Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Bart D. Ehrman
San Francisco: Harper One, 2012. 361 pp., hardcover, $26.99. 

We live in an age of suspicion. Verities that were once universally accepted are now seen as dubious. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than with the issue of the historical Jesus. Gospel truth is no longer seen as true; more and more things about the founder of Christianity seem to come into question all the time. It's not surprising that, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points out in his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?, many now believe that Jesus was a mythical creation.

As Ehrman shows, the impulse to question Jesus's historical existence arose during the late eighteenth century, when certain scholars argued that he was yet another manifestation of the type of a dying and resurrecting god also personified in pagan deities such as Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris. More recently, similar views have gained currency in the film Zeitgeist, popular on the Internet, and in Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy's 1999 book The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God?

As a result, Ehrman says he has been asked over and over again whether Jesus actually lived as a human being. These initially came as a surprise to him: after thirty years as a New Testament scholar, he had come to doubt many things about Jesus, but not his existence. Nevertheless, he discovered a wealth of literature making this argument. He quotes Earl Doherty, one of today's leading proponents of this "mythicist" position, who defines it as follows: "the theory that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single identifiable person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition"

Ehrman replies that this view is held by practically no reputable scholars in this field. In fact they almost universally agree that "Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea" He spends the rest of his book showing why.

Ehrman rapidly dismisses some of the most popular mythicist accounts, such as Freke and Gandy's Jesus Mysteries, on the grounds that their "factual errors abound at an embarrassing rate" He gives a partial list of errors in The Jesus Mysteries on pages 28–30; one of the most familiar is the claim that the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. "No, he did not," Ehrman replies. "He made it a legal religion. It was not made the state religion until the end of the fourth century under Theodosius"

Ehrman devotes most of his book to demolishing claims by better-informed authors, including Earl Doherty, Robert Price, and George A. Wells, who generally manage to avoid elementary mistakes. He devotes individual chapters to examining non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus, to the Gospels as historical sources, and to evidence for Jesus's existence outside the Gospels.

One of the most interesting parts of the book has to do with the claims about dying and rising gods in antiquity, which mythicists argue were the prototypes for the Jesus story. Citing work by scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith of the University of Chicago, Ehrman points out that evidence for these dying and resurrected gods in antiquity is skimpy or nonexistent: none of these gods both died and was resurrected. To take the most familiar example, the Egyptian god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, and reassembled by his sister and wife Isis. "The key point to stress, however," Ehrman writes, "is that Osiris does not—decidedly does not—return to life. Instead he becomes the powerful ruler of the dead in the underworld"

Ehrman also shows that there are several independent sources for Jesus's existence in the New Testament itself. While the four Gospels do not always agree, this very fact indicates that there are multiple accounts of Jesus's life: they are not a single fictional creation. The earliest writings in the New Testament, the epistles of Paul, also attest to Jesus's physical existence. In many passages (e.g., Gal. 4:4), Paul emphasizes that Jesus lived as a human being and had a human mother. Moreover, Paul says that he personally knows the disciples as well as Jesus's brother James.

Overall Ehrman's attempt to prove that there was such a figure as the historical Jesus is successful. And yet in a sense his book is dissatisfying and disingenuous. Among the core data about Jesus is the assertion that he rose from the dead and was seen by many people afterward. This was a central claim of the "Jesus movement" from the outset; it is as well attested as the less controversial facts that he lived and was crucified. Ehrman admits as much, but he does not quite know what to do with it. If this is a myth (and he suggests that it is not), then all the other supposedly historical details about Jesus may well be myths also. If it is not a myth, what did the disciples see and what did it mean? Was it all just a mass hallucination? Ehrman does not say.

At the beginning of Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman says that his next book will be about "how Jesus became God" In that work he will have to deal with the evidence for the resurrection and its implications. It's unfortunate that we will have to wait for the next installment to find out what he thinks.

Richard Smoley