Notes: Chapter 6 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Erhman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, Ch. 6

Topic: The basic tools and source scholars uss to reconstruct the Historical Jesus

Preliminaries: Sources of Evidence

-Recall that source criticism is the study of the sources behind the material in the Gospels:

  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John

-We've seen that the majority of scholars argue that the probable sources of these gospels are:
  • Mark: the earliest gospel written (sources for Matt. and Lk.)
  • Q: the material common to Matt. and Lk. that is not found in Mk
  • M: the material unique to Matt.
  • L: the material unique to Lk.
  • (Paul’s letters are even earlier source (50s CE) s, but they don’t seem to be used by the gospel authors to construct their gospels.)
-These are the earliest verifiable sources of evidence for Jesus we have.

-The material of each source is independent of the others.

-Three other sources:
  • The Gospel of John
  • The Gospel of Thomas
  • The Gospel of Peter
-These sources are later.
-They are therefore not taken to be as trustworthy as the other sources.

Dating the Sources

-Canonical Sources:
  • Paul’s letter’s: 50s CE
  • Q: 50s-60s CE
  •  Mk: 65-75 CE
  • Matt and Lk: 80-85 CE
  • Jn: 90-95
-Non-Canonical Sources:
  • Gospel of Thomas: 100-120 CE
  • Gospel of Peter: 120-130 CE
Evaluating our Sources
-We’ve seen some reasons why scholars can’t take the Gospels and other sources of information about Jesus at face value.
-Because of this, they sift these sources by means of a number of criteria.
These criteria help scholars distinguish what Jesus probably did and didn’t say and do.

-Three Basic General Historical Rules of Thumb:

1. Early strata: earlier sources are less likely to be distorted and more likely to preserve accurate information than later sources.

2. Absence of theological adornment: Accounts with highly developed theology are less likely to be historically accurate.

3. Absence of author bias: Statements supporting author bias are less credible than those that don’t.

-Once the early sources containing eyewitness testimony have been identified, scholars apply more exacting criteria.
-These are called criteria of authenticity: criteria for determining what units of material within the sources probably indicate what Jesus said and did.
-Ehrman discusses three criteria of authenticity scholars use:
1. Multiple independent attestation: A unit of material attested by more than one independent source is more likely to be authentic than a unit attested by just one source.

  • Jesus began his ministry in association with John the Baptist (Mark, Q, John).
  • Jesus had brothers (Mark, John, Paul’s letters).
  • One of his brothers was named ‘James’ (Mark, Paul, Josephus).
  • Jesus told parables that likened the kingdom of God to a seed (Mark, Q, Gospel of Thomas).
2. Embarrassment: If a unit of material does not support, or works against, the agenda of the early church, then it is probably authentic.

  • Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist
  • Jesus was betrayed by his closest followers
  • Jesus was crucified
3. Contextual credibility: A unit of material that conforms to the historical and social context of 1stcentury Palestine is more probably authentic than one that does not.
  • Unlike the other two criteria, this one often has a negative function of ruling out inauthentic material.
  • Gnostic sayings in the Gospel of Thomas
  • Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John
  • Gospel of John’s report that people feared confessing Jesus as Messiah would be put out of the synagogue
Putting it All Together: How to Reconstruct the Historical Jesus
-Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct the most probable account of who Jesus was by:
  • finding the earliest and most credible sources, 
  • using objective criteria to determine which units of material within these sources are probably authentic
• The earliest sources are, in chronological order: Paul’s letters, Q, Mark, M, and L.

• Later, less reliable sources that may have some eyewitness information are the canonical gospel of John, and the non-canonical gospels of Peter and of Thomas.

• The criteria applied to these sources include:

(1) early strata
(2) lack of theological adornment
(3) absence of author bias
(4) multiple independent attestation
(5) embarrassment, and
(6) contextual credibility

• The material from our earliest sources that can be verified by passing these criteria are then used to reconstruct an account of who Jesus probably was, and what he probably said and did.

What We Can’t Know: Examples
  •  Virgin birth
  • Born in Bethlehem
  • Visited by wise men who followed a star
  • The census
  • Adoration of Jesus in the temple after his birth
-These all fail to pass the criteria above
-They therefore can’t be established historically

What We Can Know: Examples
  •  Jesus was raised in Nazareth
  • He had brothers and sisters
  • He was born and raised a Jew
  • He spoke Aramaic
  • His parents were Joseph and Mary
  • Baptized by John
-These all pass the criteria above
-They can therefore be established as historically probable

Review of Trakakis' (ed.) <i>The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue</i>

Daniel Johnson reviews the book for NDPR .