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Mythicists: Did Nazareth Exist?

I am interrupting my thread on the relationship of Jesus to the Jewish law (I haven’t gotten very far: I’m still on Marcion!) because of what is most pressing on my mind right now, the debate I’m having this evening with Robert Price.  It is here in Milwaukee sponsored by a group called the Milwaukee Mythicists.  It’s a small group of people committed to, or (for some of them) at least attracted by, the idea that Jesus was not a real human being but is a myth invented by his later followers.  I suppose roughly speaking, most Mythicists are a subgroup of people who are atheist.

Originally, for most of these people, Jesus was understood to be a divine being who lived in the heavenly realm (“outer space,” as some of them put it) who was crucified by demonic powers.  Later followers of Jesus historicized him and made him, in their myths, into a human being.  And then the stories emerged about him that we now have in our Gospels.  They are based principally on characters and events in the Old Testament, told in a new way now about a man that the story-tellers invented out of whole-cloth. The apostle Paul doesn’t know any of these stories.  That’s why Paul almost certainly, they claim, did not know anything about a historical Jesus.

My talk is only going to be thirty minutes, followed by Bob’s talk of thirty minutes.  These then are to be followed by an hour of questions back and forth, followed by an hour of questions from the audience.  So it’s a three hour event.  (!)  But I am allowed to lay out my case only in thirty minutes.  That’s a bit tricky.

I have decided to focus on the positive arguments that there almost certainly was a historical man Jesus about whom we can say some important things.  I will only be addressing the Mythicists’ own arguments briefly, in order to show why I don’t find them at all persuasive.  To do so I have chosen just two arguments that are commonly made.

The first is that there could never have been a Jesus of Nazareth because there was no such place as Nazareth.  Mythicists often argue …

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The Best Manuscripts and Social Justice: Readers’ Mailbag October 23, 2016
Did Jesus Exist? My Debate with Robert Price



  1. AoSS
    AoSS  October 21, 2016

    Personally, I think there are too many anti-theistic Mythicists who gain popularity. This makes it so that those with the more compelling arguments (for example, philosopher Dr. Stephen Law with the contamination principal) get ignored.

    Yes, these better arguments are not usually enough to doubt the existence of Jesus, but they are arguments that should be addressed more than some of the more fringe Mythicists.

    • Avatar
      Tim  October 21, 2016

      What “better arguments” does Law make? The only ones I’ve seen from him on the subject were far weaker than anything I’ve seen from people like Price and Carrier and display a remarkable lack of knowledge of the relevant source material or its context. His claim, for example, that miracles and supernatural elements somehow “contaminate” the accounts of Jesus and allow us to reject not just those elements but *all* of the accounts is ridiculous. If, as he acknowledges, such elements could attach themselves to famous ancient figures for whom we have substantial evidence, like Augustus and Alexander, surely this means they could also do so with more obscure and less famous figures like Jesus. Therefore the presence of these elements in the Jesus stories does not mean we can dismiss the historical existence of Jesus. Perhaps Law should stick to philosophy. Though given the illogic of his forays into history, perhaps even that is beyond him.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  October 21, 2016

    In many ways, they are far more frustrating than traditional theists to argue with.

    Because at least a theist will admit that he or she believes certain things for reasons of faith, not reason and fact.

    I believe most atheists are rational people, no better or worse than anyone else (we are all irrational sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that–too much rationality can be as bad as too little, though I must say, the latter is a more commonly encountered problem).

    The atheists who have chosen to deny the historical Jesus persist in propagating an irrational belief, but they do so while saying they are the epitome of rationality, that they are in fact the only fully rational beings, that everyone who doesn’t accept their pronouncements is, by definition, a religious fanatic who believes every word in the Bible–and they will say this about people who fully accept and proclaim that Jesus was not God, and never believed he was. There are only two sides–their side, and the wrong side. This is, of course, the same basic mindset as a religious fundamentalist. If you don’t believe in their version of God, you don’t believe in God at all. Classic dualism.

    Personality is an underrated factor in human history. We put a lot of emphasis on political, philosophical, and religious beliefs, but we underestimate just how much individual personalities can warp and change those beliefs. Two different people read Darwin–one says “This means all of life is one great inter-connected web, and this should fill us with a sense of humility and wonder,” while the other says “This means I am part of a master race/class/whatever that all of existence has been striving to create!” and start coming up with justifications for keeping supposedly lesser beings down, or getting rid of them entirely.

    And I’m sure Robert Price is a nice enough fellow, and I’m not too worried about him inheriting the earth or anything, but it is annoying when people defend irrational beliefs in the name of reason.

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 21, 2016

    Bart, did your 1999 book “Jesus — Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” cause any pushbacks from mythicists, or were they all asleep at the wheel?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2016

      My sense it they basically ignored (ignore) it because it takes such a different line from theirs.

  4. Avatar
    puzzles  October 21, 2016

    Why should we think that the town identified as Nazareth was actually Nazareth? The Holy Sepulcher is probably not the tomb of Jesus, but they needed a location to build their church. Maybe the same thing happened with Nazareth? Pilgrims wanted to visit Nazareth, but nobody knew where it was, so a nameless village became Nazareth?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2016

      There has been a constant habitation at the site since the time before Jesus, and it has always been called Nazareth. So unless there is some reason to think it’s not Nazareth, it seems safest to assume it is. I can’t think of a reason to suspect the texts are referring to some place other than the one known as Nazareth.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 24, 2016

        If they could have said Jesus was born/raised somewhere other than an obscure hamlet in Galilee, they would have.

        Of course they tried to say he was born in Bethlehem of Judea, and I’ve read there is some doubt that was an inhabited town at the time Jesus was born. But his connection to Nazareth was too well known to just do away with entirely.

  5. Avatar
    ncarmstrong  October 21, 2016

    Christians like me, and there are lots of us, consider Jesus a myth who was also probably an historical figure. Even so, since it is the stories about Jesus that define him, his historicity is of little importance.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  October 25, 2016

      ncarmstrong, Do you actually (consciously) worship something you acknowledge to be a myth?

      • Avatar
        fcp  November 1, 2016

        That question presupposes the incorrect definition of myth wielded by many modern rationalists. We are all defined by which myths we accept and reject. Certainly, if we know Gods, we know them through one mythos or another, and if we reject them, it’s because we have internalised the myth of the Purely Rational Human (or perhaps transhuman).

        • Avatar
          HawksJ  November 3, 2016

          Interesting point, fcp. How would you define ‘myth’?

  6. Benjamin
    Benjamin  October 21, 2016

    Wow, I have waited so long to see these two divine beings clash. It would so much fun to be there physically, but I will be watching online from the East Coast. May Gods favor the best, and maybe both of them shall win! That is, there was Jesuses and there were not. Amen.

    Cheers for our Bart Ehrman of God! Defender of the faith, etc etc.

  7. TWood
    TWood  October 21, 2016

    It seems like it’s similar to arguing with a young earth creationist… almost not worth your time… but I’ve heard you say no mythicist could get a teaching job in the department of religion at a major university in the past… but then I think you said there’s one exception to this (I assume that’s Robert Price). Is there now more than one exception, and if so, do you see this as a troubling trend in your profession, or is it still largely limited to a very tiny and rightfully marginalized minority?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2016

      He doesn’t have a position at a major university. I don’t think there is a prejudice against mythicists per se. But the only people to get teaching positions at major universities are ones who are judged to be the best candidates for the job based, for example, on the extent and quality of their scholarly research and their teaching records. It’s very, very, very difficult to land one of these jobs!

      • TWood
        TWood  October 24, 2016

        I have no doubt that it is. So is it true that you know of zero mythicists who have a teaching job at a major university (in a relevant department like a religious or history dept.)?

        Follow up. Do you ever worry that your agreeing to debate a mythicist validates their views too much?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 24, 2016

          1. I don’t know of any in the fields of NT/Early Christianity/Classics/Ancient History/Early Judaism. 2. Yup.

  8. Avatar
    Michael Fischer  October 21, 2016

    Did you listen to any of Robert prices previous debates to learn his talking points? Such as the one he had with James White

  9. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  October 21, 2016

    My sense is that many mythicists are strongly attached to that position because it greatly simplifies their rejection of Christianity. They need not do the more difficult work of, eg, examining the arguments for God’s existence, how Jesus could be both and God and man, how God could be one being in three persons, whether the New Testament supports these last two beliefs, whether there can ever be convincing documentary evidence of Jesus’s miracles, and teasing out what is historically probable using the four gospels. If Jesus didn’t exist they need not worry about the more complicated issue of whether Christianity is true.

  10. Avatar
    Jim  October 21, 2016

    Very useful debate, at least imo. To me, Bob seemed to be a reasonable debate partner because he asked “honest” questions. The Christian apologists that you have debated in the recent past never seemed to listen/comprehend much of anything you said, but seemed to be like those old Barbie dolls from a past era, the ones where you pull the string and they yap out a pre-recorded (apologetic) line. I totally appreciated your presentation because you clearly presented the consensus on the historical Jesus in a way that few have/could have done.

    Re the archeon/eon stuff in the second round of cross examination, my difficulty with a crucifixion in space is that …. if you were a Roman soldier assigned to sub-lunar crucifixions, how would you keep the nails from floating away on you when you tried to nail someone to a cross at zero gravity. (said with a warped evil grin)

    Very valuable debate (in my convoluted opinion), and thanks to all involved (you, Bob, Matt and Mythicist Milwaukee) for an “earthly” discussion … and hope the after party beers (and bar Q&A discussions) were good.

    • Avatar
      Jim  October 22, 2016

      Also, while everyone at the conferences was out for the after party beers, there was a post game summary of the debate on Spreaker that included the Spreaker hosts, James McGrath, James Crossley, Daniel Gullotta, David Fitzgerald.

      For anyone interested, the link to this discussion is at Prof McGrath’s EOM site:


      The discussion is in two parts; part one is short and mainly a trailer and part two contains the bulk of the discussion.

  11. Avatar
    Ibn.Fawda  October 21, 2016

    If the intent was to historicism a myth, then why would anyone invent Nazareth? It always seemed to me that if Jesus was a fulfillment of scripture, then they would have had him born in Bethlehem. Why have all of the birth narrative silliness if a myth when you could have ignored Nazareth? What value did Nazareth add anyway? I am an atheist but that is why I am inclined to believe there was an historical Jesus … Nazareth was a inconvenient fact act later devotees had to deal with it through inconsistent birth narratives.

  12. talmoore
    talmoore  October 22, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, the strange things is, I actually do think the historical Jesus, the flesh and blood man, existed. I’m certainly not a mythicist. But I also don’t think he came from a village called “Nazareth”. I’ve explained elsewhere on the blog in detail why I think this, so I’ll simply say that I think the place of Jesus’ birth wasn’t really known by his first disciples, because it didn’t much concern them until he was already dead. The only people who may have had some knowledge as to where Jesus was born would have been his mother and his (purported) brother James. But, here’s the thing. It’s not like back in those days detailed records were kept of where and when a peasant was born. If you asked someone when they were born, they’d probably say during such and such year of a certain Emperor’s reign or such and such year of a Governor’s rule, and so forth, possibly during the wheat harvest or in between Passover and Pentecost, and so forth. In other words, it was very rare that someone knew exactly when they were born. Moreover, the only way they knew where, exactly, they were born would have been by asking their mother. But, again, why would the disciples be asking Mary the mother of Jesus when and where Jesus was born *while Jesus was still alive*? I can’t imagine such a bit of mundane information would have concerned them right at the moment they were expecting all hell to break loose on earth (so-to-speak). They only would have sought to find out such details long after Jesus was dead, and they suddenly had all this time to start delving into this Messiah’s background. “So, this Jesus guy who we think is so important, where and when was he born anyway?”

    So what I think happened is that Jesus was called a “Nazorene” while he was alive (as, probably, John the Baptist and others were called, because there was a “Nazorene” movement [I explain where I think the term “Nazorene” came from in previous comments]), and then later Christians started asking, hey, where and when was this Jesus the Messiah born anyway? And that’s when they keyed in on the epithet “Nazorene”. That’s because back then a person with a common name was often distinguished from others by saying where they came from. For instance, Mary Magdalene was called magdalene because she probably came from the Galilean town of Magdala, and the “-ene” suffix was a common way of saying where a person came from (in Aramaic, the “-een” suffix was commonly used in the creation of demonyms; e.g. Chashdeen — כשדין — would be the Aramaic demonym for Chaldeans, etc.)

    Anyway, it was probably assumed by later Christians that since Jesus was called a Nazorene he must have come from some place called Nazor or Nazora or something like it. They may have known of a village called Nazareth in the upper Galilee and simply assumed that must be the place. There’s only one major problem. The Aramaic demonym for a person who comes from Nazareth isn’t “Nazorene”. It’s Nazreetheen. (Not to get too technical, but in Aramaic the second consonant in a declined root gets a shwa.) In other words, if Jesus was from a place called “Nazareth” (נזרית in Hebrew/Aramaic), then he wouldn’t be called a “Nazorene”. Ergo, he wasn’t actually from Nazareth. Jesus was from somewhere that no one remembered, because no one bothered to remember, because it didn’t seem like an important bit of information for anyone to know until this Jesus fellow, who just died when, instead, the escathon was supposed to happen, suddenly seemed like an important person of whom to know his place and time of birth. And that need to know where he came from forced early Christians to grasp at straws and figure, well, if he was called a Nazorene, then maybe he was from Nazareth!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 23, 2016

      I found the post where I break down in detail where I think the epithet “Nazorene” came from: https://ehrmanblog.org/more-on-the-name-nazareth/

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  October 24, 2016

        You don’t think Jesus ever mentioned his home town to this gang who spent all their time with him as they travelled around together?

        • talmoore
          talmoore  October 24, 2016

          Nope. If Jesus wanted to impress people into thinking he was a big time messianic figure, if not the Messiah himself, then what would he gain by telling them he came from an obscure village? I’ve been coming to Dr. Ehrman’s blog on almost a daily basis for over a year now, and if you were to ask me where Bart grew up, I couldn’t even begin to tell you. We don’t know as much about the influential figures around us as we assume we do.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  October 25, 2016

      talmoore: “In other words, if Jesus was from a place called “Nazareth” (נזרית in Hebrew/Aramaic), then he wouldn’t be called a “Nazorene”. Ergo, he wasn’t actually from Nazareth.”

      Bart, I think this idea of talmoore’s is worthy of a comment (or two or three!) by you.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 27, 2016

        I believe Dr. Ehrman has, at some point, expressed that his skill in Hebrew and Aramaic isn’t strong enough to judge my speculations one way or another, which is de rigueur for a highly respected academic. In academia it’s considered unbecoming to speak authoritatively about topics outside of your particular expertise, hence why Dr. Ehrman may be choosing not to weigh in on my fringe ideas outside of, specifically, the Greek New Testament. Since I’m not in academia, however, I have no such compunctions, and I’m free to propose any manner of kooky hypotheses without fear of looking unseemly. Anyway, that’s my experience from talking with academics.

  13. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 22, 2016

    For me it all boils down to this… Do we have evidence Jesus existed? Of course. It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, but it is evidence, and some of it is pretty hard to refute. How much evidence do we have that Jesus was made up? None. Zilch. Zero. If Jesus existed, there’s nothing that can’t be accounted for. If he didn’t exist, there’s a whole lot of evidence that just doesn’t fit. If you want to answer this question with evidence, you don’t really have a choice. If you want to answer to fit your own theological beliefs, well it’s completely up to you.

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 22, 2016

    How did the debate go? You have so much more energy than I do.

  15. Avatar
    puzzles  October 22, 2016

    Bart, my question is only loosely connected to the question of Nazareth. The Mandaeans apparently consider Jesus and Christians to be heretics that split from their own faith. Isn’t it strange that the symbol of the Mandaeans looks so much like a cross draped with a cloth? Why would the Mandaeans use a symbol that connects them with Christians when they despised Christians? … My wild idea is that the Mandaean cross-like symbol existed before Christianity, and it was meant to represent a robe hanging on a rack while a person is purifying himself in the weekly or daily baptism. The similarity between the crucifixion cross and the Mandaean robe-rack cross may have inspired Christians to change the meaning of the disgraceful crucifixion of Jesus into a purification of Jesus where the robe of his physical body was draped on the cross while his purified spirit was resurrected. … I suspect Nazarene may have been the name for the religious sect of the early Mandaeans as opposed to the hometown of Jesus. I read your post from a year ago about Nazareth, and I saw that the reference in Mark to the town of Nazareth appears to be original. … I hope it doesn’t annoy you for me to post weird hypotheses like these.

  16. Avatar
    Dipsao  October 22, 2016

    What I say next may sound disparaging, but that’s not my intend. I notice that Dr. Price has received degrees from reputable theological schools and yet teaches at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary. Coleman, an Afro-American educator, advocated “New Thought Christianity,” which, from my reading on the matter, appears to be a blend of Christianity and the “New Age movement”. The school has a M.Div program where the New Thought courses can be take as electives, so that in theory at least, you can graduate without being influenced by NTC. Or can you? Is it me, or do others find this disconcerting?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2016

      I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the school — I’m not sure if it is an accredited institution or not.

      • Avatar
        Dipsao  October 23, 2016

        On the school’s website it says it “is an accredited member of the Accrediting Commission International. ACI, the world’s largest non-government related accrediting association, is not connected with any State Department of Higher Education or the U.S. Department of Education. All credits are transferable to the other 316 members of ACI.” I don’t see any mention of ATS accreditation.

  17. Avatar
    Dhul_Qarnayn  October 22, 2016

    Its wondeful that this debate comes exactly when i’m just going over Dr Ehrman’s book “Did Jesus Exist”, Dr Ehrman you basically destroy their arguments that the original disciples based his life on a dying and rising god, one of the reasons being the original disciples didn’t believe that he was God, however would you say that much later christians based his life on something pagan and if so can you give just an example, of course with the exception of the christmas tree and the 25th December.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2016

      Yes, December 25 is based on a pagan tradition.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  October 24, 2016

        But I learned at some point in a Catholic education that the dates of feast days for Jesus and for John the Baptist were related, associated with the two solstices. To settle on exact dates, each of them was assigned a date one week before the first of the next month. That made them Dec. 25 and June 24, since December has 31 days and June only 30.

  18. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 22, 2016

    was the purpose of animal sacrifices in the Jewish religion made as a peace offering to God not for forgiveness of personal sins?
    For example in Numbers 10:10
    “you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I am the Lord your God.”

    So where did the idea of a sacrifice of a lamb for personal sins originate?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2016

      Biblical scholars have never been able to come up with a definitive answer about how the sacrifices were supposed to work or accomplish, or what their theological meaning was. It’s a much debated field of scholarship.

      • Avatar
        drussell60  October 24, 2016

        This subject still causes me to scratch my head in disbelief that an infinite being, with an alleged multiplicity of attributes, needs animal blood spilled to appease his/ her/its contempt for human sin. Couldn’t the alleged one true God do better than requiring what other ancient cultures practiced? At least this God didn’t require people to toss virgins into volcanoes, or off cliffs LOL!

  19. Avatar
    Jana  October 22, 2016

    The Mythicists argument does seem to beg the question. And I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph. Whether Nazareth existed or did not exist (it seems places might be changed by later writers in order to reflect the Old Testament prophecies) seems irrelevant to the pertinent question. What do they say about Josephus???

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2016

      I think he referred to Jesus. But it’s a debated point.

      • Avatar
        Jana  October 23, 2016

        Mythicists don’t trust Josephus’s account? Or interpret it differently?

        • Avatar
          Jana  October 24, 2016

          Is there a video of the debate? (I asked hopefully)

        • Bart
          Bart  October 24, 2016

          They tend to think Josephus didn’t write it, but that it was added by a later Christian scribe.

          • Avatar
            Jana  October 25, 2016

            Thank you Dr. Ehrman. What proof do they have that it was written by a later scribe? I was thinking late last night and I hope this isn’t a redundant question … why didn’t contemporaries of Jesus including his disciples write? Leave records?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 26, 2016

            The Christian portions of it cannot have been something a non-Christian Jew would have written. On Jesus’ contemporaries: they couldn’t write! They were illiterate.

          • Avatar
            Newbhero  October 29, 2016

            It always boggled my mind when a christian leader/teacher would bkatantly lie to “enhance” belief. Examples include when preachers would blatantly make up fantastic tales about encountering demon possesed people on the street that they would then “rebuke” and the drunken homeless demon possesed guy would “fly away” etc. Or in the case of “christian scribes” inserting lines into josephus or other texts. As a christian (former) it didnt make any sense. Were these people mentally ill or did they not even actually believe in “christianity” but rather only make careers out of promoting it at any cost?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 30, 2016

            I think there might be other options!! Often they were changing the texts to “clarify” their meaning, for example.

  20. Avatar
    Philoso_crab  October 22, 2016

    Dear Professor Ehrman,
    I understand that the majority of scholarship in this area seems to find it frustrating to have this argument with mythicists. But as an outsider (i.e. not a scholar in the relevant area), I would think that if this is a misconception then more needs to be done to refute it than professional scholarship has so far been done.

    From the outside, it appears that apart from his having been born and dying (probably crucified) in a particular period of time there is hardly a single detail about him that competent scholarship has not disputed and the battle lines seem to be firmly drawn with everyone employing the rhetoric of certainty against their opponents. Apocalyptic prohet? Rabbi? Wandering cynic? Something else? Do the sayings attributed to him really go back to him? Even the ones in Q1 (if the two source or similar hypothesis is even correct)?

    Other than:
    1) He existed
    2)He was born
    3)He was crucified at the time of Pilate
    4)He said/did “something” related to religion while he was alive

    what other facts would competent scholarship have a total consensus on?

    because to non-scholars the jump between “A man called Jesus who did some unspecified religious things and was crucified for some reason at the time of Pilate, after which immense amounts of myth and legend developed about him” and “There is a legend of a man called Jesus who…” is not that great.

    I assume that him being resurrected might also reach something close to the assent of the majority of the scholars in this area.

    If the argument that scholarship actually wants to make to non-scholars is that this issue is far too complicated for any non-scholar to understand and that we should simply accept what the academy is saying then it needs to be put front and center. The climatologists make a similar argument for climate change for the general public but in their case it is easy to understand why their mathematical models are hard to understand. Is history a similar field? Because to outsiders, at least some of mythicists otherwise seem to be very well informed amateurs. Otherwise, mythicists argue that this is simply an example of the academy closing ranks around a cherished but rarely argued for assumption–in a discipline where confessional interests have historically played a strong role and the consensus of one generation has been discarded and pilloried by the following generation.

    Anyhow, as someone with no particular axe to grind on this particular issue, I think more needs to be done here since the issue receives its heaviest advocacy via the internet and is taken seriously by some of the most prominent voices in the skeptic/free-thought movement. This means it will continue to get much more projection. The attempt to dismiss it as a nuisance which will just go away may work, but that is what scholarship has been trying to do for nearly century. It seems to have grown stronger instead.

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