Thursday, July 30, 2015

Follow up to Part II of Ehrman-McGrew radio debate

Having now listened to Part II of the McGrew-Ehrman radio debate on the British show Unbelievable, I have some follow-up thoughts. The majority of this post will be focused on debunking Ehrman's claim in the debate to have shown a trajectory through the gospels of increasing blame on the Jews for Jesus' death and exoneration of Pilate and Ehrman's attempt to explain a pair of undesigned coincidences connected with the trial before Pilate by this means. Such trajectory claims are notably poorly supported and easy to counterexample, but when stated in a confident tone and supported by selective data, they can sound plausible to the unwary. I debunked one of them (the claim that Jesus is first more human, then more noble and godlike in the passion) here. Ehrman's claim of increasing blame upon the Jews fares no better.

I want to encourage readers to listen to Part II. There is lots of good information there from Tim McGrew. This post of mine is merely supplementary.

To begin with, some miscellaneous points:

Tim gives an undesigned coincidence at approximately minute 36 in which Jesus turns to Philip at the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6) and asks where to buy bread for the crowd. John says in completely disconnected passages that Philip is from Bethsaida, and Luke says that this event took place in the region near Bethsaida. These three points come together to support the hypothesis that Jesus asked Philip this question (of course, not seriously proposing that they should buy bread for the crowd) because Philip was from the region. Ehrman suggests that this is explained by the fact that either John had access to Luke (he himself doubts this but thinks it is possible) or had "heard stories" which formed the basis of the gospel of Luke and included the statement that the event took place near Bethsaida.

This is an extremely weak explanation. Tim points out in the interview one reason for its weakness: If the author of John were doing this deliberately, based on access to Luke or to such stories, to make his gospel look good, he would not have left out the information that this took place near Bethsaida. I would add that, for similar reasons, it is also weak if one hypothesizes some vague "influence" without the deliberate intent to put in the Philip detail to strengthen the appearance of verisimilitude. To begin with, such an hypothesis is very cloudy. (It's hard to tell if Ehrman is hypothesizing that the author of John did this deliberately or not.) But more, if what was doing the influencing was that the author of John had read Luke or "heard stories" mentioning that the event took place near Bethsaida, the probable outcome would be his mentioning Bethsaida, not his mentioning Philip! Otherwise, we have the strange idea that the author of John vaguely remembered something about Bethsaida  in connection with this event (from stories he'd heard or from Luke), vaguely remembered that he himself had (fictionally?) written elsewhere that Philip was from Bethsaida, and then up out of his subconscious popped the name "Philip" (but not the name "Bethsaida") in writing fictionally about the feeding of the five thousand, and that was what got put in! This is a poor explanation.

In contrast, exactly this sort of situation where one person mentions a particular detail while another person mentions a different detail is common in normal witness testimony. (Cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace discusses this point in Cold Case Christianity.) People who remember events mention details as they happen to strike them from their memories. If the stories are based on the same underlying reality, it often happens that these somewhat randomly remembered details fit together. Hypotheses of dependence among the gospels do not have the same explanatory force for this type of fitting together.

Next miscellaneous point: Late in the interview (after minute 44), Ehrman literally laughs to scorn the idea that the disciples promulgated their stories of Jesus' miracles and resurrection under initial conditions of great hostility and opposition. When Tim points out that this is clearly recorded in Acts, Ehrman says that, even if one takes Acts at face value, this isn't really important as confirmation of their stories, because approximately 8,000 Christians are converted but, in the earliest chapters, only two people (Peter and John) are put in prison.

This response to the data in Acts is extremely shallow. Imagine a mega-church with 8,000 members and a pastoral staff of twelve. Imagine that two of the most prominent pastors get put in prison, repeatedly, for their preaching. Is this no biggie? Does this have no potential "chilling effect" upon the rest of the pastoral staff?  Now suppose that the pastoral staff have been lying or telling stories that are very poorly supported. Is it not likely that they will think twice about continuing to do so given the arrest of two of the chief pastors?

But more: There was not time in the interview to go on describing the persecutions in Acts, but Ehrman must surely know that Acts records even more persecutions of the earliest church--the stoning of Stephen, the persecution from Saul of Tarsus, the killing of James the son of Zebedee by Herod, and the additional imprisonment of Peter by Herod. The persecution from Saul involved many people (Acts 8), arose first in Jerusalem, and scattered the believers.

To dismiss all of this as though it has no relevance to whether the disciples would have lied or would have told fantastical, unsupported stories about Jesus at this time, claiming to be witnesses thereof, shows a complete lack of understanding of human psychology.

Next miscellaneous point: Ehrman outright contradicted himself in the debate on a point that he was (in his later statements) vigorously contesting.

One of the undesigned coincidences Tim explained involved Jesus' statement, "You say it" to Pilate in Luke 23:3 when Pilates asks, "Are you the king of the Jews." It was in response to this coincidence that Ehrman spun out his theory of a trajectory of Christian anti-semitism. Initially, when propounding this theory (just after minute 18), Ehrman says this, "The reason that in the gospel of John and the gospel of Luke that Pilate at first doesn't seem to do anything about it once Jesus admits he's the king of the Jews has a different reason." (emphasis added) This "different reason" is supposed to be the attempt to exonerate Pilate, which I will discuss. But notice that here Ehrman explicitly says, summarizing the passages, that Jesus admits he's the king of the Jews. But later, after minute 30, for some reason he starts contesting this very point! When Tim argues that Pilate would have been abrogating his responsibility as Roman governor by finding no fault in Jesus if Jesus admitted the charge without further explanation, Ehrman begins aggressively challenging this interpretation of "You say it" in Luke 23:3. Tim asks him if he is denying that this is what Jesus' response amounts to (an admission), and Ehrman says, "I absolutely don't think he's saying that."

This is a flat contradiction. I could guess at the reason. Tim has a rather clever way of showing the oddity of what we have in Luke, taken alone. It is as though Pilate is saying, "Oh, you're the king of the Jews. No problem." My psychological guess (which could be wrong) is that this catchy way of making the oddity of Luke vivid caught Ehrman's attention and he decided to challenge it, not remembering that he had earlier said himself that "Jesus admit he's the king of the Jews."

As Tim points out, even if Jesus' phrase "you say it" is not an outright admission, it is at a minimum a refusal to deny the charge--cheeky and suspicious under the circumstances (without further explanation), and something a Roman governor should not be satisfied with when he's concerned about a putative case of sedition. There are a couple of possible translations of Jesus' response, but neither explains Pilate's dismissal of all guilt, taken alone. (Hence the need for supplementary information, which we find in John.)

I would add that there is some independent reason to translate, "You say it" as an affirmative. Jesus gives a similar answer in Matthew 26:64 (and Luke 22:70) before the Sanhedrin. The high priest charges Jesus by the living God (vs. 63) to tell them whether he is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus answers, "You have said it; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." In response, the high priest tears his robes (vs. 65) saying, "He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy." Even more significantly, in Mark 15:62, this very same response by Jesus to the high priest is given by the more explicit, "Ego eimi"--"I am," which is precisely the wording Ehrman says (contradicting himself) that Luke 23 would have if Jesus is admitting to Pilate that he is the king of the Jews. This is fairly strong independent evidence that Jesus' words "you have said it" or "you say it" mean "yes." In John 18:37, when Jesus answers Pilate's question, "Are you a king?" with the words "You say," he expands upon the affirmative nature of the answer: "For this I have been born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth." (In John, Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world, which explains Pilate's finding no fault in him.)

Final miscellaneous point: Ehrman says (just after minute 19) that as time went on the Christians were "in heightened situations of antagonism with Jews, and Christians began portraying Jews as the ones responsible for Jesus' death. And so that's why in the later sources Pilate has to have his arm twisted. Because that shows that in fact it's the Jews who were at fault." He is claiming an external, historical trajectory of "heightened situations of antagonism with the Jews" as a causal explanation for what he sees as a trajectory of increasing anti-Jewish expressions in Christian writings.

Historically, this is completely backwards, all the more so since Ehrman wants to carry this pattern on into the second century. The antagonism with Jewish opponents was an earlier phenomenon in Christianity and with the Romans was a later phenomenon. Acts makes very plain the fact that the persecution of the new church came first from the Sanhedrin and from Saul of Tarsus, that Herod executed James to please the Jews, and that Paul after his conversion was constantly persecuted by Jewish opponents. The Romans in Acts scarcely even seem to know who the Christians are and are inclined to view much of this as some weird, internecine religious strife (as in the case of Gallio in Acts 18). There is literally no time in Acts at the beginning of Christianity when the new Christians are not in a "situation of antagonism" with Jewish persecutors.

In contrast, historically, Nero's first persecution of Christians was in A.D. 64. The destruction of Jerusalem took place in A.D. 70, after which point the Jews were scattered and had no independent governmental and social structures permitting them to persecute Christians as they did in the early days of the church. The ruthless Roman suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt and its aftermath in the early second century made things even worse for Jews. But Pliny the Younger in the earlier 2nd century under the Emperor Trajan was torturing Christian deaconesses for the "superstition" of Christianity. In other words, the Romans came to be the persecutors of Christianity while the Jews were at first the chief persecutors but later were in far less of a position to give the Christians a hard time. This is exactly the opposite of Ehrman's claim that Christians gradually came to be in a situation of "heightened antagonism" with Jews.

Which brings me to...

The claimed trajectory of anti-semitism in the gospels as an explanation of undesigned coincidences

Before debunking this claim of trajectory, let me emphasize (as Tim does in the interview) that it doesn't even begin to explain the undesigned coincidences Tim was pointing out. Tim points out the oddity of the fact that Pilate questions Jesus in Luke 23:2-4 about whether he is the king of the Jews, after the Jewish leaders accuse him, Jesus either admits or at least cheekily refuses to deny the charge, and Pilate apparently turns around immediately and says that he finds no fault in him. Ehrman claims that there is nothing to explain because this is part of an increasing pattern of blaming the Jews and showing that Jesus is innocent under Roman law. But this makes no sense. If that were Luke's purpose, he could easily have left out Pilate's questioning and Jesus' answer. He could have merely said that Pilate declared Jesus innocent after questioning him. Then the possibility would be left open that Pilate learned something that exonerated Jesus under Roman law in his questioning. Leaving in Pilate's question and Jesus' answer in Luke doesn't make Jesus look innocent under Roman law. It makes him look highly suspicious under Roman law!

Similarly, Tim points out that there is a coincidence in the opposite direction, because John records that Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" (John 18:33) but doesn't record any accusation to that effect against Jesus. The accusation of sedition, explaining Pilate's question, is actually found in Luke. Ehrman's response (minute 17 and following) was that this is well explained by the fact that, by the time John was written, everyone knew the "historical datum" that Jesus was condemned to death for claiming to be the king of the Jews. But wouldn't this be likely to lead to John's including the accusation as well as Pilate's question in his gospel, not leaving out the accusation and including only the question? Or at least, including something that explained the question--some prior claim to kingship made by Jesus, for example, and known to Pilate? As the passage stands, Pilate's question appears abrupt, since the Jews have thus far brought no concrete accusation against Jesus as recorded in John, and Pilate appears to know nothing about Jesus. The choppy nature of the scene in John is well explained by the casual nature of witness testimony but not explained at all by the mere historical information that Jesus was eventually condemned to death for claiming to be a king. Moreover, as I will point out again below, since Ehrman is treating John as continuing a progression of greater and greater Jew-blaming, John's failure to include their slanderous, specific accusations against Jesus is strange indeed and actually one of many counterexamples to the claimed trajectory in the gospels.

On to those counterexamples:

Like the failed trajectory claim concerning the "more human" to "more noble" or "more godlike" Jesus, the claim that the gospels gradually make the Jews more responsible for Jesus' death and Pilate less responsible is easily counterexampled when one simply opens one's Bible. Ehrman's argument for this claim is an excellent example of how cherry-picking data can create phantom trajectories out of thin air. Here is Ehrman's trajectory claim (minute 19):

If you arrange our traditions chronologically, so suppose you start with the gospel of Mark, and then you move to Matthew, then to Luke, then to John, and then to the Gospel of Peter in the second century, and then to what Justin Martyr says...the most striking feature of the traditions about Jesus being condemned to death is that Pilate becomes increasingly innocent with the passing of time and the Jewish people become increasingly guilty. That's because as Christians were telling and retelling their stories, they were in heightened situations of antagonism with Jews, and Christians began portraying Jews as the ones responsible for Jesus' death. And so that's why in the later sources Pilate has to have his arm twisted. Because that shows that in fact it's the Jews who were at fault.
Let's start with Mark. Ehrman claims in the interview (minute 21) that in Mark, Pilate and the Jews are both guilty (he implies, equally guilty) of Jesus' death, but that in later gospels Pilate needs to have his arm twisted. Of Mark, Ehrman says, "It's basically Pilate and the Jewish leaders pretty much agreeing that this needs to be done."

This is extremely misleading as a description of Mark. Mark, like all the other gospels, attributes to the chief priests and other Jewish leaders the plot to kill Jesus, stating that they were restrained earlier only by fear of the multitude, who were supportive of Jesus. (Mark 11:18) Mark records, like the other synoptics, the plot between Judas and the chief priests to have Jesus betrayed and captured, and how they promised Judas money. (Mark 14:10-11) Mark, like the other gospels, records that those who arrested Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane were from the chief priests (Mark 14:43), that the Jewish leaders first tried him before the high priest, and that it was they who first delivered him to Pilate (Mark 15:1).

In Mark 15:3-15, Pilate attempts in vs. 9 and 14 to get the crowd to agree to his releasing Jesus! In fact, vs. 10 says explicitly that he suggested that he release Jesus to them because "he was aware that the chief priests had delivered Him up because of envy." This isn't fitting very well with the idea that, in Mark, it's "basically Pilate and the Jewish leaders pretty much agreeing that this needs to be done," is it?

Mark 15:11 states that the chief priests stirred up the multitude to demand Barabbas. In vs. 14, Pilate protests, "Why, what evil has he done?" but they shout all the more, "Crucify Him!" This isn't fitting the pattern very well, is it?

In other words, in Mark, the Jewish leaders are the primary, driving force behind Jesus' crucifixion, and Pilate does need to have his arm twisted. All that one can say is that Mark's account of Jesus' interactions with Pilate is more compressed than later accounts--for example, it does not include the statement found in Luke that Jesus is sent to Herod or the various interviews between Jesus and Pilate found in John. But compression in itself does not mean that Pilate is more guilty or the Jews less guilty in Mark than anywhere else.

And here's another little tidbit. If we widen our focus (always a good thing to avoid cherry picking), we find in Mark 15:39 the Roman centurion saying, "Surely this was the son of God," which is a pretty positive portrayal of a Roman in the situation. (Remember, the claimed trajectory is of increasingly negative portrayals of the Jews and positive portrayals of Pilate, on the grounds that Jesus was innocent under Roman law.)

How about Matthew? Here, Ehrman makes much (minute 22 and following) of the dramatic scene in Matthew 27:24-25 where Pilate washes his hands and declares himself innocent of "this man's blood" and where the people cry out, "His blood be on us and on our children!" Arguably, this is the single most chilling scene in all of the New Testament as regards alleged Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death. (I myself think it's also pretty damning as a portrait of Pilate. But Ehrman wants to say that it portrays Pilate as innocent.) It is certainly a scene that is often said to be anti-Semitic in Scripture.

Ehrman tries to get full value of this scene as part of his developmental hypothesis: See how Matthew assigns the blame to the Jews? See how much more Matthew assigns the blame to the Jews than Mark does? See how this chronological trajectory is developing?

Well, no. Because what Ehrman doesn't say is that there is nothing like this in Luke and John, which are later than Matthew. This scene of hand-washing and of the Jewish crowd crying out "his blood be upon us and on our children" occurs in Matthew but not in the later Luke and John. This is an important counterexample to the developmental thesis.

What Ehrman moves on to highlight in Luke is that Pilate three times declares Jesus to be not guilty, that Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, and that Pilate says that Herod found nothing deserving of death in Jesus. Says Ehrman, "The innocence of Pilate is being heightened."

This is maximal cherry-picking. Taking attention away from the absence in Luke of Matthew's dramatic hand-washing and "his blood be upon us" scene, Ehrman states that Pilate's innocence is being "heightened" in Luke by the mere repetition of Pilate's statement that he finds no guilt in Jesus. (One of these, Luke 23:22, is actually just a fleshing out of, "Why, what evil has he done" in Mark.) To try to make Luke sound more anti-Semitic and pro-Pilate than Matthew simply because of the repeated statement by Pilate that he finds no guilt in Jesus is completely untenable. We can be quite sure that if the scene in Matthew were instead found in John, it would be used triumphantly as evidence of the enormously increased anti-Semitism in the gospels by the time one reaches the last of them. But in fact, by Ehrman's own chronological ordering, Matthew is only the second gospel, and that scene is unique to him. If the account of Jesus' trial before Pilate in Luke 23 is compared with Mark 15, it appears to be merely a more fleshed-out account, not one which blames Pilate particularly less or the Jews particularly more.

Bonus (ht to Esteemed Husband for noticing this): In Luke 23:27-31, a great crowd of (obviously Jewish) people, especially women, mourn and lament over Jesus' sentence as he is led away to die. So much for Luke's increasing anti-Jewish bias.

What about John? There are several points Ehrman conveniently leaves out about John. I have already mentioned the absence in John of anything remotely like the dramatic "his blood be upon us" scene in Matthew. John also does not have the sympathetic and awed Roman centurion, found in all the synoptics, at the foot of the cross. Here are some more:

Luke contains the explicit and slanderous accusation by the Jewish leaders to Pilate (Luke 23:2) that Jesus has forbidden paying taxes to Caesar. This would be especially likely to get the attention of the Roman governor. But, darn it! That's not found in John. The Jewish leaders also say in Luke 23:5 that Jesus "stirs up the people" all over Judea and as far as Galilee--an implication that Jesus is a dangerous rabble-rouser who should be of concern to Rome. Go ahead and check: That detail is not found in John, either. Ehrman wants to say, in his analysis of Luke, that Jesus' trial before Herod and the statement that Herod found him innocent in Luke are evidence of heightened blame towards the Jews and the heightened innocence of Pilate in Luke. I don't actually agree that that is the effect in Luke, but as it happens, oops! The trial before Herod isn't in John, either. If one cherry-picked these points instead of the ones Ehrman chooses, one could argue that there is less sympathy for the Romans and less blame on the Jews in John, the latest-written gospel, than in the synoptics, which are earlier.

Jesus' greater interactions with Pilate in John arguably make Pilate appear more to blame, not less, than in the earlier gospels. Since John shows that Pilate knows that Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, since Pilate says three times that Jesus is not guilty, Pilate's eventually giving in is more blameworthy from both a Roman and a moral perspective. He has agreed to the crucifixion of a man he knows (after careful examination) to be innocent. How Pilate's awareness of Jesus' innocence heightens Pilate's innocence is, when you stop to think about it, quite a mystery!

Back on the other side, one can point out in John that Jesus says that Pilate's power comes from God and therefore that those who delivered him to Pilate have the greater sin (John 19:11). John alone has the Jewish leaders' declaration, "We have no king but Caesar" and their statement that Pilate is not "Caesar's friend" if he releases Jesus (John 19:12-15) I'm rather surprised that Ehrman didn't happen to mention those, since they would have seemed convenient for his position.

But on the other side again, in (according to Ehrman) the earliest gospel, in Mark 15:31-32, the chief priests and scribes mock Jesus on the cross and taunt him to come down from the cross to prove his Messiahship. "Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe." These insults are also found in Matthew and Luke. But John, the latest gospel, has no such specifically Jewish insults flung at Jesus on the cross.

I am not arguing for a reverse pattern, according to which Pilate is actually seen as more to blame and the Jews less to blame in John. I am arguing that, as so often when these claims are made, there is no pattern of development in either direction. The gospels are remarkably unanimous in their description of the basic outline of Jesus' trials and crucifixion, and the details are varied, not patterned. If one looks at the whole of the evidence, one sees that John simply has a lot of different material from the synoptics in these scenes, not material that falls into a neat pattern of ideological or literary development.

And last, I come to the one detail Ehrman really emphasizes for John. This is a particularly egregious abuse of the text by Ehrman. He says (from about minute 23) that the Jewish priests are "the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John."

When you get to the Gospel of John it's even more striking. This is something you wouldn't get reading it in most English translations. Three times, once more, Pilate declares Jesus innocent. And finally, when the Jewish priests insist that Pilate crucify him, the Greek text says 'So Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.' The antecedent there are the Jewish priests. They're the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John.

Here's Ehrman's argument: The end of John 19:15 says that the Jewish priests say, "We have no king but Caesar." John 19:16 says that Pilate "delivered him up to them to be crucified," where the most plausible antecedent of "them" in vs. 16 is "the chief priests" from vs. 15. Ehrman's implication that this meaning of "them" wouldn't be seen in most English translations is a rather absurd attempt to make it look like he has some esoteric, specialist knowledge. The probable antecedent of "them" is visible on the surface of any good English translation, not particularly "in the Greek text."

But to conclude from this that "They're the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John" is a piece of serious exegetical malpractice.

Historically, crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not one used directly by Jews themselves. Perhaps Ehrman is insinuating that the author of John didn't know this. The author of the Gospel of Peter, which Ehrman mentions next, may indeed have been writing later and hence lacking this historical information; that fragment is at least ambiguous as to whether the Jewish crowds or the Roman soldiers crucify Jesus. Perhaps Ehrman is reading the apocryphal Gospel of Peter back into the Gospel of John!

As for the Gospel of John, John states four times that the crucifixion of Jesus as well as that of two other prisoners was carried out by the Roman soldiers.

--John 19:23: "The soldiers therefore, when they had crucified Jesus, took his outer garments and made four parts..."

--John 19:25: "Therefore the soldiers did these things."

--John 19:32: "The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him."

--John 19:43: "But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water."

--Bonus: The Jews in John 19:31 are not carrying out the crucifixion, because they have to ask Pilate to order the men's legs to be broken so that they will die before the Sabbath. The Romans are unambiguously the ones conducting the death process.

Ehrman's statement that the Jewish priests crucify Jesus in the Gospel of John verges on deception.

Finding developmental patterns in the gospels is rather like "finding" numerological patterns in the Bible or "finding" paths in a trackless forest. One can always pick data that make it appear that there is a path, but when one takes another look, one is forced to admit that it was all a product of one's imagination.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I suggest that the tools of literary criticism and literary development are woefully inadequate for interpreting the gospels. The hypothesis that these documents are accounts at few or no removes from eyewitnesses, with its expectation of variation in detail and mutual explanation among details, works much better. Let's take a fresh look and start using the better explanatory tool.


Tim said...

Thanks Lydia. Excellent analysis. What a slippery fellow is our Bart!

steve said...

On persecution in Acts, isn't the manifest pattern for Luke to focus on Christian leaders? That hardly means ordinary Christians weren't persecuted. Rather, it means that like historians generally, Luke is selective, and like historians generally, he tends to focus on the movers and shakers. But it would be naive to infer that his relative silence regarding the plight of ordinary Christians implies their exemption from persecution. It's just that they aren't driving the action, so they don't receive the same attention from the narrator.

reubster said...

thanks Lydia, and Tim. this has meant a lot to me. being so familiar with the gospel, one still doubts oneself listening to Ehrman. but the way you have laid it out is the natural way it's always appeared to me when read.

John said...

The major issue is not what Bart Ehrman argues; the major issue is Bart Ehrman. While the vast majority of scholarship has been involved either in advocacy of Christianity, or at least in the objective analysis of it and its foundations, in recent years a whole industry has sprung up around dismantling the faith.

It serves the same academic purpose (to gain name recognition, to sell books, to attract students) whether one becomes famous or becomes infamous. "All publicity is good publicity." And so we have a Bishop Spong, or a Jesus Seminar, or now a Bart Ehrman. I recall Lydia's earlier post quoting a scholar from a bygone day who said something like, "Someone can raise more suspicious questions in 30 minutes than can be answered in 30 months." While Ehrman keeps us busy--and takes his stand against the Lord who rose again--his stature in academy grows. And we should not be overly disappointed or discouraged when the disciples of such detractors of Jesus are not impressed or dissuaded by arguments as solid as those offered by Tim and Lydia.

No, friends, rejoice that your own names are written in Heaven.

Lydia McGrew said...

Acts certainly does focus on leaders, Steve, so your point is well-taken. Acts 8 makes it clear that the persecution was wider.

Of course, Ehrman in the debate wants to talk about persecution of non-leaders because he's obviously insinuating that people who had *no knowledge whatever* of the events directly were "telling stories" about these events and, in essence, making it up as they went along. Hence, if you can't stop all the uninformed rubes (that is, ordinary Christians) from this kind of bedtime story-telling, Christianity will just develop naturally without any need for very much basis in fact. The persecution of the actual eyewitnesses is indeed more important *evidentially*, so in a sense it's a good thing that Acts *does* focus on them.

Notice, too, that Ehrman tries to refer to John as "hearing stories" similar to Luke and vaguely implies that this explains an undesigned coincidence surrounding the feeding of the five thousand. But if these were really just legendary stories growing up around Jesus from people who were never there telling them to their children, there is no reason whatsoever why they should be consistent at all, much less display undesigned coincidences. This is presumably why he keeps his reference to John's "hearing stories" quite vague and doesn't even say whether John then plotted to fit his later gospel with these earlier stories or was just influenced by them in some unstated fashion.

Now that the issue of undesigned coincidences has been raised (having previously not been on his horizon at all), Ehrman needs to have it both ways: He will need to try to say both that the gospels are radically inconsistent because these "stories" developed from tale-telling among non-eyewitnesses and that they have delicate dovetailings among them because people heard each other's stories!

Tony said...

And why, pray tell, would "ordinary" Christians suffer themselves to be treated badly for believing in - and sticking to - what they themselves know are fairy tales they tell their kids?

Let's play a game here: we're going to play "telephone", with a twist. Each person will INTENTIONALLY modify the message they hear by a little bit when passing it on in whispers to the next person. After the message goes around the room 4 times, torturers will come in and demand of each person (a) what you last heard, and (b) whether you will stand by that - whatever it was - as true, to your dying breath if tortured.

I am going to go out on a limb here, and guess that somewhat less than 90% will hold fast to the last thing they were told. Probably less than 50%. Maybe even less than 0.000000001%.

Lydia McGrew said...

Tony, I think you are right, and I think this is primarily because Christianity is indeed founded on fact.

However, people do sometimes irrationally die for an ideology that is not based on any well-founded fact. (E.g. That sect in China that burns themselves to death.)

The chronological point at which it was *possible* that Christian converts (not the apostles themselves) were believing without sufficient evidence, as unfortunately I think some Christians today believe in Christianity in a "blind faith" manner, is difficult to pinpoint. This is why I myself tend to emphasize the testimony and *willingness* to die of the apostles (though some, like St. John, did not actually suffer martyrdom), since they were *in a position to know* rather than at multiple removes.

Samuel Ronicker said...

I've been listening to your debate between Drs. McGrew and Ehrman and then I ran across this passage and I'm wondering, if Ehrman is right and the later gospels added in a bias against the Jews, then why is this in the Gospel of Mark?!

Mark 12:1-12 (NASB)
1 And He began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard and put a wall around it, and dug a vat under the wine press and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. 2 At the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, in order to receive some of the produce of the vineyard from the vine-growers. 3 They took him, and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again he sent them another slave, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. 5 And he sent another, and that one they killed; and so with many others, beating some and killing others. 6 He had one more to send, a beloved son; he sent him last of all to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those vine-growers said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours!’ 8 They took him, and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vine-growers, and will give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not even read this Scripture:
‘The stone which the builders rejected,
This became the chief corner stone;
11 This came about from the Lord,
And it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
12 And they were seeking to seize Him, and yet they feared the people, for they understood that He spoke the parable against them. And so they left Him and went away.

Lydia McGrew said...

Sam, excellent example! That is precisely the kind of thing that Ehrman leaves out in his cherry-picking approach, and it's a good example of what I think of as widening the focus. For example, instead of just focusing on the passion, what about looking at the lead-up to the passion (the plotting of the Jewish leaders) and the parables as well?

In this particular parable, it explicitly indicates that those who kill the beloved son are the vineyard managers, and that the Jewish leaders knew that it was directed against them! And of course in the parable, there is no "Pilate" figure at all! The vine-growers just kill the son themselves! So much for the idea that the blame upon the Jewish leaders for the death of Jesus gradually grows and the blame upon Pilate gradually decreases. And *of course* this parable is not found in John, the latest and (according to Ehrman) the gospel that blames the Jews the most for Jesus' death.

Good find.

Brad Cooper said...

Excellent analysis of how all of the Gospels place blame equally on both the Jews and the Romans. One further note on that: The synoptics all summarize the blame for Jesus' death in Jesus' own prophecy of his death, placing equal blame on the Jews and the Romans:

1) Mark 10:33-34: “'We are going up to Jerusalem,' he said, 'and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.'”

2) Matthew 20:18-19: “'We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!'”

3) Luke 9:22: "And he said, 'The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.'”

Luke 18:31-33: "Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, 'We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.'”

4) John does not include these same predictions of his death. In John, Jesus' predictions of his death (unless I somehow missed it) do not place blame on anyone. For example, John 12:31-32: "'And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.' He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die."

Lydia McGrew said...

Excellent point. In my summary I backed up only as far as the existence of the plot and left out Jesus' own statements.

Similarly, it occurred to me today that Jesus' predictions of the fall of Jerusalem in Matthew and Luke, which Jesus explicitly states is a result of their rejecting him, are not echoed in John.

Thomas Yee said...

Dear Lydia,

I am so glad for this (as well as the other) follow-up post delving into the deeper elements of exegeting the text surrounding the Ehrman-McGrew debate. Those of us laymen simply listening to the debate have inadequate background knowledge to adjudicate many of the historical and textual claims made in the course of the debate, so on the progression of anti-Semitic sentiments in the gospels—which Tim did not specifically take the time to refute textually—I could only take Ehrman's word for it. I could sense that something about it felt fishy, but now that you've laid it all out I can see how artificial the interpretation must become in order to make the theory fit.

A couple quick thoughts:

1) It seems to me that you're spot-on in saying that John is, if anything, *more* anti-Semitic than the Synoptic gospels. Yes, Matthew has that rather discomforting scene, but on the whole Matthew reinforces Jesus' Jewish identity the most strongly out of any of the gospels. John distances Jesus somewhat from the Hebrew traditions and places the emphasis more on Jesus as an orator—perhaps even a Greek-style philosopher?—than a Jewish rabbi in his discourses. On top of that, John tends to identify the Jewish leaders and Pharisees more flatly as "The Jews"—it's for this reason that the Gospel of John was said to be Adolf Hitler's favourite book of the Bible. It other-izes the Jewish people more with that flattened title than even (arguably) the scene in Matthew. And it definitely serves as a counter-example to Ehrman's progression.

2) Bracketing the exegetical data showing that there is *not* a progression as Ehrman claims, it seems to me that Ehrman would have been better off acknowledging that there was, in fact, less Jewish opposition and more Roman opposition as time went on. Then, he could instead say that precisely *because* of the Roman opposition, the later Gospel and apocryphal-gospel writers tried to make Pilate appear sympathetic in order to harmonize the small and beleaguered Christian sect with the larger Roman Empire. The idea would be that the writers would be scapegoating the now non-existent Jewish leaders and flattering the Roman authorities who were in a position to do them harm—a win-win situation! At least that would make historical sense in the broad picture—but that wouldn't help one bit to show that the data supported the theory, of course...

Lydia McGrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia McGrew said...

Thomas, well, actually, I did _not_ say that John is more anti-semitic than the synoptics. I said that I can counterexample any claim of progression in either direction. Since John is the latest gospel chronologically, the statement that John is more anti-semitic than the synoptics would be, to that extent at least, _agreement_ with Ehrman's claim of a progression. You'll recall that he is saying that the gospels progressively blame the Jews more for Jesus' death and progressively blame Pilate less.

I don't really agree that the gospel of John distances Jesus from Jewish traditions. I would have to check the instances of "the Jews" as opposed to other locutions, but as is usually the case, that would be a pretty minimal item of data on which to based any generalization.

Notice that not only is the scene in Matthew missing from John, but so too are the Jewish taunts on the cross and (what a commentator in the thread has pointed out) the parable of the vineyard, which _strongly_ blames the Jews as killing "the son" directly in the parable and prophesies that the owner of the vineyard will kill them and give the vineyard to others.

On your point #2, what you suggest is certainly something Ehrman or others could have claimed, and (to be cynical) I wouldn't be surprised if Ehrman says it on some other occasion, because he seems (IMO) to say whatever comes to mind at a particular moment if it can be brought off with that air of inevitability and authority that he likes to affect. It just so happens that in this particular debate that wasn't the direction he chose to go. That wouldn't stop him from making the opposite statement at another time, though (namely, that it was because of _less_ conflict with the Jews and _more_ conflict with the Romans that Christians "became more anti-semitic" moving into the later 1st and 2nd centuries). Nobody is likely to keep score or point out the contradiction, if he were to do so.

Thomas Yee said...

Got it, thanks for setting me straight there. It seems to happen to me a lot when it comes to exegesis and Biblical history.

I've listened to a lot of Bart Ehrman's speaking, but he's never struck me as disingenuous before... but your post has me wanting to go re-watch some of those to see if he does anything else rhetorically slippery like your hunch.

Interestingly, at a quick glance at some Hitler scholarship (always ghastly waters to tread!), it looks like John 8:39-44 was a particular citation by Hitler in order to cast the Jewish people in a Satanic—or at least starkly negative—light. It looks like for most of the dialogue, the term "The Jews" is used. But I wonder if it might not be a kind of shorthand here for the Jewish leaders. In 8:13, the Pharisees are the first to speak ("The Pharisees said to him...") and after that it merely uses "The Jews." It could be something like when fiction authors may have "...Lydia said." followed by "...she said." for shorthand afterwards as long as the dialogue continues unbroken.

Thanks for replying!

P.S. I loved your article in the Blackwell Companion of Natural Theology, by the way. Excellent work!

Joe said...

I am one who dislikes, and doesn't listen to, debates as a general rule. To me, too often they are hard to keep up with, and more often than not, only prove who is the better debater. As a result, I prefer to read a good summary of a debate, where I can take my time and think about what I've read. That way, I can better digest the information. This is one of the best summations of a debate I've seen. The arguments here are solid and are not interrupted by the personal strategies of a debater, such as the rudeness of Ehrman that you noted. Techniques like that, in my opinion, serve only to distract the listener, and often allow the debater to sneak otherwise weak arguments past the audience. That is shallow, and inclines more toward 'winning' than toward getting at the truth of a point made. This analysis was a very useful and thorough effort on your part, and one I'll probably save and study more closely. Thank you.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Joe! Appreciate this supportive comment. I have a lot of material archived on this blog though I don't post here much recently. Feel free to browse around using the tags for other material that may interest you!

Joshua W.D. Smith said...

In terms of the "development" of anti-Jewish sentiment, Mark actually records the Jewish leaders plotting Jesus' death earlier that any of the other Gospels (3:6), in response to Him healing on the Sabbath, long before Pilate comes on the scene.

Would you say that one of the main reasons these kinds of theories, despite their negligible evidentiary base, catch hold and persevere is that NT scholars spend much more time reading other scholars, and very little time actually reading and re-reading the Gospels at length and in detail?

Lydia McGrew said...

That for sure, but also, they don't test their own theories for cherry picking. They don't realize that these theories can be like imaginary trails in the woods--existing only in the mind of the person who thinks that he is finding them there.

Example: In one of his commentaries (I think on Matthew) Craig Keener says something to the effect that Jesus has more conflicts with "Pharisaism" in Matthew than he does in the earlier Gospels but less than in John. IIRC he uses this to approximately place Matthew, dating-wise. Some notion that more conflicts with "Pharisaism" indicate a later dating. Which is dubious in itself.

But what Keener needed to do was to sit down with all four Gospels and systematically look up words like "Pharisee" and cognates, systematically look up negative portrayals in parables, systematically look up Sabbath controversies, *count* them, and then see if this holds water.

I did that. It doesn't.

Counting is of course a little subjective, but arguably, Luke has the highest number of "conflicts with Pharisaism" of all the Gospels. John has no more Sabbath controversies than the Synoptics (I believe fewer) and lacks Luke's highly negative portrayal of the Pharisee in the parable about the publican, as well as several other conflicts during Holy Week when they come and ask him questions. The whole developmental thesis there is concocted. I don't even know how Keener drew the conclusion.

But nobody seems to do this kind of testing.

Joshua W.D. Smith said...

Would you advocate for courses on reasoning, fallacies, etc. to be made standard for Biblical Studies degree, or even every degree? Of course, it would be unlikely to happen, but in an ideal world? (I'm a classical school teacher, so we're trying to teach logic as a habit of thought before college.)

Lydia McGrew said...

If they could be done well. That's always a big if! :-)