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Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 4

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

Q. In the middle portion of your book, you place a great deal of emphasis on what is usually called the criteria of multiple attestation to demonstrate that Jesus surely existed.   Would you explain briefly why historians place so much stock in this criteria, and why it is especially important when dealing with the question of the existence of Jesus.

A.    Multiple attestation is one of the most important historical criteria for establishing what happened in the past – not just for historical Jesus research, but for any serious historical research.   If the sources to a historical person or event are biased, then it is impossible to know if one of them has just “made something up,” if it is our only witness.  But if there are several sources available that independently indicate that an event happened (or that a person lived, etc.), then no one of them could have made it up – since they all report it without having conferred with one another.  Some scholars see this criterion as the most important one available for establishing what happened in the past.

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And it is extremely useful for establishing the existence of Jesus.  If we had only one ancient source that indicated that Jesus lived, we would not be able to make a very strong case.  But the reality is that we have lots of sources.   Whether or not these sources are biased is immaterial when it comes to this criterion.   In addition to Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus – which are not biased in favor of Jesus’ existence, but which are too late to be of supreme importance (since they are so many years after the fact) – we have numerous Christian sources (on which the non-Christian ones are not dependent).  In addition to Paul (who is quite clear and explicit that there was a man Jesus!) we have our first Gospel, Mark, itself based on numerous earlier sources, some of them demonstrably circulating at one point in Aramaic, the native language of Jesus.

But there is much more.  Matthew and Luke had numerous sources at their disposal in addition to Mark; we call their respective sources Q (for the material found in both Matthew and Luke not in Mark, such as the beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer), M” (Matthew’s special source, or sources; M may have been one document or, more likely, one or more documents and a collection of oral traditions), and “L” (Luke’s special sources).  All of these speak of Jesus’ words and deeds.  So does John, and all of John’s sources, which appear to have been independent of the other Gospels.   As do the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, which I take also to have been independent of the other Gospels.

In short, we not only have lots of sources, we have lots of independent sources, from within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, that are absolutely unified in claiming that he was a Jewish teacher from Galilee.   I don’t see how we could have this many sources – some of which can be traced to Palestine, and within a few years of the traditional date of Jesus’ death – unless Jesus really existed. This argument has to be taken in conjunction with others, of course, including the importance of Paul himself, who heard stories about Jesus just a couple of years after his death at the outside (more likely within a year or so), and who actually knew, personally, Jesus’ closest disciple and his own brother.  Taken together, these independent sources make a compelling argument for Jesus’ existence.

Q.   Two of the real linch pins in your argument that Jesus existed is the evidence from Paul that he knew both the brother of Jesus and Peter, the most important early disciple of Jesus,  and secondly,  the omnipresent evidence that the earliest Christians all admitted that Jesus whom they followed had been crucified.   Why is this evidence so telling,  and the attempts by mythicists to dismiss so unconvincing?

A.   I dealt a bit with the evidence from Paul in an earlier answer.   The short version: even though Paul is not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, he personally knew two people (at least) who were: Jesus’ closest disciple Peter, and his brother James.   This is as close as you can get to eyewitness testimony as you can imagine, without an eyewitness actually writing up a report himself.  It’s very good evidence.

The other argument is at least as important, even though it’s a bit complicated.   Most Christians today think that the Jewish messiah was *supposed* to die and be raised again (showing that he was the messiah).  The reality, however, is that ancient Jews had a variety of expectations of who the messiah would be – some thought he’d be a great warrior king like David, others that he would be a cosmic judge of the earth (a Son of Man figure), others that he would be a powerful priest who judged God’s people.  In NONE of these expectations was there any sense at all that the messiah would be someone who would be executed by his enemies, squashed by his opponents.   Christians who think that is what the messiah was supposed to be have been influenced by OT passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, which seem to speak about a future suffering person whose death will make people right with God.  But ancient Jews did not interpret these passages as referring to the messiah (and in fact, the messiah is not mentioned in these passages).  On the contrary, for ancient Jews, these passages were decidedly NOT speaking about the messiah.  The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power, not someone who was weak and powerless.

This means that if the followers of Jesus were going to make up the claim that he was the messiah they would not ALSO make up the claim that he was crucified, since that was the LAST thing that would happen to the messiah.   But the reality is that Christians did call Jesus the messiah, and yet did indicate that he was crucified.  How can we explain that?  If a group of Jews wanted to make up a messiah (as the mythicists claim) they would not have made up a crucified messiah, since there was no such thing as the idea of a crucified messiah in Judaism at the time.   And so they must not have made up Jesus.   Instead, the historical reality was this: Christians thought that Jesus was the messiah, and they KNEW that he had been crucified.  And so they developed the idea that the messiah was supposed to be crucified.  (And they started to appeal to non-messianic texts such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 in support of their views.)

That is why Paul talks about the crucifixion as the greatest “stumbling block” for Jews.  Most Jews thought it was ludicrous to say a crucified man was the messiah.  This is the reason they rejected the Christian message.

In short, Jesus must have existed, and must have really been crucified – since if Christians wanted to convert Jews, they would not have made up the idea that a crucified man was their messiah.  But the reality is they had no choice.  They thought Jesus was the messiah and they knew he had been crucified, and so they devised the idea that the messiah had to be crucified.   Christians today would say that these early Christians were *right*; non-Christians would say they were *wrong*.  But for the question of whether Jesus existed or not it doesn’t matter which side of that issue you stand on.   The fact that Jesus was declared as the (crucified) messiah shows that he could not have been made up by his Jewish followers.   And so he must have really existed, and been crucified.[\private\

Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 5
Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 3



  1. Avatar
    gonzalogandia  June 13, 2012


    Great answers to these questions. I can see where the mythicists can easily come up with the idea that Jesus was the figment of someone’s imagination. For example, if you don’t believe Jesus was God and he didn’t in fact raise from the dead, then the early witnesses “lied” about his resurrection and appearing in front of the disciples (and others). At the very least, you would conclude these witnesses were delusional. So, it’s not a big step to say that the whole thing was made up. Otherwise, you’re left with nitpicking as to what is real and what is made up. It’s hard to be in the middle of all this as an historian, since you’re left with sifting through some pretty incredible stories, is it not? It would like trying to prove if Hercules “the man” really existed, and not the demi-god . One wouldn’t even try because of the metaphysical stories around him, right? it’s just easier to say the whole thing is made up rather than separate the truth from the made up. As an historian, I guess you’re looking to find the historical truth by all means possible. Do you find it difficult separating truth from fiction and the relevance it has on historical fact?

    Looking forward to your thoughts,

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 13, 2012

      Ah, you need to read my book! Or even better, where I deal with this issue headon, my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • Avatar
        gonzalogandia  June 14, 2012

        I was introduced to your work with Misquoting Jesus, and I’ve read all your B+N books since then, except for your last one (I haven’t got around to it). So I making my way backwards through your books, and I read Lost Chrisitianities at the beginning of the year. But Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet is on my reading list. I still have this feeling that your next B+N book will be my favorite: How Jesus Became God. And it may indirectly answer some of questions above…

        I really enjoy your blog, thanks!!

        • Avatar
          jimmo  June 16, 2012

          I highly recommend Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet. It is definitely one of my favorites from Bart. I think the primary reason is that in terms of the NT it covers the biggest questions in history, textual criticism, and theology.

    • Avatar
      MatthewG  June 14, 2012

      Gonzolagandia, you posted:

      “For example, if you don’t believe Jesus was God and he didn’t in fact raise from the dead, then the early witnesses “lied” about his resurrection and appearing in front of the disciples (and others). At the very least, you would conclude these witnesses were delusional. So, it’s not a big step to say that the whole thing was made up. Otherwise, you’re left with nitpicking as to what is real and what is made up.”

      Wouldn’t you agree that this is a false dichotomy? That’s my problem with Christian attempts to defend the faith; for them it’s all gospel truth or it’s all just one big fat lie. There are other possibilities. One is that the disciples were deluded yet very sincere. Why do believers assume that the disciples died for a lie, knowing it was a lie? Where is the evidence that they absolutely knew it was a lie that they were dying for?


      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2012

        Yes, my view is that history is a *lot* more ambiguous and nuanced than the typical Christian apologist allows (or imagines!).

        • Avatar
          tcc  June 14, 2012

          Personally, I think that the apostles were either insane with grief during the resurrection, or they were all stoned–and not in the biblical sense.

      • Avatar
        gonzalogandia  June 14, 2012

        Mathew, you make some good points. I referred to the disciples being delusional only half heartedly. It’s really hard to imagine they were ALL delusional at the same time, as so many of them saw Jesus after his death (and according to the gospel of Mathew, lots more “holy people” were wandering the city also after Jesus’ death). I think that somewhere along the line, the resurrection story took hold, which would be explained as to why the first gospel written, Mark, doesn’t include anything about the resurrection (the last verses were added afterwards). So I think a “lie” was told somewhere along the line, and people knew it. I think Dr. Ehrman mentions this in one of his books. Or I suspect hh WILLin his next B+N book!

  2. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  June 14, 2012

    This seems obvious but just occurred to me (happens all the time!): it was not only the Christians who knew Jesus was crucified but their *opponents* knew it as well or the Christians would not have worked so hard to account for it. The opponents of the Christians *accepted* Jesus existed when it would have been a much easier argument that he hadn’t existed, where they able to make it. Jesus existence was apparently generally knowledge. I know you bring this up in Did Jesus Exist? I’ve read it–but it just really sunk in now.

  3. Avatar
    tcc  June 14, 2012

    It seems like the discussion is ultimately over whether Jesus was a myth…or a failed apocalyptic prophet. Either way, the Jesus most Christians know (or knew, in my case) didn’t actually exist.

    I mean, lets be honest, if they discovered that Jesus was basically a Hercules or Mithras figure that never literally walked the Earth, Christians would just move the goal post and say that he was “always supposed to be a spiritual figure”, but the idea that Jesus was basically a deluded Rabbi who predicted the imminent end of the World and whose message only continued because his followers were very adept at changing it to suit the culture, is tremendously more depressing than him being a Jewish version of Krishna.

  4. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 17, 2012

    Obviously we can never really know what happened on that Easter morning. The important thing is that for whatever reason, the disciple believed he was resurrected from the dead and were willing to bet their lives on it. Paul only encountered Jesus in a vision and he was willing to bet his life.
    On the other hand, does it strike anyone other than me that in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus appeared only to the two men on the road and then to the eleven, and then ascended into Heaven, all apparently within a day or so. The the same author in Acts says that he walked on Earth for 40 days an was seen by many?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 17, 2012

      Yup, it’s a big problem! I deal with it in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture….

  5. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  February 9, 2015

    Bart, you wrote, “Christians who think that is what the messiah was supposed to be have been influenced by OT passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, which seem to speak about a future suffering person whose death will make people right with God.” However, before verse 10, in English at least, the references to this suffering person are in the past tense. Could you say a little about tenses (or lack of them) in Hebrew and how, if verses 1-9 are past tense in the Hebrew too, people would read this and think the suffering servant would be in the future?

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