Tag Archives: Jesus

What criteria do historians use to get to the minimal facts about the historical Jesus?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus in a debate by saying that the resurrection is the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates. Minimal facts are the parts of the New Testament that meet a set of strict historical criteria. These are the facts that skeptical historians agree with, totally apart from any religious beliefs.

So what are the criteria that skeptical historians use to derive a list of minimal facts about Jesus?

Dr. Craig explains them in this article.

Excerpt:

The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.

It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”

In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.

What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:

(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.

(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.

(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.

(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.

(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.

(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel Perspectives I, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.

Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.

And you can see Dr. Craig using these criteria to defend minimal facts in his debates. For example, in his debate with Ehrman, he alludes to the criteria when making his case for the empty tomb.

Here, he uses multiple attestation and the criteria of embarrassment:

Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:

1. The empty tomb is also multiply attested by independent, early sources.

Mark’s source didn’t end with the burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial story verbally and grammatically. Moreover, Matthew and John have independent sources about the empty tomb; it’s also mentioned in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36); and it’s implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have again multiple, early, independent attestation of the fact of the empty tomb.

2. The tomb was discovered empty by women.

In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.

There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.

So, if you are going to talk about the resurrection with a skeptic, you don’t want to invoke the Bible as some sort of inerrant/inspired Holy Book.

Try this approach instead:

  1. Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
  2. Explain your list of minimal facts
  3. Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
  4. Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
  5. List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
  6. Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
  7. Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
  8. Don’t let your opponent attack any of your minimal facts by attacking other parts of the Bible (e.g. – the number of angels being one or two, etc.)

And remember that there is no good case for the resurrection that does not make heavy use of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

The best essay on the minimal facts criteria that I’ve read is the one by Robert H. Stein in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“. It’s a good short essay that goes over all the historical criteria that are used to derive the short list of facts from which we infer the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That whole book is really very, very good.

William Lane Craig debates Peter Atkins: Does God Exist?

Here is the video of a debate with Peter Atkins, from the Reasonable Faith speaking tour in the UK:

This is a must-see debate. It was extremely fun to watch.

Details:

On Wednesday 26th October 2011 William Lane Craig debated Peter Atkins on the topic: Does God Exist? This debate took place at the University of Manchester  as part of the UK Reasonable Faith Tour with William Lane Craig. The debate was chaired by Christopher Whitehead, Head of Chemistry School at the University. Post-debate discussion was moderated by Peter S Williams, Philosopher in Residence at the Damaris Trust, UK.

Dr. William Lane Craig:

William Lane Craig (born August 23, 1949) is an American analytic philosopher, philosophical theologian, and Christian apologist. He is known for his work on the philosophy of time and the philosophy of religion, specifically the existence of God and the defense of Christian theism. He has authored or edited over 30 books including The Kalam Cosmological Argument (1979), Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology(co-authored with Quentin Smith, 1993), Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (2001), and Einstein, Relativity and Absolute Simultaneity (co-edited with Quentin Smith, 2007).

Craig received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Wheaton College, Illinois, in 1971 and two summa cum laudemaster’s degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1975, in philosophy of religion and ecclesiastical history. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy under John Hick at the University of Birmingham, England in 1977 and a Th.D. underWolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich in 1984.

Dr. Peter Atkins:

Peter William Atkins (born 10 August 1940) is a British chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. He is a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks, including Physical ChemistryInorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics. Atkins is also the author of a number of science books for the general public, including Atkins’ Molecules and Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science.

Atkins studied chemistry at the University of Leicester, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and – in 1964 – a PhD for research into electron spin resonance spectroscopy, and other aspects of theoretical chemistry. Atkins then took a postdoctoral position at the UCLA as aHarkness Fellow of the Commonwealth fund. He returned to Oxford in 1965 as fellow and tutor of Lincoln College, and lecturer in physical chemistry (later, professor of physical chemistry).

You can get the audio of the debate here, along with links to their previous debate from 1998. This debate is accessible and understandable to novice-level Christians.

I am happy when debates like this come out. I have friends who are Christians who doubt the importance of apologetics in evangelism, because they don’t think that apologists can prove anything or win arguments. I have friends who are skeptical of using arguments that assume a 14-billion year old universe, because they think that the Big Bang is compatible with atheism (!). I have friends who think that philosophical arguments have no persuasive force. I have friends who think that nothing can be proven from history, beyond a reasonable doubt. I have co-workers who ask me whether anyone wins these debates. I think that this debate answers all of those questions.

This debate clearly shows why Christians should not shy away from studying science, philosophy and history. We will not discover anything that harms Christian theism by thinking logically and by looking at the evidence. To the contrary, it is the atheist who makes war on the progress of science, and who is forced to resist the clear experimental evidence, and to resort to baseless speculations and blind faith. If you want to see a good debate with an intelligent atheist, I recommend watching the debate between William Lane Craig and Peter Millican instead. But if you want to see a really, really overwhelming defeat for atheism, watch this debate. It is very clear at the end of this debate why Richard Dawkins refused to debate William Lane Craig at Oxford.

SUMMARY OF THE OPENING SPEECHES

I only had time to summarize the first two speeches. Keep in mind that Dr. Craig always shines in his rebuttals, and this debate is no different. So you’ll want to watch those rebuttals. Dr. Atkins literally says in this debate in his first rebuttal “There was nothing here originally. There is nothing here now. But it is an interesting form of nothing which seems to be something.” And the audience laughs nervously. This debate is like that. You will see a clear winner and clear loser in this debate. This fight is decided by knockout.

William Lane Craig opening speech:

1. the origin of the universe
2. the moral argument
3. the resurrection of Jesus

Peter Atkins opening speech:

1. Dr. Craig is stupid, lazy and evil:
– Dr. Craig’s arguments are old: from the 11th century! Old arguments can’t be true
– Dr. Craig is just asserting that “God did it” because he is lazy
– Dr. Craig feels pressured to agree with the theistic majority
– Dr. Craig needs a psychological crutch to comfort him
– Dr. Craig is fearful of death
– Dr. Craig is just wishing for an eternal life of bliss
– Dr. Craig is driven by his heart, and not by his head

2. Origin of the universe:
– Maybe the universe is eternal and has no beginning – we don’t know
– Maybe mommy universes can give birth to daughter universes
– It is naive to think that a cause is needed to cause the creation of the universe from nothing
– Science is just about to show how it is possible that something appears out of nothing without cause
– Some scientists have already begun to speculate about about how something can come into being out of nothing
– Maybe nothing is not really nothing, but it is actually something
– It would be admitting defeat to say that God created the universe out of nothing

3. Fine-Tuning:
– It could be the case that the fundamental constants are not variable
– It could be the case that the fine-tuning of the cosmic constants is a happy accident
– It could be the case that there are billions of billions of unobservable universes that are not fine tuned
– It could be the case that the cosmic constants in these billions and billions of unobservable universes are all random so that some are fine-tuned
– Anyone who infers that an intelligence is the best explanation of a finely-tuned set of life-permitting cosmic constants is lazy

4. Purpose:
– Philosophers and theologians are stupid
– I don’t think that there is purpose in the universe
– I think that the universe is more grand if there is no purpose, so there is no purpose

5. Miracles:
– I don’t think that miracles happen
– The resurrection is a fabrication
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t exist
– It could be the case that Jesus wasn’t really crucified
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t  really die after being crucified
– It could be the case that the disciples stole his body
– It could be the case that the women went to the wrong hole in the ground
– the gospels are political propaganda written long after the events they are reporting on

6. Theodicy:
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing humans to perform actions that result in suffering
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing nature to cause suffering

7. Morality:
–  customs and conventions emerges arbitrarily in different times and places based on an awareness of the consequences of actions, as well as various anecdotes and experiences
–  these customs and conventions are decided based on the goal for survival, in much the same way as politeness and manners emerge for decorum and to avoid offense
– it is childish to presume that there is an umpire God who decides moral values and duties

8. Religious believers are stupid, lazy and evil:
– the notion of God has arisen because people are stupid and want to be comforted
– there are no arguments or evidences for belief in God
– people who believe in God do not think, but instead take refuge in incomprehensible nonsense

Did the city of Nazareth exist at the time of the birth of Jesus?

Israeli archaeologist Yardena Alexandre inspects Roman 1st-century pottery found from the city of Nazareth.
Israeli archaeologist Yardena Alexandre inspects Roman 1st-century pottery found from the city of Nazareth.

A while back, I was discussing a recent debate that a friend attended between an atheist musician named Dan Barker and a Christian with a doctorate in New Testament Studies named Justin Bass.

According to my friend’s report, the atheist questioned the existence of Nazareth, and then went on from there to assert that everything we know about Jesus is legendary.

This is what the atheist’s argument sounds like:

  1. If the New Testament contains reliable history about Jesus, then Nazareth must exist.
  2. Nazareth does not exist.
  3. Therefore, the New Testaments does not contain reliable history about Jesus. (M.T. 1,2)

I was able to find a web site where an atheist was making the claim that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus. So this is not completely outside the realm of mainstream atheism. I doubled checked with two more people who attended the debate that Barker indeed made an argument like the one above.

Two things to say about this 3-step argument. First off, when speaking to atheists, Christians only care about making a case for the resurrection. This is for two reasons. One, our goal is to disprove atheism, and the historical argument for the resurrection is the most evidenced miracle claim in the New Testament. Nazareth is not part of that core of minimal facts about the resurrection of Jesus. Second, it’s possible to be a Christian by accepting a core of Christian dogma (e.g. – the Apostle’s Creed), while remaining agnostic or even skeptical of other things in the Bible. Nazareth is not part of that core of minimal facts that must be affirmed in order to become a Christian.

The problem I have with atheists is that they pick and choose from the Bible according to their own agenda. Every Christian has read basic books on the resurrection by people like Lee Strobel, Michael Licona, William Lane Craig, J. Warner Wallace and so on. This is like table stakes for living a Christian life. We all know how to make a case based off of minimal facts for the resurrection. When Christians get into debates about Jesus, we want to make a case for the core of historical knowledge about him, minimal facts that almost no one disagrees with. But many atheists aren’t like that. They want to pick and choose a few verses out of the Old Testament and the New Testament that they personally find distasteful to them, and then deny the minimal facts about Jesus on that basis. I don’t think that it makes sense to deny evidence for widely-accepted facts by bringing up minor problems that are irrelevant to the well-attested core facts.

But it’s worse than that – we actually DO know that Nazareth existed, and we know it not from some fundamentalist preacher, but from atheist Bart Ehrman.

Ehrman writes in his book:

One supposedly legendary feature of the Gospels commonly discussed by mythicists is that the alleged hometown of Jesus, Nazareth did not exist but is itself a myth. The logic of this argument, which is sometimes advanced with considerable vehemence and force, appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’ hometown, they probably made him up as well.  I could dispose of this argument fairly easily by pointing out that it is irrelevant.  If Jesus existed, as the evidence suggests, but Nazareth did not, as this assertion claims, then he merely came from somewhere else.  Whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S. or not (for what it is worth, he was) is irrelevant to the question of whether he was born.

Since, however, this argument is so widely favored among mythicists, I want to give it a further look and deeper exploration.  The most recent critic to dispute the existence of Nazareth is René Salm, who has devoted an entire book to the question, called The Myth of Nazareth.  Salm sees this issue as highly significant and relevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus: “Upon that determination [i.e., the existence of Nazareth] depends a great deal, perhaps even the entire edifice of Christendom.”

So that seems like a fair representation of the argument I outlined above.

Bart’s response is long, but here’s part of it:

There are numerous compelling pieces of archaeological evidence that in fact Nazareth did exist in Jesus’ day, and that like other villages and towns in that part of Galilee, it was built on the hillside, near where the later rock-cut kokh tombs were built.  For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a farm connected with the village, and it dates to the time of Jesus.  Salm disputes the finding of the archaeologists who did the excavation (it needs to be remembered, he himself is not an archaeologist but is simply basing his views on what the real archaeologists – all of whom disagree with him — have to say).  For one thing, when archaeologist Yardena Alexandre indicated that 165 coins were found in this excavation, she specified in the report that some of them were late, from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.  This suits Salm’s purposes just fine.  But as it turns out, there were among the coins some that date to the Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and early Roman period, that is, the days of Jesus.  Salm objected that this was not in Alexandre’s report, but Alexandre has verbally confirmed (to me personally) that in fact it is the case: there were coins in the collection that date to the time prior to the Jewish uprising.

Aalm also claims that the pottery found on the site that is dated to the time of Jesus is not really from this period, even though he is not an expert on pottery.  Two archaeologists who reply to Salm’s protestations say the following:  “Salm’s personal evaluation of the pottery … reveals his lack of expertise in the area as well as his lack of serious research in the sources.”  They go on to state: “By ignoring or dismissing solid ceramic, numismatic [that is, coins], and literary evidence for Nazareth’s existence during the Late Hellenisitic and Early Roman period, it would appear that the analysis which René Salm includes in his review, and his recent book must, in itself, be relegated to the realm of ‘myth.’”

Read Bart’s whole excerpt from his book in his post.

I did a quick double check on the archaeologist Ehrman mentioned, and found an Associated Press story about another archaelogical discovery made by archaeologists in Nazareth. This time, it’s not the coins, but pottery fragments. The date range on the pottery is 100 before Jesus’ birth to 100 years after Jesus’ birth.

Even though Ehrman is an atheist, I think that he understands how to do history. You can’t be a credentialed historian and throw out the early proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection because of doubts about Old Testament violence. You can’t be a credentialed historian and throw out the conversions of Paul and James because you don’t know whether there was one angel or two angels at the empty tomb. Denying the core facts about Jesus by bringing up concerns about peripheral issues is not a responsible way to investigate the historical Jesus.

What do ancient non-Christian sources tell us about the historical Jesus?

The Annals, by Roman historian Tacitus
The Annals, by Roman historian Tacitus

This article from Biblical Archaeology covers all the non-Christian historical sources that discuss Jesus.

About the author:

Lawrence Mykytiuk is associate professor of library science and the history librarian at Purdue University. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies and is the author of the book Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200–539 B.C.E. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004).

Here are the major sections:

  • Roman historian Tacitus
  • Jewish historian Josephus
  • Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata
  • Platonist philosopher Celsus
  • Roman governor Pliny the Younger
  • Roman historian Suetonius
  • Roman prisoner Mara bar Serapion

And this useful excerpt captures the broad facts about Jesus that we get from just the first two sources:

We can learn quite a bit about Jesus from Tacitus and Josephus, two famous historians who were not Christian. Almost all the following statements about Jesus, which are asserted in the New Testament, are corroborated or confirmed by the relevant passages in Tacitus and Josephus. These independent historical sources—one a non-Christian Roman and the other Jewish—confirm what we are told in the Gospels:31

1. He existed as a man. The historian Josephus grew up in a priestly family in first-century Palestine and wrote only decades after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ known associates, such as Jesus’ brother James, were his contemporaries. The historical and cultural context was second nature to Josephus. “If any Jewish writer were ever in a position to know about the non-existence of Jesus, it would have been Josephus. His implicit affirmation of the existence of Jesus has been, and still is, the most significant obstacle for those who argue that the extra-Biblical evidence is not probative on this point,” Robert Van Voorst observes.32 And Tacitus was careful enough not to report real executions of nonexistent people.

2. His personal name was Jesus, as Josephus informs us.

3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one,” as Josephus states and Tacitus implies, unaware, by reporting, as Romans thought, that his name was Christus.

4. He had a brother named James (Jacob), as Josephus reports.

5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture), according to Josephus, although it is anachronistic to say that they were “many” at the end of his life. Large growth
in the number of Jesus’ actual followers came only after his death.

6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him, at least according to some versions of the Testimonium Flavianum.

7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state.

8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus.

9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.), as Josephus implies and Tacitus states, adding that it was during Tiberius’s reign.

Some of Jesus’ followers did not abandon their personal loyalty to him even after his crucifixion but submitted to his teaching. They believed that Jesus later appeared to them alive in accordance with prophecies, most likely those found in the Hebrew Bible. A well-attested link between Jesus and Christians is that Christ, as a term used to identify Jesus, became the basis of the term used to identify his followers: Christians. The Christian movement began in Judea, according to Tacitus. Josephus observes that it continued during the first century. Tacitus deplores the fact that during the second century it had spread as far as Rome.

I remember reading the 1996 book by Gary Habermas entitled “The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ“. This book is a little before the time of most of you young Christian apologists, but back before the time of Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace, this is the stuff we all read. Anyway, in the book he makes a list of all that can be known about Jesus from external sources. And fortunately for you, you don’t have to buy the book because you can read chapter 9 of it right on his web site.

From Tacitus he gets this:

From this report we can learn several facts, both explicit and implicit, concerning Christ and the Christians who lived in Rome in the 60s A.D. Chronologically, we may ascertain the following information.

(1) Christians were named for their founder, Christus (from the Latin), (2) who was put to death by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilatus (also Latin), (3) during the reign of emperor Tiberius (14 37 A.D.). (4) His death ended the “superstition” for a short time, (5) but it broke out again, (6) especially in Judaea, where the teaching had its origin.

(7) His followers carried his doctrine to Rome. (8) When the great fire destroyed a large part of the city during the reign of Nero (54 68 A.D.), the emperor placed the blame on the Christians who lived in Rome. (9) Tacitus reports that this group was hated for their abominations. (10) These Christians were arrested after pleading guilty, (11) and many were convicted for “hatred for mankind.” (12) They were mocked and (13) then tortured, including being “nailed to crosses” or burnt to death. (14) Because of these actions, the people had compassion on the Christians. (15) Tacitus therefore concluded that such punishments were not for the public good but were simply “to glut one man’s cruelty.”

And from Josephus he gets this:

(1) Jesus was known as a wise and virtuous man, one recognized for his good conduct. (2) He had many disciples, both Jews and Gentiles. (3) Pilate condemned him to die, (4) with crucifixion explicitly being mentioned as the mode. (5) The disciples reported that Jesus had risen from the dead and (6) that he had appeared to them on the third day after his crucifixion. (7) Consequently, the disciples continued to proclaim his teachings. (8) Perhaps Jesus was the Messiah concerning whom the Old Testament prophets spoke and predicted wonders. We would add here two facts from Josephus’ earlier quotation as well. (9) Jesus was the brother of James and (10) was called the messiah by some.

So when you are reading the New Testament, these facts are the framework that you read within. It’s a good starting point when dealing with people who have never looked into who Jesus was and what he taught and what his followers believed about him, right from the start.

Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? A response to Bart Ehrman

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Dr. Neil Shenvi comments on Bart Ehrman’s hypothesis that Jesus was a “failed apocalyptic prophet”.

Here is the outline page, and the outline points:

  1. Great swaths of agreement
  2. Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
  3. Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
  4. Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
  5. Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?

We’ve talked about 1 and 2 before, so let’s look at #3.

Here’s the problem:

In this section, I want to consider a third major point of divergence between Ehrman and evangelicals: the issue of Jesus’ status as an apocalyptic prophet. Christians throughout history have agreed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in the sense that he preached about God’s coming judgment and urged people to repent, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Where Christians disagree with Ehrman is over the issue of timing: did Jesus believe and in fact predict that the Final Judgment of the world by the Son of Man would occur within the lifetime of his followers? This difference is important because if Jesus did predict that the end of the world would occur within a generation of his death, this would obviously call into question his claim to be divine.

Ehrman thinks that Jesus was making apocalyptic predictions about events that would occur within a generation of his death. He also thinks that Jesus is talking about the end of the world, rather than using apocalyptic language to refer to some other calamity. So, if Jesus is predicting the end of the world sometime soon after his death and that never happened, then he cannot be God stepping into history. He made a big mistake about something important. So how do we explain Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies?

Well, most scholars agree that Jesus’ predictions of destruction in Mark 13 (and echoed in Matt 24 and Luke 21) predate the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and Neil thinks that he was referring to that event, and not the end of the world and final judgment.

Shenvi has 3 arguments for his view, let’s look at just one:

First, notice that Jesus’ use in [Mark 13] v. 29-30 of the phrases “these things… all these things” is a deliberate echo of Peter’s question in v. 4 about when “these things” will happen and when “all these things” will be fulfilled (the underlying Greek phrases are also identical). But in v. 4, Peter was asking about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had just predicted in v. 2. While Peter may have had the end of the world also in mind, the text in Mark makes no mention of that fact. Thus, whatever other material Jesus introduced in the Olivet Discourse, his (or Mark’s) repetition of those two particular Greek phrases in his prophecy about ‘this generation’ (v. 30) seems to indicate that his prediction is to be primarily understood as a response to Peter’s question.

As for the ‘cosmic’ predictions in v. 29-30, connecting an imminent, temporal judgment on a single nation with the final judgment on the entire world was a common device in the Old Testament. For example, the book of Zephaniah alternates between oracles of judgment against Judah and its neighbors, which were predicted for the near-future, with prophesies of God’s final judgment and restoration, which would occur at an unspecified future time. Similar motifs can be found in books like Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. At this point, it is unimportant whether we see the prophesies in these books as genuine predictions (the evangelical view) or as retrospective explanations of events which had already occurred (a common non-evangelical view). What matters is that, by Jesus’ time, it was understood that temporal judgments could foreshadow a future final judgment. So in transitioning immediately from the impending destruction of Jerusalem to the final judgment, Jesus was repeating a theme which had existed in the Old Testament prophets for centuries.

[…]Third, Jesus does not actually predict in this passage that the Son of Man will return within ‘this generation.’ This observation was astonishing to me, but it’s fairly clear in the text. Look again at the two key verses: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:19-30). What Jesus predicts in v. 30 is that “all these things” will take place within “this generation.” Ehrman’s contention is that “all these things” include the coming of the Son of Man as described in v. 26-27. But look again at v. 29. When the disciples see “these things” taking place it will mean that the Son of Man is “near, at the very gates.” In fact, it is nonsensical to say that “these things” include the Son of Man arriving to judge the world. If that were true, then v. 29 would mean “when you see [the Son of man arriving to judge the world], you know that [the Son of Man] is near.” As I’ve argued, it’s far more plausible to see ‘these things’ as referring solely to destruction of Jerusalem. When the disciples see ‘these things’ [the events preceding the destruction of Jerusalem], then they will know that the Son of Man is near, even at the door.

He responds to several objections to his argument and concludes so:

The three independent arguments I’ve given here support the idea that Jesus did not intend to predict the end of the world within one generation in the Olivet Discourse. In my opinion, a better reading is that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem within the next generation and saw this destruction as a foreshadowing of a final judgment which would occur at an unspecified time “after that tribulation” (v 24).

If this is an objection that you’ve heard before, you can do two things. Read the post, and then bookmark it for later. When the question comes up next time, you’ll be ready, because Dr. Shenvi has done the work for you.