Bart Ehrman on the Life of Brian, parody, and historical implausibility

At the “Jesus and Brian, Or: What have the Pythons done for us?” conference at King’s College London this last weekend, Bart Ehrman gave a lecture on “Parody as Historical Method”. At the time it struck me as borderline pugnacious—he was the only one of the presenters I heard who felt the need to aim The Life of Brian against conventional belief. Most took the view that the film was prescient—John Cleese kept calling it “miraculous”—in anticipating developments in historical Jesus research over the last 35 years.

I didn’t take detailed notes of Ehrman’s talk, so I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of my recollections—so much for eye-witness testimony. Also I’m more interested in the narrative Jesus than in the historical Jesus, so my comments are limited and probably rather simplistic.

Ehrman started by explaining that what had most disturbed him in the film as a young conservative evangelical, fresh from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, was not one of the obviously offensive or “blasphemous” scenes but the three deranged (or merely idiotic) seers in the marketplace preaching their messages of doom. With only a limited appreciation for the place of apocalyptic in Jesus’ teaching, Ehrman sensed nevertheless that the parody “undercut the core of Jesus’ message and mission”.

We immediately recognize this as parody, but Ehrman suggested, with some justification I think, that if the Python team had read John the Baptist, Jesus son of Ananus—“A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house, a voice against the bridegrooms and the brides, and a voice against this whole people!” (Jos. War 6:301)—or excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls in the same fashion, these original texts would have sounded no less ludicrous. Of course, context is everything.

The main thrust of the talk, however, was that as a parody The Life of Brian highlights the inherent implausibility of the Gospel narrative. Ehrman discussed three examples.

The star of Bethlehem

The arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem, with which the film opens, is a parody, in the first place, of the parallel scene in Ben Hur, but Ehrman used it to point out the patent historical implausibility of the story of the wandering star. He told how he would suggest to his students that they go and look at the night sky and and try to work out which star was directly above their house. Even in Ben Hur it required a focused downlight in order to pick out the stable.

It seems to me that Ehrman is no less captive to tradition in this instance than those whose unquestioning belief in the Christmas stories he criticizes. Matthew tells us that astrologers from the east saw a star signifying the birth of a king in Judea—personally, I like the conjunction of planets theory, but in any case, it's just a star with astrological significance attached to it. The obvious place to look for a king of the Jews is Jerusalem—there is no need to follow a star to get there. No new king is found. They are told to try Bethlehem. Perhaps Matthew now imagines the star actually moving through the sky until it comes to rest “over where the child was”, but it could just as well be a rather vivid way of saying that they saw the same “star” in the sky ahead of them as they approached the little town.

Blessed are the cheese-makers (but not the eye-witnesses)

The well known mis-hearing of the beatitude, “Blessed are the cheese-makers”, afforded an opportunity for Ehrman to launch a determined attacked on current scholarly appeal to eye-witness testimony as a defence of the historicity of the Gospels.

Ehrman cited a great deal of anthropological, psychological and forensic evidence to the effect that the oral transmission of eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. He was asked by a member of the audience about the relevance of the modern behavioural studies for understanding ancient practice. He accepted that ancient rhetoricians may have been capable of memorizing lengthy texts, just as people today memorize the Qur’an. But this was exceptional, the province of specialists. It didn’t account for the recollection of Jesus’ teaching by ordinary Galileans.

I don’t know enough about this to comment seriously—for a start, I haven’t read Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. But I did wonder how reliable Ehrman thought Josephus was, and whether he’d considered that small children in village madrasas memorize the Qur’an at length.

I would also make the point that we’re not talking about the accidental, casual or inadvertent recollection and transmission of Jesus’ teaching. The disciples presumably thought of themselves as, well, just that—disciples, students, obliged, for the sake of their emerging mission, to take serious note of their rabbi’s teaching. Eyewitnesses surprised by an unexpected event are not a proper parallel to the disciples, who had grown accustomed to hearing Jesus teach and seeing him heal and cast out demons.

Was Jesus buried

Lastly, Ehrman showed a clip from the film in which we see the skeletal remains of victims of crucifixion still fixed to their crosses. He thinks that what we know of Roman practice makes it very unlikely that Pilate would have acceded to a request made by a member of the Council to have the body taken down on the same day and properly buried. The Life of Brian, therefore, is more accurate than the Gospels.

John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus’ body would have been left to the dogs was mentioned in passing. I notice, however, that in The Last Week Borg and Crossan merely state that Jesus’ burial was “a remarkable departure from customary procedure since… the body of a crucified individual was not given an honorable burial” (146, 153).

For that matter, in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999) Ehrman himself wrote: "it seems improbable that Jesus' corpse was simply left hanging on the cross", since that would make the emergence of belief in the resurrection much harder to explain (225).

There was some discussion of Philo’s reference to the practice of taking down the bodies of the crucified to receive a proper burial when the emperor’s birthday was celebrated:

...for it used to be considered, that even the dead ought to derive some enjoyment from the natal festival of a good emperor, and also that the sacred character of the festival ought to be regarded. (Philo, Flaccus 1:83)

Guy Stiebel from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem reminded Ehrman of the passage in Life 420-21, where Josephus describes how he came across three former acquaintances being crucified. Deeply saddened, he went to Titus, who granted his request for the men to be taken down. Only one of the three survived. Ehrman rather dismissed this on the grounds that Josephus had an exceptional relationship with Titus, but it does suggest to my mind that Roman policy was not so rigid that it could not be countermanded occasionally.

In a more significant passage, one not mentioned yesterday (I found it on the train to Coventry), Josephus describes a fierce attack by the Idumeans on Jerusalem in the course of the Jewish War. They rampaged through the city, plundering and killing everyone they met, until they caught up with the high priests, Ananus and Jesus, and slew both them. Josephus continues:

Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun. (War 4:317)

Perhaps by this stage the Romans had lost interest in crucifixion as a deterrent, but Josephus seems to have regarded it as a matter of common practice, not typically prohibited by the Romans.