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What If the Mythicists Were Right: Mailbag November 6, 2016


It must be difficult going into these types of debates knowing that if Robert Price is actually right, your entire career would be pointless and irrelevant. I certainly don’t believe this, but it must have crossed your mind before?



This question arose from the debate I had a couple of weeks ago with Robert Price, on whether Jesus existed.  Price argued, as you know, that there never was a historical man Jesus, but that the earliest “Christians” believed in a cosmic Christ, a mythical figure who lived above in the heavenly realm who was crucified by demons in outer space.  This is the Christ attested, for example, he claimed, in Paul.  But later Christians invented a historical figure Jesus out of this Christ, and the Gospels portray this fictitious figure that was simply made up.  Jesus of Nazareth never existed.

And so this question is whether I really can’t entertain this view as an option since, if it were true, I wouldn’t have a career.  My career is based on the history of early Christianity – studying the historical Jesus, the beliefs of his earliest followers, the history and literature of Christianity afterward.  If Jesus didn’t exist, I’d have nothing to study, right?

Ha!  It’s a good question!  Doesn’t the practical implication of the Mythicist position make my scholarship pointless and for that reason it’s something I can’t really consider?

The answer, if I’m being as honest as I can, is …

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The answer, if I’m being as honest as I can, is no.  If the Mythicist position were true, and there never was a historical Jesus, it wouldn’t affect me personally in any radical way.  I would still have my day job.  And the nature of my research would not be very different at all.   That’s because of the historical importance of Christianity, independent of what you think about the historical Jesus.

There are still two billion people in the world who call themselves Christian.  They need (in my opinion) to know where their religion came from.  In my view, it ultimately goes back to a historical figure Jesus, a Jewish apocalyptic prophet from Galilee who proclaimed that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the forces of evil to set up a good kingdom on earth.   In the Mythicist view, it goes back to a celestial being who never lived on earth, a heavenly cosmic Christ worshiped as a sun God who was crucified by demons in outer space and was later transformed into a human being by imaginative believers (not in reality).  If the Mythicist view were right, that is what I would be teaching.  It would still be important to teach it (and obviously interesting!) given the importance of Christianity in our world, as the planet’s largest religion.

This view would also not affect my personal beliefs:  I’m not a believer in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead for the salvation of the world, so coming to think there never was a man Jesus would not affect my own religious perspective.  And it would not affect my sense of the importance of Christianity, either in the contemporary world or throughout history.  It would simply change what I teach.

What I teach now is that there are numerous non-historical features surrounding the traditions of the historical Jesus.  I do not think that the stories about Jesus being born of a virgin in Bethlehem stand up to historical scrutiny, as I’ve explained at length in this post before.  I do not think that the stories of Jesus as the great miracle worker who could walk on water, heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead capture who Jesus in history really was.  I do not think we have fully accurate accounts of Jesus’ life and the events surrounding his death.  As indicated, I do not think that the stories of the resurrection are historically credible.

So what difference to my teaching would the Mythicist position – should I come to accept it – make?  It would mean that I would merely teach a much more radical position, that the man never lived at all.  But it wouldn’t ruin, or even significantly change my career.   My career has almost no connection to the question of whether Jesus existed.  Instead of teaching an apocalyptic Jesus I would teach a mythical Jesus.

I know that many Mythicists wish that I would spend my entire career obsessing over whether Jesus existed or not (they keep wanting me to do debates, and respond to criticisms, and write more about it!).  But most of my academic work – both teaching and research/ writing – is on completely other issues: the interpretation of the writings of the NT (the literary interpretation of which does not depend on whether the person they refer to actually lived), the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the Apocryphal writings of early Christianity (i.e., the Gospels etc. that didn’t make it into the New Testament), the development of early Christian heresy and orthodoxy, the persecution and martyrdom of the early Christians, the Christianization of the Roman empire and hence of the Western world, the use of literary forgery in the early Christian movement, the study of scribes who were copying the books that eventually became the New Testament.

These are the things that I spend my time researching and teaching.  I spend almost no time focusing on the question of whether Jesus existed.  And whether he did or not has almost no bearing on any of these things that I do study.

So, in response to the question, no, I don’t really worry about the matter and don’t think that deciding that Jesus did not exist would have much of an impact on my research, teaching, beliefs, or daily life.  I don’t reject the Mythicist view because I can’t afford to do otherwise.  I reject it because I think it is very bad history.  And I believe in doing good history.  I think Jesus certainly existed, and instead of mounting massive and massively improbable arguments that he did not, Mythicists would be better off turning their time and energies to doing something more productive.


What Is Gnosticism? A Blast from the Past
Carrier and James the Brother of Jesus



  1. Avatar
    ncarmstrong  November 6, 2016

    For me, Jesus is both historical and mythical. I am convinced Jesus of Nazareth probably was an historical figure, but that seems insignificant compared to the myths about Jesus that evolved and formed the foundation of a major world religion.

  2. Avatar
    Jerry  November 6, 2016

    Hello Bart,
    “But most of my academic work – both teaching and research/ writing – is on completely other issues: … the Christianization of the Roman empire … “, regarding these comments near the end of your post; since it seems that Paul did not bring Christianity to Rome, who do you think did?
    Thank You

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      I wish we knew. My guess is that it was travelers who picked it up and converted elsewhere.

  3. Avatar
    Tempo1936  November 6, 2016

    Why do you believe Luke never met Paul? In Paul’s epistles of 2 Timothy , Colossians, and Philemon Paul mentions being with Luke .

    Do scholars believe Paul did not write these epistles because the Greek writing style is different? Is the author of these epistles trying to increase Luke’s credibility?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      Yes, the writing style is very different. The author didn’t know the book of Acts. You can see discussion of all such matters in my book Forged; or if you want a detailed and exhaustive account, see my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  November 6, 2016

    Meanwhile, if it were proven within scientific levels of accuracy that an historical Jesus existed, hacks like Richard Carrier, who have staked their entire reputation on proving a mythical Jesus, will quickly fade into obscurity. If we’re being honest here, I should point out that Carrier makes a decent amount of money promoting his mythicism — whether in books, lectures or conference appearances — and as Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Carrier appears to have stumbled into a market for mythicism and put all his eggs into that basket. If anything, it’s his career that would be in danger should his claims be proven wrong with mathematical precision.

    Speaking of proving Carrier wrong with mathematical precision, being a social scientist who regularly works with mathematical models, one of the things about his argument that I find insulting is his attempted use of math — specifically Bayesian statistics — to prove the improbability of an historical Jesus. His method is so error-ridden that he should be embarrassed to even express it in public, let alone actually publish it as a work of scholarship. For starters, Carrier starts off by assigning probabilities, not to the most mundane aspects of a living person, such as name, gender, nationality, time and place of birth, etc., but instead to the most conveniently ridiculous claims, such as virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, etc. That’s like if I were to attempt to prove that the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama never existed by assigning probabilities to his sitting under a Bodhi tree for forty days, being born from his mother’s side (instead of through the birth canal), and eventually achieving Nirvana after death. I would have to pull those probablities out of the same place that Carrier gets his probabilities for Jesus; namely, ex rectum. I mean, let’s be serious. How does one find the probability of parthenogenesis? The best we can say is that the probably is either 0 or 1; that is, either it’s totally impossible or it’s possible, because if it’s determined to be possible (via observation or experimentation or whatnot) then it becomes plausible, and once it become plausible then it becomes probable. And that’s why trying to assign probablities to miracles is a fool’s errand. Once you assign it a probability above zero, you’ve automatically made it “possible,” and if it’s “possible” then it’s not a “miracle”. That’s what logicians call a category error.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      Thanks — that’s a lucid explanation of the problem of his use of Bayes statistics.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  November 8, 2016

      In the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, what is the probability that Australian Stephen Bradbury would win the 1000m speed skating? As close to zero as you can get. No Australian had ever won any event at the winter Olympics before, and Bradbury’s best times were much slower than most of the other competitors. Now what’s the probability that he did win the Gold medal? Well considering we have video footage of it and plenty of news reports, I’d say pretty close to 100%. By all means use bayes statistics to predict the future, but please use evidence to predict the past.

  5. Avatar
    benholman  November 6, 2016

    “In the Mythicist view….was later transformed into a human being by imaginative believers (not in reality).”

    Doesn’t the mythicist view argue that the celestial being Jesus *also* took on human flesh, only he did this in the firmament/outer space instead of on earth? So if the first Christians believed this, wouldn’t they still believe in a *historical* Jesus haha, only it was a historical angel who became a man in demon realms, not a man with an earthly ministry who was killed in Jerusalem?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      I’m not sure htere’s a single mythicist view of the matter. Maybe someone can correct me!

      • Avatar
        Tony  November 7, 2016

        The most evolved mythicist view is that Paul and Cephas (Peter) thought that the celestial Son of the Father (The Lord Jesus) travelled down through the heavens and in doing so gradually assumed human form (of the flesh). In the lowest level before the earth (the firmament), where Satan and his Demons reside, the Demons mistook him for human ands killed him. The Father resurrected the son after three days and we know the rest. So yes, according to Mythicists, the later Gospel narratives are fabricated adaptations of the original belief and there never was a Jesus who was killed in Jerusalem.

        The belief in multiple heavens was widespread with both Jews and Pagans. We still have the expression, “I’m in seventh heaven”, to express ultimate bliss.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 7, 2016

      Mythicists are atheists, so they don’t actually believe Jesus was an angel or spiritual being. They think Jesus started out as a spiritual being within Jewish folklore, similar in function to Satan, for example, only for the good. And then it was only later that this folkloric spiritual being was “euhemerized,” i.e. given a legendary career on earth as an incarnation of the divine. In other words, Mythicists think everything worked exactly backwards from how it probably happened. Instead of a real, normal flesh-and-blood man who, after his real physical death, was gradually, over time mythologized into a fictional spiritual being, the Mythicists think a fictional spiritual being was gradually, over time “euhemerized” into a fictional man. So, as you can see, they add an extra layer of mythology that, as you might expect, they have very little if any evidence for.

      • Avatar
        benholman  November 10, 2016

        I think you’re missing my point. Most (all?) mythicists are themselves atheists, sure. I’m not disputing that. The point is on *their thesis*, the first Christians still believed in a historical Jesus. Their historical Jesus however, was an angel/demi-god who took on human flesh, and was executed in the firmament somewhere. The mythicists themselves assume Jesus was fictional of course. But they’re not claiming Peter, Paul and pals thought he was fictional– the original christians would’ve thought he was historical; just not a prophet who lived in Galilee.

  6. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  November 6, 2016

    If I’ve previously asked, mea culpa.

    “Heretics” by Jonathan Wright (2011). If you are familiar with this book, your opinion, if any?
    (I read it shortly after it was published)

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  November 6, 2016

      Hmmm. Turns out I previously “suggested” this book, on 7-6-15. But didn’t ask for your opinion.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      I’m afraid I haven’t read it.

  7. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  November 6, 2016

    What is the history behind the Mythicist position? At what point in history did people begin to doubt the existence of the historical Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      First instances: French authors during the French Revolution. (I discuss briefly in Did Jesus Exist?)

  8. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  November 6, 2016

    Personally, I am more interested in knowing the information that your research yields than I am in whether or not it is difficult for you to debate with someone or not.

  9. Avatar
    Pattylt  November 6, 2016

    As someone who was never raised to believe in Jesus (raised Jewish) I have no agenda regarding the historicity of Jesus. What I am interested in is how religions develop. What social, political and spiritual situations causes the views of groups to come to believe that a new Truth has been revealed. What lack in the current beliefs aren’t answered by their surrounding faiths. What I find fascinating about the myth theory is that because of so little evidence of the earliest days of Christianity, we really have a black hole of knowledge. Besides so little surviving writings and the knowledge that probably more were suppressed by not copying, what evidence we do have is very skewed to the writings of the sect that “won”. So, when little puzzles of alternate views in the texts are found, they hint at views very different from what we are supposed to believe. Sometimes a mythical Jesus makes better sense of these puzzles and sometimes not. How I wish we would discover these alternate texts in some new excavation somewhere!
    I have an off topic question or perhaps another mailbag question: David Trobisch states that ALL NT manuscripts are traced back to a single edition from around 147ce. Quote: Robert Price puts it in his review, “Trobisch argues that the New Testament canon of 27 writings that we use today originated not in the fourth century as the result of a prolonged and anonymous process of debate and ossifying custom, but rather as the work of a single editor and publisher in the late second century.” That means the canon we know was chosen in the mid-second century, and not by any broad-based committee, but by a single person or local group, from a single sect. And not only did they choose what books would go in it (and thus what books wouldn’t go in it), they also chose which manuscripts would be canonized. That is, many manuscript traditions existed, with all kinds of variant readings, all with their own alterations, interpolations, errors, deletions, harmonizations, and everything else. The publisher of the “canonical” edition chose which manuscripts would be treated as authoritative, and thus ossified every error and distortion they contained. End quote. Evidence cited includes how the order of the books shows almost no variation and they have the same names, etc. Also fascinating is that all variant readings we have now are from this 147ce manuscript forward. We have nothing from an earlier or different manuscript tradition. I found this very interesting and wonder if you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      No, I’m afraid the Trobisch argument is flawed and highly problematic, based on some very strange arguments! I don’t know anyone who has been convinced by it. But it would take many many posts to explain the problems!

    • Avatar
      webattorney  November 7, 2016

      Common sense wise, I just do not believe a major religion would have survived had Jesus NOT really existed, just like Joseph Smith. I mean people can be narrow-minded and dumb sometimes but not this stupid to believe in a religion where the primary figure did not exist.

  10. Avatar
    Tony  November 6, 2016

    Dr Ehrman, I doubt if your version of the historical Jesus is any more acceptable to the two billion people in the world who call themselves Christian as compared to the Mythicist hypothesis.

    Ironically, according to the Mythicist model, current Christian beliefs are virtually identical to those of the earliest Jesus followers. Then, as now, the son of God is in heaven and is expected to clean house on earth in the future. Paul thought this was imminent and many Evangelicals pray for the same.

  11. Avatar
    benholman  November 6, 2016

    Since you’re on a “debunking mythicism” theme, any chance you’d write a post or two on why Carrier’s “outer space” thesis of the death/burial is implausible?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      I covered that in the debate. If we’re talking about what is probable, which is more likely, that a first century Jew like Paul who mentions someone who was crucified is referring to the kind of death that Romans were known to have inflicted on thousands of people deemed criminals, virtually every day and in public (a death widely known and talked about) or that he is referring to the crucifixion of a cosmic figure in outer space, a kind of figure never referred to any ancient text? In terms of probabilities, if an ancient person said “So and so was crucified,” what is his readers likely to think is being referred to?

      • Avatar
        Luke9733  November 16, 2016

        I know Carrier claims that “Ascension of Isaiah” presents the idea of Jesus being crucified by demons in the firmament and never having reached Earth. I don’t know much at all about “Ascension of Isaiah”, but I do know he *claims* it could be dated it to the late first century (he’s made a lot of claims I’ve found out later were bogus).
        What’s your opinion on this? Is this idea that “Ascension of Isaiah” could be used to show that some Christians think Jesus was crucified in the firmament and was never on Earth as crazy as I’m assuming it probably is?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 17, 2016

          I think the dating is completely implausible. I have a full discussion in my book Forgery and Counterforgery if you’d like to see it.

  12. Avatar
    dragonfly  November 6, 2016

    How many people in the first century even had a concept of “outer space”?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      Well, they did have a concept of life above the earth in the heavens, where the planets and stars are.

  13. Avatar
    Jason  November 6, 2016

    It’s interesting how the phrases “cosmic” and “outer space” crop up here-would first century people have had a concept of either of those words (outside the Greek idea of “order?”) As far as the mythicists wanting you to keep making appearances and debating them as a means of creating a shroud of legitimacy to their cult, I say as long as they keep putting money into the foundation, “whatevs” as the kids put it.

  14. Epicurus13
    Epicurus13  November 6, 2016

    Mic drop !

  15. Avatar
    Rogers  November 6, 2016

    But Mythicists do have a common social culture that they share and seem to enjoy emersing themselves in that. In some respects they’re kind of like people that really enjoy being a sci-fi fan of something like Star Wars, going to conventions, obsessing over the minutiae of subsidiary literature, etc.

    I suppose that it’s the evangilistic side of their movement (Mythicists) that is kind of the turn-off. Many of them would like to see their position become the mainstream view of history, of course. It is here that once again they seem to resemble elements of their religious polar opposites.

  16. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  November 6, 2016

    I would feel a loss if we found out Jesus was a myth. He lived his life believing he would be a part of bringing in a new world order. It didn’t happen the way he thought it would, but he did change the world. That’s rather amazing. He may not have walked on water, but I don’t think he was completely ordinary either.

  17. Avatar
    webattorney  November 6, 2016

    What you are basically saying is whether Christianity is built upon a real figure of Jesus or a mythical (not real) figure of Jesus, because the imaginary Jesus has had a huge impact on so many people, your endeavors would not be affected that much. Ok, I understand your perspective, but I wouldn’t feel too good dedicating my life to studying a cartoon figure of Superman or Batman who has impacted many people.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      Right. But then again Batman didn’t change teh course of all of Western Civilization and is not the focus of worship for two billion people today!

      • Avatar
        webattorney  November 7, 2016

        All I can say is that anyone who can convince 12 disciples and many others to follow him at all costs must be out of ordinary. I can’t even convince my wife to allow me to watch sports games instead of going to church to listen to “self-help” sermon for the week. Not that I do not think that these self-help sermons are not helpful to many people. I actually believe that believing in God’s moral rules could have a tremendous positive impact to a lot of people; the only problem is I have not been able to convince myself that Jesus was Son of God, died and resurrected. I am even beginning to think that living according to Christian principles — being kind to others — is a good thing even if the primary figure (Jesus) was not Son of God. Sometimes when I don’t feel like being kind, it might help me to be kind if I remind myself “Jesus would not have acted like I did.” I am sure there are many people going to church who feel like I do. Lol Heck, I figure contributing to church-related activities is not so bad as long as the church seems to be helping people and not forcing them to believe in Christianity.

      • Avatar
        Scott  November 10, 2016

        “Batman didn’t change teh course of all of Western Civilization and is not the focus of worship for two billion people today!”

        You obviously haven’t been to the movie premiers with a fourteen year old!

  18. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  November 7, 2016

    That kind of question is so very annoying in its assumption of superior knowledge, insight, and integrity, tinged with narcissism.

  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 7, 2016

    Bingo! Good answer.

  20. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 7, 2016

    You mention that many or most of the mythicists you have encountered are atheists, so wouldn’t it be more accurate to say their position is that the early Christians like Paul believed Christ was a cosmic figure who was crucified in outer space by demons (though the concept of outer space as we understand it didn’t really exist then) than to say that is what they believe about Christ? My personal encounters with mythicists leave me with the impression that what they would really like is a reason to say Christianity is not nearly so relevant historically or socially as most of us believe it is, that it’s some kind of copycat religion.

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