NOTE ADDED: Several people have pointed this out, but when we’re asking whether Jesus existed in more than the sense of simply somebody named Jesus, there are two ways of construing that claim.
1. An itinerant apocalyptic preacher around whom the myths of Christianity coalesced (and who may or may not have been crucified).
2. The miracle-working divine being resembling that of the New Testament.
Note that Ehrman is claiming only #1, NOT #2, so it’s not valid to criticize his historical scholarship if you think he’s claiming any miracles or divine manifestations. Again, he claims #1 (and I’m not sure what he says about crucifixion.)
If you’ve read Bart Ehrman, you’ll know that, as a Biblical scholar, he thinks that Jesus was a real person: an itinerant apocalyptic preacher who wasn’t divine. Ehrman has a new book out on the subject, Did Jesus Exist?,which he’s vigorously flogging at at HuffPo. His answer is a resounding “yes,” and you might be interested in a summary of Ehrman’s evidence:
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 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.
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).
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. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus. They invented the idea that the messiah had to be crucified.
I can’t judge the first paragraph, but we should take it seriously since Ehrman is indeed a serious scholar—and an agnostic. The second and third paragraphs seem more dubious to me, simply because the “evidence” is simply the assertion that “the story is too improbable to have been concocted from whole cloth.” But I’ll reserve judgment until I read the book.
Ehrman shows unexpected contempt for people who dismiss the reality of Jesus without the proper training to do so:
That [Jesus did not exist] 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.
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.
Well, Ben Goren, you’re being characterized as an untrained “Internet junkie.” Have at Ehrman; I’ll expect your response on this website by 9 a.m. Chicago time!