Did Jesus Exist?–-Review of Bart Ehrman’s New Book

At the SBL conference I ran across a new book of Bart Ehrman’s titled Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Why, you might ask, does a whole book need to be written about whether or not Jesus existed as an actual historical human being?  The reason is that a large body of literature has arisen that advocates a so-called “mythicist” view according to which the story of Jesus was created out of thin air by the earliest Christians. Examples are Did Jesus Exist? by George A. Wells, The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems by Robert Price, and The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David by Thomas L. Thompson.  Ehrman himself takes it for granted that Jesus was a historical person, but in Did Jesus Exist? he defends that view explicitly against the mythicists.

I found the book disappointing, for two main reasons. The first is that it spends an inordinate amount of time in ad hominem argument. Again and again Erhman confidently informs the reader that everyone trained in the field who teaches biblical studies at reputable institutions agrees with him. Those who disagree are at best “marginal” and at worst ill-informed amateurs driven by ulterior motives for wanting Jesus to be a myth rather than a person.

The second disappointment is related to the first:  there are in fact reputable scholars who do not agree with Ehrman’s key arguments, but he ignores them.  For example:

  • Much of the weight of Ehrman’s argument rests on the value of having multiple “independent” witnesses with stories about Jesus. But the independence of the sources that he relies on is highly debatable. Thomas Brodie’s Birthing of the New Testament presents a plausible scenario in which each Gospel builds on the ones written before it. David Trobisch’s First Edition of the New Testament argues that the whole New Testament was assembled and edited by a single publisher who controlled its contents. Michael Goulder’s Luke: A New Paradigm, along with many other scholarly works in recent years, argues against the two-source hypothesis. (The hypothesis that postulates Q presumes that Luke and Matthew were independent.)  Goulder’s book shows in great detail the evidence for Luke being dependent on Matthew.
  • Among the supposedly independent sources that Ehrman cites are the non-canonical gospels of Peter and Thomas. Both are highly questionable sources, the dating and reliability of which commands no consensus even among scholars Ehrman would consider to be mainstream.   
  • Ehrman stresses the reliability of oral tradition, but other scholars such as Thomas Brodie in Birthing of the New Testament call the whole oral tradition paradigm into question. My book Mark, Canonizer of Paul expands on Brodie’s critique of oral tradition. In Luke: A New Paradigm, Midrash and Lection in Matthew, and other works, Michael Goulder presents evidence that suggests the material unique to Luke and Matthew was composed by them, not reflective either of oral tradition or an earlier written source. 
  • A lot of the weight of Erhman’s argument rests on Mark as the earliest gospel. But his assumption that Mark intended to write historically accurate stories is in turn based on his stated assumption that Mark did not intend to write scripture. That assumption is questionable. The second half of my book Mark, Canonizer of Paul presents evidence for concluding that Mark did in fact intend to write scripture — and historical accuracy is by far not the prime directive for a scripture writer. Any critical commentary such as the two-volume one by Joel Marcus shows that Mark was not especially interested in literal historical accuracy, and other books such as Dennis R. MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark stress that point.

The whole point about relying on scholarly “consensus” and writing off those on the “margins” also is worthy of closer examination. Anyone inclined to see biblical scholarship as a field in which consensus = truth owes it to himself or herself to read Michael Goulder’s Five Stones and a Sling and Dennis R. MacDonald’s My Turn. Actually, any field in the humanities is subject to groupthink, even more than the hard sciences. As Dean Koontz laments in a book about his dog, scholarly training and an attachment to scholarly consensus can be a handicap rather than a guarantee of clear judgment:

Scientists and animal behaviorists have written libraries full of nonsense about the emotions of dogs, suggesting that they do not have emotions as we know them, or that their exhibitions that appear to be emotionally based do not mean what we interpret them to mean in our sentimental determination to see a fellowship between humanity and canines. Like too many specialists in every field, they are educated not out of their ignorance but into ignorance, because they are raised to an imagined state of enlightenment — which is actually dogmatism — where they no longer experience the light of intuition and the fierce brightness of common sense. They see the world through cloudy windows of theory and ideology, which obscure reality. This is why most experts in economics never see the financial disaster coming until the wave breaks over them, why most experts in statecraft and military strategy can be undone by an enemy’s surprise attack.

Parts of Ehrman’s book do make a fairly good case against the extreme mythicist viewpoint. Unfortunately, he goes way beyond that in the last chapter. When he gives details about what the “historical Jesus” must have been like, the weaknesses in his method of establishing historicity become more pronounced. For example, he describes the historical Jesus as (a) an apocalyptic prophet who (b) told parables, (c) had a conflict with the residents of his home town, (d) thought the main commandment of the Torah was love of God and neighbor, (e) ate with sinners and tax collectors, and (f) was betrayed by Judas. It happens that I address each of these issues in my book Mark, Canonizer of Paul.

  • (a) Paul too was an apocalyptic prophet.  Jesus the apocalyptic prophet sounds suspiciously like he could have been created by narrativizing Paul’s epistles. That process began with Mark, and I agree with Jesper Svartvik’s assessment that “The Gospel of Mark may best be described as a narrative presentation of the Pauline Gospel” (Mark and Mission, 345).
  • (b) Mark (and by extension the other evangelists) had a vested interest in presenting his points in parables because he was trying to make points that would otherwise be too obviously anachronistic when set in Jesus’ day. Also, Michael Goulder in Five Stones and a Sling and other works argues that the parables in each gospel have a character unique to the gospel in which they occur, which suggests that the evangelists composed them. 
  • (c) The story about Jesus’ rejection by his relatives and home town can be seen as a way of symbolizing the rejection of Paul’s version of Christianity by the Jews.  The feasibility of this explanation also negates Ehrman’s “criterion of dissimilarity” which he assumes makes said rejection likely to be historical.
  • (d) Paul’s identification of the command to love God and neighbor as the primary commandment of the Torah predates Mark.  The Jesus of the gospels again sounds suspiciously like the Paul of the epistles.
  • (e) The portrayal of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors can be seen as a way to defend Paul’s Gentile mission, a way of showing receptivity to social outcasts. Again, this negates Erhman’s “criterion of dissimilarity” because it gives a plausible reason for the evangelist to have made up such stories.
  • (f) Judas’s betrayal can be seen as a way to symbolize what Mark conceived of as the Christian Jews’  “betrayal” of Christ – that is, their rejection of Paul’s interpretation of what adherence to Christ meant with regard to acceptance of Gentiles.  Once again this explanation negates the “criterion of dissimilarity” and provides a motive for making up the story.

Despite the weaknesses in Ehrman’s book, he does present some valid arguments against the mythicist viewpoint. I find various references in Paul’s epistles to be the strongest, especially the mention of James as Jesus’ brother in Galatians, considering also his appearing out of nowhere in Acts 15. The problem is, Ehrman does not present solid arguments for a historical Christ that we can know a lot about.  How different is a mythical Christ from a historical Jesus that we can’t know much about with any degree of confidence?  In either case, if we want to know the Christ of Christianity we are left with the portrayal in the New Testament.  It’s the New Testament Christ that Christianity is all about, not an imaginary historical Jesus that historians construct by accepting or rejecting various parts of the gospels by applying questionable criteria and by mining equally questionable extra-Biblical sources.

Ehrman refers to one of the mythicists in a way that might just as well refer to him and this book: “He is one smart fellow. But I’m afraid he falls down on this one. Even smart people make mistakes.” (p. 167)

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6 Responses to Did Jesus Exist?–-Review of Bart Ehrman’s New Book

  1. Nicholas Nagorny says:

    There is another example of group think among biblical scholarship. That is the notion that Christian religious thought developed from the pristine simple message of Jesus to the prolix and obfuscating theology of John. The British scholar Leon Morris noticed the limitations of this approach. In particular prof. Morris pointed to the sophistication of the Epistle to the Colossian which was composed at a very early time. In the beginning there was complexity in the message of Christ.

    Thanks for pointing out the scholarship M.D. Goulder. As a student of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, I would be intrigued by Goulder’s books, Midrash and Lection in Matthew and Isaiah As Liturgy.

    Oh yes….I read your thesis, and remember your commencement address….

  2. frederik868 says:

    Fully agree with your analysis on Ehrman’s interpretation of the Gospels. Whenever I hear the words “multiple attestation” my blood starts to boil. (joke…)

    So you’re not convinced by the mythicist arguments regarding the “brother of the Lord” passage? I’ve always felt that Paul is the strongest evidence in favour of Mythicism, despite all the brief, ambiguous passages typically mentioned by historicists. “Brother of the Lord”? This could very, very easily be seen as an honorary title given to some religious leaders in the church. Given 1 Cor. 9:5, some (Doherty, Price) have suggested that these “Brothers of the Lord” were Christian missionaries (or some other “special” type of Christian) that were not apostles.

    Regardless, I think a 4 word-long reference is, under any circumstance, insufficient to invalidate the deafening silence of Paul on a “Jesus of Nazareth”.

    • Tom Dykstra says:

      I agree that a reference to “brother of the Lord” doesn’t outweigh all the evidence that points in the opposite direction. But I’m hesitant to put too much weight on interpreting it to be an honorary title, as it seems pure speculation without any evidence to back it up so far as I know. That said, I don’t have a better speculation of my own that might explain it.

      • frederik868 says:

        Thanks for your answer. So you still consider the “brother of the Lord” reference is better explained by a sibling relationship? Or do you think all explanations are equally speculative and equally likely?

  3. Tom Dykstra says:

    (Apparently WordPress won’t let you continue a comments thread beyond 3 comments.) The problem with the field of biblical scholarship is so many interpretations of texts are determined by results that people want to see rather than by dispassionate consideration of all the available evidence. This is true of mythicists as much as conservative scholars. The tendency is to make everything fit into the grand scheme once the grand scheme is chosen. Maybe there is evidence I haven’t seen regarding the word “brother” or the phrase “brother of the Lord”, but based on everything I’ve seen, the most common usage of the word is to refer to the sibling relationship, and it is used that way to speak of Jesus’s siblings in the gospels. Mythicists who push “brother” in another direction seem to me little different than conservative scholars who don’t like the idea that Mary gave birth to other children and so interpret the word when it’s used in the gospels to refer to Jesus’s cousins. So yes, I think the “honorary title” interpretation is far more speculative than sibling relationship interpretation, even though the latter appears to pose a problem for the mythicist view.

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