A Surprising Argument For Jesus’ Miracles image

A Surprising Argument For Jesus’ Miracles

When it comes to Jesus and early Christianity, I do not normally find myself on the same side of the debate as Bart Ehrman. Nor do most evangelicals, I suspect. So it's interesting to read these comments, in an interview on Ben Witherington's blog about the existence of Jesus, on the importance of multiple attestation in historical study, particularly that of the New Testament. The series as a whole is superb, and it's well worth reading for everyone who is interested in apologetics. At one point, he explains why finding an event in multiple, independent sources demonstrates that none of them made it up:

Multiple attestation is one of the most important historical criteria for establishing what happened in the past – not just for historical Jesus research, but for any serious historical research. If the sources to a historical person or event are biased, then it is impossible to know if one of them has just “made something up,” if it is our only witness. But if there are several sources available that independently indicate that an event happened (or that a person lived, etc.), then no one of them could have made it up – since they all report it without having conferred with one another. Some scholars see this criterion as the most important one available for establishing what happened in the past. [Emphasis added.]

So just to be clear: does that mean that an event which is attested to in several independent sources is almost certain not to be invented by those writers? Even if the source material is biased (as, of course, all source material is in some way or other), and even if the event is not witnessed to within a hundred years by anyone outside of the faith community? Apparently so:

And it is extremely useful for establishing the existence of Jesus. If we had only one ancient source that indicated that Jesus lived, we would not be able to make a very strong case. But the reality is that we have lots of sources. Whether or not these sources are biased is immaterial when it comes to this criterion. In addition to Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus – which are not biased in favor of Jesus’ existence, but which are too late to be of supreme importance (since they are so many years after the fact) – we have numerous Christian sources (on which the non-Christian ones are not dependent). In addition to Paul (who is quite clear and explicit that there was a man Jesus!) we have our first Gospel, Mark, itself based on numerous earlier sources, some of them demonstrably circulating at one point in Aramaic, the native language of Jesus. [Emphasis added.]
But there is much more. Matthew and Luke had numerous sources at their disposal in addition to Mark; we call their respective sources “Q” (for the material found in both Matthew and Luke not in Mark, such as the beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer), “M” (Matthew’s special source, or sources; “M” may have been one document or, more likely, one or more documents and a collection of oral traditions), and “L” (Luke’s special sources). All of these speak of Jesus’ words and deeds. So does John, and all of John’s sources, which appear to have been independent of the other Gospels. As do the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, which I take also to have been independent of the other Gospels.

Right. So if there are lots of independent sources, like the gospels and the earlier literary and oral traditions they represent, which witness to an historical event, then it is all-but-certain that the event in question happened? Yes:

In short, we not only have lots of sources, we have lots of independent sources, from within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, that are absolutely unified in claiming that he was a Jewish teacher from Galilee. I don’t see how we could have this many sources – some of which can be traced to Palestine, and within a few years of the traditional date of Jesus’ death – unless Jesus really existed. This argument has to be taken in conjunction with others, of course, including the importance of Paul himself, who heard stories about Jesus just a couple of years after his death at the outside (more likely within a year or so), and who actually knew, personally, Jesus’ closest disciple and his own brother. Taken together, these independent sources make a compelling argument for Jesus’ existence.

So what if there were multiple, independent sources - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts and the letters of Paul, as well as the earlier traditions that they represent - which bore witness to the fact that Jesus worked miracles (note Ehrman’s correct statement about “words and deeds”), and was resurrected from the dead? On the basis of Ehrman’s principles of historiography, with which I completely agree, it wouldn’t matter that the sources were biased (as, of course, all sources are). And it wouldn’t matter that they existed only within the faith community for the first century (as, of course, all sources affirming the resurrection of Jesus would do, since those who believed these things about Jesus usually became Christians as a result). The fact that they provided independent, multiple attestation of all sorts of events (healings, multiplication of loaves, casting out demons, the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances) would clearly indicate that the writers of those sources had not invented them. Interesting.
Presumably, the fact that these events both involved “miracles” and supported Christian belief might bother Bart Ehrman, and lots of other New Testament scholars, on the basis of their materialist presuppositions. But that would not stop them from having happened. As historians, the variety of independent sources available should lead them, and us, to conclude that these things were not invented. That this might be inconvenient for the secularist’s worldview is irrelevant, historiographically.
So there you have it. Bart Ehrman, like most secular moderns, does not believe Jesus rose from the dead. But, on the basis of his own argument, he probably should.

← Prev article
Next article →