The Historical Figure of Jesus from the Gospels: A Response to Bart Ehrman

Holy Apostles College & Seminary

by Allison Ramirez

Dr. Matthew Ramage SAS 651: Synoptic Gospels

17 August 2022




Bart Ehrman, modern biblical critic, and agnostic, raises several arguments for his belief in both a lack of credibility and an inability to know the historical Jesus through the gospel texts themselves. The main concerns for Ehrman are outlined as follows: a lack of original gospel manuscripts, textual inconsistencies across what manuscripts we do have, skepticism over the resurrection of Jesus, a rejection that the gospels purport Jesus to be divine, and of arguably weightiest concern, a claim that the lack of an immediate second coming of Christ (Parousia) is evidence that the early Christians –and thus the biblical texts in question—are errant in their theological view of an early return. As summarized in Matthew Ramage’s Jesus, Interpreted, the main conclusion we can draw from Ehrman’s many criticisms of the gospel texts are that: “Ultimately, while Ehrman is convicted that Jesus existed as a historical person, for him Jesus is nevertheless a ‘legend’” [1] in that we cannot draw certain universal conclusions regarding who he was and what he taught.


Before diving into an evaluation and response to Ehrman’s criticisms themselves– several of which are quite significant– it is only right to begin with a necessary disclaimer that blankets the entire exegesis effort, which is that of presumptions. When one approaches not just the gospels or the Bible as a whole, but frankly any topic that does not present a clearly obvious answer, presumptions are a given. In the words of Ehrman himself in his book, How Jesus Became God:

The first thing to stress is that everyone has presuppositions, and it is impossible to live life, think deep thoughts, have religious experiences, or engage in historical inquiry without having presuppositions. The life of the mind cannot proceed without presuppositions. The question, though, is always this: What are the appropriate presuppositions for the task at hand? [2]


With Ehrman on this matter, I could not agree more. What we initially believe or expect to find from a text matters in the outcomes we determine. An atheist will approach the same biblical evidence with immediate impossibility whereas the agonistic may come with improbability, while the person of faith will approach with deep trust and humility. How can our prior opinions not color our final determination, or dare I say, even prevent the possibility of acquiring and accepting real truth?


Drawing again from Ehrman, this time from his book, Jesus, Interrupted on the topic of definitive proof:

I am decidedly not saying that Jesus was not raised from the dead. I’m not saying the tomb was not empty. I’m not saying that he did not appear to his disciples and ascend into heaven. Believers believe that all these things are true. But they do not believe them because of historical advice. They take the Christian claims on faith, not on the basis of proof. There can be no proof. [3]

Indeed, if Ehrman means “proof” in the sense of an air-tight, non-negotiable verification in the way that we can know with certainty that we will all die one day or that the night will descend and the sun will rise, then with Christianity we will never have this type of certitude. Indeed, one might even argue that we were never meant to. Complete certainty would negate the need for faith, which is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We rely on faith in what we can reasonably know to be true but can never totally assert from one sole means of acquisition: history, science, reason, or the like. One cannot enter fully into the study of biblical exegesis and expect truth without an acceptance of faith at some level, and this should be viewed not as a limitation but as an expectation.


Moving into Ehrman’s actual criticisms, I would like to begin with what seems to be the most pressing matter, that of an immediate second coming. As quoted in the article, “Benedict XVI, Catholic Doctrine and the Problem of an Imminent Parousia,Theology Today notes how “the fathers of the Second Vatican Council envisioned the task of exegesis as that of ascertaining ‘what God has wished to communicate to us.’” [4] The Bible is, after all, God’s careful revealing of himself to his chosen people in the Old Testament, and then in fullness to all people in the New Testament. Thus, one must always ask himself what God wishes to communicate to us within any given text, in cooperation with his human authors. Let us turn now to the primary Parousia passages in question.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul speaks to the people saying:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. [5]


In another example, also in Paul’s words, take 1 Corinthians 7:29, 10:11 and 15:51-52:

I mean brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. [6]


Finally, even more challenging are the recorded words of Jesus himself in Mark 13, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” in reference to the Son of man coming on the clouds of glory and the angels gathering up the elect. However, a few lines later Jesus is also referred to as stating: “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.” [7]


In unpacking these difficult passages, Benedict’s overarching claim is clear: “The exegete’s endeavor must be to ascertain the “fundamental message” and “essential points” being made in texts which appear to contradict the facts of history,” [8] the facts in this case being that Jesus does not return in their lifetimes as Paul seems to be saying. Benedict argues in the case of these passages that the fundamental message or teaching was not to make an exact claim regarding when Christ would return, but instead to issue instruction for how to live in eager anticipation for a return of Christ that would be unexpected. Another critical reminder, made also by Benedict, is that “We are not actually in possession of the original words of the Gospels which purport to give us Jesus’ words,” [9] which is a position agreed on also by Ehrman. According to Benedict, the gospels never purported to give us the actual words of Jesus, and they are not a “video account” in the sense of a perfect play-by-play of words and interactions. Instead, the gospels give us the essence of Jesus’ words and person as opposed to the verbatim transcripts themself. In this case, one may not say for certain that Jesus verbatim said “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” but that instead, we are to understand Jesus’ essential message, which Benedict purports as being, “that our future is to be with the Lord.” [10]


Another clarifying point regarding these apparent problematic passages is Benedict’s alternative view that “As faithful Jews, their historiography operated on the assumption that to embellish the past and bring it into contemporary relevance was more, not less true to reality than a video of Jesus’ life could ever be.” [11] In other words, we should not – in fact, cannot judge – the historical emphasis of these gospel writers from so long ago with the way we currently view history and recording. To tell history is one thing, but the gospel writers would have wanted a true encounter with Jesus for their readers ahead of a historical retelling of his exact words and actions. Similarly, regarding the apocalyptic images presented of “trumpets blowing” and “angels calling” for example, “these images concerning how or when the Parousia will take place do not constitute the purpose of the biblical texts as they appear,” [12] as Benedict contends. Ultimately, Benedict declares, “Christians should not be afraid to admit the presence of symbolic imagery or even myth in the Bible. Read Lewis, Tolkien, or Chesterton, and it is quite clear that myth does not equal falsehood. [13]


A final point to be made on the Parousia considers the ideas of the apostle, Paul, speaker of the concerning passages from Thessalonians and Corinthians. Benedict writes, “Even in his own age, Paul believed that he had in fact offered the Gospel to the whole inhabited world. The demand that the Gospel would be preached to all the world seemed thus already fulfilled in the generation of the apostles, what the Markan Jesus calls ‘this generation.” [14] We know now, however, that the world was a lot bigger than that, and that the early church was just beginning to understand the extent of their mission and purpose, not already bringing it to fulfillment in the time of Paul’s writing. Perhaps, then, when Jesus is quoted as saying “this generation will not pass away before all these things take place,” he could have in fact been referring not to a physical generation, but to what we now consider “the generation of the gentiles” or the generation of the church as we experience it today and are currently living in.


While these rebuttals do not completely “solve” Ehrman’s criticism regarding an imminent Parousia, they do, I hope, reveal the key takeaway from Benedict in that “In dealing with the second coming, the biblical authors subordinate the question of timing to the question of how Christians ought to behave regardless of when Christ returns…the reality is that Christians of all ages are to be awake and prepared…the precise moment of this meeting will likely occur most unexpectedly.” [15] Perhaps early Christians, like Paul, did themselves believe in Jesus returning in their lifetime, but even if that is the case, what an individual or even a group of people believed at a given time does not necessarily equal what the biblical text as it is presented, or church as a body, intended to teach authoritatively as its doctrinal message.


Moving now to Ehrman’s concern over the lack of original gospel manuscripts and textual inconsistencies across what manuscripts we do have, it is important to note that these above observations are already widely recognized and accepted within the biblical scholarly community, and neither are they viewed as an overall issue considering the Christian belief that the Bible was guided under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that it is without error in what it intends to present. Even if apparent textual inconsistencies appear to exist, they are often the result of a text’s intention appeal to an intended audience and thus present varies perspectives.


As well, supposed discrepancies are typically of accidental as opposed to essential material, a distinction Benedict makes when studying what in scripture must be taken at face-value and what can be amended or viewed differently as non-essential to the core intent. As Ramage writes, “Universal agreement in matters biblical is clearly not the reality today and it probably never will be. Yet this is not to say that no headway can be made and that sincere dialogue on biblical questions will yield no fruit.” [16]


To Ehrman’s skepticism regarding the resurrection, given that the literal event can neither be proved or disproved historically, I will instead focus on Ehrman’s critique regarding his belief that Jesus himself did not claim to be divine. Ramage includes many biblical passages asserting the contrary. In the gospels, Jesus identifies himself as the bridegroom, which in the Old Testament is Israel’s bridegroom, Yahweh, God himself. Ramage writes, “It is precisely through drawing on OT images that all four Gospels portray the identity of Jesus as mysteriously fused with the identity of God.” [17] Other biblical examples of Jesus claiming divinity are that he forgives sin, which is the prerogative of God alone; he stills and walks on the sea; and of arguably most important evidence:

Even our earliest gospel records Jesus being sentenced to death for blasphemy immediately following his claim to be the Christ, the Son, of the Blessed. In response Jesus replies, “I am…” Given that these examples are drawn for the most part from the earliest Gospel, it seems much more likely than not on historical grounds alone that Jesus did in fact stake some claim on divinity during his lifetime.” [18]


Moving away from counters to Ehrman’s specific gospel criticisms, I would like to make a final argument against the position of the gospels being the only way to know the historical Jesus. Quoting, as we often have, from the words of Benedict, “We find that Christianity is not primarily “a religion of the book, but rather is a religion of the living word, the person of Jesus Christ” [19] meaning that we have other sources of truth and revelation to base our beliefs. We have, for example, the presence of the two-thousand-year existence of the Church, and of those cloud of witnesses who are the saints and martyrs throughout the centuries from all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. We have reported inconceivable miracles such as the incorruptibles, eucharistic miracles, and countless reported and documented healings that defy any rational, scientific explanation. As powerful and pivotal a source of truth and divine revelation that is scripture, we do not look for or even find the historical Jesus at work, living and active, solely within these pages.

In conclusion, “The gospels do record real history that has actually happened, but they are also interpreted history…in that they present us with the life of Jesus Christ through the lens of the early Church’s faith.” [20] Thus, siding with Benedict or Ehrman on this question of whether we can find historical Jesus within the gospels is dependent on our answer to the following:

…The question is whether we are committed to seeing the early Church’s theological developments as human work guided by divine providence, or whether we are going to see the process as a purely human effort to rationalize the crux of Jesus. As I have said above, and I will repeat again…the decision one makes here is ultimately driven by prior philosophical and religious commitments. [21]


[1] Matthew Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted: Benedict XVI, Bart Ehrman, and the Historical Truth of the Gospels (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 113. [2] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 234. [3] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 234. [4] Matthew Ramage, “Benedict XVI, Catholic Doctrine and the Problem of an Imminent Parousia,” Josephinum Journal of Theology, 2014, 1. [5] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 200. [6] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 201. [7] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 202. [8] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 204. [9] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 103. [10] Matthew Ramage, “Benedict XVI, Catholic Doctrine and the Problem of an Imminent Parousia,” 8. [11] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 191-192 [12] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 209. [13] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 209. [14] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 215. [15] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 217. [16] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 3. [17] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 127. [18] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 128. [19] Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 216. [20] Matthew Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 147. [21] Matthew Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 167.


Bibliography

Matthew Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted: Benedict XVI, Bart Ehrman, and the Historical Truth of the Gospels (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017).

Matthew Ramage, “Benedict XVI, Catholic Doctrine and the Problem of an Imminent Parousia,” Josephinum Journal of Theology, 2014.

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