Over the past two centuries, historical scholars have argued over what we can know about Jesus. Virtually all scholars (regardless of religion) now agree Jesus was a real person whose life followed the general outline in the gospels. However enthusiastic amateurs are still promoting the idea that Jesus didn’t exist. Books have been published and a thousand internet arguments launched, with little response from the scholars, who regard the Jesus myth as refuted. Now an eminent scholar has assessed the Jesus myth.
You may think this is of no interest to a christian who believes the New Testament, but I think it is important.
Bart Ehrman is a recognised and well-respected New Testament scholar who specialises in issues relating to the text of the New Testament. (We almost never have the original texts of ancient historical documents, but have copies of copies. This process can lead to deliberate or accidental changes to the text. For more on this, see The gospels as history.) He has published many books on the topic.
Ehrman grew up as an evangelical christian in the US, but became an agnostic when his studies led him to question the reliability of the New Testament text. His views on the extent of textual problems would be at the sceptical end of New Testament scholarship.
Ehrman has recently released a new book, Did Jesus Exist?, and wrote a column in the Huffington Post on his conclusions. He is no stranger to controversy, and his book manages to set cats among many different people’s pigeons.
Bart Ehrman: Did Jesus exist?
- His conclusion is definite. “Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”
- We should not expect too much information about Jesus from Roman historians. “It is true that Jesus is not mentioned in any Roman sources of his day. That should hardly count against his existence, however, since these same sources mention scarcely anyone from his time and place.” (I’m not sure what Ehrman thinks about Tacitus, whose history written 80 years after Jesus mentions him briefly.)
- He regards the gospels and other New Testament sources as very useful. “With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life ….. Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind. Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus’ life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.”
- He criticises the views of many mythicists: “the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the “pagan” savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination …. Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that.”
- All this is despite his view that “the early Gospels are riddled with problems …. written decades after Jesus’ life”. We don’t have to accept these doubts about the New Testament, but we can benefit from his conclusions.
Assessing Ehrman’s conclusions
You may wonder why I spend time discussing the sometimes negative conclusions of a sceptical scholar, but there are several ways in which Ehrman’s conclusions can be helpful to us who believe more than he does.
These conclusions about Jesus are not simply Ehrman’s views; he is articulating the conclusions of the vast majority of expert scholars, although many scholars do not find so many problems in the New Testament. Many scholars believe we can safely say more about Jesus, but virtually none would say less. We may therefore take his views about Jesus as a lowest common denominator of historical “facts”. Thus we have a useful unbiased ally in discussions with people who are sceptical about whether Jesus even existed – and I believe we will find more and more of these. It would be useful for those engaged in apologetics to be familiar with Ehrman’s conclusions and have some quotes ready.
His book may seem problematic for christians – while he defends Jesus and the gospels against extreme scepticism and assures us that the gospels are useful historical documents, he dismisses the idea that they are reliable accounts. But I don’t personally find a deep problem here. Faith in Jesus and trust in the New Testament are based on both fact and faith. Ehrman establishes a minimum level of fact, whereas most other scholars would say we can have confidence in more than that. But whatever we conclude factually, it still requires faith to believe in Jesus and trust him with our lives.
Ehrman’s conclusions may seem to threaten our faith, but I don’t think they need to. In many ways they strengthen the conclusion that we can have confidence that there is a solid historical core to our faith.