bookmark_borderDebate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 5A: Various Points

Some of Hinman’s discussions about his five principles of historical investigation provide needed clarification of a principle, and some of his discussions fail to provide clarification of the relevant principle.  But even when Hinman fails to clarify one of his general principles of historical investigation, he often makes some significant or interesting points.  I will examine many of those specific points in this post.
Hinman’s discussion about (P1) fails to clarify what that principle means.  However, that discussion does make some interesting points, so I will comment on those points here:
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POINT #1:
One chief principle sorely lacking in the discussion with mythers, is that historians start from the sources we have rather than criticizing that which we don’t have. Historians don’t base their conclusions upon the documents we lack but upon those we possess.
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If Jesus did exist, then obviously any details that we have about Jesus must come from existing documents that mention Jesus. However, the implication that historians ignore or don’t pay attention to “the documents we lack” is simply false.
One basic criterion used by historians is that of “multiple independent attestation”:
Historians prefer to have lots of written sources, not just one or two.  The more, obviously, the better.  If there were only one or two sources, you might suspect that the stories were made up (although you would probably want to have some reasons for thinking so…).  (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, p.40)
In other words, the more independent sources one has that agree on a particular event or detail, the more likely it is that the event or detail was actual or correct, other things being equal.  But in order to consistently apply this basic criterion, one must in some cases notice the absence or dirth of documents.
What if there was only ONE independent historical document that mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth?  In that case, historians would notice that we did NOT possess multiple independent sources of information about the crucifixion of Jesus, and based on this fact historians would (or should) be appropriately skeptical about any historical claims and conclusions about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  The absence or lack of documents in such a scenario would not provide any specific details about the crucifixion of Jesus, but it would be a very important fact that would have a very significant impact on the thinking of historians about the alleged crucifixion of Jesus.
If there were just TWO independent historical documents that mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus, that would give historians greater confidence than having only ONE such document.  However, a competent historian would still note the dirth of documents on this point, which would involve noticing that we don’t have three or four or five or six independent historical documents on this alleged event, and in such a situation a competent historian would remain somewhat skeptical and cautious about historical hypotheses and conclusions concering the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, based on the dirth of documents about this alleged event.
What if the only historical documents that we had about the life of Jesus were documents that were written in the second century?  A historian would be completely incompetent if (in this circumstance) he/she failed to notice the absence or lack of any documents about the life of Jesus that were written in the first century, the century in which Jesus supposedly lived and died.  This relates to another basic criterion of historical research:
Historians also prefer to have sources that are relatively near the date of the person or event that they are describing.  As time goes on, things do indeed get made up, and so it is much better to have near-contemporary accounts.  (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, p.41)
To be competent, an historian must notice when there is an absence or a dirth of documents that were written near the date of the person or event that they are investigating.  An absence or dirth of documents written near the date of a particular person who is being studied does not, of course, provide any particular details about the life of that person, but it is an important fact for historians because it helps to determine the quality and strength of the evidence that they possess.
If there were no first-century documents about Jesus, competent historians would notice that fact, and would be more skeptical and less confident in the historical hypotheses and conclusions that are asserted about the life and death of Jesus.  Since those of us who are skeptical about the existence of Jesus are very much concerned about the quality and strength of the available historical data concerning Jesus of Nazareth, it is absolutely relevant for skeptics to point out any abscence or dirth of historical documents that provide information about a specific aspect of the life of Jesus, and any absence or dirth of historical documents of a certain relevant kind (for example, first-century documents about Jesus written by non-Christians).
It is important to note that we lack some important kinds of historical documents in relation to Jesus:
We also do not have any writings from Jesus.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 43)
…no Greek or Roman author from the first century mentions Jesus.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 43)
we do not have a single reference to Jesus by anyone–pagan, Jew, or Christian–who was a contemporary eyewitness, who recorded things he said and did.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 46)
Here is another bit of bad advice on historical research from Hinman:
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POINT #2:
What do the documents we have tell us? Don’t worry about what they don’t tell us.
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There is an ambiguity in the phrase “what they don’t tell us”.  In one sense of this phrase, the advice is obviously true but is uninformative.  In another sense of the phrase, the advice is informative, but is very bad advice.  So, it appears to me that Hinman is either saying something trivial and uninformative or else he is saying something that is substantive but clearly mistaken.
There are at least two different kinds of things that a document can “tell us”:

  • Claims that the writer explicitly asserts in the text.
  • Claims that we, as intelligent and critical readers, can infer from the text produced by the writer.

Historians usually deal with historical documents.  In order to be a competent historian, at least in terms of dealing with historical documents, one must be able to read and clearly and fully understand what is written in historical documents.  In order to read and clearly and fully understand what is written in a document, one must be an intelligent and critical reader.  Therefore, in order for a person to be a competent historian, at least in terms of dealing with historical documents, that person must be an intelligent and critical reader.
One thing that all intelligent and critical readers can and must be able to do is to “read between the lines” of a text.  In order to be able to read between the lines of a text, one must in many cases notice not only what is explicitly stated, but also what is left unstated in the text.  Thus, in order for a person to be a competent historian, that person must be able to notice, and in fact often notice, not only what is explicitly stated in a text, but also what is left unstated in the text.
Here is an example of “reading between the lines” by noticing what is left unstated in a text.  An undergraduate philosophy major was about to graduate with a B.A. in philosophy and was applying to get into a doctoral program in philosophy at a prestigious university.  The student, let’s call him “Mr. Jackson”, went to one of his philosophy professors who was the most famous and most widely-respected philosopher at that college, and he asked the professor for a letter of recommendation.  The professor, let’s call him “Dr. Schmidt”, agreed and submitted the following letter to the philosophy department at the prestigious university where Mr. Jackson was hoping to be accepted into the doctoral program in philosophy.  The letter read as follows:
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To whom it may concern:
Mr. Jackson has excellent penmanship.
Sincerely,
Dr. Schmidt
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Needless to say, Mr. Jackson was not admitted into the doctoral program in philosophy at the prestigious university.  His application was rejected NOT because of what Dr. Schmidt explicitly asserted about Mr. Jackson (good penmanship is appreciated even by professional philosophers), but because of what Dr. Schmidt did NOT say, because of what was left UNSTATED.
In a letter of recommendation in support of a student seeking acceptance into a graduate program, one expects to read praise and positive evaluations of the student’s intelligence, knowledge, creativity, intellectual skills, writing ability, study habits, and other characteristics that are relevant to determining whether a student is likely to be successful in graduate studies in a particular field or area.  No such assertions and characterizations are given in this very brief letter.  We can “read between the lines” here and based on what was left unstated by Dr. Schmidt, we can reasonably infer that he was communicating this message:
Mr. Jackson has no praiseworthy or remarkable or excellent knowledge, intellectual abilities, anlytical skills, study habits, or other characteristics that are relevant indications that he would make a good graduate student in philosophy.
In order to be an intelligent and critical reader of texts, one must be able to notice, and in fact often notice, not only what is explicitly asserted in a text, but also what is left unstated in a text.  Therefore, in order to be a competent historian, at least in relation to dealing with historical documents, a person must be able to notice, and in fact often notice, not only what is explicitly asserted in a text, but also what is left unstated in the text.
The advice “Don’t worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us.” is trivial and unhelpful if the phrase “what they don’t tell us” means “what cannot be inferred or derived from careful critical study and reading of the text”.  If a text simply has nothing to say about issue X, then any efforts to try to get information out of that text in order to resolve issue X will be a waste of time.  But this is a trivial and unhelpful bit of advice, because it just repeats the idea of the antecedent in different words in the consequent: “If you cannot get information about X from this document, then no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to get information about X from this document.”
On the other hand, the advice “Don’t worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us” constitutes a substantive bit of advice if the phrase “what they don’t tell us” means “what is not explicitly stated in the document”.  But if that is what this phrase means, then the advice is really bad advice, because it either implies the absurd idea that historians don’t need to clearly and fully understand what they read in historical documents or else it implies the absurd idea that one can clearly and fully understand the text in a document without being able to read between the lines, without being able to notice what is left unstated in the text.
An entire new branch of history came about because some historians began to “worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us.”  Social history is a new branch of history that is concerned with learning about, among other things, the everyday details of the lives of ordinary people, of laborers, workers, shopkeepers, school children, craftsmen, servants, slaves, and housewives, for example.
Traditionally, historians focused on big events, like wars, and famous and powerful people, like kings and generals and explorers.  Traditional historians might have taken interest in some journals and personal letters, but only if those were written by famous or powerful people, or by friends and family members of famous or powerful people.  Social history has a broader scope, or a different scope, and the journals and personal letters of ordinary people become important historical documents, because they can reveal everyday details about the lives of ordinary people.
If the founders of social history had followed the advice “Don’t worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us.”, then this entire branch of history would not exist.  It was necessary for at least some historians to notice that details about the everyday lives of ordinary people were not provided in typical, traditional “historical documents”, so they had to figure out other ways to get this information about the past, and one of the ways this was accomplished was by expanding the scope of what documents are considered to be important historical documents.  For example, the journals and personal letters of ordinary people began to be viewed as potentially important historical documents.  Social historians also turned to statistical information, like what social scientists use to study different societies, in order to learn more about the lives of ordinary people in the past and about the processes and factors that shaped those lives.
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POINT #3:
The objection that we don’t have anyone who knew Jesus personally writing about him (supposedly), is bunk. Start from what what the documents we do have tell us about him.
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First of all, it is true, or at least probably true, that we don’t have any writings by people who knew Jesus personally.   Paul did not know Jesus personally, and probably never set eyes on the historical Jesus.  Many leading NT scholars have concluded that none of the gospels were written by an apostle or someone who knew Jesus personally.
Second, an historian who ignored this basic fact about our documents that concern Jesus would be an incompetent historian, for this is crucial information for determining the strength and value of the historical evidence that we have about Jesus.  I agree with the idea that we ought not to cast aside the Gospels and letters of Paul as irrelevant, but we also, if we want to think like competent historians, need to recognize the limitations of the historical evidence that we possess.
I have no objection to that idea that we ought to “Start from” the documents that we do have, but this does not imply that we should ignore important deficiences and characteristics of those historical documents (e.g. we have no eyewitness accounts of the life or death of Jesus).
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POINT #4:
Chitneis emphasizes internal and external aspects of the document. External is getting back to the original document itself: author, audience, why written. Internal aspects are inconsistency or consistency within the document.
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These all seem like useful items to consider when studying an historical document.  However, there are at least a couple of important considerations that were not mentioned in this scheme:

  • What about comparing one book or text by an author with other books and texts by the same author?  (e.g. comparing one letter by Paul with other letters by Paul and looking for consistencies and inconsistencies).
  • What about comparing what the author of the historical document asserts, with what other authors of other historical documents assert about the same events or the same geographic area and timeframe? (e.g. comparing one canonical gospel with another canonical gospel, or with a non-canonical gospel, and looking for consistencies and inconsistencies between those documents).

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POINT #5:
The practice of history is largely about evaluating documents.
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Because of the qualification “largely”,  I cannot disagree with this statement.  However, it is important to note that there are other kinds of historical data, and that we lack an important kind of historical data when it comes to the life and death of Jesus:
…there is no hard, physical evidence for Jesus…, including no archeological evidence of any kind.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 42)
Also, an important part of evaluating historical documents is evaluating the quality and strength of historical evidence that a given document can provide, and that involves implicit comparisons with categories of documents that might not exist or might not be available relative to the subject or issues at hand.  Competent historians will not only analyze the contents of the documents we possess, but will notice if there is an absence or dirth of documents of certain important categories (e.g.  no documents written by Jesus himself, no eyewitness accounts of the life or death of Jesus, and no first century documents about Jesus from pagan authors).
 
In his discussion of principle (P3), Hinman quotes from John Crossan (from a web page that is no longer available):
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POINT #6:
Question 62 [excerpt]
Furthermore, in all the many ways that opponents criticized earliest Christianity, nobody ever suggested that it was all made up. That in general, is quite enough for me…
Question 71 [excerpt]
My very general arguments [for the existence of an historical Jesus] are: (1) that existence is given in Christian, pagan, and Jewish sources; (2) it is never negated by even the most hostile critics of early Christianity (Jesus is a bastard and a fool but never a myth or a fiction!); (3) there are no historical parallels that I know of from that time and period that help me understand such a total creation. 
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First, this does not appear to be a clarification of a principle of historical investigation; rather, this is the summary of an argument for the historicity of Jesus.
Second, this argument draws on more than just EXTERNAL evidence, so this goes outside the boundary of the topic of this debate, which is about whether the EXTERNAL evidence is sufficient to show that it is probable that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a flesh-and-blood historical person.  Christian evidence, at least the earliest and best Christian evidence, is INTERNAL (i.e. biblical) evidence.  One of the main problems with EXTERNAL evidence (both Christian and non-Christian) is the issue of independence.  It is unclear, for example, to what extent Josephus got his information about Jesus directly or indirectly from Christians who were familiar with one or more of the canonical Gospels and/or the letters of Paul.
The fact that the existence of an historical Jesus was “never negated by even the most hostile critics of early Christianity” is not a strong reason that makes it probable that Jesus was an actual historical person, because proving the non-existence of a person was much more difficult to do in first century Palestine than it is in the USA in the 21st century.
If someone wanted to challenge my existence as a flesh-and-blood historical person, they could check:  (a) birth records in hospitals in Santa Monica, California (where I was allegedly born), (b) social security records of the US government, (c) marriage records in San Luis Obipso (where I allegedly got married), (d) school records of  schools in Healdsburg, California (where I allegedly grew up), (e) high school records in Cambria, California (where I allegedly graduated from High School), (f) drivers license records in California and in Washington, (g) college records from Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo), Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University (where I allegedly earned a BA in philosophy), University of Windsor (where I allegedly earned an MA in philosophy), and UC Santa Barbara (where I allegedly completed requirements for a PhD in philosophy, except for the dissertation), (h) voting registration records in Sonoma County, California, Santa Barabara, California, and King County, Washington, to name a few possibilities.
If none of these normal records showed up for Bradley Bowen, that would be very powerful proof that Bradley Bowen was not a flesh-and-blood historical person (who was born in Santa Monica, grew up in Healdsburg, attended high school in Cambria, went to college at Sonoma State University, got married in San Luis Obispo, etc.).
Jesus was not born in a hospital, and no governments in first century Palestine maintained official records of births, marriages, or deaths.  There were no public schools or colleges, and no official records of education were maintained. There were no cars, and no driver’s licenses nor driving records maintained in first century Palestine.  There were also no newspapers, no public libraries, no phone books, no fingerprint databases, no DNA databases, and no criminal prosecution databases.
So, if a first century pagan or Jew had doubts about Jesus being a flesh-and-blood historical person, it would have been rather difficult for that person to investigate whether Jesus had actually existed.  Thus, it is to be expected that skeptics and critics of Christianity would not try to disprove the existence of Jesus, even if they doubted the existence of Jesus, but would instead focus challenges and doubts on the question of the divinity of Jesus, which could be argued on more theological and philosophical grounds, and would not require engagement in difficult historical investigation that was unlikely to produce solid proof of the non-existence of Jesus.
The fact that there are “no historical parallels…from that time and period” is also a weak reason that does not support the claim that it is probable that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person.  Why must there be an historical parallel from “that time and period”?  That seems rather arbitrary and even extreme.  There has not been a World War in my lifetime, so should I doubt that there has ever been a World War?  Obviously not.  Some historical phenomena only occur infrequently.  What this indicates is that the invention of fictional characters who are put forward as actual historical persons is a somewhat uncommon historical phenomenon.  But this sort of thing does happen, so the fact that it did not happen multiple times in first century Palestine is a weak reason for denying that it happened at least once in that place and that period of time.  This is not a sufficient reason to conclude that it is probable that Jesus existed.
In relation to principles (P4) and (P5), Hinman quotes from a post by James McGrath:
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POINT #7:
The notion of being “unbiased” is naive. We all have biases, and what is great about the way scholarship works is that it provides methods and a community of experts who can limit the impact that individual biases can have.
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POINT #8:
I’ve never seen anyone [i.e. any scholar] use popular opinion as an argument in my field. Do you have a reference?
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POINT #9:
What we have is an enormous body of scholarship, skeptically investigating the details asserted about Jesus in our earliest sources, in scholarly articles and monographs. The historicity of every single one has been challenged. The fact that the consensus remains that some details are probably historical is what you need to be looking at.
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POINT #10
The historicity of Jesus cannot be dealt with in the abstract, any more than evolution can be. It is a theoretical framework for making sense of a range of pieces of evidence in relation to one another. That is why mythicists and creationists tend to say both that “there is no evidence” and to think that showing that one particular piece of evidence is problematic means that the entire theoretical framework must be invalid. But that isn’t how scholarly investigation of the past works. The question must always be, what theoretical framework makes the best sense of all the evidence, or as much of it as possible.
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POINT #11:
And of course, those who have not dedicated their lives to the study of that evidence are unlikely to make sound judgments about such matters.

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Response to POINT #7:
I have already commented on the claim that “We all have biases…” in my previous post on  5A. (Historical Methods); see my comments on principle (P4).  I agree that use of scholarly methodology and peer review by other scholars in the field can “can limit the impact that individual biases can have”, but it is naive of McGrath to ignore the obvious fact that both the imposition of “methodology” and the use of peer review can also create and enforce widespread biases among scholars in a field.  These two facts are compatible with each other.  A group or generation of scholars can BOTH help scholars to avoid the impact of individual biases AND also create and enforce widespread biases among the scholars in that feild.  It is McGrath who is being extremely naive here.
Response to POINT #8:
If someone literally claimed that NT scholars were arguing on the basis of “popular opinion”, then I suppose this point would make sense.  But it seems much more likely that someone was claiming that NT scholars are biased in favor of some widespread Christian beliefs, such as that Jesus actually existed, and that this bias is, in part, the result of the fact that this is a widespread Christian belief.  Such a view of NT scholars seems true to me, or at least probably true in general (i.e. concerning most NT scholars).
It would be a blatant STRAW MAN fallacy to characterize such a view of NT scholars as equivalent to the idea that NT scholars CITE popular opinion as EVIDENCE for any of their conclusions, including the conclusion that Jesus was an actual historical person.  There is an obvious difference between being influenced or biased by widespread Christian beliefs on the one hand, and using the popularity of a belief among Christians as EVIDENCE for the truth of a belief.  So, if the skeptic to whom McGrath is responding claimed, as I suspect, that NT scholars were biased in favor of certain widespread Chrsitian beliefs, such as that Jesus existed, and that the fact that these beliefs were widely held by Christians was, in part, the cause of the existence of this bias, then McGrath’s response commits a STRAW MAN fallacy by attributing an idiotic viewpoint to that Jesus skeptic, an absurd viewpoint not actually held by that skeptic.
Furthermore, if McGrath was responding to a Jesus skeptic who actually held the idiotic view that McGrath attacks, then although McGrath’s response would not, in that case, be a STRAW MAN fallacy, Hinman’s quotation of McGrath would, however, still be a STRAW MAN fallacy, because in quoting McGrath in this context, Hinman is suggesting that Jesus skeptics generally or frequently hold such an idiotic view, which is a false and slanderous suggestion, an attack on an idiotic view that is NOT generally found among Jesus skeptics.
Response to POINT #9:
McGrath here provides an interesting and substantial bit of reasoning in support of the conclusion that Jesus probably was a flesh-and-blood historical person.  The argument is in need of clarification and further explanation, but there is enough substance here that I can see a significant problem with the argument.
The problem is this: an NT scholar can be fairly skeptical about particular events and details found in the Gospels while at the same time making the unquestioned assumption that Jesus was an actual historical person.  Different scholars who have this sort of point of view can argue vigorously over different particular events and details found in the Gospels, and come to a general consensus that some events/details are more likely to be historical than other events/details.  Given their agreed upon and unquestioned assumption that Jesus existed, those events/details that are thought to be the “most likely” of various Gospel events/details, will then be inferred to be PROBABLY HISTORICAL.
In other words, NT scholars can use established methods and peer review to arrive at some degree of consensus on which events/details are the “most likely” to be historical.  Such comparative probability judgments (i.e. “Event A is more probable than event B”) can be combined with the assumption that Jesus existed in order to support the conclusion that a certain event/detail is probably true (e.g. “Event A probably happened.”).
But a scholarly consensus as to which events/details in the Gospels are the most likely to be historical,  does not mean that those events are probably true or historical.  If Jesus did not exist, then even the “most likely” details/events in the Gospels (i.e. the details/events that best satisfied various scholarly criteria) would generally be false.  Sometimes the best car in the lot is a pile of junk.  Sometimes the most likely detail/event in a story is just pure fiction.
So, the skepticism that McGrath speaks of here is compatible with the view that NT scholars generally have a strong bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus and that this bias leads them to conclude that certain details/events in the Gospels are probably historical, even though these scholars are “skeptically” applying scholarly criteria to the details/events in the Gospels and casting aside many of those details/events as being historically improbable.
Response to POINT #10:
This point by McGrath is clearly another STRAW MAN fallacy, as I argued in my previous post; see my discussion about principle (P5).
Response to POINT #11:
Obviously, someone who dedicates his or her life to the study of evidence about Jesus and the Gospels and other relevant historical data, will have some advantages over non-experts in terms of knowledge, skill, and experience, in dealing with historical questions related to Jesus.  But to assume that non-experts are “unlikely to make sound judgements” about historical questions related to Jesus is a bit elitist and a bit extreme.
What about someone who spends half of his or her life studying the evidence about Jesus?  What about someone who spends ten years of his or her life studying the evidence about Jesus?  What about someone who dedicates just two years to study of this evidence?  Obviously there are many degrees to which a person can dedicate time and energy to historical issues concerning Jesus of Nazareth.  There are also many degrees of knowledge and education and intellectual ability that different people bring to such investigations.
Many people have college degrees in the humanities, and have developed significant skills in reading and critical thinking and argumentation, without ever having earned advanced degrees in the humanities or in New Testament studies.  Some people have graduate degrees in history or literature or philosophy, but have not earned an advanced degree in New Testament studies.  Such people are not without ability to study the relevant evidence and to make sound historical judgments.
The question “Did Jesus exist?” is too important a question to simply be handed off to a group of “experts”, particularly given that there is reason to believe that NT scholars have some significant biases related to this question.  Philosophers may be experts in the field of ethics and morality, but are Christians willing to hand off the question “Is abortion morally wrong?” to a group of philosophers, and then live their lives in accordance with the judgment of “experts” on this issue?  Obviously not, and I don’t know anyone, even among philosophers, who thinks this would be a good idea.
We ought to turn to experts for help in making better judgments about such controversial issues, but we also ought to formulate our own beliefs, based on the best thinking that we can manage given the limitations of one’s education, knowledge, and intellectual abilities, and we ought NOT simply hand off such issues to “the experts” to make these important decisions for us.
Finally, although NT scholars have some obvious advantages in terms of knowledge, skills, and experience in making historical judgments about Jesus, it seems fairly obvious that (a) most disciplines involve the transmission and reinforcement of various biases and prejudices as well as important principles, methods, intellectual skills, and knowledge, and that (b) NT scholarship is no exception to this generalization.

bookmark_borderDebate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 5A: Five Principles

Joe Hinman’s fifth argument for the existence of Jesus is presented in three sections:
5A. Historical Methods
5B. Big Web of Historicity
5C. Jesus Myth Theory Cannot Account for the Web
I will comment on, and raise objections to, points in each of these three sections, but this post will only cover part of the section on “Historical Methods”.  Specifically, I will cover the five high-level principles of historical investigation proposed by Hinman in his discussion of “Historical Methods”.
5A. Hinman on Historical Methods: Five General Principles
Hinman advocates the following five general principles of historical investigation:
P1. The document, not the people, is the point.
P2. Supernatural content does not negate historic aspects.
P3. What people believed tells us things, even if we don’t believe it.
P4. Everyone is biased.
P5. The historicity of a single persona cannot be examined apart from the framework.
 
Hinman’s first principle of historical investigation is this:
P1. The document, not the people, is the point.
I don’t know what (P1) means, and Hinman’s discussion of this idea does not make it any clearer.  Hinman’s discussion of (P1) makes a number of assertions that are interesting and worth thinking about, but I will comment on those more specific points in my next post on “Historical Methods”.  I won’t criticize what I don’t understand, so Hinman needs to clarify this principle before I will attempt to evaluate it.
The second principle put forward by Hinman is a bit clearer:
P2. Supernatural content does not negate historic aspects.
A comment by Hinman provides further clarification of (P2):
Historians do not discount sources merely for supernatural contents.  Even when they don’t believe the supernatural details, they don’t just deny everything the source says.
This is certainly a true point about how historians work, and I have no problem with the basic point.  However, there are some qualifications that I would add to this principle.
First, the Gospels don’t just have a few “supernatural details”.  They are filled with supernatural beings and events, from start to finish.  Here are a few supernatural elements from the beginnings of two Gospels (Matthew and Luke):

  • An angel visits Mary to tell her that she will become pregnant by the power of God, not by the usual biological process of sexual reproduction (Luke 1:26-38).
  • Mary miraculously becomes pregnant without first having sex with a man (Matthew 1:18-25).
  • An angel appears to some shepherds near Bethlehem to announce the birth of the Messiah, when Jesus is born there (Luke 2:1-20).
  • A multitude of angels appear to the shepherds and praise God (Luke 2:1-20).
  • A star indicates to some wise men from the East that a great king has been born in Palestine (Matthew 2:1-12).
  • The same star miraculously guides the wise men to the specific house where Mary and the baby Jesus were staying (Matthew 2:1-12).
  • Joseph, the husband of Mary, has a dream in which an angel warns him to take Mary and the baby Jesus away from Palestine, and Joseph follows this warning thus saving the baby Jesus from being killed in a mass slaughter of infants in Bethlehem by king Herod. (Matthew 2:13-23).

We have at least seven supernatural events surrounding the birth of Jesus in just the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke.  After that the miracles and supernatural events just keep on coming:  Jesus turns water into wine, Jesus heals the blind, the lame, and the deaf.  Jesus raises dead people back to life.  Jesus walks on water, calms a huge storm with a command, and feeds thousands of people with a few fishes and a few loaves of bread.  Jesus is levitated to the top of the temple by the devil and argues with the devil.  Jesus is transfigured and has a conversation with Moses and Elijah.  Jesus reads people’s minds.   Jesus miraculously causes huge collections of fish to congregate in the nets of his disciples.  Jesus dies and then comes back to life less than 48 hours later.  He then walks through a locked door, instantly vanishes from sight at will, and is able to levitate himself up into the sky.
The Gospels do not just contain a few “supernatural details”.  They are filled with supernatural beings (angels and demons and spirits) and supernatural events (miraculous healings, resurrections, mind reading, and nature miracles like levitation, walking on water, and controlling the weather).
Second, the supernatural elements in the Gospels are often essential to the stories related in the Gospels.  If we strip out all of the supernatural beings and events from the birth narratives, for example, there is not much left over.  If 75% of the assertions in the birth narratives are fictional, then why believe the 25% that remains?
It is possible that the very minimal historical claim “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” could be true, but given the general unreliability of the birth narratives (due in part to their being filled with supernatural beings and events), this also casts doubt on the tiny bit of historical “information” that remains after stripping out all of the clearly fictional B.S.  Given that Christians believed that the Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and given that most of the other assertions in the birth narratives are historically dubious, we ought to be very skeptical about the claim “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” even though this claim does not, by itself, involve any supernatural elements.  It might represent prophecy that was used to formulate “history”.
What remains of the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana if we delete his miracle of turning water into wine? Not much: Jesus went to a wedding in Cana. What remains of the story of Jesus walking on water on the sea of Galilee if we remove the walking on water part?  Not much: Jesus went in a boat with some of his disciples on the sea of Galilee. What remains of the transfiguration story if we remove the part about how Jesus began to shine like a bright light and if we remove the appearance of Moses and Elijah?  Not much: Jesus prayed with some of his disciples on a mountain top.  In a few stories the supernatural beings or events might be a detail that can be ignored, but in many cases the supernatural being or event plays an important role in the story, so that removing the supernatural element guts the story or seriously changes the meaning of the story or makes the story illogical and incoherent.
As David Friedrich Strauss argued long ago in The Life of Jesus, the attempt of skeptics to strip out all of the supernatural elements of the Gospels while still maintaining the basic historicity of the Gospel accounts makes no sense.  It makes far more sense to admit that Gospels are filled with legends and myths and fictional stories, and that only a few bits and pieces here and there, at best, are factual and historical.
Third, the assertion of this principle borders on a STRAW MAN fallacy.  There is the suggestion here that Jesus skeptics doubt the historicity of the Gospels ONLY because the Gospel stories contain supernatural elements.  Skeptics do NOT doubt the historicity of the Gospels ONLY because of there are a few supernatural details in them, nor do skeptics doubt the historicity of the Gospels ONLY because the Gospels are filled with supernatural beings and events.
Take the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke for example.  They include many supernatural elements, both supernatural beings (angels), and supernatural events (virgin birth, a star that guides people to a specific location).  These supernatural elements are one reason for doubting the historicity of these stories, but there are other reasons as well.  The Gospels of Matthew and Luke use Mark as a primary source of information about Jesus, but there is no birth story in Mark.  When Matthew and Luke follow the narrative framework in Mark, they generally agree with each other, but when they provide birth stories, their stories contradict each other, indicating that when they depart from the information in Mark, at least one of the two Gospels provides a fictional birth story, and perhaps both birth stories are fictional.
There are also some historically improbable details in both accounts beyond the supernatural elements.  The census in Luke is historically improbable for various reasons.  The slaughter of the innocents story in Matthew is historically improbable.  The relocation of the holy family to Egypt is historically improbable.  The fact that both Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in accordance with an alleged messianic prophecy, casts doubt on the historicity of that key shared claim between the two birth stories.
So, the rejection of the birth stories as legends or myths is not based ONLY on the fact that these stories are filled with supernatural elements.  There are other good reasons that point to the same conclusion.  Similar reasoning applies to skepticism about other parts of the Gospels.
Hinman’s third principle of historical investigation is a bit vague:
P3. What people believed tells us things, even if we don’t believe it.
I’m not sure what Hinman is getting at here, but taken straightforwardly, this principle seems obviously correct.  Using an historical document to determine what early Christians believed about God or Jesus “tells us things”, even if the historian rejects some or all of those beliefs.  At the very least, this tells us what early Christians believed about God or Jesus!  
This information about the beliefs of early Christians can also help historians to better analyze and evaluate particular Gospel stories and passages.  If early Christians believed that Jesus lived a perfectly sinless life, then historians could anticipate and look for places where the Gospels of Matthew and Luke modify some story or passage from Mark in order to make Jesus appear to be sinless, and to the extent that historians do find such modifications of Mark by Matthew and Luke, this provides further evidence that early Christians believed Jesus was sinless and also provides evidence that Matthew and Luke alter information from their sources to make the story or quotation fit better with their theological beliefs or the theological beliefs of their early Christian readers.
One of the things that the Gospels tell us is that early Christians were gullible and superstitious, at least if we assume that early Christian believers read the Gospels literally.  They believed in astrological signs, in angels, in demons, in demon possession, in the devil, in faith healing, in prophetic dreams, in levitation, in mind reading, in spirits of the dead, in raising the dead, in prophecy.  They believed all of these things without demanding strong evidence for claims of such events; they believed such things on the basis of hearsay and testimonial evidence,  on the basis of contradictory reports in the canonical Gospels, and without conducting serious skeptical investigations into the facts.  This is an important fact about early Christians that we can learn from reading the Gospels.  We can learn of the gullibility of early Christian believers even if we reject some or all of the beliefs that they formed in gullible and uncritical ways.
We can also learn that the early Christians were either not particularly good at logical and critical thinking or else were generally ignorant about the contents of the OT, because they were not skeptical about Jesus being a true prophet and the divine Son of God in spite of the various contradictions between Christian doctrines and the teachings of the Old Testament (e.g. OT: God rewards those who obey his commandments with wealth, health, peace and happiness in this life, but provides only a dark and miserable afterlife for good and evil people alike.  NT: God allows people who have faith in him and Jesus to suffer poverty, disease, hunger, and persecution in this life, but will provide a life of eternal bliss to those people in the next life.)
That early Christians were not particularly good at logical and critical thinking is also supported by their acceptance of various logical contradictions within Christian theology (e.g. For God so loved the world that God planned to send most humans to suffer torture in hell for all eternity).  Of course it is possible that a few early Christians were bothered by such contradictions, but not enough were bothered so that there would be apologetic points on these issues built into the Gospels (or the letters of Paul).
That early Christians were not particularly good at logical and critical thinking is also supported by their apparent acceptance of unclarity of Jesus’ teachings and the teachings of Paul on central issues (e.g.  “What must I do to be saved?”  Protestants disagree with Catholics on the answer to this fundamental question, and Protestants disagree with each other on the answer to this fundamental question.  These disagreements between various Christian denominations are the result of the unclarity and inconsistencies in the teachings of Jesus, in the teachings of Paul, and inconsistencies between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul.).
We can, however, also learn things that help the case for an historical Jesus.  If the Gospels and other early Christian writings show that Christians viewed the crucifixion of Jesus as something that was very shameful, then that could provide evidence in support of the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus.  Why invent a story about the death of Jesus that is so shameful?  I don’t necessarily accept this argument from embarassment, but it is an example of how knowledge about the beliefs of early Christians can be used in support of the historicity of Jesus or of a particular event in the life (or death) of Jesus.
The fourth principle that Hinman advocates is quite brief:
P4. Everyone is biased.
Based on Hinman’s discussion of (P4) and (P5) it appears that this principle is given in part as a reply to an objection about an alleged bias of scholars on the issue of the historicity of Jesus.  Here are two plausible claims about NT scholars along such lines:

  • The vast majority of NT scholars have a significant bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus.
  • Most NT scholars have a strong bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus. 

So, one question to keep in mind is whether (P4) provides a strong reply to such criticisms about NT scholars.
The principle (P4) is a bit vague and ambiguous.  Here are a couple of different possible interpretations of (P4):
P4a. Everyone has a bias on some issue or other.
P4b. For any given theory, everyone is either biased in favor of the theory or biased against the theory.
Principle (P4a) is no doubt true, but it is insignificant and unhelpful in this context, because it leaves open the possibility that some people have a bias when it comes to the issue of the historicity of Jesus and other people do NOT have a bias on this issue.  Because (P4a) leaves this possibility open, it does not help us any in dealing with this particular issue; it fails to provide a strong reply to the above criticisms about NT scholars.
Principle (P4b) on the other hand, would certainly be of some significance to the issue of the historicity of Jesus, but, alas, (P4b) is a very broad generalization that is clearly false.  So, principle (P4b) is of no use, and fails to provide a strong reply to the above criticisms of NT scholars, because (P4b) is false.
We could try to rescue (P4b) by narrowing the scope to focus exclusively on the issue of the historicity of Jesus:
P4c. Everyone is either biased in favor of the historicity of Jesus or is biased against the historicity of Jesus.
But (P4c) is still somewhat dubious.  The issue of the historicity of Jesus is more controversial than many other issues, but controversiality is based on the feelings and attitudes of people in general, and there are almost always exceptions to such general psychological phenomena.  In other words, although most people have strong feelings about this issue, it seems fairly certain that there are at least a few people who don’t have strong feelings or opinions about the historicity of Jesus.  So, in order to rescue the (P4c) in terms of truth, we would need to either qualify the degree of bias that is being asserted or revise the quantification in terms of the proportion of people in scope:
P4d.  Everyone is either biased at least a tiny bit in favor of the historicity of Jesus or biased at least a tiny bit against the historicity of Jesus.
P4e.  Most people are either significantly biased in favor of the historicity of Jesus or significantly biased against the historicity of Jesus.
These generalizations are at least plausible.  However, (P4d) leaves open the possibility that some people (e.g. NT scholars) have a strong bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus, while other people (e.g. Jesus skeptics) have only a tiny bit of bias against the historicity of Jesus.  This would clearly not help Hinman’s case for the existence of Jesus, and fails to provide a strong reply to the above criticsims about NT scholars.
Also, (P4e) leaves open the possibility that some people (e.g. NT scholars) have a strong bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus, while a few people (e.g. Jesus skeptics) have no significant bias on this issue.  Again, this would not be of help for Hinman’s case, and fails to provide a strong reply to the criticisms of NT scholars.
I have considered a number of different possible interpretations of principle (P4).  The principle is false or dubious on some of those interpretations, and on the interpretations where the principle is true or plausible, it is either insignificant and unhelpful or appears to be of no help to Hinman’s case, and fails to provide a strong reply to the above criticisms of NT scholars.
If Hinman wants to continue to advocate this principle, he needs to clarify it in terms of the quantification of the portion of people who are being characterized and he needs to clarify it in terms of the scope of issues to which it applies, and he needs to clarify it in terms of the degree of bias that is being alleged (because there is a big difference between a strong bias and a very tiny bit of bias).  Principle (P4) cannot be rationally evaluated unless and until it is re-stated in a much clearer and more specific form.
As with (P4), the final principle is in need of clarification:
P5. The historicity of a single persona cannot be examined apart from the framework.
What matters in this context is whether this principle applies to (or is correct in terms of) the issue of the historicity of Jesus, so we can focus on this instantiation of (P5): ”
IP5. The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be examined apart from the framework.
The term “the framework” is unclear and vague.  However, based on Hinman’s discussion of this principle, this phrase appears to refer to the view or theory that Jesus existed, that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person.  Given this understanding of “the framework”, the principle is still ambiguous.  Here are two different possible interpretations:
IP5a. The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be examined apart from assuming that Jesus of Nazareth was a flesh-and-blood historical person.
IP5b. The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be examined apart from examining the issue of  whether Jesus of Nazareth was a flesh-and-blood historical person.
Principle (IP5a) clearly involves circular reasoning.  If one simply assumes that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person, then one begs the question of the historicity of Jesus.  So, we must reject (IP5a) because it is an unreasonable and illogical principle.
Principle (IP5b), on the other hand, is completely and undeniably true.  But it is true because it is a trivial and uninformative tautology.  The question of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth just is the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was a flesh-and-blood historical person.  So, this principle is of no significant help or use (other than to clarify the question at issue for those who are ignorant or confused).
There is one other interpretation, which seems both plausible and significant:
IP5c. The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be examined apart from treating this question as a question about which framework or theory among available alternatives best accounts for all of the available evidence (e.g. the theory that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person vs. the theory that Jesus was just a myth).
Because this interpretation is both plausible and significant, the Principle of Charity indicates that this is the best interpretation, at least of the possible interpretations considered so far.
I have no objection to (IP5c).  However, it is obvious to any intelligent and informed Jesus skeptic that (IP5c) is true, and intelligent and informed Jesus skeptics usually think and argue in keeping with (IP5c).  G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty,  Robert Price, and Richard Carrier all accept this principle and they all think and argue in keeping with this principle, at least most of the time.  So, emphasis on this principle appears to me to be bordering on a STRAW MAN fallacy.
Jesus skeptics do NOT argue that because this or that Gospel story is historically problematic, therefore Jesus is just a myth.  The case against the historicity of Jesus is much broader than that and deals with a wide range of evidence both from the NT and from external (non-biblical) historical sources. Emphasis of this principle is a way of suggesting that Jesus skeptics and Jesus mythicists are idiots who don’t think and argue in keeping with this principle, but that suggestion is false and slanderous.  There are some stupid and unreasonable Jesus skeptics, but the major published Jesus skeptics accept (IP5c) and generally conform their thinking to this principle.

bookmark_borderDebate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 4

QUESTION 1: What is Hinman’s Central Claim about Josephus?
There are two famous passages in a book by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that appear to refer to Jesus.  Joe Hinman wants to focus on the “brother passage”, the passage in Antiquities that mentions a person named “James” and refers to him as “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ”. (Antiquities 20,200).
After a brief introductory paragraph, Hinman quotes the “brother passage”
But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.  (emphasis is from Hinman’s web article)
After quoting the “brother passage” Hinman quotes a comment from the Josephus scholar Louis Feldman about the passage:
That indeed, Josephus did say something about Jesus is indicated, above all, by the passage–the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged–about James, who is termed…the brother of “the aforementioned Christ”… (from the Introduction in Feldman, Louis H. & Hata, Gohey “Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity”, page 56)
From this quoting of Feldman,  I infer that the key claim in Hinman’s argument from Josephus is this:
(1) The passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been altered by a copyist or editor).
This is Hinman’s central claim about Josephus.  He chose to focus on this passage about Jesus rather than the  more interesting Testimonium Flavianum (hereafter: TF) passage , because the “brother passage does not have the kind of doubt, or attack, or charges of forgery” that is associated with the TF passage.  There is less controversy about the authenticity of the “brother passage”, so Hinman bases his argument from Josephus on the authenticity of this passage.
QUESTION 2: What is the Logic of Hinman’s Argument from Josephus?
As with Hinman’s argument from Polycarp, my initial objection is that his argument is incomplete.  Hinman fails to explain how it is that his key premise (1)  supports a conclusion about the existence of Jesus.  However, it seems to me that the missing premises and reasoning are more obvious and less obviously mistaken than in the case of his argument from Polycarp.  I think the following unstated intermediate conclusion is very likely to be a part of Hinman’s argument/reasoning:
(2) There existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
From this intermediate conclusion, a further conclusion logically follows:
(3) Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
Although it would beg the question to simply assert the truth of premise (2),  Hinman is not guitly of that fallacy here, because premise (1) appears to provide evidence in support of premise (2), and asserting the truth of (1) does NOT beg the question at issue.
However, it is important to note that although (2) entails (3),  (1) does NOT entail (2), which is why this argument does not beg the question at issue.  Premise (1) only provides evidence for premise (2); it does not provide a deductive proof of (2).  So, it would be clearer and more accurate to modify and re-state premise (2) and the conclusion (3) in terms of probability:
(1) The passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been significantly altered by a copyist or editor).
THUS:
(2A) It is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
THEREFORE:
(3A) It is probable that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
Even with the addition of the intermediate conclusion (2A), this argument is still incomplete.  But the missing premise is a “warrant” premise (call it the “Josephus Warrant” or JW) that asserts that the truth of (1) proves or supports the truth of (2A):
(JW) IF the passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been significantly altered by a copyist or editor), THEN it is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. 
It is the combination of premise (1) and (JW) that provides support for (2A).  Hinman did not argue for premise (JW), but if I am correct that his reasoning involves the intermediate conclusion (2A), then he needs for (JW) to be true or correct in order for his argument to be successful.
Perhaps Hinman believes that (JW) is obviously true and thus it is not in need of  supporting evidence or reasoning. Since (JW) is not obviously false and not obviously problematic,  I’m comfortable with attributing this argument to Hinman even though he did not clearly and explicitly state this argument in his post on Josephus.  I believe that this is a reasonable “educated guess” at the argument Hinman had in mind concerning the external evidence of Josephus.
It is also the case that Hinman provides very little evidence in support of his primary factual premise (1).  The link to more in-depth discussion of the Josephus evidence points to an article that makes no attempt to support premise (1):
It is not the purpose of this article to address the arguments of the few commentators-mostly Jesus Mythologists-who doubt the authenticity of the second reference [to Jesus]. (from the first sentence of the section called “The Testimonium Flavianum” in the web article “Did Josephus Refer to Jesus?” by Christopher Price)
QUESTION 3:  Is the “brother passage” in Antiquities Authentic?
A. Christian Copyists Altered their Own Sacred Scriptures
We know that Christian copyists made many alterations to the Greek text of the New Testament documents, both intentionally and unintentionally, even though those documents were considered to be sacred scripture by many Christians.  Bart Ehrman provides several examples of alterations by Christian copyists to NT texts in his book Misquoting Jesus, and he makes the following relevant comment in the concluding chapter:
…whatever else we may say about the Christian scribes–whether of the early centuries or of the Middle Ages–we have to admit that in addition to copying scripture, they were changing scripture.  Sometimes they didn’t mean to–they were simply tired, or inattentive, or, on occasion, inept. At other times, though, they did mean to make changes, as when they wanted the text to emphasize precisely what they themselves believed, for example about the nature of Christ, or about the role of women in the church, or about the wicked character of their Jewish opponents.
This conviction that scribes had changed scripture became an increasing certitude for me as I studied the text more and more. (Misquoting Jesus, p.210)
For examples supporting this view, see Chapter 2 (“The Copyists of Early Christian Writings”) and Chapter 6 (“Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text”) of Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman.
Surely, if Christian editors and copyists altered the texts of their own sacred scriptures, they would be likely to alter the texts of a Jewish historian as well.
B. Christians Clearly Altered (or Created) the Only Other Passage about Jesus in Antiquities 
Robert Van Voorst describes the views of modern scholars about the TF passage:
While a few scholars still reject it fully and even fewer accept it fully, most now prefer two middle positions.  The first middle position reconstructs an authentic Josephan passage neutral towards Jesus, and the second reconstructs an authentic passage negative toward Jesus.  (JONT, p.93)
The viewpoints in order of descending acceptance by modern scholars:

  1. Middle Positions (most scholars believe that Christians made a few alterations to the TF passage).
  2. Full Rejection (a few scholars believe that Christians created the whole passage, or that it is simply not possible to determine what parts of the passage were originally written by Josephus).
  3. Full Acceptance (a very few scholars believe the entire passage is authentic, that all of the passage was written by Josephus).

All but a very few scholars have concluded that the TF passage was either partially or completely the creation of Christians.  There are only two passages that refer to Jesus in Antiquities, the other passage being the “brother passage”.  So, it is reasonable to conclude that Christians altered (or created) the TF passage, the only other passage about Jesus besides the “brother passage”.  This background information suggests that it is likely that Christian copyists also altered the “brother passage”.
C.  The Oldest Greek Manuscripts of Antiquities are from Long After Christians Altered the Text
According to John Meier, “we have only three Greek manuscripts of Book 18 [which contains the Testimonium Flavianum passage] of The Antiquities, the earliest of which dates from the 11th century.”  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.62).  But Eusebius quoted from the altered version of the TF early in the fourth century, so the Christian alterations were made in the second or third centuries:
The first witness to this passage as it stands now is from Eusebius in about 323 (Ecclesiastical History 1.11). (JONT, p.92)
This means that textual criticism is of no help in determining the authenticity of the TF:
Because the few manuscipts of Josephus come from the eleventh century,  long after Christian interpolations  would have been made, textual criticism cannot help to solve this issue. ..We are left to examine the context, style, and content of this passage to judge its authenticity. (JONT, p.88-89).
Examiniation of context, style, and content of the “brother passage”, however, cannot provide sufficient reason to be fully confident that no alterations were made to this passage by Christian copyists.  So, if small changes by copyists could make a big difference to the significance of this passage as evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, then premise (1) of Hinman’s argument would be cast into serious doubt.
D.  Small Changes to the “brother passage” by Christian Copyists Would Make a Big Difference
If the entire “brother passage” was invented by a Christian copyist, then obviously the passage would be a complete fake and provide no evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth whatsoever.
However, if the passage was NOT completely fake, but has been modified slightly by the addition of a phrase or two, then the evidence provided by the passage could be seriously diminished or even eliminated.

  • If the phrase “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” was added by a Christian copyist, then the passage provides no significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, even if the rest of the passage was authentic.
  • If the original passage mentioned “the brother of the so-called Christ” and a Christian copyist added the name “Jesus” to that phrase, then the passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “James” was a very common Jewish name, and because there have been many Jews who claimed to be the Messiah or who were believed by others to be the Messiah.
  • If the original passage included the phrase “the brother of Jesus” but said nothing about Jesus being “the so-called Christ”,  then this passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “James” and “Jesus” were both common Jewish names at that time.
  • If the original passage included the phrase “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” but a Christian copyist added the phrase “whose name was James” to this passage, then the passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “Jesus” was a common Jewish name, and because there have been many Jews who claimed to be the Messiah or who were believed by others to be the Messiah.

The “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth only if the phrase “the brother of Jesus” AND the phrase  “the so-called Christ” AND the phrase “whose name was James” are all authentic, only if ALL THREE of these phrases were in the original text of Antiquities written by Josephus.
E. The Difficulty of Determining the Authenticity & Significance of the “brother passage” given the Above Facts
Given that Christian copyists altered the texts of their own sacred scriptures, and given that Christian copyists have clearly altered (or possibly created) the TF passage in Antiquities, it is probable that Christian copyists also altered (or possibly created) the only other passage in Antiquities that refers to Jesus: the “brother passage”.
Furthermore, the most crucial evidence for determining whether any alterations were made to the “brother passage” is unavailable: the only Greek manuscript copies that we have were made many centuries after the TF passage was altered by Christian copyists (and presumably many centuries after the “brother passage” was altered, if it had been altered).  Finally, since the evidence provided by the “brother passage” would be seriously diminished if just one of the three key phrases had been added by a Christian copyist, this passage can be viewed as providing significant evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth ONLY IF we can be very confident that NONE of the three key phrases was added by a Christian coyist.
Given that the general background evidence indicates that it is probable that a Christian copyist altered the “brother passage”, and given that the crucially important evidence needed to determine whether this passage is completely authentic is unavailable (no early Greek manuscript copies of The Antiquities are available), and given that the addition of a single word (“Jesus”) or one phrase (“the brother of Jesus” or “the so-called Christ” or “whose name is James”) by a Christian copyist would seriously diminish the strength of the evidence that this passage provides for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth,  I see no rational way to be very confident that the “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.  Considerations about context, style, and content of the “brother passage” will simply not be able to provide a rational basis for being very confident that NONE of the three key phrases was added by a Christian copyist.
F. IF the TF Passage Is Completely Inauthentic, THEN the “brother passage” is Probably NOT Completely Authentic
The majority view among modern scholars who study Josephus is that the TF passage is partially authentic, but not completely authentic.  The majority view is that Christian copyists made a few significant additions or changes to that passage.  Given this view, I have argued that it is probable that the “brother passage” was also altered by Christian copyists.  So, that is one way in which a judgment about the authenticity of the TF passage impacts our judgement about the authenticity of the “brother passage”.
But there are other possibilities concerning the TF passage.  Some scholars argue that the TF passage is completely inauthentic, that all or nearly all of the passage was created by Christian editors or copyists.  If these scholars are correct, then that would make it very probable that the “brother passage” was not completely authentic.  As Hinman points out,  the authenticity of the “brother passage” is evidence for the authenticity of the TF passage:
Josephus refers to James by referencing Jesus as though he’s mentioned Jesus or the reader should know who he is.  Jewish scholar Paul Winters states: “if…Josephus referred to James as being ‘the brother of Jesus who is called Christ,’ without much ado, we have to assume that in an earlier passage he had already told his readers about Jesus himself.”
In other words, if Josephus refers to “Jesus” in the “brother passage” without providing an explanation of who this “Jesus” person was, then this implies (or makes it very probable) that Josephus had referred to “Jesus” in the earlier TF passage.  But in that case, if the TF passage was completely inauthentic, as some scholar argue, then this would be significant evidence that the “brother passage” was NOT completely authentic.  This would be evidence that the reference to “Jesus” in the “brother passage” was added AFTER the creation and insertion of the TF passage, so that the writer composing the “brother passage” could refer back to the TF passage.  But if the writer composing the “brother passage” is referring back to a completely inauthentic TF passage, that means that the writer of the “brother passage” was not Josephus, but was instead, a  copyist (whether Christian or non-Christian) who was preserving a text that had previously been altered by a Christian copyist to include the TF passage.  The complete inauthenticity of the TF passage would thus imply (or make very probable) that the “brother passage” is not completely authentic.
G. If the Reference to “Christ” was Inserted into TF, then the “brother passage” is probably NOT Completely Authentic.
A similar issue arises even if we assume that the TF passage was partially authentic.  One of the two “Middle Positions” taken by modern scholars who study Josephus is that the original TF passage was neutral and Christian copyists simply inserted a few phrases. The leading Jesus scholar John Meier argues for a neutral re-construction of the TF passage, in which the sentence “He was the Christ.” is removed (along with some other phrases and sentences) on the assumption that this sentence was added by a Christian copyist.
But if this neutral reconstruction of the TF passage is correct, then the part of the “brother passage” that refers to Jesus as “the so-called Christ” is suspect, because the previous mention of Jesus in the TF did not use the term “Christ” to describe or identify the “Jesus” in that passage.  Since “Jesus” was a common Jewish name in that time, the absence of the term “Christ” in the TF passage would make it unclear that the “Jesus” in the “brother passage” was the same person as the “Jesus” in the TF passage.  Thus, it seems unlikely that Josephus would write about “Jesus the so-called Christ” and expect his non-Christian Gentile readers to know that he was referring back to the same “Jesus” that he had mentioned in the TF passage.
There is a good chance that the neutral view of the TF passage is correct.  But if that view is correct, then the TF passage did not refer to Jesus as “the Christ” nor as “the so-called Christ”.   But in that case, it seems likely that the phrase “Jesus the so-called Christ” in the “brother passage” was not written by Josephus, but was added later by a Christian copyist AFTER the TF passage was altered to refer to Jesus as “the Christ” (or after it was altered to refer to Jesus as “the so-called Christ”).
Once again, a judgment about the authenticity of the TF passage has implications for judging the authenticity of the “brother passage”.  Even if we assume that the TF passage was partially authentic, there is a good chance that the original TF passage did not refer to Jesus as “the Christ” and this would in turn cast significant doubt on the hypothesis that the “brother passage” was completely authentic.
H. If the Reference to “Jesus” was Inserted into TF, then the “brother passage” is probably NOT Completely Authentic.
Given that the vast majority of modern scholars who study Josephus have concluded either that the TF passage is partially inauthentic or that it is completely inauthentic,  that  either some parts of the TF passage were created by a Christian copyist or that the entire  passage was created by a Christian copyist, there is a good chance that the name “Jesus” was inserted into the TF passage by a Christian copyist.  But if that was the case, then that would cast doubt on they hypothesis that the “brother passage” reference to “Jesus” was authentic.
In the “brother passage” Josephus refers to James as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ”, but provides no other expalnation to his non-Christian gentile readers about this “Jesus” person.  This makes no sense unless Josephus had previousl mentioned “Jesus” and previously provided more information about this “Jesus”.   If the original TF passage did not explicitly refer to “Jesus”, then it is highly unlikely that Josephus would assume that his non-Christian gentile readers would understand the “Jesus” mentioned in the “brother passage” to be the same person that he had previously mentioned in the TF passage.  Therefore, if the original TF passage did not explicitly refer to “Jesus”, then this would cast serious doubt on the hypothesis that the “brother passage” was completely authentic, and it would specifically cast doubt on the view that the original “brother passage” contained an explicit reference to “Jesus”.
QUESTION 4:  Is the Information in the “brother passage” INDEPENDENT of the NT writings?
A.  Authenticity is NOT Enough
There is a serious problem with the logic of Hinman’s argument, or at least with the argument that I attributed to Hinman (in response to Question 2 above).  Although establishing the authenticity of the “brother passage” is necessary in order to support his conclusion, it is NOT sufficient.  There are other important questions that must be considered.
One important question is about the source of the information that Jospehus presents in the “brother passage”.  If this information came either directly or indirectly from the Gospels or from other New Testament writings (e.g. the letters of Paul), then the “brother passage” does not provide evidence for the existence of Jesus that is INDEPENDENT from the New Testament.  If the “brother passage” does not provide evidence that is independent from the NT, then it does not count as external evidence for the existence of Jesus, but is merely an echo of the evidence from the NT.
B. Antiquities was Written AFTER the Gospels and the Letter of Paul to the Galatians
Josephus wrote The Antiquities in either 93 or 94 CE.  Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians about  50 to 55 CE.  The gospel of Mark was probably written about 70 CE, and the gospel of Matthew was probably written about 85 CE.  Thus Josephus wrote the “brother passage” about 40 years after Paul wrote to the Galations, about 25 years after the gospel of Mark was written, and about a decade after the gospel of Matthew was written.  Each of these NT documents states or implies that Jesus of Nazareth had a brother named James, and that some Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah or “the Christ”:
55 CE:
but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:19, New Revised Standard Version)
70 CE:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.  (Mark 6:3, New Revised Standard Version)

85 CE:

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  (Matthew 13:55, New Revised Standard Version)

Josephus could have learned the idea that there was a man named Jesus who was the brother of a man named James, and who was believed by some Jews to be the Messiah or “the Christ” from reading the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of Matthew.  He could have learned this “information” years before composing the “brother passage”.   If Josephus learned this “information” from reading one of these Christian writings, then the information would have come directly from the NT and thus the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Any Christian who read (or heard someone else read) the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of Matthew would have reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the brother of a man named James and that some Jews believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah or “the Christ”, based on these authoratative writings that many Christians viewed as inspired scripture. Josephus could have learned these ideas from one or more Christian believers who had read one or more of these two gospels or Paul’s letter to the Galations.  If Josephus learned this “information” from such Christian believers, then these ideas in the “brother passage” would have come indirectly from the writings of the NT and the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Furthermore, a non-Christian friend or acquaintance of Josephus could have learned these ideas from either reading one of the canonical gospels or from reading the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or from conversations with Christian believers who had read Mark or Matthew or the letter to the Galatians.  If this non-Christian person then passed this “information” on to Josephus, then the ideas in the “brother passage” would have come indirectly from the writings of the NT and thus the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
C.  The Information in the “brother passage” could have Come from More than One Source
Just as it is important to recognize that the TF passage could be partially authentic and partially inauthentic, so it is also important to recognize that the “brother passage” could be partially independent of the NT and partially dependent on the NT.  The death of James the brother of Jesus is not described in the NT, so clearly the basic story in the “brother passage” did not come from the NT.  However, it is possible that the idea that James was “the brother of Jesus” and that Jesus was “called the Christ” could have come from the NT, could be dependent on someone having read one or more writings from the NT.
Josephus could have had a story about a man “whose name was James” from a non-Christian source who obtained this information independent of the NT.  But if Josephus wanted more information about this person named “James”, he could have obtained this additional information from a Christian source (who had read or heard Mark, Matthew, or Galatians), or from a non-Christian acquaintance who obtained information from reading Mark, Matthew, or Galatians or from conversations with a Christian (who had read or heard Mark, Matthew, or Galatians).  In this case, even if the entire phrase “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ” was written by Josephus, this part of the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence of the existence of Jesus, even though the passage as a whole does provide some historical information that is independent of the NT.
D.  There is a Significant Chance that the “brother passage” is Partially DEPENDENT on the New Testament 
Because there is a significant chance that both references to “Jesus” in Antiquities are either directly or indirectly dependent on the writings of the NT, the NT scholar Bart Ehrman concludes that these references to Jesus fail to provide significant evidence for the existence of Jesus:
My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared-down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter  for the question I am pursuing here.  Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this.  And here is why.  Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium.  That would show that by 93 CE–some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death–a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him.  And where would Josephus have derived this information?  He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation.  There is nothing to suggest that Josephus had actually read the Gospels (he almost certainly had not) or that he did any kind of primary research into the life of Jesus by examining Roman records of some kind (there weren’t any).  But as we will see later, we already know for lots of other reasons and on lots of other grounds that there were stories about Jesus floating around in Palestine by the end of the first century and much earlier.  So even if the Testimonium, in the pared-down form, was written by Josephus, it does not give us much more evidence than we already have on the question of whether there really was a man Jesus.  (Did Jesus Exist, p.65)
Ehrman believes that the references to “Jesus” by Josephus fail to provide significant evidence for the existence of Jesus even though it is Ehrman’s purpose in the book quoted above to refute Jesus Mythicists and to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.  Ehrman does not reject these passages from Josephus in order to support the belief that Jesus is a myth; he rejects them because there is a good chance that the information about Jesus in those passages is DEPENDENT on one or more of the writings of the NT.
Robert Van Voorst is an NT scholar who has also carefully studied the external evidence for Jesus, including the two passages by Josephus that refer to Jesus.  Van Voorst is much more positive about this evidence that Ehrman is,  but Van Voorst is honest enough to admit that his positive evaluation of the external evidence from Josephus rests on a somewhat shaky assumption, the assumption that the information Josephus had about Jesus was obtained INDEPENDENTLY of the writings of the NT:
These items rule out Josephus’s obtaining this wording [in the TF passage], and probably the information behind it, from the New Testament or other early Christian writings known to us.  (JONT, p.102-103, emphasis added)
The evidence only “probably” rules out the hypothesis that Josephus obtained the information about Jesus in these passages from the New Testament or other early Christian writings.  Van Voorst does not assert that the evidence “certainly” rules this out, nor that it “almost certainly” rules this out, nor that it “very probably” rules this out.   Thus, Van Voorst tacitly admits that there is a significant chance that Josephus obtained his information about Jesus from the New Testament.
Further comments by Van Voorst reinforce his admission of the shakiness of the assumption that the TF passage and the “brother passage” contain independent historical information about Jesus:
Did this information [about Jesus] come indirectly from Christians or others to Josephus? We can be less sure about this [i.e. we can be less sure about ruling this out than ruling out that Josephus obtained the information about Jesus by reading some of the NT writings himself]althought the totality of the evidence points away from it.  (JONT, p.103, emphasis added)
A more plausible hypothesis is that Josephus gained his knowledge of Christianity when he lived in Palestine.  He supplemented it in Rome, as the words “to this day” may imply, where there was a significant Christian presence.  Whether Josephus aquired his data by direct encounter with Christians, indirect information from others about their movement, or some combination of both, we cannot tell.  John Meier is correct to conclude that none of these potential sources is verifiable, yet the evidence points to the last option as the more commendable.  (JONT, p.102, emphasis added).
If “we cannot tell” whether Josephus aquired his data by “direct encounter with Christians” or not, then this implies that there is a significant chance that Josephus aquired some of his data by “direct encounter with Christians”, some of whom were very likely to have read or heard either the gospel of Mark, the gospel of Matthew, or the letter to the Galatians.
If “the more commendable” view is that Josephus obtained his data from “some combination of both,” meaning that Josephus obtained part of his data “by direct encounter with Christians” as well as obtaining some of his data “from others [non-Christians] about their movement”, then it is PROBABLE that Josephus obtained at least some of his “information” about Jesus by “direct encounter with Christians”, and thus it is reasonable to conclude that there is a significant chance that ALL of the information about Jesus in the TF passage and the “brother passage” was obtained by “direct encounter with Christians” in which case these passages do NOT provide any INDEPENDENT historical evidence for the existence of Jesus.
QUESTION 5:  Is the Information in the “brother passage” probably true?
If I understand Hinman’s argument correctly, he is trying to provide evidence for an intermediate conclusion about a man named “James”:
(2A) It is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
The fact that Josephus asserted that there was such a man, does not prove that there was such a man.  One can also challenge the assumption that the fact that Josephus asserted that there was such a man is sufficient evidence to show that it is PROBABLE that such a man existed.  Thus, the considerations of authenticity and independence are not sufficient by themselves to show that the “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus.
The following diagram presents a somewhat overly simple analysis of how to approach the evaluation of the “brother passage”, but it illustrates that authenticity and independence are important considerations but are not sufficient for a careful and complete evaluation (click on the image below to get a clearer view of the chart):
Evaluation of BP
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
(This chart is a bit overly simple, because it probably makes sense to ask whether the passage is partially authentic, especially in relation to the three key phrases, and whether the passage is partially independent, and to do so would require a more complex analysis and diagram. )
Even if we assume that 80% of the historical claims that Josephus makes in Antiquities are true claims, this does NOT allow us to confidently conclude of any particular claim made by Josephus in Antiquities that the claim is PROBABLY true.  The problem is that the general reliability of Josephus as an historian and a maker of historical claims can be over-ridden by specific information relevant to a particular claim made by Josephus in Antiquities.   So, at best, we can only conclude that a given claim by Josephus in Antiquities is probably true OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL.  But then we need to think about in the case of the three key phrases/claims, whether other things are in fact equal.
Furthermore, it is entirely possible that the information that a man named “James” was “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” was included in the original passage written by Josephus, that this information was obtained completely independently of the NT, and yet that the information is simply mistaken.  Perhaps James was called “the Lord’s brother” by fellow Christian believers (as in Galations 1:19) and this expression was not intended literally, and it simply meant that James was a devout follower of a divine being named “Jesus”.  A non-Christian who heard others refer to James this way might well have mistakenly taken this expression to mean that James was the literal brother of a flesh-and-blood person named “Jesus”, and then passed this on to Josephus as a fact about James. In that case, the “brother passage” would be completely authentic, and it would be completely independent of the NT, and yet it would assert a false claim about this person named “James”, since it wrongly implies that James was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, when he was not.
Clearly, the combination of authenticity and independence is not sufficient by itself to establish that it is PROBABLE that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. Further argumentation is needed to show that Josephus was a reliable historian and that there are no good reasons to doubt the reliability or truth of the three specific phrases/claims that we are concerned with in the “brother passage”:  that the man in question was the literal brother of Jesus,  that his brother Jesus was the so-called Christ, and that the man in question was named James.
CONCLUSION
Given that Christian copyists clearly altered their own sacred scriptures in the same time frame that they were copying the works of Josephus, and given that Christian copyists clearly altered the TF passage, the only other passage in Antiquities that refers to Jesus, it is reasonable to infer that Christian copyists probably also altered the “brother passage”, other things being equal.   Given that the oldest Greek manuscripts that we have of Antiquities were made many centuries after Christian copyists altered the TF passage, and presumably many centuries after Christian copyists altered the “brother passage”, if they did alter that passage too, we don’t have any good way to verify that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and given that if one or two key words or phrases in that passage were added by Christian copyists, that would seriously diminish or even eliminate the force of this evidence for the existence of Jesus, I don’t see any way that one can have sufficient reason to be confident that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and given that there is a good chance that some of the information in the “brother passage” came either directly or indirectly from the NT,  I don’t see how one can be confident that the “brother passage” is completely independent of the writings of the NT.   Finally, even assuming that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and completely independent of the NT, it is not entirely clear  that we ought to conclude that premise (2A) is true.  Further argument is required before that conclusion is rationally justified.

bookmark_borderDebate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 2

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NOTE: This post is now complete, as of 11:25 pm pacific time on Saturday, July 2, 2016.
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The first sentence of Joe Hinman’s argument from the external evidence of Papias makes a very dubious claim:
Papias was the student of the Apostle John.
By this, Hinman means that Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with the Apostle John.
This claim was explicitly rejected by Eusebius, the the first historian of Christianity:
Yet Papias himself, in the preface to his discourses, indicates that he was by no means a hearer or eyewitness of the holy apostles, but shows by the language he uses that he received the matters of the faith from those who had known them… (Church History 3.39 quoted in: The Apostolic Fathers, edited & revised by Michael Holmes, p.563)
Hinman quotes from the Anchor Bible Dictionary article by William Schoedel on “Papias (PERSON)”.  In that article Schoedel agrees with the view of Eusebius that Papias was NOT an “eyewitness of the holy apostles”:
Eusebius already doubted the reality of a connection between Papias and the apostle John on the grounds that Papias himself in the preface to his book distinguished the apostle John from John the presbyter and seems to have had significant contact only with John the presbyter and a certain Aristion (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-7). …Eusebius’ analysis of the preface is probably correct…
Schoedel is not the only scholar who accepts the view of Eusebius.  An N.T. scholar who has looked carefully into this issue has also concluded that Papias did not have direct contact with John the apostle.  Richard Bauckham has examined this issue and provided a careful translation of the passage from Eusebius that quotes from the preface of Papias’ book:
I shall not hesitate also to put into ordered form for you, along with the interpretations, everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down carefully, for the truth of which I vouch. For unlike most people I took no pleasure in those who told many different stories, but only in those who taught the truth. Nor did I take pleasure in those who reported their memory of someone else’s commandments, but only in those who reported their memory of the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the Truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders arrived, I made enquiries about the words of the elders – [that is] what [according to the elders] Andrew or Peter said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples [said], and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from the books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice. ( Papias and the Gospels” by Richard Bauckham, October 6, 2012, p.11.  Phrases in brackets were provided by Bauckham as part of his translation of the passage.)
Bauckham provides this footnote about the translation of this passage:

My translation. Compared with my translation in Jesus, 15-16, based largely on Lightfoot, Harmer and Holmes, this is a more careful translation that embodies in a number of ways what I consider to be my better understanding of the passage in the light of further study.
Based on Bauckham’s translation and interpretation of this passage, Papias implies that there are several layers between him and Jesus (click on the image below for a clearer view of the chart):
Chain of Tradition
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
That there were at least this many layers between Jesus and Papias makes perfect sense, given that Papias was probably writing between 110 and 130 CE.  If we suppose that there was an average of twenty-five years for each succeeding generation of Christian- tradition keepers, this puts Papias as receiving the Christian oral traditions about Jesus and the apostles shortly before 110 CE (click on the image below for a clearer view of the chart):
 25-Year Generational Cycle
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Given that “John the Elder” is presumably a member of the group called “the elders”,  this implies that “John the Elder” received his information about Jesus from the apostles, just like the other people referred to as “the elders”, and NOT directly from Jesus.
In addition to probably being a member of the group called “the elders”, who received oral traditions “from” the apostles, the person “John the Elder” is presumably situated a couple of generations prior to Papias, and based on the reasonable estimate of a 25-year cycle for passing oral traditions on to the next generation of Christian-tradition keepers, this puts “John the Elder” and other elders (such as Aristion) chronologically about halfway between Jesus and Papias in the chain of Christian-tradition keepers.
So, we have at least two good reasons for doubting the claim that “John the Elder” (and Aristion) had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.  Thus, we have good reason to suspect that (assuming that “John the Elder” and Aristion are being called “the Lord’s disciples”)  the expression “the Lord’s disciples” does not logically imply that they had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.
Presumably (in the view of Papias), the apostles had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, and Papias is claiming to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with people “who had been in attendance on the elders” or (based on the translation Hinman provides) with people  each of whom “had been a follower of the elders”.
But it is unclear whether “a follower of the elders” had face-to-face conversations with the elders, and it is unclear whether the elders had face-to-face conversations with the apostles.   For a decade of my life,  I considered myself to be a “follower” of Jesus, and a “disciple” of Jesus, but I never had a face-to-face conversation with Jesus, at least not with a physical, flesh-and-blood historical Jesus.  At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus commands his closest followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  Clearly, Jesus did not expect to have physical, face-to-face conversations with every convert to Christianity.  Jesus believed that a person could be a “follower” or “disciple” of a man who was unavailable for face-to-face conversations.
In the book of Acts, Luke says that Saul (who became the apostle Paul) was making “murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” (Acts 9:1, NIV).  But it is clear that Saul was not just persecuting the apostles, but rather anyone who was “among those who call on this name ” (Acts 9:21) [i.e. the name of Jesus].  Saul was persecuting any Jew who converted to the Christian faith.  Most such Jews never had a face-to-face conversation with a physical, flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth.  The expressions “disciple” and “follower” do not, in and of themselves, logically imply the occurance of personal, face-to-face conversations.
We have only a few brief quotes from Papias, and he does not provide a definition or clarification of what he means by “a follower of X”  or “a disciple of X”, so we cannot be sure that these expressions imply that personal, face-to-face conversations occurred between, for example “a follower of the elders” and one or more of “the elders”.   Nor can we be confident that “John the Elder” had personal, face-to-face conversations with the apostles or with Jesus.
If the average generational cycle was 20 years instead of 25 years, then there would be room for an additional generation of “elders” between the apostles and the followers of the elders (click on the image below for a clearer view of the chart):
20-Year Generational Cycle
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Based on Bauckham’s general interpretation of this passage from the preface of the book by Papias, and given the unclarity of whether “followers” or “disciples” implies personal, face-to-face conversations, it is likely that there are either three generations (Apostles–>Elders–>Followers of Elders)  or four generations (Apostles–>1st Generation Elders–>2nd Generation Elders–>Followers of Elders) in the chain of Christian-tradition keepers between the Jesus and Papias.
Hinman admits that there is uncertainty as to whether Papias had contact with John the Apostle or John the Elder or both.  So, he broadens the basic premise of his argument to include both possibilities.
Here is how I would summarize Hinman’s argument concerning Papias (at least initially):
The Argument from the External Evidence of Papias
(1) Either Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle, or Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Elder.
(2) John the Apostle had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.
(3) John the Elder had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.
THEREFORE:
(4) Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.
(5)  If Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, then Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
THEREFORE:
(6) Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
I have already indicated some significant reasons to doubt the truth of premises (1) and (3).
As it stands, this argument clearly begs the question.  In order to know that premise (2) was true, or that premise (3) was true, one would have to first know that Jesus existed, that Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.  So, the assertion of premise (2) begs the question at issue, as does the assertion of premise (3).
But it would be unfair to charge Hinman with the fallacy of begging the question, because he did not clearly and explicitly lay out this argument.  This argument is my attempt to get at the unstated reasoning that bridges the logical gap between (1) and (6).  So, the problem of question-begging points to the need to revise the argument, to attempt to reformulate the argument in a way that does not so clearly and obviously beg the question at issue.  Such a revised version of this argument would more fairly be attributed to Hinman.
Presumably, Hinman would admit the possibility that John the Apostle (or John the Elder) was a deceiver who lied about having had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, when no such conversations had actually taken place.  Presumably, Hinman would also admit the possibility that John the Apostle (or John the Elder) honestly believed that he had had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, but was honestly mistaken about this belief.  Perhaps someone had deceived John the Apostle (or John the Elder) by pretending to be “Jesus of Nazareth” when in fact there was no “Jesus of Nazareth”.
Presumably, Hinman would also admit the possibility that John the Apostle (or John the Elder) communicated truthfully and honestly to Papias about their experiences and memories, but there was a miscommunication or misunderstanding by Papias in which Papias thought that John the Apostle (or John the Elder) was claiming to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, when no such claim had been asserted or intended (e.g. perhaps John the Apostle had visions or dreams about Jesus in which he had conversations with Jesus, and his descriptions of these experiences were misunderstood by Papias as being ordinary memories of physical events).
Hinman would, presumably, admit that these are all possibilities in which his argument would fail, but Hinman would argue that these skeptical scenarios are unlikely, and that it is more likely the case that there was a truthful and accurate claim made by John the Apostle (or John the Elder) to Papias about having had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.
So, the above argument needs to be revised to take into account the idea that Hinman would (presumably) allow the possibility of the various skeptical scenarios that I  just described.  One way to modify the argument for this purpose would be to revise premises (2) and (3) to be about claims made by John the Apostle or John the Elder.  However, if we modify (2) and (3), then we also must modify premises (4) and (5) in order to maintain the logical correctness (validity) of the argument, as well as the conclusion (6):
The Argument from the External Evidence of Papias (Rev. A)
(1) Either Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle, or Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Elder.
(2A) John the Apostle claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.
(3A) John the Elder claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.
THEREFORE:
(4A) Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who had claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.
(5A)  If Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, then it is probable that Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
THEREFORE:
(6A) It is probable that Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
With this revision, however, new problems appear.  Premise (5A) is doubtful.  Just because someone has claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus does not mean that it is probable that this is the case.  To the extent that there were many Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah, the divine Son of God, and the savior of mankind, the claim to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus would have been an easy way to gain favor, power, and influence among those people.
Furthermore, what is the evidence that shows that John the Apostle claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus?  The Gospels assert or imply this was the case, but we don’t know whether John the Apostle read any of the Gospels.  He might well have died before any of the Gospels were written.  Furthermore, even if he had read one or more of the Gospels, we don’t have any good historical evidence indicating that this happened and what his reaction was to those Gospels.  The problem is even more challenging when it comes to “John the Elder”  since we have virtually no information about this person.  So, premises (2A) and (3A) also seem doubtful, thus rasing doubts about premise (4A) which is inferred from (2A) and (3A).
It would be more fair to attribute the Rev. A version of this argument to Hinman than to attribute the initial argument to him.  However, there are various significant problems with the Rev. A version, even though it avoids clearly and obviously begging the question in the way that the initial version of the argument did.  Given the significant problems with the Rev. A version of the argument, and given that this argument was not clearly and explicitly stated by Hinman, I hesitate to attribute it to Hinman.
It might be that Rev. A is the argument Hinman had in mind, but there is a good chance that he had some other argument in mind, some other bit of reasoning to bridge the gap between premise (1) and the conclusion (6A).   I could continue attempting to make adjustments to the above argument, or to generate other potential arguments, but I think it would be more reasonable to throw the ball back into Hinman’s court and ask that he clarify his argument by explaining how it is that (1) is relevant to (6A).  Apart from such clarification, I might just be wasting my time tilting at windmills.
=================
There are a few more points in Hinman’s post on Papias that I want to specifically address.
POINT 1:
Does that [i.e. the view that Papias only had contact with John the Elder and not John the Apostle] weaken the case for the connection to Jesus?  I don’t think so because Aristion and elder John knew Jesus, they are called disciples.  He probably knew both [i.e both “Johns”] but if he only knew they [sic] latter two they were disciples.
The word “disciples” does NOT imply personal, face-to-face conversations with the teacher in question.  Hinman has not provided an argument showing that the word “disciples” has this meaning, nor that Papias uses the word with this meaning.  Given that we have only a few fragments of second-hand quotes of Papias, I doubt that there is sufficient evidence available to construct a plausible argument for this claim.
POINT 2:
There are indications from Eusebius that Papias had extended contact with the Elder John and with other disciples.  Eusebius writes “in his writings he trasmits other narratives of the words of the Lord which came form [sic] the afore mentioned Aristion and others which came from John the Elder”  moreover he goes on, “the elder used to say this also: … ” And here Eusebius is quoting Papias.  This phrase “the elder used to say…” indicates a personal acquaintance in more than one meeting.
The phrase “the elder used to say…” does NOT imply “personal acquaintance” nor does it imply that the speaker had ANY meetings with “the elder”.   This should be fairly obvious, but if not, one can simply refer to a quote from Irenaeus, which was provided by Hinman in his post on Papias:
Just as the Elders who saw John the disciple of the Lord, recalled hearing from him how concerning these times he used to teach that the Lord would say: … (part of a quotation by Hinman from Against Heresies 5.33.3-4, emphasis added)
By Hinman’s logic the phrase “he used to teach that…” implies that Irenaeus had personal, face-to-face conversations with John “the disciple of the Lord” (i.e. John the Apostle).  But clearly, Irenaeus did NOT have any such conversations, and never claimed to have any such conversations.  So, use of the phrase “he used to teach” does NOT imply that Irenaeus had face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle, and use of the phrase “the elder used to say” does NOT imply that Papias had any face-to-face conversations with John the Elder or with Aristion.
POINT 3:
Moreover, he changes tenses when he speaks of Aristion and Elder John, the [sic] he speaks in present tense, as though he’s still in contact with them.
Use of the present tense could indicate that Aristion and John the Elder were still alive at the time that Papias was inquiring the followers of Aristion and John the Elder about their knowledge of the sayings of the Apostles.  The translation by Bauckham says Papias was asking about what Aristion and John the Elder “were saying”, which is compatible with the idea of refering to a time in the past when Papias was inquiring about the words of Aristion and John the Elder who were (at that time in the past) still alive.  That time in the past might be several years  or even a decade prior to the time Papias got around to writing his book.
POINT 4:
…and he [i.e. Papias] moreover asserts that he heard in person Aristion and the presbyter John.  Accordingly he mentions them frequently by name, and in his writings gives their traditions. …  (part of a quote from Eusebius provided by Hinman)
Note that this does not appear to be a quotation of Papias by Eusebius, but rather an interpretation of Papias by Eusebius.  Since we are not given the exact words of Papias, we are being asked to rely on Eusebius to correctly interpret the words of Papias.  But what follows the word “Accordingly” appears to be the reason or reasons that are the basis for this interpretation: “he mentions them frequently by name” and “in his writings gives their traditions”.  If these are the reasons for this inference, then they are weak reasons, and that raises significant doubts about the inference or interpretation provided by Eusebius about what Papias was asserting.  Furthermore, if Papias did in fact have face-to-face conversations with Aristion and John the Elder, we would expect him to have mentioned that in his preface, rather than to imply that he received his information from people who were “followers of the elders”.  So, this is a second reason to doubt the interpretation provided by Eusebius in the above quote.

bookmark_borderThe Debate about Jesus has Begun

The debate between me and Joe Hinman about the existence of Jesus has begun.
We are focusing on just the external (non-biblical) evidence.
Joe has published his positive case for the claim that:
…the external (not in Bible) evidence is strong enough to warrant belief in Jesus’ historicity.
Here is a link to Joe’s initial post that summarizes his positive case:
http://christiancadre.blogspot.hr/2016/06/debate-bradly-bowen-vs-joseph-hinman.html
Joe has divided his case into five arguments, four of which are based on specific external sources:
I. The Talmud
II. Papias
III. Josephus (mainly the brother passage)
IV. Polycarp
V. The web of historicity
I plan to respond to each of these arguments/sources with a separate post here at The Secular Outpost, so I plan to write five posts.
I believe that Joe will respond to my posts over on the Christian CADRE blog.
After Joe responds to my five posts (either with five posts or with one long post), I believe that we will write one more post each to wrap up the debate, summarizing the issues and arguments and what we think the debate has shown.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 5

Because my main objection to a key argument in Chapter 3 of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is a strong and decisive objection (i.e. Ehrman provided ZERO historical facts to support the main historical premise of a key argument),  I have felt some concern that my identification or interpretation of the ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels) might have been incorrect or inaccurate.  In my view, Ehrman is an intelligent and knowlegable N.T. scholar, so it seems unlikely that he would do such a lousy job of supporting the main historical premise of a key argument.
Because of this concern, I have gone back through Chapter 3, as well as some key parts of Chapters 2, 4, and 5, to double-check myself.  As a result of a brief review of these chapters, I have one correction to make to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint, and I also have located key passages that support my identification of, and understanding of, the ABSIG argument in Chapter 3.
First, I will reinforce my identification and interpretation of the ABSIG argument, then I will make a correction to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint about the existence of Jesus.
CONFIRMATION of my Identification & Understanding of the ABSIG Argument
The most important passage supporting my identification and understanding of the ABSIG argument is found in Ehrman’s discussion about oral traditions behind the written sources allegedly used by the authors of the seven “independent” Gospels:
Where did all these sources [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] come from?  They could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals.  (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
In this passage Ehrman argues against the skeptical view that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers on the grounds that the earliest written sources about Jesus “agree on too many of the fundamentals”, which is a reference to a phrase from a sentence earlier in the same paragraph: “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”.  Thus, one reason why Ehrman rejects the skeptical position that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers is that the written sources behind the seven “independent” Gospels “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”.
The roots of this line of reasoning go back to Ehrman’s discussion in Chapter 2 of DJE about the nature of historical reasoning about evidence for an historical event or historical person:
Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points if not in all the details. …if you have multiple sources from near the time that tell many stories about…[a particular historical figure]…that corroborate one another’s stories–then you have good historical evidence.  (DJE, p.41, emphasis added)
Clearly, this principle is intended to be applied in the case of Jesus and the Gospels, and clearly the historical reasoning on page 86 of DJE is intended to be an application of this principle to the evidence from the seven “independent” Gospels (and the written sources allegedly used by the authors of those Gospels).
Note that Ehrman refers to “various sources” that “tell many stories” and that “corroborate one another’s stories”.  This suggests that Ehrman will go on to discuss various Gospel sources that “tell many stories” about Jesus (especially since the next Chapter is titled: “The Gospels as Historical Sources”), and that “corroborate one another’s stories” about Jesus.  The phrase “many stories” ties into a phrase later used in Chapter 3: “many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death”, and the word “stories” clearly applies to the various stories about Jesus found in the seven “independent” Gospels (and their various alleged written sources).
That this is an important part of Ehrman’s historical reasoning in Chapter 3 of DJE is also shown by the emphasis placed on this point by means of repetition of the point by Ehrman in Chapter 3:
All of these written sources I have mentioned are earlier than the surviving Gospels; they all corroborate many of the key things said of Jesus in the Gospels; and most important they are all independent of one another.  (DJE, p.82, emphasis added)
Yet many of them [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”], independent though they be, agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…  (DJE, p86, emphasis added)
They [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals. (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
…these independent witnesses [i.e. “a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven…”] corroborate many of the same basic sets of data [about Jesus](DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
The historical principle given in Chapter 2 speaks of the requirement that “multiple sources” that are “from near the time” of the person or event in question and that “tell many stories”  should “corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points…” in order to provide “good historical evidence” for the alleged person or event.
The ABSIG argument asserts there are seven “independent” Gospels that are based on several “independent” written sources, and that these alleged written sources “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death…”.  Clearly, there is an argument in Chapter 3 that is based on alleged Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels, and which makes use of the principles of historical reasoning given in Chapter 2, concerning corroboration of “multiple sources” about “many stories” or “many basic aspects” of the life of Jesus.  So, I feel confident that I have presented an accurate interpretation of a key argument by Ehrman in Chapter 3 of DJE.
CORRECTION to my Characterization of Ehrman’s Viewpoint
In the second post in my series on “Did Jesus Exist?”, I raised an objection to Ehrman’s general approach to this question:
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist. 
While I still believe that Ehrman was unclear about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?” and I still believe that he failed to adequately clarify the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”,  and that he failed to provide a clear definition of the word “Jesus”,  I failed to note a few passages where Ehrman appears to indicate at least a partial list of basic attributes of Jesus which clarify the meaning of the word “Jesus” and the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”.
There is at least one passage in Chapter 3 that hints at some basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”:
…they [i.e. “the Gospels”] provide powerful evidence indeed that there was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.  We will see in the chapters that follow that this is not the only kind of evidence we have for the existence of Jesus.  (DJE, p.70, emphasis added)
In this paragraph Ehrman appears to view evidence related to the specific attributes of (a) living “in Roman Palestine” and of (b) being “crucified under Pontius Pilate” as relevant evidence for answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”.  This suggests that these two attributes are basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”, at least for the purpose of answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”.  (Since there were numerous people living “in Roman Palestine” who were “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, these two basic attributes are obviously insufficient to formulate a definition of “Jesus”.)
This hint in Chapter 3 is reinforced in the conclusion of Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus at the end of Chapter 5:
WHAT CAN WE SAY in conclusion about the evidence that supports the view that there really was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher who lived in Palestine as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era, crucified under Pontius Pilate sometime around the year 30?  (DJE, p. 171, emphasis added)
In the above passage, Ehrman appears to view various attributes of Jesus or aspects of Jesus’s life as being directly relevant to the question of the existence of Jesus.  This assumption is even more clear when Ehrman recaps the conclusion of his positive case at the beginning of Chapter 6:
Up to this stage in our quest to see if the historical Jesus actually existed,  I have been mounting the positive argument, showing why the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus really did live as a Jewish teacher in Palestine and was crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  It will be equally important for us to learn what the historical Jesus said and did, since the mere fact of Jesus’s existence does not get us very far.  (DJE, p.177, emphasis added)
Here it is clear that Ehrman is separating out two different sets of attributes of Jesus or aspects of the life of Jesus.  First there are the basic aspects that are tied to the question “Did Jesus exist?”:  (a) a Jewish teacher, (b) living in Palestine, (c) who was crucified, (d) who was executed at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  Second, there are other non-basic aspects about “what the historical Jesus said and did”.
Clearly, Ehrman has some ideas about which alleged attributes of Jesus ought to be considered basic or essential, and which alleged attributes are non-basic or non-essential.  Although there is some consistency in Ehrman’s various short lists of basic attributes, the lists do vary from one passage to another in his book DJE.  Furthermore, there is no discussion or justification of any of Ehrman’s lists of basic attributes.
Although I admit that the logic of Ehrman’s viewpoint on the existence of Jesus is not as grossly flawed as I had indicated in the objection that I raised in the second post of this series, I still believe that Ehrman’s failure to make a serious effort to clarify the question “Did Jesus exist?” and to define the word  “Jesus” is a major flaw with his positive case for the existence of Jesus.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 3

The Independence of Passages vs. Books
Among the seven “independent” Gospels to which Ehrman’s ABSIG (Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels) refer are the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark.
A “basic aspect” of the life or death of Jesus is the claim that Jesus was crucified by the Romans.  There is agreement between Matthew and Mark on this “basic aspect”:
And they [the soldiers] crucified him [Jesus], and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. – Mark 15:24 (NRSV)
And when they [the soldiers of the governor] had crucified him [Jesus], they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; – Matthew 27:35  (NRSV)
According to Ehrman these are “independent” Gospels, so here we have an agreement between two “independent” Gospels on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus.  Can we put this into the matrix diagram as an instance of agreement between at least these two Gospels? No.  That would be a mistake.
The problem is that the author of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a primary source of information about Jesus.  This passage in Chapter 27 of Matthew, as Ehrman would no doubt agree, was based on the passage about the crucifixion of Jesus in Chapter 15 of Mark.  So, this passage in Matthew is DEPENDENT on the passage from Mark.  Because of this dependency,  the passage in Matthew does NOT provide any confirmation or corroboration of the passage in Mark.  The author of Matthew got this information from reading the Gospel of Mark.
So when Ehrman claims that the Gospel of Matthew is an “independent” Gospel from the Gospel of Mark, this is misleading and confusing.  Hundreds of verses in Matthew are based on verses from Mark.  So, it is clear that much of the Gospel of Matthew IS dependent upon the Gospel of Mark.  Ehrman is just pointing out that there are some verses and passages in Matthew that are NOT based on Mark, and which thus probably do not have a dependency on Mark.  One CANNOT simply compare passages in Matthew and Mark and upon finding an agreement on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus, declare that Matthew has corroborated that basic aspect found in the Gospel of Mark.
What this means is that as a general rule, when one finds an agreement between two (or more) of the seven so-called “independent” Gospels, one must then ask a crucial question:
Are these PASSAGES independent of each other?
Because Ehrman uses the term “independent Gospels” in a way that allows for the Gospel of Matthew to be considered an “independent Gospel” in relation to the Gospel of Mark, such supposed independence is irrelevant when we examine individual passages from various Gospels.
But when we look for agreements between various Gospels concerning basic aspects of the life or death of Jesus, we are examining individual passages, not entire works or books.  Therefore, any claim to the effect that one passage from one Gospel confirms or corroborates a passage from some other Gospel concerning a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus, we need a JUSTIFICATION of the claim that the two PASSAGES in question are independent passages. The fact that the two passages are from so-called “independent” Gospels is irrelevant and does not answer the crucial question at issue.
Because Ehrman never bothered to offer one single passage from any of the so-called “independent” seven gospels, there was never an opportunity for him to JUSIFY the claim that one passage from one of the seven Gospels was independent from another analogous passage (about the same basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus) in another of the seven Gospels.  But if Ehraman had produced forty or fifty passages, some from each of the seven Gospels, in order to make a strong case for his key premise (ABSIG), then he would have had to JUSTIFY many different claims about the independence of these passages from their analogues in the other Gospels.
We will soon see that this would be a rather daunting task, one that might well require multiple chapters of a book to accomplish.
The Logic of Independence
The concept of “independence” is more complex than it initially appears to be.  So, let’s start with as simple an example as possible, and then work our way towards examples of greater complexity.
Ehrman puts very little effort into discussing the concept of “independence”, but the little that he does say about it has some very significant implications.  It is worth taking a bit of time to think about the meaning of the word “independence” and what it implies.
Suppose that there are only two books in existence, and that these are the ONLY two books ever written (so far in human history): Book-A  and Book-B.
One logical possibility is that the author of Book-B used Book-A as a source.  In this case Book-B would be dependent on Book-A.  The contents of Book-A are thus, in effect, a cause of the contents of Book-B, at least of part of the content of Book-B, so let’s represent this situation with an arrow going from A to B:
A–>B     (B is dependent upon A)
Another logical possibility is that the author of Book-A used Book-B as a source.  In this case Book-A would be dependent on Book-B.  The contents of Book-B are thus, in effect, a cause of the contents of Book-A, at least of part of the content of Book-A, so let’s represent this situation with an arrow going from B to A:
A<–B   (A is dependent upon B)
Another logical possibility, which is probably very rare in reality, is that it is BOTH the case that Book-A is dependent on Book-B AND  Book-B is dependent on Book-A:
A<–>B   (A is dependent on B AND B is dependent on A)
How could this be possible?  Wouldn’t this involve circular causation?  Actually this is possible if, for example, both books were being written in the same time period (say the same four-month period), and when the author of Book-A had completed the first half of Book-A (say at the end of the first two months),  the author of Book-B obtained a copy of that half of Book-A and used it as a source for the second half of Book-B, and if when the author of Book-B completed the first half of Book-B (say at the end of the first two months), the author of Book-A obtained a copy of that half of Book-B and used it as a source for the second half of Book-A.  In this way, it is possible for Book-A to have a dependency on Book-B while Book-B also has a dependency on Book-A.
If we limit ourselves to evaluating the indpendence of PASSAGES rather than BOOKS, then this third logical possibility becomes even more unlikely and remote, because it is very unlikely that two authors would be writing analogous passages in the same short time frame and also read each others partial drafts of the passage prior to completing the writting of their own passage (this might, however, happen with cheating on Essay exams at colleges!).
If we can establish that Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A, does that mean that Book-B is independent from Book-A?  I’m not sure.  It depends on how we understand the meaning of “Book-B is NOTdependent on Book-A” and it depends on whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation.
If “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A” just means that the author of Book-B did not use Book-A as a source, then it does not follow from this claim that Book-B is independent from Book-A.
Suppose that the author of Book-B had read Book-C and used that book as a source.  Suppose further that the author of Book-C had used Book-A as a source.  In this way even though the author of Book-B did not use Book-A as a source (and perhaps never even set eyes on a copy of Book-A), the information that came from Book-C might have been obtained (by the author of Book-C) from Book-A.
This is a circumstance in which it might well make sense to say that “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A”  (meaning that the author of Book-B did not read Book-A or copy from Book-A) and yet it could also be the case that “Book-B is NOT independent from Book-A” (meaning that some of the information in Book-B can be traced back to Book-A, via Book-C).
Of course, I specified earlier that Book-A and Book-B were the only two books in existence, so on that assumption there could be no Book-C to complicate matters.
However, even if there were NO OTHER BOOKS besides Book-A and Book-B, a similar complication could arise because information can be transferred verbally (e.g. by oral tradition).  So, even in my super-simple imaginary world where there are only two books in existence, things can get complicated and confusing because there could be an oral tradition that transfers information from Book-A to the author of Book-B without the author ever laying eyes on a copy of Book-A.  (The complexity is just getting started.)
Another problem is whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation.  Equality is a symmetical relation.  If  X = Y, then it follows that Y = X.   So, asserting that X = Y  implies that Y = X.   If “independence” is a symmetrical relation, then asserting that “Book-B is independent from Book-A”  implies not only that “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A” but also that “Book-A is NOT dependent on Book-B”.
It is not necessary to resolve this question right now about whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation, because even if we decide that “independence” is not symmetical, we still need to determine whether there are any significant dependencies in ANY direction between various passages of the seven Gospels if and when somebody gets around to actually providing specific passages from these Gospels in order to support the key historical claim (ABSIG).
The complexity involved with establishing “independence” of sources grows rapidly as we increast the number of books or the number of passages in question.
Suppose that somebody produces four different passages from four of the seven “independent” Gospels, and suppose these four passages agree on a specific basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus.  What are the various possible dependencies that need to be eliminated?
Let’s refer to the four passages as A, B,  C, and D.  In order to justify the claim that these four passages were independent of each other the following dependency claims would need to be shown to be false (or very improbable):
A–>B
A–>C
A–>D
B–>A
B–>C
B–>D
C–>A
C–>B
C–>D
D–>A
D–>B
D–>C 
In short, one would need to argue against all twelve of these possible “dependence” relationships.
But we know that other books and other passages exist besides just these four passages, so even if one shows that none of these twelve depdency relationship exist, there are other possible dependencies that could still undermine the claim that these four passages are independent of each other.
For example, there might be another passage E from one of the remaining three Gospels, and these four passages that agree with each other might all be dependent upon passage E.  In that case, there would be only ONE actual source of this information, and there would be NO CORROBORATION between the four passages that were put forward as evidence for (ABSIG).
If there are basic aspects of the life of Jesus that are allegedly agreed upon by five or six or seven different passages from different Gospels, then the possibilities for dependency relations are multiplied further.  For five passages, there are 20 different possible dependencies (5 x 4 = 20) that must be ruled out.  For six passages, there are 30 different possible dependencies (6 x 5 = 30) that must be ruled out.  For seven passages, there are 42 different possible dependencies (7 x 6) that must be ruled out.  This does not include the task of ruling out dependency relations with other passages outside of the passages that are presented as evidence.
I hope that this brief discussion of the concept and logic of “independence” shows that the claim that several passages from several Gospels are “independent” from each other is a claim that carries many significant implications, and thus involves a serious burden of proof that may require numerous arguments and justifications to support, none of which you will find in Chapter 3 of DJE, because Ehrman does not even begin the task of providing historical evidence.
Because Ehrman never put forward ANY passages from ANY of the seven “independent” Gospels as evidence in support of (ABSIG),  he never had the opportunity to start building the necessary complex justifications required to show that such passages were in fact “independent” from each other.
 

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 2

Existence vs. Basic Aspects/Attributes
“Did Jesus exist?” – What does this question mean?
Clarity is a gateway standard of critical thinking.  If you are UNCLEAR about the meaning of a question, then your thinking about that question will also be unclear, and your thinking will probably not be very useful or productive or logical so long as you remain UNCLEAR about the question at issue.
On the one hand, it is certain that there was no Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century  named “Jesus”.  That is because “Jesus” is a name in the English language, and the English language did not exist in the first century.  Question settled!  That was easy.
On the other hand, if the question is asking whether there was a Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic), that question can also be answered with certainty.  Yes, there was such a man.  In fact, there were thousands of Jewish men who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic).  Aramaic was the language of Palestinian Jews in the first century, and “Yeshua” was a very common name at that time.  Question settled.  No need for further discussion.
Obviously, I have not really settled the question “Did Jesus exist?” here.  Clearly, the question is NOT merely asking whether there was a Jewish man by the name of “Yeshua” who lived in Palestine in the first century.  But if that is not what the question is asking, then what IS the question asking?  It turns out that it is not so easy to say what this question is asking.  So philosophy (or at least logic and critical thinking) has an important role to play, as it usually does, right from the start.  We need to clarify the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”
One important failure of Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is that Ehrman never asks this basic question of clarification:
What does the question “Did Jesus exist?” mean?
The clarity and quality of Ehrman’s thinking about the question “Did Jesus exist?” suffers because of this fundamental mistake.   Furthermore, because of his basic unclarity about the question at issue, Ehrman appears to make the same sort of blunder that was made by Thomas Aquinas when Aquinas discussed the question “Does God exist?”.
In Summa Theologica Aquinas attempts to first prove the existence of “God” and then he goes on to try to prove that God has various divine attributes.  Ehrman similarly thinks that the question of the existence of Jesus can be settled prior to showing that various basic aspects of the life of Jesus (as portrayed in the canonical gospels) are factual.   Here are some comments by Ehrman where he seems to treat these as two separate issues:
The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist. (DJE, p.4, emphasis added)
…a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist.  He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic.  But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.  (DJE, p.6, emphasis added)
[My goal is] to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him.  (DJE, p.37, emphasis added)
These [surviving Gospels] all attest to the existence of Jesus.  Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data–for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.  (DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not Jewish?  I don’t think so.  Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not crucified by the Romans?  Probably not.  These “basic aspects” or attributes of Jesus seem to be more than just trivial claims about Jesus.  They seem to be a part of the meaning of the word “Jesus”, part of how we determine whether or not a particular person was in fact “Jesus”.
Aquinas and Ehrman both failed to recognize the need to DEFINE the thing that you want to talk about BEFORE attempting to prove that it exists.  This is a basic mistake in logic.
Knut Tranoy raises a serious objection against the way Aquinas approaches the question “Does God exist?”:
To prove or to produce evidence that a certain being, x, exists, is, one might say, to prove that a certain set of compossible properties is actualized.  That is, we cannot prove or know that x exists without at the same time knowing something about the nature or essence of x.
To prove the existence of God is, then, to show that the properties ascribed to the Christian God in the Bible are actualized in one and only one being.
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
Tranoy sums up the logical principle this way:
Before we can try to prove anything at all we must, of course, have some idea of the nature or properties of the being whose existence we want to prove. 
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
In order to prove the existence of God, one must START with a definition of God, and this is commonly done by means of a list of key (or basic) divine attributes.  For example, here is a list of basic divine attributes that I use to clarify the meaning of the word “God”:

  • an eternally bodiless person
  • an eternally omnipotent person
  • an eternally omniscient person
  • an eternally perfectly morally good person
  • a person who is the creator of the universe

Ehrman never explains what he means by a “basic aspect” of the life of Jesus, but I suspect that the word “basic” here is leaning in the direction of “essential”.  In other words, some aspects of the life of Jesus are very important and central from the point of view of Christian faith, and other aspects of the life of Jesus are less important and less central from the point of view of Christian faith.  That Jesus was crucified by the Romans is a very important and cenral aspect of the life of Jesus from the point of view of the Christian faith.  That means that the “basic aspect” of Jesus being crucified by the Romans is a good candidate for being an essential attribute of Jesus.  In other words, this is an aspect or attribute that we could reasonably include in a DEFINITION of the meaning of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”
But lots of Jewish men were crucified by the Romans in first century Palestine, so these basic attributes would not be sufficient by themselves to define the word “Jesus”, since the point is not to locate a whole GROUP of Jewish men, but to identify exaclty ONE particular Jewish man.  So, what we need, and what Ehrman failed to provide, is a clear definition of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and that definition, in order to be plausible and useful, will need to specify several basic aspects or attributes, just like my definition of “God” specifies several basic attributes of  God, in order to clarify the question “Does God exist?”.
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the qeustion “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist.
I have some other serious objections to raise against Ehrman’s ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels) for the existence of Jesus, but they will have to wait for another day.
 

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 1

I was recently asked to participate in a public discussion/debate about the question “Did Jesus Exist?”.  I don’t plan to argue in favor of the mythicist position, just because I don’t think I would do it justice.  I’m not a mythicist, and I have not studied any mythicists in recent years (I read some of G.A. Wells books years ago, and I read Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle some years ago).  But I do have significant doubts about the existence of Jesus, and especially about the strength of the historical case for the existence of Jesus.
In order to prepare for the discussion,  I pulled out my copy of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) and began to re-read his positive case for the existence of Jesus.  I have criticized part of his case previously, so I began reading with the assumption that his case was weak and problematic, at least the initial argument that he makes based on seven allegedly independent Gospels, in Chapter 3.  Upon re-reading this Chapter, my conclusion is that this important part of his case is not just weak, it is a complete and utter failure.
I’m reminded of William Lane Craig’s argument for the claim that “Jesus died on the cross” in his book The Son Rises.  I went through Craig’s argument, line by line, and showed that while he made dozens of historical claims, there was not one single historical fact in the entire passage (there was one reference to one passage from one historical document, but upon examination of the document, the passage, its authorship, and its content, there was no real evidence for the specific historical claim being asserted).
I realize that Ehrman is not a Christian believer, and so obviously he is not a Christian apologist.  But there is a clear parallel between Chapter 3 of Did Jesus Exist? and WLC’s argument for the claim “Jesus died on the cross” in his book The Son Rises.  In both instances, we are set up with the expectation and promise that a strong historical case will be made for a basic Christian belief, but the case includes arguments that are virtually FACT FREE.  I suspect that Ehrman’s thinking was corrupted by exposure to Christian apologetics, and this has, sadly, led him to construct arguments for historical claims without bothering to mess with those inconvenient little things known as historical facts.  Jesus Freaking-H-Christ! (… an historically relevant curse for this occasion).
I respect both WLC and Ehrman.  They are both intelligent men and knowledgable about their fields.  They are both hard-working scholars.  I have learned much from both Craig and Ehrman.  I don’t claim to be smarter than they are, or to have more knowledge than they have, nor do I claim to work harder than they do.  They are scholars and I am not a scholar.
Nevertheless, I could do a better job defending these basic Christian beliefs with one hand tied behind my back while blindfolded.  I am very confident that I could do a better job, because I would make use of actual historical facts to make my case.  I may not be a brilliant scholar, but I know better than to make a fact-free case for an historical claim.  WLC and Ehrman evidently missed that memo.
Here is how Ehrman characterizes himself and his view on the question of the existence of Jesus:
But as a historian I think evidence matters.  And the past matters.  And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist.  (DJE, p.6, emphasis added)
Apparently evididence matters to Ehrman, except when he is laying out a key argument in his case for the existence of Jesus, because he doesn’t bother to provide ANY historical evidence for his key historical premise, though many dozens of pieces of historical evidence would be required to properly support that premise.
Here is how Ehrman characterizes his main goal in the book:
My goal, however, is neither to please nor to offend.  It is to pursue a historical question with all the rigor that it deserves and requires and in doing so to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him.  (DJE, p.37, emphasis added)
Making an argument for an historical claim without presenting any historical evidence in support of the key historical premise of a key argument means that Ehrman not only fell short of fully realizing this goal, it means that Ehrman completely and utterly failed to even partially acheive this goal, at least in terms of the argument about corroboration between seven Gospels that he presents in Chapter 3 (he does manage to do a somewhat better job with the argument presented in Chapter 4).
Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus is given in Part I, which encompasses Chapters 1 through 5.  But Chapter 1 just introduces the mythicist viewpoint, and Chapter 2 basically dismisses all of the non-Christian writers/sources.  So, the positive case for the existence of Jesus is given in just three chapters:  Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Chapter 5.  The title of Chapter 3 indicates the content of the argument in that chapter: “The Gospels as Historical Sources”.  Craig miserably failed to prove that “Jesus died on the cross” largely because he made the absurd assumption that he could do this in just a few short pages.  Ehrman makes bascially the same mistake in Chapter 3 of DJE.
The basic principle used in this key argument was spelled out in Chapter 2, but is nicely summarized in Chapter 3:
…historians,  who try to establish that a past event happened or that a past person lived, look for multiple sources that corroborate one another’s stories without having collaborated.  And this is what we get with the Gospels and their witness of Jesus.  (DJE, p.75)
There is more than one argument presented in Chapter 3, but a key argument is summarized by Ehrman at the end of Chapter 3:
We are not dealing with just one Gospel that reports what Jesus said and did from sometime near the end of the first century.  We have a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven–that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions.  These all attest to the existence of Jesus.  Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data–for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.  (DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
One could summarize the key premise of this argument in one sentence (about: Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels):
(ABSIG) There are seven Gospels which were written within “a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death” (DJE, p.78) that are “either completely or partially independent” from each other (DJE, p.78) and yet they “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” (DJE, p.86).
The agreement on “the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” is asserted by Ehrman about the written sources that were allegedly used in the composition of the seven Gospels.  But we know of the content of the alleged written sources of these seven Gospels only by carefully studying the content of the seven surviving Gospels;  we don’t have manuscripts of the alleged written sources (with the exception of the Gospel of Mark, which was one of the sources used in the composition of Matthew and in the composition of Luke).  We only have manuscripts of the seven surviving Gospels. So, any alleged agreements between the written sources behind the seven Gospels must be discernable in the existing texts of the surviving Gospels.
In the above quotations, there is a subtle clue that indicates Ehrman has failed to do his homework on this argument. The word “many” in the phrase “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” points to a fundamental flaw of Chapter 3.  The word “many” is vague.  If Ehrman had actually investigated the evidence on this issue “with all the rigor that it deserves and requires”, then he would have provided a specific number here, instead of the vague quantifier “many”.  But he did not do his homework, and so he was unable to provide a precise quantity.
Agreement on three or four characteristics of Jesus or events in Jesus’s life might qualify as “many” agreements, but that would not be very impressive as an argument for the existence of Jesus.  Presumably, a strong case would involve something on the order of one or two dozen agreements on “basic aspects of Jesus’s life”.  But let’s just consider a conservative and round number of agreements that could potentially constitute a strong case: TEN.
Since we are talking about seven “independent” Gospels, a perfect argument for ten basic aspects would involve about 70 pieces of historical evidence, in which each of the seven Gospels has at least one passage that confirms each of the ten “basic aspects of Jesus’s life”.  But some of the “Gospels” are not very extensive, so those Gospels would probably only confirm a few of the ten basic aspects.  Even the more extensive Gospels might not confirm all ten basic aspects of the life of Jesus, and yet the overall argument could still be fairly strong.
It seems to me that a fairly strong argument could potentially be made if an average of five out of seven Gospels confirmed each of the ten basic aspects.  Then we could justifiably say that “Each of the ten basic aspects of the life of Jesus is confirmed by most of the seven Gospels”.
A matrix diagram is the obvious way to present an overview of the relevant historical data.  An ideal matrix, one that represents what is potentially a fairly strong case, would look something like this, where an “X” means that there is at least one passsage in that Gospel that confirms the basic aspect of Jesus’s life (click on the image below for a better view of the matrix diagram):
Ideal Matrix
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In order to support this ten-aspect matrix, one would need to provide about 50 separate pieces of historical data, i.e. fifty different specific passages from the various seven gospels.  In some cases, a single passage from one gospel will support two or three basic aspects, reducing the required number of pieces of data.  But in some cases, one gospel will have two or three passages confirming just one aspect, increasing the number of pieces of data supporting the diagram.  So although this diagram does not require exactly 50 pieces of historical data, the number of pieces of historical data supporting this diagram would probably be close to 50.
If only two or three out of the seven Gospels support a given basic aspect, on average, then the argument for the existence of Jesus would be pretty weak, and the matrix diagram would look something like this:
WEAK Case Matrix
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Note that even to make this very weak argument for the existence of Jesus, one would need to provide about 20 to 30 pieces of historical data (quotations from about 20 to 30 passages from the seven “independent” gospels).
Does Ehrman’s matrix look like the first one, with lots of X’s and very few blanks? Or does his matrix look more like the second one, with only a few X’s here and there and lots of blanks?  Neither.  Ehrman has no matrix diagram at all.
OK, that is not a deal breaker.  We can fill out a matrix diagram for Ehman, based on the historical evidence that he provided in Chapter 3.  How many pieces of historical data does Ehrman provide that we could use as the basis for constructing such a matrix?  Does he provide 50 passages from the seven Gospels? No.  Forty passages from the seven Gospels? No.  Thirty passages? No.  A measly twenty passages?  Nope.   Ehrman provides exactly ZERO passages from the seven “independent” Gospels to support his key premise (ABSIG).
So, here is the appropriate matrix diagram representing Ehrman’s argument from the agreement between seven “independent” Gospels (ABSIG):
No Case Matrix
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I am not impressed, and I am certainly not convinced.
Ehrman does sometimes quote a Gospel passage in Chapter 3, but not for the purpose of showing how that Gospel supports a specific “basic aspect” of the life of Jesus.  In Chapter 3, Ehrman quotes Luke 1:1-3 on pages 73 and 79, but not to show that this Gospel confirms a specific basic aspect of the life of Jesus that othere Gospels also confirm.  The quotation of Luke on page 79, for example, is to support the general claim that “the Gospels…were based on earlier written sources…” (DJE, p.78).
Ehrman quotes three passages from the Gospel of Mark and one passage from the Gospel of John on pages 87-89, but the point of that evidence was to show that these Gospels include written sources that ultimately were “based on oral traditions” (DJE, p.86) that were “originally spoken in Aramaic, the language of Palestine.” (DJE, p.87).  The purpose of these quotes is to support the claim that the Gospels can be traced back to early oral traditions, traditions that existed shortly after the standard date for the crucifixion of Jesus.
On page 90 of DJE, Ehrman quotes a passage from the third chapter of the Gospel of John, but the purpose of that quote is just to illustrate how Aramaic can be used to determine that some Gospel passages (like the one quoted from John) are NOT based on early oral traditions about Jesus (which were in Aramaic).
There are no other quotations from the four canonical Gospels in Chapter 3 of DJE.  There are also no quotations in Chapter 3 from the Gospel of Thomas, or from the Gospel of Peter,  nor are there quotations from “the highly fragmentary text” called Papyrus Egerton 2.  Therefore, there are ZERO quotations (from any of the seven “independent” Gospels) that are given in support of the key historical premise (ABSIG) of a key argument in Ehrman’s positve case for the existence of Jesus.
If Ehrman had provided twenty to thirty different passages, some from each of the seven “independent” Gospels, showing that two or three of the Gospels support each of ten “basic characteristics” of the life of Jesus, then I would conclude that he had presented an argument which was potentially, at best, a very weak argument for the existence of Jesus. But Ehrman has in fact provided ZERO relevant quotations from the seven “independent” Gospels, so this argument is a complete and utter failure.  It should persuade nobody, because there is no historical evidence provided to back up the main historical premise of this argument.
In Chapter 3 of DJE, Ehrman has presented a FACT FREE argument for the existence of Jesus, which is completely contrary to his claim that he thinks “evidence matters” and completely contrary to his goal to pursue the historical question of whether Jesus exists “with all the rigor that it deserves and requires”.  Ehrman promised devotion to evidence and he promised scholarly rigor, but what he delivered is pure BULLSHIT, at least with his argument concerning Agreements Between Seven Indendent Gospels (ABSIG).
There are other serious defeciencies with this argument in Chapter 3, but I will save discussion of those for another post.