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.