More on Bart Ehrman’s new book about Jesus

This should anger up those readers who think that Jesus was largely mythological (i.e., not even based on a real person), or that the evidence supporting such a person was weak at best.  HuffPo has a piece on Bart Ehrman’s new book, Did Jesus Exist? called “In ‘Did Jesus Exist?’, Bart Ehrman’s portrayal of Jesus is surprisingly sympathetic.”  (See my earlier post on this book, which, much to my surprise, garnered >400 comments.)

At any rate, Ehrman seems to be taking a harder line than before on Jesus, though I believe he always suggested that Jesus was based on a real person: an early apocalyptic preacher. Ehrman’s never, so far as I know, given an iota of credence to the divinity of Jesus or any of the miracle stories.  Now, however, he’s pretty insistent that a “Jesus” was crucified by Pontius Pilate.

What do mythicists argue?

If Jesus really existed, mythicists ask why so few first-century writers mention him. These mythicists dismiss the Gospel accounts as biased and therefore non-historical. To many mythicists, the Jesus story is based on pagan myths about dying and rising gods.

What does Ehrman argue?

Ehrman points out that only about 3 percent of Jews in Jesus’ time were literate, and Romans never kept detailed records. (Decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, three Roman writers mention Jesus in passing, as does the Jewish historian Josephus.) Though the Gospel accounts are biased, they cannot be discounted as non-historical. As for Jesus being a Jewish version of the pagan dying and rising god, Ehrman shows that there is no evidence the Jews of Jesus’ day worshipped pagan gods. If anything, Jesus was deeply rooted in Jewish, rather than Roman, traditions.

To me this sounds like pretty thin evidence for Jesus—more rationalization for the lack of evidence than any positive evidence—and gives nothing beyond what is in scripture. I’m not sure why there’s a new book if the evidence is just what it was before.  But I’m sure at least a few readers will get this book. If you’ve read it (and there are Amazon reviews), post your take below.

What is new is that Ehrman appears really peeved by the “mythicists,” and is really coming down on those who deny the existence of a historical person on which the Jesus myth is based:

As Christians prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, Ehrman, an agnostic, convincingly demonstrates in clear, forceful prose that there was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher of the first century who was crucified by Pontius Pilate. As for the so-called “mythicists” who argue otherwise, Ehrman has some choice words: “sensationalist,” “wrongheaded,” and “amateurish.”

“They’re driven by an ideological agenda, which is, they find organized religion to be dangerous and harmful and the chief organized religion in their environment is Christianity,” Ehrman said in an interview . . .

Yet Ehrman who said he spent a summer boning up on mythicist books, such as “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” and “The Jesus Mysteries,” sees a growing embrace of the position that Jesus was a fictional figure.

Ehrman said he had long received occasional emails from atheists and others asking him if he thought Jesus actually lived. Then last year, he accepted an award at a meeting of the American Humanist Association in Cambridge, Mass. While there, he was dismayed to find many humanists, who describe themselves as “good without God,” adhered to widely discredited notions that Jesus never lived.

It eventually dawned on him that the Jesus deniers were the flip side of the Christian fundamentalists he had long ago foresworn. Both were using Jesus to justify their relationship to Christianity.

“I keep telling Christians, they don’t have to be afraid of the truth,” said Ehrman. “The same thing applies to atheists and humanists. It’s not going to kill them to think Jesus really existed.”

Of course, the words “Jesus really existed,” are deeply ambiguous, since they say nothing about the divine Jesus, and perhaps Ehrman should have added that immediately.  I’m hoping he isn’t being deliberately ambiguous to cater to believers.

The HuffPo piece is, however, surprisingly sympathetic to the non-divine-Jesus view:

The fact that Ehrman is siding with Christians on the historical truth of Jesus does not indicate a change of heart, much less a conversion. Instead, he said, it’s an attempt to say, “history matters.”

But for fellow nonbelievers, who cheered Ehrman’s previous books as proof that evangelicals are wrong about many biblical claims, the latest publication seems like the beginnings of family feud, if not an outright betrayal.

Some have already suggested Ehrman is painting atheists with too broad a brush.

“I don’t personally know a single atheist who would deny that Jesus existed,” said Louise Antony, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. [JAC: I think there are a few who post on this site!] “It would be really unfair to suggest that it’s part of being an atheist to deny the existence of Jesus as a historical person.”

. . . Largely missing from the quarrel is an acknowledgement of how far atheists and agnostics have come.

“They’re squabbling over the existence of a man, not a messiah or a god,” said Ryan Cragun, a sociologist at the University of Tampa. “No one is saying Jesus was God. If you step back it’s not that cataclysmic.”

I don’t really have a dog in this hunt, so I am not deeply invested in whether or not there was a historical person on whom Jesus is based.  It seems plausible, though I wouldn’t presume to pass judgment on the evidence, since I haven’t studied it.  But what is important, and all those Christians who buy the book should know this, is that both Ehrman and atheists see not a scintilla of evidence that Jesus was the son of God or divine in any way, was born of a virgin or resurrected, or is the way to salvation. That remains fiction to all thinking people.


  1. sahansdal
    Posted April 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Kyrios can mean Master, or Emperor, fine. Adelphos I know from Philadelphia is brother. Eisenman shows in great detail the evidence for Cephas/Peter as Simeon Cleophas, second brother to Jesus. It is too complex to give here, and even for me to remember (there — I hide nothing) but I know it is completely determinative. Much is to do with Cleophas as father to them both. The NT goes to extremes to obfuscate familial relations. It is really the PURPOSE of the NT, not as some guidebook for salvation, which it definitely is not. It is a polemic between Paulines and Jamesians. Only LIVING Masters save. John 9:4 and 9:5 (C. Sinaiticus correct “sent US”) proves that. (Also John 6:40, “SEE the Son”, and a slew of others, like 17:11: all disciples or “given” being “in the world” as he spoke the High Priestly Prayer.)

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Jerry Coyne is having fun tracking the “Did Jesus exist?” debate promoted by Bart Ehrman’s new book arguing for the historicity of Jesus. [...]

  2. [...] in the mind of anyone who has said farewell to god. So, when Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne (here and here) and Richard Carrier showed such keen interest I was mystified, and, I suppose, I still am. After [...]

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