Did Jesus Exist? | Notes & Review

Bart Ehrman. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne, 2012. (361 pages)

[many thanks to Janelle for our copy!]


When mythicists use the term [myth] they often seem to mean simply a story that has no historical basis, a history-like narrative that in fact did not happen. (3)

What I 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. … I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. (5)

But as a historian I think evidence matters. …he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him. (6)

…as a historian I can show why at least one set of skeptical claims about the past history of our civilization is almost certainly wrong, even though these claims are seeping into the popular consciousness at an alarming rate. Jesus existed, and those vocal persons who deny it do so not because they have considered the evidence with the dispassionate eye of the historian, but because they have some other agenda that this denial serves. From a dispassionate point of view, there was a Jesus of Nazareth. (6-7)

Part I – Evidence for the Historical Jesus

1 | An Introduction to the Mythical View of Jesus

…there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. (12)

A Brief History of Mythicism

The first author to deny the existence of Jesus appears to have been the eighteenth-century Frenchman Constantin Francios Volney, a member of the Constituent Assembly during the French Revolution. Article: “Ruins of Empire” (1791).

Charles-Francois Dupuis, secretary of the revolutionary National Convention. The Origin of All Religions (1795).

Bruno Bauer, German theologian. Criticism of the Gospel History of John (1840); Criticism of the Gospels (1850-1852); The Origin of Christianity from Graeco-Roman Civilization (1877).

J.M. Robertson, British rationalist. Christianity and Mythology (1900)

Arthur Drews, German scholar. The Christ Myth (1909)

Earl Doherty. The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?; Jesus: Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Christ.

Robert Price. The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?; The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems.

Frank Zindler, scientist. Through Atheist Eyes: Scenes from a World That Won’t Reason; Religions and Scriptures.

Thomas L. Thompson. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David.

Richard Carrier. Tom Harpur. Archibald Robinson.

G.A. Wells, professor emeritus of German at the University of London. Did Jesus Exist? (1975)

On Taking Mythicists Seriously

These sensationalist books may have a reading public. They are, after all, written to be read. But if scholars take note of them at all, it is simply out of amazement that such inaccurate and poorly researched publications could ever see the published light of day. (21)

The Christ Conspiracy

Acharya S, (D. M. Murdock), The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold.

Mythicists of this ilk should not be surprised that their views are not taken seriously by real scholars, that their books are not reviewed in scholarly journals, mentioned by experts in the field, or even read by them. The book is fill with so many factual errors and outlandish assertions that it is hard to believe that the author is serious. If she is serious, it is hard to believe that she has ever encountered anything resembling historical scholarship. (21)

In short, if there is any conspiracy here, it is not on the part of the ancient Christians who made up Jesus but on the part of modern authors who make up stories about the ancient Christians and what they believed about Jesus. (25)

The Jesus Mysteries

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? (1999)

The authors provide no evidence for their claims concerning the standard mythology of the godmen. They cite no sources from the ancient world that can be checked. It is not that they have provided an alternative interpretation of the available evidence. They have not even cited the available evidence. And for good reason. No such evidence exists. … This is not serious historical scholarship. It is sensationalist writing driven by a desire to sell books. (26)

The Basic Mythicist Position

On the negative side, mythicists typically stress that there are no reliable references to the existence of Jesus in any non-Christian sources of the first century. (30-31)

We will be looking at all of these references soon; for now it is enough to note that mythicists argue that it is hard to believe that Jesus would not be talked about, argued with, commented on, or even mentioned by writers of his own day or in the decades afterward if he really existed. (31)

For now it is enough to stress that mythicists make a two-pronged argument: given the negative argument, that we have no reliable witness that even mentions a historical Jesus, and the positive one, that his story appears to have been modeled on the accounts told of other divinities, it is simplest to believe that he never existed but was invented as another supernatural being. In this reading of the evidence, Christianity is founded on a myth. (34)

2 | Non-Christian Sources for the Life of Jesus

In my view, the only thing I attack in my writings (and not even directly) is a fundamentalist and conservative evangelical understanding of Christianity. (35)

My goal, however, is neither to please nor to offend. It is to pursue a historical question with all the rigor that it deserves and requires and in doing so to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him. (37)

Preliminary Remarks

Technically, we cannot prove a single thing historically. (38)

The burden of proof belongs with whoever is making a claim – E. P. Sanders

The Kinds of Sources Historians Want

First, there is a real preference for hard, physical evidence, for example, photographs. (39)

In addition to physical evidence, we look for surviving products that can be traced with relative certainty back to the person. (40)

Finally, historians look to other kinds of evidence not from the person but about the person — that is, reference to, quotations of, or discussions about the person by others. (40)

Historians prefer to have lots of written sources, not just one or two. (40)

Historians also prefer to have sources that are relatively near the date of the person or event that they are describing. (41)

Historians also like these numerous and early sources to be extensive in scope. (41)

Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points if not in all the details. (41)

At the same time, it is important to know that the various sources are independent of one another and do not rely on each other for all their information. (41)

The Sources for Jesus: What We Do Not Have

Physical Evidence? …there is no hard, physical evidence of Jesus (eighteen hundred years before photography was invented), including no archaeological evidence of any kind. (42) We also do not have any writings from Jesus. …I should point out that we have nothing in writing from over 99.99 percent of people who lived in antiquity. (43)

Non-Christian Sources of the First Century? It is also true, as the mythicists have been quick to point out, that no Greek or Roman author from the first-century mentions Jesus. (43) I should reiterate that it is a complete “myth” (in the mythicist sense) that Romans kept detailed records of everything and that as a result we are inordinately well informed about the world of Roman Palestine and should expect then to hear about Jesus if he really lived. (44) …Pilate is mentioned only in passing in the writing of the one Roman historian, Tacitus, who does name him. (45) …how often is Josephus mentioned in Greek and Roman sources of his own day, the first century CE? Never. (45)

Eyewitness Accounts? …we do not have a single reference to Jesus by anyone — pagan, Jew, or Christian — who was a contemporary eyewitness, who recorded things he said and did. (46) [According to William Harris in Ancient Literacy] …only about 10 percent of the population could read at all and possibly copy out writing on a page.  far fewer than this, of course, could compose a sentence, let alone a story, let alone an entire book. And who were the people in this 10 percent? They were the upper-class elite who had the time, money, and leisure to afford an education. (47) …3 percent of Jews in Palestine were literate (Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine). The authors of the Gospels were unusually well-educated speakers and writers of Greek. (48)

My point in this discussion, in any event, is that the Gospels of the New Testament are not eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus. Neither are the Gospels outside the New Testament, of which we have over forty, either in whole or in fragments (For a collection of them, see Ehrman and Plese, Apocryphal Gospels). In fact, we do not have any eyewitness report of any kind about Jesus, written in his own day. (49)

Non-Christian References to Jesus – ROMAN

Pliny the Younger. …the younger Pliny is best known for a series of letters that he wrote later in life to the Roman emperor, Trajan, seeking advice for governing his province. In particular, letter number 10 from the year 112 CE is important, as it is the one place in which Pliny appears to mention the existence of Jesus. (51)

In his letter 10 to the emperor Pliny discusses the fire problem and in that context he mentions another group that was illegally gathering together. As it turns out, it was the local community of Christians. (For an accessible translation of this letter, along with translations of the other Roman sources that I mention in this chapter, see Robert M. Grant, Second-Century Christianity: A Collection of Fragments, 2nd ed.) (51)

Pliny learned from reliable sources that the Christians (illegally) gathered together in the early morning. He provides us with some important information about the group: they included people from a variety of socioeconomic levels, and they ate meals together of common food. Pliny may tell the emperor this because of rumors, which we hear from other later sources, that Christians committed cannibalism. (They did, after all, eat the flesh of the Son of God and drink his blood.) Moreover, Pliny informs the emperor, the Christians “sing hymns to Christ as to a god.” (51)

That’s all he says about Jesus: the Christians worshipped him by singing to him. He does not, as you can see, even call him Jesus but instead uses his most common epithet, Christ. Whether Pliny knew the man’s actual name is anyone’s guess. One might be tempted to ask as well whether he knew that Christ was (at one time?) a man, but the fact that he indicates that the songs were offered to Christ “as to a god” suggests that Christ was, of course, something else. (52)

So at the least we can say that the idea of Jesus having existed was current by the early second century, but the reference of Pliny does not provide us with much more than that. (52)

Suetonius. It is in Suetonius’s biography of Claudius, emperor of Roman from 41 to 54 CE, that a second reference to Jesus is sometimes thought to occur. Suetonius indicates that at one point in his reign Claudius deported all the Jews from Rome because of riots that had occurred “at the instigation of Chrestus.” (53)

The reading of the situation may receive some support from the New Testament book of Acts, which also refers to the incident (18:2). One problem with this reconstruction of events is that if Suetonius did have some such situation in mind, he misspelled Jesus’s epithet, since Christ in Latin would be Christus, not Chrestus (although this kind of spelling mistake was common). Moreover, since Chrestus itself could be a name, it may well be that there simply was  Jew named Chrestus who caused a disturbance that led to riots in the Jewish community. (53)

In any event, even if Suetonius is referring to Jesus by a misspelled epithet, he does not help us much in our quest for non-Christian references to Jesus. Jesus himself would have been dead for some twenty years when these riots in Rome took place, so at best Suetonius would be providing evidence, if he can count for evidence, that there were Christians in Rome during the reign of Claudius. (54)

Tacitus. Tacitus wrote his famous Annals of Imperial Rome in 115 CE as a history of the empire from 14 to 68 CE. Probably the best-known single passage of this sixteen-volume work is the one in which he discusses the fire that consumed a good portion of Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero, in 64 CE. According to Tacitus, it was the emperor himself who had arranged for arsonists to set fire to the city because he wanted to implement his own architectural plans and could not very well do so while the older parts of the city were still standing. But the plan backfired, as many citizens — including those, no doubt, who had been burned out of house and home — suspected that the emperor himself was responsible. Nero needed to shift the blame onto someone else, and so, according to Tacitus, he claimed that the Christians had done it. The populace at large was willing to believe the charge, Tacitus tells us, because the Christians were widely maligned for their “hatred of the human race.” (54)

And so Nero had the Christians rounded up and executed in very public, painful, and humiliating ways. Some of them, Tacitus indicates, were rolled in pitch and set aflame while still alive to light Nero’s gardens; others were wrapped in fresh animal skins and had wild dogs set on them, tearing them to shreds. It was not a pretty sight. (54-55)

In the context of this gory account, Tacitus explains that “Nero falsely accused those whom …the populace called Christians. The author of this name, Christ, was put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in the city [of Rome].” (55)

Once again, Jesus is not actually named here, but it is obvious in this instance that he is the one being referred to and that Tacitus knows some very basic information about him. He was called Christ, he was executed at the order of Pontius Pilate, and this was during the reign of Tiberius. Moreover, this happened in Judea, presumably, since that was where Pilate was the governor and since that was where Jesus’ followers originated. All of this confirms information other-wise available from Christian sources, as we will see. (55)

We now know from the inscription discovered in 1961 at Caesarea that as governor, Pilate had the title and rank, not of procurator (one who dealt principally with revenue collection), but of prefect (one who also had military forces at his command). This must show that Tacitus did not look up any official record of what happened to Jesus, written at the time of his execution (if in fact such a record ever existed, which is highly doubtful). He therefore had heard the information. (56)

These three references are the only ones that survive from pagan sources within a hundred years of the traditional date of Jesus’s death (around the year 30 CE). (56)

Non-Christian References to Jesus – JEWISH

Josephus. Book 20 of the Antiquities. Here Josephus is referring to an incident that happened in 62 CE, before the Jewish uprising, when the local civic and religious leader in Jerusalem, the high priest Ananus, misused his power. The Roman governor had been withdrawn, and in his absence, we are told, Ananus unlawfully put to death a man named James, whom Josephs identifies as “the brother of Jesus, who is called the messiah” (Antiquities 20.9.1). Here, unlike the pagan references we examined earlier, Jesus is actually called by name. And we learn two things about him: he had a brother named James, and some people thought that he was the messiah. Both points are abundantly attested as well, of course, in our Christian sources, but it is interesting to see that Josephus is aware of them. (59)

Testimonium Flavianum, that is, the testimony given by Flavius Josephus to the life of Jesus. It is the longest reference to Jesus that we have considered so far, and it is by far the most important. In the best manuscripts of Josephus it reads as follows:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many o Greek origin. He was the messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wonderous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Antiquities 18.3.3)

So even if the Testimonium, in the pared-down form, was written by Josephus, it does not give us much more evidence than we already have on the question of whether there really was a man Jesus. | If, by contrast, the Testimonium was not written by Josephus, we again are neither helped nor hurt in our quest to know whether Jesus lived. (65-66)

Rabbinic Sources. Jesus is never mentioned in the oldest part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, but appears only in the later commentaries of the Gemara. One of the problems even with these very late references is that Jesus is not actually called by name even though it is reasonably clear that he is the one being referred to. There are some passages, for example, that refer to a person named “Ben [son of] Panthera.” …Scholars have long recognized that this tradition appears to represent a subtl attack on the Christian view of Jesus birth as the “son of a virgin.” (67)

In other references in the Talmud we learn that Jesus was a sorcerer who acquired his black magic in Egypt. (67)

These Talmudic references to Jesus were written hundreds of years after he would have lived and so are really of very little use for us in our quest. By the time they were set down, Christianity was a major force in the Roman Empire, and every single Christian telling stories about Jesus naturally assumed that he had really existed as a historical person. If we want evidence to support the claim that he did in fact once exist, we therefore have to turn to other sources. (68)

3 | The Gospels as Historical Sources

A Preliminary Comment on the Gospels as Historical Sources

The Gospels are filled with nonhistorical material, accounts of events that could not have happened. | … At the same time, there is historical information in the Gospels. (71)

…the authors did not write thinking they were providing the sacred scriptures for the Christian tradition. They were simply writing books about Jesus. … To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair or scholarly. (73)

Whatever one thinks of them as inspired scriptures, they can be seen and used as significant historical sources. (74)

The Gospels and Their Written Sources

Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death. (75)

So within the first century we have four independent accounts of Jesus’s life and death. (76)

…a good portion of [the Gospel of] Thomas (110-120 CE), if not all of it, does not derive from the canonical texts. to that extent it is a fifth independent witness to the life and teachings of Jesus. | The same can be said of the Gospel of Peter, discovered in 1886. (77)

Another independent account occurs in the highly fragmentary text called Papyrus Egerton 2. (77)

But if we restrict ourselves here, as we did earlier, to a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, we have at least seven independent accounts, some of them quite extensive. (It is important to recall: even if some of these sources are dependent on one another in some passages — for example, Matthew and Luke on Mark — they are completely independent in others, and to that extent they are independent witnesses.) And so it is quite wrong to argue that Mark is our only independent witness to Jesus as a historical person. (78)

Written Sources for the Surviving Witnesses

What is sometimes underappreciated by the mythicists who want to discount the value of the Gospels for establishing the historical existence of Jesus is that our surviving accounts, which began to be written some forty years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, were based on earlier written sources that no longer survive. (78)

Whereas many have attempted to compile a narrative of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them over to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all these things closely from the beginning, to write for you an orderly account (Luke 1:1-3)

…there is no reason to suspect that Luke is lying here. …Virtually everyone agrees that Luke had as one of his predecessors the Gospel of Mark. … But he had other sources as well. (79)

Q, then, is the material that Matthew and Luke have in common that is not found in Mark. And it derived from a written Gospel that no longer survives. | Q appears to have been made up predominantly of the sayings of Jesus, much like the later Gospel of Thomas. (80)

A lot of stories are found only in Luke, however, such as Jesus’ parables of the prodigal son and of the good Samaritan. Luke must have gotten these from somewhere else: scholars have long offered good reasons for thinking Luke didn’t just make everything else all up. And so they call this other now-lost source L, for Luke’s special source. (81)

Matthew as well is based on written sources. …But he too includes many stories found only in his Gospel: the visit of the wise men to worship the infant Jesus, for example, and the parable of the sheep and the goats at the last judgment. These then must have come from Matthew’s special source(s), which scholars have therefore labeled M. (81)

Many leading scholars of the Gospel of Mark think that it too was compiled not just of oral traditions that had been circulating down to the author’s day but of various written sources. (81)

If this is right, then not just our later synoptics but even our earliest surviving Gospel was based on multiple sources. (82)

but scholars have long suspected that John had at his disposal an earlier written account of Jesus’s miracles (the so-called Signs Source), at least two accounts of Jesus’ long speeches (the Discourse Sources), and possibly another passion source as well. (82)

All of these written sources I have mentioned are earlier than the surviving Gospels; they all corroborate many of the key things said of Jesus in the Gospels; and most important they are all independent of one another. Let me stress the latter point. We cannot think of the early Christian Gospels as going back to a solitary source that “invented” the idea that there was a man Jesus. The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced. Where would the solitary source that “invented” Jesus be? (82)

The Oral Traditions About Jesus

The further question that needs to be asked is where all these Gospel sources – Mark, Q, M, L, sayings source, passion narratives, proto-Thomas and so on — got their stories. This is a question that has occupied New Testament scholars for nearly a hundred years. In the early part of the twentieth century  there was a group of scholars in Germany who developed a method of studying the Gospels to address this question. The method has traditionally been called, in English, “form criticism.” (83)

Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus. The form critics were invested in two issues: what was the “situation in life” (German: Sitz im Leben) in which different kinds of stories about Jesus were told? And how did the various kinds of stories assume their various forms (so that there is one kind of form for miracle stories, another for controversy stories, and so on)? (84)

…before the Gospels came to be written, and before the sources that lie behind the Gospels were themselves produced, oral traditions about Jesus circulated, and as the stories about Jesus were told and retold, they changed their form and some stories came to be made up. (85)

The reality appears to be that there were stories being told about Jesus for a very long time not just before our surviving Gospels but even before their sources had been produced. …how far back do these traditions go? (85)

The Aramaic Origins of (Some) Oral Traditions. There is very little dispute that some of the Gospel stories originated in Aramaic and that therefore they go back to the earliest stages of the Christian movement in Palestine. This is clearly shown, as well, by a second kind of evidence. Some Gospel passages do not contain Aramaic words, but they make sense only when their Greek words and phrases are translated back into Aramaic. (88) [Mark 2:27-28]

4 | Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels

Later Sources from Outside the New Testament

Every single source that mentions Jesus up until the eighteenth century assumed that he actually existed. (96)

The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus. (96)

Non-Christian Sources. …there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the pagan Tacitus or the Jewish Josephus acquired their information about Jesus by reading the Gospels. They heard information about him. That means the information they gave predated their writings. (97)

Christian Sources. Papias cited in Eusebius’ “Church History” 3.39. …he had access to people who knew the apostles of Jesus or at least the companions of the apostles. (100) Ignatius of Antioch in “Ignatius to the Smyrneans 1-2” and “Ignatius to the Trallians, 9.” 1 Clement in a variety of references in “1 Clement.”

Canonical Sources Outside the Gospels and Paul

The Book of Acts | Jesus Tradition in Acts. …the author of Acts has access to traditions that are not based on his Gospel account so that we have yet another independent witness. (107) The Speeches in Acts. We know from ancient historians such as Thucydides that it was customary for historical writers to invent the speeches of their main characters. | But the speeches in Acts are particularly notable because they are, in many instances, based not on Luke’s fertile imagination but on oral traditions. …some of the speeches in Acts contain what scholars call preliterary traditions: oral traditions that had been in circulation from much earlier times that are found, now, only in their written forms in Acts. (109)

[Acts 13:32-33; 2:36] In both of these speeches we have, then, remnants of much older pre-Lukan traditions, older not just than the book of Acts but than any of the Gospels and older in fact than any surviving Christian writings. They embody a certain adoptionist Christology where Jesus is exalted by God and made his son at the resurrection. In both of them Jesus is understood to be purely human and to have been crucified at the instigation of the Jews in Jerusalem. Only then did God adopt him into sonship. (112)

[Acts 2:22-24; 3:13-15; 13:27-29]…the historical witnesses to Jesus’s life simply multiply the deeper we look into our surviving materials. (113)

The Non-Pauline Epistles. Thus we have not only the seven independent Gospel witnesses for knowing that Jesus existed; we have also the speeches of Acts, some of which are rooted in early Palestinian traditions, the narrative of Acts, the epistles of the New Testament, and three church fathers — all of them evidently independent of one another. (117)

The Witness of Paul

1 Thessalonians (49 CE), Galatians 4:4, Romans 15:8 …Paul was so convinced that Jesus was the Jewish messiah that he used the term Christ (messiah) as one of Jesus’s actual names. (119) Romans 1:3-4, 1 Corinthians 9:5, And so interpreters are virtually unified in thinking that Paul means Jesus’s actual brothers. [James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3)] Galatians 1:18-19, When Paul swears he is not lying, I generally believe him. (120) 1 Corinthians 15:5. The fact that Paul speaks of “the twelve” as having seen Jesus at the resurrection means either that he does not know the stories about Judas (as was possibly true of Mark and John as well) or, as I have suggested, that the name “the twelve” was attached to this group as a group, even when one of them was no longer with them. (121)

…the terminology of “received” and “delivered,” as often noted by scholars, is the kind of language commonly used in Jewish circles to refer to traditions that are handed on from one teacher to the next. (122)

So Paul probably is not referring to the betrayal of Judas in the passage about the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:22-24. but he is clearly referring to a historical event. It is important to note that he indicates this scene happened at night. This is not some vague mythological reference but a concrete historical one. (122)

Paul is quite emphatic throughout his writing that Jesus was crucified. (124) I will later stress this latter point. Jesus was not only crucified, he was buried. In other words, he died a human death, by execution, at the hands of the Romans, and he really was dead, as evidenced by his burial. (125)

The Teachings of Jesus in Paul. 1 Corinthians 11:22-24, Luke 22:19-20, Mark 10:11-12, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. When Paul claims that the Lord said something, and we have a record of Jesus saying almost exactly that, it is surely most reasonable to conclude that Paul is referring to something that he believed Jesus actually said.

Provisional Summary: Paul and Jesus. In sum, Paul does indeed show that he knew Jesus existed, and he reveals that he had at least some information about his life. …we have to remember that the writings we have from Paul were letters that he directed to his churches (and to the church of Rome, which he did not found). He is writing these letters to deal with problems that had arisen in them. His letters are not meant to spell out everything that he knew or thought about God, Christ, the Spirit, the church, the human condition, and so forth. He addressed problems that his churches were facing. (129) …what Paul does tell us makes it very clear that he knew or at least believed that Jesus had lived as a historical person some years earlier. Paul mentions that Jesus was born; that he was a Jew, a direct descendant of King David; that he had brothers, one of them named James; that he had a ministry to Jews; that he had twelve disciples; that he was a teacher; that he anticipated his own death; that he had the Last Supper on the night he was handed over; that he was killed at the instigation of Jews in Judea; and that he died by crucifixion. He also refers on several occasions to Jesus’s teachings. Paul certainly knew that Jesus existed, and he knew some things about him. (130)

Romans 1:3-4. He is using, then, an earlier creed that was in circulation before his writing. 9130)

Paul must have been converted sometime after the death of Jesus around 30 CE and sometime before 40 CE. The latter date is based on the fact that in 2 Corinthians 11:32 Paul indicates that King Aretas of the Nabateans was determined to prosecute Paul for being a Christian. Aretas died around the year 40. So Paul converted sometime in the 30s CE. When scholars crunch all the numbers that Paul mentions, it appears that he must have converted early in the 30s, say, the year 32 or 33, just two or three years after the death of Jesus. | This means that if Paul went to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and James three years after his conversion, he would have seen them, and received the traditions that he later gives in his letters, around the middle of the decade, say the year 35 or 36. The traditions he inherited, of course, were older than that and so must date to just a couple of years or so after Jesus’s death. (131)

We do not have to wait for the Gospel of Mark around 70 CE to hear about the historical Jesus, as mythicists are fond of claiming. This evidence from Paul dovetails perfectly with what we found from the Gospel traditions… (131-132)

Mythicist Counterarguments. Not one of them (scholars), to my knowledge, thinks that Paul did not believe there was a historical Jesus.

Interpolation Theories. …this seems to be a “scholarship of convenience,” where evidence inconvenient to one’s views is discounted as not really existing. (133) …there is no textual evidence that these passages were not originally Paul (they appear in every single manuscript of Paul that we have) and no solid literary grounds for thinking they were not in Paul. (133)

What we can know is that Paul certainly thought that Jesus existed. he had a clear knowledge of important aspects of Jesus’s life — a completely human life, in which he was born as a Jew to a Jewish woman and became a minister to the Jews before they rejected him, leading to his death. He knew some of Jesus’s teachings. And he knew how Jesus died, by crucifixion. For whatever reason, that was the most important aspect of Jesus’s life: his death. And Paul could scarcely have thought that Jesus died if he hadn’t lived. (140)


As a result of our investigations so far, it should be clear that historians do not need to rely on only one source (say, the Gospel of Mark) for knowing whether or not the historical Jesus existed. He is attested clearly by Paul, independently of the Gospels, and in many other sources as well: in the speeches in Acts, which contain material that predate Paul’s letters, and later in Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement. these are ten witnesses that can be added to our seven independent Gospels (either entirely or partially independent), giving us a great variety of sources that broadly corroborate many of the reports about Jesus without evidence of collaboration. And this is not counting all of the oral traditions that were in circulation even before these surviving written accounts. (140-141)

5 | Two Key Data for the Historicity of Jesus

I simply trust human intelligence. (142) I believe that better arguments will win out, if people approach the question without a bias in favor of one view or another. Maybe I’m too trusting. (143)

Consensus scholarship is like that; it offends people on both ends of the spectrum. But scholarship needs to proceed on the basis of evidence and argument, not on the basis of what one would like to think. I am always highly suspicious — completely and powerfully suspicious — of “scholars,” from one side or another, whose “historical” findings just by chance happen to confirm what they already think. (143)

What I think is that Jesus really existed but that the Jesus who really existed was not the person most Christians today believe in. (143)

Paul’s Associations

The Disciple Peter. In about the year 36, Paul went to Jerusalem to confer with Peter (Galatians 1:18-20). Paul sent fifteen days there. …Even more telling is the much-noted fact that Paul claims that he met with, and therefore personally knew, Jesus’s own brother James. (145)

The Brothers of Jesus. Paul knows one of these brothers personally. It is hard to get much closer to the historical Jesus than that. If Jesus never lived, you would think that his brother would know about it. (148)

The Crucified Messiah

For reasons that may not seem self-evident at first, claiming that Jesus was crucified is a powerful argument that Jesus actually lived. (156)

As we will see in greater detail in a later chapter, these Christians were not calling Jesus a dying-rising God. They were calling him the Jewish messiah. (157)

Jesus too was crucified, as everyone knew — or at least said. And that was probably what led Paul, in the early 30s, to decide to persecute the Christians. They were saying that Jesus was God’s special chosen one, his beloved son, the messiah. But for the pre-Christian Paul it was quite clear: Jesus was not anything like God’s chosen one, the one selected to do his will on earth. Jesus did not enjoy God’s blessing. Just the opposite: he was under God’s curse. Evidence? He was hung on a tree. (158)

Ancient Views of the Messiah. The first thing to state, and to state emphatically, is that no Jew ever thought the messiah would be God. …In fact, any leader who was specially used by God could be called his anointed one; even the Persian king Cyrus… [1 Samuel 10:1; 2 Samuel 23:1; Leviticus 4:3, 5, 16; 2 Maccabees 1:10; the Testament of Reuben 6:8] (159) The community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls expected two messiahs, one who would be a ruler-king and over him the priestly messiah. (162)

In short, ancient Jews at the turn of the era held a variety of expectations of what the future messiah would be like. But all these expectations had several things in common. In all of them the messiah would be a future ruler of the people of Israel, leading a real kingdom here on earth. He would be visibly and openly known to be God’s special emissary, the anointed one. And he would be high and mighty, a figure of grandeur and power. (162-163)

Who would make up the idea of a crucified messiah? No Jew that we know of. (163)

If it is hard to imagine Jews inventing the idea of a crucified messiah, where did the idea come from? It came from historical realities. There really was a man Jesus. …Since no one would have made up the idea of a crucified messiah, Jesus must really have existed, must really have raised messianic expectations, and must really have been crucified. No Jew would have invented him. (164)

We do not have a shred of evidence that any Jews prior to the birth of Christianity anticipated that there would be a future messiah who would be killed for sins — or killed at all — let alone one who would be unceremoniously destroyed by the enemies of the Jews, tortured and crucified in full public view. This was the opposite of what Jews thought the messiah would be. Then where did the idea of a crucified messiah come from? It was not made up out of thin air. It came from people who believed Jesus was the messiah but who knew full well that he had been crucified. (170)

Yet this is what a very small group of Jews, sometime before the year 32, were saying about Jesus. Not that he was God. And not that he was the great king ruling now in Jerusalem. He was the crucified messiah. It is almost impossible to explain this claim — coming at this place, at this time, among this people — if there had not in fact been a Jesus who was crucified. (170)

Part II – The Mythicists’ Claims

6 | The Mythicist Case: Weak and Irrelevant Claims

Claim 1: The Gospels Are Highly Problematic as Historical Sources

…the Gospels are full of discrepancies and contradictions; and the Gospels report historical events that can be shown not to have happened. …But I also think they are for the most part irrelevant to the question of whether or not there was a historical Jesus… (179) We Do Not Have the Original Texts of the Gospels. The evidence for Jesus’s existence does not depend on having a manuscript tradition of his life and teachings that is perfectly in line with what the authors of the New Testament Gospels really wrote. (180) We Do Not Know the Authors of the Gospels. …irrelevant… (182) The Gospels Are Filled with Discrepancies and Contradictions. It is absolutely true, in my judgment, that the New Testament accounts of Jesus are filled with discrepancies and contradictions in matters both large and small. (182) …But the case that I built for the existence of Jesus in the previous chapters does not hinge on the Gospels being internally consistent or free from discrepancy. (183) The Gospels Contain Non historical Material. …little bearing on whether Jesus existed. It simply means that [this alleged episode] did not happen. (184) Are All the Stories of the Gospels Filled with Legendary Material?  …”the criterion of dissimilarity.” The criterion is designed to be used as a positive guide to what Jesus really said and did and experienced, not as a negative criterion to show what he did not. …This criterion is designed to consider probabilities, not certainties. (187) …the probabilities that one establishes by using one criterion can be strengthened by appealing to others. (188) …the shaping of a story is not the same thing as the inventing of a story. You can shape a tradition about Jesus any way you want so that it looks highly legendary. But that has no bearing on the question of whether beneath the legendary shaping lies the core of the historical event. (190).

In short, the problems that the Gospels pose for scholars — the fact that we do not have the original texts, that we do not know their actual authors, that they are full of discrepancies, that they contain nonhistorical, legendary materials — are not all that significant for the particular question we are posing, whether or not Jesus existed. These problems may seem significant (and altogether relevant). But when you dig deeper into the matter and think about it more closely, it is clear that they are not. (190)

Claim 2: Nazareth Did Not Exist

No wonder this place is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Josephus, or the Talmud. It was far too small, poor, and insignificant. Most people had never heard of it, and those who had heard didn’t care. Even though it existed, this is not the place someone would make up as the hometown of the messiah. Jesus really came from there, as attested in multiple sources. …The existence (or rather, nonexistence) of Nazareth is another mythicist irrelevancy. (197)

Claim 3: The Gospels Are Interpretive Paraphrases of the Old Testament

The fact that a story about a person has been shaped according to the mold of older stories and traditions does not prove that the core of the story is unhistorical. It simply shows how the story came to take its shape. (198) The fact that stories are molded in certain ways does not necessarily mean that there is no historical information to be found in the stories. That has to be decided on other grounds. (206)

Claim 4: The Nonhistorical “Jesus” Is based on Stories About Pagan Divine Men

As was the case with the earlier claim, I think there is a good deal to be said for the idea that Christians did indeed shape their stories about Jesus in light of other figures who were similar to him. but I also think that this is scarcely relevant to the question of whether or not he existed. (208) Scholars of the Mithraic mysteries readily admit that, as with most mystery religions, we do not know a good deal about Mithraism — or at least nearly as much as we would like to know. The Mithraists left no books behind to explain what they did in their religion and what they believed. Almost all of our evidence is archaeological, as a large number of the cult’s sacred shrines (called mithraea) have been uncovered that include a bull-slaying statue (called a tauroctony). (213)

The Christian sources that claim to know something about these mysteries, in other words, had a vested interest in making others think that the pagan religions were in many ways like Christianity. (214)

There certainly are similarities between what pagans were saying about their divine men and what Christians were saying about Jesus, as we have seen in the case of Apollonius. But the parallels are not as close and as precise as most mythicists claim. Nowhere near as close. … | Jewish Christians in particular may have been inclined to portray Jesus in Old Testament terms. As soon as Christianity moved outside Judaism, however, and became a religion largely made up of converts from among the pagans, these new converts told stories about Jesus in terms that made sense to them. They increasingly shaped the stories so that Jesus looked more and more like the divine men commonly talked about in the Roman world, men who were supernaturally born because of the intervention of a god, who did miracles, who healed the sick and raised the dead, and who at the end ascended to heaven. If you wanted to describe a son of God to someone in the ancient world, these were the terms you used. You used the vocabulary and conceptions found in the idiom of the day. What other idiom could you use? It was the only language available to you. | The fact that Jesus was cast in the mold of pagan divine men dies indeed create a difficult situation for historians who want to get beyond the idiom of the stories to the historical reality that lies behind them. But the mere fact that the idiom is being used does not mean that there is no reality there. The question of whether Jesus is portrayed as a Jewish prophet or as a pagan divine man is completely independent of the question of whether he existed. (216)

7 | Mythicist Inventions: Creating the Mythical Christ

Did the  Earliest Christians Invent Jesus as a Dying-Rising God, Based on Pagan Myths?

First, there are serious doubts about whether there were in fact dying-rising gods in the pagan world, and if there were, whether they were anything like the dying-rising Jesus. Second, there is the even more serious problem that Jesus could not have been invented as a dying-rising god because his earliest followers did not think he was God. (222)

If the ambiguous evidence is interpreted in a certain way, the pagan gods who died did come back to life. But that is not really what the early teachings about Jesus were all about. It was not simply that his corpse was restored to the living. It is that he experienced a resurrection. That’s not the same thing. (225)

The idea of Jesus’s resurrection did not derive from pagan notions of a god simply being reanimated. It is derived from Jewish notions of resurrection as an eschatological event in which God would reassert his control over this world. Jesus had conquered the evil power of death, and soon his victory would become visible in the resurrection of all the faithful. (226)

According to [Mark] Smith, the methodological problem that afflicted Frazer was that he took data about various divine beings, spanning more than a millennium, from a wide range of cultures, and smashed the data all together into a synthesis that never existed. …Moreover, Smith emphasizes, a good deal of our information about these other gods comes from sources that date from a period after the rise of Christianity, writers who were themselves influenced by Christian views of Jesus and “who often received their information second-hand.” [Mark S. Smith, “The Death of ‘Dying and Rising God’ in the Biblical World: An Update, with Special Reference to Baal in the Baal Cycle,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12 91998): 288.] (229)

The majority of scholars agree with the views of Smith and Smith: there is no unambiguous evidence that any pagans prior to Christianity believed in dying and rising gods, let alone that it was a widespread view held by lots of pagans in lots of times and places. (230)

Jesus as God

The divinity of Christ is a relative latecomer to the scene of Christian theological reflections. (238) And so the key question to ask of the early traditions is not why the earliest Christian called Jesus God (since they didn’t), but why they called him the Christ. …Jesus must have really existed and must have really been crucified. …And so Jesus was not invented as a Jewish version of the pagan dying and rising god. (240)

Part III – Who Was the Historical Jesus?

8 | Finding the Jesus of History

Certainties and Uncertainties in the Life of Jesus

Everyone, except the mythicists, of course, agrees that Jesus was a Jew who came from northern Palestine (Nazareth) and lived as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era. He was at one point of his life a follower of John the Baptist and then became a preacher and teacher to the Jews in the rural areas of Galilee. He preached a message about the “kingdom of God” and did so by telling parables. He gathered disciples and developed a reputation for being able to heal the sick and cast out demons. At the very end of his life, probably around 30 CE, he made a trip to Jerusalem during a Passover feast and roused opposition among the local Jewish leaders, who arranged to have him put on trial before Pontius Pilate, who ordered him to be crucified for calling himself the king of the Jews. (269)

Unity and Diversity in First-Century Judaism

…almost all Jews were monotheists. … The God of the Jews was believed by the Jews (and them alone) to have created the world and ultimately to be sovereign over it. Jews did not insist that other people worship this God, but he was the only God for them. Among the first of the commandments given to the Jews by this God was “You shall have no other gods before me.” Jews by and large did not deny that other gods existed, but they were not to be worshipped by the Jews themselves. (272)

The Law was the greatest gift God had given his people, instructions from on high by the Almighty himself about how to life. (273)

These are some of the key aspects of what we might call “shared Judaism” in the days of Jesus: the belief in one God; the covenant he had made with them, including the circumcision of male infants; the Law he had provided; the Temple in Jerusalem where sacrifices were to be made; the observance of Sabbath; and synagogues scattered throughout the world where Jews would meet to discuss their traditions and offer prayers to God. (275)

Jewish Apocalypticism

But in this period, under the Syrians, many Jews had turned back to God and were doing precisely what he instructed them to do in the Torah. And yet they were suffering worse than ever. How could that be? | Jewish apocalyptic thinking arose in the context. It came to be thought that the suffering of the people of God was not a punishment for sin inflicted by God himself. On the contrary, it was punishment for righteousness, inflicted by forces of evil in the world, which were aligned against God. (283)

Dualism. The present age was controlled by the powers of evil: the Devil and his minions. But there would be a future age in which all that is opposed to God would be destroyed and a good kingdom would appear. (284)

Pessimism. There would be more disasters, more wars, more hunger, more poverty, more oppression — more and more until at the end of this age, when literally all hell would break out. (285)

Vindication. God would conquer [the powers of evil]. (285)

Imminence. …[this] was coming very soon. (286)

Methods for Establishing Authentic Tradition

Historians deal for the most part in probabilities, and some things are more probable than others. …More specifically, the probability that a tradition about Jesus — or anyone else for that matter — is historically accurate is increased to the extent that it passes the following criteria. (288)

Contextual Credibility. Multiple Attestation. The Criterion of Dissimilarity.

The Early History of Jesus

Jesus came from Nazareth; Jesus then was born and raised Jewish. His parents lived in rural Galilee…Jesus was almost certainly raised in relative poverty. He had brothers and probably sisters. …Jesus was a tekton (Mark 6:3), a word normally translated “carpenter,” although it can refer to anyone who works with his hands, for example, a stonemason or blacksmith. It was a lower-class occupation. In that part of the world it meant a hand-to-mouth existence. (295)

9 | Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

I present the view that appears to be the most widely held by critical scholars in the field, the one first popularized, as we have seen, by Albert Schweitzer: that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted that the end of this evil age is soon to come and that within his generation God would send a cosmic judge of the earth, the Son of Man, to destroy the forces of evil and everyone who has sided with them and to bring in his good kingdom here on earth. (298)

The oldest attainable sources contain clear apocalyptic teachings of Jesus, all of them independent of one another. What is equally striking, however, is a subsidiary issue. The apocalyptic character of Jesus’s proclamation comes to be muted with the passing of time. (301)

He was baptized by John the Baptist. …The early Christians who told stories about Jesus believed that a person who was baptized was spiritually inferior to the person who was doing the baptizing, a view most Christians still hold today. (302)

Jesus’s public ministry occurs between the beginning and the ed. Now if the beginning is apocalyptic and the end is apocalyptic, what about the middle? It almost certainly had to be apocalyptic as well. To explain this beginning and this end, we have to think that Jesus himself was an apocalypticist. (304)

The Apocalyptic Proclamation of Jesus

The Kingdom of God. The Son of Man. The Future Judgment. Preparation for the End: Keeping the Torah and Living Ethically. The conclusion? The sayings of the passage probably go back to Jesus. And their message is clear. Anyone who wants to enter into the future kingdom of God must follow the heart of the Torah and do what God commands, when he tells his people to love others as themselves. | Jesus is often thought of as a great moral teacher, and I think that is right. But it is also important to understand why he insisted on a moral lifestyle guided by the dictates of love … The ethics of Jesus’s teaching were not designed simply to make society better. They were designed to convince people to behave in appropriate ways so that when the Son of Man came, they would be among the elect and brought into the kingdom instead of being destined for either eternal torment or annihilation. (313) The Imminence of the End.

The Apocalyptic Activities of Jesus

Jesus’s Reputation as a Miracle Worker. The Associates of Jesus. The term tax collectors refers to employees of the large tax-collecting corporations that raised tribute for Rome from the hard-pressed workers of Galilee. …The term sinners refers to any of the common people who simply did not make a great effort to keep strictly the laws of the Jews. (317) The Opponents of Jesus. The controversies involved…the proper interpretation of Judaism [not to be read as meaning that Jesus had abandoned Judaism.] (319) Jesus and the Temple.

The Death of Jesus

…during his public ministry Jesus is never portrayed as calling himself the king of the Jews. (329) What then did Judas betray that allowed the authorities to arrest Jesus? Possibly this insider information. Jesus was calling himself the future king. … What is clear is that the Jewish authorities did not try Jesus according to Jewish law but instead handed him over to Pilate. (330)

Conclusion | Jesus and the Mythicists

The Problem of the Historical Jesus

In my view mythicists are, somewhat ironically, doing a disservice to the humanists for whom they are writing. (334)

Jesus would not recognize himself in the preaching of most of his followers today. He knew nothing of our world. He was not a capitalist. He did not believe in free enterprise. He did not support the acquisition of wealth or the good things in life. he did not believe in massive education. He had never heard of democracy. He had nothing to do with going to church on Sunday. He knew nothing of social security, food stamps, welfare, American exceptionalism, unemployment numbers, or immigration. He had no views on tax reform, health care (apart from wanting to heal leprosy), or the welfare state. So far as we know, he expressed no opinion on the ethical issues that plague us today: abortion and reproductive rights, gay marriage, euthanasia, or bombing Iraq. His world was not ours, his concerns were not ours, and — most striking of all – his beliefs were not ours. (335)

The problem then with Jesus is that he cannot be removed from his time and transplanted into our own without simply creating him anew. …This is the historical Jesus. And he is obviously far too historical for modern tastes. That is why so many Christians today try to reform him. (336)

In my view humanists, agnostics, atheists, mythicists, and anyone else who does not advocate belief in Jesus would be better served to stress that the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of modern Christianity than to insist — wrongly and counterproductively — that Jesus never existed. Jesus did exist. He simply was not the person that most modern believers today think he was. (336)

What is driving the mythicists’ agenda? (337)

Their agenda is religious, and they are complicit in a religious ideology. They are not doing history; they are doing theology. …But I am also a historian who thinks that it is important not to promote revisionist versions of the past for ideological reasons rooted in nonhistorical agendas. (338)

I refuse to sacrifice the past in order to promote the worthy cause of my own social and political agendas. No one else should either. Jesus did exist, whether we like it or not. (339)

— VIA —

I have compiled and interacted with several online blog reviews and critiques in Did Jesus Exist – Blogosphere Responses which will lead you down a dizzying path to what Ehrman calls “the black hole” of the Internet. Additional links are welcome.

It is difficult for a lay person to get their heads wrapped around all the various data points, nuances, ‘facts’, and theoretical developments. What can be stated as “true” is a complicated subject. This is obviously why these conversations will never end, why scholars will continually be employed (or at least occupied), and why lay people will constantly be in the dark. It is this reality that perplexes and dismays me a bit, and explains perhaps why faith is such a powerful and almost necessary virtue. One eventually has to take a leap, because the struggle toward certainty is an overwhelming task.

Overall, regarding this book, it appears that Ehrman has presented humbly and scholastically, and has even been concessionary in his remarks, a graciousness that speaks of dispassionate scholarship. The critics have been nit-picking, uncharitable, and quite anti-dispassionate.

History is quite fun, isn’t it!

About VIA


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  1. Pingback: The Evolution of Adam | Notes & Review | vialogue

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