Father Barron v. Bart Ehrman: No Contest

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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.

Go here to read the rest at Real Clear Religion.  In regard to Bart Erhman, who desperately wants the historical Jesus  not to be the Christ he once worshiped as God, this quotation from The Screwtape Letters comes to mind:


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.

Much can be learned about the history of Jesus from close study of the Gospels and the myriad primary sources for the times in which He lived, but searches for “The Historical Jesus” are usually motivated by a strong desire to make a religious point:  that Christ is not who He said that He is.  Any scholarship that seeks to reach a desired conclusion, evidence be hanged, is so much sowing of the wind.

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  1. The “quest” for the historical Jesus is an inherently fruitless investigation. And that’s because the fundamental truths of the Faith are ahistorical.

  2. Mr. Schreiber: But Jesus himself is historical. He “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” He lived, died, and rose again at a particular historical point. He is real, not a myth.

  3. Is “historical” kind of a chameleon word- taking on the color of the surrounding words. Apparently whatever a guy wants it to mean.
    What do you historians think about the fact that Jesus is God is not historical ?according to one famous author.

  4. Today, the twenty-fifth day of December,
    unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth
    and then formed man and woman in his own image.
    Several thousand years after the flood,
    when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant.
    Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
    thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.
    Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
    one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
    in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.
    In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
    the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome.
    The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
    the whole world being at peace,
    Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
    desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
    being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
    and nine months having passed since his conception,
    was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.
    Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

  5. “What do you historians think about the fact that Jesus is God is not historical?”
    I would say that’s true, but only in the sense that God, being outside of time, isn’t historical. My comment was about the methodological limitations of my discipline. It’s the same point Father Barron makes in the linked essay:

    Most of the skeptical critics of Christianity subscribe to some version of David Hume’s account of the miraculous. Hume said that since no reasonable person could possibly believe in miracles, those who claimed to have experienced a miracle must be unreasonable. They must, then, be delusional or naïve or superstitious. Hume’s logic was circular and unconvincing in the eighteenth century, and it hasn’t improved with age. Yes, if we assume that miracles are impossible, then those who report them are, to some degree, insane. But what if we don’t make things easy for ourselves and assume the very proposition we are trying to prove? What if we keep an open mind and assume that miracles are, though rare, possible? Then we don’t have to presume without argument that those who claim to have experienced them are delusional, and we can look at their reports with unjaundiced eyes.

    “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried” is indeed an historical claim –a well attested one at that. “[D]escended into hell[,] rose again[,] ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead[,]” are theological claims, not historical ones. As are “concieved by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” And by that all I mean that their truth isn’t testable by historical standards, not that they’re not true.
    And that, I hope, brings the discussion back around to where I tried to start from, i.e. that the search for the historical Jesus hasn’t been productive because historians, by the very nature of what they do as historians, tend to want to elide the metaphysical and theological. And that’s how you end up with these accounts of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet and social reformer that aren’t as interesting as the Gospel narratives of Christ the redeemer of the world.
    Historians, as historians, literally can’t handle the Truth.

  6. Anzlyne, I like Bishop Otto of Freising’s account from the 6th chapter of the 3rd book of his Chronicle:

    And so when all the strife of sedition was at last allayed, a hitherto unknown peace was restored to the world and the whole earth was divided into provinces in accordance with the census held by the Romans. This was in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Augustus and the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the founding of the City, in the one hundred and ninety-third Olympiad, when five thousand five hundred years had elapsed since Adam, and an alien, Herod the son of Antipater, was ruling in Judaea in the sixty-sixth week according to Daniel. At this time, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but according to the flesh a son of David, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judaea. And that he might be pointed out as the light of the world and the true peace, on the night on which he was born an angel appeared to shepherds amid a great light, announcing the joy due to him that had been born. And a multitude of the heavenly host sang, in unison with him, GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST, and proclaimed that peace had come on earth to men of good will.

  7. Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, was a perfectly innocent man, therefore, death had no hold on Him. Christ returned to His Father in heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit, as all men will return to our Father in heaven after each man is cleansed from sin.
    Miracles are the ordinary. Sin is outside of and destructive of the ordinary.
    Crossan is trying to prove that Jesus Christ is a myth. Crossan will return to the mind of his Father in heaven Who has created him from myth.
    Jesus Christ, the Son of God was sent into the world to redeem mankind.
    Crossan will not find the historical Jesus until Crossan accepts the Blessed Trinity and accepts God the Father.

  8. Thank you Ernst.
    I felt almost insulted by the lack of awe, by the hubris, when I heard Bill O’Reilly say that he doesn’t mention that Jesus is God in his bestselling book, because that fact is not historical. To think that God doesn’t meet some secular standard of categorization; He doesn’t even get a “Participant” ribbon.
    The dismissal of His personal bodily entry into the story of human events is arrogant. “Get back into place God, this is something for man to discuss, we’ll call you.” As if there could be history without God. He IS the protagonist of history. He drives the story, He IS the Denouement.
    God created Time and Place. Ex nihilo; of Himself.
    He in Whom we live and move and have our being, created time (for us), a framework providing points of reference and change, and a material plane, for us.

    Jesus entered Time and Place to enable us to come with HIm-eventually- (that is, through time and events) into timelessness.

  9. Ernst Schreiber

    To speak of “miracles” assumes that there is an order of nature, to which miracles are an exception. But how do we go about proving this?

    Most secularists take “the uniformity of nature” as an axiom. If they treated it as a mere hypostasis, they would find it challenged by every report of “witches flying, tables turning, Saints being levitated, oracles coming true, horoscopes being verified, broken limbs being cured by faith-healing, and the like.” Unless one assumes that nature is uniform, what grounds does one have for claiming the evidence in support of these events is false?

    I call the uniformity of nature an axiom, for it is obvious that it cannot be proved; even if all past experience supported it, why should we assume the future will, in this respect, resemble the past, unless, of course, we assume nature is uniform? Why should we suppose it even probable? Hume says, rightly enough that “We suppose, but are never able to prove, that there must be a resemblance betwixt those objects, of which we have had experience, and those which lie beyond the reach of our discovery.”

  10. I felt almost insulted by the lack of awe, by the hubris, when I heard Bill O’Reilly say that he doesn’t mention that Jesus is God in his bestselling book, because that fact is not historical. To think that God doesn’t meet some secular standard of categorization; He doesn’t even get a “Participant” ribbon.
    The dismissal of His personal bodily entry into the story of human events is arrogant. “Get back into place God, this is something for man to discuss, we’ll call you.” As if there could be history without God. He IS the protagonist of history. He drives the story, He IS the Denouement.

    Now you’re just trying to provoke what’s left of the Calvinist in me.
    he joshed

  11. Seriously? You’re trying to fight for miracles by using Hume, to whom nothing is a miracle because everything is just disconnected stuff happening all by itself?

    Unless you believe in a God Who is endlessly fickle and has no law or logic or morals except whim (one of the few things that all Muslims have been forced to believe in, because all their logical-God people got persecuted or killed off), you believe in the God of order and logic, Who established the laws of nature and “weight and order and measure.” Miracles are beyond our understanding, but it is likely their occurrence is more about God commanding the universe to do unusual things according to super-duper applications of various back doors of the laws of nature, rather than just breaking them.

  12. Suburbanbanshee

    God eternally decrees, not only the things that come to pass, but the causes of them and the order in which those causes operate, in a single, utterly self-consistent act, free and unconstrained, for, with Him, there is no time.
    Now, everything in the universe is unit and individual; because our minds cannot grasp things in their individuality, we categorize and theorize by inferences drawn by us from experience. These are notions of ours, not His. We reason from premises to conclusions; Omniscience does not.
    Miracles may be supernatural to us, but they are not supernatural to God; His nature is infinity and nothing exceeds it.
    Hume’s argument against miracles is a vicious circle: “since nature is uniform, miracles do not happen,” glossing over the fact that “do miracles occur?” and “is nature uniform?” are simply two forms of the same question. It also contradicts his real insight into the nature of probability.

  13. There is another strand to much of the effort at debunking the Divinity of Jesus Christ. He clearly makes difficult demands on our moral life, especially the business concerning sex. This is the subterranean driver, the force that that drives many of these fellows day and night. I know this as I am sinner myself, and would gladly love to find a less condemnatory Jesus, but He has made His requirements unequivocal and there is no way around it.

  14. Yes Ivan, I think that is actually huge in the debates that pretend to be about the historicity of Jesus, but are actually about whether or not He is God. ANYone could admit God into history, if only they could admit God.

  15. We should ignore all the nonsense, and stick to a Catholic Bible, and the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” which contains the Doctrine of the Faith that all Catholics are required to adhere to.
    “….. let us ask ourselves if we have actually taken a few steps to get to know Christ and the truths of faith more, by reading and meditating on the Scriptures, studying the Catechism, steadily approaching the Sacraments.” – Pope Francis, May 15, 2013.

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