Lost in the Weeds: SJ Thomason Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1

To see all posts in this series, please refer to its index.

Last year I wrote a five-part series on Heather Schuldt’s terrible attempt at taking on biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.1 Now pop-apologist SJ Thomason wants to have her moment in the sun as she responds to Bart Ehrman’s fifteen year old book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.2 Her first post entitled “Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ Misleads Readers from its Inception”3 is standard pop-apologetic rubbish. Let’s briefly explore why.

Paul, 1 Thessalonians, and the Dating of the Gospels

Thomason begins by addressing Ehrman’s claim that the first epistle to the Thessalonians can be “dated to about 49 C.E., some twenty years after Jesus’s death and some twenty years before any of the Gospel accounts of his life.”4 The pop-apologist claims Ehrman is “intentionally stretching the dating.” But is he?

Despite Thomason’s confidence in dating Jesus’ death to April 3, 33 CE, historians and New Testament scholars aren’t entirely sure exactly when he died.5 Helen Bond notes that

[t]he commonly held assumption that Jesus died in either April 30 or 33 is based on astronomical calculations relating to years in which Nisan 14 fell on a Friday….All we can say with any confidence is that Jesus died some time between around 29 and 33 CE (any later and Pauline chronology becomes problematic).6

Elsewhere Ehrman has shown a preference for 30 CE7 and other scholars tend to lean that way as well.8 If Paul wrote the first epistle to the Thessalonians around 49 CE then this would indeed be “some twenty years after Jesus’ death.”

Thomason next makes two arguments for an early dating of the Gospels. First, she asserts that Paul knew of the Gospel of Luke because in 1 Timothy 5:18 we find the words of Jesus from Luke 10:7 quoted. I have dealt with this issue elsewhere and will not revisit it here.9 Second, Thomason believes that since the Gospel authors fail to mention explicitly the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and that the author of Acts doesn’t discuss the deaths of either Paul or Peter then they must have been written before these events. But she has elsewhere indicated that she believes the Gospel of John was written sometime around 90 CE.10 Yet the Johannine author never mentions the fall of Jerusalem. So why does Thomason accept the standard scholarly date of 90 CE for the writing of the Gospel of John but not the standard dating for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? I have already written a post on the dating of the Gospels and so I invite the reader to take a look at that post.11 Needless to say, Thomason’s scheme is off and Ehrman’s view stands.

Other Gospels

Thomason next takes issue with Ehrman’s discussion of other Gospels that were written besides those found in the canonical New Testament. She says,

On page 24, Ehrman makes the claim that “many others” were written, citing Luke 1:1 and his reference to “many” “predecessors.” His examples of many others on page 24 are three Gnostic gospels: Philip, Judas Thomas, and Mary Magdalene.

It is important to note the dating of the three Gnostic gospels that are cited by Ehrman, a point he curiously excluded: Philip was written in the third century, Judas Thomas was written in the middle to late second century, and Mary Magdalene was written in the late second century.

Ehrman does fail to mention the dating of these later Gospels but the context makes it plain he considers them to be written after the canonical Gospels: “Other Gospels, including some of the very earliest, have been lost.”12 Ehrman’s main point is to note that Christians wrote additional Gospels because they “were concerned to know more about the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of their Lord” and therefore “recorded the traditions associated with the life of Jesus.”13 Their canonicity is a non-issue for Ehrman’s point and so Thomason’s subsequent discussion is a red herring.

Setting aside Thomason’s simplistic view of how the canon developed, it is interesting to note what she says about the Lukan author’s claim that “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1).

The fact Luke stated that “many have undertaken to draw up an account” does not mean many were successful in completing their undertakings. It may mean that many started and only a few – or two – finished.

But notice what the author says in Luke 1:3 – “I too decided…to write an orderly account.” Since Luke evidently completed his account, it stands to reason that there were other completed accounts as well.

I won’t touch on her discussion of Q since she evidently doesn’t know what Q is or how it functions with regards to the Synoptic Problem. Heather Schuldt revealed similar ignorance regarding Q and here is what I said about it.

[T]he purpose of Q was to account for passages not found in Mark but found in Matthew and Luke and this leads to a huge problem for Schuldt. The existence of Q is tied to the notion of Markan priority. Markan priority entails that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources in composing their narratives. But why would Matthew – an actual disciple of Jesus – need to use any source, especially Mark’s who wasn’t even a disciple? If Matthew was an eyewitness then there would have been no need to utilize Mark (let alone Q) as his source! Schuldt then has undermined the very position she was trying to promote!14

Ditto for Thomason.

Extra Epistles

Finally, Thomason discusses Ehrman’s mentioning of “lost letters” that were written between Paul and the churches to whom he ministered. But as Ehrman explains, his “point is that letters were important to the lives of early Christian communities.”15 In fact, the entire point of the first chapter of Misquoting Jesus is to explain the “bookishness” of Christianity as seen in the New Testament documents.16 So why in the world does Thomason say the following?

The fact we do not have those or other early letters does not discount the validity of the letters we do have. We have no evidence that any substantive letters are missing – or that early church fathers lamented particular missing letters. One can reasonably conclude no substantive information is missing.

This is nothing more than a strawman set up by Thomason. Nowhere does Ehrman suggest that these missing letters means that what is not missing is somehow invalid. As Ehrman himself explains, the section titled “Christianity as a Religion of the Book” (pages 20-29) was his attempt at “summarizing the different kinds of writings that were important to the lives of the early Christian churches.”17 Imputing to Ehrman a subversive motive that simply isn’t there speaks volumes about Thomason’s inability to read fairly or engage with what she has read in good faith.

Summary

So far, the pop-apologist is not off to a very good start. I do not have high hopes that her future posts will get any better.

NOTES

Amateur Exegete, “Index to Series ‘Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman” (11.9.18), amateurexegete.com. 

2 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

3 S.J. Thomason, “Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ Misleads Readers from its Inception” (2.9.19), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 9 February 2019.

4 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 22.

5 For an overview of the issues pertaining to the chronology of Jesus’ life and ministry, see John P. Maier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1 (Doubleday, 1991), 372-433. See also E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1993), 282-290.

6 Helen K. Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (T & T Clark, 2012), 150.

7 Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012), 56.

8 See John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperCollins, 1992), 218; Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 290; Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (Vintage Books, 1999), 149; Maier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 1, 407.

9 See “On SJ Thomason’s Argument for Dating the Gospels Early” (12.28.18), amateurexegete.com.

10

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11 Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1” (11.2.18),  amateurexegete.com.

12 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 24. Emphasis added.

13 Ibid.

14 Amateur Exegete, “Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1” (11.2.18),  amateurexegete.com. Accessed 9 February 2019.

15 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 23.

16 Ibid., 17.

17 Ibid., 29.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Jesus’ Death in Mark and Luke: A Response to Pop-Apologist Mike Winger on Bart Ehrman

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths to which the inerrancy crowd will go to in order to defend a position “the Bible” never even makes for itself. The worst offenders are by far pop-apologists; people like J Warner Wallace, Hugh Ross, Frank Turek, and SJ Thomason. Whether it’s somehow thinking a “forensic” reading of the Gospels attests to their reliability (Wallace) or believing that the biblical texts contain advanced scientific knowledge (Ross), invariably you end up with nothing short of eisegesis and absolutely no appreciation for what the biblical texts actually are and how they function. But for many in the inerrancy crowd, it is an all-or-nothing kind of situation. Either the Bible is the word of God without error or it is a worthless collection of texts that should be abandoned altogether. Such an inability to appreciate nuance is a hallmark of fundamentalism and on inerrancy these believers are most certainly of the fundamentalist clade.

To defend inerrancy, pop-apologists will at times refer to critical scholarship.1 But often their appeal to them is either highly selective (i.e. quotemining) or misrepresentative.2  Often this comes from a kind of shallowness that plagues apologetics generally and is encouraged tacitly from the top-tier of apologists. What it reveals is not only a lack of scholarly rigor but also a kind of intellectual laziness. For example, if you have read anything by SJ Thomason you will have no doubt noticed how infrequently she cites biblical scholars, this despite the fact that she has a PhD (though in an unrelated field) and has access to a college library which surely must have a wide array of works from brilliant women and men who have devoted their lives to reading, appreciating, and analyzing the Bible. Many of them are Christians who either have a far more nuanced view of inerrancy or abandon it altogether in the face of reality. In either case, they do not hitch their wagon of Christianity to the horse of inerrancy and the result is frankly quite relieving. Inerrancy is as tired and unimaginative as it is facile.

A Frequent Target

It is perhaps a truism that if you do see a pop-apologist quote from critical scholarship it will more than likely come from Bart Ehrman, an agnostic who finds inerrancy absurd but still manages to love and appreciate the biblical texts. Ehrman, a college professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a prolific author having composed not only popular level works for public consumption (i.e. Misquoting JesusHow Jesus Became God, The Triumph of Christianity etc.) but also more technical volumes (i.e. The Text of the New Testament [with Bruce Metzger], Forgery and Counterforgery, etc.). Ehrman’s personal religious beliefs coupled with his scholarly contributions make him a frequent target for pop-apologists. It is no doubt lost to them that many Christians find much of Ehrman’s work convincing even though they don’t align with his skepticism of theism.

Recently I was alerted to a video produced in June of 2017 that features pastor and pop-apologist Mike Winger taking on commentary from Ehrman on how the Markan and Lukan authors portray Jesus at his death.3 Ehrman contends that the two accounts offer readers two very different visions of Jesus at the end. Here is a shot of Winger’s video that features two quotes from Ehrman.

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So Ehrman’s view is that whereas in Mark’s Gospel Jesus goes to his death unsure of why it is happening, in Luke’s Gospel his concern is not about his own fate but about “the women.” It is difficult to assess the context in which Ehrman said these exact words as the clip from Winger doesn’t provide it. But fortunately we need not look too far for something Ehrman has said that is along these lines. Let’s consider some context before we look at how Ehrman views the Markan and Lukan death scenes.

“Attacking” the Bible

In 2009 HarperOne published Ehrman’s book Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them).4 As the title suggests, the volume was intended to show that the biblical texts are replete with contradictions. But that isn’t where the book begins. The first chapter explains Ehrman’s personal journey from evangelicalism to agnosticism. But that chapter concludes by telling the reader what Jesus Interrupted is about.

This book is not, then, about my loss of faith. It is, however, about how certain kinds of faith – particularly the faith in the Bible as the historically inerrant and inspired Word of God – cannot be sustained in light of what we as historians know about the Bible.5

It is very clear then that Ehrman has no intention of attacking the Bible despite Winger’s eccentric claim that Ehrman is “the premier attacker of the Bible in the world right now” (00:13-00:17). Ehrman isn’t attacking the Bible but a particular belief that some hold about it.

In chapter three of Jesus Interrupted – entitled “A Mass of Variant Views” – Ehrman notes that “discrepancies in the Bible are important because they force us to take each author seriously”6 and that “[m]any of the differences among the biblical authors have to do with the very heart of their message.”7 Statements like these should not be surprising and they are certainly not original to Ehrman. Since the second-century, Christians have sought to explain why the canonical Gospels are often so different from one another despite each claiming to tell the story of the same historical figure. The “Synoptic Problem,” as scholars have dubbed it, is still a topic of research and writing.8 That the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke exhibit some kind of literary interdependence is virtually beyond dispute. It is only a kind of willful ignorance that would deny it.

Yet deny it many will. Pop-apologists harmonize the Gospels in a very artificial manner. Consequently they reveal that they aren’t serious about the biblical texts but about what they believe about them. Ehrman writes that

Mark, whatever his real name was, had no idea that his book would be put into a collection with three other books and called Scripture; and he certainly did not think that his book should be interpreted in light of what some other Christian would write some thirty years later in a different country and a different context. Mark no doubt wanted his book to be read and understood on its own, as did Matthew, Luke, John, and all the other writers of the New Testament.9

This is the reason a critical approach to the biblical texts is so necessary: it allows the authors to have their own voice, independent of what other authors have said on similar topics. And what we know from reading these texts is that they weren’t dispassionate memoirs of eyewitnesses but rather creative authors writing to the needs of specific communities in specific contexts.10

Making Changes

In Ehrman’s discussion on Jesus’ death in Mark’s Gospel it helps to know that he – like the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars – adheres to Markan priority. Specifically, Ehrman subscribes to the “Four-Source Hypothesis” which claims the following.

  • Mark’s Gospel was the first of the canonical Gospels to have been written.
  • Both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel in composing their own.
  • In addition to Mark’s Gospel, both Matthew and Luke had access to a work no longer extant that scholars refer to as “Q.” Q was primarily a sayings source and accounts for those passages that are found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark.
  • In addition to Mark’s Gospel and Q, Matthew had access to a source or sources for those elements in his Gospel that are not in Mark, Q, or Luke. Similarly, Luke had access to a source or sources for those elements in his Gospel that are not in Mark, Q, or Matthew. The Matthean source is dubbed “M” and the Lukan source is dubbed “L.”11

What this means is that when we see stories from Mark repeated in Matthew or Luke and we see that they differ from Mark’s version we can immediately recognize that Matthew and Luke must have had a reason for doing so. If they didn’t, why change the original at all? Let’s consider an illustration from the Gospel of Matthew.

In Mark 1:32-34 we read a Markan summary report:

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured may who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

Compare this to the Matthean version from Matthew 8:16:

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick.

What has Matthew done to the Markan text? Well, he has done a number of things. Here are the highlights.

  • Matthew has eliminated Mark’s wonky “[t]hat evening at sunset” (literally, “And when evening came, at sunset”) for the far simpler “[t]hat evening” (literally, “And when evening came”).
  • Matthew has eliminated the Markan reference to the “whole city” being gathered around the door to the home (Mark 1:33). Instead, this large group seeking Jesus in Mark becomes the “great crowds” (Matthew 8:18) that prompt him to leave in his boat for “the country of the Gadarenes” (8:28).
  • Matthew has completely removed Mark’s comment that Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (1:34). But why? Because the secrecy motif that is found throughout Mark’s Gospel is largely rejected by Matthew.

You cannot chalk this up to differences in eyewitness testimony. It is very clear that the author of Matthew’s Gospel was using Mark’s Gospel when composing his own. The changes, therefore, are intentional. Indeed, the work of Matthew as a redactor is seen clearly by simply reading Mark’s Gospel and then reading Matthew’s. And why make changes?

Matthew…recognized some of [the Gospel of Mark’s] inadequacies in helping his community to respond to the challenges, opportunities, and attacks with which it was trying to cope. The burning issues with which Matthew and his community were struggling were simply not identical to those that had concerned Mark and his church.12

So what does Matthew do? He alters Markan syntax and vocabulary. He even rearranges stories so that they fit a slightly different narrative. He alters Markan style and eliminates repetition. He even does away with important Markan themes like the secrecy motif. And all because Mark’s Gospel needed a revision for the Matthean community.

The Death of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel

Let us now return to the question of why Ehrman thinks the Markan and Lukan version of Jesus’ death are so different. Given Ehrman’s position that Luke was using Mark when writing his Gospel, let’s start with Mark’s account from Ehrman’s viewpoint. In Jesus Interrupted he writes,

In Mark’s version of the story (Mark 15:16-39), Jesus is condemned to death by Pontius Pilate, mocked and beaten by the Roman soldiers, and taken off to be crucified. Simon of Cyrene carries his cross. Jesus says nothing the entire time. The soldiers crucify Jesus, and he still says nothing. Both of the robbers being crucified with him mock him. Those passing by mock him. The Jewish leaders mock him. Jesus is silent until the very end, when he utters the wretched cry, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” which Mark translates from the Aramaic for his readers as, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Someone gives Jesus a sponge with sour wine to drink. He breathes his last and dies.13

Nothing in Ehrman’s description of Mark 15:16-39 misrepresents the story in any way. The last words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark are what we read in 15:34. And it is fitting. Ehrman writes that the reason Jesus speaks these words – words clearly drawn from Psalm 22:1 – is because he

has been rejected by everyone: betrayed by one of his own, denied three times by his closest follower, abandoned by all his disciples, rejected by the Jewish leaders, condemned by the Roman authorities, mocked by the priests, the passersby, and even by the two others being crucified with him. At the end he even feels forsaken by God Himself.14

But Winger doesn’t think that the so-called “cry of dereliction” is a sign that Jesus feels abandoned by God. He says,

Bart thinks that Jesus crying out “My God, why have you forsaken me” is Jesus saying, “See, I’m confused, I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m in total despair. This is a whole different issue as he ignores Psalm 22 which is what Jesus is quoting. He’s drawing attention to Psalm 22 which is [sic] completely changes your interpretation of what Jesus is saying. He’s actually saying, “I’m the Messiah, fulfilling this psalm and I’m suffering and yet God will answer me and I will rise and all this glorious stuff” (01:15-01:43).

However, Winger’s view is not only factually wrong but it is also eisegetical in many ways.

First, Winger asserts that by quoting from Psalm 22:1 that Jesus is “drawing attention to Psalm 22 which…completely changes your interpretation of what Jesus is saying.” But this is problematic because the people present to hear those words don’t understand him as referring to Psalm 22 at all. They think he’s calling for Elijah to come rescue him! (Mark 15:35-36) This confusion is perhaps the epitome of the Markan theme of misunderstanding. Furthermore, there are opposite elements at work, for the people think Jesus is expecting to be miraculously rescued from the cross whereas what Jesus actually cried was that he wouldn’t be rescued because he had been forsaken by God.

Second, there is no exegetical reason to think that Jesus would be drawing attention to the entirety of Psalm 22 just by quoting from its opening line anymore than his direct quoting of Zechariah 13:7 in Mark 14:27 is intended to draw attention to the prophetic utterance of Yahweh that he would “turn [his] hand against the little ones [i.e. children]” and would kill off “two-thirds” of his people” (Zechariah 13:7, 8). What the Markan Jesus appears to be doing is something akin to prooftexting. And the context shows it is part of Mark’s intention to portray people as frequently misunderstanding Jesus.

Third, Ehrman doesn’t ignore Psalm 22 when he discusses this issue and Winger would know that if he had bothered to read Ehrman’s work on this rather than whatever it is he is referring to in the video. Ehrman wrote this,

A very popular interpretation of this passage is that since Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1, he is actually thinking of the ending of the Psalm, where God intervenes and vindicates the suffering psalmist. I think this is reading way too much into the passage and robs the “cry of dereliction,” as it is called, of all its power.15

Ehrman is not alone in thinking this. Evangelical scholar Craig Evans notes that while perhaps Jesus had the entirety of Psalm 22 in mind when he quoted its first verse,

the reality of his sense of abandonment must not be minimized. Jesus has not lost his faith in God, as the twofold address, ‘My God, my God,” implies, but he feels utterly abandoned.16

Similarly, the late RT France wrote of Jesus’ words in Mark 15:34,

This is the third time [Mark] has given us Jesus’ words in Aramaic as well in Greek translation, once when exercising divine power over death (5:41), and here and in 14:36 in direct appeal to God in prayer. But this time the contrast with 14:36 is striking: there he could call God Father, and loyally accepted his Father’s will; here (for the only time in Jesus’ recorded prayers in all four gospels) he calls him not Father but ὁ θεός μου, and his ‘prayer’ is one of bewilderment and separation…. While ὁ θεός μου expresses a continued relationship with God, it is a relationship that feels like abandonment. It is of course true that Ps. 22, having begun on this note of despair, concludes twenty verses later in hope and thanksgiving, but Jesus echoed not the latter part of the psalm but its opening, and to read into these few tortured words an exegesis of the whole psalm is to turn upside down the effect which Mark has created by this powerful and enigmatic cry of agony.17

We need not belabor the point with further citations. It suffices to say that Ehrman is not alone in his understanding of the Markan text and its meaning. Though an agnostic, he fits well into the stream of what evangelicals like Evans and France have written on the text. And France, for all intents and purposes, describes Winger’s approach as eisegesis. I cannot help but agree.

So what we have established then is that Ehrman’s view isn’t out of the ordinary and it in fact works well within the Markan story. As further evidence of this is the darkness that comes over the land for three hours (Mark 15:33). Such darkness is also associated with eschatological judgment elsewhere (Mark 13:24) and is perhaps intended by Mark to recall the words of Jesus in the Olive Discourse.18 Mark’s work as a creative author cannot be ignored.

The Death of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel

We now turn our attention to the Lukan account of Jesus’ death (Luke 23:26-49) and Ehrman’s view on it. Ehrman writes that the changes Luke has made to the story “affect the very way the story is told and, as a result, the way the story is to be interpreted.”19 He then notes that some differences between the Markan and Lukan versions, some of which are insignificant but others that display distinctively Lukan themes. In keeping with the quote from Ehrman presented in Winger’s video we read the following:

In Luke, Jesus is taken off to be executed, and Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry his cross. But Jesus is not silent on the way to his crucifixion. En route he sees a number of women wailing over what is happening to him, and he turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). He goes on to prophesy the coming destruction they will face. Jesus does not appear to be in shock over what is happening to him. He is more concerned with others around him than with his own fate.20 

Whereas Winger would have us gloss over this difference between the Markan and Lukan Gospels, we should be wondering why Luke portrays Jesus this way. Why does he stop on the way to where he will be crucified to speak to these women? To answer that question we must consider how Luke portrays Jesus generally.

While debate is ongoing as to the identity of the Lukan author, there is no doubt that he was well-educated and well-read. The opening dedication (Luke 1:1-4) is stylized, following “the conventions of Hellenistic historical works,”21 and is perhaps a Lukan appeal to more literate readers.22 But beginning in 1:5, there is a significant shift from the more literary Greek to a Semitic Greek that resembles the LXX.23 Thus Luke is setting his story of Jesus in the literary world of the LXX. While this might suggest that Luke is writing for a Jewish audience only, it is quite clear that his Jesus belongs to the whole world and not simply the Jews. In the Lukan Gospel, the machinations of the Roman government bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where Jesus is born. But whereas in Matthew Jesus is the one who “will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), in Luke’s Gospel the birth of Jesus is celebratory and for the whole world (Luke 2:14). In other words, Jesus doesn’t just belong to the Jews.

There is also material unique to Luke that highlight his role as a sage. For example, in Luke 2:41-52 we read a story of a twelve-year-old Jesus wandering off during Passover only to be found by his parents three days later in the temple sitting amongst teachers. That story ends with Luke telling his readers that “Jesus increased [proekopten] in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (2:52). The verb prokoptein is used “[a]mong moral philosophers…for growth in the moral and intellectual life.”24 And the episode itself is one that would have been familiar to those readers of classical Greek works.

A Hellenistic reader of biographies would not…be surprised at an account concerning the hero’s [i.e. Jesus] youth that gave a glimpse of his future. Such stories can be found, for example, in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyano, 1:7-8, and in Philo’s Life of Moses, 1:21.25

This theme only builds in the Gospel of Luke and Jesus is portrayed as a kind of philosopher king who is both messiah and social critic, sovereign and sage.26 The result is that when we come to the Passion narrative, we do not have a Jesus who hours previous was “distressed and agitated” (Mark 15:33) but one who is resolute, having already “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Luke creates an entire travel narrative (i.e. 9:51-19:27) that is not found in either Mark or Matthew that shows Jesus’ character in his roles as prophet, philosopher, and messiah.27 

Luke goes out of his way to make it clear that Jesus is innocent of all charges made against him and that his death is a grave injustice. Pilate has no desire to execute him (23:4) and when he finds out that Jesus was from Galilee he sent him to Herod (23:6-7), a story missing from the Markan Gospel. When he is returned to Pilate, the Roman authority reiterates that he does not neither he nor Herod find him guilty of anything worthy of death and decides to release him (23:17). It is only at the insistence of the religious authorities that Pilate grants their request that Jesus be crucified (23:18-25). And while Jesus hangs upon the cross, a criminal crucified next to him orders Jesus to rescue them both. But another criminal tells him, “[W]e indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong” (23:41). And when he breathes his last, the centurion – who in Mark in the same scene declares Jesus to be “God’s Son” (Mark 15:39) – declares, “Certainly this man was innocent” (23:47).

Why this stressing of Jesus’ innocence? Because it fits well into the portrayal of Jesus as the sage who dies a heroic death.

For the outsider, Jesus comes off as more of a philosopher and founder of a philosophical school in the Greek tradition of Socrates, Diogenes, or Pythagoras. As social critic and martyr, he undergoes a heroic death that attests to the truth of his insights and his cause. As divine man, he expounds a philosophy that offers divine guidance and mystical insights to the human condition and speaks to the whole world.28

The Lukan Jesus, then, knows what his mission is and knows his death is not without profit. So when he sees the women “wailing for him” he must speak to their need rather than to his own. He knows that the consequences upon the Jewish religious authorities for spilling innocent blood will be severe and will result in the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple (23:28-31).

Luke continues to portray Jesus as the sage and prophet. Even as he goes toward his death, he can “turn toward” the women and deliver his somber prediction: he is capable even in this moment of greatest vulnerability to perceive the large meaning of events and declare them: the violence done to him the messenger of peace, will be visited on those who do this violence, and in such terrible fashion that even the innocent will suffer as a result.29 

And it is with such a view of the bigger picture Jesus is able to say with great confidence not “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34) but rather “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Ehrman writes,

This is not a Jesus who feels forsaken by God and wonders why he is going through this pain of desertion and death. It is a Jesus who feels God’s presence with him and is comforted by the fact that God is on his side. He is fully cognizant of what is happening to him and why, and he commits himself to the loving care of his heavenly Father, confident of what is to happen next.30

The Markan Jesus and the Lukan Jesus could not be more different.

Does Ehrman Misrepresent Mark? 

Nevertheless, Winger is convinced that not only is Ehrman wrong but that he is misrepresenting Mark. He marshals a number of Markan texts in support: Mark 14:18, 14:21, 14:22-25, 14:27-28, 14:41-42, 14:48-49, and 14:62. Winger concludes that Jesus “knows what’s going on, he knows he’s not permanently forsaken” (05:53-05:57) and that skeptics like Ehrman are “really bad at theology” (06:11). Is this true? I do not think that it is.

Let’s consider a very moving scene from Mark’s Gospel that Winger only draws from as a prooftext for his rebuttal to Ehrman: Mark 14:32-42. Jesus and the disciples have gone to Gethsemane so that he can pray. The Markan author tells us that Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated” and tells Peter, James, and John, “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (14:33, 34). Then Jesus prays to God, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (14:36). Jesus does not want to drink from the cup the Father has for him.

Contrast the Markan scene with the Lukan (Luke 22:39-46) and you see some interesting differences. For example, nowhere is Jesus’ emotional state described. Luke omits it entirely! Instead, it is the disciples who are experiencing grief such that it causes them to sleep (22:35). That fact alone is interesting because it is a reversal of the Markan motif of the disciples lack of understanding of what will happen. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ is emotional because of what will soon happen while the disciples are fast asleep without a care in the world since they have no clue what’s going on. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is not emotional because he has great confidence in the Father’s will while the disciples are so grieved that they have fallen asleep!

The significance of this difference cannot be ignored. Nor can the Markan scene’s significance be downplayed within the context of the Markan Gospel. One the narrative level, the author has done something rather subversive. Sharyn Down observes,

As we have seen, the narrator has influenced the audience to abandon their identification with the hapless disciples and to identify instead with Jesus, who appears to have everything under control. Arriving at Gethsemane, Jesus leaves most of the disciples behind and takes with him Peter, James, John, and the audience. At this point the audience learns, to their shock and horror, that his emotional distress over his impending passion is enough to kill him right there on the spot (14:33b-34). Leaving the three with the admonition to keep alert, Jesus goes on a little further alone – except for the audience, who have no choice but to follow, dragged along by the omniscient narrator. Now, the Markan Jesus throws himself the ground and begs for a way out of his assignment to suffer and die.

So it turns out that the narrator has betrayed the audience. Jesus has not dealt in advance with the tension between God’s miracle-working power and the necessity of Jesus’ suffering. And unlike the snoring disciples, the audience is forced to watch Jesus’ agonized struggle with the God who is at the same moment wielder of unlimited power, trusted abba, and the source of Jesus’ assignment to experience unspeakable agony “for many.”31

So while Winger is generally correct that Jesus knows that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31), this scene in Gethsemane reveals that the Markan Jesus is not fully convinced of his mission. It is true that true that Jesus submits to the Father’s desires for him (Mark 14:36) but even then “[t]he prayer of submission does not replace the prayer for divine intervention; rather, it accompanies it.”32 

Luke’s reworking of the scene is instructive on this point and we may observe two significant alterations. First, the Markan scene had included as introduction to the prayer of Mark 14:36 an explanation by Mark of the meaning of the prayer: he “prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:35). There is no confusion then as to what is going on: Jesus wants “the hour [to] pass from him.” But Luke has dropped the words of Mark 14:35 completely.

Second, the prayer of Jesus in Mark 14:36 is longer than what we find in Luke. Let’s compare the two.

Mark 14:36

Luke 22:42

“Abba, omit
Father, “Father,
omit if you are willing,
for you all things are possible; omit
remove this cup from me; remove this cup from me;
yet not what I want, but what you want.” yet, not my will but yours be done.”

Luke has omitted entirely Jesus’ reference to God as “Abba” (Aramaic for “father”) as well as his statement that “for you [God] all things are possible.” More importantly, Luke has modified the words of the Markan Jesus. In Mark, Jesus employs an imperative of entreaty when he prays for God to “remove [parenenke] this cup from” him.33 As since in the imperative mood an aorist tense verb like parenenke would create a sense of urgency,34 it seems that Jesus is begging for his fate to be changed. Mark’s Jesus wants out of the situation now. Luke too employs the imperatival parenenke but he softens the blow a bit by turning the Markan Jesus’ imperative of entreaty into the apodosis of a first-class conditional sentence, i.e., “If you are willing [protasis] then remove this cup from me [apodosis].” Undoubtedly, there is a sense of trepidation of going to his fate but it is nowhere near as pronounced as the Markan Jesus’s words and is more in keeping with the noble hero’s death we find in Luke.

The changes Luke has made help to highlight just what was going on in the Markan text. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is well aware of his fate: he is to be betrayed and handed over to the religious authorities and killed. Yes, he is to be raised by God from the dead but in Gethsemane he isn’t requesting that the cup of resurrection be taken away but the cup of suffering. So then Jesus knows what his fate is but he is still very reluctant to face it.

So what does this have to do with the cry of dereliction in Mark 15:34? Well, it sets up for us the emotional context in which that cry is made. It makes sense of the anguish that comes from Jesus’ lips right before he dies. The Markan Jesus doesn’t want to die and in the midst of his agony he feels as if God himself has abandoned him. The cup that he did not want to drink he drank. And as the bitterness of that cup spilled out he did not understand why he had to drink from it.

Ehrman has not missed the context. He has not misrepresented Mark. Rather, he is offering a view that is faithful to the text and takes into account pivotal scenes in it. Winger’s approach, on the other hand, is necessarily flippant since it does not take seriously how Mark and Luke wrote they way they did. Instead, Winger harmonizes texts that were never intended to be harmonized. The numerous changes Luke has made to the Markan text reveal this fact. One doesn’t rearrange material, smooth grammatical issues, remove redundancy, and add pericopes if one believes what has been written previously is inspired by God or sufficient. Indeed, it seems that with his modifications that he must not have viewed Mark’s Gospel as “an orderly account” of Jesus’ life and ministry (Luke 1:1, 3).

Winger needs to harmonize because he cannot abide varying view points. But he thus fails to appreciate that the Gospel authors were just that: authors. They wrote with material they had, invented material they didn’t, and revised what they needed to in order to conform it to their views and the views of those in their communities. “There are no sources that give us the ‘unvarnished truth,'” wrote E.P. Sanders regarding the Gospels, “the varnish of faith in Jesus covers everything.”35 

The sooner we take that fact seriously, the sooner we can learn to appreciate the Gospels as we have them.

NOTES

1 By “critical” scholarship I don’t mean scholarship that mocks or derides biblical texts. Rather, critical scholarship is that which analyzes the texts and their background. It takes seriously the task of trying to figure out what these texts are saying with the fewest assumptions about them required.

2 See my post “Preaching to the Choir: On Pop-Apologists and Their Craft” (10.28.18),  amateurexegete.com.

3 Mike Winger, “Why You Don’t Let Bart Ehrman Interpret the Bible for You,” youtube.com. Accessed 21 January 2018.

4 Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interuppted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (HarperOne, 2009).

5 Ibid., 18.

6 Ibid., 62.

7 Ibid.

8 For an overview of the history and proposed solutions to the Synoptic Problem, see Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer, “The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction to Its Key Terms, Concepts, Figures, and Hypotheses,” in Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer (editors), The Synoptic Problem: Four Views (Baker Academic, 2016), 1-26.

9 Ehrman, Jesus Interuppted, 63-64.

10 Ibid., 64.

11 See Ehrman’s discussion of Markan priority, Q, M, and L in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 120-128.

12 Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction, revised and expanded (WJK, 2001), 104.

13 Ehrman, Jesus Interuppted, 65.

14 Ibid., 66.

15 Ibid.

16 Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27 – 16:20, WBC vol. 34b (Thomas Nelson, 2001), 507. Evans then goes on to comment that “[i]t is not surprising that the later evangelists choose different concluding utterances: ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!’ (Luke 23:46); ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30).”

17 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 652-653. Emphasis added.

18 See Danny Yencich, “Sowing the Passion at Olivet: Mark 13-15 in a Narrative Frame,” Stone-Campbell Journal 20 (Fall 2017), 189-200.

19 Ehrman, Jesus Interuppted, 67.

20 Ibid.

21 Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History, vol. 1 (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 50. For example, around the same time that Luke wrote his two volumes (i.e. the Gospel and Acts), Josephus composed his own works including the two volume Against Apion which begins with the words

In my history of our Antiquities, most excellent Epaphroditus, I have, I think, made sufficiently clear to anyone who may peruse that work the extreme antiquity of our Jewish race, the purity of the original stock, and that manner in which it established itself in the country which we occupy to-day. That history embraces a period of five thousand years, and was written by me in Greek on the basis of our sacred books. Since, however, I observe that a considerable number of persons, influenced by the malicious calumnies of certain individuals, discredit the statemes in my history concerning our antiquity, and adduce as proof of the comparative modernity of our race the fact that it has not been thought worthy of mention by the best known Greek historians, I consider it my duty to devote a break treatise to all these points….As witness to my statements I propse to call the writers who, in the estimation of the Greeks, are the most trustworthy authorities on antiquity as a whole. (Josephus, Against Apion 1.2, H. St. J. Thackeray (trans.) [G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926], 163, 165.)

The parallels between the Lukan prologue and the prologue of Josephus in Against Apion are striking.

22 Robert A. Spivey, D. Moody Smith, and C. Clifton Black, Anatomy of the New Testament: A Guide to Its Structure and Meaning, seventh edition (Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 125.

23 John Nolland, Luke 1 – 9:20, WBC vol. 35a (Thomas Nelson 1989), 17-18.

24 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina vol. 3 (The Liturgical Press, 1991), 60.

25 Ibid.

26 Another example of Jesus as a philosopher and sage can be found in the Lukan “dinner discourses” (i.e. Luke 5:29-32; 7:36-50; 22:14-38, etc.). There are parallels to be found in “symposium” literature wherein a dinner serves as “a narrative device for presenting the wisdom of the sages” (L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite [HarperOne, 2010], 341. As White observes, Plutarch’s Dinner of the Seven Sages was a work contemporaneous with Luke-Acts and includes (anachronistically) women just as we find in some of the Lukan scenes, particularly 7:36-50.

27 As evidence of the travel narrative’s uniqueness, L. Michael White notes that it is made up almost entirely of material from Q or material unique to Luke. The exception is the end. White notes that the narrative’s “central placement and distinctive story line develop some of the most important themes in the Lukan portrayal of Jesus.” See White, Scripting Jesus, 322.

28 White, Scripting Jesus, 344.

29 Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 375.

30 Ehrman, Jesus Interuppted, 68.

31 Sharyn Dowd, Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second Gospel, electronic edition (Smyth & Helwys, 2015), 380-381.

32 Dowd, Reading Mark, 383.

33 For more, see Daniel B. Wallace’s discussion on requests made in the imperative mood in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Zondervan, 1996), 487-488. See also James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery, Syntax of New Testament Greek (University Press of America, 1979), 128.

34 William Douglas Chamberlain, An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament (The Macmillan Company, 1950), 86.

35 E.P. Sanders, The Historical Character of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1993), 73.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus as the “Son of Man”

Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 113.

In the New Testament Gospels, Jesus used the term “son of man” in three different ways. On some occasions he uses it simply as a circumlocution for himself, that is, rather than referring directly to himself, Jesus sometimes speaks obliquely of “the son of man” (e.g., Matt 8:20). In a related way, he sometimes uses it to speak of his impending suffering (Mark 8:31). Finally, he occasionally uses the term with reference to a cosmic figure who is coming to bring the judgment of God at the end of time (Mark 8:38), a judgment Mark’s Gospel expects to be imminent (9:1; 13:30). For Mark himself, of course, the passages that speak of the coming Son of Man refer to Jesus, the one who is returning soon as the judge of the earth….[S]cholars debate which, if any, of these three uses of the term can be ascribed to the historical Jesus.

Robert Guelich on The Gospels as Portraits of Jesus

Every weekday I do about forty-five minutes of reading in the Greek text of Mark’s Gospel. After I finish reading through a pericope there are two main commentaries I go to for any insights that I as an amateur undoubtedly missed: the late R.T. France’s commentary in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series and the late Robert Guelich’s commentary in the Word Biblical Commentary series. France, an insightful exegete, was a prolific author who died in 2012 at the age of seventy-three. His work spanned forty years. Guelich, a professor at Fuller Seminary, died in 1991 at the young age of 52. His commentary on Mark only covers half the book and his unexpected death resulted in Craig Evans writing a commentary on the second half of the book for the WBC series.

Guelich’s insights into the Gospel of Mark have made him one of my favorite evangelical commentators and so when I come across material written by him I try to pick it up as soon as possible. Not too long ago I came across an article by Guelich that appeared in a 1981 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) entitled “The Gospels: Portraits of Jesus and His Ministry.” In the article Guelich discusses perspectives on what the Gospels are: as snapshots of Jesus’ life, as “abstract paintings,” or as portraits. It is the final perspective that Guelich falls into and one that resonates with me as well. He writes that

the presence of four distinctive gospels demands that each be taken seriously with its own divinely inspired message. Harmonization that obliterates the distinctiveness of the four gospels in the interest of reconstructing the life and teachings of Jesus can actually distort the plain meaning of the text. To read the four gospels as an unscrambled Diatessaron misses the genius of having four distinct gospels. (121)

While I reject any notion that the four Gospels are divinely inspired, what Guelich says is true. Each Gospel is its own version of Jesus and the Jesus story and readers who try to make all four speak together by Olympic-level hermeneutical gymnastics are missing out on the beauty each individual Gospel brings to the Jesus story.

The article also includes a section on “Implications for Biblical Theology” which is particularly relevant for evangelical Christians.

…if the gospels are portraits and not snapshots, evangelicals can no longer assume a priori that the Jesus of history and the Christ of the gospels are one and the same without examining the data available, including not only the gospels as finished projects but also the traditional process extending from Jesus’ ministry up to the written gospel. (122)

There are also implications for the doctrine of inerrancy.

Those who define infallible and inerrant in terms of the gospels as snapshots not only have insurmountable problems in dealing with the gospels as they stand but are actually demanding more of the texts than they intended to give. Thus while seeking to protect a high view of Scripture and an orthodox view of inspiration such proponents distort the message and intention of the inspired authors by understanding the evangelists to be saying something they were not. (125)

I would recommend anyone of an evangelical persuasion read this nearly forty-year old article and reflect on Guelich’s wisdom. Because if I as an atheist can glean much from his work, a Christian surely can.