Bart Ehrman: Did Jesus Exist? Is there evidence for a historical Jesus?

When asked in a recent interview (The Infidel Guy Show) about the evidence for the historical Jesus, Bart Ehrman threw out the tired line “No Serious/No Reputable Scholar doubts that a historical Jesus existed.” Ehrman’s support of the historical Jesus is used by apologists to show how even extremely liberal theologians like Bart cannot bring themselves to doubt a historical Jesus (the title of one blog post is “Atheist Stumped by Overwhelming Evidence for Jesus’ Existence…From an AGNOSTIC LIBERAL”).

The interviewer points out that “Jesus Christ” may have referred to any communities’ version/chosen representative claiming the title of Christ (there were dozens), but Ehrman rebuts by arguing for one, specific historical personality which was then recorded differently by the various gospel writers – who each present unique versions of the literary character. This is to be expected – as perhaps a handful of Obama biographers may paint a different narrative of the life of our current president.

Listen to the interview….

Countering the “argument from silence” (that there is no evidence for Jesus Christ) Ehrman pulls out the worn staple of Christian apologetics, “well, what evidence is there for Julius Caesar?” (i.e., what evidence is there for anyone in history/what constitutes “evidence”). Ehrman continues:

“You need to consider historical evidence, and to say that historical evidence doesn’t count, I mean, why not just deny the Holocaust. Why not deny that Abraham Lincoln existed. You have to look at the evidence… There is very hard evidence. For example, we have the letters of Paul – Paul knew Jesus’ family and relatives and made “off the cuff comments” about “James the brother of the Lord.” As a historian, there is no doubt that Paul wrote Galatians… This is what I do for a living, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, everybody who’s looked at this thing seriously, there’s nobody who doubts this. Name ONE New Testament scholar who doubts that Paul wrote Galatians.”

Ehrman’s hard evidence is this: Paul met with James. James is the “brother of the Lord.” THEREFORE Jesus existed.

Asking the wrong questions

Focusing on whether of not Jesus existed is entirely the wrong question because, as we’ve seen, the impenetrable army of New Testament Scholars will destroy anybody who claims that he doesn’t (much like focusing on the question of whether God exists clouds much more important issues of social justice and ethics, for example). There is no evidence that Jesus didn’t exist, and a lack of evidence in the historical Jesus cannot prove he didn’t exist. I’ll have to concede with Bart that, taking biblical evidence, there is no indication that there was not a historical Jesus.

HOWEVER – when viewing the literature/story of Jesus Christ as written in the gospels, complete with supernatural events and claims, the Bible overlaps with previous literary traditions to such a degree that it is impossible for any of those claims/stories to have begun with a historical Jesus Christ. So what Bart is saying (and what, if pushed to “follow the evidence” as he himself mandates, he would have to agree to) is that there was a historical figure of Jesus but all of the fantastical elements of the story that are prefigured by earlier literary traditions did not originate with him. So the “historical Jesus” of Ehrman and New Testament scholars was not born of a virgin, did not say most of the things ascribed to him (at least not all the stuff that is so familiar to Philo, Stoicism, the Essenes or the Pharisees), was not the “Logos/Son of God”, and did not resurrect.

For me, what is profoundly important is to show that the New Testament descriptions of Jesus Christ are literature based on compound mythology, resulting in the final claim (which is NOT revolutionary but rather was the decision of nearly a century of Bible scholars in the early days of historical criticism) that the Jesus of History is virtually unknowable and the Jesus of the gospels is mythology.

Yet Bart Ehrman is very, very careful to continue preaching that Jesus was historical (even while publishing books that undermine Christianity). Interestingly, in the interview Robert M. Price comes up – he’s a Biblical/New Testament scholar who has publicly argued in favor of a mythical Christ, and Ehrman is adamant, totally assured, that Price doesn’t currently hold a teaching position (this is unfortunately a vicious circle: As Ehrman has pointed out, ALL New Testament scholars unanimously agree that Jesus existed – those, like Price – who dare to disagree, cannot possibly hope to find a teaching position anywhere; leading to the continuation and preservation of a body of biblical scholars who unanimously agree that Jesus was historical).

Meanwhile, Christians use Ehrman and the other New Testament scholars’ assertion in the historical Jesus to bolster their faith, when neither Ehrman, any biblical scholar, nor any Christian apologist can explain the deeply troubling parallels between Christian literature and pagan mythology. (Christians argue that it doesn’t exist or it is natural that “Pagan-Christs” prefigured the Real Truth; while biblical scholars say “well sure all that stuff was taken from pagan mythology, but that all came later, it has nothing to do with the real Jesus.”)

But what if it didn’t come later? It can be proven, citing biblical passages, that the physical body of Jesus Christ was doubted even before Paul, in the very earliest days of Christianity; groups were already claiming Jesus did not come in the flesh, but in some kind of spiritual body.

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God. (1 John 4: 1-3)

Is the existence of a Jesus Christ with only a non-physical, ghostly body the same as the one Ehrman believes in? Is there any way at all to account for these early Christian groups who denied that Jesus came in the flesh?

Ehrman keeps pointing out “the evidence”; but is the small amount of evidence leading us to a historical Jesus enough to counteract the massive amounts of evidence that seem to question whether Jesus actually lived, breathed, ate, died or resurrected (rather than merely “in semblance”)?

At the very least, I find it to be an extremely fascinating and worthwhile question. Unfortunately, very few researchers are interested in that question, and we are immediately rebuked/dismissed by Ehrman and his cronies because we are not “Serious New Testament Scholars” (my PhD is merely in comparative literature/ancient Greek, so obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about).

PS) Ehrman is an excellent researcher and his books are well worth reading; although I was a little disappointed by some of the rhetoric/logical gaps in this interview, as well as his out of hand dismissal of the larger issues at question (which, to be fair, were the interviewer’s responsibility), I appreciate and enjoy most of Ehrman’s work.

  • Ellen1910

    “Ehrman is an excellent researcher and his books are well worth reading”

    Really?   Inasmuch as you admit you’re neither an historian nor a biblical scholar you’re not qualified to make that judgment — as Ehrman himself would be the first to point out. 

    • Derek Murphy

      This is an insane comment. If the only people qualified to approve whether or not a book is “worth reading” are the academic cronies who have been indoctrinated into the same field as the author, not only would almost no-one be able to say anything about the books that they read, but the reviews that we did get would be useless in providing a genuine response and critique to the book. It’s EXACTLY Ehrman’s problem (and yours, apparently) that he thinks only those within his field are qualified to make a judgment (as opposed to someone like myself, who was trained in literary criticism and comparative mythology.).

  • UnkleE

    G’day HB dudes, I quite like the idea of your site even though I have some quite contrary views. I note you welcome constructive and polite comment so I thought I’d respond to this post.

    “it is impossible for any of those claims/stories to have begun with a historical Jesus Christ.”
    This seems like a rather definite statement, given the evidence (or lack) you give for it. If the gospels told the story of an ordinary man who stood up against authorities and was executed, no miracles, no resurrection, no claims to divinity, it would be well accepted by scholars because it is much better attested in virtually every way than any comparable figure. So what does an unbeliever do with the miracles? You claim it makes the whole thing unbelievable, but there are in fact a whole range of possibilities:

    1. The miracles happened and the scepticism is mistaken.
    2. The miracles were believed to have happened by the people of the day, and the stories are honestly reported by them, with most details accurate, but not the miracles.
    3. The locals got quite a bit wrong, but the basics are correct.
    4. There was a real person but most of the stories are legendary.
    5. The whole thing never happened.

    You don’t really deal with most of these, yet the scholars who don’t believe in the miracles tell us that #2 or #3 are the most likely, and #4 and #5 are highly unlikely. You are entitled to go against the scholars, but you owe us a strong argument.

    “neither Ehrman, any biblical scholar, nor any Christian apologist can explain the deeply troubling parallels between Christian literature and pagan mythology”
    The problem is, it is not the explanations that are in doubt, but your facts. The scholars tell us most of the alleged parallels are illusions, or cases of the legends copying christianity. If you want to make tis claim credibly, you need to establish the facts first, and again you’ll owe us a good argument if you want to convince us the scholars are wrong.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment. Best wishes.

    • Derek Murphy

      Thanks for your comments; I probably wasn’t clear enough. I have nothing against miracles; anything is possible. What I meant was that since everything found in the Bible can be found in similar, parallel, but earlier traditions, they cannot also have accidentally happened in reality with Jesus. Because he would have known about the other figures so he would be copying, even if he really did it while they were just myths. Scholars completely ignore all of the material that they feel came from pagan sources or gnosticism as later permutations. And instead they focus their attention on that possible site of pre-influence; the facts that support this move are laughably vapid. I know I can’t prove “a historical person didn’t exist at that time” – there were many. But I can say, very concretely, based on the open and copious amounts of material pointing to literary transmission and influence, which portions of the gospels were copied directly from pre-Christian sources – and these portions (which are in fact the majority of all texts relating to Jesus) could not have come from a historical founder. Mainstream scholars argue that the rest of the stuff, the leftovers, indicates a real historical person. For me, the leftover stuff was written INTO the mythology IN ORDER to make the myth appear historical (which is exactly, word for word, what Origin claims – and he was one of the earliest and greatest Christian apologists).