“a response to bart ehrman”
by Zhou (Chew) Hong Jie
by Thomas L. Thompson (University of Copenhagen)
Bart Ehrman has recently dismissed what he calls mythicist scholarship, my Messiah Myth from 2005 among them, as anti-religious motivated denials of a historical Jesus and has attributed to my book arguments and principles which I had never presented, certainly not that Jesus had never existed. Rather than dealing with the historicity of the figure of Jesus, my book had argued a considerably different issue, which, however, might well raise problems for many American New Testament scholars who historicize what was better understood as allegorical. Rather than a book on historicity, my The Messiah Myth offered an analysis of the thematic elements and motifs of a particular myth, which had a history of at least 2000 years. This included a discussion of the Synoptic Gospels’ theological reiteration that Samaritan and Jewish scriptures had their roots in an allegorically driven discourse on a large number of dominant ancient Near Eastern literary themes and concerns, most of which were tied to ancient royal ideology. Ehrman pompously ignores my considerable analytical discussion, which was rooted in a wide-ranging, comparative literary classification and analysis of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern inscriptions. Apparently to him, the more than 40 years I have devoted to research in my study of the primary fields of Old Testament exegesis, ancient Near Eastern literature and ancient history—not least in regards to questions of historicity—leaves me unqualified and lacking the essential competence to address such questions because they also come to include a comparison of such an analysis with these same stereotypical literary tropes as they occur in the Gospels. I can understand that Ehrman may have some disagreement with my analysis and my conclusions. My introduction takes up the notoriously stereotypical figure of Jesus as (mistaken) eschatological prophet, which Ehrman—himself reiterating Schweitzer—asserts as, somehow, obviously historical. His lack of reflection on ancient forms of allegory, such as that reflected by Qohelet’s—and indeed Philo’s—principle that—in their world of theologically driven literature—there is little new under the sun, certainly provides adequate grounds for considerable disagreement, which I welcome. It is puzzling, however, that he seems sincerely unaware of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern thematic elements which are comparable to those of the Gospels: pivotal motifs such as “the one chosen by god,” the “inaugural announcement of the divine kingdom,” and “the good news” of that kingdom’s saving reversals, which offer a utopian hope to the poor and oppressed, the widow and the orphan. He even seems to ignore the stereotypical implications of the royal figure of a conquering messiah—which historical kings have indeed used in their “biographies.” Such an ancient theme as “life’s victory over death” gets its first treatment in the Gospels in a reiteration of the stories of Elisha. Surely, this is not news to him—anymore than he can be unaware of the Gospel reiterations of the “eternal need to crush the head of the evil one,” so central to the St. George myth—though no less central to an understanding of Jesus in the Gospels. Such narratively embraced themes can hardly be understood as providing historical evidence for any figure of the ancient world; this has always been the stuff other than the historical. Why has he written such a diatribe as Did Jesus Exist? And having decided to write it: why didn’t he take his title seriously and attempt to give a reasonable argument concerning his conviction that he did?
I think a less polemically minded Bart Ehrman would recognize that this project on reiterated narrative, based in an analysis of comparative literature, can only be furthered by one who is familiar with Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature. Nevertheless, his crude dismissal of the relevance of inter-disciplinary perspectives undermines my confidence that he understands the problems related to the historicity of a literary figure, except from a historicist—even fundamentalist—perspective. Although the irritation provoked by his misreading of my work, which I had published—fully aware that I was entering territory not my own—in “fear and trembling” at the prospect of detailed objections from just such a Brahmin of New Testament studies. At the same time, I must admit that I am pleased that such a well-known scholar has so clearly demonstrated, for all to see, the need—and therefore justification—for Tom Verenna’s and my little volume of essays, which will appear in the coming week or two, which deals with the very issue of the historicity of the New Testament figure of Jesus, which Bart Ehrman so thoroughly has misunderstood. This new book does deal with historicity: what we know about a historical Jesus and what we do not. The volume tries to make a virtue of the interdisciplinary approach and some of the contributions are written by quite well known, but interesting and well qualified historians and exegetes on the question of evidence and historical warrant for which Ehrman and some of his colleagues have taken for granted, assuring us that they possess more than what is adequate in the Albrightean “top drawers of their writing desks.” The book includes a discussion of the basis for our knowing or not knowing that this figure of New Testament literature had, in fact, lived in a historical Palestine of the first century, CE. It also includes essays dealing with the various possibilities of evidence for Jesus’ existence which may be implied in Paul’s writings, as well as, other, differently nuanced questions which scholars are asking today, including, alternative avenues for exploring the New Testament literature and its historicity. All of these articles, I believe, impinge closely on the nature of first and second century Samaritanism and Judaism, and, with that, its influence on the historical origins of Christianity.
Ehrman has asserted that the present state of New Testament scholarship is such that an established scholar should present his Life of Jesus, without considering whether this figure, in fact, lived as a historical person. The assumptions implied reflect a serious problem regarding the historical quality of scholarship in biblical studies—not least that which presents itself as self-evidently historical-critical. I wrote my monograph of 2005 in an effort to explore the continuity of a limited number of themes which were rooted in ancient Near Eastern royal ideology – an issue which is not only marginally related to questions of historicity, but one which also has much to say about the perception of history and historical method among modern scholars. I am, accordingly, very pleased that Thomas Verenna and I can offer this response to Ehrman’s unconscionable attack on critical scholarship in so timely a manner. It is a small book, and its ambitions are few: hardly more than to point out that our warrant for assuming the existence of a historical Jesus has important limits. In the course of that statement, I hope that readers will find some very interesting, new avenues of research being explored.