13 May 2012

Review of Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist"

Posted by at 7:56 PM
Bart Ehrman is a rock star. Well … as close to a rock star as a geeky Ivy League academic with tenure can get, anyway. After a long industrious, prolific, and distinguished career teaching the historical Jesus, he now finds himself in a most enviable position, one that other lesser-known New Testament scholars drooly aspire to. He is without question the best-selling author in the field of New Testament studies today, penning one successful (and usually provocative—at least to the evangelical mindset) book on Christian origins after another. His is an impressive (and lucrative) streak. Well-known among scholars, he's also become an ubiquitous presence in the talk-show circuit, in book-signing tours, on the radio, in documentaries that profile the latest reconstruction(s) of Jesus, and in all manner of media. He's big time, a go-to "professional expert", as ubiquitous now as Bishop Spong, Elaine Pagels, Dom Crossan, and N.T. Wright have been for a while.  
His latest work is titled Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Its purported subject is mythicism, that is, the notion that the legend of Jesus might be just that, legendary, not based on a real historical personality, but instead on an essentially fictional character.  Simply put (too simply, in my opinion): the notion that Jesus did not really exist. 
I'd read several of his previous books before — Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet …, Misquoting Jesus, and Forged. — so I am familiar with his general take on the historical Jesus. He subscribes to the failed apocalyptic millennial prophet model which Schweitzer had espoused at the turn of the twentieth century. I am also familiar with his narrative style, which I have always found, I must confess, to be excessively confident and a bit prosaic. This general rhetorical bent is continued in Did Jesus Exist.
Several highly critical reviews of this book have already appeared in the blogosphere, one of the most damning being that of Richard Carrier on his blog, which (rightly) focuses on the copious —the blatantly obvious, and even sophomoric— errors in the book, errors which only a very sloppy writer with little regard for accuracy would make. I won't rehash those here, but I recommend Carrier's review very much. Instead, I would like to highlight an aspect of Ehrman's book which I feel has been overlooked by many critics. 
From the very start, Ehrman readily admits that he is writing not for those who might find the Christ Myth theory tenable (he dismisses such people categorically as obstinate and beyond persuasion in the book's introduction). He writes instead for all those who are "seeking the truth" in these matters. Bracket for the moment the polemical presumptuousness and circularity of this preliminary statement of his intention (i.e. mythicists are not truth seekers or else they wouldn't be mythicists, right?). What I find troubling about this opening move is that it is an indirect admission on his part that he has no intention of being thorough in his critique of mythicism. This is also evident in the length of his book (369 pages), the briefness of which is certainly not enough by itself to warrant condemnation; after all, John Dominic Crossan managed to skillfully demolish the gist of Raymond Brown's 1600+ page (two hefty volumes) opus, The Death of the Messiah, in less than 300 pages (in his Who Killed Jesus). Brevity is thus not necessarily a liability, but I am afraid that in the case of Ehrman's book, the length reflects his biased selectivity and subsequent methodological cavalierness, his predilection to dismiss mythicism uncritically as so much "conspiracy" mongering, picking and choosing only some issues from the mythicist literature that he can deal with in a superficial and dismissive manner. After all, a conspiracist is a conspiracist, right? Granted, there have been many self-professed mythicists who don't know their ass from a hole in the ground, but then there are those who are quite versed in the materials pertaining to Christian origins and are very incisive and insightful. Ehrman does seem to make some kind of distinction between these, but only superficially, it turns out, for, as one reads his assessments of scholars such as Wells and Price, one finds him using the same derisive undertones that he also uses on less-credible work (e.g. Freke-Gandy, et al). He even treats Earl Doherty, the author of probably the most thorough and cogent argument for a Christ Myth theory in existence with disdain. Worse, he (intentionally?) misrepresents and mischaracterizes many of Doherty's positions in this book. Anyone who has read Doherty's own writing must conclude that Ehrman simply didn't, that he probably relied instead on time-saving synopses of it. Or, if he did read it, it must have been  whilst preparing his taxes, mowing the lawn, watching a movie or something as distracting. Again, I won't rehash his mischaracterizations of Doherty in this review (Neil Godfrey has already done a much better job of analyzing them in detail than I could on his blog — here, here, here, herehere, here, and here — that Godfrey sure is prolific ;).
Ehrman also explicitly states that he is not writing a "scholarly" work, that his aim is a book that will be accessible more to a general (pop) audience, dealing not with minutia but with general claims. This directly contradicts his publisher's misleading description of the book on Amazon's Kindle store, which reads: " […]Ehrman demolishes both the scholarly and popular mythicist arguments against the existence of Jesus […] ".
Wait a minute, Ehrman demolishes the scholarly arguments?
Hell, as anyone who has extensively read the literature of The Tübingen School and read the Dutch Radicals (who had a profound influence on what would eventually become mythicism — Ehrman doesn't mention them except for Bruno Bauer in passing) and read the turn-of-the-century and newer wave of skeptics will realize, Ehrman doesn't even address the scholarly arguments! Of course, his intended audience, unfamiliar as they are with the pertinent materials, will casually assume that Ehrman has done the leg work necessary to make his case thoroughly. 'He is Bart Ehrman, after all. He must know what he's talking about.' It's shameful.
But put even that failure aside for the moment. Did Jesus Exist's main fault is prior to all of this and more simply stated. The Achilles' heel, to my eyes, the thing that makes me raise my eyebrow regarding this little book, the most puzzling thing of all, is Ehrman's decision to do a pop book rather than a scholarly one. Logic dictates that the latter type is required first in order to lend credence to the former type.  He's got it bass-akwards. How can one distribute authorative information to the masses, when one has not bothered to do a thorough review of the material in question first?  He presents himself as authoritative but only reveals his laziness on this one. This could have been a great book.
As it is, it sucks. 
This really has me scratching my head. Why has Bart Ehrman done such an irresponsible hack job at this stage in his career? Maybe his new-found rock star status has gone to his head?
Needless to say, I think that this is arguably Ehrman's worst effort to date.
I'm sure that it will do very well, though. 
Given all that I have said above, I suggest that future editions of the book replace both the title and the cover with ones that are more appropriate to this book's actual content:

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