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Q&A With Ben Witherington: Part 1

Ben Witherington, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, has asked me to respond to a number of questions about my book Did Jesus Exist, especially in light of criticism I have received for it (not, for the most part, from committed Christians!).   His blog is widely read by conservative evangelicals, and he has agreed to post the questions and my answers without editing, to give his readers a sense of why I wrote the book, what I hoped to accomplish by it, and what I would like them to know about it.  He has graciously agreed to allow me to post my responses here on my blog, which, if I’m not mistaken, has a very different readership (although there is undoubtedly some overlap).   It’s a rather long set of questions and answers – over 10,000 words.   So I will post them in bits and pieces so as not to overwhelm anyone.  The Q’s are obviously his, the A’s mine.

 

Q. What prompted you to not merely write Did Jesus Exist? but prioritize it?

A.  I had wanted to write the book for some time, for a simple reason.  A few years ago I started getting emails from people asking me whether or not I thought Jesus existed.  Some of these people indicated that they had heard that I thought Jesus did not exist, and they wanted to know if it was true.  In fact, it was nowhere close to being true: I had already written a book showing in which I argued what I thought we could say with reasonable certainly about the things Jesus said and did (Jesus: Apocayptic Prophet of the New Millennium).  And my idea has always been that for Jesus to say and do these things, he had to exist!

 

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Comments

  1. Bjarte  June 7, 2012

    For what it’s worth, I’m an atheist, and I think the Jesus Myth theory is crap. I’m sorry to say that I too was persuaded by the arguments of people like Doherty, Wells and Price at some point. What ultimately changed my mind was not in fact any new arguments for the historicity of Jesus, but getting more deeply into critical thinking, and recognizing just how closely the mythicist strategy resembles what conspiracy theorists and denialists are doing.

    I still don’t find the evidence for the historicity of Jesus *overwhelming* (compared to, say, the evidence for evolution), but why on earth should we expect overwhelming evidence for the existence of a first century Jew in the first place? Mythicists often challenge me to show them how they get the facts wrong, when the main flaw in their argument has more to do with their own expectations of what the facts *ought to be* if there was an historical person at the root of Christianity.

    It seems to me that much of the mythicist case boils down to conflating the question “Did Jesus exist?” with a separate question, such as “Was he famous in his own time?”, or “Were the claims made about him later uniquely different from the claims about other alleged god-men?”. Some mythicists also conflate the carpenter of history [let’s call him “Jesus (1)”] with the divine miracle-worker of religion [let’s call him “Jesus (2)”], and then go on to argue that Jesus (1) could not exist because Jesus (2) couldn’t avoid attracting more attention among his contemporaries. Given how eager people are, even today, to believe spectacularly implausible things on absolutely no basis at all, it is simply astonishing to me how people who call themselves “skeptics” can argue that an ordinary human being 2000 years ago could not possibly come to be seen as divine.

    Finally, while I find it perfectly legitimate to invoke a principle like the burden of proof when it comes to things like *God*, I don’t think the same logic works very well for the historicity of Jesus. Unlike gods, we know for a fact that there are such things as humans and that some of them start cults. It is far from obvious to me why the competing hypothesis, that Christianity started with a mythical Jesus, is inherently more “neutral” or less in need of justification, and should therefore be considered the “null hypothesis”.

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with your analysis regarding the motivation behind the mythicist agenda. There are so many *better* reasons for rejecting Christianity in particular and theism in general, that the Jesus Myth Theory should rank *very* low on our list.
    (I still don’t think it’s *only* an accident that those *people* who worship a hateful, intolerant and violent god are so much more likely to be hateful, intolerant and violent themselves than *people* who don’t, but that’s another discussion).

  2. Adam  June 7, 2012

    I wanted to thank you again for your blog. It no doubt takes up much of your time and energy, which reflects to me you deep concern for those in need. In addition to raising money, you have reminded me that if a very busy person like yourself is able to make time to volunteer your time to raise money, so can I!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 7, 2012

      Yes you can! Go forth and do good! 🙂

  3. whatnow  June 7, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,
    How would you characterize the behind-the-scenes relationships between believing and non-believing NT scholars? Is there a level of mutual respect—something like an acknowledgment that given the realities revealed by objective scholarship, it is a rational and understandable position NOT to believe?

    When I’ve read “criticisms” (some would be better characterized as “attacks”) of you and your positions, there is usually a fairly lengthy disclaimer in the first paragraph along the lines of, (paraphrasing from memory) “while Dr. Ehrman IS generally considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on early Christianity, and while he WAS mentored by the renown NT scholar, Bruce Metzger, the tragic truth is that his judgment has been clouded by personal experience to the point of losing his faith, his bias of unbelief clearly shows, etc. , etc.

    I read these statements as the necessary (to them) rhetoric needed to shore up the faith of the flock and dispel any fears or doubts. On the other hand I’ve read statements from (I believe) N.T. Wright and others bemoaning heavily biased, mass market “apologetics” and saying things like, (again paraphrasing from memory) “…whether you agree with Dr. Ehrman’s conclusions or not, he does the church a much needed service by making textual criticism and the history of early Christianity accessible to the average reader…”, etc., etc.

    Thoughts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 8, 2012

      This is a very interesting question, and I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for it. There are a few people like me in the field of NT scholarship — agnostics or atheists; but they are very very few and far between, and I don’t really know any of them very well. Most of my colleagues treat me extremely well. They may roll their eyes when I talk about matters of faith or when I write books for broad distribution, but they take my scholarship seriously. Scholarship is usually weighted on its own grounds, not on the grounds of who happens to produce it.

      The kinds of criticisms you’re mentioning are the ones that are leveled in relationship not to work that advances scholarship, but work that makes scholarship available to a wider audience. And some conservative (and all very conservative) scholars do not appreciate it when someone like me points out that the vast majority of critical scholars (outside the ranks of the very conservative) have views contrary to those of Joe in the pew or Jill on the street.

      • whatnow  June 9, 2012

        May I ask what your relationship was like with Dr. Metzger after you clearly “came out” as agnostic? Where would you put him on a conservativeliberal continuum?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 12, 2012

          I think I’d like to extract your question and answer it directly on the blog, so it doesn’t get lost here in the shuffle. It’s a good one!

          • whatnow  June 12, 2012

            Thank you, it’s something I’ve been curious about for awhile…

  4. PaulH  June 7, 2012

    Q. Why do you think it is that some atheists are so adamant about trying to eradicate Jesus entirely from the historical record, by claiming he never existed?

    When I first lost all faith I was pretty angry. Ready to jump on anyone who mentioned Christianity, gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose. It’s easy to follow the new age Atheists, with the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins jumping head first into religion, and being swept up in a movement. When people say Jesus is mirrored in different ancient religions, it doesn’t take much to believe the same thing. Same with those who say Nazareth never existed. Easier to dismiss something than take the time to read many, many books on the subject and get an education.

    Thankfully that “anger” has subsided for me now. I’d love to believe in an after life. But I do find it comforting to actually know a little about the history of Christianity, thanks to your many books and this blog.

  5. bobnaumann  June 10, 2012

    What is your opinion of the Progressive Christians like Jack Spong, Robin Meyers, Marcus Borg, etc. who are trying to remove supernaturalism from Christianity and still have something left?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 12, 2012

      I’m completely in support! (But does Marcus Borg want to eliminate the supernatural from the faith? It’s a genuine question)

  6. Adam  June 12, 2012

    For those who would like to listen to the full interview between Ben and Bart, someone has read it and posted it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA2BCFB708740268F

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 12, 2012

      Read it?!? Out loud?? Wow….

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