Bart Ehrman on did Jesus exist?

Bart Ehrman

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

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 (We almost never have the original texts of ancient historical documents, but have copies of copies.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.

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  1. “I’m not sure what Ehrman thinks about Tacitus, whose history written 80 years after Jesus mentions him briefly.”
    Ehrman sees that brief passage as supporting the fact that Jesus was crucified under Pilate. But he mentioned “Roman sources of his day” in his HuffPo piece, maybe because it is so irately contested by the gibberlings?

  2. It’s also unnerving to see how much bile the mythers pour on Ehrman, which might even be worse than the scorn he usually gets from the rougher end of evangelicalism. Plenty of charges of intellectual dishonesty, embarassing errors and deceitful wordgames are being flinged at him on weblogs and the rationalist fora, often by authors with irrelevant qualifications (such as Myers and Benson).

  3. It is disturbing to see how mainstream mythicism has become among atheists, at least on the internet. Just goes to show that the universal access to information that the internet gives us is not an absolute unqualified good in all cases!

  4. “It’s also unnerving to see how much bile the mythers pour on Ehrman, which might even be worse than the scorn he usually gets from the rougher end of evangelicalism.”
    Yes, it has been usual to see evangelical christians criticising Ehrman while atheists admire him, but recently I saw an article (can’t remember by whom now) which painted Ehrman as one of the last standouts against the logic of mythicism.

  5. That might be Richard Carrier’s superweird comment in his interview by John Loftus?
    “But this won’t be any comfort to Christians, since the next most probable hypothesis is that Jesus existed but we know essentially nothing about him. Which, incidentally, a lot of experts in the field are starting to agree with. It’s slowly becoming the consensus position. There are still hold outs, like Bart Ehrman, but I don’t think their position is going to survive in the long run. There are just too many cats out of the bag at this point.”
    “We can hardly know anything about Jesus” is far from becoming a consensus position, the case that gJohn is actually quite reliable has been gaining more ground in NT studies, so the trend is into the other direction (and Ehrman is anyway on the more sceptical end of the experts, as you correctly noted, UnkleE) and in any case there are some facts that can directy be distilled from the gospel accounts. I’m not sure whether he was serious about that or whether that comment is deliberate bluster. Perhaps it’s most charitable to leave that question unanswered.

  6. Yes, that was the comment I was thinking of. Calling Ehrman a “hold out’ is amazing – I don’t know where that puts less sceptical scholars like EP Sanders, Craig Evans, Geza Vermes, Jim Charlesworth, Richard Bauckham, Tom Wright and the rest!

  7. I guess that Carrier would consider most of them “apologists” and thus feel justified in ignoring them.

  8. I think that much of what Bart Ehrman says, especially in this book, is fairly mainstream. In other books, Ehrman claims that certain passages in the New Testament are doubtful (i.e. they shouldn’t be there, or the text we have is uncertain). But little of this is new – most Bibles already point this out in footnotes, and they affect very little doctrine.
    The two areas where Ehrman is criticised by more conservative scholars are:
    (1) He draws much stronger conclusions from these known facts than most scholars do. He says the variations in the different copies of the text make it very hard to know what the true text should be, whereas more conservative scholars say 90% of the NT text is “certain” and nothing of importance is in doubt.
    (2) He concludes Jesus was not the son of God (he doesn’t believe in God) but rather a Jewish apocalyptic prophet.
    Scholars who have disagreed with him include Craig Evans (in his book “Fabricating Jesus”) and Ben Witherington, who has published his criticisms online here and in a series of posts beginning here. I think those two references are sufficient for what you want.

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