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. Mythicism, warns Ehrman darkly, is "seeping into the popular consciousness at an alarming rate."
Ehrman's case for a historical Jesus could have been presented much more succinctly than in a 368-page book. In fact, that case has been presented much more succinctly - in endless publications from Christian apologists. Ehrman, no longer the believer that he once was, rewrites that apologetics material, minus the supernatural elements. At its heart is the "chronological side-step" (in a debate I once had with Gary Habermas he actually performed the dance): Our extant sources (the canonical gospels) belong here (70s - 90s of the first century); the written sources on which they draw belong here (50s - 60s); the oral traditions which informed the earliest written sources belong here (30s AD!!!) Glory be, "first-hand evidence" from the time of Jesus himself!
Now here's a weak point (one of many) in Bart's secularised Jesus world. Having drilled down to the 30s AD, apologists argue that the resurrection is what transformed the frightened disciples into bold evangelists. But having discounted the miraculous as non-historical what can Bart say? Well this:
"But then something else happened. Some of them began to say that God had intervened and brought him back from the dead. The story caught on, and some (or all - we don't know) of his closest followers came to think that in fact he had been raised." (page 164).
"For some reason, however, the followers of Jesus (or at least some of them) came to think he had been raised from the dead." (page 233).
Did you get that? For "some (unknown) reason" they "just began to say" the guy had been resurrected and "the story caught on." So how dare mythicists suggest any contamination from polytheism! And Ehrman has the audacity to dismiss mythicists for weak and unconvincing arguments.
In fact, only a few pages earlier Ehrman has conceded:
"I think there is a good deal to be said for the idea that Christians did indeed shape their stories about Jesus in light of other figures who were similar to him. But I also think that this scarcely relevant to the question of whether or not he existed." (page 208).
So Christians could "shape" a story but not copy it? Really? Ehrman admits that "for thirty years" he has had to think about the hymn in Philippians ("an early, pre-Pauline source"), which just happens to describe Christ Jesus as a dying/rising god. Amazingly, to rescue himself, Ehrman abandons the "chronological side-step" at this point because it doesn't produce the right result:
"Even if it predates Paul it does not represent the earliest Christian understanding of Christ." (page 238).
And Ehrman has the gall to accuse mythicists of discounting material that doesn't fit their pet theories!
In a not dissimilar vein Ehrman rejects any fabrication based upon typologies drawn from Jewish scripture, such as the Elijah - Elisha cycle or the fable of Moses:
"The things that happen to Jesus in Matthew closely parallel the Old Testament traditions about Moses ... But the fact that Matthew shaped the story in this way has nothing to do with the question of whether or not Jesus existed." (page 199).
"The Gospels ... do indeed contain non-historical materials, many of which are based on traditions found in the Hebrew Bible ... But that has little bearing on the question whether or not Jesus actually existed." (page 207).
Quite so. Yet if the "historical Jesus" required so much "shaping" we are looking at a figure whose own life was so inconsequential that it becomes very curious indeed how or why anyone kept alive any memory of him at all and did so for decades. And perhaps an even more pertinent consideration: if a "real" Jesus influenced the story in any way at all, how can we be so certain that only one such figure had that sort of nebulous and very tangential influence? Mythicists have long argued the case for syncretism and several of the Jesuses found within the pages of Josephus seem to cast their shadow on the gospel Jesus. Ehrman has difficulty digesting this thought. Here's how he phrases a straw-man question:
"Where would the solitary source that "invented" Jesus be?" (page 82).
Solitary source? He obviously has difficulties with the whole notion of syncretism.
Having confessed on page two that in thirty years of study of the New Testament he had no idea that a complete literature of mythicism even existed, in his opening chapter he pronounces summary judgement on this two-hundred-year-old school of radical thought - he's obviously been reading up of it in the last few months! He returns to slice up the corpse later in the book. With little ado - and as a preamble to making his own case for a Jesus of history - Ehrman dismisses each and every proponent of the mythic Jesus, their every argument either wrong or simply irrelevant. He maligns several along the way (Acharya did not fabricate the priapic cockerel, said to mock St Peter. Whether it exists or not, it had a history long before Ms Murdock's time). But Ehrman knows all about forgery and fraud in the Christian story, he wrote a book about it. And mythicists were saying Christianity was built on falsehoods long before Ehrman turned that disclosure into a nice little earner.
Even in this book Ehrman strikes out several yarns beloved by make-believers. The triumphant entry into Jerusalem (a pastiche taken from Zechariah); Jesus's nighttime chat with Nicodemus (dependent on a Greek pun that doesn't work in Aramaic); the epistle of James "might not" support the historical Jesus. In short, "some stories were made up" (page 85), and again, "some of the stories were legends through and through with no historical core" (page 190).
But Ehrman is determined to make his point: even if it should transpire that everything Jesus did and everything that he said were fabrication and myth, that would not in itself prove that Jesus never existed. Logically true, but as Ehrman acknowledges, history is about probabilities. If wholesale fabrication were the case, what precisely would the entirely unknown minor entity, the "historical Jesus", have contributed? If the myth had no dependence on "the man" and "the man" gave nothing to the myth, is not the real irrelevance not the arguments for the mythic Jesus but the claims made for a "historical Jesus"? There is no doubt that there were thousands of Jesuses, named for the Jewish hero of the conquest of Canaan, Joshua; and since, with the gospels, we are in the realm of story-telling, the idea of a dead messiah works just as well as an actual but unknown dead messiah. Indeed, the latter resolves into the former.
Ehrman's own response is that the "historical Jesus" contributed a primary layer of belief, stories about a small time apocalyptic prophet who (secretly, to his close associates) claimed to be the messiah and king of the Jews, though not, in fact, the Son of God. These aspects pass the tests for historical probability that can be found on just about every apologetics website, tests for dissimilarity (what you might call inconvenient truths that force themselves into the record because they are so widely known), and multiple independent attestation (a pretty obvious and logical plus-point for any type of witness). And what are the sources that give the Ehrman and "all" his colleagues such confidence? Well, as it happens, they are nearly all hypothetical sources.
We have before us centuries of Christian fraud, accessible in any respectable history of the church - and Ehrman himself has mapped out the early period - but, says our author, at the very beginning we should assume honesty.
"Papias may pass on some legendary traditions about Jesus, but he is quite specific - and there is no reason to think he is telling a bald-faced lie." (page 101).
"There is no reason to suspect Luke is lying here." (page 79). Read more ›