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The Gospels and the Existence of Jesus

If you have only thirty minutes to build a case that Jesus of Nazareth really existed, how do you do it?  That was the problem I was confronted with this past Friday at the Mythicist Milwaukee conference, in my debate with Robert Price.  Rather than mount a lot of arguments and say very little about each one of them (what we used to call “the shotgun approach” when I was in high school), I thought it would be better just to make a few points and pack them up with evidence and reasoning.

The first and most obvious point, to me, is this.  Jesus is one of the two best attested Jews living in Palestine in the entire first century.   There were hundreds of thousands of Jews in some way connected with Palestine at the time  Only one is better attested than Jesus (with a proviso, which I’ll explain).  That one is the Jewish historian Josephus.  The reason he is better known than Jesus is because he has left us a large number of writings – a twenty-volume history of the Jewish people, for example, a six-volume discussion of the Jewish War against Rome, and an auto-biography.  Now *that’s* a lot of documentation for a person!   Jesus, so far as we know, didn’t write a thing, and so we have nothing like that from him.  Or for any other Jew at the time and place.

But if you look simply at external documentation – that is, references to and discussions about a person by other sources – Jesus in fact is much better documented than Josephus.  By an enormous margin.

We have …

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Gospel Evidence that Jesus Existed
Mythicists and the Stories Told of Jesus



  1. Avatar
    roycecil  October 27, 2016

    Dr. Bart , what is a good book for a common man to read about the Gospel of John and its sources?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      I like Robert Kysar, John the Maverick Gospel.

      • Avatar
        roycecil  October 28, 2016

        Thank you!

      • Avatar
        brandon284  December 23, 2016

        Are you familiar with Mark Goodacre’s arguments against John not know the Synoptics, Dr. Ehrman? If so, where do you think he is in error?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 24, 2016

          No, he argues the opposite, that John *did* know the Synoptics. My view is that there is not enough evidence of that.

  2. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  October 27, 2016

    “on the assumption, that has good reasons for it, that Matthew was not simply inventing these stories himself”
    I know that this is not of great importance to this thread, but I am seriously interested in knowing why this is the case.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      Mainly because the form and structure of the stories found only in Matthew are the same structure and form of stories found in other sources, only some of which he had access to, so it *looks* like all these stories had been formed through similar processes as circulating in the oral tradition.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  October 27, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, many Mythicists have subsequently pointed out in their blogs that Paul is as comparably well-attested if not more well-attested than Jesus. I can see their point. Between the book of Acts and the actual, physically written letters, Paul seems like a pretty well-attested 1st century Jew. Would you be willing to amend or qualify your statement in that regard?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      Yes he is. I was speaking of Palestinian Jews. Philo is also better attested, of course.

  4. Avatar
    danieljcathers  October 27, 2016

    I have a question on the passion narratives specifically. Years ago, some of the members of the Secular Outpost told me that there may be reason to think that M, L, and Q had no passion narrative, i.e., the Matthew and Luke passions narratives were all theological modifications of Mark. Can you comment on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      That is often thought of for Q (though I’m not sure it is right or not); but M and L definitely have Passion narratives.

  5. Avatar
    rblouch  October 27, 2016

    I am discovering as I read your blog this is the most important remaining question for me regarding Christ. Did he exist? If he did exist did his life in any way resemble the stories written about him?

    I find two arguments against the latter question to be compelling in significant opposition to your positions. That’s rare. I’m usually struck by the degree to which I agree with you.

    The first you covered in describing Price’s position that the parallels between the Christ story and prior mythologies justifies a belief in mythicism. I am not sure that phenomenon proves Jesus was not an historical human but I can tell you that after reading tale after tale after tale from India, China, Japan, Egypt and all the rest (mostly India) you can’t not be slammed by the perfect alignment of the elements of the Jesus tale that have come before. After a while it becomes oppressive.

    The second you describe above. Yes, we have a set of documents about Jesus to the exclusion of all others and all else but we know very well that there were multiple Jewish prophets running around in Israel within a couple hundred years of the time of Christ and what later became the Christian church orthodoxy destroyed written evidence of them to the best of their ability. Had we a library full of the writings of all of them I wonder how Jesus would hold up in comparison.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 28, 2016

      Christ did not exist, but Jesus did…if that makes sense.

  6. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 27, 2016

    “But we cannot overlook the fact that we have four narrative accounts of the things Jesus said and did. Four lengthy narratives. Written by different people at different times and in different places.”

    I’m confused. Do we believe and know that any of the four biographers were original? That they actually wrote of the things which they seen and heard? This is the only way a biography would be valid. As I understand it, most critical scholars believe that Mark is a secondary source at best. The other two synoptics are tertiary at best and most do not believe John was written by the man assigned to it by tradition.
    So what we have are four accounts of sayings and teachings of varying levels of authenticity. They at best represent a shell of what the historical Jesus really was. Is that correct? We have no primary sources, as far as critical scholars are concerned, documenting Jesus’ life and teachings.

    • Avatar
      VaulDogWarrior  October 27, 2016

      Okay, so I didn’t read the whole article. Sorry.. ?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      I don’t understand what you mean. Do you mean a biography written today about Thomas Jefferson is not valid?

      • Avatar
        VaulDogWarrior  October 28, 2016

        No, I understand the imortance of secondary sources, but no one today knew Jefferson. A biography relies on primary sources does it not? And the question is do we have any primary sources? I think you helped me see more clearly in today’s post that we do or at least we have sources that are very close. Close enough to give convincing evidence that there was a man named Jesus walking around Israel at the time claiming to be a prophet.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2016

          Yes it does. But primary sources can be oral or written. For the Gospels they were ultimately based on oral traditions.

    • Avatar
      Luke9733  October 28, 2016

      Most of our biographies that come from this time period were written by authors who never met the individual in question. Suetonius and Plutarch both wrote biographies for individuals that they never met – both never met Julius Caesar but wrote a biography of him, Plutarch wrote biographies of Alexander the Great, Crassus, Pompey, Mark Antony, Cato the Elder and Cato the Younger, but never met any of them. Suetonius wrote biographies of Caesar Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Nero and never met any of them. Philostratus wrote a biography of Apollonius of Tyana but never met him.

      This isn’t in any way rare for biographies from that time and doesn’t invalidate as evidence that the figure central to the biographies at the very least existed.

  7. webo112
    webo112  October 27, 2016

    Yes, Jesus certainly did exist. I presume many (laymen) people confuse any legends about him, and overall uncertainty about him, divinity and sayings etc, with his actual existance…now that doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious questions we all wished we knew (factual) answers to.

    Dr. Ehrman; what is the general scholarship consensus on Jesus’s brother James- was he Jesus’s actual full brother? Half or cousin? I can certainly see why scribes may have changed Gospel text (very early on) so that it appears he did not have true blood brothers or distance themselves from that view/fact- but what was the actual case in your view?

    Why do we not get more documentation or referrals perhaps from James himself that he was a blood relative of Jesus? You would expect that James himself would be “proud” of this, and would spearhead his branch of the church on this fact?

    I am looking forward to reading your new book, Jesus before the Gospels.


    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      Virtual consensus these days (except among some Roman Catholics): he was a full brother.

      • Avatar
        mjoniak  October 28, 2016

        Do those Catholics have any good arguments? Or is it all based on the doctrine of perpetual virginity?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2016

          They don’t seem to have much textual evidence. The only thing to make you think that the word “brother” doesn’t mean “brother” is if you have a prior assumption that it can’t mean that. That’s true of devout Roman Catholics and devout Mythicists.

  8. Avatar
    Judith  October 27, 2016

    Love this!

  9. Avatar
    Colin P  October 27, 2016

    I don’t discount the possibility of a historical Jesus at all. But I do find Paul’s lack of reference to him in his letters very intriguing, even if he did write them to address particular issues in the churches. It does seem to me that Paul’s Jesus was very different to the one told about in the gospels. The idea of a merging of traditions held by different communities seems to me entirely possible and would offer an explanation for Paul’s silence regarding Jesus’ earthly ministry. I rather suspect we will never know exactly what happened, but I still find the topic extremely interesting. Looking forward to your “even more important considerations”. Thanks Bart! Loving these posts!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      I’ll be arguing that Paul is not silent about Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.

  10. cheito
    cheito  October 27, 2016

    Very interesting DR Ehrman! Thank you!

  11. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 27, 2016

    On the Gospel of John, isn’t there discussion that John had at least some of the Gospels in front of him? Aren’t many of his passages considered as reaction to them? How secure are you that John is really independent of any of the previous Gospels? He definitely had a much higher Christology and a very different style and some other sources but I have heard some valid arguments from critical scholars that John did use one or some of the Synoptics.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      Yes, it’s debated. My view is that John did not have any of the others before him. If he did, he refused to reproduce any of their accounts (there are no word for word agreements to any extent)

  12. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  October 27, 2016

    Another thing the Mythicists never made clear, at least to me during the conference, is why and exactly who created the myth. They spoke vaguely about the myth being created by early Christians. But if someone (or a group of people) goes through the lengthy work of creating a myth, I would imagine these people must have had a purpose. What is it? Price didn’t explain. If he did, maybe I was looking at the ceiling – which I did a few times when he was speaking. But, anyway, I think that if he wants to establish that Jesus was a myth, he should say that the *Romans* created it. After all, Jesus said to give stuff to Caesar, Pilate was not the bad guy, and, wait for the best: in case you get crucified, don’t worry, don’t complain, don’t make a scene. Go happy to the cross because you get to ressucitate and become God in 3 days!

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  October 28, 2016

      I may be able to shed a little light on this question. From what I have read, Carrier, Price and Dougherty all theorize an evolutionary process of different cults “reading” through scriptures for guidance as to when and what type of messiah would come. Daniel gave them the time frame of early 1st century so expectations were high. Some read scripture as predicting a revealer type messiah, some a savior type and some a priestly type as well as the usually thought military type. There is evidence that each of these cults existed during this time. Philo had the revealer Logos, etc. The evolution eventually led to a merger within at least one cult and it was also very missionary and apocalyptic. They concluded that a intermediary being (archangel) had revealed himself through scripture to James and Peter and later Paul. It was all by revelation and visions that He was known and his name was Savior (Joshua /Jesus). Later, Mark seemed to be in a community that had both a missionary teacher type Q belief but also knew or was incorporating the cult of Paul and wrote a Gospel that both merged the beliefs and was a training manual for the higher members of the church. This Gospel was ALL allegorical and showed the higher level members how to be missionaries. The simple story (the straight reading) was for recruitment. The mystery that Mark talks about is the real but allegorical story of the intermediary being. With the chaos of the post temple destruction, the allegorical meaning was lost and the literal story took over.
      Yeah, is is complex and nuanced but some of it has some evidence. Some, I think, is very overstated.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  October 30, 2016

      Just to clarify gabilaranjeira, I’m the Patty that went to Milwaukee, not Pattylt who replied to your comment…different Patty!

  13. Avatar
    Jana  October 27, 2016

    Hello Dr. Ehrman. You might find this article from LiveScience timely, “Jesus Tomb Opened for the First Time In Centuries. A Dr. Robert Cargill is featured and some mention of mythicists as well: http://www.livescience.com/56672-jesus-tomb-opened-first-time-in-centuries.html

  14. TWood
    TWood  October 27, 2016

    I just bought “Jesus Before the Gospels” (Kindle version on Amazon for $14.99 [good deal]). But I’m curious about the subtitle “HOW THE EARLIEST CHRISTIANS REMEMBERED, CHANGED, & INVENTED THEIR STORIES OF THE SAVIOR”

    Based on what you’ve said before, I’m guessing your publisher had something to do with writing this to make it more, I don’t know, edgy and marketable maybe? But do you think the “INVENTED THEIR STORIES” line might give the wrong impression to some Christians who NEED to read books like yours (even if they remain Christians like I have)?

    I get the point that some stories *are* invented… but if I didn’t know any better (luckily I do, but most Christians do not)… I would assume you were promoting some kind of mythicist idea (rather than a solid historical perspective based on the evidence)… IDK… just wondering if you think sometimes your work is packaged (maybe by others) in a way that makes it seem hostile to historical Christianity (when in reality it is not)…

    I suppose it might not matter too much because *most* fundies will never read your books no matter what it’s called… but I think *some* of them might if they knew your book was actually against the mythicist (and fundie) view… IDK… you and your publishers obviously know what you’re doing and I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t use subtitles like this (it probably does ultimately sell more books)… I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts on this… thanks.

    • TWood
      TWood  October 28, 2016

      P.s. Disregard my comment… even though I do think you get a bad rap from Christians who’ve never actually listened to you… I thought I was buying your book about the historical evidence for Jesus’ existence (the subject of this post)… so that’s why I thought the subtitle about “invented stories” seemed out of place… but I now see I got your latest book about memory… so the invented comment makes way more sense now… so I just bought “DID JESUS EXIST?:
      THE HISTORICAL ARGUMENT FOR JESUS OF NAZARETH” (only $10.49 on Amazon/Kindle [even better deal])… that subtitle is perfectly reasonable and attractive to anyone wanting to know about this issue… call it serendipity… now I’ve got two new books to read instead of one…

  15. Avatar
    twiskus  October 27, 2016

    This is sorta-kinda-not-really on topic (authorship of the gospels) However:

    I know and agree with your arguments that the names attached to the gospels are later traditions and these are not eyewitness accounts. Of course, the main reason you point out is because the gospels are written by highly literate, Greek speaking authors; not uneducated Aramaic speaking peasants from Galilee.

    I was just thinking the other day…and I don’t believe I have heard you or anyone really speak on this; wouldn’t the age of the disciples be a good point to speak about in pointing out the slim chance they were eye witness accounts? I would assume that the disciples were close in age to Jesus (25-35h?) . I have read studies stating 40-45 year old was a typical life span for an adult in the 1st century…this would put Mark at 65-75 years old and John at 85-95 years old at the time “they” wrote their respective gospels! Is there some merit in this line of thinking or is it a stance you take that I just haven’t read yet?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      Those who think such people did write the Gospels date their accounts much earlier.

      • Avatar
        jdmartin21  October 28, 2016

        This question/answer brought to mind a question I have pondered for some time. We know that sometime in the early years of Christianity – certainly by the time Matthew’s gospel was written – enterprising followers of Jesus spent considerable time and effort sifting through scripture to find references validating their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. This confirmation then was accepted by later followers of Jesus and made its way into the oral history and into New Testament writings. But, all indications are that Jesus’ original disciples were illiterate and could probably not “read” scripture, and it appears that early converts (except for Paul) were peasants who also probably couldn’t read. So, when is it thought that the movement started to acquire literate converts who would have the skills to pursue this endeavor of “validating” the fulfillment of prophecy?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2016

          Well, even those who couldn’t read would know what the Scriptures said, based on having heard it read. So the idea that Jesus fulfilled Scripture is very early — long before the NT was written.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  October 30, 2016

        I think an interesting post or two could be dedicated to explaining how scholars attempt to date the gospels. Also, other than strong theological motives to do so, what is their evidence for dating them two or three decades earlier than critical scholars?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 1, 2016

          I’ve talked about it on the blog before. Maybe I’ll repost it.

    • Avatar
      VaulDogWarrior  October 28, 2016

      Also, if I’m not mistaken there are accounts of people at that time living into their 70s, 80s and 90s. And hey, God could have just kept them alive long enough to do it and doesn’t Jesus that when the Holy Spirit comes He would bring back to remembrance all that He taught them? could have just brought So I don’t know what all the fuss is about. God can anything he wants…

  16. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 27, 2016

    Were there others in ancient history who May have influenced Jesus’ teachings concerning love acceptance, humility, compassion, and mercy?
    Given the harsh living conditions at this time, they are in sharp contrast and the legalistic religious teachings , they appear to be inspired .

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      Yes, these are common teachings, for example in Judaism.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  November 2, 2016

        Thank you. Millions of people believe that Jesus created a new compassionate ethic to supersede the old harsh, legalistic and impossible to perform Jewish ethic. As you have said many times, the Jews of the 2d Temple era didn’t conceive of the rules as burdensome, but rather as a welcome and productive (and even beautiful) part of life. Jesus’s ethics are Jewish ethics, with the possible exception of the “turn the other cheek” material. However, in the gospels, these teachings seem to suddenly appear out of the blue. But I believe there was a purpose for these teachings. Jesus isn’t suddenly telling poor, suffering peasants, “Show love to that vicious landlord who repeatedly beats the crap out of you.”

  17. Avatar
    Jason  October 27, 2016

    1-Have the mythicists ever put forth any positive evidence for the manufacture of the person of Jesus? It would seem to me that if you accuse history of such a fabrication, the burden of proof falls to you to provide.
    2-Can you think of any other pseudo-intellectual fads throughout history that you’d compare to mythicism?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      1. They think that the mystery religions with their dying and rising gods were the basis for the invention of the Christ, which wsa then historicized; 2. Most conspiracy theories?

  18. Avatar
    Joseph  October 28, 2016

    If so much weight is given for Josephus, because he was a writer, then why not Paul as even more attested, historically, than Jesus. In addition to the 7 undisputed Pauline letters, we have the disputed letters that mention him, Acts, and many non canonical writings as well. Is Paul the 3rd most attested Jew? Why not 1st or 2nd?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      I was speaking of Jews from Palestine. Philo is also better attested (if you pay attention to their own writings)

  19. Avatar
    maryhelena  October 28, 2016

    Bart: ”We have four biographies of Jesus written by different people from the next generation. Four biographies?!? About how many people in all of antiquity do we have four biographies???”

    The gospels as four independent biographies of a historical Jesus or four copies of an original master-copy of the Jesus story?

    Jesus and Anacreon: The Gospels as Copy Exercises

    R. Joseph Hoffmann

    ” The elongation of a source by adding a birth legend or resurrection appearances is completely appropriate to the anacreonic tradition as beautification, as “outdoing” the model.
    I find it more probable that we possess four of the exercises, and that these exercises have to be submitted to an analysis based not on “redaction” and tendency—fidelity to or departure from a long-gone plumb-line–as much as on the more or less purely artistic intention of the writer in terms of the story he is telling.
    For all we know one such copyist may have been named Mark and another Luke. But if that is so, it is only accidentally so and they were men of no significant personal distinction. They were men who took it upon themselves to imitate, “restore” or amend the lost (or nearly lost) prototype, the master-copy of the Jesus story.”


  20. Avatar
    godspell  October 28, 2016

    We have how many sources for Socrates?

    Plato (who is clearly taking enormous liberties with history, and often describing events and conversations he did not witness).

    Xenophon (ditto).

    Aristophanes (who wrote The Clouds while Socrates was presumably still alive, is sending him up in the manner of a Saturday Night Live skit or a South Park episode, and if you wanted, you could claim that Plato and Xenophon were just riffing on a fictional character in their works on Socrates, though I don’t know why you would).

    Three sources, the earliest of them entirely fictional and satirical. No writings from Socrates himself (who was supposed to be the smartest man in highly literate Athens). No mention of Socrates in the early histories of Thucydides, even though he’s writing about the very era in which Socrates supposedly lived and Socrates is supposed to have played a role in encouraging certain key political events in that time period. No surviving records of his birth, his marriage, his military service, or his trial (because seriously, how could there be?).

    Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to try and prove Socrates did not exist? That he was a philosophical myth, a character from teaching stories, used to make a variety of points?

    And of course that’s what he became. But he started out as a man, and just by talking to people, questioning their assumptions, probing into the nature of reality, he changed the course of human history.

    So did Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      It’s hard to dispute the existence of Socrates, given especially the Aristophanes passage….

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 28, 2016

        I don’t want to dispute it. I don’t doubt this existence. I just want to point out there’s fewer sources, and the earliest is a play where Socrates can fly, and Clouds can talk. And if he was so important in the politics of that period, a teacher of Alcibiades, why didn’t Thucydides mention him?

        His existence has been questioned by scholars, but never seriously, because there’s never been any group with a vested interest in denying it. Though honestly, the teachings of Socrates, filtered through Plato, may have often been much more dangerous than those of Jesus, since Socrates’ contempt for Athenian Democracy has led to many an authoritarian or downright totalitarian system of thought since then.

        Self-evidently, if Jesus appeared in a work of pure fiction that was written before the gospels, Robert Price would say that was proof Jesus was entirely fictional.

        Anyway, since Socrates said the one thing you can know is that you know nothing…..


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