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Another Take on Jesus’ Existence

Some readers have objected to my insistence that New Testament scholars, on the whole, do not take seriously the claims of the mythicists that Jesus never existed.   I have always stressed that Jesus’ existence is known (and can be demonstrated) by thousands of New Testament scholars.  But I have also always stressed that scholarly consensus on this issue is not in itself *evidence* (my detractors among the mythicists seem to overlook this little point, when they claim that I argue that since the consensus says something it must be true; that’s not my view at all!).   At the same time, it is worthwhile knowing what the experts say — whether talking about the age of our universe (13.8 billion years; but I wouldn’t be able to calculate that myself); about the theory of evolution (Hey, it’s just a *theory*!  yes, but so too is the “theory” of gravity!!); about the forgery of the Hitler diaries; or about anything else that involves expertise.  At the same time, it is worthwhile in all these cases to know what the evidence is.  That is why in Did Jesus Exist? I don’t simply state that virtually every expert on the planet says yes, but I show what the hard evidence is.

A couple of days ago a prominent New Testament scholar stated his own view of the matter, which I found amusing: he is even more forthright than I am!   This is Larry Hurtado, emeritus professor of New Testament studies in one of the premier programs of religious studies in the U.K., at the University of Edinburgh.  His full comments can be found at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2012/08/28/hurtado-on-did-jesus-exist/   Here is the relevant section.

I was emailed last week by someone asking why scholars don’t engage the “mythicists” (as they are called) on the issue. Were we afraid that we’d be out-gunned in an argument? Did we secretly know that the denyers had it all? Were we being elitist?

For me, it’s a matter of having a good many prior commitments to produce positive contributions to the study of early Christianity (e.g., right now, I’m trying to get on with an essay on “Who Read Early Christian Apocrypha?” for a multi-author volume). But another reason for feeling it less than necessary to spend a lot of time on the matter is that all the skeptical arguments have been made and effectively engaged many decades ago. Before posting this, I spent a bit of time perusing my copy of H. G. Wood, Did Christ Really Live?, which was published in 1938. In it, Wood cites various figures of the early 20th century who had claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction, and patiently and cordially engages the specifics of evidence and argument, showing that the attacks fail.

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate.

      Let me stress, these are not my words.  The are the words of one of the top scholars of Christian antiquity in the U.K.  But they are certainly worth noting, for their candor if nothing else.  My sense is that most experts would agree with him.


An Interlude: My Other CIA
Did Jesus Speak Greek?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Bill Graham  August 30, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I really appreciate the work you’ve done over the years. I’m going through several of your books on audio now, and it has rekindled my interest in reading the New Testament in Greek. I too graduated from Moody Bible Institute. To their credit, they introduced me to several concepts you’ve mentioned in some of your books, such as the synoptic problem and the problem of defending biblical inerrancy. They’re still pretty fundamentalist, but they’ve come a long way in recent years toward recognizing that people can have different ways of viewing the scriptures. I really appreciate what you’ve uncovered about the real Jesus. Thank you so much for your keen observations and dedication to textual criticism. I look forward to reading the scholarly book you plan to write as discussed in Misquoting Jesus.

  2. Avatar
    James Dowden  August 30, 2012

    I think the objection is natural. An historical argument is rather easier to the layman to follow (at least superficially) and rather more fuzzy in its conclusions than a mathematical argument. And in a way, it’s a good thing for bad history to have some currency: at least it’s evidence of some sort of connection with the wider world, however half-baked the wider world’s ideas may be.

  3. Avatar
    dallaswolf  August 30, 2012

    Is it that much fun to engage the fundamentalists/literalists? They sound like two sides of the same coin.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 31, 2012

      They certainly share an evangelistic zeal!

  4. Avatar
    tcc  August 30, 2012

    I’ve got to disagree with that. Saying that we faked the moon landing, or that the Earth’s flat, is equal to doubting the existence of a 2,000 year old prophet/godman that nobody during his lifetime ever wrote about, is just a false equivalency. We have video recordings of the moon landing, we have photographs of Earth from interplanetary space–we only have really legendary evangelistic writings and a couple vague sentences from Paul (another evangelist) to support the existence of some shadowy figure behind the legend.

    Saying that Jesus is ripped off from a bunch of different mythological figures is an entirely different argument, though. I don’t think that’s backed up by the evidence I’ve seen.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 31, 2012

      Yes, I think it’s different too. His words, not mine. But it sounds like you need to read my book Did Jesus Exist?

      • Avatar
        tcc  September 1, 2012

        I have. But, while I’m no scholar, I’m still not entirely certain why Jesus’ historicity is getting treated as such a sure thing. I remain pretty much agnostic as to where this dude exists in history. Paul can say he was born of the house of David and had a brother, and I’m still not fully buying it, because I just don’t trust Paul. That guy was a doomsday cultist who said he visited the third heaven and had “visions of the Lord”–that leads me to be skeptical of everything he says.

        While I think you and others’ depiction of the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet fits the context of that historical period and synchronizes the awkward sections of the gospels, the book of Acts is such a bizarre list of contradictions and anomalies (“wait, why did Peter need a hallucination of all foods being declared clean if Jesus already said that was cool?” “why are they not talking about the stolen body of a prophet during these court scenes?” “why are most of these books about guys who never met Jesus seeing him as a vision in the sky?”) and Paul spends half of his writings talking about these same sort of “visions”, so I’m not fully buying anything these guys are selling.

        When it comes to this figure’s existence, at best he was a failed apocalyptic prophet, and at worst he was something people hallucinated into history. Sorry if I offend any believers, but that’s all I see when I read the NT.

  5. Avatar
    Adam  August 31, 2012

    Off topic…but I’ve heard more than one evangelical Christian say that you dislike Christians alot – that you think they are irrational, a bit crazy, and you attack them alot. For this reason some quickly dismiss you. I don’t think this is true, but how would you respond to this? From you’re previous posts I think you’ve mentioned many of your family members (mother, father, wife?) are Christians and some of your closest friends are Christians too.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 31, 2012

      It simply isn’t true. They obviously don’t know me — or the first thing about my life!

      • Avatar
        Zainab  September 1, 2012

        The evangelical Christians are a little ‘irrational’, ‘a bit crazy’ for thinking that you don’t like them or attack them:)
        For in your book: “Did Jesus Exist?” (which they need to read to find out your stance on the matter), you clearly make a point that it is NOT the case. Oh well, everyone is entitled to their opinion, right?

  6. Avatar
    hwl  August 31, 2012

    Like your other popular books, your recent book does the non-specialist audience a great service by having all the pieces of evidence and arguments in one place, and by engaging with the publications put out by the mythicists. It is difficult for non-specialists to respond to or to know what to make of their specific arguments. One of the nuggets of useful information in the book I found is the mythic view implied in James Fraser’s famous Golden Bough has
    been thoroughly debunked by Jonathan Z Smith.

    I am a little surprised Robert Price, as a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, takes a mythicist view given that one of the mandates the Seminar set for itself is to evaluate which of the sayings and actions attributed to Jesus in the gospels originate from the historical Jesus. Presumably, under the Seminar’s flagship “bead system”, Price would be voting with the black bead on every occasion. One wonders what scholarly value does Price bring to the Seminar at all.

    As you put it in the book, the mythicist position is not taught in biblical studies because it is so marginal. The downside is that, I suspect, even undergraduate students with some training in biblical studies may not equipped to rebut the mythicist position. It would be interesting to ask your 1st & 2nd year undergrad students – most of whom obviously believe in the Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament given their Christian background – their arguments and reasons for believing Jesus did exist. Perhaps some of them would struggle to articulate their reasons. If so, there is a need to spend one lecture dealing with the key evidence and arguments. One of the emphasis in the chapter on the historical Jesus in your NT textbook is the need to assess the NT documents critically and the difficulties in ascertaining the actual life of Jesus – contra the presumption of preachers and lay Christians that they can take the NT at face value. Perhaps there is the need to guard against the other extreme – of dismissing the NT as worthy of any historical value at all as far as anything about Jesus is concerned. I recommend including a section to debunk the mythicist position in the next edition of the textbook.

    You suggested a possible explanation on why the vocal atheists named in your book are so adamant on the non-existence of Jesus, as much as they are adamant on the non-existence of God – namely the harm they perceive to be done in the name of religion (of which Christianity is the form of religion they are most familiar with) hence the best way to tackle the problem of Christianity is to show it is all based on a myth. This may be the most likely explanation for the mythicists who put their ideas to publication.
    I think another reason for the mythic view among the general populace is the picture of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels – born of virgin, was the Son of God, did miracles, raised from the dead – is so deeply ingrained in society, even among non-Christians, such that to believe in the existence of Jesus is tantamount to believing in the Christ of faith.

    Some years ago, I heard a talk by a teacher of Hinduism organised by the Hindu Society at Imperial College London, where as an aside remark, he said emphatically that the most influential man in Western society – namely Jesus – actually never existed. As a Hindu, he was obviously not an atheist nor was he against religions. So it is not only the agnostics and atheists who have brought into the mythicist view. Ironically, even committed Christians may have subtly bought into the mythicist view, when they presuppose that to believe in the existence of Jesus requires a leap of faith.

    • Avatar
      tcc  September 1, 2012

      “…he said emphatically that the most influential man in Western society – namely Jesus – actually never existed”.

      Sorry if I’m dogpiling on Jesus here, but how is Jesus the most influential man in Western society, exactly? Jesus has certainly been a huge influence on Western religion, but his influence is pretty sparse elsewhere. I’d actually wager Aristotle or Alexander The Great had a much bigger influence on Western civilization–because if you live in the States, you’re living in a capitalist republic, not a give-all-your-money-to-the-poor-and-become-an-ascetic economy that’s governed by Yahweh.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  September 1, 2012

        Well, if the Western world were not historically Christain, God knows what history would have been like (middles ages; reformation; modernity — hard to underestimate the enormous impact of Christianity on our world — including the rise of capitalism!)

        • Avatar
          tcc  September 2, 2012

          Wouldn’t that make PAUL the most influential man in Western civilization, though? He invented Christianity as we know it. Jesus is basically a figurehead, whether he existed or not.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2012

            Some people have thought so. But for my money, without Jesus there would be no Paul….

      • Avatar
        tcc  September 2, 2012

        Also, the belief in the biblical version of Jesus absolutely, 100% requires a leap of faith. Dr. Ehrman’s not even arguing that the Jesus of Orthodox Christianity exists, he’s saying that an apocalypticist named–probably–Yeshua said some stuff about the kingdom of heaven and then got killed by the Romans. That’s not who Jesus is to most Christians–their Jesus performed miracles, is a part of the trinity, resurrected from the dead, etc.
        The idea that a rabbi with a small, devoted cult following was the basis of these legends is actually a pretty reasonable idea, but the idea that “therefore that obscure guy=son of god” is a huge leap in logic.

    • Avatar
      Zainab  September 1, 2012

      have you heard of the Islamic position on the view of Jesus?

  7. Avatar
    proveit  August 31, 2012

    I listened to your recent interview on “Unbelievable ?” A caller asked you if you are a historian and you answered yes. In light of the current scandal with David Barton, could you explain what qualifies a person to claim to be a historian? Please also explain your qualifications as a historian (not that I doubt it, I would like to hear what you have to say instead of my own thoughts).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 1, 2012

      I suppose a historian is someone who reconstructs the past. A trained historian is someone who is educated in historical methods, issues, and problems. A professional historian is someone who gets paid to do the job. There are very many specializatoins within the historical disciplines. A historian of the American South has a very different training than a historian of Sumerian religion. Roughly speaking, I am trained in the history of religion, specifically ancient Christianity and Judaism. Most of my publications over the past thirty years are historical reconstructions of the past. (As opposed to many of my friends, who for example are interested in New Testament theology; or principally with the interpretations of sacred texts; my interest is with the history of the early Christian religion, and that is what I do the vast bulk of my research in). I don’t know much about the Barton case, but I would say that the objections to his historical reconstructions sound convincing to me. That would not make him a non-historian, though, in my view. It would make him a very bad (and probably untrained and rather uneducated) historian. The proof of the pudding…..

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 31, 2012

    I had already read his comments and found them helpful, but might add that you never claim in your popular books that you are presenting something new, but instead are providing helpful, readable summaries for the public.

    I agree with most everything you write about the historical problems with the Bible. I still, however, pray continually and sometimes receive comfort from the Great Somewhere and feel some forgiveness for my many errors and this comfort and forgiveness seem to be more than just my imagination. I also, on my best days, try, as you obviously do, to be kind to others. I also remain skeptical that such a vast creation could just spring forth with a “big bang” from absolutely nothing. That’s the best that I can do with things, but I think it makes me slightly less of an agnostic than my brain suggests.

  9. Avatar
    hwl  September 2, 2012

    Do you think in biblical scholarship there has been far greater appreciation of the historical value of the gospels during the past half-century? Back in the mid 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann was known for saying “we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus”. This seems to be a marginal view nowadays, held by the like of Robert Price.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2012

      Yes, I do think so.

      • Avatar
        tcc  September 5, 2012

        I think Robert Price and Carrier both make pretty decent arguments for why they think Jesus was a cultural construct, and I think it would be cool to see Dr. Ehrman and one of those guys debate this. Especially since all three of you guys are non-believers.

        I’m not sure what’s more harmful to religiosity, though–scholars shrugging and saying “these are highly legendary evangelist writings that don’t give us anything close to objective facts about this figure” or “yeah, the criteria of embarrassment plus the social climate and theology of that time makes me think this guy was a failed apocalyptic prophet”.

        The apocalypticist Jesus is basically a benign Charles Manson, except, instead of a race war, he thought angels were going to descend and create a utopian kingdom on Earth. I really have NO idea why Christian Apologetics can say “most NT scholars agree Jesus existed” and ignore who scholars think Jesus was. It’s total cognitive dissonance.

  10. Avatar
    Skeptic59  September 27, 2012

    I became an agnostic, once I worked-out the following: Given that every offshoot of Christianity believes itself to be the true Christianity, then logically, either one is right and the others are wrong, or they are *all* wrong. It would be impossible for them to all be right! After that, through some research, I saw that many of these branches of Christianity have changed bits and pieces of what they hold to be true over the years. I reasoned that, if the the scribes of these ‘Christianities’ were divinely inspired to record the attributes of a Being that existed outside of human materialistic experience, then that Being’s attributes wouldn’t change, right along with the mores and societal structures of the ‘scribes’ or ‘recorders’ for that faith, as they seem to do.

    It was hard for me to let go of my belief, wrapped-up as it was in the immediate society I lived in: that of family, friends, and neighbors.

    I still avidly study religious topics, but I make sure that I decide what is believable by examining all the evidence in an empirical fashion. Prior to reading Prof. Ehrman’s ‘Did Jesus Exist,’ I was leaning toward the Mythical Jesus. Many athiest sites avidly support the ‘mythical’ viewpoint. But DJE laid out both sides in a systematic fashion, as the athiest sites did not.

  11. Avatar
    sticksofkansas  August 28, 2014

    For the atheists that I know who do not believe Jesus existed, many of their claim(s) stem from docetism / early Marcionite church teachings … and no other.
    Now, I will contend their research is rather incomplete, but I see why and how some of the atheist community come to accepting a lack of evidence for a historical Jesus.
    The good news is I was able to change the minds of FIVE of these individuals in January of this year after having a multi-day discussion centered around Dr. Ehrman’s book “Did Jesus Exist?” -And they did in fact THANK ME for pointing out scholarly points of view on the issue.
    So don’t give up on atheists.

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