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Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 7

CONTINUATION! Ben Witherington, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, has asked me to respond to a number of questions about my book Did Jesus Exist, especially in light of criticism I have received for it (not, for the most part, from committed Christians!). His blog is widely read by conservative evangelicals, and he has agreed to post the questions and my answers without editing, to give his readers a sense of why I wrote the book, what I hoped to accomplish by it, and what I would like them to know about it. He has graciously agreed to allow me to post my responses here on my blog, which, if I’m not mistaken, has a very different readership (although there is undoubtedly some overlap). It’s a rather long set of questions and answers – over 10,000 words. So I will post them in bits and pieces so as not to overwhelm anyone. The Q’s are obviously his, the A’s mine.


Q. Robert Price’s argument that the stories of Jesus are a giant midrash on OT stories about Moses and others, and so are completely fiction seems to ignore the fact that midrash is a hermeneutical technique used for contemporizing pre-existing stories. Talk briefly about the difference between how stories are shaped in the Gospels and whether they have any historical substance or core or not. (N.B. It appears that Crossan has recently made the same kind of category mistake arguing that since there are parables in the Gospels, that whole stories about Jesus may be parables, pure literary fictions).

A. In Did Jesus Exist? I try to make a major methodological point that there is a very big difference between saying that a story has been shaped in a certain (non-historical) way and saying that the story is completely non-historical. I make this point because authors like Robert Price have claimed that all the stories about Jesus in the Gospels are midrashes on stories found in the OT. By that he means, roughly, that the story of Jesus is shaped in such a way as to reflect a kind of retelling or exposition of stories about persons and events in the Old Testament. For example, the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel shapes the stories about Jesus to make Jesus appear to be a kind of “second Moses.” Like Moses, Jesus is supernaturally protected at his birth when the ruler (Pharaoh/Herod) seeks to destroy him; like Moses he goes down to Egypt as an infant; like Moses he comes up out of Egypt to the promised land; like Moses he passes through the waters (the parting of the Red Sea; the baptism); after which he spends time in the wilderness being “tested” (40 years; 40 days); after which he goes up on the mountain to receive/deliver the Law (Mount Sinai; Sermon on the Mount). The story of Jesus has evidently been “shaped” in light of the author’s knowledge of the story of Moses in order to say something: Jesus is the new Moses.

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Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 8
Why Did Christianity Succeed?



  1. Avatar
    lbehrendt  June 22, 2012

    From what I’ve read, the birth of Vaasudeva (i.e., Krishna) was something like a virgin birth, in that Krishna entered his mother’s (Devaki’s) womb without sexual intercourse taking place. True, Devaki was not a virgin at the time, but she did manage to give birth to a divine figure without having sex.

    There are plenty of Old and New Testament stories involving miraculous births, including some (like Isaac and John the Baptist) where the conception required divine intervention (because the woman was barren or past the age where conception was possible). True, in all of these stories the women were not virgins, and the conception required (or at least was accompanied by) sexual intercourse. But arguably the primary agent in these conceptions was God and not the biological father.

    Of course, when we’re talking about the birth of gods where humans are not involved, all bets are off!

    I think the point is this: while there may not be an exact parallel in other cultures to the Christian myth of the virgin birth, the story is not completely original either. It is possible that Christians appropriated a miraculous birth myth from somewhere else and made creative changes to that myth. Indeed, this is what we should expect, that when culture B borrows a myth from culture A, culture B will make changes to the myth in order to make the myth its own.

    Of course, the originality (or lack thereof) of the virgin birth story has no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether Jesus existed. There are plenty of original fictions told about real historic characters — and plenty of unoriginal fictions too!

    • Avatar
      tcc  June 23, 2012

      Doesn’t Matthew copy the idea of a virgin birth from the story of Samson (Judges 13:5)? The writer really tries to drive home this idea that Jesus is this amalgamation of different folk heroes from Judaism.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2012

        It’s usually thought that John the Baptist is more like a Samson figure; in any event, Samson’s mother wsa not a virgin. I think more scholars think that the birth of Samuel had a greater effect on the traditions of Jesus’ birth. But as to an amalgamation, I do think so!

  2. Avatar
    Bjarte  June 22, 2012

    While there are excellent reasons for thinking that some of the detalis in the gospels were borrowed wholesale from the Hebrew Bible (Micha 5:1-2 as the source of the Bethlehem connection strikes me as an obvious example), it also seems perfectly plausible that many of the supposed instances of “midrash” are simple cases of “retrofitting”, i.e. the gospel writers had some knowledge of what had really happened and went through the Old Testament in search of something that vaguely resembled the known facts. This is very similar to modern believers in psychics or seers like Nostradamus who always claim that their favorite clairvoiant predicted an important event after it occurs.

    Jeremy Behan of the Reasonable Doubts podcast has argued (persuasively in my view) that many of the supposed parallels between old Tesament prophecies and the life of Jesus are so tenuous and weak that if the gospel writers had made Jesus up out of whole cloth, they should have been able to do a much better job.

  3. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 28, 2012

    Didn’t the idea of the virgin birth come about because in order for Jesus to be the spotless sacrificial lamb, he had to be free of Adam’s sin? And when it was later found that the woman also contributed her chromosomes, isn’t this where the immaculate conception came from?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2012

      That was a later theological reflection — but I don’t think there’s any indication in Matthew or Luke that that is what they were thining about at the time. They hadn’t developed that much theologically yet!

  4. Avatar
    walstrom  January 28, 2015

    The virgin birth may have been copied from a Roman fable: Livy, a famous Roman historian, had written a very popular book on the history of Rome that was widely circulated in the first decades of the 1st century CE. In it, he explained that Mars, the Roman God of war, fathered twins Romulus and Remus, the original mythical founders of the city of Rome. Their mother was Silvia, a Vestal Virgin. (Isaac Asimov, “Asimov’s Guide to the Bible”)
    Asimov asserts ‘virgin’ is wrongly translated from “Almah” in the Hebrew, meaning ‘young woman.’

    Is this tenable? A wrong translation?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 29, 2015

      Yes, there are clear similarities here. But also differences. The idea in Livy is that Mars actually had *sex* with Silvia — not that she was a virgin.

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