18

Father Barron v. Bart Ehrman: No Contest

 

 

 

In the category of mismatched adversaries, Father Barron gives us a striking example today:

In this most recent tome, Ehrman lays out what is actually a very old thesis, going back at least to the 18th century and repeated ad nauseam in skeptical circles ever since, namely, that Jesus was a simple itinerant preacher who never claimed to be divine and whose “resurrection” was in fact an invention of his disciples who experienced hallucinations of their master after his death.  Of course Ehrman, like so many of his skeptical colleagues across the centuries, breathlessly presents this thesis as though he has made a brilliant discovery.

But basically, it’s the same old story.  When I was a teenager, I read British Biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield’s Passover Plot, which lays out the same narrative, and just a few months ago, I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot, which pursues a very similar line, and I’m sure next Christmas or Easter I will read still another iteration of the theory.

And so, once more into the breach.  Ehrman’s major argument for the thesis that Jesus did not consider himself divine is that explicit statements of Jesus’s divine identity can be found only in the later fourth Gospel of John, whereas the three Synoptic Gospels, earlier and thus presumably more historically reliable, do not feature such statements from Jesus himself or the Gospel writers.  This is so much nonsense.  It is indeed the case that the most direct affirmations of divinity are found in John — “I and the Father are one;” “before Abraham was I am;” “He who sees me sees the Father,” etc.

But equally clear statements of divinity are on clear display in the Synoptics, provided we know how to decipher a different semiotic system.

For example, in Mark’s Gospel, we hear that as the apostolic band is making its way toward Jerusalem with Jesus, “they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (Mk. 10:32).  Awe and terror are the typical reactions to the presence of Yahweh in the Old Testament.  Similarly, when Matthew reports that Jesus, at the beginning of the last week of his earthly life, approached Jerusalem from the east, by way of Bethpage and Bethany and the Mount of Olives, he is implicitly affirming Ezekiel’s prophecy that the glory of the Lord, which had departed from his temple, would return from the east, by way of the Mount of Olives.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the crippled man who had been lowered through the roof of Peter’s house, saying, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” to which the bystanders respond, “Who does this man think he is?  Only God can forgive sins.”  What is implied there is a Christology as high as anything in John’s Gospel.

And affirmations of divinity on the lips of Jesus himself positively abound in the Synoptics.  When he says, in Matthew’s Gospel, “He who does not love me more than his mother or father is not worthy of me,” he is implying that he himself is the greatest possible good.  When in Luke’s Gospel, he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away,” he is identifying himself with the very Word of God.  When he says in Matthew’s Gospel, in reference to himself, “But I tell you, something greater than the Temple is here,” he is affirming unambiguously that he is divine, since for first century Jews, only Yahweh himself would be greater than the Jerusalem Temple.  Perhaps most remarkably, when he says, almost as a tossed-off aside at the commencement of the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, but I say…” he is claiming superiority to the Torah, which was the highest possible authority for first century Jews.  But the only one superior to the Torah would be the author of the Torah, namely God himself.

Obviously examples such as these from the Synoptic authors could be multiplied indefinitely.  The point is that the sharp demarcation between the supposedly “high” Christology of John and the “low” Christology of the Synoptics, upon which the Ehrman thesis depends, is simply wrong-headed. Continue Reading

13

Christ and History

 

 

You will find that a good many  Christian political writers think that Christianity began going wrong in  departing from the doctrine of its founder at a very early stage. Now this idea  must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a “historical  Jesus” to be found by clearing away later “accretions and perversions,” and then  to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition. In the last generation we  promoted the construction of such a “historical Jesus” on liberal and  humanitarian lines. We are now putting forward a new “historical Jesus” on  Marxian, catastrophic and revolutionary lines. The advantages of these  constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold.  In the first place they all tend to direct man’s devotion to something which  does not exist. Because each “historical Jesus” is unhistorical, the documents  say what they say and they cannot be added to. Each new “historical Jesus” has  to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another  point. And by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach  humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary  life, but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares,  and new Swifts in every publisher’s autumn list. . . . The “historical Jesus,”  then, however dangerous he may seem to be to us at some particular point, is  always to be encouraged.

CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters

 

 

 

 

Bart Ehrman, the New Testament scholar who transitioned from teenage evangelical, to liberal Christian, to agnostic, desperately wants to remake Christ in his own faithless image and therefore is popular with atheists and agnostics.  He has a very old act, as the argument that he makes, that the Resurrection never happened and that Christ was but a man, has been made by anti-Christians since the Crucifixion.    He puts old wine into a shiny new wineskin.  He isn’t really very good at it,  as Stephen Colbert, of all people, demonstrated several years ago.  Go here to Creative Minority Report to view that.

Christopher Johnson, a non-Catholic who has taken up the cudgels so frequently for the Church that I have named him Defender of the Faith, turns his attention to Ehrman:

 

All sorts and conditions of men turn up at this site from time to time.  Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians regularly comment here, disagree with one another’s theology now and then but do it, for the most part, respectfully.

That’s because of most of you, not me.  You guys set the tone for this joint a long time ago.  But if I do see what I consider to be disrespect in the comments, which happens, I’ll quietly edit the comment or remove it entirely.  And if things get too intense in a comment thread, which sometimes happens, I won’t hesitate to shut that thread down.

I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing atheists comment here a lot more often than they do.  I’m not talking about some douchebag whose default position is, “Christians are brain-dead morons” or who claims to collapse on his or her fainting couch at the mere sight of a Bible verse, a Christian Cross or any other Christian image.

I refer to that rare breed of atheist who doesn’t believe there’s a God but is comfortable with the fact that some people disagree and who doesn’t feel the need to insult or belittle religious believers.  I can respect and even be friends with a person like that.

What I can’t and, indeed, refuse to respect are those atheists who still pretend to be Christians but who think that they’ve finally discovered What Actually Happened Two Thousand Years Ago And What It All Means.  Guys like Bart Ehrman, say:

Jesus was a lower-class preacher from Galilee, who, in good apocalyptic fashion, proclaimed that the end of history as he knew it was going to come to a crashing end, within his own generation. God was soon to intervene in the course of worldly affairs to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a utopian kingdom on earth. And he would be the king.

Insert “but” here.

It didn’t happen. Instead of being involved with the destruction of God’s enemies, Jesus was unceremoniously crushed by them: arrested, tried, humiliated, tortured, and publicly executed.

Which is why Jesus’ influence ended right then and there and is also why absolutely no one anywhere, with the exception of obscure Middle Eastern scholars, has any idea who Jesus of Nazareth was.  But for this bizarre reason, that’s not what actually happened.  Stop Bart if you’ve heard this one.

The followers of Jesus came to think he had been raised because some of them (probably not all of them) had visions of him afterwards. Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them. Non-Christians would say that (several of ) the disciples had hallucinations. Hallucinations happen all the time. Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events). Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.

Once the disciples claimed Jesus was alive again but was (obviously) no longer here with them, they came to think that he had been taken up to heaven (where else could he be?). In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus. After that a set of evolutionary forces took over, in which the followers of Jesus began saying more and more exalted things about him – that he had been made the son of God at his resurrection; no, it was at his baptism; no, it was at his birth; no, it was before he came into the world; no – he had never been made the son of God, he had always been the Son of God; in fact, he had always been God; more than that, he had created the world; and yet more, he was an eternal being equal with God Almighty.

That Kierkegaard quote’s on the top of this page for a reason.  That an alleged “scholar” can seriously advance a view so fundamentally unscholarly, so absolutely unsupported by anything remotely resembling actual evidence, convinces me that a great deal of “Christian scholarship” is, as the Great Dane observed, as monumental an intellectual scam as the world has ever known.

Where to begin?  Say what you want about him but Mohammed’s followers thought he was a prophet of God.  No doubt, the Buddha’s disciples intensely revered him.  Yet none of the followers of these two men, or any other great religious leader in world history, for that matter, ever invented a resurrection from the dead for their particular “prophet” and made that “resurrection” the basis of their religion.

Only the Christians did.

It seems to me that if you and all your associates somehow convince yourselves that you’ve seen the risen Jesus when you haven’t, you are, at some point, going to come down from your mass hallucinations.  At which point, you can either admit to yourself that you were wrong or continue with the charade and maybe get yourselves executed at an early age for something that you know deep down is a lie.

And did any of you happen to notice who Ehrman leaves out here?  I’ll give you a few hints.  A devout Jew, he was not only not connected to the Apostles and Christ’s early believers in any way, he was, by his own admission, actively hostile to the new movement, imprisoning many of Christ’s followers and having others killed.

He received authorization to travel to Damascus in order to do more of this sort of thing.  On the way there, he claimed that he saw a vision of the risen Christ, a claim from which he refused to back down to the end of his days, and began to preach Christ and Him crucified almost immediately.  When they heard of it, the Apostles and most of the disciples initially and quite understandably didn’t trust him.

The man’s claim compelled him to plant Christian churches all over the eastern Mediterranean and to write letters to many of these churches, encouraging and/or upbraiding their members as the need arose.  And this man’s claim about what he saw on that road to Damascus ended up prematurely costing him his Earthly life.

I’m pretty sure that the guy had a short name.  Don’t hold me to this but I think that it began with a P.  It’s right on the tip of my tongue.

I don’t know about you, Ehrman, but I can’t make myself die for an illusion. Continue Reading