Thursday, February 25, 2021

The newest foul ball by Bart Ehrman

I wasn't at all a fan of his previous book, on the history of Christian origins, giving it two stars and also pointing out specific problems and errors with it.

I'm going to beat the rush and tell you to not even bother with his latest book, "Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife." It has its own scholarly failings; in fact, per this two-star review, it's arguably not a scholarly history at all.

Bart Ehrman’s latest book is not a scholarly treatment of the history of concepts of the afterlife. Instead it’s a popular account of the history of the relatively simplistic account of the afterlife the author believes to be held by many Americans. … A lot of the book is then devoted to Ehrman’s personal theory that Jesus Christ and St. Paul believed in the annihilation instead of the eternal punishment of wicked souls. It’s rather idiosyncratic and based on a host of assumptions.

And, if he claims that JW-type annihilation was the default position of Judaism at the turn of the eras and the rise of Jesus, or at least the belief of Jesus and Paul, Ehrman the alleged agnostic is arguably also Ehrman the Freudian projectionist about some of his personal fears still inside, which in turn means we all need to be more skeptical of him otherwise.

Weirdly, "Tippling Philosopher" blogger Jonathan M.S. Pearce can pivot from writing blank checks to un-academic Jesus mythicists to giving guest post space to people who think Ehrman is on to something.

As I said there:

“But the punishment was not eternal.” 
Wrong, as others have noted, per Matthew 25:41 etc. 
The fire is “everlasting” and was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” 
“Hell as we know it (a little metaphysical humor there) was largely a construct developed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries by the church hierarchy after Jesus and Paul.” 
Wrong. It came in “intertestamental” times from Zoroastrianism. And, if Ehrman is making these claims, he’s wrong too. And, far from the first time. His last book before this, on the triumph of Xianity, got a two-star review from me. And, if he dismisses Zoroastrian influence because the first of its texts to mention such ideas came after the Jews returned from exile, he’s an idiot to ignore the Jews remaining in Babylon and communication between them and ones of Judea. 
One two star review of the book on Amazon nails it: 
This is merely Ehrman’s personal view, and it’s not scholarly.
Move along. 
You, too, Dana.

No, he's not on to anything.

And, speaking of that previous book?

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an EmpireThe Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire by Bart D. Ehrman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nice try in theory, falls well short in reality

This was a book tough to rate.

I generally like Ehrman. I generally think that mythicists unfairly belittie him, though I disagree with some specifics of his own supporting material offered for a historic Jesus.

The idea of the book isn’t new, but presented in popularizing form from a knowledgable New Testament scholar, promised to be good, possibly very good.

But, it fell short. Short enough in some ways that I took fairly detailed notes at chapter breaks.

Without explicitly saying so, Ehrman seems to indicate that Christian evangelism and Christian miracle-working both had modest-to-moderate boosts for the early decades of Christianity, but no more than that, and then it was primarily word-of-mouth, just like you and I buy a car or toothpaste today.

However …

First, the evangelism issue is nowhere near as simple as Ehrman paints.

First of all, we know that Christianity was NOT the only evangelistic religion of antiquity, contra what Ehrman implies, and even semi-directly says.

Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries to the West went as far as Macedonia and Cyrenaica circa 200 BCE. Four hundred years later, Clement of Alexandria and other Christian fathers knew about ongoing Buddhist proselytizing. And, Will Durant even speculated it may have been an element in Christian missions. See more here.

Either Ehrman is surprisingly uninformed here, or else, Ehrman’s definition of antiquity is narrow. Neither speaks well for this book.

Also, per reading between the lines in Acts, and in some of Paul’s letters, and my take on J. Massyngberde Ford’s Anchor Bible volume on who wrote the original core of Revelation, we know that at least a few followers of John the Baptist evangelized.

Paul himself mentions Apollos and Peter, even talking about Peter getting paid to take his wife with him.

So, Ehrman has a foul ball here.

On the miracle working, whether real or not, Ehrman doesn’t mention that this was common outside Christianity. Indeed, Jewish charismatics such as Honi the Circle Drawer come to mind. Or Morton Smith’s “Jesus the Magician.” Or the name Simon Magus. Ehrman doesn’t go into a lot of depth here. He even mentions Apollonius of Tyana, the contemporary of Jesus, but never goes into detail about his own reported miracle-working.

(Update. This thread isn't new. Ehrman started this thread a dozen years earlier, in "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene." Thie idea there is: Christians did miracles. They reflect pagan stories of the gods (like Zeus and Hermes visiting Baucis and Philemon. {A deconstructionist critic would aay, hey, Ovid put this in Tyana, where Appolonius was from, and Paul wrote a letter to a Philemon, and would go from there.] Pagan miracles of the present, like the aforesaid Apollonius, don’t get mentioned. Nor do Jewish miracles.)

So, if Christian miracles were more powerful than Jewish, Greek philosophical, or pagan religious ones, why? They were all common. Ehrman doesn't discuss why Xn magic was considered more powerful, whether it had a big effect on recruiting or not.

It’s true that no ancient author writes an unbiased account of this in detail. But Ehrman, while noting that no actual such miracles likely happened, doesn’t explain why Christians were perceived to be (as he would seemingly have us believe) better miracle-workers or magicians.

And, if evangelism were as low as Ehrman thinks it was after Paul, and pagans and philosophers did magic, too, then why was word-of-mouth as successful as Ehrman thinks it was? Word of mouth 2,000 yrs ago presumably was based on testimonials just as much as today.

Reality is that, with people like Polycarp, or Clement of Rome, their letters to other churches were surely part of an ongoing program not just of church maintenance but church planting and spreading. Look at the pseudo-Pauline letter to “Ephesians.” Originally a circular letter, it probably was written in similar spirit.

And, the third failing, a partial one.

I agree with Ehrman that many of the details of Rodney Stark’s projected growth rates of Christianity don’t withstand scrutiny.

However, even though Decius’ persecution wasn’t specifically against Christianity, Diocletian’s was. In a sort of analogy, American whites will start to flee suburban neighborhoods and even whole communities when an influx of minority population, and above all, African-American population, hits a certain percentage, usually around 10 percent.

Ehrman doesn’t ask if a similar phenomenon were in play here. If it was, his believed population percentage of Christians, empire-wide, was too low at the time of Diocletian to be such a trigger. Now, the persecutions were carried out most commonly in the eastern half of the empire, and we have some fairly good indications Christianity was stronger there.

Nonetheless, Ehrman doesn’t follow up.

A fourth partial failing, in my opinion?

Ehrman seems to believe Christianity was not just majority-gentile, but strongly so, by circa 100 CE.

Yet, he fails to mention the “desynagoging” that happened circa 100 CE, per John. If this really did happen, it undercuts Ehrman’s thesis. If it didn’t, he should have offered a bit of exegesis on John here to explain this.

Despite John speaking bluntly of “the Jews,” I think something did happen.

Finally, Ehrman makes a partial version of the same error Stark does on population growth, and it’s connected to his overlooking or ignoring Buddhist evangelism.

He focuses on growth within the Roman Empire.

Armenia became officially Christian in 301 CE, nearly a century before Theodosius so proclaimed Rome. Various kingdoms that today make up Georgia became officially Christian before that time. Ulfilias proselityzed Goths, presumably with some Goths previously Christian, before Theodosius. Legends of Thomas Christians aside, there were Christians in India before this time. Ditto for ancient Nubia, beyond Rome’s Nile frontier.

In critiquing and criticizing Stark, I have noted all of this and said that at least 10 percent of Christians at the time of Constantine were outside imperial borders.

And, of course, by the period that closes Ehrman’s book, Christianity had not swept “the world.”

Finishing up this last section of the notes as I got ready to post this led me to take Ehrman down from three to two stars. Several three-star readers seemed too kind in their detailed reviews.

Ehrman – and his agent who suggested this – should either have committed to an additional 20-30 pages and more rigor, or else suggested this as a series of magazine essays only, or similar.

View all my reviews


So, other than when he's wrongly gang-attacked by mythicists, I have little sympathy for Ehrman any more. This is only worsened by the cult he has, which in turn is worsened IMO by him having a paid blogsite, with his Substack-length ramblings on a site that's his own — not Substack, not Medium or Patreon before that, but his own paywalled website.

He's a semi-guru with a cult who's making a killing off of it.

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