I believe Ehrman has laid out a strong case for the historicity of Jesus which will be difficult to rebut. Maybe because I also believe that Jesus was a historical figure, although not a god, is why I accepted his thesis. It will be interesting to read the rebuttal which I see is now available on Amazon.
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The charges thrown at Ehrman in recent years from Christian conservatives - that he is a "sensationalist", a "misleading" popularizer, who "over-interprets" texts and is motivated by a "hatred of religion" - now, in his latest book, he hurls further down the food chain. It is not he but the mythicists who deserve these tags. In Ehrman's eyes the "colourful ensemble" of mythicists merge seamlessly with conspiracy theorists, holocaust deniers and internet junkies in a "global cottage industry" of dangerous pseudo-scholarship (it was a mythicist, don't you know, that influenced Lenin - that's how dangerous is mythicism).
Ehrman, peerless scholar of New Testament texts, has dragged himself away from more favoured concerns to draw a line in the sand on the question of Jesus. No, he is NOT a mythicist himself, the direction towards which all his books pointed and as many of his fans were beginning to think. "No, no - Jesus most certainly existed" - a mantra Ehrman repeats endlessly - and was, (Christians please note), "the most important figure in the history of Western civilisation" - a statement scarcely true if, as Ehrman argues, the "man" was a parochial and deluded doom merchant, hostile to the family and fond of prostitutes and drink who was summarily executed after a two-minute trial before Pilate. In this book the professor from North Carolina provides cold comfort for any of his Christian fans and his arrogant dismissal of the entire corpus of mythicist scholarship will cost him supporters elsewhere.
The positive side to all this is that Bart - an accredited scholar, as they say - has been compelled to acknowledge that the very existence of Jesus is "one of the most pressing questions in the history of religion" and deserving of investigation.Read more ›
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475 of 585 people found the following review helpful
The incredible shrinking argumentApril 6 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
(Review for MIT's The Tech) - Back in November 2009, I reviewed a book by Earl Doherty, Jesus: Neither God nor Man, which discusses at length his theory about the origins of early Christianity without invoking a historical Jesus. After calling Doherty's theory marginally superior to the predominant view, the atheist philosopher Richard Carrier stated in his review of Doherty's work that "the tables have turned." A refutation to Doherty's theory, Carrier said, would require developing a single, coherent theory in favor of Jesus' historicity that can explain all the evidence at least as well as Doherty's. With funding from both atheists and believers, Carrier himself has taken on the question formally, and his work will soon be published in two volumes.
But he's not the only one who's been busy after the publication of Doherty's work. Bart D. Ehrman, a highly respected New Testament scholar, has taken on the challenge of defending the mainstream view on the historical Jesus from the seditious attacks from "mythicists," new and old. In his new book, Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman sets out to provide that single, coherent theory in favor of Jesus' historicity. Which he does, with less than spectacular results.
Ehrman opens his argument by claiming that the question of Jesus' historicity is all but settled from the start, since to his knowledge no serious scholar -- now or in the past -- has ever doubted the existence of the historical Jesus. By serious scholar, Ehrman means one holding a PhD (exit Doherty) and currently tenured in the field of New Testament studies (exit Carrier). The only bona fide exception Ehrman allows seems to be Robert Price (The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, 2003). Ehrman seems to have no problem with the possibility that holding a counter-mainstream view may affect a scholar's chances for obtaining tenure in the first place.
After calling the idea that Jesus did not exist "a modern myth" made up in the 18th century and with no ancient precedents, Ehrman provides an overview of the fauna of mythicism proponents, from the downright quack to the more scholarly. The quack varieties are ridiculed and quickly brushed aside in a few pages; the more scholarly versions are acknowledged somewhat more seriously, yet outlined only in wide brushstrokes, as preparation for a refutation that seemingly never quite delivers.
Confident of his position, Ehrman lists the evidence we do not have for a historical Jesus: "There is no hard, physical evidence for Jesus ... including no archaeological evidence of any kind" (did you hear that, James Tabor?), nor "any writings from Jesus" (not surprising, says Ehrman, since Jesus probably could not write), and no mentions of Jesus from any "Greek or Roman author from the first century." Ehrman has no problem with this lack of non-Christian references, since the historical Jesus he has in mind should have been invisible to these groups. Trying to "press the issue further," Ehrman makes what may be an unnecessary blunder: he likens the absence of evidence for Jesus with that for Pontius Pilate, a claim that Carrier has already called an "amateur mistake" in light of the extant evidence for Pilate.
Ehrman's defence of the historical Jesus boils down to two arguments. The first is that many "independent witnesses" provide support for the teachings and deeds of a historical Jesus. Unfortunately, what Ehrman calls witnesses are not really witnesses, but at best oral traditions -- different enough to be considered independent, yet similar enough to be understood as referring to the same man -- that served as foundation for the Gospel and other writers several decades later. The strength of this argument lies on the inference that the existence of a physical Jesus could explain why diverse groups of people held such beliefs near the end of the first century. Its weakness is that it explains little that is not explained equally well by Doherty without a historical Jesus.
Ehrman's second argument is based on Paul's claim to have met with Peter and James, whom Ehrman describes as Jesus' closest disciple and biological brother, respectively. Since this meeting happened, Ehrman reasons, it is impossible that a physical Jesus never existed, given that people who do not exist do not have brothers and disciples. But how do we know that the meeting happened? Because Paul says so. The argument is so weak as to be cute. "What I am writing to you, I tell you before God, I am not lying!" said Paul. "When Paul swears he is not lying, I generally believe him," replies Ehrman. Never mind that doubts have been cast upon Paul's account, on the light that such a meeting would bolster his own credentials as apostle of the Christ he never met.
As a self-proclaimed "agnostic with atheist leanings," who nevertheless regards Jesus as "the most important person in the history of the West" (move aside, Aristotle), Ehrman affirms his interest in defending the existence of Jesus stems only from his interest in history. Yet he seems reluctant to extend a similar license to other nonbelievers, as he issues a summary admonition: "Humanists, agnostics, atheists, mythicists, and anyone else who does not advocate belief in Jesus would be better served to stress that the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of modern Christianity than to insist -- wrongly and counterproductively -- that Jesus never existed." Putting aside the gross generalization that all varieties of hellbound minds -- like yours truly -- are out to get Jesus in order to advance some sort of hidden agenda, I agree with Ehrman in what he says next: "Jesus did exist. He simply was not the person that most believers today think he was."
The historical Jesus that emerges from Ehrman's mainstream defense is a purely human, miracle-free Jewish male with a very common name living in first century Palestine, who after an unremarkable youth went on to teach things that many others had taught before; one more apocalyptic preacher, among many others at the time, whose predictions were proven wrong within a generation; one more "troublemaker" crucified like countless others by the Romans after a drive-thru trial during the Pilate administration. Being such, the Jesus that can be reconstructed from history with any certainty is, for all practical purposes, as irrelevant as the mythical one, effectively shrinking the debate on his existence from a grandiose quest with theological implications to an inconsequential and endless exercise in academic hair-splitting.
227 of 288 people found the following review helpful
Another great contribution.March 20 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
Bart Ehrman would really rather be writing on a different topic, he tells us. But the popularity of Jesus "mythicism" among the agnostics and humanists with whom he generally makes common cause motivated him to speak up. Mythicism is the hypothesis of some that the New Testament material is strictly fictional with no core historical character around which (perhaps) legendary elements accrued. Jesus, in other words, was made up out of whole cloth, and any effort to find an historical Jesus is doomed because no such actual figure ever existed. As Ehrman shows, the "case" for this position, such as it is, generally consists of the negative (demonstrating that much of the New Testament was written anonymously or was even forged; pointing out historical absurdities; identifying contradictions in and between the texts; stating that little to no extra-biblical references to Jesus can be found until several decades after his death, etc.) and the positive case, which consists primarily of comparing elements of the Gospels and Apostolic traditions to elements from pagan mystery religions and other potential sources (e.g., a dying and rising savior god-man such as Osiris).
Ehrman largely agrees with the key points of the negative case. There really are things in the New Testament that are fatal to a modern-day conservative fundamentalist understanding of the New Testament as inerrant, for example, including a host of contradictions (Ehrman invites us to compare, for example, the nativity narratives and the crucifixion timelines and casts of characters for fairly obvious examples). But none of that, Ehrman says, acts to gainsay the existence of an actual historical person at the hearts of the stories, and the evidence FOR such a figure is overwhelming.
There are few things more vexing than someone speaking for "your side" getting things so terribly, embarrassingly wrong. Ehrman does secularism and reason alike a great service by powerfully presenting the case for an historical Jesus (who nevertheless looks little like the evangelical version). I happen to like and respect Robert Price, one of the mythicists Ehrman goes after....but Ehrman is almost surely correct that while Price raises intelligent issues, his denial of an historical Jesus goes too far. I had not been aware that another favorite scholar of mine, Richard Carrier, was counted among the mythicists, but expect to learn more about his position when reading his new book, Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.
Ehrman notes that he was nervous about how his non-theist fans might receive a book defending the historicity of Jesus while casting doubt on the speculations of the more obviously atheistic mythicist authors and scholars. I do not think he needs to worry. Most of us just want to follow the evidence wherever it leads...and as he says, an historical Jesus says next to nothing about how likely a god might be.
I wish to add that throughout the book his conclusions seem to differ little from those of Christopher Hitchens, who also wondered why it would be necessary to make up ridiculous and unbelievable story elements for a purely fictional creation. I wish all atheist thinkers and speakers could bring that level of reason to discourses on Jesus. Augustine once admonished Christians not to talk nonsense about physical reality because it could bring scripture into ill repute when heard by non-believers who understand more about, say, stars and seasons than they do. I think the same could be said to some atheists: unless you actually are a Bible scholar--you're not a Bible scholar. There is more to that moniker than you probably understand, and Christians might laugh your simplistic notions to scorn if you talk the kind of nonsense about their holy book as they do about biology, cosmology, and philosophy.
As with virtually everything Ehrman has written, "Exist" is highly recommended. I would like to think it will go a distance toward ending the practice of some atheist luminaries of adding "if there even was one" when mentioning Jesus. That is no more academically respectable than calling evolution "only a theory" in the ignorant, pejorative sense is.
192 of 245 people found the following review helpful
Did Jesus Exist?March 28 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
I am not pretending to be an expert on this subject, but it does interest me and I do know something about it. I have an undergraduate degree in history and Latin and I read a a little Greek. I have also read numerous books on the subject of the historical Jesus. That includes both sides of the issue. After reading some of these reviews, I am astounded and how little the naysayers understand about historical method, not to mention how historians determine what really happened in the past. Jesus lived 2000 years ago, he was a peasant who was of little interest to anyone of importance at the time.He did not become famous until after his death. Yet people are so surprised that he did not write anything or that the historians of the time did not take notice of him. Come on, he was one of many apocalyptic teacher of the time and it is not surprising that he did not attract attention outside of the immediate area. In short, he was not the type of person that writers of the time cared about.Add to this that he and his followers were likely illiterate or semi literate and it is to be expected that they didn't write anything.
Dr. Ehrman explains this very well. He gives the sources which mention Jesus and there are many. He discusses the Josephus passages and gives both sides. He discussed the errors, misinterpretations and outright falsehoods of the mythicists and quite correctly says almost no one with degrees in relevant subjects doubts the existence of an historical Jesus. Of course experts can be wrong, but when it comes down to it would you rather listen to an historian who specializes in the ancient world on this subject or a geologist, a German professor or a self published author who can't even get basic myths straight? When virtually all of the experts agree, the issue is pretty much decided. This is the case in other fields. Why is history an exception?
Another point that I have noticed is that some posters seem to think that if Jesus existed, it is necessary to believe he was divine or whatever. That is ridiculous. Dr. Ehrman is an agnostic. So are many other scholars in the field and they do not believe in a divine Jesus. I would challenge the naysayers to actually read this book and then check out Dr. Ehrman's claims. Also check out the claims of the mythicists. Look up the so called dying and risng gods such as Osiris and Mithras and you will see that many of the claims made about them are false. Yes, I have actually taken mythology classes. I kind of doubt Achyra S has. If she did, she wasn't paying much attention. In short, check things out.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
A secularized Plymouth Brother?April 15 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
"Did Jesus Exist?" is a book by Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and out-spoken agnostic-atheist. Despite his private ideological leanings, Ehrman does believe that Jesus was a real historical person, and that the NT contains reliable traditions about him.
To simplify somewhat, Ehrman's Jesus is the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew, but even more Jewish and without the miracles. Thus, Ehrman actually has a rather "conservative" view of Jesus. To psycho-analyze an author you've never met is a risky business, but personally I suspect that Ehrman (a former evangelical Christian) still feels some kind of psychological connection to the Bible in general and the Gospels in particular. But then, the position he is arguing against could be connected to an equally strong psychological aversion to the very same scriptures!
As the title makes obvious, Ehrman's book is a polemic against a group of authors he dubs "mythicists", who claim that Jesus never existed. While most Bible scholars hold that the Jesus of the Gospels is at least "freely based on a true story", the mythicists claim that everything is made up. The Gospels are purely mythological, and hence similar in character to pagan legends about Hercules, Dionysius, Osiris, etc. A popularized version of mythicism can be found in "The Jesus Mysteries" by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. More scholarly versions are argued by Robert Price, Richard Carrier and others. (Incidentally, Sweden has spawned a native mythicist in the persona of Alvar Ellegård. So yes, this debate feels strangely familiar!)
Personally, I consider Ehrman's book to be a very mixed bag. He constantly attacks the mythicists by using "the argument from authority", claiming that virtually all scholars in the relevant fields reject their positions. Maybe they do, but so what? The majority can be wrong. Personally, I'm convinced that Jesus really did exist, but it's not completely irrational to take the opposite position. From a naturalist viewpoint, the Gospels make little sense, often contradict each other, all non-Biblical sources for Jesus are rather late, etc. Nor is it difficult to pinpoint ideological reasons for why most scholars affirm Jesus' existence. Many NT scholars are Christian, and even non-Christian scholars want to claim Jesus as their own. Would Western scholars care if somebody denied the existence of Siddharta Gautama or Muhammad? Probably not. But deny Jesus, and you got it coming! Feminists want him to be a feminist, Jews want him to be a Pharisee, the Jesus Seminar want him to be a party animal, and more traditional Christians want him to be...well, the Son of God. Nobody wants him to be non-existent. If you risk being crucified by both the establishment and the opposition, the more prudent course is silence. And if you just can't shut up, your only outlet would be some small atheist press. So what's all this stuff about "every scholar in the field agrees"?
In the end, even Ehrman is forced to actually argue his case when confronted with Price, Carrier and some other scholarly (!) mythicists. He does a good job debunking the claim that Paul never mentions a historical Jesus, the idea that Matthew and Luke are solely based on Mark, or the claim that no authentic traditions about Jesus exist in the Gospels or Acts. A particularly strong argument is the observation that the New Testament contains allusions to earlier creeds, which the NT writers no longer believed in. Thus, there are "adoptionist" passages, suggesting that Jesus didn't become the Son of God until his baptism in the Jordan. There are also statements suggesting that Jesus didn't become the Son of God until the actual resurrection. Both are compatible with Jesus being a real person, a real person who was gradually exalted to divine status after his death. Of course, the mythicists could always retort that it could be an evolving myth, but if the point of the Jesus myth is to create a Jewish mystery religion, it would be more logical to cast Jesus as a god from the start.
Ehrman also points out that the New Testament contains information which could be considered embarrassing by later generations of Christians: Jesus had siblings, his family rejected him, he was baptized by John, some of his prophecies don't seem to ad up, etc. Thus, this information could very well be true. Why else make it up? Another point pressed by the author is the title "king of the Jews", never used by Christians but pinned on Jesus by his accusers (including Pilate). This suggests that the accusations against Jesus were a real historical event. Why make up a title nobody is using?
Ehrman is also somewhat frustrated by what he calls "the scholarship of convenience", which he believes Price and other mythicists indulge in ever so often. If some passage from Paul or the Gospels seems to indicate a real historical Jesus, just declare the passage to be a later interpolation and move ever on, victoriously! Thus, Price believes that Paul's famous list of Jesus' resurrection appearances is a later forgery. But what is the evidence for such a claim? Ehrman doesn't see any. By contrast, there's good evidence that Paul's attack on women preachers *is* a later interpolation - the passage isn't part of the main text in an early manuscript.
On other points, I believe Ehrman's arguments are much weaker. Thus, he writes that nobody denied that Jesus was a real historical character until the 18th century. But what about the Gnostics? Was the ethereal, mutable, docetic Christ of the Gnostics a "real historical character" in the same sense as the Jesus of the Church Fathers? What about the heavily allegorical interpretations of Origen, or the secret gospels of Clement of Alexandria, a Gnosticizing Church Father? The Gnostics didn't have to "deny the historicity of Jesus" in the modern mythicist sense, if their inner circle was interpreting the scriptures as a myth anyway! It's also curious that Ehrman brushes aside the Wisdom of Solomon, with is eerie, passion-like scenario about the Son of God being condemned to a shameful death. He writes that the Wisdom of Solomon never made it into the Jewish canon, but so what? Neither did the Book of Enoch, yet everyone agrees *that* scripture influenced early Christianity. Besides, the Wisdom of Solomon was included in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the "Old Testament". Since there were Greek-speaking Jews and pagans even in Palestine, I don't think the LXX would have been unknown in Jerusalem.
I agree that Jesus was crucified - if Jesus really said or did what's in the Gospels, it's amazing he didn't end up dead much sooner - but the cross is also an ancient pagan symbol. Plato talks about the Son of God being suspended cross-wise in the universe, a statement later appropriated by Justin Martyr to prove that Christianity was "perfected Platonism". And while crucifixion was indeed a shameful death, there were exceptions to the rule. Even Christian theologian Martin Hengel admits that the Roman hero Marcus Atilius Regulus was sometimes said to have been crucified by the vile and treacherous Carthaginians. Yet, he was revered as a kind of pagan saint! Ehrman also sidesteps the claim of the early Christian apologists themselves, that the mystery religions were in some ways similar to the rites of Christianity.
My (provisional) take on Jesus is that he really did exist, but that either his own message or the message of the earliest Church might have had some "Hellenistic", "Gnostic" or "pagan" traits. Somehow, I feel a bit left out of this debate! Incidentally, even if we assume that early Christianity was a strictly Jewish affair, Judaism itself had traits which any disinterested observer would suspect may have been pagan borrowings (or even pagan survivals, if we assume that Judaism was once polytheist). Why was Wisdom personified as a woman? Goddesses were popular in the ancient world. What about the angels acting as mediators between God and man? The angels are surely an outside borrowing, perhaps from Persia. And what about the Wisdom of Solomon? Middle Platonism, anyone?
I recommend "Did Jesus Exist?" to those interested in the thorny subject at hand. Both Christians and mythicists will be stung by Bart Ehrman, the secularized Plymouth Brother of Chapel Hill. Nothing wrong with that. We all need our boats rocked from time to time. However, I don't think this book "rocks" hard enough, so I'll just give it three stars. ;-)
38 of 49 people found the following review helpful
When you look up "projection" in the dictionary, you will find this book.May 9 2012
Peter S. Bradley
- Published on Amazon.com
Bart Ehrman has two goals in "Did Jesus Exist?" The first is responding to and rebutting, the claim of "mythicists" that a person named Jesus, who was the basis of the Christian movement, never existed, i.e., that "Jesus" was a fictional character invented out of bits and pieces of the world's folklore. The second goal is to respond to the mythicist argument while still maintaining his prior positions that the contemporary view of Jesus held by "very conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christians" (p. 72) aka "fundamentalist Christians" (p. 74) aka "well funded conservative Christians" (p. 142)aka "fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals (p. 231) - I made a game of noting the various times Ehrman "poisoned the well" and "strawmanned" his opponents by depicting them as ideologically blinded compared to himself and his allies, who are, of course, "critical scholars," by labeling them with some variant of "conservative" - has no basis in the history of the "real" Jesus.
Ehrman's self-referential style invites us to ponder the psychology of his two goals. Ehrman is constantly posing the various issues involved in "Did Jesus Exist?" as if they mattered insofar as they reflected either on Ehrman's status as a professional scholar or as a bit of autobiographical detail. For example, we learn that he was induced to take up the issue of "mythicism" because he received the Religious Liberty Award from the American Humanists Association. (p. 332) These were nice people, according to Ehrman, but many of them believed in something that, as a scholar, he knew to be errant nonsense, namely that Christianity was based root and branch on the myth of Jesus' existence. (p. 334.) Ehrman thinks the mythicist strategy of denying the existence of Jesus is a bad tactic because it is contradicted by scholarship , it consists of an exercise in theology, and not history, and it is unnecessary. ( p. 338.)It is unnecessary because, according to Ehrman, the historical Jesus isn't the Jesus of conservative Evangelicals. The historical Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, who was wrong "about a lot of things." (p. 336.) Ehrman is sympathetic to the social goals of the humanists and of mythers in opposing the "religious right," but Ehrman believes that ideology shouldn't trump history, which is convenient for Ehrman because he concludes that that the Jesus of history supports his ideology, or, at least, doe snot support the ideology of the "religious right." (p. 338 - 339.)
So, how does Ehrman do on his twin tasks?
With respect to the first task - that of rebutting the "mythicists" - he does quite well, but then that is akin to shooting fish in the proverbial barrel because, as Ehrman points out repeatedly, virtually no scholar of any repute has ever denied the historical existence of Jesus. In fact, according to Ehrman, the idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion that was made up in the 18th Century. (p. 96.) Rather, the real action has always been how much of the story of Jesus is either historical or a mythical/fantastic overlay.
Ehrman rolls up his sleeves and approaches his first task with the methodology of his profession. He marshals the documentary evidence for the existence of Jesus and then marshals the "historiography" of the mythicist position.
Concerning the former, Ehrman reviews the non-Christian sources - Pliny, Tacitus, Josephus, etc. - and finds them inconclusive. They attest to the existence of a Christian movement, but obviously do not provide a first hand account of Jesus. Ehrman then moves into the Christian sources, including the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Surprisingly for those acquainted with Ehrman's popular activities - and this is undoubtedly where mythicists feel themselves most betrayed by Ehrman - Ehrman supports the accuracy of the Christian sources as to the existence of Jesus. He finds in the gospels multiple independent "oral traditions" that tend to establish a confidence in the historicity of various events. Thus, in the gospel of Matthew, Ehrman finds the following independent sources: a source from the gospel of Mark, sources in the hypothetical Q text and sources unique to Matthew. Other gospels likewise have a provenance tracing to independent sources.
Ehrman also does something which he normally criticizes as being "unhistorical": he harmonizes discordant texts so as to find a trustworthy historical "heart". Thus, with respect to the death of Judas, he discerns from the irreconcilable accounts of Judas' death in Matthew and Acts that there is a historical tradition that "a field in Jerusalem was connected in some way with money Judas was paid to betray Jesus." (p. 108.)
This is a remarkable approach for Ehrman in that, in his debates and prior popular printed works, his rhetorical position has been that any discrepancy between two accounts renders both accounts worthless as evidence. One of his typical examples is that because allegedly Matthew says Jesus' died at "3 pm" and John says "noon" demonstrates that the Gospels are unreliable. This approach has always seemed to be too cute to accept, and it seems that Ehrman only used this approach as a "debating point," unless he has some buried double standard he's relying on.
Another remarkable thing - for Ehrman that is - that Ehrman does is to argue that we don't need the original texts of the New Testament in order to know what those texts said. He also argues that we don't have to worry about scribal errors. Yet, Ehrman is famous for harping on the "400,000 scribal errors" in the New Testament, and in his debates, Ehrman has gone so far as to deny that the concept of "original texts" has any meaning. But in this book, where he wants to prove a historical proposition, rather than befuddle other people who want to prove a historical proposition, Ehrman has no problem in making the common-sense assumption that not all texts can be wrong and that we can discern the "original intent" from copies. *Sheesh* That's a relief to know.
Ultimately, Ehrman concludes that the most important facts supporting the existence of Jesus were that Paul, Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, actually existed, and that Paul confirms in writing that he knew Peter and James, and Peter and James knew Jesus, and Paul met with Peter and James within two or three years after the crucifixion, then we have solid evidence for believing that Jesus' existence, or at least as solid evidence as we have for believing anything that we didn't personally witness.
Ehrman next marshals the accounts of "mythicists" and invariably concludes that the mythicists are just making things too complicated by positing a conspiracy by people with a graduate student level knowledge of comparative religion. Mythicism also goes wrong by uncritically accepting bogus parallel "saviors" or go too far in pushing similarities between Jesus and the alleged "pagan saviors." Ehrman unqualifiedly points out that the mainstay of internet atheists and mythicists, Kersey Graves' 1875 "The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors" is bogus:
>>>>"Possibly the most striking thing about all of these amazing parallels to the Christian claims about Jesus is the equally amazing fact that Graves provides not a single piece of documentation for any of them. They are all asserted, on his own authority." (p. 211.)
Similarly, Ehrman categorically maintains that there is no evidence of any "dying and rising gods" being worshipped in antiquity. (p. 226 - 227.) There were gods who died but don't return, and there were gods that disappear without dying and then return, but none of them die and return. (p. 229.) Ehrman writes:
>>>"The majority of scholars agree with the views of Smith and Smith: there is no unambiguous evidence that any pagans prior to Christianity believed in dying and rising gods, let alone that it was a widespread view held by lots of pagans in lots of times and places." (p. 230.)
At the end of the day, it appears that there is simply no "there there" to the mythicist claim. There is historical evidence in favor of Jesus' existence and mythicists rely on, well, myths about myths.
But what about Ehrman's other project, that of making sure that there is a lot of daylight between himself and those whom he calls "fundamentalists Christians"?
Well, that's where I had my real problems with "Did Jesus Exist?" Let's take a few examples.
First, it seems that pushing mythical parallels without authority is a bad thing. But you know who does that? Yup, Bart Ehrman.
Bart Ehrman routinely does that with his story about Apollonius of Tyana. (p. 208.) Ehrman has been telling the Apollonius of Tyana story to generations of college students and has used it repeatedly in debates as a way of getting people to get past what he considers to be the mythical embellishments of the New Testament. The problem is that he does what he criticizes the mythers of doing. Put aside the fact that the Apollonius story has no historical provenance whatsoever, Ehrman's recounting of the story makes the same kind of false parallels he properly disdains when mythicists use the same tactic. For example, Ehrman claims that "after he left this world, he returned to meet his followers in order to convince them that he was not really dead but lived on in a heavenly realm." One problem with Ehrman's summary of Philostratus is that it wasn't plural "followers," it was a single follower who saw Apollonius in a dream, and maybe when he awoke. No one else present with that follower could see Apollonius. Also, Apollonius says nothing about living on in a "heavenly realm."
Ehrman doesn't share that, but if you have a mania for questioning things in books written by experts, you can - with the benefit of the internet - look it up for yourself, something that wasn't possible when Ehrman first started teaching.
Is the precedent set by Ehrman in making tendentious parallels perhaps a reason for the fact that he found so many mythicists among the Humanists?
Another example is Ehrman's insistence that idea of Jesus' divinity was a later development and that the first Christians considered Jesus to have been merely human in his earthly existence, although Jesus may have been "adopted" as the Son of God by God at the time of his resurrection. There are certainly texts that gesture at adoptionism, but the problem for Ehrman is found in Philippians 2:6 - 12, which the majority of scholars have identified as an early creedal/liturgical hymn - going back to within a few years of the crucifixion - which confesses that Jesus pre-existed his earthly life. After reviewing this text through a very wooden, fundamentalist filter - attempting to impose a literal construction on the clause by asking how Christ could be "exalted" any more than he was if he started as God? - and pointings out that a lot of ink has been spilled over Phil. 2, Ehrman then concludes:
>>>> "If this interpretation is correct, then the beginning of the passage is describing Christ not as a pre-existing divine being but as very much as a human being. But even if it is not correct, the passage begins by describing Christ, not as God, but as a being in the form of God. Another option is that this is describing Christ as a preexistent angelic being." (p. 237.)
First, like mythicists, Ehrman is doing "theology," not "history." From a historical standpoint, the question is not what is theologically possible, but what a person in position of Paul or any First Century Christian would probably think.
There are by the way, theological answers to these questions; Ehrman is not the first person to raise these issues. He just doesn't bother sharing what those answers are.
And that incidentally is another complaint about Ehrman. He disingenuously responds to criticisms that he is simply telling readers what "people already knew" by asking why he should be criticized for sharing with the masses what scholars know. (p. 70.) But that isn't the burden of the complaint. The burden of the complaint is that there is a response to what he is sharing, and Ehrman never bothers to share the fact that there is a response because the questions he raises are two-thousand years old! (Ehrman compounds his disingenuity by responding to students' complaint that he doesn't present the "other side" by asking which "other side" - the Feminist other side? The Marxist other side? (p. 297 - 298) - as if he doesn't know what his students - who he admits are "conservative evangelicals" in bible-belt North Carolina - have in mind. *Sheesh* Talk about passive-aggressive.)
Second, Ehrman is being disingenuous and misleading his lay readers into thinking that his speculation has as much weight as the position held by most scholars, "conservative" or "critical." I've read a lot of scholarship on early Christian theology and I have never heard anyone claim that Phil. 2:6 did not involve a pre-existence theology. Philip Carey lecturing for the Teaching Company - just like Ehrman - says that Phil. 2: 6 - 12 - the kenosis hymn - involves Christ's pre-existence, as does Richard Bauckham. Even John Dominic Crossan refers to Phil. 2: 6 - 12 as a "pre-existence myth." I'm no scholar so I decided to read one of Ehrman's scant sources for this section of the book. I purchased and read Ralph P. Martin's A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation & in the Setting of Early Christian Worship and true to everything else I've read there is no indication in that "large book" (p. 233) to anything other than a virtual consensus that Phil. 2: 6 - 12 is talking about Christ's pre-existence as a heavenly being prior to his earthly life.
This leads to my next point, which is that Ehrman's strategy for dealing with the theological/non-historical claims, such as Jesus' miracles and resurrection, is by "bracketing" them for a later book. (p. 231.) An attentive reader might wonder why if there are multiple sources attesting to Jesus' life, we can't look at those multiple sources to reach some judgment on miracles, resurrection or other points. Erhman's answer is "wait for my next book."
But if I were a mythicist, I think that I would find the "bracketing strategy" to be an evasion. Mythicists say that there is no good evidence for Jesus' existence because the sources that Ehrman relies on are untrustworthy and that they are untrustworthy because of the material that he is "bracketing out" of the discussion.
As unsympathetic as I am with the mythicist position, that's not an entirely unfair argument. If I found out that all of my witnesses were describing fantastic events because they were high on LSD at the same time when some event happened - and that they all knew each other - I'm not sure I'd go to court on their testimony.
So, how dependable are the gospels in Ehrman's estimation? It seems not very because he is at bottom as much of a mythicist as the mythicists. Ehrman traces a slender thread from us to Paul to the events of the life of Jesus, but for the most part he seems to buy into the notion that there was a tremendous disconnect between the Christians of 33 AD and 90 AD, as if they never talked to each other except to embellish their stories. It seems that when we get to the "far out" stuff, all of that harmonization to get to the "heart" of the story goes out the window.
In reading Ehrman over the years, I've often been put in mind of how he remains a "fundamentalist." The way that he construes the biblical text is literal in the extreme - see the point about when Jesus "died." His understanding of the ecclesiology of the early Christians owes far more to the evangelical framework of his youth, than to a liturgically-oriented structure that a Catholic, Jew or Orthodox might be used to.
Likewise, there is an anti-Catholicism that seems latent in his writings, a hang-over from his evangelical days perhaps, which seems to color his assumptions. This particularly struck me in his discussion of the issue of James," the Brother of Jesus." Ehrman dismisses the "Roman Catholic" view of the perpetual virginity of Mary as follows:
>>>"But in the Roman Catholic view, Jesus' brothers were not related to Jesus by blood because they were not the children of his mother, Mary. The reasons that the Catholic Church claimed this, however, were not historical or based on a close examination of the New Testament texts. Instead the reasoning involved a peculiar doctrine that had developed in the Catholic Church dating all the way back to the fourth Christian century...In no small measure this doctrine is rooted in the view that sexual relations necessarily involved sinful activities. " (p. 146 - 147.)
You can't get much closer to a very traditional Protestant bit of "Catholic-baiting" than that. I make this charge for the following reasons.
First, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary didn't develop in the Fourth Century; it is a feature of the Proto-Evangelium of James, which is dated to the Second Century.
Second, it is not a "Catholic" doctrine. It is a doctrine shared by the various Orthodox Churches with the Catholic Church.
Third, it is anomalous that Ehrman refers to "Catholic" in this passage. His usual tactic is to refer to Christian orthodox doctrines from this early period as "proto-orthodox" as a way of suggesting that the teachings of orthodox Christianity were just one of many options available for developing Christianity.
Fourth, the proposition that James was not the physical brother of Jesus, but may have been a cousin is based on paying attention very closely to the New Testament text. Compare Mark 6:2 - 4 with Mark 15:40. For example, isn't it odd that Jude identifies himself as the brother of James but not of Jesus? See Jude 1:1. How Ehrman - who presumably has read Jerome's "Against Helvidius," which clearly pays close attention to scripture - could make this claim is either a result of forgetfulness or bad faith.
Fifth, the high status given to virginity is found in the New Testament. See Matthew 19:12; Rev. 14:4. It seems strange that a bible scholar wouldn't point out that the concern with virginity didn't just spring up in the Fourth Century.
On the whole, Ehrman's characterizations concerning the "Catholic" position on the perpetual virginity of Mary are intellectually disturbing. Ehrman ought to have a more informed position inasmuch as he has taught the sub-Apostolic Father, including the Proto-Evangelium of James, for the Teaching Company. It's hard to tell with Ehrman whether his claim is just "Catholic-baiting." He may be so used to teaching to "conservative evangelicals" for whom associating anything with Catholicism makes it by definition weird and suspect that his default mode for persuasion is to make such an association with positions he wants to undermine. Alternatively, it may be as I've said, his fundamentalist assumptions still working their ways through his thought.
This can be seen in the strange offhand comment that Ehrman makes in discounting the relevance of the Book of Wisdom because it "did not become part of the Jewish scriptures." (P. 246.) But this is a red-herring; Wisdom was part of the Septuagint which Greek-speaking Jews like Paul used, and Wisdom and the deuterocanonical books weren't excluded from the Jewish canon until at least a century after the crucifixion. Again, it seems that Ehrman makes this point because, as a former Protestant, his default mode is that "real" scripture is the Jewish canon because that was the canon he grew up with.
This is a difficult book for me to rate. I think the bottom line is that I don't really trust Ehrman as being in good faith. Where I have checked him out, I find that he often forces his facts, claims and assertions to fit his argument. I don't know how trustworthy his statements are, even when I find them congenial to my position. Should I check out his claim that most scholars deny the reality of dying and rising gods in antiquity? Based I on the questionable support he provides for areas I do know something about I would probably be negligent if I took his word alone for some unverified claim.
I know, however, that after spending $10 and four or five hours reading his book - even one without an index and scant footnotes - I really shouldn't have to fact check him.
On the other hand, fact checking him did open up new avenues of knowledge and analysis, which is good.
I think this is the bottom line - what I see in this book is the psychology of "projection." Throughout this book, Ehrman does things that he has criticized other people for doing. He harmonizes, relies on texts that are copies of copies of copies, and pushes parallels too far. Bart pontificates that the criteria of dissimilarity is to be used in a positive way (p. 293) until he decides that some story he doesn't like, such as the Last Supper, can't pass the criteria (p. 328), and then the story is deemed a fabrication. In a paragraph brimming with irony, he writes - probably with complete justification - about mythicist Robert Price:
>>>"The overarching problem is this: Price, as we say earlier, was correct in stressing that historians deal not with certainties but only with probabilities. But he seems to have jettisoned this view when actually making historical judgments."
This from a guy who can write that "the divinity of Christ is a relative latecomer to the scene of Christian theological reflections." (p. 238.) To a layperson, it sounds like Ehrman has "jettisoned" his view that "historians deal not with certainties but only with probabilities" when it comes to "making historical judgments."
So, although I agree with Ehrman that mythicists are nuisance, based on the criteria that Ehrman lays out for others, I have to conclude that this book does not pass those criteria.