Over the past two centuries, historical scholars have argued over what we can know about Jesus. Virtually all scholars (regardless of religion) now agree Jesus was a real person whose life followed the general outline in the gospels. However enthusiastic amateurs are still promoting the idea that Jesus didn’t exist. Books have been published and a thousand internet arguments launched, with little response from the scholars, who regard the Jesus myth as refuted. Now an eminent scholar has assessed the Jesus myth.
Bart Ehrman is a recognised and well-respected New Testament scholar who specialises in issues relating to the text of the New Testament. (We almost never have the original texts of ancient historical documents, but have copies of copies. This process can lead to deliberate or accidental changes to the text. For more on this, see Are the gospels historical?.) He has published many books on the topic.
Ehrman grew up as an evangelical christian in the US, but became an agnostic when his studies led him to question the reliability of the New Testament text. His views on the extent of textual problems would be at the sceptical end of New Testament scholarship.
Ehrman has recently released a new book, Did Jesus Exist?, and wrote a column in the Huffington Post on his conclusions. He is no stranger to controversy, and his book manages to set cats among many different people’s pigeons.
Did Jesus exist?
- His conclusion is definite. “Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”
- We should not expect too much information about Jesus from Roman historians. “It is true that Jesus is not mentioned in any Roman sources of his day. That should hardly count against his existence, however, since these same sources mention scarcely anyone from his time and place.” (I’m not sure what Ehrman thinks about Tacitus, whose history written 80 years after Jesus mentions him briefly.)
- He regards the gospels and other New Testament sources as very useful. “With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life ….. Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind. Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus’ life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.”
- This despite his view that “the early Gospels are riddled with problems …. written decades after Jesus’ life by biased authors who are at odds with one another on details up and down the line”. For, he says: “historians can never dismiss sources simply because they are biased. …. The question is …. whether biased sources can be used to yield historically reliable information, once their biased chaff is separated from the historical kernel. And historians have devised ways of doing just that.”
- He criticises the views of many mythicists: “the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the “pagan” savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination …. Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that.”
Assessing Ehrman’s conclusions
These are not simply Ehrman’s views; he is articulating the conclusions of the vast majority of expert scholars. We may therefore take his views as a lowest common denominator of historical “facts” about Jesus. Many scholars believe we can safely say more about Jesus, but virtually none would say less.
For the christian, his book is problematic – he defends Jesus and the gospels against extreme scepticism, but dismisses the idea that the gospels are reliable in every, or most, of their accounts. I don’t personally find a problem here. Faith in Jesus and trust in the New Testament are based on both fact and faith. Ehrman establishes a minimum level of fact, whereas most other scholars would say we can have confidence in more than that. We can each decide whether that is sufficient basis to trust the gospel writers and Jesus himself.
I think we can.
For the conclusions of other historians, and their reasons, see Was Jesus a real person?