Friday, January 18, 2019

Bart D. Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist? Useful Quotes for Christians, part 2 of 4

As I mentioned in part 1, Bart Ehrman is one of the most widely-known agnostic/atheist scholars today.  Despite his extreme skepticism, he effectively destroys the idea, widely promulgated by non-scholarly atheists and agnostics today, that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist, that Christ was a myth copied from pagan gods, and so on.  This second part contains more quotes from Bark Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) that are very useful for Christians dealing with popular-level Biblical skeptics.

Kersey Graves utterly unscholarly:

A terrific example of an exaggerated set of mythicist claims comes in a classic in the field, the 1875 book of Kersey Graves, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors:  Christianity Before Christ. . . . Graves . . . sets out . . . fantastic (not to say fantastical) parallels [to Christ from] . . . thirty-five such [allegedly divine] figures, naming them as Chrisna of Hindostan, Budha Sakia of India, Baal of Phenicia, Thammuz of Syria, Mithra of Persia, Cadmus of Greece, Mohamud of Arabia, and son on.  Already the modern, informed reader sees that there are going to be problems.  Buddha, Cadmus, and Muhammed?  Their lives were remarkably like that of Jesus, down to the details? . . . Possibly the most striking thing about all of these [allegedly] amazing parallels to the Christian claims about Jesus is the equally amazing fact that Graves provides not a single piece of documentation for any of them.  They are all asserted, on his own authority.  If a reader wants to look up the stories about Buddha or Mithra or Cadmus, there is no place to turn.  Graves does not name the sources of his information. . . . Even so, these are the kinds of claims one can find throughout the writings of the mythicists, even those writing today, 140 years later.  And as with Graves, in almost every instance the claims are unsubstantiated.[1]

Earl Doherty very problematic:

One of the staunchest defenders of a mythicist view of Christ, Earl Doherty, maintains that the apostle Paul thinks that Jesus was crucified, not here on earth by the Romans, but in the spiritual realm by demonic powers. . . . He quotes professional scholars at length when their views prove useful for developing aspects of his argument, but he fails to point out that not a single one of these scholars agrees with his overarching thesis.  The idea that Jesus was crucified in the spiritual realm is not a view set forth by Paul.  It is a view invented by Doherty. . . . In the first edition of Doherty’s book, he claimed that it was in this higher realm that the key divine events of the [pagan] mysteries transpired[.] . . . In his second edition he admits that in fact we do not know if that is true and that we do not have any reflections on such things by any of the cult devotees themselves since we don’t have a single writing from any of the adherents of the ancient mystery cults. . . . Doherty refuses to allow that 1 Thessalonians—which explicitly says that the Jews (or the Judeans) were the ones responsible for the death of Jesus—can be used as evidence of Paul’s view. . . . What evidence does Doherty cite to show that mystery religions were at heart Platonic?  Precisely none. . . . Among all our archaeological findings, there is none that suggests that pagan mystery cults exerted any influence on Aramaic-speaking rural Palestinian Judaism in the 20s and 30s of the first century.  And this is the milieu out of which faith in Jesus the crucified messiah, as persecuted and then embraced by Paul, emerged. . . . These mystery cults are never mentioned by Paul or by any other Christian author of the first hundred years of the church.  There is not a stitch of evidence to suggest that mystery cults played any role whatever in the views of the Pharisees, or, for that matter, in the views of any Jewish group of the first century:  the Sadducees, the Essenes . . . the revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the Romans, the apocalyptic prophets like John the Baptist (and their followers), or the common people. . . . [T]here is not a shred of evidence to suggest that these cults played the least role in the development of early views of Jesus.  Rather we have plenty of reasons, based on our early Jewish sources, that just the opposite was the case.
            That in no small part is why not a single early Christian source supports Doherty’s claim that Paul and those before him thought of Jesus as a spiritual, not a human, being who was executed in the spiritual, not the human, sphere.[2]

Ancient docetists not Jesus mythicists:

These [docetic] opponents of Ignatius were not ancient equivalents of our modern-day mythicists.  They certainly did not believe that Jesus had ben made up or invented based on the dying and rising gods supposedly worshipped by pagans.  For them, Jesus had a real, historical existence. He lived in this world and delivered inspired teachings.  But he was God on earth, not made of the same flesh as the rest of us.[3]

In relation to mythicist questioning of the canonical gospels and the other New Testament books:

Mark was everywhere accepted as canonical; in fact, every surviving Christian document that refers to it accepts its canonicity. . . . The original version of Mark . . . is completely unambiguous that Jesus has been raised from the dead. See, for example, Mark 16:6 . . . [V]irtually everyone who mentions . . . 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus . . . accepts them as canonical, including Eusebius, who quotes them repeatedly in his writings.[4]

In relation to the claim that the narrative about Jesus Christ was copied from Mithraism:

What evidence . . . [is there] that the Mithraists moved their religion to Palestine to help them find the king of the Jews?  None at all. And so we might ask:  what evidence could . . . have [been cited?] . . . It’s the same answer.  There is no evidence.  This is made up. . . . Mithraists left no books behind to explain what they did in their religion and what they believed. . . . [W]ed do not have Mithraic texts that explain it all to us, let alone texts that indicate that Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25 and that he died to atone for sins only to be raised on a Sunday.[5]

Concerning patristic claims of parallels between Christianity and pagan mystery religions:

Christian sources who claim that there were similarities between their own religion and the mystery religions . . . were often simply speculating. . . . These later authors, such as the church father Tertullian, started making such claims for very specific reasons.  It was not that they had done research and interviewed followers of these religions.  It was because they wanted pagans to realize that Christianity was not all that different from what other pagans said and did in their religions so that there would be no grounds for singling out Christians and persecuting them.  The Christian sources that claim to know something about these mysteries, in other words, had a vested interest in making others think that the pagan religions were in many ways like Christianity.  For that reason—plus the fact that they would not have had reliable sources of information—they generally cannot be trusted.
            Many mythicists, however, take what these later sources say at face value and stress the obvious:  Christian claims about Jesus were a lot like those of other cult figures, down to the details.  But they have derived the details from sources that—in the judgment of scholars who are actually experts in this material—simply cannot be relied upon.[6]

Alleged pagan parallels to the New Testament narratives are invalid:

In many instances, the alleged parallels between the stories of Jesus and those of pagan gods or divine men are not actually close.  When Christians said that Jesus was born of a virgin, for instance, they came to mean that Jesus’s mother had never had sex.  In most of the cases of the divine men, when the father is a god and the mother is a mortal, sex is definitely involved.  The child is literally part human and part deity.  The mortal woman is no virgin; she has had divine sex.
            In other cases the parallels are simply made up.  Where do any of the ancient sources speak of a divine man who was crucified as an atonement for sin?  So far as I know, there are no parallels to this central Christian claim.  What has been invented here is not the Christian Jesus but the mythicist claims about Jesus . . . Christian claims about Jesus’s atoning sacrifice were not lifted from pagan claims about divine men.  Dying to atone for sin was not part of the ancient mythology.  Mythicists who claim that it was are simply imagining things. . . . [P]arallels are not as close and as precise as most mythicists claim.  Nowhere near as close.[7]

It simply is not true that all the stories in the Gospels, and all the details of the stories, promote the mythological interests of the early Christians.  The claim that Jesus had brothers named James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, along with several sisters, is scarcely a mythological motif; neither is the statement that he came from the tiny hamlet of Nazareth or that he often talked about seeds.[8]

No dying-rising pagan gods that are parallel to the narratives about Jesus Christ:

[T]here are serious doubts about whether there were in fact dying-rising gods in the pagan world, and if there were, whether they were anything like the dying-rising Jesus. . . . Even though most mythicists do not appear to know it, the . . . view that dying-rising gods were widespread in pagan antiquity has fallen on hard times among scholars. . . . [S]uch views about pagan gods . . . met with devastating critique near the end of the twentieth century.  There are, to be sure, scholars here or there who continue to think that there is some evidence of dying and rising gods.  But even these scholars, who appear to be in the minority, do not think that the category is of any relevance for understanding the traditions about Jesus. . . .  [T]he vocabulary of resurrection (that is, of a dead person being revived to live again) is used in only one known case:  Melqart (or Hercules). . . . [N]ot . . . a shred of evidence . . . [has been] provided[ed] . . . that . . . pagan dying and rising gods . . . were known in Palestine around the time of the New Testament[.] . . . Can anyone cite a single source of any kind that clearly indicates that people in rural Palestine, say, in the days of Peter and James, worshipped a pagan god who died and rose again?  You can trust me, if there was a source like that, it would be talked about by everyone interested in early Christianity.  It doesn’t exist. . . . [E]ven [the minority of modern scholars who think there is some ambiguous evidence for dying and rising pagan gods] d[o] not think that . . . [such] sparse findings are pertinent to the early Christian claims about Jesus as one who died and rose again.  The ancient Near Eastern figures [that might be pagan gods who might have been dying and rising]  were closely connected with the seasonal cycle and occurred year in and year out.  Jesus’s death and resurrection, by contrast, were considered a onetime event.  Moreover . . . Jesus’s death was seen as being a vicarious atonement for sins.  Nothing like that occurs in the case of the ancient Near Eastern deities.
            But there is an even larger problem.  Even if—a very big if—there was an idea among some pre-Christian peoples of a god who died and arose, there is nothing like the Christian belief in Jesus’s resurrection. . . . [T]he pagan gods . . . [are] not really what the early teachings about Jesus were all about.  It was not simply that his corpse was restored to the living.  It is that he experienced a resurrection . . . [within the] worldview that scholars have labeled Jewish apocalypticism. . . . That’s not the same thing. . . . The idea of Jesus’s resurrection did not derive from pagan notions of a god simply being reanimated.  It derived from Jewish notions of resurrection as an eschatological event in which God would reassert his control over the world. . . . [Even the minority of scholars who believe that there is some evidence for dying and rising gods connected to the cycles of nature recognize:] “There is . . . no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.”
            More common among scholars, however, is the view that there is scarcely any—or in fact virtually no—evidence that such gods were worshipped at all. . . . [T]he influential Encyclopedia of Religion, originally edited by Mircea Eliade . . . state[s] categorically:

The category of dying and rising gods . . . must be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts. . . . All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities.  In the first case the deities return but have not died; in the second class the gods die but do not return.  There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity. [Jonathan Z. Smith, “Dying and Rising Gods,” Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., Lindsay Jones (Detroit:  MacMillan, 2005), 4:2535-40] . . .

[For example,] Adonis definitely dies. But there is nothing to suggest that he was raised from the dead.  It is only in later texts, long after Ovid and after the rise of Christianity, that one finds any suggestion that Adonis came back to life after his death . . . this later form of the tradition may in fact have been influenced by Christianity and its claim that a human had been raised from the dead.  In other words, the Adonis myth did not influence Christian views of Jesus but rather the other way around.  Yet even here . . . there is no evidence anywhere of some kind of mystery cult where Adonis was worshipped as a dying-rising god or in which worshippers were identified with him and his fate of death and resurrection, as happens, of course, in Christian religions built on Jesus.
            Or take the instance of Osiris, commonly cited by mythicists as a pagan parallel to Jesus.  Osiris was an Egyptian god about whom a good deal was written in the ancient world.  We have texts discussing Osiris that span a thousand years. . . . According to the myths, Osiris was murdered and his body was dismembered and scattered.  But his wife, Isis, went on a search to recover and reassemble them, leading to Osiris’s rejuvenation.  The key point to stress, however, is that Osiris does not—decidedly does not—return to life.  Instead he becomes the powerful ruler of the dead in the underworld.  And so for Osiris there is no rising from the dead. . . . [T]he entire tradition about Osiris may derive from the processes of mummification in Egypt, were bodies were prepared for ongoing life in the realm of the dead (not as resuscitated corpses here on earth). . . . In no sense can the dramatic myth of [Osiris’s] death and reanimation be harmonized to the pattern of dying and rising gods[.] . . . The same can be said . . . of all the other divine beings often pointed to as pagan forerunners of Jesus.  Some die but don’t return; some disappear without dying and do return; but none of them die and return. . . . [W]hen [the] theory about dying and rising gods [was formulated, it] . . . was heavily influenced by [an] understanding of Christianity and Christian claims about Christ.  But when one looks at the actual data about the pagan deities, without the lenses provided by later Christian views, there is nothing to make one consider them as gods who die and rise again. . . . [S]uch views are deeply problematical for Osiris, Dumuzi, Melqart, Heracles, Adonis, and Baal. . . . . [T]he methodological problem that afflicted [the person who popularized the idea that there were pagan dying and rising gods] was that he took data about various divine beings, spanning more than a millennium, from a wide range of cultures, and smashed all the data all together into a synthesis that never existed.  This would be like taking the views of Jesus from a French monk of the twelfth century, a Calvinist of the seventeenth century, a Mormon of the late nineteenth century, and a Pentecostal preacher of today, combining them all together into one overall picture and saying, “That’s who Jesus was understood to be.”  We would never do that with Jesus.  Why should we do it with Osiris, Heracles, or Baal? Moreover . . . a good deal of our information about these other gods comes from sources that date from a period after the rise of Christianity, writers who were themselves influenced by Christian views of Jesus and [w]ho often received their information second-hand[.]  In other words, they probably do not tell us what pagans themselves, before Christianity, were saying about the gods they worshipped.
            The majority of scholars agree . . . there is no unambiguous evidence that any pagans prior to Christianity believed in dying and rising gods, let alone that it was a widespread view held by lots of pagans in lots of times and places.  [E]vidence for such gods is at best sparse, scattered, and ambiguous, not abundant, ubiquitous, and clear.  If there were any such beliefs about dying and rising gods, they were clearly not widespread and available for all to see.  Such gods were definitely not widely known and widely discussed among religious people of antiquity, as is obvious from the fact that they are not clearly discussed in any of our sources.  On this everyone should be able to agree.  Even more important, there is no evidence that such gods were known or worshipped in rural Palestine, or even in Jerusalem, in the 20s CE.  Anyone who thinks that Jesus was modeled on such deities needs to cite some evidence—any evidence at all—that Jews in Palestine at the alleged time of Jesus’s life were influenced by anyone who held such views.  One reason that scholars do not think that Jesus was invented as one of these deities is precisely that we have no evidence that any of his followers knew of such deities in the time and place where Jesus was allegedly invented.  Moreover . . . the differences between the dying and rising gods (which . . . [may be] reconstructed on slim evidence [in the view of the minority that advocate “slim” rather than “none” for the evidence]) and Jesus show that Jesus was not modeled on them, even if such gods were talked about during Jesus’s time. . . .
            And so Jesus was not invented as a Jewish version of the pagan dying and rising god.  There are very serious doubts over whether any pagans believed in such gods.  Few scholars wonder if Jews believed in them, however.  There is no evidence to locate such beliefs among Palestinian Jews of the first century.[9]

[1]           Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) 210-212.
[2]           Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) 252-257.
[3]           Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) 102.
[4]           Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) 29.
[5]           Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) 213.
[6]           Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) 214.
[7]           Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) 214-215.
[8]           Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) 217.
[9]           Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, NY:  HarperCollins, 2012) 222-230, 240.

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