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Why Are You Trashing the Gospels?

I am going to take a break for three or four days from my response to Craig Evans’s critique of my view of Jesus’ burial.  There are more things that I need to say – and I have not yet gotten to what I think are his two best arguments.  But my sense is that some people are getting a little tired of a steady dose of posts on the burial stories, so… I’m going to break to deal with something else of more general interest.

I have had several people respond to my argument that Jesus was not really buried by Joseph of Arimathea on the day of his crucifixion by asking me: Why are you trashing the Gospels?

It’s a fair question, and deserves a fair answer.

The short story is that I’m not intending or trying to trash the Gospels.   In my view, what I’m doing is showing what the Gospels really are and what they really are not.   And that is not a matter of trashing them.  It’s a matter of revealing their true character, rather than foisting a false character on them.

To be sure, by arguing that the Gospels are not historically accurate I am contesting and challenging views of the Gospels that many Christians unreflectively have (and that some Christian scholars reflectively have).  But urging a different understanding of the Gospels is not the same thing as trashing them.  On the contrary if my views of the Gospels are right, then I’m illuminating the Gospels and showing both what kinds of books they are and how they ought to be read.  That’s a good, positive thing, not a bad, negative one.

I should hasten to add that the views that I have of the Gospels are not ones that *I* came up with on my own.  I’m not that smart or inventive.   These are and have long been common views among critical scholars who have committed their lives to studying the Gospels.  I’m not saying that everyone who has these same basic views agrees with everything I say about the Gospels.  Most Gospel scholars, for example, if asked, would say that they are reasonably certain that Jesus was given a decent burial by Joseph of Arimathea.  But in *principle* they would not necessarily be opposed to the alternative view that I’ve been mapping out.  The reality is that – to my knowledge – no one until now has argued very vociferously or thoroughly for this view in the way that I am.  So I don’t know what most scholars would say about it.  But in principle they wouldn’t be against it, because of our shared views of the Gospels.

Among other things, these views insist that the Gospels are not always historically accurate in what they say about Jesus.   That has been acknowledged by critical scholars of the New Testament as long as there have been critical scholars of the New Testament – for over 300 years.   So it’s nothing new, even though I hear from people nearly every week who tell me that it’s news to them.  It’s news to them because scholars can be among the worse communicators on earth, and biblical scholars in particular have done a truly dismal job of telling non-scholars what they have come to think and what they have tried to demonstrate in their research – for example about the accuracy of the Gospels.

Different scholars have different assessments of *just* how inaccurate the Gospels are.  Some think they are reliable in most of the basics, with lots of details being unreliable; others think that major stories are not historically accurate (birth narratives, e.g.); others think that in fact very many of the stories need to be questioned.  But for all of these scholars there is a basic sense that, at the end of the day, the Gospels are not dispassionate, accurate accounts of the things Jesus said and did.   Some things in them are accurate. Some things are not accurate.   And one of the tasks is to figure out which is which: which stories actually describe something that happened (e.g., Jesus’ baptism, his proclamation of the coming kingdom, his crucifixion) and which stories describe things that, historically, did not actually happen (e.g., Jesus’ Temptations in the wilderness or his Transfiguration or his turning water into wine).

These decisions are not made simply on an ad hoc basis or by guessing.   They are made by slow, deliberate, conscientious, rigorous application of historical criteria based on a very wide range of knowledge of the surviving texts and of lots of other things (history of Palestine; Roman world; Greek language; history of early Christianity – and more).   It’s not a matter of picking and choosing what you like or don’t like.

But even with stories that are judged to be basically accurate, one needs to decide what parts of the story are accurate.  Was Jesus baptized?  Almost certainly yes.  By John the Baptist?  Yes.  In the Jordan River?  Yes.  At the beginning of his ministry?  Yes.  Did a dove land on his head?  Did the heavens split open?  Did a voice come thundering from heaven?  Well, probably not.

I should stress that the views critical scholars have of the Gospels do not simply involve the question of what is historically accurate.   There are two other issues that are equally important.   The first is this: if something is not accurate, how and why did that story or part of the story come into existence?    For the dove and voice from heaven at the baptism, for example: even if those things didn’t happen, they are there for a reason: they show that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he was declared to be the Son of God—a very important theological point.  But probably not a historical reality (in terms of what actually happened).

The second thing is closely related to the first: studying the Gospels is not simply a matter of seeing what really happened and why the stories came to be altered into the form we now know them; it is also a matter of literary and theological interpretation.  Whether or not a story “happened” – what does it *mean*?  What is it saying about Jesus?  What is the theological or ethical message that is being conveyed?  And for people who are doing this who are Christian – how does or should this message affect one’s life, one’s beliefs, one’s activities, one’s ethics, one’s relationships, one’s understanding of the world, and so forth and so on.

Again, different scholars will have different evaluations of just how historical this or that story is, and about why this or that detail was added or omitted or changed, and about what the story is trying to teach.  But all critical scholars will agree that studying the Gospels involves (at least) these three basic tasks.   Fundamentalists would say that the first two tasks involve trashing the Gospels.  I say that the fundamentalists are wrong about that.   Understanding what the Gospels really are – stories about Jesus intending to teach theological lessons rather than historically accurate narratives – celebrates the Gospels for what they really are, rather than falsely glorify them for what they are not.

 


Ancient Forerunners of Modern Gospel Critics
Did Roman Laws Require Decent Burials?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  July 13, 2014

    I remember my first semester teaching the world history survey here in a conservative area of Pennsylvania. World history textbooks generally adopt the Jesus-as-wisdom-teacher view. I wanted to be closer to the scholarly consensus and show them that scholars worked based on evidence rather than deliberately advancing an atheist agenda (as I guessed the students would assume), and so I gave them a few pages of N.T. Wright in which he piled on quote after quote from the gospels to argue that Jesus was perceived by his contemporaries as an apocalyptic prophet. It didn’t work, in the sense they just assumed Wright was cherry-picking to make his point, and one student said, to the agreement of others, that scholars like him deliberately concoct sensational claims to make a name for themselves by undermining religion.

    I’ve since abandoned trying to say anything about the historical Jesus, and instead cut a detour between Late Second Temple Judaism and 2nd century Christianity with a rest stop at Paul. What I have them read instead is the stuff about early Christian art in the Cambridge History of Christianity, which focuses in part on how pagan motifs were Christianized. Students seem to buy into that, and are surprisingly willing to accept from there that if this happens in art, maybe it can also happen with, say, the Sargon birth legend being adapted for Moses.

    • Jonathan_So
      Jonathan_So  July 16, 2014

      Well, depending on the depth of you World history course, you could include Bar Kochbah and other examples as to why exactly the Romans were paranoid about any sort of movement in the region. When you get into Early Christianity and Heterodoxy and the Council of Nicea it really shows to how much a degree that there was no official story. Draw parallels to religions they don’t believe in such as Omar’s destruction of the 6 Qurans to settle on one official version in early Islam may help as well, especially if you ask them how that was any more divinely inspired than Nicea.

      And as much as I hate the title of his book, Tim Callahan’s, Secret Origins of the Bible (It’s a perfectly valid title, but I find it just sounds too similar to too many out there books promising esoteric knowledge.) Is a great resource for pagan influences on Judaism as well. The only caveat is that Callahan does not come from as strong of an academic background as professional scholars, but the book is quite well referenced.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  July 13, 2014

    Would you say most or just many of the people in your field are believers in Jesus, in some sense? When I talk to fundamentalist friends about certain issues with the gospels they think I am trying to trash the Gospels, and use words like “academic” and “liberal” – as if those are bad words! I try to point out to them that many “academics” who examine these issues in the Gospels are believers, but it doesn’t seem to register with them. It’s either believe their way or you’re just an unbeliever.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 14, 2014

      Yes, most NT scholars are believers, absolutely.

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  July 14, 2014

      Every once in a while I check the web for new blogs or discussion groups on textual criticism and just last night I found a new TC group on Facebook filled with scholars and a Yahoo group for academics on TC. Both have hundreds of members and all the discussions seemed to be at a very advanced level, but I didn’t see any evidence for non-Christian participants. None of them are fundamentalists by any measure, but you can tell that they are religious from the discussions. On the other hand there are Christian academics that surprise me when I find out they are Christian due to their ability to look at the NT from a somewhat (if not completely) clinical/detached perspective.

  3. Avatar
    Matt7  July 13, 2014

    When you say that the Gospels are “stories about Jesus intending to teach theological lessons rather than historically accurate narratives”, are you implying that the authors were honest people who did not intend for their readers to accept their writings as being historically accurate? If so, then shouldn’t they have started the stories with something like “Once upon a time…” just to make sure their audience knew what genre of literature they were reading?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 14, 2014

      It’s a complicated question. We have no way of knowing whether these anonymous persons were “honest,” or wehther they thought they were writing what was historically accuate in the modern sense, of if the modern sense of historical accuracy actually would have made *any* sense to them….

  4. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 14, 2014

    I assume you will be getting that kind of reaction for a very long time. What happens with judgments like these is that individuals just decide on gut feelings and they run with that. they would not more investigate the depth of the research going on in the scholarly world that the man on the moon! Digging out the facts a learning about the truth is not something human beings are usually interested in doing.

  5. Avatar
    JBSeth1  July 14, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    The work you are doing and sharing with the world is very important.

    Compared to all of the other information out in the world on Christianity, the New Testament, etc, there is virtually nothing out there for us laymen regarding the historical critical information on the New Testament.

    While some people may not like it because, in their opinion, you are “trashing the Gospels”, there are also many of us out here who, are glad to hear you sharing your findings with us. At least someone is willing to be honest and open about the New Testament.

    Thanks for your great service.

    John

    • Avatar
      Matilda  July 14, 2014

      I’m with you John. I have learned so much. I appreciate scholars doing all the work while I get to sit back and reap the benefit!

  6. Avatar
    Lance Odus  July 14, 2014

    “A lot of people read the NT and have opinions about the NT but scholarship on the NT tends to be different from the popular reading of the NT. To understand the NT one really has to situate it in its own historical context. When people read the NT today, mainly people who read it are believers who simply assume this is speaking to them in some way. But historians want to know what these books are as first century documents; these were written by Christians in the first century, who were living in a particular time and a particular place, with a particular set of assumptions about the world, particular set of assumptions about how religion works. And one needs to understand these writings within their own historical context. And once one does that, once one engages with these books from a point of view of history, they start looking really different from the way they look to simple believers who are reading the text for personal reasons.”…….Professor Ehrman, this is your quote which may be somewhat appropriate to this issue. I think you said this one of the times when you were on Fresh Air with Terri Gross.. I guess you could say hat those who say that you are “trashing the gospels” are saying this from a biased theological perspective rather than a historical one.

  7. Avatar
    prairieian  July 14, 2014

    Matters of faith and matters of reason, aye, there’s the rub. If your world view involves an inerrant conception of the bible, written at God’s inspiration, with the scribes acting as transmitters only and not as creators, then any kind of historical examination is problematic. Close enquiry is certainly not encouraged by those with interests at stake or holding the reins of power. Indeed, embarking on the kind of analysis biblical scholars conduct is sacrilige from first principles.

    If this is not your world view, then the real point is illumination and knowledge for a layman. Our religious world, actually almost any religious world, involves accepting dogma at face value, as a matter of faith. Most haven’t really thought at all about any of the material discussed on this blog (whatever the specific topic might be). Once a fair review of the information is made, then one’s perception has to change given the assembled evidence and the inferences drawn therefrom.

    We are really talking about two separate planes of existence, without much exchange between them. Rational discussions and debates are approaching impossible given the premises on which each side of the dichotomy start from. In the Western world this is just the way it is, without much consequence. In other lands, embarking on this sort of debate can cost you your life – indeed, it would have cost you your life five hundred years ago in the Western world.

    Something to reflect on.

    We are extraordinarily lucky to live at a time and in places where such inquiry is possible, such debate as exists can be kept civil, and God’s judgement is left to God, not to self-appointed human interpreters.

    Keep it up, Bart. I, and I have no doubt, a large number of others, find your explorations most interesting, illuminating and provide much on which to ponder. As an academic I presume you can ask for no more.

  8. Avatar
    SJB  July 14, 2014

    Prof Ehrman

    I realize it’s hard enough to understand the motivations of our contemporaries much less ancient authors but do you think the writers of the gospels thought the stories they were relating “really happened”? isn’t the fact that the author of John was willing to change the date of Jesus’ crucifixion to make a theological point evidence that they were less concerned about “historical” fact than theological “meaning”? Or is it possible that the modern distinction between “literal” and “metaphorical” interpretations of scripture is simply anachronistic and the ancient writers didn’t think the way we do at all?

    thanks

  9. Avatar
    danielkurtenbach  July 14, 2014

    If you accept the idea that the Gospels are not dispassionate, accurate accounts of the things Jesus said and did, it seems to me that the ultimate question is: Are there sufficient historically-probable statements in the Gospels to allow for the fundamental _beliefs_ of Christianity (at least the ones that matter — not things like the Virgin birth)? For example, if the story about Jesus being crucified is probably true, and it is probably true that his followers came to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then those likely historical facts leave open the possibility of belief in the Resurrection.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 14, 2014

      Yes, there are historical facts in the Gospels, as well as legendary accretions. One of the tasks of scholarship is figuring out which is which.

  10. Avatar
    bwiren  July 14, 2014

    I just joined and am enjoying reading your posts. As a former Christian, still theist, I can read about deconstructing the Bible and get a lot out of it. Thank you!

  11. Avatar
    hschick  July 14, 2014

    I once asked a retired minister if there were contradictions in the Bible. He answered that there were. I then asked why these were not taught in church. He told me that a minister would soon loose his job if they were to start exposing these contradictions.
    The members of the clergy that I have come to admire the most have devoted themselves to improving the lives of their congregations and communities. Biblical inerrancy was not their main focus.
    Too often “bible study” devolves into bashing another religion or denomination and justifying that by quoting Bible verses out of context and as historical fact. Is this not the real “trashing of the Gospels”?

  12. Avatar
    Pofarmer  July 14, 2014

    If you take what Paul seems to know about the earthly Jesus, which isn’t much, i just don’t see how you don’t have a really good chance that the Gospels are nearly entirely stories invented from “scripture”. When you take all the things “according to the scriptures”. That takes out a good chunk. If you take out the things where the Gospels disagree, like the birth narrative, that takes out another chunk. There’s nothing here that couldn’t have been made up out of whole cloth, and since you don’t have and archaelogical or contemporary evidence? There just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot left.

  13. Avatar
    IamWilliamLocke  July 14, 2014

    Before I went to university I was a fundamentalist, and my family and friends are still, for the most part, fundamentalist. I try expressing my more critical views of the Gospels but then it usually leads to them shutting off or getting angry because I am questioning God’s infallible word (even when I try demonstrate that it is not). I try approaching the subject calmly and rationally, and I even tip-toe around the more delicate issues (like Jesus’ burial). Nothing seems to work, they still will accuse me of slandering God’s word and doing the devil’s work.

    Is there any way to approach this subject with fundamentalists in such a way that does not make them feel threatened? Is it even possible to talk about biblical criticism without them thinking you are trashing the word of God?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 14, 2014

      It’s very hard! But it helps not to approach the matter with a sledge hammer, in my experience…..

      • Avatar
        IamWilliamLocke  July 14, 2014

        Do you know of any softer topics that you can use to initiate the conversation?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 14, 2014

          Maybe others here have suggestions. But I think starting off by ramming contradictions down someone’s throat isn’t the best way to go (I’ve found). It’s easier to talk about a passage and say, hey, but why does this other passage say it like this?

  14. Avatar
    Hana1080  July 14, 2014

    I beg to differ on one point “I am not that smart.” You are. And the closing sentence demonstrates intentionality, a compassionate intelligence: “Understanding what the Gospels really are – stories about Jesus intending to teach theological lessons rather than historically accurate narratives – celebrates the Gospels for what they really are, rather than falsely glorify them for what they are not.”

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 14, 2014

    Excellent post. It’s important to explain that you are not “trashing” the Gospels, but trying to understand them.

  16. Avatar
    mister.friendly  July 14, 2014

    “But my sense is that some people are getting a little tired of a steady dose of posts on the burial stories”

    Not here. Very important question.

    I find this blog has a lot in common with trout fishing. You sit there for many hours and not a lot happens then all of a sudden the line tightens and for a few hours (nights?) the whole thing is riveting. For me this is currently a riveting part.

    Hope you (and your mum) are getting enough of the *important* things in life coz… hey… you ain’t gonna be fishin when you shrug off this mortal coil!

  17. Avatar
    nichael  July 15, 2014

    Let me ask a question about this topic from a slightly different angle.

    A couple months back you posted videos of –on one hand– your debate with James White and –on the other– of a talk you gave while receiving an award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

    After listening to the questions from the respective audiences I remember thinking that if there is _anything_ that these two groups would agree on it is that **of course** you are trashing the gospel –although, granted their reaction to, and understanding of the meaning of, any such perceived “trashing” would be worlds apart.

    (To pick one particular example, I believe you wrote about how while each group seemed to agree/disagree with virtually everything you said, both groups did a complete u-turn in their expressed opinion of your work when the topic of your writings on the existence of the historical Jesus came up…. 😉 )

    Anyway, I’ve always wondered what it must feel like to have what you write be so badly, and so baselessly, misunderstood by two otherwise completely different sides of the debate?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2014

      Well, it feels like … being misunderstood! But it’s because in our culture, any view that is not fundamentalist is seen as opposed to the the Bible. That’s the culture’s fault.

  18. Avatar
    Steefen  July 16, 2014

    Bart Ehrman supports Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum. In that testimony, Jesus appeared to those who loved him, spending the third day after crucifixion restored to life.

    I am Mary, mother of Jesus. I wait at the cross. I’ve got sticks for the dogs. I’ve got rocks for the vultures. John, the beloved disciple is next to me, helping me honor the flesh of my flesh that the flesh of my flesh not be degraded. One of the 10 lepers is there. Five of the 5,000 fed are there. People who are glad he exorcised one or more demons from their community are there. Nicodemus comes to visit.

    I am the Roman who, when gambling, won his robe.

    I am one person who liked his Our Father prayer.

    I am one person who was touched by the Beatitudes at the sermon on the mount.

    I waved a palm for him (Palm Sunday) when he entered Jerusalem.

    I loved his wisdom when he had exchanges with Temple authorities.

    I loved his parables.

    I liked John the Baptist and I liked Jesus.

    If one person crucified deserved a respectable removal from the cross, it was Jesus.

    SO, we’re all gathered at the cross (at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burdens of my heart rolled away) for three days. You say Jesus is on the cross still, but he appears to us who loved him. He also has his physical encounter with Thomas while he is still on the cross?

    Vernal equinox or whatever, Jesus, the Sun, rises and the length of day comes back to life.

    Josephus dies as a Jew in the cave, after the Jotapata suicides he orchestrated, and comes back to life on the third day as a Roman with all powers in his hand.

    Domitian acts as emperor until his father returns to Rome. Then he dies as emperor while, day 1, his father is emperor, day 2, his brother, Titus, is emperor, and on the third day, he rises with all powers in his hands.

    Osiris rises from the dead and becomes Lord of the Resurrection.

    Reincarnation shows we have victory over death.

    The Lazarus Syndrome shows we have victory over death.

    Vernal equinox, Josephus, Christ Emperors, Vespasian and Titus of the Gospels and Domitian of Revelation, Osiris, reincarnation, Lazarus Syndrome whatever or whomever, Christianity has a resurrection. And the Love of Mother Mary, John the Beloved, and others waiting, not abandoning Jesus gets Jesus down from the cross with some respect.

    You can feed Jesus to the dogs and to the vultures, Bart Ehrman…

    When I lived in NYC, there was Grant’s tomb. A documentary said, there was a great death watch for him. People waited for people to die. And given all the grand wakes and funerals. People waited, stopped their lives to see a good person’s incarnation come to an end and the vehicle of incarnation buried with respect. Jesus got a decent burial.

    • Avatar
      bwiren  July 16, 2014

      Obviously, you have a literal belief in scripture. So be it. Then you really don’t belong on this blog. Mr Ehrman is looking for truth, and it obviously conflicts with your faith. But there is no point in you coming here and making uninformed comments.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  April 1, 2015

      Literal, Steefen, except for all the imaginative fiction you added.
      It’s funny, too, how sometimes reading scripture literally can undermine Christan doctrine. Often there’s a lot literalists’ beliefs that is not in the biblical text if you read it literally. This would include reading the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament WITHOUT reading Christian notions into it but allowing it and the Israelites who wrote it speak for themselves. If you put aside, for example, John;s Revelation’s claim that the serpent was Satan and just read Genesis 2-3 without reading that or anything into it, you will not find any story of the Fall of humankind, no gap opening between man and God, disobedience but nothing called a sin, no losing of immortality, and so on….

  19. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  July 22, 2014

    WHAT YOU UNDERSTAND TO
    WILL TAKE WITH YOU
    GOOD NEWS
    IS
    GOOD NEWS
    Light house in the darkness for all evil to see the light

    You are judged on your
    FOOTPRINTS
    Mentally and physically
    So you better think with fear first then everything
    Else after
    See talk and walk with heart will be just fine
    For footprints being judged right

    Light is so broad !!!
    Light is positive
    Positive is light
    Love is positive light
    Positive light is love

    In the circle of elders and
    guardians YOU BETTER KNOW
    what to do
    REV 5:2
    Um oh yea …
    Leave women worthy

    Observe dietary laws etc ummm
    I don’t know
    OR IT IS WHAT MATTERS
    Laws of Moses
    god gave You what is yours
    Give him what is his

    OnKnees palms down on ground head down
    Fear

    Transitions to
    On Knees upright praying looking up
    Repentance

    Transitions to
    On knees upright interlocked thumbs
    Kinda like dove from heaven but on chest
    Looking down eyes closed

    Love

    Transitions to
    Standing up
    praying with arms out or praying hands closed
    Towards Him with all your heart and soul and mind
    As if you were sailing in middle of the sea

    Guardian

  20. Avatar
    prestonp  July 31, 2014

    These decisions are not made simply on an ad hoc basis or by guessing. They are made by slow, deliberate, conscientious, rigorous application of historical criteria based on a very wide range of knowledge of the surviving texts and of lots of other things (history of Palestine; Roman world; Greek language; history of early Christianity – and more). It’s not a matter of picking and choosing what you like or don’t like. Dr. Ehrman

    Sometimes this is true and sometimes not. This position eliminates the possibility that some scholars don’t deliberate, that some are hasty, and guess.

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