Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ehrman's Summary of Historians' "Wish List"

From professor Bart Ehrman's book, Did Jesus Exist?, page 42:

In short, if a historian were drawing up a wish list of sources for an ancient person, she would want a large number of sources that derive from near the time of the person they discuss: that are extensive in what they have to say about the person; that are disinterested*, to some extent, in what they say; and that corroborate one another's accounts without having collaborated.

*Earlier he had written:

The problem, of course, is that most sources are biased; if they didn't have any feelings about the subject matter, they wouldn't be talking about it. But if we find stories that clearly do not serve the purposes of the persons telling the story, we have a good indicator that the stories are (reasonably) disinterested.

Ehrman will proceed to show that there are numerous sources (at least 7) from near the time of Jesus (some within a decade); that they are extensive; and that they corroborate one another's accounts without having collaborated. But I don't remember his discussing their disinterestedness. I guess if I were going to take the mythicist position, this would probably be the weak link in the chain that I would try attacking.

And given that Ehrman himself rejects the resurrection story, and I think he rejects the miracle stories as well, one would want to know on what basis he rejects them, other than philosophical prejudice. I suspect he would point to their lack of "disinterestedness."

Update Two points: First, I remembered wrong on what exactly Ehrman claims about the historical sources. I better just quote him at length in a new post. Second, I'm not finished with the book, yet, and he's beginning to talk about he would call "disinteredness."


Jon Garvey said...

Hi Bilbo
I've just been reading a book by Richard Bauckham in which he studies what historians at the time of the gospels would have wanted, rather than modern historians. This includes:

1 Ideally the author witnessed the events.
2 Failing, or adding to, that he interviewed eyewitnesses.
3 Involved witnesses are better than detached ones, as they alone will have understanding of the events. It is the writer's job to assess reliability and bias through interview.
4 Oral testimony is better than written sources because it can be interrogated.
5 History should ideally be written within living memory - secondhand testimony is very much inferior. Writing history more than one generation removed is of low value. The idea that a historian writing after 2000 years could correct, say, Mark would have been laughable.

Incidentally Bauckham does a lot of work on revealing the eye-witness testimony within all four gospels.

Bilbo said...

What, you're going to make me look up the title of Bauckham's book?

Jon Garvey said...

Sorry - "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses", Eerdmans 2006.

Bilbo said...

Thanks, Jon.

Jon Garvey said...

Don't you think, Bilbo, that Ehrman's methodology will only, at best, corroborate the bare existence of a person or event?

Stick it in today's setting. You want to prove that Richard Dawkins existed. You find a letter from someone who met him at a party - he was polite to them. And a few other disinterested sources like that. Sounds like he's real.

Everything public or detailed is biased, because he's only interesting to those interested in what he's talking about, either pro or anti. He developed a fruitful slant on evolution? Well, his atheist friends would say that to boost his reputation.

An enemy said he wrote well? Well, you'd have expected insults rather than praise, but flattery softens your readers up for the real insult later.

The chances of an unbiased source like the letter surviving 2000 years are nil - it's books about people (and therefore interested in them and biased) that survive.

Ehrman doesn't believe in the resurrection, I suspect, because anyone who did would have become a Christian. Then they'd be biased. Then they'd be an unreliable witness. In fact, they'd probably have doctored any unbelieving sources that seem to give support to the resurrection. How do you report a resurrection and remain disinterested?

Bilbo said...

I still haven't finished Ehrman's book, yet, Jon. The last part of it is devoted to his view of who Jesus was. Meanwhile, Ehrman has argued that the many, early witnesses to Jesus agree on at least two essentials that would be to the disadvantage of a Jewish-Christian view: Jesus was from Nazareth, which doesn't fit in with the Messianic expectation that he would be from Bethlehem. And he was crucified, which would be difficult for all Jews to accept and still believe that Jesus was the Messiah.