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Did Jesus Really Exist? Bart Ehrman Thinks So

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Some of the atheists that have commented on the blog have expressed skepticism at the existence of Jesus, claiming that there is very little or even no good evidence for him being a real historical figure.  My response has been to point out that Jesus is the most well attested historical figure of ancient history and that no reputable historian doubts his existence.  Uninterested in what historians have to say, these skeptics continue to hold their position.

What is especially ironic is that many of the skeptics who doubt the historical scholars are also the same people who chide me for doubting Darwin’s historical account of the origins of species over the past 4.5 billion years of earth’s history.  I guess it’s OK to doubt professional historians, but not professional paleontologists.

In any case, this week I came across a fascinating radio interview that bears on this issue of the existence of Jesus.  The interviewer is an atheist named Infidel Guy and he is questioning New Testament (NT) scholar and agnostic Bart Ehrman.  Ehrman has written several books pointing out discrepancies and errors that exist in the Greek NT manuscripts.  He is not a Christian and he believes that some of the things recorded about Jesus in the NT are legendary.

What is fascinating about this interview is that Ehrman finds himself arguing with the Infidel Guy that Jesus actually exists!  Ehrman, as a scholar, knows that the idea that Jesus never existed is ridiculous and that no serious scholar holds this position.  For 16 minutes he tries to convince the Infidel Guy, but to no avail.

Maybe the fact that Bart Ehrman, hero for skeptics of Christianity, has attempted to put this silly notion to rest will influence some atheists who continue to cling to this idea.  We’ll see!  In the mean time, please take a listen to the interview below which is broken into 2 parts.


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  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    What is bothersome about the mythical vs. historical Jesus debate is how many times we see the argument from the historical side, “No reputable historian doubts his existence.” Look, if it is SO obvious that every single historian subscribes to his existence, we shouldn’t need the fact that every historian does as an arguing point. We should have so much evidence, this would be skipped.

    For example, when Julius Caesar is compared, we start to hear about coins and statutes and inscriptions and political consequences and subsequent names (with their coins, statues and inscriptions) in addition to the written historical accounts. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone argue for Julius Caesar’s existence under the simple maxim, “Well gee—every historian believes it.” I see evidence forthrightly presented.

    [This is also the difference when compared to evolution theory. Perhaps one may start off with noting how it is held by 97% of scientists, but this is generally followed by evidence for the theory.]

    If Jesus is the “most well-attested historical figure of ancient historian” [Really? More than Octavian?] I would hope we could skip all the rhetoric and simply point out this mass of evidence.

    Curiously, in 16 minutes of dialogue, I heard only one (1) item of evidence: Paul refers in an off-the-cuff manner to “James, the brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19. (And an additional ½ item of evidence regarding reference to the Twelve Disciples.)

    Those who hold to a mythical Jesus are aware of Gal. 1:19, and have developed responses. Specifically, the fact Paul uses the term “brother” 28 other times and never means an actual familial relationship in any of those other instances. Also, Luke never identifies the “James” in Acts as Jesus’ brother (even though Luke is aware Jesus has brothers.) John never identifies Jesus as having a brother named “James.”

    Alas, it is not as straightforward as we hope. I do think there are other evidences, such as 1 Thess. 2:14-15, and the claim about crucifixion; I personally fall on the historical side (lest I cause an incorrect impression.)

    But I do not see it as so cut-and-dried; the mythical side raises some legitimate concerns that should be addressed. And simply saying, “You can be ignored as a fringe belief” or “Every historian believes Jesus existed” is insufficient–even week when the statements are left unsupported with facts.

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    I think you need to cut Ehrman some slack for not presenting more evidence. Every time he tried to make a point, he was cut off by the Infidel Guy. He was never allowed to talk for very long. Considering the scenario, I think he did well to get any points across.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    Aye. That Infidel Guy was particularly annoying. Still and all, Ehrman did repeatedly state, “Every historian I know says Jesus existed” and the irritating Infidel Guy did manage to cough out a good question regarding what evidence we have.

    I found myself muttering, “Rather than repeat the mantra—discuss the evidence!”

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    The problem was that the Infidel Guy was woefully unprepared. There is no excuse for him not knowing going into the interview that Ehrman accepts the historicity of Jesus. I have a great deal of respect for Ehrman and I would love to get his take on some of the specific issues that guys like Wells, Price, and Carrier have raised.

  • Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    In the interview he said he may write a book addressing this issue. If he did, I would certainly buy it.

  • Romina Kirchmaier

    I think many of us agree on the fact that Jesus existed.
    But granted, that does not automatically qualify him to have done everything the bible says he has.
    Don’t get me wrong, he was probably a great guy, and even a martyr, perhaps the Mother Teresa of his time. But the mythological part and the evidence behind it is what has us skeptics staying as we are – skeptics. (Note I did not say atheists. I am not discrediting anything, but I am neither a blind believer.)

  • Bill Pratt

    Romina,
    There is a very vocal, skeptical contingent who deny that Jesus ever existed. Several of them have appeared on this blog. I have met a couple of them through the atheist/agnostic club at a local university. It is to them that I was directing this radio interview. Thanks for commenting.

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  • Bryan

    “What is bothersome about the mythical vs. historical Jesus debate is how many times we see the argument from the historical side, “No reputable historian doubts his existence.” Look, if it is SO obvious that every single historian subscribes to his existence, we shouldn’t need the fact that every historian does as an arguing point. We should have so much evidence, this would be skipped.”

    You could say the same about atheists who frequently use the ‘scientific consensus’ among secular scientists as an arguing point for evolutuion. But you’re right, arguments should center on evidence and reason, and not appeals to authority. We have an astounding amount of evidence for the existence of Jesus, which is why the vast majority of scholars believe he existed. J. P. Holding notes:

    ‘Of course, it is possible that all of the professional historians (even those with no religious interest!) are biased or wrong, while proponents of the “Jesus-myth” are the objective ones. And yes, a consensus does not equate with evidence. But a consensus on any historical question is usually based on evidence which is analyzed by those who are recognized as authoritative in their field, and therefore may be taken at their word.

    If this were not the case, why should there be any criteria for someone being a historian at all? Why should we not just pick a vagrant at random off the street and let him/her compose an official history of 20th-century America for the Smithsonian archives?

    Therefore, while scholarly consensus is not itself evidence, it does function as a “weighting” or “warning” sign: if one agrees with peers who are detailed-students of the same subject matter, then less evidence is needed than would be needed if we disagreed with their consensus (as a very small minority). We would require not just a “good argument” but we would also have to refute all of the consensus arguments first.

    In other words, evidence may be mediated through expert witness and consensus. Therefore, the argument that consensus does not count as evidence, while correct in its own way, cannot be allowed to stand as a dismissal of consensus, nor as a leveling of the playing field.’

    http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/jexfound.html

    “For example, when Julius Caesar is compared, we start to hear about coins and statutes and inscriptions and political consequences and subsequent names (with their coins, statues and inscriptions) in addition to the written historical accounts. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone argue for Julius Caesar’s existence under the simple maxim, “Well gee—every historian believes it.” I see evidence forthrightly presented.”

    There’s a massive historical consequence of Jesus’ existence that manifests itself even today: the existence of Christianity. This in addition to the written accounts. Jesus-mythers would have us believe that the world’s largest religion was founded by a man whom never existed. That is a tough pill to swallow.

    “[This is also the difference when compared to evolution theory. Perhaps one may start off with noting how it is held by 97% of scientists, but this is generally followed by evidence for the theory.]”

    The reason why the majority of historians believe Jesus existed is because of the evidence. Unless you want us to believe that secular historians are really closet Christian fundamentalists driven by their religious biases. Note that probably 97% of historians believe Jesus existed, if not a higher percentage (quite likely). Though I don’t have that data immediately available.

    “If Jesus is the “most well-attested historical figure of ancient historian” [Really? More than Octavian?] I would hope we could skip all the rhetoric and simply point out this mass of evidence.”

    http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexisthub.html

    http://www.bede.org.uk/jesusmyth.htm

    http://www.bede.org.uk/price8.htm

    “Those who hold to a mythical Jesus are aware of Gal. 1:19, and have developed responses. Specifically, the fact Paul uses the term “brother” 28 other times and never means an actual familial relationship in any of those other instances.”

    While this may be true (I can’t confirm), we should let context determine the meaning. Interpreting ‘brother’ in any other sense in this passage other than biological kinship lacks plausibility. ‘Brother’ as in the Lord’s mother’s son is the most natural reading. And while there were subgroups within the early church who aligned themselves with early people (Paul, Apollos, etc), Paul chastised these groups and most likely would not have acknowledged them as a legitimate group by identifying an individual with this designation.

    Also, Luke never identifies the “James” in Acts as Jesus’ brother (even though Luke is aware Jesus has brothers.) John never identifies Jesus as having a brother named “James.”

    This is an argument from silence. Since James was a large part of the early church, and the gospels were written for Christians, such things probably did not need to be mentioned.

    But I do not see it as so cut-and-dried; the mythical side raises some legitimate concerns that should be addressed. And simply saying, “You can be ignored as a fringe belief” or “Every historian believes Jesus existed” is insufficient–even week when the statements are left unsupported with facts.

    The fact that there is only one(!) known scholar who endorses your thesis (Doherty) should hint to you that this position is unreasonable.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    In The Historical Jesus: Five View, scholars of various persuasions respond to each other’s opinions about the historical Jesus. In responding to the mythicist, Robert Price, liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan wrote “My response will not take up the multiple items mentioned in Price’s essay, because I simply agree with vast swaths of them. But I still have a few very important negatives.” Most, if not all, liberal scholars would acknowledge that gospels contain large amounts of mythical or legendary material. I think that many would also acknowledge at least the possibility that the historical Jesus may have been so thoroughly mythologized as to be virtually unrecoverable for the historian. Nevertheless, they still think that a historical Jesus is more likely than a purely mythical Jesus.

    While it may be true that there are very few scholars who would make a positive case for a purely mythical Jesus, the historical Jesus consensus includes a very wide diversity of opinion about just how much history is really there. Moreover it includes many liberal scholars who might well agree more often with mythicists like Price or Carrier or Wells about the historicity of specific portions of the gospels than they would with conservative historicists like Moreland or Craig or Habermas. The consensus of biologists about evolutions is much broader and deeper than the consensus among scholars about the historical Jesus.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    Bryan,

    Just so we are clear, my thesis (such as it is) is that we should use evidence as the primary argument, and who believes what as far, far secondary. If at all.

    In your response, you pointed out sites that use evidence. Exactly what I am talking about. Whether the evidence is compelling or not may be another question, but it is the place the start. (By the way, an “argument from silence” goes to weight, not validity.)

  • Mark

    Was there a preacher named Jesus? Most likely. In fact, there were probably many preachers named “Jesus”.

    Was there a gospel “Jesus”. No way, no how.

    Yes, infidel guy should have clarified his position with Bart.

  • Bob

    Paul makes it clear that his entire knowledge of Jesus is NOT based on stories about a historical figure. It ALL came from a revelation (read – he made it up).

    Galatians 1:11-12 “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

    It is important to note that it was a revelation OF Jesus Christ and not FROM Jesus Christ as some modern Bibles like the NIV translate it.

    There is no need for a historical Jesus, or for any person to have actually have done what the story told. Everything we know is consistent from it all germinating from Paul. The bible is actually very clear that Paul is the source for ALL knowledge of Jesus.

    Ephesians 3:1-5
    “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;”

    Romans 16:25-26
    “Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:”

  • phil

    This is so funny because I was having a discussion with a guy in youtube who could only come of with one real historian to back his view that Jesus never existed…Bart Ehrman…ooops

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  • http://arthuriandaily.wordpress.com/ arthuriandaily

    This is a really fascinating interview. Once you realize the historicity of Jesus, the rest seems to follow. The easiest way to dismiss Jesus is to dismiss his existence. If that cannot be accomplished, the rest must be considered…

    Here are some of my thoughts about evolution:

    http://arthuriandaily.wordpress.com/category/r-evolutionary-thoughts/

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