Thursday, June 9, 2011

JI: Failed Prophets and Historical Methods

Last time I covered Ehrman's examination of the biblical and extrabiblical evidence for a historical Jesus, which turns out to be generally sparse and unreliable. Now I'll go over what he thinks we can know about him. He says that the parts of our sources that meet the criteria of biblical scholars are the parts that portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet rather than God incarnate. Jesus' mission was to get people to repent before the impending arrival the Son of Man, who would bring judgment upon the earth. Ehrman emphasizes that this is not a controversial idea, but rather one that is widely taught even in seminaries.

The earliest sources for Jesus, Mark and Q, contain numerous references to a coming judgment and the Kingdom of God. The examples Ehrman gives are Mark 8:38-9:1, Mark 13:24-30, Luke 12:39-40, Luke 17:24-30, and Matthew 13:40-43. These passages provide multiple attestation to the idea that Jesus spoke of imminent judgment. This message was common among prophets of the period—and most significantly, it was John the Baptist's message as recorded in Luke 3:7-9. Of course, judgment didn't come, meaning that Jesus' prediction failed like so many others before and afterward.

There are also some teachings that Ehrman thinks meet the criterion of dissimilarity, meaning they "cut against the grain" of what Christians would make up about Jesus:
  • In Mark 8:34-38, Jesus seems to distinguish himself from the Son of Man—something a Christian writer probably wouldn't have done.
  • In Matthew 19:23-30, Jesus says the disciples will sit on 12 thrones to judge Israel, evidently including Judas. Ehrman doesn't think the author would include this embarrassing mistake unless Jesus really said it.
  • In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus explicitly says that people would go to heaven or hell based on their deeds—directly contradicting the later doctrine of faith-based salvation.
Virtually everything Jesus does in the gospels carries undertones of his apocalyptic message. His moral teachings were meant to get people in line before judgment arrived. His baptism from John the Baptist was an endorsement of John's apocalyptic views. His alleged healings and exorcisms were meant as a precursor to the banishment of suffering in the Kingdom of God. His overturning of the money changer's tables (or "cleansing the Temple") was meant to symbolize that the Temple would be destroyed when the Son of Man came.

Ehrman ends the chapter with an explanation of why the historical method can't be used to determine whether a miracle such as Jesus' resurrection occurred, regardless of the circumstances:
"If historians can only establish what probably happened, and miracles by their definition are the least probable occurrences, then more or less by definition, historians cannot establish that miracles have ever probably happened."
He stresses that historians don't say a miracle didn't occur, but only that if one did, it could not be determined historically. Then he goes on to give a possible explanation for the alleged resurrection: perhaps the body was stolen by a few of Jesus' followers (only Matthew says guards were posted at the tomb), and some of the disciples had visions of Jesus appearing to them. An extremely unlikely scenario, he says, but one that is by definition far more likely than a supernatural alternative.

No comments:

Post a Comment