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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Did Jesus Exist? A Review of Bart Ehrman's New Book

  • He never wrote anything.
  • He never served in public office.
  • Except for brief comments by Josephus and Tacitus, there is nothing outside the New Testament and other Christian literature that even mentions him.
  • Paul seems only to care about him as a theological figure.
  • That goes for the gospels as well.
  • Many of the stories about him are either fantastic or appear to have antecedents in other literature.
  • The gospels do seem to read as stories in which Jesus is a character as opposed to biographies in which Jesus is a real person.
So...did Jesus exist, or was he from start to finish a product of creative imagination?

Wait a minute.  Do people really doubt the existence of Jesus?  

 

Apparently enough do to capture the interest of one the foremost scholars of early Christian literature, Dr. Bart Ehrman.  






 















He even has delayed plans on writing a book that he really cares about (how did Jesus become God)  to deal with this issue.   He writes:
Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being.  When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously.  Of course Jesus existed.  Everyone knows he existed.  Don't they?
But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder:  Why are so many people asking?  My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles--misquoted rather--as saying that Jesus never existed.  I decided to look into the matter.  I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.  p. 2
He goes on to say that none of this literature is produced by 
"scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world)."  p. 2
Who are these folks?  Dr. Ehrman writes:  
"The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be "mythicists"--that is, those who believe that Jesus is a myth."  p. 3
From Dr. Ehrman's point of view, Jesus most certainly existed.
Jesus did exist.  He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic.  But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him. p. 6
In addition to the argument that the "mythicists" are outside the academic beltway, Dr. Ehrman makes his case in three movements that constitute the three sections of his book.   

In the first section, chapters one through five, he presents the evidence for the historical Jesus.  Some of this evidence includes:
  • Non-Christian sources, Tacitus and Josephus mainly.
  • Seven surviving gospels "that are completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions.  These all attest to the existence of Jesus.  Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data--for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem." p. 92
  • Later Christian sources: Papias, Ignatius of Antioch, 1 Clement, Acts (Jesus tradition and speeches), non-Pauline epistles, and Paul:  "Paul does indeed show that he knew Jesus existed....Paul mentions that Jesus was born; that he was a Jew, a direct descendant of King David; that he had brothers, one of them named James; that he had a ministry to Jews; that he had twelve disciples;that he was a teacher; that he anticipated his own death; that he had the Last Supper on the night he was handed over; that he was killed at the instigation of Jews in Judea; and that he died by crucifixion.  He also refers on several occasions to Jesus's teachings."  pp. 129-130
  • Suffering messiah.  "The single greatest obstacle Christians had when trying to convert Jews was precisely their claim that Jesus had been executed.  They would not have made that part up.  They had to deal with it and devise a special, previously unheard of theology to account for it." p. 173
In section two, chapters six and seven, he presents and rejects the views of various "mythicists".  These first four claims he calls "irrelevant":
  • The Gospels are Highly Problematic as Historical Sources.  Dr. Ehrman's response:  "...the evidence of the historical Jesus does not in the least depend exclusively on whether this, that, or the other Gospel story is historically accurate.  It is based on other considerations, which I set out in the earlier chapters, including the witness of Paul and the speeches of Acts, which long predate the Gospels."  p. 190
  • Nazareth did not exist.  Dr. Ehrman's response: "The historicity of Jesus does not depend on whether Nazareth existed.  In fact, it is not even related to the question.  The existence (or rather, nonexistence) of Nazareth is another mythicist irrelevancy."   p. 197
  • Gospels are paraphrases of Old Testament.  Dr. Ehrman's response:  "It is one thing to say that a story has been shaped in light of an account in the Hebrew Bible.  It is another thing to say that the event never happened at all or, even more, that the person about whom the story is told never existed."  p. 206
  • The Nonhistorical "Jesus" is Based on Stories About Pagan Divine Men.  Dr. Ehrman's response:  "There certainly are similarities between what pagans were saying about their divine men and what Christians were saying about Jesus....But the parallels are not as close and as precise as most mythicists claim.  Nowhere near as close.  True, some similarities are significant.  But that is not relevant to the question of whether there really was a Jewish teacher Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate....When Christians told stories about Jesus, they shaped the stories in light of stories they already knew." p. 215
He then addresses some "Mythicist Inventions" such as that Jesus was invented as a dying and rising god, that we was invented as a personification of Jewish Wisdom, that he was an unknown Jew that lived 100 years before Paul, and others. Dr. Ehrman finds none of these claims persuasive.   For instance in regards to Jesus as an invention of the dying/rising god, Dr. Ehrman writes, "The earliest Christians did not think Jesus was God."  p. 230   

In section three, chapters 8 and 9, he provides a sketch of his version of the historical Jesus.   This is a great section in which he describes the historical method, discusses the historical situation including Jewish Apocalypticism, and agrees for the most part with Albert Schweitzer:
"As Jesus fads come and go, as new Jesuses come to be invented and then pass away, as newer Jesuses come to take the place of the old, the real, historical Jesus continues to exist, back there in the past, the apocalyptic prophet who expected that a cataclysmic break would occur within his generation when God would destroy the forces of evil, bring in his kingdom, and install Jesus himself on the throne.  This is the historical Jesus.  And he is obviously far too historical for modern tastes.  That is why so many Christians today try to reform him."  p. 336
Dr. Ehrman's book deserves to be read.  He also provides a helpful bibliography of both mythicist literature and historical Jesus (and related topics) literature.   Dr. Erhman believes that he has provided a rock solid case.   It could very well be that Dr. Ehrman is right.

I find his apocalyptic Jesus really depressing.   That Jesus is hard to preach.  I am not sure if we have to have Jesus resemble Harold Camping to be a real guy.   We might be skeptical of a Jesus we admire, but we might also be skeptical of a Jesus we despise.  It may be equally hard to accept that Jesus is an onion.  Peel off each layer of fiction until you get to...nothing?  Give this country preacher a break!  I have to encourage the folks, you know?     

I do think this book will open this debate wider, not settle it.  All I mean by saying that is that movements that are outside the academy grow when they get a response from someone "inside the beltway" like Dr. Ehrman.   The mythicist movement is certainly uneven.   Much of it as Dr. Ehrman points out is amateurish.  But there are credible academics (Carrier, Price, Thompson and others) whose arguments may get better, more refined, and more accepted over time.   More may join them.  

I have one quibble with this book.  I do not think it is fair to call those who question the historicity of Jesus conspiracy theorists as the dust jacket states.  Now and then Dr. Ehrman's tone is a bit harsh:
It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure.  Again, this is not a piece of evidence, but if nothing else, it should give one pause.  In the field of biology, evolution may be "just" a theory subscribed to, for good reason, by every real scientist in every established university in the Western world.  p. 5
Evolution gets stronger every day.   Evidence for the historical Jesus?  Hardly on par.   Again, Dr. Ehrman could be exactly right.  What can I know?  I am not a scholar.  That truth leads me to this observation:  Dr. John Dominic Crossan also thinks Jesus is an historical person.   He devotes a few pages to the historical question of Jesus near the end of his new book, The Power of Parable:  How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.   

But the Jesuses these two scholars (Dr. Ehrman and Dr. Crossan) come up with seem to be two different guys.   Both Drs. Crossan and Ehrman have all the credentials and they both have access to evidence and they possess the tools and the skills to evaluate that evidence that I will never have.   But these experts disagree on some pretty significant things.  For example, are the apocalyptic "son of man" sayings from the historical Jesus or are they fictional?   When the experts disagree about what is historical about the historical Jesus, amateurs like me are easily confused.   It shouldn't be a surprise that we might make the next step (whether it is logical or not) and say to ourselves:
"If this one thinks this part is fiction and that one thinks that part is fiction, then maybe both are partly right, and it is all fiction." 
I am not there.  I am just saying that I understand how people can get there.   As I see it, there is a great deal of uncertainty in this work.   

There is a personal issue at stake.  Jesus to me is more than an historical person (or an interesting fiction).   If I am going to spend time with him, I am going to find a way to make him matter.   In the end maybe we all shape Jesus, even if unconsciously, to an image that we need, whether good, bad, or non-existent?   If each of the gospel writers, and Paul, and others reformed him, why not continue that good work?  

Thanks to Dr. Ehrman for bringing this scholarship to the public.  The cost of doing so is that we amateurs might take it where scholars never intended.

This review is a stop on the TLC Book Tour
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