Bart Ehrman On The Kinds of Sources Historians Look For In Looking at Historical Evidence:

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

Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth, took on the Christ-myther issue. It should be no surprise that this book was scolded by many atheists. As I have said before, even though I find Ehrman to be very inconsistent on many issues, I still have respect for him. One part of the book I found rather interesting is the section where Ehrman discusses the kinds of resources historians look for when they are trying to establish the past existence of a person. Let me go over a few of these and see how this criteria helps make a case for Jesus:

First, Ehrman says,

“Historians prefer to have lots of written sources, not just one or two. The more, obviously the better. If there were only two or two sources you might suspect that the stories were made up. But if there are lots of sources—just as when there are lots of eyewitnesses to a car accident-then it is hard to claim that any of them just happened to make it up.”-pg 40-41

So this is the first part of Ehrman’s wish list for historians: How does the Jesus story hold up on this end? We certainly don’t have lots of written sources. But how much should we expect for someone in antiquity? The sermon from the essay from Dr. James Allan Francis in “The Real Jesus and Other Sermons” called One Solitary Life makes an interesting point:

“  Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.  He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself…”

It is quite amazing that we even have four biographies for someone in antiquity.  Maurice Casey, a non Christian scholar who specializes in early Christianity summarizes the importance of the oral world of Jesus:

“The major reasons why all our earliest sources for the Life and Teaching of Jesus are Christian is that Jesus was a first- century Jewish prophet who lived in a primarily oral Jewish culture, not a significant politician in the Graeco-Roman world. By contrast, for example, Julius Caesar was an important political and literary figure in the highly literate culture of the Romans. It is therefore natural that he should have written literary works which have survived, and that other surviving literary sources have written about him.”

Casey goes onto say:

“Jesus of Nazareth left no literary works at all, and he had no reason to write any. He lived in a primarily oral culture, except for the sanctity and central importance of its sacred texts, which approximate to our Hebrew Bible. A variety of works now thought of as Apocrypha (e.g. Sirach) or Pseudopigrapha (e.g. 1 Enoch) were held equally sacred by some Jewish people, and could equally well learnt and repeated by people who did not possess the then- difficult skill of writing. Almost all our surviving primary sources about Jesus are Christian because most people who had any interest in writing about him were his followers,and the few relatively early comments by other writers such as Josephus and Tacitus are largely due to special circumstances, such as Jesus’ brother Jacob (Jos.Ant .XX,200), or the great fire of Rome” (Tac.Annals XI, 44). – Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? by Maurice Casey

The biographies of Jesus are  bioi, an early form of biography containing the words and deeds of a historical person. Of course, we have to discuss Paul’s Letters (we will as we go forward) and sources outside the Bible. So sure, we have sources. But to ask for lots of written sources for someone in antiquity seems rather unrealistic.

Ehrman goes on to say:

“Historians also like numerous and early sources to be extensive in scope. If all you have is the mere mention of a person’s name in a source, that is not nearly as good as having a long and extensive stories told (as in lots of sources). 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. Moreover, in a 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. If one ancient source says Octavian was a Roman general who became the emperor but another source that says he was a North African peasant who never traveled outside his native village, you know that you have a problem either with Octavian himself, or, as in the case, with the source. But if you have multiple sources from near the time that tell many stories about the Roman emperor Octavian-that is, that corroborate one another’s stories- then you have good historical evidence. “

Let’s look at this point:

“Historians also like numerous and early sources to be extensive in scope. If all you have is the mere mention of a person’s name in a source, that is not nearly as good as having a long and extensive stories told (as in lots of sources).”

How does this request hold up on what we have for Jesus? Well, we certainly have some early sources (40 to 60 ad) that being Paul’s Letters. Paul’s creed in 1 Cor 15. is a very early creed about the death and resurrection of Jesus. While not extensive in scope, Paul’s Letters mention some historical aspects of the life of Jesus such as:

1. Jesus’ Jewish ancestry (Gal 3:16) 2. Jesus’ Davidic descent (Rom 1:3) 3. Jesus being born of a woman (Gal 4:4) 4. Jesus’ life under the Jewish law (Gal 4:4) 5. Jesus’ Brothers (1 Cor 9:5) 6. Jesus’ 12 Disciples (1 Cor 15: 7) 7. One of whom was named James (1 Cor 15: 7) 8. That some had wives (1 Cor 9: 5) 9. Paul knew Peter and James (Gal 1:18-2:16) 10. Jesus’ poverty ( 2 Cor 8:9) 11. Jesus’ humility ( Phil. 1:5-7) 12. Jesus Meekness and Gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1) 13. Abuse by Others (Rom 15:3) 14. Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10-11) 15. On paying wages of ministers (1 Cor 9:14) 16. On paying taxes ( Rom 13: 6-7) 17. On the duty to love one’s neighbors (Rom 13: 9) 18. On Jewish ceremonial uncleanliness ( Rom 14: 14) 19. Jesus’ titles to deity ( Rom 1: 3-4; 10:9) 20. On vigilance in view of Jesus’ second coming ( 1 Thess: 4: 15) 21. On the Lord’s Supper ( 1 Cor. 11: 23-25) 22. Jesus’ Sinless Life ( 2 Cor. 5:21) 23. Jesus’ death on a cross ( Rom 4:24; 5:8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor 15: 3) 24. Specifically by crucifixion ( Rom 6: 6; Gal 2:20) 25. By Jewish instigation ( 1Thess. 2:14-15) 26. Jesus’ burial (1 Cor. 15: 4) 27. Jesus’ resurrection on the “third day” (1 Cor.15:4) 28. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the apostles ( 1 Cor.15:5-8) 29. And to other eyewitnesses (1 Cor 15:6); and 30. Jesus’ position at God’s right hand ( Rom 8:34). To see common objections to Paul, see our post here.

See Part Two Here:

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3 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman On The Kinds of Sources Historians Look For In Looking at Historical Evidence:

  1. SLIMJIM March 16, 2015 / 6:41 am

    I actually enjoyed that book a lot though it’s not without its problem

    • chab123 March 17, 2015 / 6:32 pm

      I agree!

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