How God Became Jesus – Evans v Ehrman on the Burial of Jesus (Gupta)

EvansRecently, I reviewed Bart Ehrman’s chapter on the resurrection of Jesus. Basically, Ehrman made the case that (1) historians cannot prove (or disprove) the resurrection of Jesus, but (2) Ehrman finds it highly unlikely that Jesus was actually taken down from the cross and buried. A major plank in his argument for pt #2 is that Ehrman finds it (literally) incredible that the Romans would be so kind and respectful after crucifixion to allow burial. Ehrman doesn’t think there is any proof that a Jew like Jesus would be dignified with a burial, and furthermore, Ehrman believes there is ample evidence that normally the crucified were left exposed and eventually eaten by birds and wild animals or thrown into unmarked common grave pits.

In the response book, How God Became Jesus, the always capable Craig A Evans takes Ehrman on. Now, having read both sides of this story, I have to admit – if I were Bart Ehrman, after reading Evans’ chapter I would be (hmmm…what’s the right euphemism) sweating bricks. In more scholarly terms, Ehrman either was ignorant of some very important textual and archaeological information about the Jewish crucified and executed, or he simply chose to downplay or ignore the evidence against his own theory.

OK, on to the evidence from Evans.

#1: We have ample evidence that the Romans could and did show clemency for the accused and executed (even the crucified). Evans quotes from Septimius Vegetus, Pliny the Younger, and Livy to make his case. But why was mercy shown? “Clemency was sometimes occasioned by a holiday, whether Roman or a local non-Roman holiday, or simply out of political expediency, whatever the motivation” (75-76). Evans goes on to quote from the Roman Digesta which recounts Roman law and practice. In this document it is clearly stated that “The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives…Even the bodies of those who have been sentenced to be burned can be claimed, in order that their bones and ashes, after having been collected, may be buried.” Further: “The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.” Bottom line – requests for burial were sometimes taken seriously by the Romans.

Evans does not claim that the Romans always tolerated and kindly responded to requests for burial. They did not. But Evans makes it clear that it matters what the conditions were during the request for burial (so, #2 below).

#2: Romans were more likely to grant a burial request to Jews (a) during peacetime and (b) near Jerusalem. Evans appeals to Philo who recounts to Gaius the normal conditions of respect for Jewish law (Embassy to Gaius 300). Josephus, writes Evans, says much the same (Against Apion 2.73).

Now, Ehrman makes much of the fact that we are talking about Pilate when it comes to the execution of Jesus, and Ehrman believes it improbable that the vicious Pilate would grant a burial request for Jesus. Evans agrees with Ehrman that Pilate had tried to test the patience of Jews earlier in his career (see Josephus, Ant. 18.55-59), but Evans believes Pilate would have learned from their intractability. So, Evans states: “I find it hard to believe that later, acting in concern with the ruling priests in the execution of Jesus, on the eve of Passover, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, he would have defied Jewish law and sensitivities by not permitting the bodies of Jesus and the other two men to be taken down and buried prior to nightfall” (78).

#3: As a member of the Jewish council, someone like Joseph of Arimathea is a natural person to ask for the body of Jesus. Ehrman doubts that someone like Joseph of Arimathea would ask for the body of Jesus, but Evans argues that “The Jewish Council was responsible to oversee the proper burial of the executed because their bodies were normally not surrendered to family and friends” (81). [See further discussion on Joseph on p. 89]

#4: The archaeological evidence points to some crucified bodies being buried. Evans points to bones found in buried ossuaries that demonstrate the some crucified men were buried (such as Yehohanan, discovered in 1968; p. 83). There is also good reason to believe that the legs of this body of Yehohanan were broken-  why? – “The most likely and most compelling reason for hastening death in this manner was so that his corpse could be taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb before nightfall, as commanded in the law of Moses (Deut 21:22-23) and as Jewish custom required. The Romans had no reason of their own to expedite death by crucifixion, but they permitted it for reasons discussed above [i.e., to respect Jewish religious law]” (p. 85).

Evaluation

I only listed a handful of illustrations to which Evans appeals to show that Romans did occasionally respect Jewish burial customs, especially near Jerusalem and especially during peacetime. Please read this chapter for yourself, just to see how lopsided Ehrman’s own inklings really are.

Evans cannot prove that Jesus’ body was buried (we don’t have a body, after all!) any more than Ehrman can disprove it, but Evans succeeds in his primary task: to (re)establish that the tale of Jesus told in the canonical Gospels is not fanciful or historically implausible when it comes to the burial of Jesus. (That should be enough, because Ehrman is not after certainty [which is admittedly hard in historical study], but plausibility.)

Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God – Review Pt3 (Gupta)

See Part I, Part II.

bartBart Ehrman, in his How Jesus Became God, spends two chapters on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus because he believes that the early disciples’ belief that Jesus appeared to them was the major impetus for recognizing his divinity (chs. 4-5).

To be quite honest, while I thought his first few chapters were not so bad, I think his argumentation takes several steps backwards in these chapters. I felt that, in these chapters in particular, Ehrman took too many liberties in (1) defining what historians can and cannot do and (2) using guesswork to move his argument forward. We will get to that in a moment.

In about 80 pages, Ehrman says a lot, but I think here are the two key take-away points:

(1) It is historically unlikely, according to Ehrman, that Jesus was taken down from the cross and given a proper burial. Most likely, he was picked apart by birds or fed to wild animals. That is because the cruel Romans who used crucifixion to bring ultimate shame to the accused would hardly have politely agreed to requests to offer this “enemy of the state” a dignified burial.

(2) Ehrman doesn’t believe Jesus bodily rose from the dead. His best guess is that the NT and the phenomenon of early Christianity itself probably attests to the early disciples believing Jesus appeared to them (esp Peter and Paul). This may very well have been hallucinations. While Ehrman sometimes comes across as open to letting readers come to their own conclusions about Jesus’ nature, Ehrman clearly states his “historical” view: “[Jesus] was purely human” (204).

I would like to interact with a series of arguments in regards to these points that Ehrman makes in these chapters.

Jesus Was Not Buried

Part of Ehrman’s argumentation in dismissing the burial traditions of Jesus is rarity – Paul does not mention Joseph of Arimathea, he argues (see pp. 152-153). I cannot see why this is that big of a deal – we cannot equate Paul’s letters (which are pastoral documents, not evangelistic ones) with how he shared the gospel (even 1 Thess 1:9-10 does not say it all). Aside from 1 Tim 6:13, Paul doesn’t talk about Pontius Pilate. He simply did not have a reason to share that kind of information in his letters. Paul doesn’t mention Mary or Joseph or Jesus’ siblings. There are lots of things Paul doesn’t talk about.

Besides, Ehrman seems to put a lot of stock in the Christian “tradition” of 1 Cor 15, but doesn’t give much credit to Paul’s own attestation of the burial of Jesus in 1 Cor 15:4. Let alone how important burial image is for his baptismal language (Rom 6:4; Col 2:12). From what I can see, the burial of Jesus was fixed into the Christian tradition from the start.

The Early Christians Needed an Empty Tomb

Ehrman proposes that Jesus was not buried, but the early Christians fabricated an empty-tomb story so they could have a resurrected Jesus. I don’t agree that this was needed. Couldn’t Jesus have been eaten by wild animals and still God put his body back together? People died in all kinds of ways in the OT and second temple period, but still believed in the (general) resurrection. So, why not have Jesus “raised” after being eaten? I think that it could have worked that way.

Is the Eyewitness Testimony of Women Proof of Empty Tomb Story?

Ehrman comments that Christian apologists often say that the fact that it is women who are the main and first witnesses to the empty tomb are indicators that these stories are not fabricated. But Ehrman rebuts with the idea that men wouldn’t fabricate such stories, but women preachers would. He argues that, since there were many women in early Christianity, they would have a vested interest in making up such stories.

Really? I find it very hard to believe, despite the high numbers of women, that women themselves introduced women as the first and main witnesses of the resurrection. Despite such a thing being good for them (as women), would it help the sharing of the gospel? Also, even if “women storytellers” were responsible for the introduction of the tradition (which I doubt), what would compel the gospel writers to follow this tradition? Would they have felt compelled to do so? What would have made this women-witness tradition “stick”?

Why Did Witnesses of Resurrection Still Doubt?
Ehrman wonders, if Jesus did really rise from the dead, and appear to disciples, why were some eye-witnessing disciples still skeptical? Good question, Erhman, but even the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus anticipate this strange phenomenon – some things are just hard to believe. But not just because it was a strange vision, but because Jesus was crucified. No one comes back from crucifixion. Game over. But not this time. They doubted and wondered because “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.” It’s all about context, not appearance form per se.
Historians Cannot Appeal to Resurrection as Theory
Perhaps the biggest argument Ehrman repeats – one I found so strange – is that he says historians as historians cannot turn to “resurrection” to explain the empty tomb because that does not compute according to the code of historical study. Why not? Because a theory can only be put forward that fits within the options most historians consider possible. Ehrman says this over and over and over again. The resurrection cannot be taken seriously as a theory or event because “it requires a set of theological beliefs that are not generally held by all historians doing this kind of investigation” (148).
I find this such an unusual argument! What he is basically saying is this: That Jesus rose from the dead is extremely improbable. OK – All Christians agree with that! It doesn’t happen all the time! But does that make it historically impossible? If history has taught us anything, it is that, while history often repeats itself, there sometimes happens events that are very unlikely. Right?
But here Ehrman seems to follow a set of rules for historians that are dependent on what historians believe theologically. Does that mean if, all of a sudden the best historians in the world converted to Christianity, that we could then say the resurrection was a historical event because it now fits into their theological presuppositions? I guarantee Ehrman would have to say “yes,” though he would think such a mass conversion unlikely (!).
Again, this bewilders me. History-work has never been dependent on mass-consensus on theological presuppositions. It is about evidence. Plain and simple. Different people will interpret ambiguous evidence differently, but it just means that historical work is tricky, not that there is a historians’ theological-presupposition handbook out there. (Bottom line: Ehrman has to define what a historian is in such a way as to make the resurrection impossible as a theory that a ‘historian’ could make appeal to.) This is an extremely modernistic attitude towards historical work and I would dare to say there are quite a few historians (past and present) who define what historians can and cannot do very differently.
Ehrman’s “maybe’s,” and “possibly’s”
If the NT is wrong about the burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, what happened? Repeatedly, Ehrman has to venture his own theories (birds ate Jesus, Peter and Paul had hallucinations, there was no ascension). But throughout these chapters you will read a lot of “maybe’s” and “possibly’s.” He has to guess his way through (because, without the NT, which he mistrusts, he’s left with guesses). But at the end of a string of sequential guesses, all you have is a historical fiction (the Ehrman revisionist story of Christianity) that is one big guess based on things that normally happen (i.e., crucified bodies get eaten, people sometimes have visions). To me, that is not helpful. At best Ehrman should have stopped with: We don’t know what happened at all in the first century regarding Jesus and the origins of Christianity and we will never know. I just cannot see why he would venture so many tenuous guesses based on relative historical scenarios. Either it happened the way the early Christians recount, or it did not. If not, we just don’t know and guesses are not worth proposing because Ehrman tends to transform them into probabilities.

How God Became Jesus – Bird v Ehrman on the Historical Jesus (Gupta)

We are back to the ZonderBird response book – How God Became Jesus. In Chapter three, Mike Bird responds to Ehrman’s own chapter on the question did Jesus think he was God?

Mike starts, as Ehrman does, with questions about method. Mike rightly wonders whether one can sift through bits of the gospels looking for “authenticity” the way that Ehrman (and others) seem to do quite glibly. Ehrman believes that if you use the scholarly tools of the trade (various authenticating criteria), then you can scrape away the layers of Christian theology/hagiography and get down to the real stuff. But – and this may be my favorite quote in the response book so far – “Trying to separate the history from theology in the Gospels is a bit like trying to separate blue from red in the color purple” (50). That is exactly right! You just can’t do it. That doesn’t mean the evangelists did not think they were doing history. They certainly did think that, but in an ancient way, not a modern one.

Now – down to business. Is there any evidence that Jesus claimed to be God? Or claimed the kind of identity, status, or power reserved for the one God? Mike thinks the answer is “yes” and he sees it even in Mark! Mike points to Mark 2 where the response to Jesus’ healing and remission of sins is this: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7; see p. 58). Elsewhere, Mike refers to the implications of the way Jesus taught, as he “reconfigured divine commandments based on his own authority” (as with the Sermon on the Mount; 59). I love that Mike includes the reaction of Jacob Neusner to his reading of this kind of language from Jesus – “Who do you think you are [Jesus] — God?” (We could also talk about what it meant for Jesus to claim to be “greater than the temple”; Matt 12:6.; see p. 59; or for Jesus to claim to “seek and save the lost”; Luke 19:10.)

When it comes to John, I think Mike and I are just about on the same page. Mike thinks that John is certainly working from historical material and real Jesus tradition, but “this tradition has been well and truly interpreted through a pronounced theological lens. Many of its unique sayings about Jesus are probably based on a mixture of memory, metaphor, and midrash” (p. 68). But Mike is quick to argue that, despite the theological creativity of John, his ideas “stand solidly within a Jewish conception of God’s activity in the world” (68).

I only wish Mike had made it clearer that it wasn’t really a part of Jesus’ agenda to announce his membership in the Trinity whilst he was on earth. If recapitulation was his responsibility in his ministry as a faithful Israelite, it makes all the sense in the world for Jesus to focus on his model-making faithfulness and willingness to face rejection and scorn in the eyes of the world.

Evaluation

So, who’s right about Jesus and the gospels? Did Jesus think he was God? I think Ehrman has a point when he says (1) we need to understand the range of what it could mean to claim divinity and (2) that Jesus did not seem to do this explicitly in the Synoptics (very often, I would add). I think Ehrman is too cautious on this, though, and fails to take serious account of Jesus’ interaction and use of Scripture as well as certain definitive moments in his ministry. As for Mike, his highlighting of some of the occasions I mentioned above are helpful, but the fact of the matter is that Jesus is never explicit about his divinity and confessional Christians have no easy answers as to why.

I think no one can academically win this debate for the very reason that Dale Allison once described: the Jesus material in the gospels is so diverse, rich, and ambiguous, what we see is that you can do anything with that tradition. Neither side can trump the other as a matter of fact. The Ehrmans and the Birds (and the Guptas!) are doing educated theoretical work with this tradition. Ehrman is right, then – Christians operate at some level on faith. I hope Ehrman can likewise see that, even if he is not a man of “faith,” he is operating on “guesswork.”

Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God – Review Pt2 (Gupta)

bartLast time we addressed Ehrman’s first two chapters of How Jesus Became God (on Greco-Roman and Jewish religion in the first century). Here we take up his third chapter: “Did Jesus Think He Was God?”

Erhman begins this chapter by helping readers get acquainted with how historians use the gospels as historical sources. Ehrman’s basic point is that fundamentalist Christians assume a one-to-one historical correlation between what the four gospels narrate and actually how the life of Jesus historically unfolded. Ehrman tries to disabuse Bible readers of this simplistic reading approach by urging that (1) none of the writers were eyewitnesses, (2) there was a long gap of history between the events and the writing of the gospels, (3) the gospels show too many theological biases and historical discrepancies to treat them as accurate and precise sources, and (4) the gospels are written within an oral culture where “it is widely expected that stories will indeed change–they change anytime a storyteller is telling a story in a new context” (93).

A major portion of this chapter involves a circumscribed overview of the methods and trends in the latest work on Jesus scholarship. One will not be surprised to find that Ehrman offers this conclusion about the aims and concerns of the historical Jesus:

Jesus is best understood as an apocalyptic prophet who was anticipating that God was soon to intervene in human affairs to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a good kingdom here on earth…[T]his was not unique to Jesus but could be found in the teachings of other apocalyptically minded Jews of his day (see 130, which offers this nice summary of 103-112).

But Ehrman goes even further than this and argues that it is likely that Jesus even understood himself to be the messiah, especially based on the fact that this was the reason he was arrested and the charge for which he was executed (123). But, Ehrman is quick to point out – it is one thing to claim to be the messiah, and it is something entirely different to claim to be God. So, Ehrman ends his chapter by asking – Did Jesus claim to be God?

Here is his basic conclusion – John’s high-Christology confessions of Jesus are too late and too unlike the Synoptics to be taken as proof positive that the “historical Jesus” himself made such claims: “These divine self-claims in John are part of John’s distinctive theology; they are not part of the historical record of what Jesus actually said” (125). The bottom line here is that, if we look at Mark (the earliest gospel to be written), Jesus makes no unambiguous claims to divinity, and when we see it later, it is superimposed onto Jesus.

Evaluation

So, what do I think of this chapter? There were no shockers here – this is quite run-of-the-mill for modern (non-confessional) Jesus scholarship. So, I don’t have much to say in response. Nevertheless, I want to make two academic statements in reply, and one personal statement.

(1) There is a long discussion in Jesus scholarship about whether or not we dare even ask what Jesus thought. We don’t have access to his thoughts. We have access to words (maybe) and actions (probably). I am quite surprised Ehrman frames the chapter around Jesus’ thoughts. Most scholars think that unwise, because someone might think quite differently than what they say and do (like dirty politicians!). People like N.T. Wright have pushed the limit by going in the “what Jesus thought” direction, but he is the exception. I think overall most Jesus scholars (whom Ehrman naturally rubs shoulders with each year at AAR) would find his “What did Jesus think” approach out of bounds for the bead-dropping club that would naturally welcome him as ally.

(2) I suppose I am not surprised that Ehrman makes no mention nor shows the faintest hint of awareness of a kind of “new look” on the Fourth Gospel. Several scholars (including Marianne Meye Thompson, Richard Bauckham, and Paul N. Anderson) have worked very hard in the last decade to earn for John at least a small chair – heck give him a stool! – at the historical Jesus quest table. Ehrman seems to throw out the baby (Jesus) with the Christology bathwater in his undifferentiated dismissal of the Gospel of John. If we take Paul Anderson’s approach to the writing of John – which sees the material as developing from very early on and only formalized at the close of the first century – John is not so “late” in a very important sense.

Here’s another funny thing – later in Ehrman’s book, he seems quite happy to detect pre-formed Christology traditions in Paul, but he seems quite obstinate when it comes to John.

(3) Here is my personal statement (regarding how I teach John in respect to the historical Jesus). This is kind of a hypothesis or guess. OK, so I don’t think it is all that big of a deal that Jesus didn’t walk around saying “I am God. worship me!” That would not have been understood at all. Just as it made little sense when he said “Destroy this temple…” and he was talking about his own body. So, Ehrman is right that Jesus makes all kinds of claims that reflect the roles of prophet and messiah. He re-defined the latter role, but it was the charge he accepted (tacitly)?

But does that mean John simply decided to break outside of the historical concerns of the Synoptics and just make a bunch of theological stuff up? Me genoito! Here is what I think: John’s community was being challenged by Jews regarding the major claims he was making about the “godness” of Jesus – this looks like two gods and that is not allowed (hence Jewish Christians being kicked out of synagogues). John could have simply emphasized the humanness of Jesus and settled the matter, but that does not capture the true nature of Jesus as understood by the earliest Christians. So instead of backing down against Jewish criticism, John goes in another direction.

John writes a gospel where he points to the “godness” of Jesus, but does not make it up. Let’s say, most of the time, Jesus makes claims that are basically what we see in the Synoptics. However, let’s say there are these “breakout” moments where the historical Jesus offers rare glimpses of his hidden, unique divine identity. Now, what if John thinks – what would it look like if we took all of those rare “breakout” moments and string them together? What kind of gospel would we have?

So, John doesn’t make stuff up out of thin air. He definitely narrativizes and shapes the story of Jesus accordingly, but his “raw material,” as it were, is not a bunch of low-Christology moments that he elevates, but rather already-high-Christology moments that he elongates and gives almost exclusive focus. (Sidenote: that does not mean we don’t see a very frail and human Jesus in John – we do, of course.)

So how is this a helpful response to John’s Jewish critics? If he simply reinforces the “godness” of Jesus? The benefit is in the way he shows the relationship between Jesus and the one God – it is not two separate deities, but, rather, Jesus is agent in his being living Word, Body-Temple, Divine King, and One Beloved Son. And so forth.

Back to Ehrman: Ehrman denies these “breakout” moments. Thus, John has no foundation whatsoever. But if these “breakout” moments are plausible even if rare (because Jesus purposely didn’t want to walk around all the time saying, “I am Yahweh” or “I am a second God”), then John may be welcome in the conversation after all.

Next up: I will look at Ehrman’s chapters on the resurrection in the gospels.

 

Doug Moo’s Galatians Commentary – Review P3 (Gupta)

We are now into Galatians ch. 2. Here are my review notes.

2:1-10

Moo sees the Jerusalem meeting narrated in Galatians as probably pertaining to Acts 11:27-30, rather than Acts 15 (p. 118). When it comes to Paul’s ambivalent language about the Jerusalem “Pillars” (esp signalled by dokeo), Moo thinks that the 2:2 reference is neutral, but there is more a hint of irony in vv. 6 and 9 (p. 120, 124, 132).

2:11-14

Why did Peter withdraw? Moo thinks it was born out of a “tacitly wise accommodation to the concerns of stricter Jewish Christians” (p. 143). So, where was the disagreement between Peter and Paul? “Peter perhaps thought that the Jerusalem agreement simply did not cover the kind of situation he encountered in Antioch” (143). But Paul saw Peter’s actions to be, not a breach of the terms of the Jerusalem meeting itself, but rather a negation of “an essential truth of the gospel” (Moo, 144). Moo explains that “the difference is not fundamentally over theology, but over the implications for a specific form of conduct that arises from theology” (146). I see what Moo is saying, but I am not sure Paul would see “theology” in that more limited way.

Did James send these extra men, and why? Moo thinks it possible James sent them, esp in light of the “socio-political situation” and persecution from (non-Christian) Jews against “this new messianic movement” (148).

2:15-21

As you might expect, Moo engages with the New Perspective and defends a more classic Reformational reading of works vs. faith. While he admits that the Reformers did not put enough emphasis on the law (Torah) part of “works of the law,” Moo urges that there remains a fundamental Pauline critique of works as “human-oriented accomplishment” (p. 159). Moo here points to the quotation from Ps 143:2 (LXX 142:2) where Paul uses sarx to refer to the person under judgment. This shows, according to Moo, that the human is frail and weak and, thus, not able to fulfill the law.

I simply do not see this general works/faith dynamic in Galatians for three reasons: (1) Paul’s concept of pistis (faith) can be very active (as in the fruit of the Spirit), (2) the main issues of works  that are specifically brought up in Galatians focus on circumcision, food, and Sabbath -none of these are actually hard to do (except dieting, but that’s not quite what Paul is saying!) or a serious grounds for boasting in accomplishment (*note, though, there is a difference between boasting in achievement and boasting in status; Paul regularly condemned boasting in status). The third issue is this: Moo makes it seem like “works of the law” are objectively bad, but the points in Galatians are that (a) they simply do not make one right before God and (b) their time has come to end. If (b) is right, God has no objective problem with works of the law, his problem is that they are insufficient for use by those who haven’t recognized the radically complete work of Christ. Moo makes it seem like “works” themselves are the problem, but the thrust of Galatians seems to be that the Law works are from God (as a part of holy Torah), but they no longer retain the same usefulness vis-a-vis the covenant, and they were always intended to serve a limited purpose.

Moo delays further detailed discussion until he gets to 3:10-12, so I will say more then as well.

Conclusion: Nothing much surprised me here because Moo had laid much of this out in the introduction. Much of his commentary discussion was fair, sensible, and often insightful.

We will get into some meaty issues in chs. 3-4, no doubt!