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Did Jesus Exist? by Bart D. Ehrman
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Did Jesus Exist?

by Bart D. Ehrman

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A friend who knows that I am an atheist, as well as interested in historical controversies, sent me a citation for the book Nailed : Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed by David Fitzgerald. It's not a scholarly book, and I imagine that Ehrman would give it short shrift, but it serves to lay out the Mythicist (as Ehrman calls it) position in an organized overview. I I saw The God Who Wasn't There by Richard Carrier, and, intrigued by the alleged similarities between Christianity and ancient mystery religions, read The Jesus Mysteries : Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy recently. I decided in the interest of fairness to read a book asserting that Jesus did live, and Bart Ehrman seemed like a good choice. I've been an atheist for more than 35 years believing that Jesus existed, so I don't have a lot riding on this issue.

Ehrman writes well, and in this book he has made the effort to be particularly clear and lucid. The book seems to ramble slightly, but is generally well organized. He argues that the Gospels and the Letters of Paul date to the 30s C.E., whereas I thought they dated to the 50s and later, and there are no extant copies until much later. He does not really address the issue that our earliest copies are much later than those dates, and, as he himself has pointed out in several earlier books, transmission has not always been perfect. In addition to arguing that Jesus existed, Ehrman presents his view of what Jesus was like, i.e., that his mission was to warn of an imminent apocalypse, not to die as a sacrifice or set up a long term religion. The book is flawed by the lack of an index.

It becomes clear reviewing the two books that one of the first things one has to decide in arguing this issue is whether to assume that the Christian scriptures should be taken literally or not. Fitzgerald assumes that they should, while Ehrman does not. This makes a difference because if they are literally true, than it is much harder to argue that Jesus would have escaped the notice of historians and other scholars at the time: if darkness had covered the earth for three hours and there had been two earthquakes associated with Jesus' death, those natural phenomena at least would probably have been noted. Ehrman doesn't think they occurred, so he argues that 99.99% of people in Palestine went unnoticed, so why would Jesus be noticed? This argument is a little weak, as Jesus was not a peasant who never left his home village, and he got enough notice to apparently set the Sanhedrin's back up and get himself executed, and Ehrman seems to basically accept that part of the gospels. The question is therefore how many people with similar histories went unnoticed? Ehrman also keeps emphasizing the point of view of Palestinian Jews – is this to avoid dealing with Hellenized Jews, who presumably must have gotten involved if the gospels have come down to us in Greek?

Ehrman also argues that there is a consensus among Biblical scholars. This is not a clinching argument for me for several reasons. One is that I wonder how many of those scholars have a vested interest in Jesus having lived, either because they are churchmen, or because they don't like the idea of studying an imaginary person. Differing from the general consensus may get someone to be considered a genius, but it also may result in being considered a crank. Ehrman himself says in Chapter 7, (p.220 of the first edition): “At a reputable university of course, professors cannot teach simply anything. They need to be academically responsible and reflect the views of scholarship. That is probably why there are no mythicists – at least to my knowledge – teaching religious studies at accredited universities or colleges […] It is that their views are not seen as academically responsible by members of the academy. That in itself does not make the mythicists wrong. It simply makes them marginal.” [elisions added] That's not reassuring.

In one of the historical controversies that I read about, almost all the progress in the last century has been made under pressure from amateurs. They have forced the academics to back down from time-honored but questionable conclusions. In particular, they have forced them to back away from the illogical way that a certain document is viewed; I have read of the same problem in other fields. The document has parts that can be checked against other sources, and parts that are unique. It can be shown that some of the material that can be checked is false, but the scholars have traditionally insisted that anything that cannot checked must be true. They have garnered considerable ridicule from the lay writers for this. I don't say that lay people can always replace trained historians, but they can point out problems with their arguments.

Ehrman argues that the various Christian scriptures, canonical or not, agree that Jesus lived and was crucified that constitutes strong evidence that these two things are true. This is a point that Fitzgerald addresses inadequately. The weakness of Ehrman's argument, which he does not address, is that they also agree that Jesus rose from the dead, and performed miracles, things which a self-described agnostic leaning toward atheism like Ehrman is not likely to believe. If the miracles are imaginary, why can't the more mundane facts also be imaginary? Based on his earlier books, it is surprising to have Ehrman claiming such dependability for Christian scripture. Ehrman argues that Christian scripture should be treated as any other historical documents, but he never really analyzes them as such. The strongest evidence for Jesus' existence seems to be the claim that he was crucified, which Ehrman claims would be deeply problematic for Jews, and therefore cannot be made up; and the disputed passage in Josephus.

The crucifixion doesn't seem to me to be as great a difficulty if the Christians took features from the famous Mystery Religions, but Ehrman claims that these did not really exist, or that we know too little about them. I'm am quite surprised at this statement, since I can remember numerous myths that seem to support the idea of gods dying and rising or at least moving between the realms of the living and the dead, like Persephone. Granted, as Ehrman would argue, she is not technically dead, but it seems close enough a parallel. I had understood from reading early Christian history that Christians had had to defend themselves from the charge of imitating other religions, and even claimed that Satan, knowing what the Jesus Christ story would be, had created pagan precursors to confuse the issue. Freke and Gandy argued that Hellenized Jews created a Mystery Religion, but as monotheists, couldn't have a dying god and therefore had a dying messiah. Ehrman is completely dismissive of their book.

In sum, one of the first books taking the Mythicist arguments seriously enough to argue with them, made by someone who is not religious. I don't think that the Mythicists can prove the Jesus didn't exist -- it is very difficult to prove a negative, but they can do damage to the traditional images of Jesus. I realize that Jesus, or our vision of him, is arguably the most influential person in the last 2,000 years of Western history, but why should this continue to be so if he is debunked? Or does it only matter that the Christian religion existed? There is an atheistic book called The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man which I think of when I listen to scholars who argue that Jesus is not divine, but rather a poorly documented 1st century rabbi encrusted with an elaborate mythology -- then does it matters whether Jesus actually existed? Why do people who think that way still go to church and sing hymns and recite creeds written by people who believed entirely different things. Yes, it's traditional, but so are a lot of things I can do without.

There are two books directly critiquing Ehrman: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth, which is a collection of essays; and There was No Jesus, There is No God by Raphael Lataster, which also addresses other writers. I am actually reading the former book as I write this review, but am not bringing those arguments into this discussion. ( )
  juglicerr | Sep 22, 2014 |
A lot of good information, but not a lot of new information. Easy to read. ( )
  PontiffMaximus | May 15, 2014 |
Very disappointing. I have enjoyed everything else Ehrman has written, but he really dropped the ball on this one. ( )
  VinnyJH | Sep 4, 2013 |
Although I felt like the author rambled a bit at times, overall I felt this was a good rebuttal to the Jesus-was-nothing-more-than-a-myth argument that can be found all over the internet right now. If you've read books that claim Jesus did not exist, that he was nothing more than a created persona, this book explains why that view is not usually held by serious scholars on the subject. ( )
  TnTexas | Mar 30, 2013 |
Not finished yet and so this may change, but I am concerned about this platform of evidence pointing to near certainty of existence. ( )
  Savagemalloy | Apr 21, 2012 |
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Contents:

Part I. Evidence for the Historical Jesus : -- 1. An introduction to the mythical view of Jesus -- 2. Non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus -- 3. The gospels as historical sources -- 4. Evidence for Jesus from outside the gospels -- 5. Two key data for the historicity of Jesus
Part II. The Mythicists' Claims : -- 6. The mythicisit case : weak and irrelevant claims -- 7. Mythicist inventions : creating the mythical Christ

 Part III. Who was the Historical Jesus? : -- 8. Finding the Jesus of history -- 9. Jesus the apocalyptic prophet

Conclusion : Jesus and the mythicists
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062204602, Hardcover)

Large numbers of atheists, humanists, and conspiracy theorists are raising one of the most pressing questions in the history of religion: "Did Jesus exist at all?" Was he invented out of whole cloth for nefarious purposes by those seeking to control the masses? Or was Jesus such a shadowy figure—far removed from any credible historical evidence—that he bears no meaningful resemblance to the person described in the Bible?

In Did Jesus Exist? historian and Bible expert Bart Ehrman confronts these questions, vigorously defends the historicity of Jesus, and provides a compelling portrait of the man from Nazareth. The Jesus you discover here may not be the Jesus you had hoped to meet—but he did exist, whether we like it or not.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:48:22 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Large numbers of atheists, humanists, and conspiracy theorists are raising one of the most pressing questions in the history of religion: "Did Jesus exist at all?" Was he invented out of whole cloth for nefarious purposes by those seeking to control the masses? Or was Jesus such a shadowy figure -- far removed from any credible historical evidence -- that he bears no meaningful resemblance to the person described in the Bible? In Did Jesus Exist? historian and Bible expert Bart Ehrman confronts these questions, vigorously defends the historicity of Jesus, and provides a compelling portrait of the man from Nazareth. The Jesus you discover here may not be the Jesus you had hoped to meet -- ut he did exist, whether we like it or not. -- Publisher… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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