Saturday, July 4, 2015

Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman

Remarkably easy-to-read and interesting account of the accumulated (by Ehrman and many others, but mostly by Ehrman, who self-refers almost to the point of annoyance) evidence of the actual, historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. This stuff is usually very dense, very academic, and a real snooze if written badly.  But Ehrman--an intelligent person, versified in ancient Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and an acknowledged (and, truth be told, self-acknowledged) expert in ancient Christianity and Judaism, and a distinguished, award-winning professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Religious Studies--is also a gifted writer.  He has written over twenty-five books, including five NYT bestsellers.  His gift is that his prose sounds like he's talking right to you, or leaning on a lectern, facing his students.  He's right there in front of you, talking with you, not to you, and not down to you.  His writing is conversational, not pompous.

And it's thorough.  Exhaustively so.  Unlike a lot of writers of this stuff, he backs up every single assertion, all the time.  And he has the obvious knowledge to back it all up, too.  I've read a lot of this kind of thing--lots of Ehrman, but also Vermes, Eisenman, Theiring (who can get a bit hysterical and unsubstantiated), many of the Dead Sea Scrolls guys, etc.--but Ehrman is by far the most lucid, the most investigative, the most historical, the most thorough--and the easiest to read.  No small feat, that.

And he says things you can (usually) look up on your own.  Some of the things he points out have been rocking around my noggin for some time, and yet other things--sometimes head-slappingly simple--were brought to my attention here, and I feel the fool for not thinking of them myself.
Like what?  Well, among the many things:

--Did Mark, Luke, John and Matthew really write the Gospels with their names on them?  I've thought "No," for a very long time, and I've had good reasons, all of them via literary analysis (all backed up by Ehrman).  But he also throws in a little common sense, such as:

* The four Gospels were written by different people who were not followers of Jesus, scattered throughout the lands, forty to sixty years after Jesus died.

* According to the Gospels themselves, Mark was the secretary of Peter, and Luke, a physician, travelled with Paul.  So what they give us is second-hand information, at best.  They were written independently, though the later ones definitely had the earlier ones (including a few--Q, L and M--that have not survived) around, and borrowed heavily from them, sometimes verbatim.

* Most Gospel manuscripts that have survived were copied about one thousand years after the original copies.  And they are written in highly-educated, upper-class Greek.  Jesus and his disciples did not speak Greek.  His disciples certainly could not write in Greek.

* In fact, they may not have been able to read and write at all.  As Ehrman points out, many studies have shown that literacy in the ancient Middle East was about 10%, max.  And in Palestine it may have been as low as 3%.  And who would that 3% be?  The nobility.  The rich.  The people who had the money and the time to be educated.  And who were the disciples?  Fisherman.  Jesus himself was a laborer, a tekton--one who works with his hands.  (This could also mean a blacksmith or a stonemason, but the general consensus is that he was a carpenter.)  As such a person, he would've not built wooden cabinets or buildings, but simpler things for a poverty-stricken town like Nazareth--yokes for oxen, or gates.  At any rate, there would not have been much time or money for any of the disciples to read or write.  Jesus may--and only may--have been able to read a bit because he clearly knew his Old Testament, since he often quoted it verbatim.

* The Gospels are often contradictory of each other, and are often historically inaccurate.  For example, was Jesus born in Bethlehem, or Nazareth?  Constantly Jesus is referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth," or, more simply, "the Nazarene."  But according to Luke--and only Luke--Caesar Augustus imposed a tax on "all the world", and so everyone in the Roman Empire had to take part in a census so they'd be registered to pay this tax.  And so Joseph, a direct descendant of the ancient King David, and Mary had to trek to Bethlehem, and that's where Jesus was born.  In a manger, visited by the three Magi.  You know the story.  But, turns out, there is no record (and the ancient Romans kept lots of records) of Augustus imposing a tax.  Luke claims the census happened "when Quirinius was the governor of Syria," and while, of course, Herod was king.  But, turns out, Quirinius did not become governor until ten years after Herod died.  And, for all that, how logical is it that everybody in the Roman Empire had to stop what they were doing, and trek perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles to go to a place where their ancient ancestors were born over a thousand years ago?  That doesn't make any sense at all, does it?  But Luke, and only Luke, says it did.  Why?  Micah, an Old Testament prophet, said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus wasn't.  This bothered Luke, and so he fixed it.  There's a lot of that kind of thing here.

* The Gospels have obviously been altered by the many hundreds of scribes who have copied them.  One clear example is the story of the woman being stoned to death by the crowd.  Jesus tells them to knock it off, "lest he who is without sin cast the first stone."  This is one of my favorite Gospel stories, but there's a problem.  Out of all the thousands of Gospel manuscripts and fragments throughout history, it is only found in John--and only from about the Middle Ages to today.  Older manuscripts of John's Gospel do not have the story.

And there's hundreds of more examples.  But does any of that prove that Jesus didn't really exist?  Nope.  Of course not.  If I mess up a fact about JFK's life, does that mean JFK didn't exist?  The point is, though, that Ehrman argues for the historical existence of Jesus, since there's apparently a growing legion of people who do not believe Jesus ever existed--the so-called "Mythicists."  (That Jesus was just a myth, get it?)  I also believe that Jesus existed, just not in the incantation presently popular in America, especially in the South.  What I call "Joel Osteen's Jesus."  (You can look that reference up.  When you do, ask yourself, Could that be what Jesus really wanted?)

Ehrman is an agnostic, as am I, sometimes.  I think.  I sort of vary back and forth between believing and being an agnostic.  I'm never an atheist.  Anyway, this is fascinating reading.  It's set up as an argument against the Mythicists, but the real meat of the book is in his evidence of Jesus's existence, and the vast, incredible number of ways--99 % of it via literary analysis and his knowledge of ancient manuscripts and ancient Judaism and Christianity, and 1% sheer common sense--in which he proves it.

Considering our current political / educational / religious American society (and how did it get to be that our laws and our education are tied into an uneasy, un-Constitutional hybrid of these three?), this is a work that deserves--and desperately needs--to be read.

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