possibly those of most readers, for example, Carrier says “Ehrman refused to admit his mistake,” claiming “it was just a typo” (p. 28). No it’s not, Carrier replies in his essay, which is peppered with polemic that would have done Martin Luther proud. He says Ehrman’s “dishonesty and inability to admit real mistakes call into question everything he argues. His excuses are destroying his reputation. What else has he misrepresented? What else has he fudged, screwed up, or lied about? Can we ever trust him on this subject?” (p. 29).

Flavius “Whaddya mean, Nazareth?” Josephus

Strong words, but this book is strong medicine. I learned quite a bit from it. An ancient historian attested “that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life,” using the same words as Christians did about the resurrection they believed in (Carrier, p. 37). Pagan resurrection stories included the themes of vanishing bodies and a dying-and-rising hero (Carrier, p. 40), as well as the idea of a ritual baptism for the washing away of sins (Carrier, p. 45; Zindler, p. 132). The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus [37-100 CE] “mentions 45 cities and villages in the tiny territory of Galilee,” but not Nazareth, despite having worked to fortify a town less than two miles from the location of that present-day tourist destination (Zindler, p. 263). One of the pieces of evidence now touted to support the existence of the place when Jesus was supposedly living there is from an excavation “associated with a multimillion-dollar mega-resort called the Nazareth Village,” which “has been well funded by an international consortium of Christian groups” (Salm, pp. 343-44).

Then there are the issues with the primary sources referenced by those questing for a Historical Jesus: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, written roughly in that chronological order. There’s just not much else to go on, certainly not from Paul with his lack of detail about any earthly doings of the Jesus he met only in a vision. Nor, as Earl Doherty lays it out in his discussion of Jesus outside the gospels, are things any more solid in the Epistle to the Hebrews. “Yet again,” Doherty says after noting that Hebrews doesn’t give any thought to actual words of an earthbound Jesus, “Ehrman’s ‘references to the life of the historical Jesus’ have evaporated into the wind” (p. 496).

Jesus talks plenty in the canonical gospels, but why do their stories have any more authority than, say, the one in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas about a pimply Jesus in the shop fixing his stepdad’s carpentry problems? D.M. Murdock notes that “there remains no clear and unambiguous evidence of their emergence in the historical record before the last quarter of the second century at which point they suddenly begin to be discussed by a number of Church fathers” (p. 398).

Zindler reminds us that, “as bearer of the Historicist banner, Ehrman has to stake everything on the Gospels and other documents of the canonical New Testament because there are no eyewitnesses or contemporary writers who could vouch for the existence of Jesus or any of his 12 disciples/apostles.” And then Zindler offers this zinger: Nobody in early times ever described Jesus’ physical appearance, but 1 Corinthians 15:6 has Jesus appearing to 500 people at the same time. How did they recognize him? (p. 526). It’s the same problem that Price has pointed out regarding the Transfiguration: Peter, James, and John are treated to the ascended Moses and Elijah having a pre-game mountaintop pep talk with the not-yet risen Jesus. Despite being remarkably thick-headed about many other things, Peter gets it right away: Let’s build a tabernacle for you, Jesus, and Moses and Elijah, too! Did they have name tags?

A few things noted…

There are many other little flashes of brilliance (alas, not from any heavenly vision) in this book: Carrier’s observation that false stories—about things Ehrman wouldn’t defend as historical, like the transmutation of water into wine at Cana—“cannot support the existence of real people” (p. 53, my emphasis); Zindler’s schooling of Ehrman about where the burden of proof really lies (hint: same place it did with “the Boston divines who all universally agreed that lightning was the wrath of Jehovah,” p. 307); Salm’s observation that faith “constitutes a curious blind spot in our human psychology, a mental drunkenness in which jettisoning reason is [considered] altogether laudable” (p. 360).

Certainly, Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth is not perfect. Some of the essayists are so well versed and impassioned about the “of Nazareth” part that they go on to the point of tedium about there being no such town for a “Jesus of Nazareth” to have claimed for his mailing address. Carrier’s invective against Ehrman (e.g., “he not only sucks as a writer but can’t even tell that he sucks as a writer,” p.23) are the kind of thing you would more expect to see in the comments for a YouTube video than in the otherwise stellar discourse of a razor-sharp academic.

But it is an important and very worthwhile book, filled with nuggets of information and insight. It is a must-read for anyone really interested in the question of whether there was an actual Christ behind this gigantic edifice of Christianity that confronts non-believers every day in our culture. I am the better for having read its 500+ pages, and Bart Ehrman would be, too.