Bart Ehrman is a respected New Testament scholar and an “atheist-leaning agnostic”. As well as academic publications, he has written a number of popular-level books about Jesus and the New Testament. Many of the books present a more sceptical view of the New Testament than many christians accept, but one of his more recent books, Did Jesus Exist, has led to critical comments from atheists.
In this short video segment, taken from a Q&A following a talk he gave at the Freedom From Religion Foundation last year, Bart answers a question about whether there is evidence for whether Jesus existed. His answer opens up a few interesting ideas.
How much evidence is enough?
Sceptics often say there is insufficient evidence for the life of Jesus, but Bart says:
[Jesus] is abundantly attested in early sources …. early and independent sources indicate certainly that Jesus existed
What are these “abundant” and “independent” sources?
Ehrman identified these in his book:
- the writings of Paul, from within two decades of Jesus – Paul knew Jesus’ brother and Jesus’ closest disciple Peter;
- the four gospels – probably written several decades after Paul, but based on much earlier sources;
- some of the sources used by the gospel writers, and referred to by Paul, were written in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) and go back to within a few years after Jesus died;
- no contemporary Roman historians mention Jesus, but then, they didn’t mention a lot of other people we know existed either – but several later historians, including Tacitus, mention him;
- the Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus twice, and although scholars believe some of the text we have has been added to since Josephus wrote it, the consensus is that the core of the references are genuine.
Is this “abundant”?
Sceptics often diminish the value of this evidence, but Ehrman says this amount of evidence is “astounding for an ancient figure of any kind”.
How can such contrary views be explained?
History, science and the daily news?
I can only guess here, but I think sceptics expect the discipline of history to be as convincing and “provable” as they believe science is, and as contemporary and abundant as the daily news.
Expertise brings perspective
Reputable historians and scholars of antiquity have spent a lifetime becoming familiar with ancient languages and idiom, ancient culture, surviving documents and artefacts, and the history of the time. This gives them a perspective on information that non-scholars like most of us just can’t have.
They know how abundant (or otherwise, generally) are the sources for our understanding of the history of the time and the lives of other individuals. They know that the sources we have for Jesus are greater in number, closer to the events and with many more copies than is the case for almost any other ancient figure – including many who would have been far more well-known than Jesus was at the time.
So when sceptics ask for more evidence, they often lack perspective, and are asking for more than ancient history can generally provide.
Any interpretation of the evidence must lead to a believable hypothesis consistent with known history. The rise of the christian movement in the later first century and onwards is a historical fact which must be explained. The existence of a historical Jesus explains this, whereas it is unbelievable that a complete legend could be fabricated in such a short time without anyone making comment.
Many sceptics reject the gospels as sources for historical information about Jesus because they were written by Jesus’ followers. But historians recognise that most historical documents were written for political or religious purposes and all have their own point of view. Rejecting such documents would leave us with very little history.
Instead, historians take the authors’ viewpoints into account when interpreting texts. The gospels certainly have their viewpoint but historians have no doubt they contain useful historical information.
The only path really left for a Jesus-sceptic is to become a historical sceptic – to believe that we can in fact know very little about ancient history, and to doubt we know anything about many historical figures whose existence is never seriously questioned.
Some parts of science are analogous to history – for example the early stages of evolution cannot be observed or experimented with, so scientific analysis consists mainly of feasibility studies of whether hypothesised events in the past can be made to happen today (see quote by W Ford Doolittle). Yet this uncertainty doesn’t prevent biologists from drawing conclusions about the early stages of evolution.
Christian belief is a matter of both historical facts and faith. Bart Ehrman, who does not share the faith of christians nevertheless recognises the historical facts. Those of thus who believe in Jesus cannot prove our belief, but we can show it is well based on those historical facts.
- Biologist Jerry Coyne responds critically to Bart Ehrman’s talk (and perhaps illustrates some of the above comments).
- Tim O’Neill on the differences between science and history.
- Bart Ehrman summarises why we can know Jesus existed.
- Other historical scholars on whether Jesus existed and what we can conclude historically about Jesus.