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Did Jesus Exist as Part One

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 talk more about this book, and its relation to Did Jesus Exist, as I continue this posting on my membership section. Please Join!!

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Did Jesus Exist? The Birth of a Divine Man
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  1. Avatar
    Diane  May 5, 2012

    Bart, I guess I’m going to have to break down and plow through one of your “scholarly” tomes–I just can’t wait until 2014 for “How Jesus Became God.”

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    Jerry  May 5, 2012

    Looking forward to your book on the whole bible. Will the OT treatment be something along the line of the Documentary Hypothesis?

    Regarding “How Jesus became God”, NT Wright has published “How God became King”. Sounds like these two books could be placed side by side and would agree on many things except the resurrection.

    Any thoughts?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2012

      Yes, I will definitely be dealing with the Documentary Hypothesis.

      I think Tom Wright’s book will be a very nice contrast to mine. We seem to disagree on a *lot* of key issus!

  3. Avatar
    RyanBrown  May 5, 2012

    I will be greatly anticipating that new textbook. In the meantime, what would be a good introductory textbook for the Hebrew Bible? Michael Coogan’s?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2012

      Yes Coogan’s. And John Collins’s. The two best out there, in my opinion.

  4. Avatar
    SJB  May 6, 2012

    Prof Ehrman,

    I certainly look forward to reading your book about how Jesus became God. A fascinating question and a fascinating story to be told for sure.

    However there seems to me to be a paradox contained in the study of the historical Jesus. The more we know about him, the more we place him in his own time and in his own culture, the less relevence he seems to have to the modern age. The historical issues are important of course. But what can a failed first century Jewish apocalyptic prophet really have to say to a culture searching for the Higgs Boson and evidence for life on Mars?

    As a corollary to this it seems to me that most attempts to intepret Jesus as someone other than as an apocalyptic prophet are simply attempts to make him retain some kind of relevance to us. The proto-feminist speaks to us. The proto-Marxist speaks to some of us. Now I’m not going to claim that the reinterpretation of the “Jesus of Faith” for the modern age is a completely worthless endevour but for me here is the central paradox.

    Understanding the Jesus of history runs the risk of making him irrelevant. But the more we reinterpret the Jesus of faith for the modern age the more divorced he becomes from the human being who actually walked and talked. So what do we wind up with? A largely forgotten name in a history book? Or a liviing belief that is a more or less complete fantasy?

    I won’t presume to advise you on how to write your book but I hope you’ll take a stab at some of these questions. Because even if you can explain the historical process to everyone’s satisfaction there still remains the question, “Where do we go from here?”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2012

      Yes, these are some of the themes of my book, as it turns out!

    • Avatar
      tcc  May 8, 2012

      What’s really strange, to me, is that even Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings are still sort of relevant–just take a look at any fire and brimstone fundamentalist church. They’re obsessed with the Jesus that says that the stars will fall from the sky, while the more caring and tolerant Christians seem to focus on the Gospel Of John’s Jesus. This “there’s a different Jesus for each agenda” is one of the fatal flaws I saw with the supposed objective morality/reality of Christianity.

  5. Avatar
    Peter  May 6, 2012

    Thanks to your work and that of other scholars, I feel I have a good grasp of many of the political, cultural, scriptural, economic, social, and religious matters that are important in understanding the historical Jesus. However, the one part of the ‘puzzle’ that I find I’m not well informed on is the period immediately and shortly after Jesus died; it seems not to be the focus of any of the discussions I hear about Jesus and Christianity, even though that period is pivotal in putting the whole thing together. I hope your new book will shed some light on that particular period!

    Also, in relation to what can be reasonably asserted about the historical Jesus, could I just ask: were you ever involved in the Jesus Seminar? I’ve never seen your name mentioned in connection with that group, which surprises me because I thought such an endeavour would be right up your street!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2012

      No, I never belonged to the Jesus seminar. My main point of disagreement is that I think the conclusion of the seminar, that Jesus was NOT an apocalyptic prophet, is precisely wrong. That is exactly what Jesus was, in my opinion. And in the opinion, I think, of the majority of scholars in the field for the past century (excepting fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals).

      • Avatar
        jimmo  May 7, 2012

        “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” is one of my favorites!

  6. Avatar
    Adam  May 6, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman, could you comment on why you chose the word “forged.” When I think of a forged book I think of a false copy of an original…a copy of an original that is meant to look like the original in order to deceive.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2012

      A literary forgery by definition is a text that claims to be written by a well-known person who did not, in fact, write it. In almost every instance (it’s hard to think of exceptions), the author did indeed claim to be someone else in order to deceive his readers. This was true of the Hitler Diaries, for example; and of the letter of 1 Timothy. You may be interested in seeing my popular treatment of the subject (where I explain the term), Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Author’s Are Not Who We Think They Are. My serious, scholarly treatment will be out in the Fall, with Oxford University Press, called Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics.

      • Avatar
        Adam  May 8, 2012

        Thanks. I’ve never heard anyone else apply this word to some NT books. Appropriate word.

      • Avatar
        MatthewG  May 9, 2012

        Do you plan on writing a scholarly treatise on the subject of the historical Jesus? I take it that *Did Jesus Exist?” was a popular level work on the subject.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 11, 2012

          Yes, Did Jesus Exist is for popular audiences. My fuller treatment is found in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. I have no immediate plans for a scholarly tome on Jesus: too many other things on my plate just now!

  7. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  May 7, 2012

    I came to Did Jesus Exist? with the assumption he did. I had read some history on early Christianity years ago and more recently, before your book, E. Saunders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus and your lecture series “The Historical Jesus.” After all that, I was persuaded in believing Jesus existed because of “look and feel”–whatever the legendary material in the New Testament, it has the *feel* of real history behind it. Not infallible for sure, but it makes intuitive sense.

    I appreciate knowing about the specialized scholarship you do. I think it often forgotten that there is a great deal of technical work underlying your popular books most of us will never evaluate or be capable of evaluating. It is reassuring to know the depth is there, because in the end what I rely on is trust that you are giving us your best thinking that can be expressed to someone of my abilities and experience. For many of us who are no longer believers and feel “burned” by our former belief systems and their proponents, trust in regard to religion (and in other issues for that matter) can be very hard to come by. Easier to dismiss Jesus outright and completely (factual or not) than risk any chance validating the former belief system in any degree.

    • bchungdmd
      bchungdmd  November 7, 2012

      I count myself as a former believer. I trust in the works of this Lord Ehrman. His writing is clear and helpful to me as a former/still imprisoned fundamentalist mind. Thanks for saying what you said here!

  8. Avatar
    MatthewG  May 7, 2012


    I accept that there was a historical Jesus simply for parsimony. An apocalyptic Jewish holy man is the simplest explanation of how Christianity began. I am open to mythicism but mythicism seems to leave many questions unanswered. I have read that some groups merged together and, as a result, different myths became syncretized into the final product: a historical Jesus. But this leaves unaswered for me how and why different groups merged together to form Christiantiy. Who were these groups? How did they become merged together and why? Why did some version of the Mythic Hero Archetype become “historicized” into Jesus of Nazareth? That there was an actual man that became the subject of embellishment, story-telling, possible mythologizing, and was transformed into a Christ-of-faith seems to me to be the simplest explanation.

  9. Avatar
    Jacobus  May 9, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman – I presume the Imperial Cult and the deification of emperors will play in important role in your explanation of how Jesus became God. Are you also going to use/ quote parallel texts from the Ancient Mediterranean World to show how the Empire and especially Luke’s birth narrative plays into on another? How would someone like Larry Hurtado’s work on the early devotion to Jesus make you think about Jesus as God? Something totally different: Do you think the fact that Constantine’s mother was of low birth and Christians made up more or less 10% of the ancient population in the Roman Empire at that time influenced Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity? (That is if one don’t take his visions too seriously…) Good luck with the textbook on the Bible, that seems to be an enormous challenge, because what do you put in and leave out? I would further worry that the New Testament colours my reading of the Old Testament too much and which “Bible” are you going to write the text book on? The Catholic, Protestant or Jewish Bible?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 11, 2012

      Yes, I will indeed be dealing with the imperial cult and the relation of early Christian texts such as that of Luke to pagan views of divine men; and Hurtado’s work should be must reading for everyone inthe field. I don’t have an opinion about Helena. Population statistics: usually it is thought that Christianity was about 5% in the early fourth century, I believe.

  10. Avatar
    awkwardmomentsbible  May 21, 2012

    All I have to say is, Bravo! I have been waiting for your take on this key issue, ever since reading Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God” (which was a whole different thing, entirely). I can’t imagine having the years (and wealth) of information at my fingertips, as you do – and I am sure that this will be your best “trade” book yet!

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 12, 2012

    With regard to the Old and New Testament course, you might take a look at Spong’s newest book entitled “RE-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World” if you have not already done so. He discusses every book in the Bible.

  12. Avatar
    Sabio  June 30, 2012

    Hi Bart,

    Like you, I am an ex-Christian — graduate of Wheaton College. My kids are non-believers (for now). They sometimes ask questions related to Biblical allusions in conversations or movies which makes me realize that their Biblical knowledge is drastically lacking. I am looking forward to your Whole Bible book. But in the meanwhile, are there other Whole Bible books you recommend which may help me teach my children Bible literacy. Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 30, 2012

      I’d suggest getting a good one-volume Bible Dictionary (such as the HarperCollins) for reference; it will give you articles on just about everything of relevance. And it would be worth while getting a good study bible, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible; this provides introductions to all the biblical books with solid notes on all the passages. Otherwise, you might look at my post on the Hebrew Bible that I did last week for some books on the OT.

  13. Avatar
    AlyLeytham  September 19, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I am new to your blog, but have read several of your trade books and enjoyed your lectures on CD from The Great Courses. I just finished reading “The Jesus Discovery: The Resurrection Tomb that Reveals the Birth of Christianity” by James Tabor which attempts to present archaeological evidence for a Jesus family tomb. One chapter in the book dealt with what faith in the resurrection may have actually meant to those who lived with and knew (and presumably buried the bones of) Jesus. I didn’t understand any of it, except for the theory that the empty tomb may have been the temporary burial place that Joseph of Arimathea used before the Sabbath. Looking forward to your next book “How Jesus Became God”.

  14. Avatar
    Cephas  November 14, 2012

    ….and you’re so damn cheap, too! Oops, I meant “reasonably priced” 🙂

    I was pleasantly surprised to find “Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics” at around the US$30.00 mark. Considering that some of the medical textbooks I have retail for over $250, that seems extraordinarily reasonable!

    This will be the very first physical book I’ve bought in about 5 years. All your previous material I bought for my Kindle DX, which was just so damn convenient – no more dog-eared pages, no notes in the margins, or “Post-It” notes sticking out of the pages. And it’s searchable!

    Which begs a question: is there any move for scholars in your field to move to electronic publishing?

    I assume you compile your books electronically, so I wonder if there’s anything preventing that from going to the next logical step? (Obviously there will always be a need for paper-and-ink books…)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 15, 2012

      Yes, electronic publishing is becoming an increasingly bigger thing indeed. But Publishers still make their money off of print, as I understand it. And there’s no substitute for the feel of a good hard-cover book!

  15. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  October 16, 2013

    Along with How Jesus Became God, please cover How God Became Jesus. That Christianity began as a philosophical idea in the stream of Greek mystery religions. The universal sacrifice. A free religion. No more sacrifices needed. To gain respect as an ancient religion, and perhaps also Roman religio licita protection, the originators identified the sacrificial object (which many believed needed to be a god) as the God of Israel. Using pesher / presentism, they re-interpreted Jewish prophets as predicting their universal sacrifice. They heard about a Jew from Judea who was just executed by Rome. Looks like a good candidate. Is this somehow any less plausible a hypothesis than How Jesus Became God?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2013

      I deal with these issues in my book Did Jesus Exist. In my view Jesus was definitely not invented out of the mystery religions. I explain why there.

  16. Avatar
    Liesl Manone  December 19, 2013

    I am one of the lucky recipients of a membership of this blog, and I am reading through it methodically. (Now, as last night I jumped in willy-nilly and realized that chronologically might be the best way to ensure I don’t miss anything!) I am very excited to hear about this forthcoming book, and on my drive in to work this morning, I was pondering this very topic. What was it about this one particular man that gave him such “stickiness” that 2,000 years later, we’re still talking about him? And not just talking, but studying, and arguing, and searching! He wasn’t what was expected and hoped for out of Messiah, but for some reason, a small group of people took up his cause and ran with it — in a major way! Looking forward to reading How Jesus Became God.

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