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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ehrman shows some of his strengths but also a key weakness, 15 Oct. 2007
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This review is from: Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Paperback)
I first learned of Ehrman's views about the apocalyptic Jesus while reading his recent The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed. Even in that book, his interest in Gnostic Christianity seems secondary and he appears to be using the opportunity with that book to present again his arguments for an apocalyptic Jesus. So I decided to read this book for a more complete presentation of that viewpoint.

Ehrman generally explains material so well and his knowledge of history and the Bible seems so complete that, at first glance, it would seem foolish to doubt him. His case seems compelling. Given that the four New Testament gospels provide our first known accounts of Jesus and using well-established scholarly criteria for evaluating scriptural statements, Ehrman provides a convincing case that Jesus was an apocalyptic Jew.

But is he too quick to accept the reliability of the New Testament gospels in revealing the historical Jesus? In the The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels takes into account the historical conditions of each of the gospel writers and wonders to what extent those texts were concerned more with motivating the Christians of those times and not with a historical account of a Jesus none of those gospel writers is likely to have known first hand. She writes that the four gospels were "chosen not necessarily because they were the earliest or most accurate accounts of Jesus' life and teaching but precisely because they could form the basis of church communities".

Ehrman devotes only several pages of the main text to the views of Crossam (and hence the Jesus Seminar) that Jesus was not an apocalyptic Jew. He simply dismisses Crossan on the issue of the dating of some texts. He doesn't mention other arguments from the Jesus Seminar members supporting their view of Jesus ( The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate
appeared in 2001 and it seems unlikely these conflicting issues would have been unknown to Ehrman).

Having relied on the four gospels as the best evidence to reveal the historical Jesus, Ehrman then relies heavily on criteria used often by Biblical scholars which he himself admits are only probabilistic: independent attestation, dissimilarity and contextual credibility. Using these, he shows how changes since Mark, generally presumed to be the earliest gospel, suggest that the depiction of Jesus as an apocalyptic Jew became muted over time and that any depiction of Jesus as an apocalyptic Jew didn't seem to support subsequent Christian teachings about Jesus. That leads Ehrman to conclude that Jesus must have been an apocalyptic Jew, which helps him to make sense of some of Jesus's important but otherwise obscure statements in the Gospels. Ehrman does acknowledge important ethical teachings by Jesus but makes them seem dependent on the expectation of an imminent direct action of his god and not by the people.

I'm just a lay person but I grow suspicious when it seems that a scholar has avoided squarely addressing the views of other leading scholars, especially in an area for which any scholar must rely so heavily on speculation. What if the dating of the texts is wrong or if other texts were lost? What if the probabilistic criteria Ehrman relies so heavily on are wrong in some of these particular cases he applies them to? What about the motives of the Gospel writers and their distance from Jesus? Is it feasible, as Ehrman suggests, that Jesus viewed himself as having a special relationship with a god who would establish a kingdom on earth that would overturn Roman rule and place Jesus, with his 12 disciples, in charge? It may be and that may explain why Christianity soon afterward retreated from teaching a apocalyptic Jesus who seemed entirely wrong in his expectations, but the views of the Jesus Seminar and Pagels seem worth addressing. Ehrman appeals to a "wide range of scholars who have devoted their lives to studying the ancient sources for the historical Jesus [who have] concluded that he proclaimed the imminent end of history as we know it] without acknowledging almost at all those who didn't so conclude or who may have suspected Jesus was calling for popular action rather than an direct intervention by his god.

That Ehrman remains wedded to this view and wanting to present it even ostensibly in a book about "The Gospel of Judas" (i.e. The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed) and that he avoided to such an extent in this book discussing the views of the Jesus Seminar that Jesus was not an apocalyptic Jew calls into question for me Ehrman's commitment to scholarship. Even in a book such as this for a lay audience, and perhaps especially so given that us lay readers may find it difficult to understand the conflicting conclusions of scholars, it seems irresponsible to dismiss alternative views in a few pages. I may have to read The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate to get further input on this issue and, even if Ehrman is right, the manner in which he has presented his case will make me quite suspicious of his work in the future.
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Initial post: 16 Dec 2010 00:06:21 GMT
A nicely balanced and critical review. Ehrman is being disingenuous, true, but have a look at what Donald Akeson has to say about the Jesus Seminar and the Third Quest for a historical Jesus in Surpassing Wonder. Arguing for a historical Jesus will usually engender crimes against the historian's profession and result in theology and apologetics, allbeit possibly peculiar to ones self. Crossan, Ehrman and the Seminar all lay a good deal by independent attestation for instance, when there is no such thing - there is Mark and the hypothetical Q, neither of which can attest the other, one of which is a scholarly construct - John, Luke, Matthew and Thomas derive from these two. Our earliest Christian writings, the various canonical epistles that can be agreed as genuine and early do not attest either the Gospel stories or the teachings, in fact it can be argued that they in fact attest that no such stories or teachings existed as attributed to or about Jesus at the time of the writing of the epistles. We look through the wrong end of the telescope. Read independently of one another, neither the fictive first layer of Q, the genuine Paulines or Mark would appear to be talking about the same subject. Related subjects, yes - and a plausible case can be made as to their conflation - but it is difficult to see that they are talking about the same real person or that they had genuine knowledge of such a person, while it is relatively easy to derive Paul's thought from the mystery schools and syncretic Judaism, Mark as midrash and the stitching together of themes/stories from the Tanakh and Q from that community's evolution and alienation.
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