Ever since I wrote my book Did Jesus Exist (where I argue that, well, yeah–whatever else you say about him, however much legend you think is in the Gospels, there certainly was a historical figure, Jesus), I have had people ask me if I have an axe to grind on this one or if it would be personally painful or professional ruinous to admit that the “mythicists” — those who claim that Jesus is a *complete* myth (never existed) were right.

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?

Did Jesus Exist, Historically?

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.

I’m not saying that all Christians think Jesus’ resurrection is susceptible of historical proof.  There are obviously plenty of Christians, especially those who know anything about how history works, who are quite happy to say that No, the resurrection cannot be proved.  It is a matter of faith.   What I am saying is that they only ones who think that the resurrection can be proved are  people who already believe in it.  And they believed in it long before they started thinking about it historically.  When they did start thinking about it historically – lo and behold, history proved what they already believed!!

In my view this is not history.  It is theology.   These people are trying to use history to support their theological beliefs.  And that’s not an appropriate use of history.

So too, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the mythicists.   They – to a person, so far as I know – are atheists (or strong agnostics) who think Christianity is wrongheaded.  They thought that well before they started looking into the historical Jesus.  And when they did

look into the historical Jesus (will wonders never cease??), they found that Jesus was a myth, so that the religion they rejected and thought was dangerous turned out to be nothing but a fairy tale.  Again, their historical views have not been arrived at by a disinterested application of historical criteria to the material.

Making Jesus in Our Own Image

So too in another but related realm.  Albert Schweitzer long ago argued that every generation of scholars portrays Jesus in their own image.  The same is true of individual scholars, who tell you what Jesus was really like and — mirabile dictu — it turns out that Jesus looks a lot like them!   And so, for example, a believer like Ben Witherington who, I suppose from his early days, has believed in Jesus as the miracle-working son of God, portrays Jesus precisely as a miracle-working son of God; a believer like John Dominic Crossan who is deeply invested in issues of justice and who works against oppression (e.g., of woman, minorities, people in developing countries) portrays Jesus as a first-century Jew who was principally interested in working for justice and against oppression.   Some feminist New Testament scholars see in Jesus a proto-feminist; some Marxist New Testament scholars see in Jesus a proto-Marxist.  And so on and on, world without end.

I myself am not a believer in Jesus, and I must say, my portrayal of Jesus does not coincide with the way I would like him to be, in major and fundamental respects.  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.  I think Jesus was completely wrong about this, and this is not my view of the world.  It is not about to end with a cataclysmic break in history to be followed by a utopian existence here on earth.

When I started my serious study of the New Testament, on the other hand, I had a view of  Jesus very much like the one most conservative evangelicals have: Jesus was a miracle-working son of God who came to earth principally to die for sins.   My historical studies eventually changed my views of Jesus.  I think every historian should be willing to change his views based on his study of the evidence.  Scholars who do not change their views – but come out of a study with the same views they brought into it – are highly suspect.

So, What does the Evidence Say?

And so, one might ask, what about the existence of Jesus?  Didn’t I start my study of the historical Jesus thinking he existed, and didn’t I come out of my study with the same view, so isn’t that view suspect?manuscript

I think that is an entirely appropriate and fair question.  My response is this: I looked at all the evidence I could, as hard as I could.  I examined every surviving source that refers to Jesus in all the relevant ancient languages.  I read what scores and scores of scholars had to say about Jesus.  And on that basis I decided whether I was right or not.  I decided that the vast majority of scholars (all but one or two, out of many thousands) are absolutely right.  Jesus did exist.

Would I be devastated to learn I was wrong?  Absolutely NOT!!!   Quite the contrary – throughout my scholarly career I have changed my views on lots of lots of issues, if the evidence seemed to demand it (I know scholars who have never changed their views on much of anything.  That should give one pause….).   And I simply adapt my personal views according to my historical findings.  Since I am an agnostic who does not believe in Jesus, one could easily argue that a mythicist position would be more attractive to me personally.  I too could then argue, as a scholar, that Jesus did not exist and that people should seriously consider leaving the Christian faith as I myself did.

So why don’t I argue that, if it would be more palatable with my personal view of the world?  Because I’m a historian, and I think evidence really matters, and it matters that we get history right, so far as we can.   If we rewrite history according to our own agendas and in light of our own deeply vested interests, how are we any better than other ideologues  — for example those that made such a mess of the twentieth century, in various parts of the world, with their rewriting of history?  We simply cannot allow ourselves to rewrite history to suit our purposes.

But if based on our historical investigations we come to learn something we did not know before, or come to see something we did not believe before, or find out that our previous views of something were wrong – we need to change what we think!   This applies to believers and non-believers both.  No one should be afraid to go where they think the “truth” (however you define it) is leading them.

Would I be traumatized if the mythicists were right after all?  Not in the least.  I would probably feel energized.   But I can’t allow that expected outcome determine what I find when I engage in the difficult task of coming to understand what happened in the past.

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2022-10-21T12:42:15-04:00October 8th, 2022|Historical Jesus, Mythicism, Reader’s Questions|

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  1. jscheller October 8, 2022 at 7:22 am

    Albert Schweitzer was right. I’m a pastor but I’m also an information security analyst, and I think that Jesus was too. He taught in parables – that’s encryption!

  2. Gregory Hartzler-Miller October 8, 2022 at 8:55 am

    Possible Spam alert:

    Please note the glitch above: “And when they did [freepostcta]look into the historical Jesus (will wonders never cease??), they found that Jesus was a myth…”

    PS. Bart, I appreciate the words you intended!

  3. giselebendor October 8, 2022 at 9:02 am


    How do we reconcile ” the Kingdom of God is within you” ( as in Luke 17:20-21) – a profound notion shared with other faiths and with contemporary psychology- and Jesus’ negation, in Luke, of an outside phenomenon , ergo,a supernatural arrival of the Kingdom?

    Secondly, as far as I can see, you see Jesus as a multifaceted persona, way beyond the apocalyptic aspects, and some of those other aspects inform your work.

    For example, you, like Crossan, devoutly support charitable work, as per Jesus’ legacy. Moreover, you embark on a book about Christian Love, as inspired by Jesus.
    You are also attached to Jesus’ many ethical views and commands.

    What I am trying to say is that, as per your assessment above, all these areas,beyond the apocalyptic Kingdom, can also be said to be a reflection of you, personally, considering that much of what Jesus is alleged to have said and which support his far reaching legacy is only found in the NT, and cannot be historically proven.

    It’s almost as if you, too, have been a believer prior to your profound study of the naked historicity, and you remained a believer of such spiritual realities afterwards. Am I mistaken?

    • BDEhrman October 9, 2022 at 6:01 pm

      1. I don’t think it can be reconciled. The saying is only in Luke, and one of Luke’s distinctive features is that he has begun to move away from an apocalyptic understanding of the coming of the kingdom to the idea that the kingdom was beginning to be manifest in Jesus’ own life and ministry, and then in the work of the church. So the view in that passage is characteristic of Luke but not of Jesus; 2. I myself would be much more comfortable with the historical teachings of Jesus if he *did* propound a less apocalyptic message!
      But no, it’s not because I subscribe to any spiritual realities. I don’t think they exist.
      I’m a complete materialist when it comes to physics/metaphyics. disabledupes{e3cd89aa5348edfd93503e698509075c}disabledupes

      • giselebendor October 9, 2022 at 11:45 pm

        Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply! I guess ” spiritual” , as a metaphysical concept, was not the right word choice. The term is easy for me to include as a state of mind because I come from music. There are other dimensions in music perhaps. No materialistic views there! Unless your orchestra is going bankrupt 😊. What I meant is what I entered in the third paragraph: charity, love, ethics. I just assumed these were an important part of your outlook, as we can ” know by its fruits”. That’s what I meant by assuming these inform your work no less than the
        ( very convincing) Apocalyptic Prophet definition. Charity , for example, is not to be taken for granted. Israelis are not charitable. I am talking about billionaires. I have such in my own family. They don’t believe in it. It is the Diaspora Jews who are very charitable, and this is because they lived with Christians for almost two millennia.

        • BDEhrman October 11, 2022 at 7:12 pm

          OK, thanks. If you have billionaires in your family, please direct them to the blog. 🙂

          • giselebendor October 11, 2022 at 8:45 pm

            😀 I would if I thought they were charitable. That was my point: modern Israelis are not generous or charitable. Charity is a matter of belief. One believes one must engage in it. They don’t believe that.
            So, for the time being, it’s going to be just sweet me. 😇

          • BDEhrman October 14, 2022 at 6:16 pm

            OK, well if one of them lends you a billion, let me know.

            Seriously, I’ve gotten very interested in philanthropy and charity. Why do some peole feel compelled to give and others not at all? As you know there are lots of obvious simple answers but I suspect there are more convincing complicated ones….

          • giselebendor October 14, 2022 at 11:07 pm
        • AngeloB October 16, 2022 at 5:08 pm

          I love the Guardian!

          • z8000783 October 20, 2022 at 2:55 am

            Even though everyone who doesn’t read it is ‘Far Right’?

      • BetaGater October 13, 2022 at 5:56 am

        Well, some translations have Jesus saying “in the midst” of you. Do you know what the best translation would be?

        • BDEhrman October 14, 2022 at 6:31 pm

          Yes, Jesus is saying that the kingdom is in their presence in his own ministry and the lives of those who follow his teachings. (He’s not saying that it is in their hearts)

  4. z8000783 October 8, 2022 at 9:23 am

    That is one of your best . . .

  5. LoreM October 8, 2022 at 11:04 am

    Dear Dr. Ehrman – just want to thank you for your personal integrity. When you write “Because I’m a historian…”, there is weight and conviction in that assertion. Thank you.

    • PDF October 10, 2022 at 1:38 pm

      A simple test of how open-minded we are is how many significant issues (religious or secular) we have changed our minds about in, say, the last five or ten years.

  6. dankoh October 8, 2022 at 11:43 am

    I agree that Jesus did exist. For one thing, if he had been made up, opponents of the Jesus Movement would have jumped on that. For another, if they had invented Jesus, they should have done a better job of it.

    But on one level, it’s not that important, at least from history’s POV. Jesus never left any writings; all we have is what people made of him and what they wrote about him. That’s what we’re interested in.

    • BDEhrman October 9, 2022 at 6:03 pm

      Yes, the thesis of my book Jesus Before the Gospels is that the historical Jesus did not make history, but the remembered Jesus did.

      • bengrubb October 10, 2022 at 12:23 am

        “….the historical Jesus did not make history, but the remembered Jesus did.”

        this is an amazing statement to me. I think you basically say that Jesus would not recognize Paul’s theology. You got into the mind of Paul and his hang up with anyone hung on a tree is cursed yet Paul knew Jesus was blessed…so Jesus must have been cursed for someone besides himself. That was an amazing insight into Paul’s thinking—is there a book you develop this idea in Paul’s mind?

        As I read the bible Jesus become more and more human—he tells Peter, James and John in the garden “… the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak..” he’s the one sweating blood the other guys are just sleepy–this was autobiographical.

        I’ve asked some friend’s ..” ..is there a change coming to Christianity that is on the order of magnitude that Paul experienced?..” man exciting times!

  7. MikeV2020 October 8, 2022 at 1:06 pm

    I have been forced by the overwhelming amount of evidence to change my view of Jesus to be the same as yours. That basically destroys the theological foundation of Christianity and the billions invested in that religion. Membership and fellowship in a Christian church is no longer possible. I find myself in a minority, often of one, without anyone with which to discuss my non belief in Jesus.

    • BDEhrman October 9, 2022 at 6:04 pm

      I should say that my view of Jesus was the dominant one among my professors at Princeton Theological Seminary, and most of my best Christian friends ever since. This view doesn’t need to destroy faith, but if held firmly it will almost always *change* it.

  8. veritas October 8, 2022 at 9:08 pm

    Enjoyed your post! Came away with a couple of things, 1) that you are open to change if the truth(evidence) leads you there and 2) “My historical studies eventually changed my views of Jesus. I think every historian should be willing to change his views based on his study of the evidence. Scholars who do not change their views – but come out of a study with the same views they brought into it – are highly suspect.” A couple of questions, 1) When do you know it is truth ? I ask sincerely not disrespectful. The truth lead you to belief and history to disbelief. I have come to learn that some “big” questions will never be answered. And 2) Paula Fredriksen is a respected Historian, whom you know well and pretty much believes,like yourself, that Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker. And yet she converted from Catholic to Judaism, I believe, in her personal life. In reference to your statement above, would this make her highly suspect as a scholar ? Maybe because of all the suffering and pain that still exists today, a no God belief seems more appealing/realistic,including me.

    • BDEhrman October 9, 2022 at 6:05 pm

      No, I don’t think her personal religious beliefs and practices have had any bearing on her scholarship, not remotely from what I can tell.

    • dankoh October 9, 2022 at 6:22 pm

      If I can just add to what Bart said: I’ve read a lot of her work, and have corresponded with her personally (she has been very helpful to me). There is no way to tell from her writing what her personal views are. She writes purely and strictly on what she finds as a scholar. While I don’t always agree with her, she is one of the best and I rely on her objectivity.

      • Seeker1952 October 12, 2022 at 11:13 am

        It’s very interesting to hear that Paula Fredriksen may have converted from Catholicism to Judaism. For some time I’ve thought that a person who wants to be a follower of the historical Jesus should be Jewish—like the historical Jesus was.

        Even if Jesus’s falsified apocalypticism makes it impossible to fully subscribe to beliefs, many/most/all of them grew out of Judaism. I doubt that there are any honored Jewish prophets who were not mistaken in major ways. It’s all part of the Jewish tradition.

  9. MichaelHenry October 8, 2022 at 9:33 pm

    Regarding the “Testimonium Flavianum” dissertation, is the student arguing the entire segment interpolated by Eusebius Or just the parts that scholars believe are interpolated?

    • BDEhrman October 9, 2022 at 6:06 pm

      The whole shooting match!

  10. Seeker1952 October 10, 2022 at 11:22 am

    In trying to understand why I accept evolution and not creationism, it’s not because I have personally, rationally, and independently determined that evolution is (much) more likely to be true. The reasons are more like the following: (1) I trust the findings of science because it makes a huge number of technological marvels possible that my own eyes can see; (2) I don’t believe Creationists are even “trying” to look at the issue objectively; (3) Knowledge of evolution is based on an absolutely enormous (probably millions) number of pieces of research. It’s much easier to be believe those results are true than what is said in one small portion of an ancient book. (4) Though progress is often uneven and ambiguous, newer findings are more likely to be true because they build on earlier findings; (5) Many fantastic things are recorded in the Bible that no longer seem to happen so the Bible per se is not trustworthy; (6) For people with advanced educations, scientific findings are a given with a very heavy burden of proof on other opinions.

    Does this seem to you like a rational and very common approach?

  11. Ruby October 10, 2022 at 11:27 am

    The farther we get from the events that transpired 2000 years ago… I wonder how much the “truth” will be less relevant and “belief and faith” will supersede what happened and just make up “truth” to fit the faith and beliefs. Faith and beliefs sustain people beyond what truth and historical fact can do. This quote from Bertrand Russell hangs on my wall. It helps me understand a lot of things.

    “The first thing to realize, if you wish to become a philosopher, is that most people go through life with a whole world of beliefs that have no sort of rational justification, and that one man’s world of beliefs is apt to be incompatible with another man’s, so that they cannot both be right. People’s opinions are mainly designed to make them feel comfortable; truth, for most people is a secondary consideration.“ (Bertrand Russell : “How to become a Philosopher” 1942)

  12. johnpmtodd October 11, 2022 at 1:28 am

    In a historical context, is it excessive or misplaced to wonder or entertain the idea that John the Baptist was more like the “original” Jesus and that Jesus’ teachings were really reflections of what he learned from him? Not as so according to the gospels, of course, but I mean in trying to surmise the past.

    • BDEhrman October 11, 2022 at 7:26 pm

      I’d say that Jesus certaily *agreed* with John’s ideas fairly thoroughly when he started out — which is why he joined the movement. It’s hard to say, though, whether he *got* the ideas from John, since many of them were floating around in a variety of cirles. And once he broke with John, for whatever reason, he certainly may have gone then his own way in many respects.

  13. Seeker1952 October 11, 2022 at 10:55 am

    Maybe you can help me sort out some of the following. You say that, as an example, only committed Christians think that history can prove the resurrection. Are you implying that’s a flaw in their reasoning? I think it makes their views very suspect. But I also worry that, technically, it’s a logical fallacy to criticize their views on that basis. Rationally, shouldn’t it be a question of what the evidence and their reasoning about it proves—regardless of their prior committed beliefs and suspected bias?

    I feel that sort of doubt about my automatic skeptical reaction to many conservative Christian arguments that seem way out there and a result of bias on their part. But am I also biased? It’s very difficult-for me-to look at these issues objectively.

    Then couple that with the penchant of conservative Christians to, seemingly, always be able to come up with an additional argument when you point out the flaws in one they have just made. They seem so slippery that it suggests bad faith.

    Do I need to rely more on showing the fallacies in their arguments without feeling an obligation to prove that something else is true, ie, agnosticism?

    • BDEhrman October 14, 2022 at 6:10 pm

      I’m not saying it’s a logical fallacy; but it is still a fact worth noting. It would be like a geologist pointing out that only fundamentalist Christians argue that the world is 6000 years old. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it does make you want to look to see whether they are actually considering the scientific evidence. If historical evidence and scientific evidence are truly probative for all concerned, then individuals from a wide range of personal religious and philosophical traditions and persepctives should be able to acknowledge it. If one group does not that should lead us to look into why that might be. Let me emphasize, *lots* of Christians do not think you can prove teh resurrection, so it is not an issue of agnosticism vs. faith.

      • Seeker1952 October 15, 2022 at 9:54 am

        To tighten up my question a little, I often have an automatic reaction that I don’t need to just find serious flaws in the arguments of others (like fundamentalist and evangelical Christians) but also be able to refute their criticisms of my arguments. Otherwise I can’t be confident that my arguments are sound.

        But am I taking on too heavy a burden of proof? Why shouldn’t I be satisfied that they are mistaken if I can simply find serious flaws in their arguments, eg, about the resurrection? Why do I have to have a stronger explanation of where the resurrection story comes from? My in ability to come up with a better explanation doesn’t mean their’s is right

        But I still feel like I’m missing something, that there’s a valid intermediate position between only showing why they’re wrong and both why I’m right.

        • BDEhrman October 16, 2022 at 12:31 pm

          Yes you can certainly find flaws in an argument to show it can’t be right without necessarily knowing what *is* right — in any field. I may well know that the square root of 225 cannot be 3, without knowing what it really is.

  14. notforcing October 11, 2022 at 2:56 pm

    Would you agree though that the Jesus of the New Testament that performed miracles and was resurrected has mythical elements?

    • BDEhrman October 11, 2022 at 7:27 pm

      Absolutely. I don’t think the miracles and the resurrection are historical. But he himself certainly was.

  15. KeitaTakahata October 11, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    I see. So, if the evidence lead you to believe that Jesus never existed, you would agree with that, but since it clearly doesn’t, you stand on the fact that Jesus almost certainly existed (and did/said certain things which can be found using historical research criteria)?

  16. JCB October 14, 2022 at 5:22 am

    Off-topic question. Eratosthenes (276 – 194 BCE), who lived in North Africa and was appointed chief librarian of the library of Alexandria, is famous for calculating the circumference of the earth to a high degree of accuracy. I read that “Most Greek scholars by the time of Aristotle (384-322 BCE) agreed that the Earth was a sphere, but none knew how big it was.”

    Given the Greek influence over Palestine following the conquests of Alexander the Great, why is it that the Biblical texts show no hint of a spherical earth, e.g., the Devil taking Jesus to the top of a mountain to show him all the kingdoms of the earth?

    Or am I mistaken and the Bible does teach a spherical earth?

    • BDEhrman October 14, 2022 at 6:46 pm

      My sense is that most Jews at the time held to a biblical view of a three-storied universe (heaven above; us here; realm of the dead below). Ancient scholars did know the world was round. What the average person thought — I’m afraid I don’t know. Maybe someone else on the blog can help us out on that.

  17. bsteig October 14, 2022 at 5:48 pm

    Bart wrote (paraphrased): “If based on historical investigations we come to learn something we did not know before, or come to see something we did not believe before, or find out that our previous views of something were wrong – we need to change what we think!”

    I have done this, but in terms of 60 years of history coupled with the research by Bart and others into events that occurred 2,000 years ago. What I conclude is that Jesus was a God-inspired human who told followers (and us) how God wants us to live. He was also very wrong regarding an immanent apocalypse and resurrection of monotheists who were previously alive, and the “good people” would live forever on earth in their spiritual bodies. He was figuratively a “son of God.”

    Based on research into NDEs in various places and into reincarnation by DOPS at UVA, I believe people don’t die, only their physical bodies die. Our spiritual-selves move to a different realm of the universe, are judged, and either remain there (if “good”) or return to earth to try again (if “otherwise”– died-early or were evil). However, what happens to our spiritual-selves long-term is unknown.

    Bill Steigelmann

  18. metzjl October 16, 2022 at 5:20 pm

    Dear Dr. Ehrman:

    I read the G.A. Wells book on the historicity of Jesus years ago. Could you recommend a book by a reputable scholar who holds mythicist views? Thanks for your help on this.

    Jim Metz

    • BDEhrman October 19, 2022 at 4:15 pm

      The one everyone talks about in mythicist circles is Richard Carrier’s.

  19. curtiswolf69 October 16, 2022 at 10:53 pm

    Just curious. What would you expect to see in the historical record if Jesus did not exist?

    • BDEhrman October 19, 2022 at 4:18 pm

      I’d would expect to see the Western world to have remained pagan for teh past 2000 years.

  20. metzjl October 21, 2022 at 2:15 pm

    Dear Dr. Ehrman:

    Richard Carrier is a well-educated intellectual idiot. Can you recommend a mythicist who is not an intellectual fraud? Too harsh? Well, some folks do not deserve academic respect–even if they graduated from Columbia.


    Jim Metz

    • BDEhrman October 22, 2022 at 6:40 pm

      I guess it depends on how you define “intellectual,” “idiot,” and “fraud.”

  21. metzjl November 26, 2022 at 9:10 pm

    Dear Dr. Ehrman:

    You once referred to the determined band of mythicists as “terriers.” Just so. As one of this band, Dr. Carrier is more about generating attention to himself and promoting views that agitate, but do not enlighten. This behavior is clearly anti-intellectual and fraudulent. Maybe not an “‘idiot”, but certainly a nincompoop. Public intellectuals who behave in this manner deserve to be called out.

    Jim Metz

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