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Was Jesus Made Up? A Blast from the Past.

In browsing through some old posts, I came across this one from five years ago, in which I deal with two questions I still today get asked about the “evidence” that Jesus did, or did not, exist.  The post deals with pointed issues raised by my colleague in the field, Ben Witherington.  The answers still seem germane to me today, as the question of Jesus’ existence has simply ratcheted up, all these years later.

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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. The Q’s are obviously his, the A’s mine.

 

Q. Robert Price’s argument that the stories of Jesus are a giant midrash on OT stories about Moses and others, and so are completely fiction seems to ignore the fact that midrash is a hermeneutical technique used for contemporizing pre-existing stories. Talk briefly about the difference between how stories are shaped in the Gospels and whether they have any historical substance or core or not. (N.B. It appears that Crossan has recently made the same kind of category mistake arguing that since there are parables in the Gospels, that whole stories about Jesus may be parables, pure literary fictions).

A. In Did Jesus Exist? I try to make a major methodological point that there is a very big difference between saying that a story has been shaped in a certain (non-historical) way and saying that the story is completely non-historical. I make this point because authors like Robert Price have claimed that all the stories about Jesus in the Gospels are midrashes on stories found in the OT. By that he means, roughly, that the story of Jesus is shaped in such a way as to reflect a kind of retelling or exposition of stories about persons and events in the Old Testament. For example, the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel shapes the stories about Jesus to make Jesus appear to be a kind of “second Moses.” Like Moses, Jesus is supernaturally protected at his birth when the ruler (Pharaoh/Herod) seeks to destroy him; like Moses he goes down to Egypt as an infant; like Moses he comes up out of Egypt to the promised land; like Moses he passes through the waters (the parting of the Red Sea; the baptism); after which he spends time in the wilderness being “tested” (40 years; 40 days); after which he goes up on the mountain to receive/deliver the Law (Mount Sinai; Sermon on the Mount). The story of Jesus has evidently been “shaped” in light of the author’s knowledge of the story of Moses in order to say something: Jesus is the new Moses.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Michele  July 12, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,
    as you’ve rightly pointed out, cultures are dynamic and it’s normal for them to influence each other. However, you’ve also repeatedly emphasized that in comparative religion studies there is an excessive tendency to think that everything depends on something else. Moreover, you’ve repeatedly rejected the parallels between Jesus and pagan deities. So, if I’ve not misunderstood your thinking, the Greek influence you’re talking about is mostly related to the general framework of the cultural climate and not to the specific stories and parallels between Jesus and pagan religions. For example the virginal birth: there are no parallels between Jesus and other deities but the Greek culture of miraculous births of extraordinary men may have been the background, right?

    Thanks a lot,

    Michele Fornelli

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      I’m not sure what you mean that I reject the parallels between Jesus and pagan deities? One of my major emphases in my writings is how the stories of other divine men influenced the stories Christians told about Jesus. Are you referring to the fact that there aren’t any pagan gods born of a virgin or raised back into their physical bodies after being dead for three days? That in fact is true: but lots and lots of things said about Jesus have significant parallels to other figures from his time and long before.

      • Avatar
        Michele  July 14, 2019

        I’ve read in Huffpost for “Did Jesus Exist?” that you’ve wrote:
        “The alleged parallels between Jesus and the “pagan” savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination”

        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2019

          Yes, I was referring ot the parallels that are cited by the mythicists to show Jesus didn’t exist (e.g., that Mithras was born on December 25 and had a virgin mother and … and and and). There are plenty of real parallels.

          • Avatar
            Michele  July 15, 2019

            Dr Ehrman,
            could you mention a real parallel for example?

            Thank you,

            Michele Fornelli

          • Bart
            Bart  July 16, 2019

            That he was miraculously born, was a child prodigy, could heal, cast out demons, affect the weather; that he ascended to heaven at the end of his life and now lives in heaven, e.g.

  2. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  August 22, 2019

    Dear Dr Ehrman, Apologies for resurrecting (pun intended) an old post but I am relatively new to the forum and am working my way through those issues that particularly interest me. I have read your book ‘Did Jesus Exist’ and am convinced by your arguments, but I have come across a variation on the Mythicist approach which is to accept that Jesus existed but in an earlier age. I know you deal briefly in your book with G A Wells’ argument that Jesus may have been a supernatural being living in obscurity some 150 years before Paul. Another book, which I came across by chance in a second hand book store (Jesus: One hundred years before Christ by Alvar Ellegard, a Swedish academic), sets out a reasonably well argued case that Jesus was the Teacher of Righteousness (of Dead Sea Scrolls fame) and was ‘transplanted’ for various reasons into the first century CE. There have been other similar books but this one seems to be the most scholarly I have come across. What is your general view of the ‘Jesus lived a lot earlier’ claims?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      No, Jesus could not have been the Teacher of Righteousness. That was an old view that has been shown to be impossible because of the dates (the Teacher of Righteousness was long dead by the time Jesus was active, and there are huge differences between them). There’s no way that Jesus could have been living a century before Paul and the others.

  3. Avatar
    Lebo55  August 31, 2019

    I’ve always found it interesting that these mythicists often use invention and storytelling and the use of people places and things in them to prove who knows what.
    Eugene O’Neal (my favorite and considered the inventor of modern American theater) used all three of these elements in his plays in fact most writers more often than not use real events and people they personally knew or acquainted with in their writings, i would think that it would be hard to near impossible to invent a whole character and not use these three elements from real life. It shows if nothing else a complete lack of imagination on their part.

  4. Avatar
    Logan Jones  August 18, 2020

    My favorite argument against mythicists is the existence of James the brother of Jesus (if Jesus didn’t exist, surely his own brother would’ve known about it). I love using Galatians and Josephus to show the existence of James, but I’d like to add the James Ossuary to the list of evidence (if credible).

    Do you think the James Ossuary is authentic?

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