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Question: Would I Be Personally Devastated if the Mythicists Were Right?

QUESTION:

Was also wondering – and maybe you addressed this in your book … would you feel an emotionally traumatic disappointment if it was conclusively proved that Jesus was indeed a mythical figure? In all honesty how would you feel if it were true beyond a doubt that all the arguments the ‘mythicists’ have presented were found to be correct (or mostly correct) regarding his assumed existence? This question is not meant to be offensive or unnecessarily provoking – I’m just curious.

RESPONSE:

I don’t address this in the book, and I think it is a terrific question! The reason I do is this. I think every historian of religion who makes a case for one thing or another needs to be queried: what is at stake for you in the matter?

For example, I have participated a number of public debates with conservative evangelical Christian scholars who have wanted to insist that they can PROVE, historically, that Jesus was raised from the dead. Now I should state with vigor and emphasis – the only people on the face of the planet who think that it is possible to use historical methods to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead are precisely Christians who personally believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. No one else thinks so.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Adam  May 28, 2012

    When I started my studies in NT I started off as a committed evangelical (I grew up in a Baptist church, graduated from Moody). As I studied early Christianity and the NT from a historical point of view (rather than theological), my views began to change. I didn’t want to change my views and I fought against what I was finding – trying very hard to maintain my faith. I tried to explain the findings that were not supporting my faith, but after two years of denying the problems as real problems I was forced to change my views. It was not an easy process. It caused a crisis and a few years to resolve! Things are way better now!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

      Sounds like we followed very similar paths in some ways!

    • Avatar
      DMiller5842  May 29, 2012

      I told Bart that he needs a support page on this blog for recovering Christians.

      • Avatar
        Adam  May 29, 2012

        The process of letting my old faith go resembled for me Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It isn’t an easy process for most. It wasn’t for me. I came across a paper on the topic after I went through it that you may find helpful: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/18123

  2. Avatar
    DMiller5842  May 28, 2012

    “No one should be afraid to go where they think the “truth” (however you define it) is leading them.”
    Thanks – I needed that.

  3. Avatar
    JordanDay  May 28, 2012

    Speaking of having your mind changed, have you ever been tempted to accept Goodacre’s solution to the synoptic problem? I know you two are tight, so I feel certain that he has come close to pushing you over the edge at some point. Do you have good rebuttals to his arguments, or do you feel pressured to assume the “Q” hypothesis because it is what the “majority of scholars” believe? Perhaps this is just “Goodacre’s pet theory”, but I certainly found it compelling. The reason I ask, is because it sometimes seems as though ALL of your views conform to “consensus scholarship” and you may be hesitant to go out on a limb even if you found Mythicist arguments compelling. Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

      Oh, a lot of my views are not consensus, I assure you! But in this case, I don’t think Mark (Goodacre) is convincing. I am especially unpersuaded that the so-called minor agreements of Matthew and Luke indicate, necessarily, that one was copying the other. In almost every instance they can be explained on other grounds, and they do not add up to much, in my judgment. The two-source hypothesis is problematic, I agree; but it is less problematic, in my view, than any other solution.

      • Avatar
        AmenRa  May 29, 2012

        I am having difficulty understanding the argument between Bart and the mythicist. From my reading of the mythicist, the Jesus that never existed is the literary creation of the literalist/orthodox church who is miracle working son of the Old Testament god, the fulfillment of OT prophecy and is coming back bodily to earth. Bart’s Jesus was a apocalyptic prophet who got himself killed. Assuming that Bart is correct then the issue is how did we get from Bart’s Jesus to the literalist Jesus? The literalist church created him for political and social reasons. So it is possible that both Bart’s contention that a Jesus existed and the literalist Jesus never existed can co-exist. The question that I want Bart to answer is: Did the Literalist/Evangelical Church Jesus exist? The Jesus who was born of the virgin Mary, who did the miracles, who was crucified on a cross, buried and three days later resurrected and ascended into heaven, did that Jesus exist?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

          No, that Jesus did not exist. But the Gospels of the New Testament do give us some reliable information about the historical Jesus, who really did exist, and lived, and taught, and did things in first-century Palestine. My next book will be on how *that* Jesus became God (in the opinion of his followers0. But he certainly did exist, and we can say a good deal about him. And that is where I part company with the mythicists.

          • Avatar
            AmenRa  May 30, 2012

            Thank you Dr. Ehrman for that response to my question. I really believe the real problem with this question of Jesus’ existence will be unpacked when the political, mytho-religious and social climate of the first three centuries become clearer. It appears to me that someone or some organization (maybe around the 10th-15th century) altered the historical record of the previous centuries, creating figures, putting words in their mouths and wiping competing histories from the historical record. Furthermore, modern archaeology has called in question biblical archaeology as psudeo-science (did Abraham, Moses exist or are they remakes of Hindu mythology). I hope your new book considers all of these issues in the context of Joseph Cambell’s work on the power of mythology. Therefore if you can connect the dots between how your minimalist Jesus became the Jesus of triumphant Church then it can go a long way to building a bridge of understanding.Furthermore, I don’t think this work of yours necessarily means the end of Spirituality. It just means the need to create a new mythology of our existence.

  4. Avatar
    RyanBrown  May 29, 2012

    Great entry. I would say you identified the main impediment to changing outlooks on religion (politics): the reluctance, or outright refusal, to adjust opinion and belief as new evidence or arguments are presented, or to ignore them entirely. Would that more people, scholars or otherwise, be of the disposition of yourself and other freethinkers, to abandon tightly held opinions when warranted by evidence. I have always been exhilarated, and humbled, when I have discovered that perhaps my outlook requires adjustment.

    Also, great pace on the blog entries. I will be subscribing for a year.

  5. Avatar
    tcc  May 29, 2012

    This may sound weird, but I think acknowledging Jesus for who he probably was (a failed apocalyptic) is more rewarding (though painful) than doing what his followers have done for 2,000 years–which is, turn him into a cipher for their own views. At least people are finally starting to listen to the guy standing behind all these theologians and philosophers…the only problem is that this guy is very human and very wrong about the stuff he’s saying.

    The more I learned about who Jesus probably was, the more I saw just how little people cared about him. In a really sad way, the guy’s still a victim–the spiritualists turn him into a guru for new age philosophy, the fundies claim he hates all the people they do, the children’s books depict him as a 6 foot father figure…and that’s where Mythicists get the idea that this guy these people are talking about never existed, because he didn’t. An apocalyptic rabbi who got it wrong isn’t compelling to people, but a cosmic guru savior who dies for our mistakes is. It’s just not true.

  6. Avatar
    Dennis_Steenbergen  May 29, 2012

    The next time I’m at a BBQ and my very close Christian friends ask me “Who do YOU say Jesus was?”, I can now carry this quote in my wallet. “My view of Jesus is that he was an apocalyptic prophet who expected that God would very soon intervene in the course of history to overthrow the forces of evil in a cataclysmic act of judgment, in order to bring in a miraculous utopian kingdom on earth in which there was no more pain, misery, or suffering.” That is absolute GOLD. Especially if your like me and often tongue-tied. May I please use this ammunition in my arsenal Dr. Ehrman? I think I need to read Albert Schwwitzer’s book, “The Quest”. I live in Germany and see his name everywhere (schools, hospitals, etc.) so now I’m intrigued to learn about a new pioneering scholar.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

      Yup, use it all you want. Esp. at (German??) barbecues! Schweitzer’s Quest is still available both auf Deutsch and in English, very much still worth reading.

  7. Avatar
    whatnow  May 29, 2012

    To DMiller5842:
    You might find “The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs, Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth” by Solomon Schimmel helpful. Schimmel is a psychologist and former orthodox Jew. His story parallels that of Dr. Ehrman’s in many ways.

  8. Avatar
    BrerBear  May 29, 2012

    I’m a believer and appreciate your efforts to discern what ancient Christians believed and the nature of the one they (eventually) decided would be God. It’s nice to know what history, as a presumably objective discipline, can deduce about the actual man at the root of the religion. From there, it’s easier to know what two millennia of Christians have added (or subtracted) to the idea of the Christ and to assess those amendments and what they have to say for themselves. For me, your work illuminates my faith, and I’m grateful.
    I was raised southern Presbyterian, with lots of Sunday school, vacation Bible school, Youth Group, and all that. Yet, in my third year at UVa (Mr. Gamble’s New Testament class, thank you), I remember being jaw-saggingly dumbfouded when I realized Matthew was not the first written book in the NT. I’ve been deeply interested in late Roman, early Chistian studies since. I read your lay works as soon as they hit my Kindle and have seen a couple of your Teaching Company seminars. Keep up the good work, sir!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

      Many thanks. Harry Gamble and I have been friends for many years. He is a terrific scholar, and I’m sure a fine teacher.

  9. Avatar
    nichael  May 29, 2012

    I certainly can’t speak for Dr Ehrman here, of course, but I think there are two separate questions here.

    One is “What if DrE turned out to be wrong in this case? How would he handle it?” I don’t think this is particularly interesting, but from all that I’ve read of his works, I have no doubt that he would just buck up, and move on.

    OTOH, to my mind a far more interesting question is: What if someone could provide real, genuine, unequivocal _proof_ that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. In that case I suspect Dr Ehrman –and all historians in the field– be far too excited by such a discovery, and exploring its implications to be worried about what might have been said in the past.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

      Yeah, I think you’re probalby right on both scores.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 30, 2012

    Since there are 14 different, at least partially independent Christian sources, written within 100 years of the traditional date of the death of Jesus, corroborating the existence of Jesus, and since most of these sources also corroborate the Resurrection of Jesus, albeit with numerous discrepancies and contradictions, are not these same sources sufficient to reasonably establish the Resurrection of Jesus as a historical event? If not, why are these sources sufficient to establish the existence, but not the Resurrection of Jesus?

    Thanks and also thanks for your many books which I have found quite helpful. Keep up the good work.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 31, 2012

      Good questoin. For one thing, some of these sources do not say anything about the resurrection (Q, Thomas, etc.). But apart from that, with miracles we are in a different ballpark altogether when it comes to historical evidence. But that’s a very long story, to which I should devote a few posts, or at least one — explaining why historians are not able to argue for the probability of a miracle having happened (even if they did happen), if by “miracle” we mean a divine intervention in which the so-called laws of nature were suspended. (Short story: to argue that God raised Jesus requires a theological belief, for example, in God; but historians do not have to be believers to be historians, and historical evidence cannot require a certain set of theological beliefs over another)

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  June 1, 2012

        I have read in your books about your contention that a miracle is the least likely explanation of a given event and I agree. Nevertheless, if multiple, independent sources were to attest to the occurrence of an event, even if it is a “miracle,” it would complicate matters.

    • Avatar
      jasha  June 1, 2012

      RonaldTaska,
      It may help you to consider how a historian would address a supernatural claim from outside of your own faith. For example, consider two things that some ancient sources claimed about Julius Caesar:
      1) Julius Caesar had epilepsy (the Romans considered Epilepsy a sign of communication with the divine rather than a disability)
      2) When Julius Caesar died, his body was literary transformed into a star and placed in the sky

      In the first case, historians can at least look at the symptoms as described in historical sources and see how they compare with modern knowledge of epileptic conditions, together with the statistical baseline rate of epilepsy in European populations and evaluate whether the claim is likely to be true or not.

      In the second case, there is really nothing to say. It is normally considered physically impossible for a human body to transform into a gigantic mass of hydrogen and helium and be transported hundreds of light-years away. On the other hand, if this you believe that Julius Cesar became a God, then maybe its not only plausible but expected.

      There are objections you could make and its not a perfect analogy, and I’m not trying to denigrate your beliefs at all. I’m just trying to point out that in asking for historical confirmation of miracles, you are asking for more than history can deliver. I think that’s Dr. Ehrman’s point, or at least something close to it.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 31, 2012

    Moreover, I understand the principle of “confirmation bias” with regard to political and religious discussions which you outline, but without the Resurrection wouldn’t Christianity have just fizzled out after the Crucifixion of Jesus? Of course, I think the answer to that question is the focus of your next book and was also the focus of the PBS Frontline series now available online entitled “Jesus to Christ.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 31, 2012

      No, I think that without *belief* in the resurrection the Jesus movement would have fizzled out (or remained a sect within Judaism). But saying that people believed the resurrection is a far cry from saying that the resurrection actually occurred as a historical event.

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  June 1, 2012

        I understand the difference between “belief” in an event and actual event . Thanks.

  12. Avatar
    CuriousKat  June 1, 2012

    Your honesty and scholarship are, a usual refreshing. I too came from the Baptists but instead of going on to a Christian College I went into the Navy instead. This was in 80′ during the hostage crisis. I wanted a front row seat at the End of the World show. We all know how that turned out. Post-Navy and with a burgeoning drug and alcohol problem I joined a Christian cult that was real big on study. Ah, yes “Study to show thyself approved unto God…” and so on. To be brief, study I did. In line with the discussion, I started out believing and then started researching to prove my thesis correct beyond a shadow of doubt (the Bema reputedly a scary place for doubters). Once the dominoes started tipping they all feel over. I hear it was quite a show. Nowadays I stand with amazement at this vast universe and with John Keynes can say, “When the facts change, so does my opinion. And yours sir?”
    Thanks for being true to yourself.

  13. Avatar
    Cephas  November 20, 2012

    I’m rather surprised to find so many interesting public atheists that I’ve been reading and learning from for so long are now part of a vitriolic group called “mythicists”! I had no idea this disagreement was worth attacking people’s integrity over, either, although I’m painfully aware that the nastiest attacks are pinpointing Prof. Ehrman, for all the wrong reasons (ad-hom attacks on the single atheist scholar who has more knowledge of the actual details than the remaining sum total of the two groups? Really?) I’m sure the fundies are rubbing their hands with glee, having two groups of otherwise rational sceptics arguing so heatedly about something that has no bearing on why they’re atheists in the first place. It’s almost as irrational as two groups of fundy christians splitting over the disagreement between the two lists of Jesus’ genealogy in the gospels. Oh, wait…

    I didn’t think Bart would respond any differently than he has. Like *most* rational scientists, I expected him to be open to new evidence, as I hope I am if the time comes. I did expect more from the “mythicists”, though. It seems they’re taking the opposite stance simply out of sheer bloody-mindedness, as they don’t appear to have listened to the one scholar with the actual, as opposed to perceived, data. That really disappoints me. That’s no better than the believers, and a damn sight worse, given their rational scepticism.

    Thank you, Bart, for your honesty. I’m off to have a talk to some men about a dogma.

  14. Avatar
    john76  March 31, 2016

    Now Carrier is plagiarizing me – lmao. In his most recent debate about the historicity of the resurrection, at 48:00 – 49:49 of the video, he starts speculating about the possibility that the apostles were lying about the risen Jesus to create a better world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P_dsO2dOv4 . I have made this speculation to him many times, including in comments 2 and 3 in Carrier’s blog post from a few weeks ago about why he thought Jesus was invented: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/9929

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