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.
Good day to y’all! Scientists just love “empirical” data, well, God has it all together on that front. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what brought me to believe that Jesus/Yeshua is God and that God, and the Bible, are true.
So, what do I mean by that? Simple…God gave us over 360 prophecies in the Bible about the coming of Jesus, Savior, Prince of Peace, Wonderful, Counselor, etc. Please go to me web page “afreeticekttoheaven.com” and go to the PROPHECY PAGE, and you will see the empirical proof.
But you say, this is only ink on paper. Sure it is, but oh so much more. God told us when He would come, how, lineage, purpose, exact time, and where. Jesus came exactly as God said in the Bible, in the Old Testament. That is the proof, yes, the empirical proof. You want something measureable, tangible, real physical proof! Well, the coming of Jesus, fulfilling all these prophecies, came true, didn’t they.
And further, Jesus healed the sick, the lame, the leprous, the blind, and He brought many people back from the dead…AND He said that He would resurrect from the dead in 3 days, AND HE DID. AND there’s even more. He lived on earth for another 40 days, and then He rose up into the sky before over 500 people. AND He said that He would return as He left, from the clouds of Heaven.
So, if you demand “empirical data,” YOU GOT IT ALL RIGHT!
Be blessed, and have an awesome eternity with God in Heaven, or if you don’t want to buy this, make sure you have lots of marshmallows, because you’ll be burning in Hell for all eternity. It’s totally up to you. AND, don’t ever blame God for sending you to Hell; it’s your choice!
I ask two pointed questions here:
What do you mean by Jesus historicity? In my view this is a scale of possibilities. At one end of the scale we have the person who says that the hero of the gospels was almost certainly based on a real person. That is like saying because Long John Silver was based on a sea captain that Robert Louis Stevenson actually met that Long John Silver was an actual person.
At the other end of the scale we have the person who says that everything we read in the gospels is history including the miracles excepting for the best explanation of the contradictions between them.
Then there is a middle road which sets the miracles aside and says that everything attested to by at least two gospels is almost certainly true and several of the stories attested to by just one gospel are probably true.
There are a whole variety of middle roads. When a consensus among scholars is claimed for historicity what do those who make this claim imagine the consensus believes?
My second point is: how is consensus determined? I don’t believe any polls are carried out. Assuming there is some informal method of assessing consensus, who is included as someone whose opinion counts? Most Jesus scholars are not like other historians. They have different qualifications from different types of institutions and, in particular, most of them use a different method to asses what is actually history within their source materials. Historians now use the modern historical method. Jesus scholars use “the criteria of authenticity” such as the criteria of embarrassment.
“What do you mean by Jesus historicity?”
I mean the same as Bart Ehrman means it in his video – that a man named Jesus, recognisable as the Jesus of the gospels, lived and died in Roman occupied Palestine in the first century. That is the main thing he is saying in that video, but he also mentions that he considers Paul, Peter and James (Jesus’ brother) to be historical figures too.
As one of my links shows, a majority of scholars would accept a number of other facts (at the very least) to be historical. Beyond that, there are areas of difference on matters of historicity, and also on matters of faith.
“how is consensus determined?”
You would have to ask Bart Ehrman how he determines consensus. I imagine it is important for a scholar to keep up with the latest work, and to know where conclusions are widely accepted. Do enough reading and I guess you would have a fair idea. Publish your own ideas and see how much they are accepted, taken up and cited, or how much disagreement there is.
But I can tell you how I determine consensus. I note where scholars claim there is consensus (as Ehrman does here) and see whether I find others who say differently. I see who other scholars most respect by explicit statement (some nominate in writing who they regard as the leading scholars) and by who they cite most often. My process isn’t precise and is restricted by the limits of my reading, but I can say that my assessment is the same as Ehrman’s on this one, except I think he may have exaggerated slightly about there being no scholars in reputable institutions who believe Jesus didn’t exist – I think there may be one or two at most. But he may have a different definition of “reputable” and “scholar”.
Bart Ehrman doesn’t believe in a Jesus that you would find recognisable as the Jesus of the Gospels. It looks to me that you actually take something close to the minimalist rout in order to garner the maximum support for the idea of historicity. Then you mentally pad out the minimalist picture with gospel details which many professional scholars agree are probably untrue.
“Bart Ehrman doesn’t believe in a Jesus that you would find recognisable as the Jesus of the Gospels.”
Hi Gordon, that is a very definite statement, so before we contest it, it may be best to check if we are talking about the same thing. When I said “recognisable as the Jesus of the Gospels”, I didn’t imply every last detail in the gospels, but the broad outline. i.e. that Jesus existed, he was born about 8-4 BCE, his mother was Mary and his brother was James, he lived in Nazareth, he began a public ministry which the people of his day accepted as that of a prophet, teacher and healer, he gathered a group of disciples, he taught about the kingdom of God of which he was the chief agent, he characteristically used parables, he aroused opposition from the Jewish authorities, he caused an incident in the Jerusalem temple, he was crucified by the Romans and after his death his followers came to believe he had been resurrected.
That is an outline of the life of “a man named Jesus, recognisable as the Jesus of the gospels”. So, are you saying that Bert Ehrman doesn’t accept that outline?
If so, then may I ask you for your evidence for that views please? For I believe I can show that he does indeed accept most or all of those historical “facts”.
While searching for information on Jesus’ historicity, your blog came out. But I skipped it. Now back with a link, I would be curious to hear from you.
Dr. Richard Carrier on the Mythical Jesus: http://youtu.be/79Lmmy2jfeo
Thanks for visiting and commenting. I didn’t watch the video, but I looked at the written intro and I have read some of Richard Carrier’s views online. There is really no need to watch it, for the written introduction is nonsense.
It says “We’ve known for a long time that the Jesus depicted in the Bible is not reflected in history. But where we once thought there was an actual rabbi on whom the legendary stories were based, it now seems that all that was made up out of nothing” That may be the view of Richard Carrier, but it wouldn’t be the view of almost every other historian. Twenty years ago historian EP Sanders wrote a summary of historical facts about Jesus which were “almost beyond dispute” by scholars, which puts Richard at odds with almost every other scholar of ancient history – as Bart Ehrman says in the video I posted. So to say those things are “known” is really a total misrepresentation of the facts.
The only real mystery is why people keep quoting Carrier when almost every other expert things he is badly mistaken and has little credibility. He has every right to write and speak his views, but according to the time honoured process of peer review, he has not shown his case to have much merit.
What do you think?
Good day to y’all! and peace!
You know it’s so very simple and elementary, isn’t it.
When people make the ridiculous statement, “Jesus never even existed,” I ask them simply and profoundly, “What year is it now?” They will admit that it is 2015. I then ask them, “What happened 2015 years ago that would cause this and for us to commemorate this date in history to this very special person and event. Well, the one and only answer is that Jesus Christ came to us on this earth, God in the flesh, healed the sick, the lame, the blind, and the leprous. He was promised to come as the result of God giving us over 360 prophecies before He came, telling us when, why, how, and where He would come, and He came, exactly as God said He would.
Yes, the answer is simple and profound. That is when our Lord and Savior came.
Can one say then that Jesus never existed? Sure they can!
Can someone say that George Washington never existed? Sure they can.
The rest is up to you. It is the simple truth that He came, He rose from the dead, He died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and He is coming again. That you can bank on, I do, and I have never regretted it these past 42 years since I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. You can, too. Remember, in closing, that God loves you so much that He gave his Son to come and sacrifice his life on the cross for you, so all your sins could be forgiven, eternally, and so you can spend eternity in Heaven with God.
You can choose Hell also; that is also up to you.
What will your choice be this day? As Joshua said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”
Peace – shalom!
“Thanks for visiting and commenting.”
You are most welcome!
“It says “We’ve known for a long time that the Jesus depicted in the Bible is not reflected in history. But where we once thought there was an actual rabbi on whom the legendary stories were based, it now seems that all that was made up out of nothing” That may be the view of Richard Carrier”
That’s actually ‘not’ Richard Carrier’s view. It’s in the video description, which is written by the owner of the channel.
“puts Richard at odds with almost every other scholar of ancient history”
He concedes that for certain points and is very clear on what he does agree on.
“but according to the time honoured process of peer review, he has not shown his case to have much merit.”
He is actually publishing his findings. Stay tuned.
Thanks for returning and responding. Richard has published at least one book on this topic (not sure if this is the one you are referring to), and one on historical method. He has also published at least one academic paper on the topic. However on several measures of academic achievement and influence, he doesn’t “score” very well.
So it is clear that he is not often cited by other scholars, few of his writings are published by academic publishers or journals, and almost the entire field of ancient history scholars thinks his historical arguments are not worthy of respect.
So my question to you is: why do you take notice of him rather than the literally thousands of scholars who think he is wrong?
His book came out last June and he is not that well-known, so thousands of historians cannot even possibly have analyzed his work.
He mentions where he thinks the majority got it wrong, but also where they get it right.
He offers new alternative explanations based on recent studies, debunking lots of Christian and secular sources, which are mistakenly used again and again.
He notes how secular sources often make severe mistakes when trying to argue that Jesus never existed, as in non-academic movies such as Zeitgeist.
He knows ancient greek and can go deeper in his research than even some of his PHD-level colleagues.
Most of his work was not possible merely just decades ago, before the electronic age.
I am not sure if he is right, but he is definitely worth paying attention to, offers unbiased views supported by evidence and remains modest in his claims that are less straightforward.
I think we need to keep perspective on all this. I have read that there are about 10,000 qualified academics in the fields of ancient Middle Eastern history and Biblical studies. Every one of these would have similar or better qualifications to Richard Carrier. Most of them have worked in the field far more than he has, know more ancient languages than he does, published more, know more. He is better qualified than I am, but not compared to them.
It isn’t that they have all read his book, though some have and disagree strongly with it. It is that they have all looked at the same facts and all bar one or two come to a different conclusion. They have consistently said that things he claims to be fact are in fact not. The historians say that Zetgeist was unhistorical too.
You say he “debunks”, shows the experts are “mistaken”, and can “go deeper” than others. How do you know this? Are you just taking his word for it?
Have you read this response by Bart Ehrman (a far more respected scholar than Carrier, and an agnostic atheist) where he says at the end that almost every scholar disagrees with what Carrier is saying?
Or this post by Prof James McGrath where he points out some of the bad flaws in Carrier’s approach and again confirms that the majority of scholars hold a view quite different to that of Carrier?
Or this summary of how Carrier is seen by other scholars: “All Carrier’s arguments have been contradicted by qualified scholars in the relevant fields, and his books have failed to shift the scholarly consensus on the historicity of Jesus, despite his claims that the first book (now two years old), would have a massive influence on Jesus studies and overturn the case for historicity.”
I will ask my question of you again – why do you believe what he says when the overwhelming weight of academic study by secular historians says he is wrong about facts, methods and conclusions?
“I will ask my question of you again – why do you believe what he says when the overwhelming weight of academic study by secular historians says he is wrong about facts, methods and conclusions?”
I said the opposite. I am not sure if he is right.
“You say he “debunks”, shows the experts are “mistaken”, and can “go deeper” than others. How do you know this? Are you just taking his word for it?”
Yes I take his words for it but I would not say “just”. He supports his arguments and gives examples of assumptions that some of his colleagues work from. Why would the number of people who disagree with him matter? Especially when taking into account the fact that most scholars are Christians and thus highly biased. This taints the evidence that non-Christians work from.
I certainly appreciate the links you posted. Very informative stuff, but it looks like that’s all I will get from you. I thought you actually produce interesting content, or at least thoughtful opinions, on this blog. I was mistaken. After taking a bit more time to go around, the graphics, pretty them and all are just a smoke screen apparently.
This is very doubtful. Almost all biblical scholars do not emerge from the history departments of secular universities but from theological colleges. They do not use the modern historical method but the discredited criteria of authenticity to try and distinguish between history and unsupported myth.
Hello SFer, I hope you don’t mind me jumping in. My style is fairly short/curt at the moment and my opinion of Carrier is highly negative, but I don’t have anything personal against you.
Could you give any examples? I bet that this includes Josephus, Q and Tacitus.
Knowledge of Ancient Greek is completely essential and utterly unremarkable in the field. Virtually everyone with a BA in the subject, let alone a PhD., is acquainted with Ancient Greek. How is this a qualification when it is absolutely standard in the field?
In fact, that he only knows Ancient Greek and no Aramaic or Hebrew is a highly debilitating factor for Carrier. He simply is not sufficiently qualified to deal with the full scope of historical Jesus studies.
The Richard Carrier I have read is typically immodest in his articles, often makes grand claims and readily takes biased leaps in his arguments. So the words “unbiased” and “modest” are quite a surprise to me.
Or from theological departments of secular universities. Or humanities departments of secular universities. Or religious studies departments of secular universities. Or in fact from history departments of secular universities. The exact organisation of the subject in a department depends, but the relevant thing is that most biblical scholars are subject to normal academic rules and seek to operate in a secular way.
The criteria of authenticity have not been “discredited”, they have been challenged by some biblical scholars, but they remain the default of the field. Historians also use such criteria in a typically more informal way when investigating claims. Such explicit criteria are an attempt to narrow the historical method further down, they do not replace the historical method.
Hi SFer, IN has supplied some answers and I endorse what he says.
“He supports his arguments and gives examples of assumptions that some of his colleagues work from.”
I don’t wish to be rude, but are you competent to judge with his arguments are good arguments and based on true facts? Some experts say they are not.
“Why would the number of people who disagree with him matter?”
1. For the above reason. You and I don’t know enough to know what is true and reasonable and what isn’t.
2. That’s how the peer review process works, same as in science. If you can’t convince all the other experts, you are probably wrong.
“most scholars are Christians and thus highly biased.”
This is a pretty libellous claim. Do you have any figures on how many christian believers (not just living in a christian culture) there are among scholars? Do you have any proof that they are biased? Do you think universities allow such bias? Why is it that atheist/agnostic scholars like Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Michael Grant, etc agree with the christian scholars on this?
Do you really want to make this claim seriously, and can you substantiate it?
“This taints the evidence that non-Christians work from.”
Richard Carrier was an outspoken atheist before he began his historical studies. Does that taint his evidence?
I really think you need to re-think your accusations here.
“Almost all biblical scholars do not emerge from the history departments of secular universities but from theological colleges. They do not use the modern historical method but the discredited criteria of authenticity to try and distinguish between history and unsupported myth.”
Hi Gordon, can you substantiate this with references please?
Peace to you all! Proof of the existence of Jesus? Yes, plenty. They have Jesus’ birth records in Rome, in the Vatican. All history of that region, in Israel and the area, attest to this man, Jesus, what He did, who He brought back to life, who He healed, etc.
Again, I remind everyone that it is 2015 simply because that is when our Lord and Savior was born to us, in Bethlehem, of a virgin, of the lineage of David, and on and on!
If that’s not enough, we still have a miracle-working God. I have had the privilege, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to lay hands on people with tumors and cancer, and they have been totally healed. It ain’t me folks; it’s the power of God in the Holy Spirit!
Need more proof? Good! God is up to it. Take a look at the world around us as they take God our of schools, our courts, our country, our society, our civilization, if you can call it that anymore, and see how things are going!
We have a choice: God and peace and love and joy, OR, atheism, no God, no love, no joy, no peace, chaos, hatred, war, famine, etc.
I have seen, in my life, and in that of many others, what God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, love, joy, peace, etc. brings to people. I see people healed of their addictions and afflictions. I see people helping people. I see forgiveness and new lives. I see families getting back together; yes, it’s because of Jesus and what He brought to us.
Now, it’s up to you. You have a right and the freedom to make your own mind up and make a choice that will effect you for all eternity.
GOOD NEWS: We all live forever. Those who repent, believe, and are baptized (when we get the Holy Spirit, as Jesus did), go to Heaven for all eternity, because Jesus paid the price for all our sins on the cross.
BAD NEWS: Without forgiveness of sin, yes, we all live forever, but those people will spend eternity in Hell. You don’t have to go there. You have free will just like I do and everyone who lives on the face of this beautiful planet of ours that God created for us!
Peace, and be blessed!
Well I’m not sufficiently interested to do the work. Why don’t you google your ten favourite apologists and you’ll get the idea.
Just as a matter of interest Bart Ehrman’s Alma Mater:
Moody Bible Institute
Wheaton College (described as a liberal Christian college)
Princeton Theological Seminary
the above is also typical of apologists
Richard Carrier’s Alma Mater:
University of California Berkeley
Ehrman is relatively atypical in that he went to a Fundamentalist Evangelical and went on to become a rather liberal NT scholar. Wheaton College is also rather conservative, but Princeton Theological Seminary is an absolutely excellent institution so it would be unfair to hold the previous history of Ehrman’s education against him. If you let his achievements stand on their own, he is simply a very good, prolific and prominent scholar.
I would however be very surprised if even a considerable minority of NT scholars hail from institutes like Moody or Wheaton. Most have a much more secular education.
These are all good schools, though they aren’t comparable to PTS in Biblical scholarship, they are supposed to give on a good primer.
“the above is also typical of apologists”
Gordon, Bart Ehrman describes himself as an “atheist-leaning agnostic”. If he is an apologist, it is not for christianity!
“Well I’m not sufficiently interested to do the work. Why don’t you google your ten favourite apologists and you’ll get the idea.”
If you make a comment that you can’t substantiate, I guess I’m not going to bother about it either. But you should know that not only is Bart Ehrman not a christian or an apologist for christianity, the same was true of the late Maurice Casey. And EP Sanders described himself as a secularised Protestant. They are probably the scholars I have most quoted.
I think you’ll find the phrase “the above is also typical of apologists” specifically excludes Bart Ehrman as an apologist. I hope that’s a reading error rather than a failure of English comprehension.
The point is that Carrier has good training as a scholar of ancient history. Heaven knows what they teach in these religious institutions besides the discredited criteria of authenticity.
I don’t wish to impugn the credentials of Bart Ehrman. He’s written some very good stuff which is clearly evidence based. I think he’s managed this despite his education.
Theological seminaries no matter how good are not in the truth or the history business. There’s no prizes for guessing how they might regard historical investigations that contradict doctrine. They’re training priests
Gordon, I’m sorry, but I’m going to give up this discussion. You said first that Bart’s qualifications were typical of an apologist:
“Just as a matter of interest Bart Ehrman’s Alma Mater:
Moody Bible Institute
Wheaton College (described as a liberal Christian college)
Princeton Theological Seminary
the above is also typical of apologists”
The dictionary defines typical as “of the nature of or serving as a type or representative specimen”. Then you say “I think you’ll find the phrase “the above is also typical of apologists” specifically excludes Bart Ehrman as an apologist.”
How can a name that is a representative specimen etc exclude that name? It doesn’t make any sense. I feel you are arguing for the sake of maintaining a mistaken position, and I don’t want any further part in such a pointless argument. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but there’s nowhere else to go.
Oh dear. so this was an error in English comprehension on your part. How sad. But never fear I’ll take that into account in future.
I have already written that the criteria of authenticity have not been “discredited”, it has just become a contested subject in recent years. That doesn’t mean you can claim it is outdated. In fact, it is a direct application of the historical method in a highly formalised way.
Richard Carrier’s qualifications primarily lie in Greco-Roman culture. He is in fact at a disadvantage compared to a New Testament scholar, who would have a far more specialised background.
All fair and great, but does “despite his education” include his education at PTS? That is an excellent academic institution for learning New Testament studies. It is incidentally also the place where Ehrman stopped being a Fundamentalist Evangelical.
You evidently have no idea how liberal seminaries operate. They value academic freedom far above confessional boundaries. Questioning doctrine is definitely allowed. Their reputation would take a terrible hit if they didn’t.
UnkleE, I think there’s a comment missing here.
Oh well, I suppose I’ve got time for a short lesson.
Had I wanted to include Bart Ehrman as an apologist I would have said:
with no “also”.
With the “also” it means:
I hope that’s not too subtle for you.
Gordon, I thought I’d let you know there’s a new, retrieved comment above.
Comments are closed.