Did Jesus Exist as Part One

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Writing Did Jesus Exist was an interesting task. For one thing, before writing the book, like most New Testament scholars, I knew almost nothing about the mythicist movement. I think mythicists themselves find this very frustrating, that their work is not taken seriously – in fact is not really even known – by precisely the scholars they would most like to convince. But that’s just the way it is. Many scholars have heard of G. A. Wells, who for years has propounded a mythicist view (of sorts: he actually thinks there was a man Jesus, but he is essentially unrelated to the Christ of Christian tradition). And Robert Price has a PhD in the field and wrote a bona fide scholarly book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. But scholars who know about the mythicists – e.g. by reading the second edition of Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus, where he effectively disposes of the mythicists of his day – whether for good reason or not, simply do not take them seriously. And many scholars in the field, I would venture to say, until my book had not even heard much about them.

So that would be frustrating if you were a mythicist. What I was surprised to learn in doing my preparation for the book was just how extensive the research was that mythicists had done, how many arguments they had amassed, how many issues they addressed. Some of their works are voluminous. And their numbers do appear to be increasing. I wonder if that is related at all to the culture wars going on right now over religion. As the “religious right” tries to assert itself increasingly in the public discourse and to foist its moral agendas on the rest of us, the “neo-atheists” have arisen issuing a serious challenge not just to the right but to religion itself. Are the mythicists gaining traction because of the reaction of the left against the right?

In any event, writing Did Jesus Exist? was an interesting exercise precisely because it put me closely in touch with this entirely other world of the mythicist. But that was not all. It was interesting for two other reasons.

First, I realized when doing my research for the book that since New Testament scholars have never taken mythicists seriously, they have never seen a need to argue against their views, which means that even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it. Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise. How do you prove that someone from 2000 years ago actually lived? I have to say, it was terrifically enlightening, engaging, and fun to think through all the issues and come up with all the arguments. I think really almost any New Testament scholar could have done it. But it ended up being lucky me.

The second reason it was interesting was that it allowed me to rethink what we can know about the historical Jesus. I devote a couple of chapters to that issue in the book. Once we have said that Jesus existed, what can we say about his life – his words, his deeds, his experiences? I would rank this issue as one of the greatest in the history of religions, and it was a privilege to be able to think through and write about it in this work

But Did Jesus Exist? is important for me for one other reason. It has set the stage for my next book project, a book about what happened to Jesus’ reputation after his death. The short way to express the issue is this: if, as I am right, Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist from the backwaters of a rural part of the Roman empire, a Jewish preacher who got on the wrong side of the law and was executed for crimes against the state, how is it that within sixty years of his death his followers were saying that he was a divine being? And that within 150 years they were saying that he was the second member of the Trinity? I am tentatively calling this next book How Jesus Became God.

I will talk more about this book, and its relation to Did Jesus Exist, as I continue this posting on the Member Site of the Blog. Please Join!!

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Comments

  1. Adam  May 5, 2012

    I was surprised when I first heard you were publishing a book on whether Jesus existed. I wondered why it was necessary. Now, I see why. Years ago I read Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, which has become a best seller in Canada to my surprise. I think your book is important for showing there is good evidence that Jesus existed, even if not the Jesus of popular opinion. I think it’s important for scholars to not only engage scholars, but popular opinion. This is not an easy task, I’m sure!

  2. Lenore Fleck  May 7, 2012

    I have just finished “Did Jesus Exist,” and I have also enjoyed several of your other books.

    One thread is left hanging, and you allude to this yourself early in the book. How did the idea of Jesus’s resurrection attain such traction? You accept that Paul met with Peter and James who were intimates of Jesus. They must have been convinced of his resurrection, and Paul certainly was, as it was the basis of his ministry.

    I am agnostic. But I have never been able to come up with a satisfactory way to explain away the resurrection in light of the testimonies of these men.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2012

      Ah, that will be dealt with in the next book How Jesus Became God!

      • SteveLig  May 11, 2012

        Is that title in use already? I seem to remember reading a book with that title a few years back. I think the author was Richard Rubbenstein.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 13, 2012

          Rubenstein’s book was “When Jesus Became God.” and it is about something completely different: the controversies involved at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. (His book is misnamed: everyone at the council already agree that Jesus was, in some sense, divine)

      • Raymond Wood  May 13, 2012

        I hope you will take a look at Daniel Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ”* while preparing your next book. He presents a cogent argument that the canonical gospels have solidly Jewish roots. When I connect your Apocalyptic Jesus with Boyarin’s argument, then add in Pamela Eisenbaum’s “Paul Was Not a Christian,”° and your picture of the Ebionites, the excitement stands my hair on end.
        * ISBN 971-1-59558-468-7
        ° ISBN 978-0-06-072291-3

  3. Steven Carr  May 7, 2012

    It is interesting how Christians changed from originally thinking of Jesus as a perfectly ordinary being to a divine being.

    When did Christians start to symbolically eat his body and symbolically drink his blood?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2012

      Right off the bat! (1 Cor. 11:22-24! One of our earliest Christian writings). My next book is on how the human became God.

      • rey jacobs  May 26, 2012

        “When did Christians start to symbolically eat his body and symbolically drink his blood?” (Carr)

        “Right off the bat! (1 Cor. 11:22-24! One of our earliest Christian writings). My next book is on how the human became God.” (Ehrman)

        A lot of times Ehrman, I get the impression you haven’t even read the basic primary sources. Ever read the Didache? Its supposedly from about the same time as Paul’s epistles (54 AD or so), right? And guess what, in the Didache the Eucharist is a clear Christianization of the Jewish Kiddush, with the elements still in the Jewish order and still no body/blood symbolism.

        I.e. the Didache says the cup comes first and represents that Jesus is the “vine of David” (i.e. the Messiah) and then the bread representing Jesus’ teaching.

        This view obviously came first and was replaced by the Pauline view from 1 Corinthians 11 later on, and the Pauline view was added to the Gospels by a final redactor even later. This gets back to my earlier comment that now its time for you to prove that the Catholic Pauline preceded the Marcionite Paulina — for it is certain the Marcionite Pauline DID NOT represent the meaning of the Eucharist in 1 Cor 11 as being Jesus’ body and blood!

        And as to my comment on my getting the impression you haven’t read the basic primary sources, I remember in one of your books you said the Ebionites were “polar opposites” of the Marcionites, and you represented them almost as modern orthodox Jews. But if you had read Epiphanius’ Panarion, the section on the Ebionites, you would have known that they partially rejected the Old Testament. In fact, if you had read the Pseudo-Clementine literature, you would have known they said that the Old Testament was wrong in saying Abraham was a polygammist, etc. You seem rather lazy in your scholarship sometimes.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2012

          I normally don’t reply to rather hostile questions, but I can’t resist here!

          Have I read the Didache? Really?? My translation of the Didache is appeared in my two-volume edition of the Apostolic Fathers, in the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press). I am indeed aware of the teaching in the Didache about the eucharist. If you want some bibliography, I’m happy to provide it. But I don’t know where you are coming up with a date for the Didache in the 50s. I talk about dating issues in my Introduction there (and a few other places where I include it in my readers). What is your basis / evidence for a date in the 50s?

          Have I read the Panarion? Really?? I’ve worked on it for years. In one of my seminars I have my students read selections in Greek. As you probably know, Epiphanius is absolutely notorious for his exaggerations and inaccuracies; he simply can’t be trusted. A nice introduction to some of the problems is in the book by Vallee.

          I have dealt with Epiphanius (and one of his inaccuracies) in my forthcoming book on forgery. I also deal there with the Pseudo-Clementines, which I do indeed know. I think I’ve read all the modern scholarship on them. The Ebionites are never named in either the Homilies or the Recognitions. What are you thinking of?

          • Geoffrey Riggs  January 23, 2013

            Cogent response. Thank you!

            As strictly a layman myself, I can only say that I have _never_ come across any suggestion that the Didache is from the ’50s — until now! Consequently, I am sincerely curious, please, as to what the current best guess is as to its true date, and do you more or less see that date as plausible? Or might you place it slightly earlier or later than that yourself?

            Many thanks — and my hat’s off to for a timely and needed task well done in Did Jesus Exist.

            Geoffrey Riggs

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 24, 2013

            No, I don’t think the Didache can be as early as 50. I talk about the dating in my translation of the text for the Loeb Classical Library. The final form of the text may date from 100 or so…

  4. Steven Carr  May 7, 2012

    If Jesus was executed for crimes against the state, why did Paul think the Jews were ultimately responsible for his death?

    How did the Romans go from being the people the Messiah would drive out to becoming God’s agents, who did not bear the sword for nothing and who held no terror for the innocent, as in Romans 13?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2012

      Good questions — too long for a brief post. But, in any event: 1. Paul thought the Jews were the ones driving the persecution, even if Romans did it; 2. It beame more sensible to be on the side of power than opposed to it in Paul’s context.

      • Steven Carr  May 7, 2012

        Paul wanted to be on the side of power? So he tried to sweep under the carpet the fact that the Romans had killed the Son of God by claiming they did not bear the sword for nothing, and held no terror for the innocent?

        I doubt if Mel Gibson would share that view…

        Although Paul had not yet seen ‘The Passion of the Christ’ when he wrote, so would perhaps be unaware of the brutality meted out by ‘God’s agents’ , who ‘held no terror for the innocent?’

        • Raymond Wood  May 13, 2012

          Paul need not have sided with power, though not drawing its attention might be advisable. The apocalypse was expected within his lifetime, at which point Onesimus would be free in this world.

  5. Dennis_Steenbergen  May 7, 2012

    Two questions: I have seen some apologists argue that Mark predicted the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 but can we say Mark was written before the Romans destroyed the city? It seems more plausible to think that Mark was written after-the-fact but a lot would hang in the balance if it came to pass that it was written before the Roman-Jewish war. I am also reading Bishop Spong’s “Liberating the Gospels”. In it he mentions Mark follows a Jewish liturgical calendar bogart Jewish holidays for their own meaning as they sought to fracture away from orthodox Judaism and create their own identity. Is this view widely accepted among scholars? Its news to me and made loads of sense.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2012

      I was just ready to post my new post on just this issue when I came to your comment! Hope the post (Under “Bart Answers His Readers”) helps.

      I’m not a fan of the idea of Mark (or other Gospels) following a liturgical calendar. For one thing, it’s pretty clear to me that Mark was not a Jew! I would classify this view as very much in the minority among Markan scholars, for what it’s worth….

  6. Steve  May 7, 2012

    Bart, you’re awesome man, keep going with your job. I can say i’m your fan.

  7. Erlend  May 7, 2012

    “Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it”

    Samuel Byrskog’s chapter “The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed” in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Brill 2011 though should probably get a mention, even though its not as full an exposition of the argument as your own work.

  8. Steven Carr  May 10, 2012

    Mark’s Gospel contains the character Barabbas.

    John’s Gospel contains the character Barabbas.

    Can we conclude that John’s Gospel is independent of Mark’s Gospel?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 11, 2012

      Most experts on the Gospels think that we need more evidence of literary dependence than this. There were stories floating around about Barabbas (whether or not he was “historical”; I tend to think not). The mere mention of him is not enough, I think, to show that the author of John knew Mark’s Gospel.

      • Steven Carr  May 12, 2012

        That’s the trouble with unprovenanced, anonymous works. They can confidently be declared to be independent, and nobody can contradict you because nobody has the data to say what the author of John may have read.

  9. Mike Wilson  May 14, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman, first, big fan of your work, and my professor at Montana State University, Dr. S. Cohen used your text book on the New Testament for her introduction to the New Testament class. Secondly, I would like to point out such books as Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History by Maurice Goguel and a number of others (there is a list here http://www.bede.org.uk/price8.htm ) as book that refute mythicism, so effectively do set out to prove Jesus exist. They are all rather old and no one has done it recently for the new crop Jesus Myths. I point this out since someone has quoted you to support their notions scholars have simply assumed Jesus existed without questioning the evidence (an odd charge since he is aware of Goguel’s book).

    Personally I think the charge that scholars that do works on the historical Jesus without first specifically proving his existence are not doing proper historical work is baseless, because one, a historian who chooses to do a history of an individual has effectively already determined the subject exist and efforts to prove an individual’s existence only come up if the sources would lead us to question this, hence no one writes books called “Did Churchill Exist?” or “Does Obama Exist?”. This isn’t being presumptuous to write the history without addressing existence; it is simply that the nature of the sources means no one doubts these peoples existence. Your last book in fact would have been unnecessary had the internet not exposed the idea to a lot of people whose ideology exceeds their education.

  10. steph  May 15, 2012

    “I realized when doing my research for the book that since New Testament scholars have never taken mythicists seriously, they have never seen a need to argue against their views, which means that even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it”
    That’s interesting. Have you not read Maurice Casey’s work including his latest book written for a wider audience, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (T&T Clarke, 2010)? We’ve read ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ and I got the impression you hadn’t. I hope you find an opportunity to read it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 15, 2012

      Yes, I’m familiar with his work. (What gave you another impression? It’s true I don’t deal with it much in my writings. But that’s true of most NT writers I’ve read!) I think he’s a smart and interesting fellow, though I disagree with him on a number of issues (Aramaic origins of NT books, etc.); but all of that is too long for a simple answer here! The book you’re referring to here is a fairly full exposition of what he thinks is historical information about Jesus, a nice contribution to the field.

  11. JamesLamuy  May 23, 2012

    You seem to be ignoring the work of Professor Antonio Piñero of Madrid’s Complutense University, who deals abundantly on the subject of Jesus of Nazareth’s mythicist movement theories in a number of works. (Is that ignorance, negligence or appropriation?).

    What strikes me most, however, -about the presumptions tone of your blog- is that someone is going to be actually willing to fund your campaigning for the same book you want them to buy?

    Now, that’s amazing. If you succeed in doing so you deserve a PhD but forget about the historical Jesus; you’d deserve a Marketing Honorary doctorate!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      I’m sorry to say that I’m not familiar with Antonio Piñero’s discussions of the mythicists. Which of his books are you referring to, and what does hoe say?

      But you are sorely mistaken about the tone of my blog. No one is funding anything that I do. As I’ve tried to make perfectly clear, all the money’s raised from the blog (every dime!) are given to charities that fight hunger and homelessness. I hope you’re not opposed to that!

  12. rey  May 25, 2012

    “no one had ever tried to prove it.”

    Now, prove that the Pauline epistles were really used as canonical scripture by the ‘orthodox’ prior to 180 AD, or in other words, that the Catholic edition of the Paulina precedes the Marcionite edition. There’s another thing that nobody tries to prove — they only assume — because the ‘orthodox’ doofuses know ahead of time they can’t prove what is not true. And you, since you’re some sort of ‘orthodox’ agnostic (oddly enough) must now prove it for them. Get to it then!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2012

      Yes, good question. I don’t need to prove it, though — other scholars have dealt with it in convincing terms! The most recent is Benjamin White, soon to appear.

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