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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?



  1. Avatar
    prestonp  August 2, 2014

    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.

    stories about Jesus intending to teach theological lessons

    Are you saying that Jesus himself, for whatever reasons, didn’t teach spiritual lessons through what he said? If I describe how your hand looks to me with your palm facing me, I am not necessarily trying to tell everything there is to know about what a hand looks like

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 2, 2014

      Nope, I’m not saying that! I wasn’t referring to the teachings of the historical Jesus, but to the Gospel books.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  August 2, 2014

        Who is “historical Jesus” ? I should study these kinds of things first, I guess, so as not to take up your time with what is likely basic knowledge for you.

  2. Avatar
    prestonp  August 2, 2014

    Watching the debate Dr. with D’Souza. Excellent.

    See Shadowlands. Observe the differences, if there are any, between Jack at the beginning of the film where he is lecturing on the problem of pain and at the very end as he’s teaching in the small class setting.

  3. Avatar
    prestonp  August 3, 2014

    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.

    However, you are saying that the accuracy of their accounts historically is critically important. A three prong foundation.

    Dr., when you taught at Rutgers and focused on the reality pain, you indicated your students were middle class young people and did not know much about pain.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  August 3, 2014

      I got cutoff.
      You implied that your students lack of experience with pain would temper their capacity to take a real hard look at the topic. That was my take on it, anyway.

      If I am a lightweight in this field, how well can I relate to those pros who endure great misery every day? While I understand little about the theological problems of pain, I can take comfort in knowing that I may better serve and be a more sensitive person to those who are suffering, if I have first hand knowledge.

      “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Lewis

      “You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that. Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw — but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported. Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of — something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for”. We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.”
      ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 5, 2014

      Most of them didn’t see the “problem” in the “problem of suffering.” But now, nearly thirty years later, I bet they do, sometimes with exquisite clarity.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  August 6, 2014

        As horrible as pain is, and there are many kinds including loneliness and lack of achievement, it can produce important qualities and character in us. Even as we don’t understand why suffering and pain are allowed, we can at least see how it can make us more aware of others’ problems and motivated to help.

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