Why Should We Not Believe Those Who Claim Jesus Never Existed?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Bart Ehrman, the agnostic New Testament scholar, who is no friend to Christianity, is back again with a new book called Did Jesus Exist?  I have not read the book yet, but I came across an article written by Ehrman a couple months ago in the Huffington Post that is worth quoting at length.

Ehrman starts out the article by acknowledging that there is a small, but vocal group of skeptics who deny that Jesus ever existed.

That is the claim made by a small but growing cadre of (published ) writers, bloggers and Internet junkies who call themselves mythicists.  This unusually vociferous group of nay-sayers maintains that Jesus is a myth invented for nefarious (or altruistic) purposes by the early Christians who modeled their savior along the lines of pagan divine men who, it is alleged, were also born of a virgin on Dec. 25, who also did miracles, who also died as an atonement for sin and were then raised from the dead.

There are several mythicists who have written comments on my blog in the past, so I am quite familiar with them.  So what credence should we give the mythicists?  Here is Ehrman’s take:

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine.  There are a couple of exceptions: of the hundreds — thousands? — of mythicists, two (to my knowledge) actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study. 

But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world.  And it is no wonder why.  These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

Ehrman, who certainly doesn’t accept everything in the New Testament as historical, nevertheless argues that historical kernels about Jesus are there:

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 (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves).  Historical sources like that are 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.

Ehrman adds:

Moreover, 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: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandized versions).

Why bother quoting Ehrman about Jesus?  Because, when you have someone who is clearly not a Christian, who has written several books attacking the reliability of the New Testament, standing up and agreeing with Christians about something, we should pay attention.  I don’t agree with much that Ehrman writes, but I can at least agree with him on this: Jesus really existed and we can know about him from the New Testament documents.

  • But do you reach that conclusion because you agree with the scholarly research, or because it aligns nicely with your own beliefs?

    As Crossan writes,

    “There is a Jesus as a political revolutionary by S.G.F. Brandon (1967), as a magician by Morton Smith (1978), as a Galilean charismatic by Geza Vermes (1981. 1984), and a Galilean Rabbi by Bruce Chilton (1984), as Hillelite or proto-Pharisee by Harvey Falk (1985), as an Essene by Harvey Falk (1985), and as an eschatological prophet by E.P. Sanders (1985) … But that stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography.” [quote from John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, xxviii, in Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies, 198]

    In other words, there are many compelling reasons to grant some justification to why mythicists who are at least as academically endowed in biblical scholarship as Erhman think the Jesus of today’s scripture is a actually a compilation of narratives of different people.

  • Boz

    In discussions with mythicists, many ‘mythicists’ believe that jesus’ magic tricks are a myth, but he was a real person. I don’t think that qualifies as a ‘mythicist’.

    So, many mythicists in my experience would agree with the following:

    There was a man named Joshua who was a follower of John the Baptist, an itinerant apocalyptic preacher from Galilee who caused a kerfuffle one Passover in Jerusalem and got himself executed.

    And that’s prety much all we can say about him with any kind of historical agreement.

  • I was thinking specifically of Carrier’s response to Erhman, who clarifies that those who think Jesus was real but his miracles were magic tricks are more aptly defined as ‘historicists’. My understanding of a ‘mythicist’ (granted, my inquiry is hardly a deep one) is one who thinks the biblical Jesus was a compilation of many such ‘prophets’. And there are compelling reasons to presume this to be the case.

  • Boz

    “one who thinks the biblical Jesus was a compilation of many such ‘prophets’.”

    That might be the case. Though as a skeptic and a non-historian, I’ll withhold belief until the mainstream consensus catches up (if it ever does). I shouldn’t abandon my method for issues that just happen to be popular in 2012.

  • tildeb,

    It is not always easy to be sure what people mean by “mythicist” and “mythicism.” There are many in the blogosphere who use the terms narrowly to refer only to the position that Paul’s Jesus was a purely spiritual being who was later historicized in the gospels. I tend to label myself a “historical Jesus agnostic.” I think that the historical Jesus (if there was one) has been so thoroughly mythologized as to be unrecoverable for all practical purposes.

  • Vinny,
    Your position of historical agnosticism is also well outside the scholarly consensus about Jesus. It is a mythicist view, for all practical purposes.

  • Bill,

    I have run across a number of mainstream scholars who seem to be willing to concede that some form of agnosticism is an intellectually defensible stance, although I have been accused of “drinking the Kool Aid” on several occasions as well. I generally don’t find my comments on Dr. McGrath’s blog or Dr. Ehrman’s blog being treated as particularly radical by anyone besides conservative Christians.

  • DonS

    If Bart Ehrman is anti-Christian how can he be described as a New Testament “scholar”?

    I’ve read this description of him from others and it puzzles me.

  • Don,
    There are many New Testament scholars that hold views that are opposed to orthodox Christianity. The field of NT scholarship attracts all sorts of people, some who believe in orthodox Christian teachings, and some who don’t. Ehrman is someone who rejects virtually all of the theological views of Christianity, but who is considered an expert in New Testament historical studies.