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Skeptic Bart Ehrman on Whether Jesus Really Existed

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Ehrman

We've devoted many articles on this site to "Mythicism", the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is simply a myth and not a real, historical figure. Today we feature the interesting introduction to Bart Ehrman’s best-selling book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth which deals with the question.

Ehrman is a preeminent New Testament scholar, but he's not a Christian. In fact, he's one of the world's best-known skeptics of religion, regularly debating against Christian scholars and apologists. Ehrman specializes in the gospels and early Christianity and became increasingly surprised by the stream of questions he got, both after his lectures and via email, about the existence of Jesus. He admits he was largely unaware of the skeptics, mostly online, who insist Jesus is a completely fictitious person.

Here’s how Ehrman opens the book:
 


 
Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder: Why are so many people asking? My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles—misquoted rather—as saying that Jesus never existed. I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

DidJesusExistI was surprised because I am trained as a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, and for thirty years I have written extensively on the historical Jesus, the Gospels, the early Christian movement, and the history of the church’s first three hundred years. Like all New Testament scholars, I have read thousands of books and articles in English and other European languages on Jesus, the New Testament, and early Christianity. But I was almost completely unaware—as are most of my colleagues in the field—of this body of skeptical literature.

I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed. But a whole body of literature out there, some of it highly intelligent and well informed, makes this case.

These sundry books and articles (not to mention websites) are of varying quality. Some of them rival The Da Vinci Code in their passion for conspiracy and the shallowness of their historical knowledge, not just of the New Testament and early Christianity, but of ancient religions generally and, even more broadly, the ancient world. But a couple of bona fide scholars—not professors teaching religious studies in universities but scholars nonetheless, and at least one of them with a Ph.D. in the field of New Testament—have taken this position and written about it. Their books may not be known to most of the general public interested in questions related to Jesus, the Gospels, or the early Christian church, but they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a (very) small but (often) loud minority voice. Once you tune in to this voice, you quickly learn just how persistent and vociferous it can be.

Those who do not think Jesus existed are frequently militant in their views and remarkably adept at countering evidence that to the rest of the civilized world seems compelling and even unanswerable. But these writers have answers, and the smart ones among them need to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than to show why they cannot be right about their major contention. The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist.

Serious historians of the early Christian movement—all of them—have spent many years preparing to be experts in their field. Just to read the ancient sources requires expertise in a range of ancient languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and often Aramaic, Syriac, and Coptic, not to mention the modern languages of scholarship (for example, German and French). And that is just for starters. Expertise requires years of patiently examining ancient texts and a thorough grounding in the history and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, both pagan and Jewish, knowledge of the history of the Christian church and the development of its social life and theology, and, well, lots of other things. It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure. This is not a piece of evidence, but if nothing else, it should give one pause. In the field of biology, evolution may be “just” a theory (as some politicians painfully point out), but it is the theory subscribed to, for good reason, by every real scientist in every established university in the Western world.

Still, as is clear from the avalanche of sometimes outraged postings on all the relevant Internet sites, there is simply no way to convince conspiracy theorists that the evidence for their position is too thin to be convincing and that the evidence for a traditional view is thoroughly persuasive. Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that an overwhelming majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing—whether it involves the fact of the Holocaust, the landing on the moon, the assassination of presidents, or even a presidential place of birth—will not be convinced. Simply will not be convinced.

And so, with Did Jesus Exist?, I do not expect to convince anyone in that boat. What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to the question of Jesus’s historical existence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal.

But as a historian I think evidence matters. And the past matters. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.
 
 
(Image credit: NT Blog)

Brandon Vogt

Written by

Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • Lazarus

    I'm probably going to have heavy items thrown at me for saying this, but I don't think that some of the mythicist arguments deserve to be tarred as looney, crackpot and so on. I think that the best mythicist argument, say as expounded by Carrier, is worth considering and discussing without ridicule.

    I of course believe that they are wrong, but that does not mean that the entire mythicist argument is up there with Bigfoot. The fact that some aspects of that argument, and several of its proponents, are up there with Bigfoot is of course no aid to their cause ;)

    • "I think that the best mythicist argument, say as expounded by Carrier, is worth considering and discussing without ridicule."

      As do I, which is exactly what we've done here at Strange Notions: https://strangenotions.com/index.php?s=richard+carrier

      • Lazarus

        Yes, and your approach to the question is refreshing. The mythicist argument creates a lot of hysteria and is often rejected out of hand. Whatever we may conclude about it in the end, it is here for now, and it is best that we meaningfully interact with the best aspects of the argument.

        • Rudy R

          I myself am an agnostic to whether there is an historical Jesus. There just isn't enough evidence that makes it more probable that Jesus was a historical figure. Ehrman's scholarship suffers from the same problems historians have made in the past, that is, they already presuppose a historical Jesus and then go about trying to prove it. The earliest sources we have reference a Christ Jesus, which every secular historian would place in the least probable category. Add to that that we have no primary sources and only secondary sources compounds the problem for a historical Jesus exponentially. What scarce non-Biblical sources we have can be disputed as non-factual and further lessens the probability. Also add on to that that there are no contemporary accounts mentioning Jesus. The Biblical sources can't be trusted because they are religious, fictionalized documents and don't include any eye-witness accounts . Bottom line: New Testament scholars like Ehrman don't apply any of the traditional methods to the Jesus question to determine historicity as they do any other person/event. Accordingly, agnosticism is the most reasonable position until any new evidence surfaces that would prove Jesus was more probable of existing than not.

          • Lazarus

            I would share most of those sentiments, except your conclusion. How do we account for the world's biggest religion arising from a bunch of devout Jews? How plausible is it that all of this would have grown around, and about, a mythical, made-up figure?

          • Rudy R

            That's an argument from incredulity. There are many reasons why this myth could morph into the largest religion. But the simple response is, why couldn't a mythical person be a cause of the largest religion. if Jesus is indeed a mythical person, than it's just a matter of how it happened.

          • Lazarus

            So you want to assume your conclusion and then just retrofit "how it happened". That's not very rigorous. Let's try again : why would this religion get off the ground at all? Why would monotheistic Jews leave it all behind and start something so counterintuitive to what they believed? Give us some of those "many reasons".

          • Rudy R

            I'm not assuming anything. I'm agnostic on the subject. It's the believers in a historical Jesus and mythicists that are making the assumptions. I'm just looking at the evidence, which there is scant little.

            What accounts for the growth of Mormonism? Hinduism? Buddhism? Scientology? Only one of the religions is true and all others are not true. Or they're all untrue. What most have in common are the adoption of myths carried over generation to generation from prior pagan religions or invented whole cloth.

            What made the Christian religion grow was a good social network, it's message on love, it's moral laws and justice for the poor, which would be meted out by God after death. Just like many of the other religions. And the Roman Empire conversion to Christianity sure didn't hurt either. But I'm not going to do all the home work for you. The bottom line is that Christianity's growth was not contingent on whether Jesus was an actual historical figure. Most people are just born into the religion. I was born into Christianity, not because I knew that Jesus was a historical figure, but because the religion was intrinsic to my culture. It wasn't until I became the age to reason, apply logic, and was able to study the history myself was I able to differentiate between things that are more probable and less probable. The evidence we have for a historical Jesus is less probable than a fictional Jesus. So there is a way to account for the world's biggest religion arising from a bunch of devout Jews, and ways that don't necessarily rely on a historical Jesus.

          • Lazarus

            Buddhism was a purely secular, philosophical reaction to perceived injustices in Hinduism, and originally had no real supernatural elements. Islam grew in a vacuum, Hinduism grew organically over centuries, Scientology is just a prank, Mormonism is a copy off an existing belief base, with minimal changes. What is it that caused that initial spark that led to Christianity? I am not asking you to do my homework, I have done it over many years, and this question is one of the issues that led me to converting to Christianity. Read a detailed exposition of these alternative reasons, say Carrier's "Not the Impossible Religion", and see the massive speculation that is required to cobble together an even remotely plausible alternative. Punting to the Roman influence / state religion defense is a dodge, because it simply skips the first few centuries.

            What caused Paul to change his mind, and his life, so radically?

          • Rudy R

            What caused Paul to change his mind, and his life, so radically?

            I don't know and anyone who claims they know would state without qualification. The simplest answer could be that he believed in the oral tradition. There is a very strong case that Paul never met Jesus and believed in only a spiritual Jesus and not a human being that walked the Earth. Paul, in his own words, stipulated that to be an Apostle, one had to know Jesus through revelation and stated that is how he knew Jesus. And Paul definitely considered himself an Apostle, because he wanted people to follow his religious dogmas.

          • Lazarus

            No, Christians have a reason why Paul behaved the way he did. Feel free to disagree, but saying that all hypotheses are off because everyone is "without qualification" is simply unacceptable skepticism.

            Books have been written as to how exactly Paul viewed Jesus, and the "spiritual Jesus" argument is full of fatal holes.

            And how on earth does the "oral tradition" that must have preceded Paul now help you? Where did that come from, how did that arise?

            Your goalposts have wheels on them. Paul "wanted people to follow his religious dogmas"? I asked you earlier - how did his "religious dogmas" arise?

          • Rudy R

            To be fair, everyone has a tendency to move goal posts in this type of forum. As many scholars would agree, Paul is the originator of the earliest extant Christian writings and if he never met Jesus face-to-face, then he learned about Christianity through oral tradition or writings that no longer exist. In either case, we no longer have primary sources other than Paul's writings. And I disagree that their are fatal holes in the argument that Paul only knew Jesus spiritually. Without examples and references, your claim is empty.

            There was much pre-Christian belief in a celestial messiah. The Old Testament prophesized the coming of the messiah in the first century and the Ascension of Isaiah laid out the foundation for the belief in the celestial messiah. Oral traditions usually preceded the written word, so it wouldn't be a big surprise that Paul wasn't fully aware of these religious ideas and morphed them into his own belief system. Philo, his contemporary, was an advocate of the celestial messiah as well. There's a great amount of scholarship on the subject...more than can be relayed here. Suffice it to say, Just like Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, Paul could have dreamed up his beliefs as do most non-Mormons believe Smith did.

          • Doug Shaver

            Books have been written as to how exactly Paul viewed Jesus,

            And if you read all of those books, you'll notice they disagree about practically everything.

            the "spiritual Jesus" argument is full of fatal holes.

            Let's see some of those holes.

          • Lazarus

            Hi Doug
            I'm just off to work, I will send you a few notes over the weekend.

          • Doug Shaver

            How do we account for the world's biggest religion arising from a bunch of devout Jews?

            I think ordinary human credulity provides a sufficient account.

            How plausible is it that all of this would have grown around, and about, a mythical, made-up figure?

            Having seen how many other improbable things can be believed by substantial numbers of people, it looks very plausible to me.

          • Lazarus

            Those are the decisions the careful searcher must face. Your conclusions are not unreasonable.

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      I suspect that Ehrman would agree with you. I haven't read his book yet but the following sentence from this intro seems to indicate that he acknowleges that there are some more compelling, but still wrong arguments for mythicism:

      But these writers have answers, and the smart ones among them need to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than to show why they cannot be right about their major contention.

  • I'd defer to Erhman and other historians on this.

    • Rob Abney

      An appeal to authority? Or to evidence?

      • Rob Abney

        Never mind. After further review I see that there is no evidence offered.

        • David Nickol

          I am not sure what motivates you here. Is your implication that it is of no importance what authorities say? Or that the consensus of the vast majority of historians carries no weight? Of course, it would be a fallacious argument to say, "Bart Ehrman believes that Jesus existed as a historical person, therefore Jesus existed as a historical person." It would be equally fallacious to argue that because the vast majority of historians believe Jesus existed, it is a fact that Jesus existed. But I don't think that is what is going on here.

          It is quite reasonable to accept the existence of the historical Jesus based on the weight of historical opinion. Are there any facts (or alleged facts) of ancient history that an individual can arrive at on his or her own?

          The OP is not filled with evidence, but of course it is the opening paragraphs of a book in which evidence is presented.

          This does not, of course, mean that one must accept the consensus of historians, or nuclear physicists, or doctors, or electrical engineers, or any other group. But it is not unreasonable to do so, nor is it unreasonable to mention the weight of expert opinion in an argument.

          • Rob Abney

            Thanks for your response. I do consider an appeal to authority to be enough for myself personally when I am presented with the authoritative teaching of the Church for a couple of reasons, 1. Because of the cumulative expertise of bishops making theological assertions and 2. More importantly, because I trust that the advocate will not allow error in that teaching. But, I don't expect skeptics to be convinced on those reasons.
            Also, I wanted to hear some of Ehrman's evidence; and I don't want to buy his book and support him because I feel like he has led too many away from Jesus. My understanding of his point of view is that the bible cannot be taken literally so faith is false, yet I don't think Catholics have ever been confined to such a dichotomy.

          • David Nickol

            My understanding of his point of view is that the bible cannot be taken literally so faith is false, yet I don't think Catholics have ever been confined to such a dichotomy.

            Your understanding of Bart Ehrman's views about the Bible is in error.

            First, it seems clear to me that the point of posting this excerpt is to lend weight to the argument against "mythicism" by citing a noted authority on the New Testament who, although he has become an agnostic, nevertheless argues that the overwhelming evidence is that Jesus existed. He argues this point not as a matter of personal belief, but in his capacity as a New Testament scholar and a historian. His evidence for the existence of the historical Jesus, to the extent that I am familiar with it, is no different from that of anyone else (believer or unbeliever) who has written arguing the existence of the historical figure of Jesus.

            Second, I think it is general knowledge that Ehrman early on in his life made the transition from fundamentalism to more "liberal" Christianity without losing his faith. It was not anything about the nature of scripture that finally resulted in him becoming an agnostic. It was the problem of suffering.

            Also, I wanted to hear some of Ehrman's evidence; and I don't want to buy his book and support him because I feel like he has led too many away from Jesus.

            As I said, his evidence for the existence of Jesus is nothing you probably haven't encountered already if you have read anything reasonably good about the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus. He just happens to be a very good popularizer. His textbook is widely used in introductory college courses on the New Testament. (I think it is not impossible that he has led many people to Jesus. His textbook is used in religious schools and even seminaries.)

            I guess there are authors whose books I would not buy because I would not want them to get any of my money, but I can't think of any author in that category whose books I would actually want to read. If people you disagree with write books that are interesting and important enough to take seriously, then I don't see any problem with paying for them.

          • Michael Murray

            You could follow the link in the OP which will take you to Amazon. You can get a second hand hardback for $4.26 and I assume some of the money will go to Strange Notions as there is what looks like an tag identifying Strange Notions. As it is second hand I can't see Ehrman getting any money.

          • I would certainly defer to the Catholic church on Catholic theology. But I thought this question was one of history. I accept Bart Ehrman as an authority on historical scholarship on the New Testament.

            The issue of what actual happened in the Levant in the early first century is going to be extremely difficult to piece together, even if we did have reliable, contemporary, first hand accounts. As Professor Erhman notes, one is best placed to try and piece things together if one has a deep background in the philosophy, languages, culture and history of that time and place. He has this information, I do not. I think it is a perfectly reasonable thing to do to defer to his expertise.

            But I would not take his credentials alone. One has to look at how he is perceived within his professional community. Is he well-regarded? Is he highly criticized as unprofessional, or misleading? Do his views have widespread agreement in the community or not?

            I would say he does. He is a professor of history at a decent university. His reputation seems to be very good. among theist and atheist scholars. Professor Dale Martin of Yale University assigns his texts as required reading. I have heard him discussed by a number of his colleagues, though there is often disagreement on some issues, no one dismisses him.

            Not really applicable, but we also have the fact that he was a fervent believer in the resurrection when he stared his academic career.

            So I think lay people like myself must defer to those with the background in history on these questions. At this point the majority view is that Jesus existed, but that he did not resurrect.

            There is scholarship emerging which severely questions the existence of Jesus at all. Different to when Professor Erhman wrote his book, there is now some more or less respectable scholarship promoting this view. Even Carrier and his supporters admit that this is a new view and it if correct it will take some time to convince a majority of scholars. He has good reasons why historians may have been mistaken on the subject.

            So I feel quite reasonable in deferring to Ehrman's historical conclusions, when he says that his conclusions are generally accepted by historians. I am happy to defer to what Catholics say is their theology.

          • Rob Abney

            Here's my difficulty, Ehrman is a biblical scholar with great credentials, for that reason many people take him as an authority. But it seems that his evidence is subjective. In the belief.net article that David Nickol posted, Ehrman details how he was a biblical scholar who accepted the Christian explanation of suffering but then he changed his mind. He was still a biblical scholar but now with a different opinion. Where he seems to differ from Catholics is that he expects to find all the answers about Christianity in the bible but he then demonstrates that good biblical scholars can disagree on the main points (comparing his younger self as a well regarded biblical scholar to his older self as a well regarded biblical scholar).
            In the end, I guess I'll have to read his book to find out what evidence he uses to reject the resurrection but I'm pretty sure he ignores the teaching of the Catholic church on the subject.
            But I don't understand how you BGA or Ehrman can separate Catholic theology from the life of Christ without losing the the central reason for that life, that he came here to be resurrected.

          • David Nickol

            In the end, I guess I'll have to read his book to find out what evidence he uses to reject the resurrection but I'm pretty sure he ignores the teaching of the Catholic church on the subject.

            I don't think it's a matter of "what evidence he uses to reject the resurrection." You really don't need evidence to reject the resurrection. You need faith to believe in it. Once a Christian concludes the existence of God is very doubtful, it is not then incumbent upon him or her to "disprove" the resurrection in order to justify unbelief. N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God notwithstanding, historical investigation cannot prove miraculous occurrences like the resurrection. That does not mean miracles, including the resurrection, have never happened. They just cannot be proven by historians.

          • Rob Abney

            What about eyewitness accounts?

          • David Nickol

            What about eyewitness accounts?

            As far as I know, we don't have any. Paul is the closest thing to an eyewitness to the risen Jesus, and it's impossible from his own accounts to know what he saw. The scholarly consensus is that the evangelists were not eyewitnesses to the events in the life of Jesus or the alleged appearances of Jesus after the crucifixion. The standard rejoinder to that assertion on Strange Notions is to cite Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, but even he acknowledges in that book that he is arguing a minority view. I have only read parts of that book, but I have read his book Jesus: A Very Short Introduction. What I do remember from that was being more than a little surprised was his saying the following:

            I do not think John invents events for theological purposes. However, I do think John is a more interpretive Gospel than the others, and none the worse for that. So when it comes to the discourses of Jesus in John, I have been more cautious. Whereas the Synoptics usually preserve the sayings of Jesus as his disciples learned and remembered them, varying and expanding them for interpretive purposes only to a quite limited degree, John seems to avail himself of the permission generally allowed ancient historians to put into his own words the sort of thing Jesus would have said. So the discourses of Jesus in John are peppered with the traditional sayings on which John has expanded with his own reflective interpretation. The more interpretative nature of John's Gospel makes it appropriate, on occasion, to treat this Gospel's handling of a topic separately from that of the Synoptics."

            Now, there is nothing remarkable about that in "mainstream" New Testament scholarship, but it's been my experience that those who argue for the evangelists as eyewitnesses tend to give a great deal of weight to tradition that John the evangelist was "the beloved disciple," a tradition largely rejected by the "mainstream." Exactly why one of Jesus's disciples and and an eyewitness to the events of his life would be the one to put long discourses in the mouth of Jesus instead of recording what Jesus actually said in John's own hearing takes more than a bit of explaining.

          • Doug Shaver

            What about eyewitness accounts?

            There are no extant copies of any document known to have been produced by anyone who could have witnessed anything that the historical Jesus said or did.

          • David Nickol

            647 O truly blessed Night, sings the Exultet of the Easter Vigil, which alone deserved to know the time and the hour when Christ rose from the realm of the dead! But no one was an eyewitness to Christ's Resurrection and no evangelist describes it. No one can say how it came about physically. Still less was its innermost essence, his passing over to another life, perceptible to the senses. Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles' encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history. This is why the risen Christ does not reveal himself to the world, but to his disciples, "to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people."

          • Rob Abney

            That is from CCC, right?
            Your point is that the resurrection itself was not witnessed, but the resurrected Christ was witnessed.
            So, does Ehrman reject the historicity of the risen Christ?

          • David Nickol

            So, does Ehrman reject the historicity of the risen Christ?

            I don't want to speak for Ehrman, but would it not be a strange kind of Christian who could lose his faith and become agnostic while still accepting the historicity of the risen Christ?

          • Michael Murray

            A lot of Bart Ehrman stuff has been covered here

            https://strangenotions.com/how-jesus-became-god-a-critical-review/

            This is his recent book "How Jesus Became God" which discusses the supposed resurrection.

          • I just have always found there is a logical difficulty, or perhaps a category mistake between the following two descriptions: That of Jesus as being Two persons with One Nature. And the Definition of the Trinity, as Three persons as or identical, or within the simplicity of Being a One God. Does no one else see the 'difficulty'??? Edit: Got it wrong, I believe. Jesus was in 'fact' One Person, with two natures. So does this mean that Jesus as Man is or is not God?????

          • Rob Abney

            Jesus is fully divine and fully human, yes it's difficult to understand because it does not fit into any of our univocal categories.

          • My understanding of language is that it is very difficult to find univocity, but rather language is primarily forms of equivocation, of similarities and difference, of analogy - (metaphor). How to explain the 'identity' of God through language then, I would agree with you, is an extremely difficult 'intellectual' pursuit. Thanks for responding.

          • Lazarus

            I'm not sure if it's all that important to you, Rob, but Ehrman writes that the real reason why he left Christianity is more the problem of evil / suffering. You can follow this trajectory in his book "God's Problem." In one of his other books he actually argues that despite the difficulties in the Bible he believes that one can still hold one's Christian beliefs.

            Edit : sorry Rob, I see David Nickol has already dealt with this below. Darn Disquss.

          • James Watrous

            You could get Erhman's book from the library and not pay for it.

          • Doug Shaver

            The OP is not filled with evidence, but of course it is the opening paragraphs of a book in which evidence is presented.

            There is more to a cogent historical argument than a mere presentation of evidence. Evidence is, or ought to be, just a set of facts that are not themselves in dispute. It is also necessary to demonstrate how those facts are best accounted for by supposing the truth of one's conclusion. On the latter point, Ehrman fails, and in my opinion he fails quite badly.

          • David Nickol

            On the latter point, Ehrman fails, and in my opinion he fails quite badly.

            Are you saying Ehrman fails in the excerpt above, or that his entire book

            Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth fails as an argument for the historical figure of Jesus? If the former, it would certainly be unfair to expect a short excerpt from a book to do the job of the entire book.

            Is it your opinion that Jesus did not exist, or that he existed but Bart Ehrman supplies inadequate evidence?

          • Doug Shaver

            I'm referring to the book as a whole. I do have problems with the introduction as well, but I get it that the introduction was not supposed to be a presentation of the evidence.

            I am of the opinion that Jesus probably did not exist. Even if he did, though, Ehrman's argument for his existence is woefully inadequate. And I say that, having read several of his other books and being very favorably impressed with his scholarship. His book on Jesus' historicity was, for me, a major disappointment. I was expecting much better from him.

          • David Nickol

            I am of the opinion that Jesus probably did not exist. Even if he did,
            though, Ehrman's argument for his existence is woefully inadequate.

            Is it your opinion that if historians cannot make an air-tight case for the existence of some alleged historical figure, the most reasonable assumption is that such a figure did not exist?

            It seems to me the most plausible assumption, absent any evidence to the contrary, is that there was a historical person named Jesus who had followers during his lifetime and some of whose followers were successful in keeping that movement alive. Part of that success, it seems to me, was the result of not staying true to the message of Jesus, who was a Jew and not a "Christian," and thereby making the Jesus movement much more popular to a wide audience than it otherwise would have been.

            The independent (non-Christian) attestations to the existence of Jesus are admittedly thin, but I am not sure what evidence of his nonexistence would look like.

          • Doug Shaver

            Is it your opinion that if historians cannot make an air-tight case for the existence of some alleged historical figure, the most reasonable assumption is that such a figure did not exist?

            No, not at all. It is my opinion that that would be a very silly position to take.

            It seems to me the most plausible assumption, absent any evidence to the contrary, is that there was a historical person named Jesus who had followers during his lifetime and some of whose followers were successful in keeping that movement alive.

            On the question of whether a certain person lived in a particular place at a particular time, I don't think there should be any assumption one way or the other. What we believe should depend on the evidence.

            but I am not sure what evidence of his nonexistence would look like.

            Have you given any thought to what evidence for the nonexistence of any other person would look like?

          • David Nickol

            Have you given any thought to what evidence for the nonexistence of any other person would look like?

            Yes, from the Bible, certainly. There's Adam and Eve. It is quite difficult to believe that Moses existed, or Abraham, at least as they are depicted in the Bible. Few modern biblical scholars (I think it is fair to say) believe what was traditionally held about the evangelists Matthew and John. St. Christopher was removed from the Catholic Church's list of saints because of lack of evidence that there was a real person behind the legend.

            Since the 18th century, there has been a great deal of biblical scholarship devoted to sifting through the Gospels and trying to tease apart what Jesus really said and did from "apologetics" and such by the biblical authors. There's a fair amount of consensus. That does not really constitute proof that there is a historical figure behind the Jesus of the Gospels, but it does seem rather strange that so many people of all religions and no religion who have studied the relevant texts look for a real but obscured person instead of concluding Jesus was a mythical figure.

            Also, there are embarrassments (some inadequately papered over) in the Gospels that it seems likely were actual events or they would have been omitted. An example is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Why have the greater figure (Jesus) initiated by the lesser? It has never made any sense to me. And of course there are the two major ones—the denial of Peter and the betrayal by Judas—not to mention crucifixion, the most degrading method of execution reserved for the lowest criminals. We are so familiar with the story of Jesus that we take the crucifixion as the most obvious and "natural" death for him as a religious figure, but it was anything but.

          • Doug Shaver

            Have you given any thought to what evidence for the nonexistence of any other person would look like?

            Yes, from the Bible, certainly. There's Adam and Eve. It is quite difficult to believe that Moses existed, or Abraham, at least as they are depicted in the Bible.

            I'm not sure at this point whether we mean the same thing by "evidence." For me, "It's hard to believe X" doesn't count much as evidence against X. Evidence against X, as I understand evidence, is some undisputed fact that seems inconsistent with X's being true. If I have such evidence, then it will be (or ought to be) difficult for me to believe X, but my difficulty will not itself be evidence, but rather a result of my awareness of the evidence.

            Few modern biblical scholars (I think it is fair to say) believe what was traditionally held about the evangelists Matthew and John.

            Yes, because those scholars have discovered certain facts that are inconsistent with the traditions. Among those facts are the actual content of the extant manuscripts of the writings attributed to them, together with other apparent facts about the probable origins and transmission history of early Christian writings in general.

            but it does seem rather strange that so many people of all religions and no religion who have studied the relevant texts look for a real but obscured person instead of concluding Jesus was a mythical figure.

            Not so strange, actually. If you assume from the outset that those writings were about a real person, obscured or otherwise, and if you maintain that assumption throughout your inquiry, then you are not going to reach any conclusion inconsistent with that assumption.

            Also, there are embarrassments (some inadequately papered over) in the Gospels that it seems likely were actual events or they would have been omitted.

            I think "they would have been omitted" assumes certain facts that are not actually in the evidence.

            We are so familiar with the story of Jesus that we take the crucifixion as the most obvious and "natural" death for him as a religious figure, but it was anything but.

            Really? A reputedly good man angers some powerful people, and those powerful people kill him. I'm supposed to think nobody would believe a story like that unless it really happened?

          • David Nickol

            Really? A reputedly good man angers some powerful people, and those powerful people kill him. I'm supposed to think nobody would believe a story like that unless it really happened?

            But that is not the story. Jesus is not just "a reputedly good man." In the Gospels he is the Messiah and quite possibly divine. And my point was not merely that he was killed, but that he was crucified, a particularly humiliating and ignoble death. Martyrdom is one thing, but being killed as a common criminal (having been betrayed by one of your own followers) is quite another. Paul said, "For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . . ."

            Of course you may not consider such things proof or even "evidence," but it does seem to me that the story of Jesus is not the kind of thing that would have been invented out of whole cloth. After 2000 years, Christians see the crucifixion as some kind of triumph. The day it is commemorated is called "Good" Friday. But in first-century Palestine, crucifixion had to have been seen as a catastrophe.

          • Lazarus

            A very good point, especially well developed by N. T. Wright. If you were going to create a new religion a la L. Ron you would hardly write the script this way.

          • Doug Shaver

            but it does seem to me that the story of Jesus is not the kind of thing that would have been invented out of whole cloth.

            I would not use that expression because it insinuates deceitful intent. I don't think it occurred to anyone involved in creating the gospel stories that anybody would think they were about a real person.

            But in first-century Palestine, crucifixion had to have been seen as a catastrophe.

            I've seen enough Christians boast about the counterintuitiveness of their doctrines to doubt that that would have been regarded as a problem by the first Christians. However, assuming for the sake of argument that nobody in first-century Palestine could have been persuaded that a man who had been crucified was the messiah, then I think it reasonable to doubt that anybody in first-century Palestine was saying any such thing.

      • Deference to authority, I don't have the background to properly evaluate the evidence.

    • Doug Shaver

      I'd defer to Erhman and other historians on this.

      So would I, if I had never looked at any of the evidence for myself.

  • Peter

    From an apologetics point of view, the question of whether Jesus existed as a man is not important. What is important is whether we believe that he was God also. Even the most learned scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, who have more reasons than most to be convinced that Jesus existed, do not believe that he was God. If such scholars who have spent their careers scrutinising Jesus' life, and the historical writings associated with it, are not convinced that he was God, how can the rest of us claim that Jesus was God purely on the basis that he existed historically as a man?

    In his book, Mad, Bad or God, Canon John Redford makes a powerful case for the divinity of Jesus by examining the historical authenticity of the Gospel of St John. What is not clear is the extent to which Bart Ehrman would consider St John's Gospel to be authentic. Why would he consider it authentic enough to prove that Jesus existed but not authentic enough to prove that he was God? Perhaps Ehrman is not as dispassionate as he claims to be.

    • Michael Murray

      This has been covered I think in a previous post:

      https://strangenotions.com/why-jesus-is-god-a-response-to-bart-ehrman/

      • Peter

        Thanks for the link. I'm now convinced that Bart Ehrman is not the dispassionate observer he claims to be. In fact, I suspect that Ehrman is using some form of reverse psychology, which is to prove beyond doubt that Jesus existed as a man in order to demonstrate that he was plainly no more than one.

        This is far more effective a denial of divinity than seeking, in the face of historical writings and other evidence to the contrary, to prove that Jesus never existed in the first place.

        • David Nickol

          This is far more effective a denial of divinity than seeking, in the face of historical writings and other evidence to the contrary, to prove that Jesus never existed in the first place.

          It's as if you imagine Bart Ehrman sat down one day and asked himself, "What is the most effective way for me to undermine Christianity? Should I argue Jesus never existed? Or should I argue that he did exist?" Hopefully I am misunderstanding you, because everything we know about Ehrman points to the conclusion that to imagine such calculating on his part is preposterous and more than a little paranoid.

          • Peter

            From the link provided by Mark Murray:

            "Many by now know at least the outlines of Ehrman’s biography: once a devout Bible-believing evangelical Christian, trained at Wheaton College, the alma mater of Billy Graham, he saw the light and became an agnostic scholar and is now on a mission to undermine the fundamental assumptions of Christianity"

          • OverlappingMagisteria

            That quote is how Bishop Barron views Ehrman, not at all how Ehrman sees himself. It seems that Bishop Barron is making the same strange assumptions about Ehrman's motivations that you are.

    • David Nickol

      From an apologetics point of view, the question of whether Jesus existed
      as a man is not important. What is important is whether we believe
      that he was God.

      That Jesus existed as a man is dogma. If Jesus existed, but not as a man, then Christianity collapses like a house of cards. You can't have Christianity without the Incarnation.

      Perhaps Ehrman is not as dispassionate as he claims to be.

      Has Bart Ehrman claimed to be "dispassionate"? Can you give any evidence that he has?

      • Peter

        What I should have written, which your comment has brought to my attention, is: "What is important is whether we believe that he was God also." I have corrected that in my original comment.

        The Church holds that Jesus is one person with two natures, human and divine in what is known as the hypostatic union.
        The person of Jesus is neither solely of a human nature nor solely of a divine nature, but is a union of both. The Church does not hold that Jesus existed with solely a human nature.

        As for the evidence you requested, the following is from above:

        "But as a historian I think evidence matters. And the past matters. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist"

  • James Watrous

    I read Erhman's book DID JESUS EXIST? And I enjoyed it. I may not have agreed with every single thing he wrote in the book, but I think his overall thesis is right. "Jesus did exist whether we like it or not." To quote from the book.