Bart Ehrman On The Kinds of Sources Historians Look For In Loooking at Historical Evidence: Part Two

Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

In our previous post called Bart Ehrman On The Kinds of Sources Historians Look For In Loooking at Historical Evidence: Part One, we were talking about Bart Ehrman’s discussion of what historians look for when trying to establish the existence of a person.

Ehrman says:

“Moreover, it is obviously best if these extensive stories are reported in sources that are disinterested. That is to say, if someone is biased toward the subject matter, the bias has to be taken into account. The problem is that most sources are biased: if they didn’t have any feelings about the subject matter, they wouldn’t be talking about it. But if we find stories that clearly do not serve the purposes of the persons telling the story, we have a good indicator that the stories are (reasonably) disinterested.”-pg 41

It is good that Ehrman does admit that many sources are biased. But that does not mean they are not telling the truth. It seems like there is this common objection that since the New Testament documents were written by the “insiders”- the “believers”, this means we can’t trust them. This is what we call an unqualified generalization. Furthermore, as Norm Geisler says:

The objection that the writings are partisan involves a significant but false implication that witnesses cannot be reliable if they were close to the one about whom they gave testimony. This is clearly false. Survivors of the Jewish holocaust were close to the events they have described to the world. That very fact puts them in the best position to know what happened. They were there, and it happened to them. The same applies to the court testimony of someone who survived a vicious attack. It applies to the survivors of the Normandy invasion during World War II or the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. The New Testament witnesses should not be disqualified because they were close to the events they relate. Related to the charge that Jesus lacks testimony by unbelievers is that there is strong evidence, but a lack of weak evidence.

Suppose there were four eyewitnesses to a murder. There was also one witness who arrived on the scene after the actual killing and saw only the victim’s body. Another person heard a second-hand report of the killing. In the trial the defense attorney argues: “Other than the four eyewitnesses, this is a weak case, and the charges should be dismissed for lack of evidence.” Others might think that attorney was throwing out a red herring. The judge and jury were being distracted from the strongest evidence to the weakest evidence, and the reasoning was clearly faulty. Since the New Testament witnesses were the only eyewitness and contemporary testimonies to Jesus, it is a fallacy to misdirect attention to the non-Christian secular sources. Nonetheless, it is instructive to show what confirming evidence for Jesus can be gleaned outside the New Testament. ” (Bakers Encyclopedia of Apologetics, pg 381).

Let’s look at this point:

“Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each other’s had to say, at least on the major points if not all the details.”-pg 41

Do we see this in the Gospels? Mark Roberts mentions this issue in his book Can We Trurst the Gospels? Roberts notes a list of some of the details about Jesus’s life and ministry that are found in all four gospels, yes, including John:

• Jesus was a Jewish man.
• Jesus ministered during the time when Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea (around A.D. 27 to A.D. 37).
• Jesus had a close connection with John the Baptist, and his ministry superceded that of John.
• John the Baptist was involved with the descent of the Spirit on Jesus.
• Jesus’s ministry took place in Galilee, especially early in his ministry
• Jesus’s ministry concluded in Jerusalem.
• Jesus gathered disciples around him. (This is important, because Jewish teachers in the time of Jesus didn’t recruit their own students, but rather the students came to them.)
• The brothers, Andrew and Simon (Peter), were among Jesus’s first disciples.
• The followers of Jesus referred to him as “rabbi.”
• Jesus taught women, and they were included among the larger group of his followers. (This, by the way, sets Jesus apart from other Jewish teachers of his day.)
• Jesus taught in Jewish synagogues.
• Jesus was popular with the masses.
• At times, however, Jesus left the crowds to be alone.
• Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God (in Matthew, more commonly the “kingdom of heaven”).
• Jesus called people to believe in God and in God’s saving activity.
• The ministry of Jesus involved conflict with supernatural evil powers, including Satan and demons.
• Jesus used the cryptic title “Son of Man” in reference to Himself and in order to explain His mission. (Jesus’s fondness for and use of this title was very unusual in his day, and was not picked up by the early church.)
• Jesus saw his mission as the Son of Man as leading to his death. (This was unprecedented in Judaism. Even among Jesus’s followers it was both unexpected and unwelcome.)
• Jesus, though apparently understanding himself to be Israel’s promised Messiah, was curiously circumspect about this identification. (This is striking, given the early and widespread confession of Christians that Jesus was the Messiah.)
• Jesus did various sorts of miracles, including healings and nature miracles.
• One of Jesus’s miracles involved the multiplication of food so that thousands could eat when they were hungry.
• Jesus even raised the dead.
• The miracles of Jesus were understood as signs of God’s power that pointed to truth beyond the miracle itself.
• Jesus was misunderstood by almost everybody, including his own disciples.
• Jewish opponents of Jesus accused him of being empowered by supernatural evil.
• Jesus experienced conflict with many Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees and ultimately the temple-centered leadership in Jerusalem.
• Jesus spoke and acted in ways that undermined the temple in Jerusalem.
• Jesus spoke and acted in ways that implied He had a unique connection with God.
• Jesus referred to God as Father, thus claiming unusual intimacy with God.
• Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, at the time of Passover, under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and with the cooperation of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. (There are quite a few more details concerning the death of Jesus that are shared by all four gospels.)
• Most of Jesus’s followers either abandoned him or denied him during his crucifixion.
• Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week.

• Women were the first witnesses to the evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. (This is especially significant, since the testimony of women was not highly regarded in first-century Jewish culture. Nobody would have made up stories with women as witnesses if they wanted them to gain ready acceptance.)- pgs 97-99

As Roberts notes,

“This is certainly an impressive list of similarities shared by all four gospels. It’s especially significant because I’ve included the Gospel of John here, even though it is the most unusual among the biblical gospels. It shows that John shares with the synoptics the same basic narrative. Thus the four biblical testimonies about Jesus are impressively similar at the core. Because Matthew and Luke used Mark, their witnesses aren’t independent, but they do corroborate Mark’s account. Thus the fact that there are four gospels contributes significantly to our confidence in their historical accuracy.”- pg 100

Let’s look at this again:

“Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each other’s had to say, at least on the major points if not all the details.”-pg 41

What about the details?  This request is kind of unrealistic and here’s why:

Anybody who handles eyewitness testimony knows this; so long as nobody’s lying, you can expect the accounts to match on the major details, but they’ll be all over the ballpark on the minor details. One will remember a person arriving, another will remember that same person leaving, a third will swear that same person wasn’t there. This actually strengthens the reliability of the gospel accounts, in that it confirms that these are the actual eyewitness accounts of genuine, honest witnesses. If they agreed on all the same points, it would be collusion.

When James Cameron was working on Titanic movie, he discovered numerous conflicts in the available eyewitness reports about what happened on Titanic’s fateful voyage. Some of the reports were given in court under oath, meaning there was no need to doubt their essential veracity. Yet, as is typical of multiple eyewitness accounts, the reports contained a variety of apparent contradictions.

Despite the conflicts in the reports, Cameron reported that he found enough in common among the reports to start reconconstructing the main lines of what really happened. And by the way, does anyone know that there are also discrepancies on the reports of Alexander the Great, the Kennedy assassination, the Lincoln assassination, or the 9-11 reports? The list goes on. We never hear anyone complaining about these issues. But then again, these stories don’t make claims that challenge our human autonomy before God. Read more about this here:

Ehrman goes onto build a reliable case for the historicity of Jesus. Before I started reading this book, I had already thought that  The Jesus Legend, The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus  Tradition by Gregory A. Boyd and Paul Rhodes had provided a solid case for rejecting the method of the Jesus mythers. Check out both books for some stimulating reading on the process of historical method and how this impacts the Jesus story.


5 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman On The Kinds of Sources Historians Look For In Loooking at Historical Evidence: Part Two

  1. Randy Hardman (@randy_hardman) September 14, 2012 / 9:39 pm

    I think, Eric, it’s important to note that Ehrman himself is biased…otherwise he “wouldn’t be writing about these things.” He’s as passionate as anybody.

    I’m sometimes frustrated by the accusation that somehow Christian or evangelical scholars should be regarded on the fringe by definition, since they are passionate and believe the Bible. But if this is true, this means that we must also toss out any and all scholars that are passionate about discrediting it or showing that it’s not reliable (i.e. Ehrman himself). This leaves a small group of scholars in the middle who might be simply agnostic on the issue, but not only does that leave for dry reading but as soon as they might be convinced of a particular bias they would be cast out.

    Bias should give us caution, but you’re right, it does not discredit something. Neither the gospels nor Ehrman’s work. Each needs to be judged in their own right.

  2. chab123 September 14, 2012 / 10:22 pm

    Randy, as they used to say on the Johnny Carson show, “You are correct sir!”

  3. nawdew14 April 25, 2016 / 8:29 pm

    Maybe I am being simple minded here, but I look at the whole supposed “lack of documentation” argument from a faith position. (Hopefully I can explain what I am talking about.)

    We know that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 and was foretold by our Lord and Savior. Luke 19:36-46

    So we can only guess the amount of volumes written about Christ being an historical figure were lost. Who really knows what was lost in terms of literature about Christ.

    But are we to come to Christ as our Lord and Savior through the works of these other writers? Would our faith in Christ be validated only by a multitude of secular works and not on the Word of God?

    The Apostle John wrote;
    John 20:30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:
    John 20:31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

    I ask, why would the Apostles purposely lie, then willfully give up their lives and never recant if Christ was nothing but a lie?

    Personally, I am good with what we have available in terms of historical documents. The Jesus myther’s are just creating a false argument to compensate for their volitional decision to deny Christ.

    Funny, if they put as much effort in putting the theory of evolution to the test as they do Christ, would they believe in evolution?

    • chab123 April 26, 2016 / 1:18 am

      Ehrman isn’t a myther. I just found that we can easily use some of these tests he mentions and apply them to the NT.

      • nawdew14 April 26, 2016 / 8:22 am

        I hear ya. I wasn’t talking about Bart as much as say Richard Carrier.

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