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Did Jesus Exist? My Debate with Robert Price

Right now, as we speak, I am en route to Milwaukee for my debate with Robert Price, one of the best known Mythicists on the planet (for those of you who don’t know, a Mythicist claims that Jesus was a myth made up by early Christians; there never was a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth).   Of the many thousands of scholars in the world that have a PhD in New Testament or Early Christian studies he is the one, so far as I know, who takes this position.

The fact that almost everyone thinks he is wrong does mean that he *is* wrong of course.  For a long time the vast majority of the world’s population thought that the earth was the center of the universe and that sun and stars revolved around it.  The fact they thought so had no bearing on whether it was true or not.

For that reason, Mythicists have often gotten upset with me for pointing out that almost no one with any qualifications in the requisite fields of scholarship agrees with them.  I can see why that would be upsetting.  My sense is that some of them think that I’ve been rubbing their noses in it.  But that isn’t really my intent.  My intent is to point out to anyone who is interested – for example, someone who just doesn’t know what to think – that those who are qualified to speak knowledgeably on such subjects are virtually unified on one view (there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth) and opposed to the other (he is a complete myth).

That isn’t quite the same as …

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Mythicists: Did Nazareth Exist?
Marcion as Alive and Well Among Us

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Comments

  1. Matt2h  October 20, 2016

    LOL. Bart is the best.

  2. jhague  October 20, 2016

    I think Robert Price wrote that there may have been a man named Jesus from Nazareth, but that the writings that we have available to us are so far removed from the time Jesus was on the earth and the writings have been altered over time so much, that we can never know anything real about Jesus. Am I remembering correctly?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2016

      He *leans* toward the view that the historical Jesus was invented.

    • VincitOmniaVeritas  October 23, 2016

      The problem with the view by Price is that two of the main pieces of historical information on the historical Jesus, Paul and his Epistles, and Josephus and his three major works, were not “distant” from Jesus’ time at all and extremely close to both the place and the time period of the historical Jesus when he was living in Judaea (Galilea and Peraea) .

      Paul’s earliest epistles have been dated anywhere between 46 and 56 AD, including those with specific descriptions of Jesus and some of his words, like 1 Corinthians, Galatians and Philippians. Thus, Paul, while not knowing Jesus, knew and had met some of those who followed him, like Simon Peter, John and James.

      As per “The Jewish War”, “Antiquities of the Jews” and “The Life of Flavius Josephus”, Josephus was born and lived in Judaea between 37 and 70 AD. He specifically lived in Jerusalem, while also spending years in Peraea, including in the desert with a a religious figure named Banus around 52 AD, and in Galilea roughly between 62 – 68 AD. Those regions are specifically where Jesus lived and taught (roughly 33- 37 AD), according to the Gospels, and where both Christians and non-Christians who had witnessed Jesus would have also dwelt. The religious circles in those areas are also the specific ones who would know of apocalyptic/radical prophets, sages, zealots, preachers, etc., which is why Josephus had so much information on several of them, including Jesus and his apostles.

      • novotnycurse  October 24, 2016

        There are no authentic references to Jesus of Nazareth in Josephus.
        The key passage is clearly an interpolation and is out of context to Josephus’ main narrative.

        It may well be based on marginalia that become embedded in the script.
        That’s a polite way of explaining how forged sections develop.

  3. jc.johanning  October 20, 2016

    Excellent! Looking forward for the debate! Both of you are my favorite NT scholars (along with Dale Martin). Good luck Dr. Ehrman! Greetings from Costa Rica.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  October 20, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve expressed my opinion about Mythicism and Mythicists on many occasions here and via other means. And I wouldn’t be so abrasive in my criticism of them if it weren’t for the fact that they have essentially taken over the secular movement and turned Mythicism into a litmus test for “true” atheists. As a secular humanist myself I feel like how I imagine George Will must be feeling about the Trump wingnuts taking over the Republican party right now. My “tribe” has been taken over by a bunch of crazy people. If you, Dr. Ehrman, can at least manage to talk some sense into a few of them, then believe me when I say you’ll be doing a great service.

    By the way, I know that Matt Dillahunty will be moderating the debate. Matt is one of the most reasonable people you’ll ever meet, and he’s still on the fence about this issue. He’s the kind of person who you should be hoping to persuade. The crazy conspiracy theorists, however, may be beyond hope.

    Good luck! And, remember, stay focused. Don’t let Dr. Price define who the historical Jesus was! You must define who you think the “historical Jesus” was, and only agrue for that Jesus. If you do that, you’ll win hands down. But if you let Dr. Price define who the historical Jesus was, and you argue against the Jesus of the Mythicists, you’ll lose the debate.

  5. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  October 20, 2016

    Good luck!

  6. JeremeK  October 20, 2016

    Good luck! Many have looked forward for this! It’s going to be great. Can’t wait to watch it.

  7. KathleenM  October 20, 2016

    This should be fun for you! The key to being an “expert” on anything is to still just have fun with it, even more than most folks. I’m no expert, but we used to say that if there is some pretty good “evidence” from 4 or more sources that something or someone existed historically, or even mythically maybe, it’s likely to have a “real” source – such as the life of a real man/Man. Personally I think there was a real Adam and Eve – altho over the generations the stories have changed and taken on new and also potent meanings. A new generation every 30 years means religious stories have been changed over time — at least up until 650 BC with the common alphabets and writing on parchments, etc. Maybe the names were changed or created to protect the innocent, as we do today, using initials, etc. in case histories. I think there was a real Noah, a real Jesus (Yeshua) and certainly St. Peter and St. Paul. I doubt the apostles “lied” and “made up” a Yeshua, or the other early writers — I think the early Chirstians might have been few, but they met in Jerusalem in 50 AD or so, talked, agreed on their policies and procedures just like we do today, kept some ideas sacred from Hebrew tradition went out and spread their good news. But it seems to have started from the life of a man/Man, some details still disputed, etc. , today….hence your meeting…who would have made up He/Yeshua went over to Alexandria from Judea or Galilee, then returned back to the Holy Land? Too many odd details to be “just a myth.”

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 21, 2016

      You “doubt the apostles ‘lied’ and ‘made up’ a Yeshua” but, according to Bart and many other NT scholars, the Apostles didn’t write the Gospels. The earliest manuscripts of the Gospels were anonymous. And Paul never knew the man.

  8. godspell  October 20, 2016

    Good luck, Bart. Not that you are dependent on luck here.

    It’s been some time since “Did Jesus Exist?” came out. Do you perceive any strengthening or corresponding weakening of the mythicist position out there? I’ve been seeing less of it, generally speaking, and of course in the general population, Jesus’ existence continues to be taken as a given (and television is showing more and more documentaries about the historical Jesus–they may not necessarily be first-rate scholarship, but they do illustrate, I think, a growing interest in Jesus the Man.)

    There are no really prominent active defenders for Jesus as Myth anymore (not that Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc, were ever committed to the position–they more or less flirted with it, partly because it was so popular among a subset of atheists they were trying to appeal to). So my perception is that while he’s clearly going to the grave insisting there was no Jesus, Price and his cohorts are increasingly isolated, while conceding absolutely nothing. What do you think?

    I think a debate on the existence of a historical Cthulhu would be more appropriate for the season, but what do I know? 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2016

      My sense is that it’s still a very lively presence and is growing — but I may be wrong.

      • godspell  October 21, 2016

        It’s not really something that pollsters look into very often, if at all.

        I wonder sometimes if even the people saying Jesus wasn’t real actually believe it. I think it’s more of an article of faith than an opinion of fact. They want to deny his humanity, the same way others want to affirm his godhood (which is, when you think about it, just a different way of denying his humanity).

        Two sides. Same coin.

  9. TWood
    TWood  October 20, 2016

    Just a comment. Your historical expertise on the historicity of Jesus is even stronger than physicists’ expertise on heliocentrism. In practical terms, geocentrism is nonsense. But when General Relativity is taken into account, in a certain context, it’s not wrong to say the sun goes around the earth. I think this gives history experts like you even more confidence because the evidence is what it is (there’s less mystery about the Testimonium Flavianum than there is about Quantum Entanglement).

    Sean Carrol (Physics professor at Caltech) explains:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2005/10/03/does-the-earth-move-around-the-sun/#.WAkLbpMrJE4

    • godspell  October 21, 2016

      Fascinating, but some theorists in your field would say that our own present-day existence is questionable. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say “Jesus did not exist” if you think reality itself is an illusion, or at least something that only exists when you are beholding it.

      When asked how he would refute the empiricists of his day, their belief that causality was an illusion, Samuel Johnson reportedly said “I refute it thus!” and kicked a stone.

      The earth goes around the sun, and Jesus existed.

      • TWood
        TWood  October 21, 2016

        Yes, I agree the earth goes around the sun and that Jesus existed—strongly on both accounts. I think my point was that science is fundamentally so much more complex and mysterious than history, that there’s no possible argument that could undermine Jesus’ existence *even in theory* (no matter how hard the mythicists try). The only thing that could undermine Jesus’ existence is something like the two dimensional holographic string theory you mentioned. But that would question the existence of literally *everything*.

        • godspell  October 25, 2016

          I hope I didn’t imply I thought you were denying either heliocentrism or a historical Jesus. It’s just that once you get into the realm of pure theory, almost anything is possible (not sure a qualifier is needed there). It’s a different type of discussion, and it’s important to keep the realm of theory and established fact distinct from each other.

          Evolution, for example, is an established fact–how exactly we explain and describe it is theory. Our understanding of it will continue to change and grow (or evolve, if you like), but we know it has happened, and will go on happening, for as long as biological life forms exist. And you might say evolution is the history of life–and that same sense of a growing and changing understanding of even well-established historical facts is part of studying records of our civilizations and beliefs.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 26, 2016

            Got it. Yes, I agree.

      • Rogers  October 22, 2016

        then is just a matter of framing the question as, did Jesus have existence comparable to my own conception and perceived experience of personal existence?

  10. moose  October 20, 2016

    Best wishes in the upcoming debate. And please don’t waste your time talking politics with mr. Price. There he seems pretty lost 🙂

    Although I do agree that we should all listen to experts, there is also this possibility that we are facing a Paradigm shift. If so, there will always be an overwhelming majority supporting the old paradigm, in the beginning.

    A debate between experts in a complex field like early Christianity is only suitable for sheding brighter light on the topic, not to create winners or losers as if it was some kind of competition.

  11. JonH  October 20, 2016

    A question about the historical Jesus, perhaps for the Mailbag.

    You have written that “Jesus’ followers must have considered him to be the messiah in some sense before his death…” I understand the logic of your argument here — that “nothing about his death or resurrection would have made them come up with the idea afterwards” — but I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory understanding of how people during Jesus life could have seen a rural Jewish teacher with few followers, no power and a non-violent “peace and love” message as “a figure of grandeur and power who would overthrow God’s enemies and set up a new kingdom on earth.” (your previous description of how Jews understood the messiah)

    Jesus had neither a message of insurrection, nor the means to conquer the Romans. I know you’ve argued that Jesus must have said that he would be the ruler, not the “Son of Man” conquerer, but how does this square with the Jewish perception of the messiah as a conquering ruler?

    It makes sense that a preexisting belief that Jesus was the messiah could have led Jesus followers to believe as they did after his death. I just can’t work out how they could have arrived at the initial messianic belief. It seems every bit as incompatible with Jewish thought and Jesus’ circumstances as a post-resurrection invention of the messianic identity. Can you help me understand how Jesus’ followers would have believed such claims during his lifetime?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2016

      People often believe outlandish things about the leaders they are attracted to, evidence not withstanding. Think of the various cult leaders over the years, in both Jewish and Christian circles (in modern times)

      • JonH  October 21, 2016

        This is true, but it seems like that weakens the argument that Jesus followers *must* have believed he was the messiah before his death. If we accept that this group was able to invent a very unorthodox, implausible belief about Jesus before his death, then they would have been equally capable of doing so after his death.

        One possible explanation for this (I’m just thinking out loud here) might be that the “peace and love” portrayal of Jesus’ message was an after-the-fact invention – a way to pacify Roman authorities (“look, we’re harmless!”), to make Jesus look like more of a martyr, and to make the message palatable to the non-revolutionary communities where it was being spread. If Jesus was actually less of a peace-and-love preacher and more of a naive, rural insurrectionist (“overthrow the elites and bring on the end times!”) who didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he went to Jerusalem, that would make their belief in some sort of eventual political power more understandable. Their belief in the path to power might be naive, but at least there would be some path. This would also put Jesus more in the tradition of other insurrectionist messianic claimants.

    • JSTMaria  October 21, 2016

      Hi Jon,

      I can’t help but think of a biblical parallel related to your question of a preexisting belief in Jesus as the messiah. The parallel for me here is that perhaps Jesus was the modern version of Joseph from Genesis. When the 12 sons of Jacob are introduced, you have Joseph dreaming about ruling over his brothers. It was something they all knew as siblings, while others did not. Even Jacob “kept it in his heart,” or words to that effect. It seems like the “type” for somewhat of a secret notion among only the twelve. Judah sells Jacob out and then later Judas betrays Jesus. It almost fits too nicely with the idea that what Judas actually betrayed was the messianic secret itself– that Jesus could have conveyed only to his closest disciples when it got closer to the time he was turned over to the authorities. Similar to the Genesis story. ??? Food for thought!

      • JonH  October 24, 2016

        Interesting point! I suppose it would be impossible to determine whether it was Jesus or later writers who intended the parallel. That is, did Jesus see the Joseph story as the pattern for his rise, or did later writers invent the similar details as a typological literary device?

  12. mathieu  October 20, 2016

    While I agree with you completely, I think the Mythicists are so widely listened to is because it is such a good story. When I first heard it I was almost convinced, then I read your book and ended in your camp. But I still think they have a good story and some of their facts ring true.

    And pardon my correcting you, but I think you have a typo in the first sentence of the second paragraph. You left out the “not.” Have a good time with Dr. Price. He’s a sharp cookie, worthy of your time and talents.

  13. Pattylt  October 20, 2016

    While I am not a convinced mythicist, neither am I convinced of historicity. One of the reasons I don’t take biblical historians as the absolute final word is due to the resistance of SOME of them to set aside their religious biases. I realize we all have them but historical biblical studies has been dominated until recently with Christians. That is changing and I am hopeful for better theories and consensus down the road. There are some mythicist claims that I think have not been adequately addressed and some myth claims that are just ludicrous.
    One area that I think historicists do not adequately explain is the absence of an earthly Jesus in the epistles. Yes, there are a few that can be read either way (James the brother of the Lord) but as these were written much closer in time to Jesus’ earthly existence, why is no gospel material mentioned? Everyone is supposedly telling stories about Jesus but none of the epistle writers knew any of them? Every time Jesus “talks” it is scripture or revelations from the Lord. The answers of “they weren’t interested in his earthly life” is completely unrealistic and weak. If there are good reasons for explaining the epistles, perhaps that would help but it can’t just be hand waving. Is there any possibility that there was an historical Galilean Jesus AND an intermediary heavenly Jesus that got merged in Mark? I’m not the one that needs to take this question seriously. Biblical scholars do. It may be an absurd question but I hear it getting asked with no creditable answers.
    Bart, I am so glad you are having this debate and I can’t wait to see it. I respect both of you so much and I think this debate will be amazing. I look forward to the arguments both of you will put forward! And, maybe historical scholars will see the types of questions that need to be better answered instead of just answering the kooky myther ideas.

  14. Steefen  October 20, 2016

    Dear Dr. Ehrman, did you have any problems with Matthew 21: 28-32, the parable about which son obeyed his father? I do not remember you writing about this in Jesus Interrupted; but, I have found an article by Daniel B. Wallace who is pointing out a textual problem, https://bible.org/article/which-son-obeyed-his-father-textual-problem-matthew-2129-31 .

    There are three versions of this story in early manuscripts of Matthew? Have you covered this in one of your many trade or academic/scholarly books, including textbooks? Personally, I’m thinking this is not a problem in Bible versions found in the U.S. but maybe Eastern Christianity vs Western Christianity. Is that the case?

    Thank you.

    Matthew 21:29-31 involves a rather complex textual problem. The variants cluster into three different groups:

    (1) The first son says “no” and later has a change of heart, and the second son says “yes” but does not go. The second son is called the one who does his father’s will! This reading is found in the Western manuscripts. But the reading is so hard as to be next to impossible. One can only suspect some tampering with the text (e.g., that the Pharisees would indeed give lip-service to obedience and would betray themselves in their very response) or extreme carelessness on the part of the scribe. (Either option, of course, is not improbable with this particular texttype, and with codex D in particular.) The other two major variants are more difficult to assess. Essentially, the responses are sensical (the son who does his father’s will is the one who changes his mind after saying “no”:

    (2) The first son says “no” and later has a change of heart, and the second son says “yes” but does does not go. But here, the first son is called the one who does his father’s will (unlike the Western reading). This is the reading found in א C* L W Δ Byz and many itala and Syriac witnesses.

    (3) The first son says “yes” but does not go, and the second son says “no” but later has a change of heart. This is the reading found in B Θ f13 700 and several versional witnesses.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2016

      Yes, it’s a confusing textual situation! And no, I’ve never written about it!

  15. Gonzalo  October 20, 2016

    Hi Bart, I’ve been a member since the very beginning, and I love this blog. Great work!

    My question is about your appeal to authority when it comes to Jesus’ existence, or in this case, the many experts that believe that Jesus did in fact exist. But it seems to me the analogies you brought up (astronomy, tax plans, military policy) are different in one very important way: the vast majority of experts in the New Testament are Christians and god-believers to one extent or another. I would say that’s a lot of “skin in the game”.

    I understand all experts in all fields are a little biased towards their lifetime studies and beliefs, but it just seems in this case (NT experts), there’s an emotional attachment that is blinding to some extent.

    I also realize you are not a Christian (anymore), but you did start out that way.

    Looking forward to your response.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2016

      Yes, that would be a problem if the only people who believe in Jesus’ existence were Christian scholars. But it’s the view of Jewish scholars, classical scholars, scholars of Roman antiquity, and so on as well…. But yes, it’s different because history has a different way of establishing its claims than, say, chemistry.

  16. Bruce  October 20, 2016

    LMAO. It’s always rigged right? Good Luck Ole Buddy and I agree that it seems odd debating a topic if Jesus existed. I think if a person doesn’t think Jesus existed then there is a hell of a lot that we should think existed either. Safe travels and have a beer on me.

  17. Boltonian  October 20, 2016

    ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,’ so I shall be interested to hear Mr Price’s views. So far, your debating opponents have not been ‘Foe men worthy of your steel,’ in my opinion. He will need to be on his best form to counter the arguments you put forward in ‘Did Jesus Exist?’
    In defence of those in my country to whom you were referring, economic forecasts, supported by almost all mainstream economists here in the UK have been wrong about every major event in my lifetime, going back to the Wilson years in the 1960s (up to and including the dire predictions following the vote to leave the EU). In this discipline at least the minority has been more right more often than the majority in almost every case, so I think people are right to be wary of the self-proclaimed expert opinion of economists. At least in your field history has already happened and the evidence, such as it is, is there to be dissected.

  18. Saemund  October 20, 2016

    I do hope the video recording will be available! I won’t be present at the debate, but I would love to see it on, for instance, Youtube. I was waiting for this debate for quite a few months.

    “And remember, if I lose the debate, it’s because it was rigged.” Almost made me laugh. But regardless, I doubt any Mythicist will change his/her mind, so you will probably lose the debate… unless someone undecided will be in the audience.

  19. smackemyackem  October 20, 2016

    There’s a lot of rigging going on these days. So I have heard.

  20. prairieian  October 20, 2016

    Interesting comments on the issue of ‘experts’ in this troubled day and age…I think this is a huge problem for society at large. Your ongoing presidential campaign is illustrative of the malignancy on the body politic of relying on feelings and ‘it sounds right’ and other absurdities in lieu of evidence and fact. It is difficult to know how to respond in this environment.

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