Bart Ehman vs. Timothy Freke: Did Jesus Exist?

Thanks to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s new book “Did Jesus Exist”, the debate over the historical Jesus has reached mainstream. Today CNN posted an article about called The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth

Interestingly, the only “Mythicist” writers they quote from are Robert Price (author of the Price, author of “Deconstructing Jesus “Deconstructing Jesus” published in 2000) and Timothy Freke (co-author of “The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God?” published in 2001).

According to CNN, Ehrman “devoted an entire section of his book to critiquing Freke, the mythicist and author of “The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God?” who says there was an ancient Osiris-Dionysus figure who shares uncanny parallels to Jesus. He says Freke can’t offer any proof that an ancient Osiris figure was born on December 25, was crucified and rose again. He says Freke is citing 20th- and 19th-century writers who tossed out the same theories. Ehrman says that when you read ancient stories about mythological figures like Hercules and Osiris, “there’s nothing about them dying and rising again. He doesn’t know much about ancient history,” Ehrman says of Freke. “He’s not a scholar. All he knows is what he’s read in other conspiracy books.”

On the one hand, Freke and Price’s research have been major voices for the position that Jesus never existed, and it has taken about a decade to reach the point where a mainstream biblical scholar needs to write a book to refute their research. On the other hand, Ehrman is responding to research that’s over a decade old!

My own book, Jesus Potter Harry Christ, as well as many others, build on Freke and Price’s research and introduce so, so much more evidence. Was Freke citing 19th and 20th century authors? Yes. But those authors made solid points, wrote lucidly and intelligently, often read Greek and Latin fluently, and traveled all over the ancient world. (Contemporary Biblical Scholars reject them out of hand because they didn’t go by today’s research standards of citing references.) But the mythicist position, including the uncanny parallels between Jesus and a handful of other dying and resurrecting gods, can be reconstructed entirely with references to reliable, trustworthy, contemporary historians of antiquities and Greco-Roman religions, who aren’t trying to draw such parallels or be sensationalistic. Moreover, in almost EVERY case (Dionysus, Sarapis, Asclepius, Osiris) both Christians and pagans of the first and 2nd centuries already recognized and commented on these similarities. So the “mythicist” position is just picking up a debate that started at the very beginning of Christianity and has never successfully been resolved.

Resurrecting Pagan Saviors?

The heart of this issue is the Resurrection. According to Ehrman and other biblical scholars, no pagan gods resurrected. Oh, sure, they died and returned and continued to teach their followers. They were seen, and felt. But they didn’t physically, in the flesh and blood, actually return from the dead (unlike Jesus, whose followers believed that he did).

But the early Christians’ insistence on this physical Jesus was spotty at best! Perhaps the majority of early Christian communities DID NOT believe Jesus came back in the flesh, instead they saw him as a returned spirit or guiding principle. Conservative scholars make the ludicrous distinction that only the communities who believed in the physical resurrection were “real” Christians, and all those others were “Gnostic” or “Pagan” communities who had gone astray. However those other communities existed as early or earlier than any others, which can be clearly proven by the frantic writings of these “real” Christian communities. Of all of the communities who believed in Jesus Christ, they seemed to be the only ones that declared Jesus was historical rather than spiritual. Letters between these groups generally communicated the same point: beware of what everyone else is saying.

They had no help from their scriptures; Jesus promised a resurrection, but not of the old body, because the resurrected would be “like angels” (Matthew 22.23-33; Mark 12.18-27; Luke 20.27-40).

Even their founder Paul disagreed with them: It is the same too with the resurrection of the dead: what is sown is perishable, but what is raised is imperishable; what is sown is contemptible but what is raised is what is sown is weak, but what is raised is powerful; what is sown is a natural body, and what is raised is a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:43) What I am saying, brothers, is that mere human nature cannot inherit the kingdom of God: what is perishable cannot inherit what is imperishable. (1 Corinthians 15:50) Christians who affirmed the resurrection of the flesh recognized that they were diverging from Paul’s original message, and complained that this difference of doctrine was all-too-often pointed out to them. Instead of responding to the criticism, and recognizing that the heretics were closer aligned to Paul’s theology, they are merely “annoyed”: Among the other [truths] proclaimed by the apostle, there is also this one, “That flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God This is [the passage] which is adduced by all the heretics in support of their folly, with an attempt to annoy us, and to point out that the handiwork of God is not saved.

Dismissing Paul, these Christians wanted their bodies preserved until some future period when they could reclaim them. Justin Martyr succeeds in representing the opinion of the opposition, without answering any of the questions raised by them: They who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh; giving as their reason that it is impossible that what is corrupted and dissolved should be restored to the same as it had been. And besides the impossibility, they say that the salvation of the flesh is disadvantageous; and they abuse the flesh, adducing its infirmities, and declare that it is the cause of our sins, so that if the flesh, say they, rise again, our infirmities also rise with it. By these and such like arguments, they attempt to distract men from the faith. And there are some who maintain that even Jesus Himself appeared only as spiritual, and not in flesh, but presented merely the appearance of flesh: these persons seek to rob the flesh of the promise. (Justin Martyr, Fragments of “On Resurrection,” Chapter 2).

To what extent Jesus and his resurrection were physical, spiritual, divine, both or neither were a heated source of contention for the first 9 centuries of Christianity; so to claim that Jesus is different from other pagan saviors who died and came back because he really came back, in the flesh, is a poor argument.

And if Ehrman thinks that pagan gods didn’t die and come back to life, he doesn’t know much about ancient history. I get the feeling “All he knows is what he’s read in other conspiracy books.”

If Ehrman really wanted to educate himself about Christ myth theory, he would begin not with the decade-old research by authors like Price and Freke, which while good were meant to be popular and totalizing introductions, he would seek out the most salient and rewarding aspects of contemporary mythicist research. In particular, the point Christianity comes closest to Paganism is in the deliberately crafted cult of Sarapis – for which we have a great many precise details, records, and testimonies, and which was viewed almost interchangeably with Christianity when it arose.

In Egypt those who worship Sarapis are Christians and those who call themselves Christ’s bishops (‘overseers’) are addicted to Sarapis. Jewish rabbis, Samaritans and Christian priests in Egypt become astrologers and soothsayers. The visiting archbishop is obliged to worship Sarapis by some and by others Christ. (Witt 235 (Athan. Vit anton. 90: FRA 561, 24)

In the Egypt of the time of the emperor Hadrian those who called themselves bishops of Christ are recorded to have devoted their souls to Sarapis. The link between the two faiths was the gospel of salvation. (Witt 54, phlegon, Epist. Ap. Vopisc, (Saturnin.), 8: FRA 280, 15)

(read more about Sarapis and Jesus here)

The truth is that Freke and Price only scratched the surface of this topic and, while their individual research can be criticized, Christians (and the biblical-scholar-apologists who defend them) can’t begin to explain away the vast, rich and profound wealth of material and evidence that indicates Christianity was a Jewish-Pagan synthesis of a variety of spiritual traditions that had for centuries been merging together through the syncretic influences (both deliberate and accidental) of the Greek and Roman Empires.

To separate Christianity from the fascinating ancient religious beliefs that contributed to it directly is both intellectually dishonest and spiritually bankrupt. It can only be done by annexing all of the myth and symbolism of Jesus and reducing him to a nameless, faceless, failed Jewish rebel, who died tragically, but in the sort of death that was shared by thousands of others and was in no way unique to him. This Jesus so strenuously safeguarded by biblical scholars is not the Jesus of Christianity, but is necessary for the mere possibility of Christian Faith.

The only reason to preserve the idea of a historical Jesus is to protect a religion which, although deeply assimilated into the fabric of Western Society, has never been shown to have a positive impact on either a collective or an individual scale.

Why Shouldn’t we believe Ehrman on this? For precisely the same reason he feels he’s an expert: he’s been writing and researching the historical Jesus for almost 30 years – which means he has, in all that time, consolidated and reaffirmed his thinking, and every bit of new evidence he comes into contact with gets filtered through his beliefs and opinions about who Jesus was. Basically, Ehrman is an expert on who the historical Jesus really was – Ehrman’s Jesus is not the Jesus of the gospels or of Christian faith.