Bart Ehrman’s Huffing and Posting Against Mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

Dr Bart Ehrman has written for the Huffington Post a quite a curious article attacking mythicism and advertising his new book which promises more of the same. It is a curious article because it leaves a reader who knows anything about mythicist arguments and historical Jesus scholarship with the impression that Ehrman knows very little about either, but of course that cannot be true. Probably most of us who know Ehrman’s reputation have personally benefited from at least one of his many books bringing New Testament scholarship to a wider audience. What the article does do above all else is portray a scholar who has been so immersed in his field with all its deepest and millennia old assumptions that he simply cannot believe there is any other way of validly questioning the evidence outside the cave. Any rumours of such activity have to be denounced. There can be no other truth apart from what one sees in the cave where only right-thinking guild members have always worked.

I cannot improve upon Richard Carrier’s detailed exposure of the intellectual and scholarly failings of Ehrman’s article. Still, I have been asked for my own thoughts, so here they are.

Ehrman has unwittingly demonstrated that so much of his work on the historical Jesus is built on a foundation of sand. Of course he needs to come out fighting. Attack may be the best hope for defence when the rationale for one’s life’s work is at stake.

Ehrman’s rhetorical message

And his article is a rhetorical attack. It has precious little valid argument to it. Compare the terms he uses to portray those who espouse mythicism with the terms he uses for his “right-thinking” society and scholars said to be opposed by this “movement”:

Ehrman’s descriptors of those who argue Jesus was not a historical figure

  • mythicism is another symptom of a problematic society that produces Holocaust deniers, birthers and six-day creationists
  • a small but growing cadre
  • internet junkies
  • call themselves mythicists
  • unusually vociferous
  • nay-sayers
  • few are actually scholars trained
  • there are a couple of exceptions of the hundreds — thousands?
  • so extreme
  • advocates so confident and vocal — even articulate
  • denouncers of religion
  • deniers
  • a breed of human now very much in vogue
  • maligners of religious views
  • modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion

A breed of human now very much in vogue . . . .   (What can one say to that? This even rivals the Pastoralist’s diatribe against false teachers: 2 Timothy 3:1-9)

And what are these mythicists opposing, in Ehrman’s view?

  • the greatest figure in the history of Western civilization, the man on whom the most powerful and influential social, political, economic and religious institution in the world — the Christian church — was built, the man worshipped, literally, by billions of people today
  • the vast majority of religious persons
  • scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies, ancient languages
  • scholars who can speak with authority
  • real experts
  • established and bona fide institutions

That is Ehrman’s rhetorical message: an extreme, unusually vociferous cadre of junkie nay-sayers symptomatic of a society gone wrong, a breed of human now very much in vogue maligning and denouncing the noblest and greatest idea of our civilization, the good and decent majority of peoples, the established and bone fide trained authorities. (In his book he will for the benefit of his American readership twice associate mythicism with communist Russia.)

The disinformation begins

Ehrman has read the works of Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price, G. A. Wells, Frank Zindler, René Salm, Thomas L. Thompson, and even Albert Schweitzer’s reviews of the mythicists of his day, so he knows he is misleading the less well-informed when he smothers all mythicists with this blanket:

[Mythicists maintain] that Jesus is a myth invented for nefarious (or altruistic) purposes by the early Christians who modeled their savior along the lines of pagan divine men who, it is alleged, were also born of a virgin on Dec. 25, who also did miracles, who also died as an atonement for sin and were then raised from the dead. . . .

[This] claim that Jesus was simply made up . . . .

But he knows that the mythicists named above do not suggest “Jesus was simply made up”. They speak of the evidence for pre-Christian and evolving ideas over time coming to coalesce in rival movements, and that it is quite misleading to suggest a picture of invention of what we recognized as Christianity today by any group. As Richard Carrier remarks:

No competent mythicist makes this claim. Rather, they claim that virgin-born gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time and dying-and-rising gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time (in precisely the way these were not anywhere else, e.g. in ancient China), and so for Jews to suddenly start claiming they have one, too, looks pretty easily explained in terms of standard theories of cultural diffusion. . . . Ehrman appears to be denying this, and as such is making himself look like a crank again–in fact like an ignorant Christian apologist spewing contrafactual propaganda.

Ehrman then intimates that

  1. only authoritative, trained experts in an established academic institution have the right to contribute to the discussion
  2. these experts virtually all hold the same common-sense view of the historicity of Jesus
  3. those who disagree with these institutional experts are stupid and driven by a malignant, anti-Christian agenda

As for point #1, the response has to be that we are not dealing here with quantum physics but with evidence and arguments that most educated lay people can understand and intelligently discuss — thanks in part to Ehrman’s own efforts at popularizing New Testament studies. Many of the most popular proponents of mythicism are clearly very well read and educated, seriously engage with the scholarly literature, and are no fools. As long as the academy continues to dismiss them because of their conclusions, and because of their conclusions continues to avoid addressing the substance of their methods and arguments, the wider public will increasingly wonder why biblical scholars cannot as dispassionately unravel the mythicist points of view as biologists can dispassionately ply evidence and reason to unravel creationist claims.

On point #2, I find myself in synch with Richard Carrier’s claim to know professors who do doubt the historicity of Jesus but keep their opinion quiet to safeguard their professional reputations. Since starting this blog I have had the opportunity to make contact with a number of scholars, biblical scholars, who have likewise admitted they do not believe Jesus was a historical person. They of course keep it quiet for the obvious reasons. Dr Joseph R. Hoffmann himself has even stated in a comment on this blog that the reasons mythicism is not openly addressed in academia have to do with risks to tenure more than to the reasonableness of the arguments. If Ehrman were less disingenuous he would also acknowledge that Albert Schweitzer himself (whom Ehrman cites tendentiously in his book — Dr McGrath would call it “quote-mining”) did at least acknowledge the theoretical probability and plausibility of historical studies being unable to decide whether Jesus was historical or not.

Richard Carrier’s criticism is well targeted when he excoriates Ehrman for himself fanning the climate of fear that denies academics the right to freely and openly question the conventional wisdom. Most people become members of the academy believing in the historicity of Jesus, many make their careers writing about the historical Jesus for hungry audiences. To question this is to guarantee ostracism. It is indeed disingenuous to declare that the idea that Jesus was not historical is openly taught by no-one in the academy!

Point #3 is nothing but the old attempt at character assassination. Ehrman imputes base motives to mythicists, implying that this character flaw prevents them from honestly engaging with reasoned argument. Yet Ehrman himself knows that the worst way to engage in an anti-Christian vendetta would be to attack the very historicity of Jesus and so turn off one’s target audience from the start:

But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you — has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.

John Loftus, owner of the Debunking Christianity blog, has explicitly said that this is correct. He will not promote mythicism because it is counter-productive to his goal of debunking Christianity. Ehrman’s rhetoric-fevered mind will not admit that just maybe many who advance mythicist arguments are doing so because of genuine intellectual integrity and engagement with the evidence and scholarship. In my own case, it was actually the regular encounter with diatribes like Ehrman’s in response to reasonable questions and challenges that helped me understand that the mainstream religious scholars really do basically assume there was a historical Jesus. Their arguments are very often nothing more than ad hoc attempts at “proof-texting”. One prominent mythicist of his day, Paul-Louis Couchoud, wrote fulsome praise of the Christian religion and institution, and I have posted his words recently on this blog.

The Pontius Pilate fiasco

There is no need for me to repeat Richard Carrier’s detailed response to Ehrman’s embarrassing gaffe that no contemporary “Roman” source mentions Pontius Pilate. Ehrman clearly wrote this after a very late night. But as Carrier rightly points out, such mistakes indicate a mind that is itself the one driven more by an agenda than scholarly reason.

(Carrier’s discussion of the evidence for Pilate — and the missing evidence from Philo — is an interesting argument in itself that justifies an opening of the question of the historicity of Jesus.)

Only scholars properly evaluate bias

I don’t know the origin of Ehrman’s suggestion that mythicists somehow reject the historicity of the gospel accounts on grounds that their authors wrote some decades after the supposed life of Jesus and are biased.

But historians can never dismiss sources simply because they are biased. . . .

The question is not whether the sources are biased but 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.

I don’t know any mythicist or historian who rejects sources because they are biased. (But you know the sorts of mythicist publications I have read.)

This is a topic I have covered many times now. Ehrman appears to be unaware here of the criticisms from among his own peers who have demonstrated more than once the logical invalidity, the logical contradictions, inherent in the methods he has in mind — in particular, criteriology. In short, this is the “method” by which historical Jesus scholars decide the disciples of Jesus deserted him at his arrest in Gethsemane because the criterion of embarrassment indicates this is not an event that would have been made up (because it was embarrassing); but at the same time it can be concluded that the account of the disciples fleeing was probably made up because the criterion that an episode is probably fictional if it is told to fulfil a biblical prophecy, and the fleeing disciples fulfilled a prophecy in Zechariah. More seriously, scholars must manufacture all their “facts” about Jesus’ life as such hypothetically derived conclusions. Unlike the situation facing other historians, the historical Jesus scholars have no “facts” other than these hypothetical constructions from narratives that are generally recognized as unhistorical as told.

This is a large topic and I won’t revisit in detail here. Suffice it to say that historical Jesus scholars, as only a few decades ago nearly all their counterparts in the study of the Old Testament, rely on assumptions about the historicity of the narrative in their sources without regard to independent controls external to those narratives that might otherwise give credibility to the historicity behind the narrative.

How we know Jesus existed — the sources!

I cannot surpass Carrier’s expose here, either. Ehrman’s claim that scholars have multiple independent sources for Jesus, even dating to within a year or two of his death!, is, bluntly, misleading. We don’t. We have debated hypotheses about earlier sources. Even the concept that the Gospels were the inheritors of oral tradition is a hypothesis. It has also been convincingly argued (in my opinion) that the Gospels are artfully constructed literary works that drew on other literature, not oral reports, for their raw material.

Dr McGrath advised his readers to look at Ehrman’s article to see how he reaches the conclusion that Jesus was historical. These two sections – “historical methods” and “multiple sources”  — are the only sections in the article where he does “explain” how we “know” Jesus existed.

The old “they would not have done this” mind-reading game

Ehrman concludes his disinformation article for the ill-informed by stating flatly that

prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a 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.

Carrier hits the nail on the head when he points out the, well, obvious:

[T]he only kind of messiah figure you could invent would be one who wasn’t like that. Otherwise, everyone would notice no divine being had militarily liberated Israel and resurrected all the world’s dead. . . . . This means that if “someone made up a messiah” we can be absolutely certain he would look essentially just like Jesus Christ. A being no one noticed, who didn’t do anything publicly observable, yet still accomplished the messianic task, only spiritually (precisely the one way no one could produce any evidence against). In other words, a messiah whose accomplishments one could only “feel in one’s heart” (or see by revelation, as the Corinthian creed declares; or discover in scripture, as that same creed again declares, as well as Romans 16:25-26). This means Ehrman is definitely failing at basic evidential logic.

But Ehrman apparently has failed to keep up to date (at least the past few decades) with the scholarly discussions about Jewish concepts of the Messiah. Otherwise he would know the peer-reviewed publications pointing out that several Jewish concepts of the messiah involved the death of the messiah or anointed one — Saul, the high priest whose death liberated certain sinners, the one killed in Daniel, another who dies in the Book of Enoch, and the scholarly arguments that the grand-conquering concept of a messiah was  possibly restricted to a small clique of literary elites. He would also be aware of the studies into pre-Christian Jewish sectarian beliefs in the death of martyrs, even of Isaac himself, seen as sacrifices of “beloved sons” whose blood atoned for the sins of Israel.


Bart Ehrman surely knows of all of this scholarship. Yet when it comes to confronting a view that threatens to undermine the foundations of so much of his own life’s studies, he can only see those arguments that look to him like sharp swords to be put to use in cutting down the enemy, “that breed of human now very much in vogue”. The arguments are as selective as is his negative character portrayals of those he seeks to publicly denigrate. This is a shame. Mythicism, to my way of thinking, promises to open up so much more in the way of new understandings in the origin of one of the great history-changing events ever.

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Neil Godfrey

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39 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman’s Huffing and Posting Against Mythicism”

  1. Neil, Bart has (to my knowledge) always maintained the tenuous recall of Paul as an argument for historicity.

    I think that everyone seems to be polarised on Bart’s statements about mythologists. I am not sure that mythologists really care if there was a preacher of unknown position, geography or time. Mythologists examine the mythology and what that preacher was purported to have said and achieved.to other past, post and contiguous.

    Frankly, and I shouldn’t be cynical here (thus I will); its not as if Bart has something as credible as cold fusion to make a career decision and undermine thorium technology advocates….

    There are some reflections on what Bart and Richard (seeing Neil brought him up) have been saying of late that need analysis; Bart’s historical Jesus and Richard’s Bayesian statements. I am sorry, but in the current theological climate that requires some mini-mathical banter..both exhibit Craigian ridicule (sorry, WLC is an absolute dunce when it comes to arguing math and physics). Both march out predicates that cannot be argued. These predicates are always assumed examples.

    Religion is a simplified approach to science with its action heroes..Carrier may be trying to tell us this with his correction to WLC’s feckless Bayesian impersonation from three years ago (Miracles, WLC vs Bart). I just wish that folk, religious or no, would just recognise their position.

    In the case of a preacher who was crucified being the best case scenario, who damn well cares?… The stories and the myth provide endless and enjoyable reading and reflection. Maybe Price has it summed up, its fascinating and just respect the texts written so long ago for their worth and the worth of their redaction (internal and subsequent).

    If historicity was at stake after 2000 years, the “vast majority” of scholars have a very real problem.. .In the correct view that Carrier posits (as most would), its the god that is a useless hypothesis. Is captain palestina all that important in that light?.

    Only as a superb mythological example of what we would suppose the perfect “morally” predisposed, anointed leader of gnostic attraction would be…without the red,white and blue spandex…

    Yes, the mythological redeemer.

    Sophia is making something special tonight!

    Neil, I prefer your superb comparative and analytical posts.

  2. I listened to Ehrman’s Huffington Post essay yesterday. I was struck by how little he said. The entire essay sounded like an introduction. My reaction was.. “if you have some actual evidence… present it”. I will be listening to Carrier’s review today. I have always found Carrier to do things in amazing details and with clarity, so I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  3. Ehrman mentions both Philo and Josephus witness of Pilate in the book. However, even there he plays mindgames, claiming we have no historical “eyewitnesses” of Pilate.

    But, as we know trash-talking amateurs would not be a new thing in Biblical studies. Just recall the experts from Jerusalem “swooping” on the unwashed village idiot with a new teaching in Mk 3:22.

    1. Funny. Freedom to express one’s opinion without being insulted and attacked is the gist of what is being promoted. Good luck. You ban people and opinions that vary from yours. You are a phony and a hypocrite.

      1. I would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to justify your accusations with evidence, please. Simply delivering this sort of accusation without any supporting evidence is the sign of an ignorant troll, but I am sure you don’t want anyone to think you are one of those. In fact I welcome different opinions here, as you surely know if you do read the comments. Do you have evidence to the contrary?

  4. Clearly no one here at Vridar has taken even the slightest account of the guild’s present radical reconstruction of post death Jesus traditions. The classic statement of the Scriptural basis for this reconstruction in the words of Schubert M. Ogden: “We now know, given our present historical methods and knowledge, not only that none of the Old Testament writings is prophetic witness to Jesus in the sense in which the early church assumed them to be, but also that none of the writings of the New Testament is apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church itself understood apostolicity. The sufficient evidence of this point in the case of the New Testament writings (the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT) is that all of them have been shown to depend on sources, written or oral, earlier than themselves, and hence not to be the original and originating witness that the early church mistook them to be in judging them to be apostolic.” Thus to say the writings of the NT are written in the context (authorial intent) of imaging the Christ of faith (the Christ myth), not the man Jesus. From now on all legitimate Scriptural Jesus studies must begin with this indisputable historical fact.
    Wrede’s treatment of Mark’s Messianic secrete is making the explicit point that this is Mark’s mythic creation to counter the Jerusalem Jesus Movement with their Sayings Gospel witness to the Jesus of history, the earliest Jesus tradition. The disciples were just dull, stupid, they did not get it; Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, even the most unlikely beings, the demons, knew it as well as the women at the tomb but they were told to keep quiet. The one source of apostolic witness, Jesus’ disciples just didn’t get it. This is clearly not history, it is authorial intent, the context in which Mark the first Gospel was written, to become the primary source for the later Gospels, hence they are all not Scriptural sources for knowledge of the man Jesus. Merrill P. Miller’s online article “Beginning From Jerusalem –“ takes the majority of present NT scholars to task for following the Acts lead in depicting Jesus tradition origins, failing to take account of present NT reconstruction. Meanwhile the secular critics have their hay day digging up NT grist for their No Jesus.
    Ehrman might well make the case that Jesus existed from the writings of the NT. It is clear that this is the limit of his Scriptural source. What his work well demonstrates is that the significance of Jesus, what he was up to, cannot with any certain clarity be extracted from these texts.

    1. Ed, you apparently overlooked that Ehrman in his article argues that he — and all critical scholars — work with many sources that all pre-date the New Testament. One of these is the “Gospel Sayings of Q” or much of what is found in the Sermon on the Mount — as a very early pre-New Testament source. There are many others in Ehrman’s and other scholar’s toolkit.

    1. One thing more precious than income is one’s self-identity, personal dignity. It is not easy to admit one has been wrong, especially when it involves career and status with colleagues, at such a fundamental level of understanding regardless of income.

      1. That’s very true. I have corresponded at length with Ehrman over the historical root of NT theology and he is not real open to new ideas — even helpful ones like Sant Mat. Understanding that there have been many characters here in this world in the role of savior, whether subsequently mythologized or not, is the key to reading the NT correctly. It is, I believe, at its core a true teaching of some Master, layered over heavily with myth. The myth became important in itself as the support for the fictional orthodox church doctrine of sacrificial atonement, never taught by any Master before or since. Paul was off on his own starting a a new religion altogether, and the gospel writers were willing to be compromised by him. Maccoby contributes his excellent “Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil” on these origins.

        It will be interesting to see how Ehrman does with colleagues on this new book. It appears from what others say that he has perhaps overreached on this one to the point where all will see that which he is really up to — selling books.

        I noticed in his promo clip that he once again says “Jesus will establish his kingdom on earth” in some context or other. I have shown him where that is diametrically opposed to the quote from Jesus in John 18:36, but he only said, “we see things differently”. I’ll say.

  5. I find it incredibly disgusting that Ehrman begins his article by equating mythicism with Holocaust denial. In my country, even children are taught that trivializing Holocaust is not okay. Mythicism has nothing whatever to do with Nazism. Hence, the depth of tragedy of the Shoah should not be used as a cheap replacement for logical thought.

    I have in front of me a copy of Maurice Halbwachs’s book, On Collective Memory, in which the historicity of Jesus is not taken for granted. Halbwachs, as it happens, was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he died of dysentery in 1945. Was he a Holocaust denier, Professor Ehrman? You seem to be arguing that he had to be.

    I also happen to own a copy of Max Rieser’s booklet, The True Founder of Christianity and the Hellenistic Philosophy, in which it is argued that Jesus never existed. Rieser was a Jewish lawyer who escaped Hitler’s Germany and Auschwitz by immigrating to the United States in 1939. According to Professor Ehrman, he was probably a Holocaust denier.

    1. To cut through the b.s. of this unscholarly ‘holocaust’ accusation, the fact is that mythicists do not dismiss as “lies” or “false” the scholarship of the NT scholars. They in fact engage with that scholarship. What they do is question the unexamined foundations upon which much of that scholarship is built — they are raising an unaddressed question. Holocaust deniers and creationists do nothing comparable at all. They dismiss the evidence-based arguments and tested hypotheses of the daily scholarship itself. There is no comparison at all — except in the wishful dreamings of scholars such as Ehrman.

  6. In his video about the book, Ehrman refers to himself as a historian rather than a biblical scholar. He also mentions looking at the evidence for Jesus “through the impartial eyes of the historian.” I don’t know a whole lot about what it takes for an academician to be accepted as a member of the community of historians, but I can’t help being skeptical of Ehrman’s ability as an historian.

    1. In the post I accidentally posted earlier (and quickly withdrew) I compare what theologians and bible scholar do with what historians really do. Very few bible scholars appear to have any idea what history even is. The first thing I learned about history in senior high school is that history is not a list of dates and facts. That is a chronicle. Not a history. But not everyone studies history past junior level. I get the impression very few biblical scholars have anything more than a junior high school understanding of the nature of history and how historians work and what they really do. Look forward to finalizing that post and putting it online when it’s ready.

      Theologians who call themselves historians are really in the business of manufacturing “facts” — a form of ideological propaganda if you like.

      1. I read the post when you accidentally put it up (lucky timing on my part, I guess!) and I have to say that for a post that wasn’t ready, it was pretty good!

    2. Bingo Bob. Bart has always said this during his debates and lectures.

      I am wondering what the term “scholar” entails. If in other publications superb analysis has been displayed, it certainly targets a different audience than I originally thought.

      Have you noticed that others use the “overwhelming number of scholars” cry is usually a death knell to an argument rather than point worth verification?

      Surely a HJ is never denied by Bart but it appears the level of HJ is changing.

  7. Bart has lots of early sources that mentioned Jesus :-

    ‘Where would the solitary source that “invented” Jesus be? Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others. And these are just the ones we know about, that we can reasonably infer from the scant literary remains that survive from the early years of the Christian church. No one knows how many there actually were. Luke says there were “many” of them, and he may well have been right.’

    I never knew there was so much early documentation about Jesus!

    Why, everybody was writing about him, and our Gospellers had the task of collecting up all these sources for us and putting them in one convenient work, to save us having to remember the names of the authors of all these sources and narratives. Wasn’t that kind of them?

    1. That’s kind of disingenuous, Steve. Gospel of Thomas isn’t even in the NT. A better case could be made from the scant reference to Jesus (any?) in the DS scrolls. I am willing to consider that the Righteous Teacher at Qumran, James (from Eisenman), could be the HJ. James is much better attested historically than Jesus, and some of Jesus’ most famous quotes were really from James and inserted into the gospel account of Christ’s demise (“Father forgive them ..”, “He is sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” -per Eisenman, “James the Brother of Jesus”). Eisenman is a good foundation for understanding Sant Mat, the teachings of the Masters (living Masters) that I follow: http://www.RSSB.org

      1. Steven was quoting Ehrman’s words from his new book, “Did Jesus Exist?”

        Scholarship — including historical studies — has no interest in reading any text “for truth” or “spiritual enlightenment” (that’s a mantic exercise for clergy and gurus) but only as historical documents like any other piece of ancient literature.

  8. The Kindle version of Did Jesus Exist? has now appeared on Amazon ($9.99), and I just grabbed it.

    In the intro he wrote:

    … I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there was a real man, Jesus.
    I was surprised because I am trained as a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, and for thirty years I have written extensively on the historical Jesus, the Gospels, and the history of the church’s first three hundred years. Like all New Testament scholars, I have read thousands of books and articles in English and other European languages on Jesus, the New Testament, and early Christianity. But I was almost unaware–as are most of my colleagues in the field–of this body of skeptical literature.
    I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed. But a whole body of literature out there, some of it highly intelligent and well informed, makes this case.

    1. This is strange. Is Ehrman saying it is only since he undertook to write this book that for the first time he read Albert Scwheitzer’s Quest in which he devotes several chapters to the mythicist arguments of his day? Ehrman certainly admits to knowing this work in his book, so it appears he left it very late in his career to read it. Had he never read “The Historical Jesus: Five Views” and Price’s contribution to that? But I hear that he sometimes has denied ever having heard of Price and then backflipping on that. So maybe he is just very forgetful.

      He also appears not to have encountered the work of Charles Guignebert on “Jesus of Nazareth”, or Alfred Loisy’s debates with Paul-Louis Couchoud. They are old, but are not professors expected to be on top of the history of their field? Has he been completely oblivious to any of the debated background to The Jesus Project? Perhaps so.

      What Ehrman is saying is that he has never thought to question his assumptions or those of his discipline. The very idea is unthinkable to him.

      1. Ehrman doesn’t indicate when he first read Price, so he may only have done so fairly recently. He mentions the fact that Price has a new work in press (The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems and that he is grateful to Price and his publisher for making the text available to him.

        So far (I am at page 33), Ehrman’s argument is that it is the mythicists that need to come up with evidence to support their view. He even tried making the claim that the theory of evolution is accepted because it is accepted by the vast majority of biology academics. That’s nonsense. It is accepted because the amount of evidence supporting it is enormous.

  9. BART
    ‘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. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus. They invented the idea that the messiah had to be crucified.’

    This makes no sense to me.

    If Christians invented the idea that the Messiah had to be crucified why is it impossible for a crucified Messiah to have been invented?

    After Bart carefully explains why Jesus did not tick any of the boxes that needed to be ticked by the Messiah, he explains that Christians believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah.

    Why? How?

    According to Bart’s logic, Christians could believe Jesus was Elijah returned, Melchizedek, the Son of God, Enoch returned, anything at all was possible, but the one thing Bart’s logic rules out is calling him the Messiah.

    1. I’ve worked out how early Christians invented the idea of a crucified Messiah.

      You can picture the scene as the Twelve gathered around to discuss their recent visions of Jesus being alive.

      ‘I saw Jesus. He must be really important to live on after death.’

      ‘Perhaps he is Elijah returned, or Moses returned, or an angel of God’

      ‘Perhaps he is a High Priest of the order of Melchizedek.’

      ‘Perhaps he must have been the Son of God.’

      ‘One thing we can be sure of. He was not the Messiah. Those expletive Romans are still here.’

      ‘Yes, definitely not the Messiah. He might have been Jeremiah returned from the grave, but definitely not a Messiah.’

      ‘Who has heard of a crucified Messiah?’

      ‘A crucified what?’

      ‘I thought you said crucified Messiah.’

      ‘No, not me. No such thing as a crucified Messiah. Somebody else must have said it.’

      ‘I’m sure it was you who said crucified Messiah.’

      ‘Not me. I know what a Messiah is and they don’t get crucified.’

      Laughter all around.

      ‘Well, who was Jesus?’

      ‘He must have been the Messiah.’

      ‘Of course. It all fits. The crucifixion, the lack of kicking Romans around, the whole not being Chuck Norris thing.’

      ‘Brilliant. Jesus was the Messiah. Wish I’d thought of it.’

      ‘Obviously the Messiah. What else could he have been?’

      ‘Which idiot thought the Messiah was going to chuck out the Romans? They are God’s agents, sent to punish wrongdoers.’

      ‘We must have been blind. All those Bible passages. If you read them, you will see they are about how the Messiah must be crucified and suffer.’

      ‘How come not one single person ever noticed those Bible passages before?’

      ‘They are all about the Messiah. You just have to have proper understanding.’

      And so a crucified Messiah was born.

    2. There is the problem of “uniqueness” with Ehrman’s (and probably most of the guild’s) argument here. I am pretty sure most would say that the Jews had encountered would-be messiahs before Jesus and that they had all proved themselves failures in the end. But none, we are to believe, ever rationalized that belief by turning their failed messiah into a loser-killed-by-the-Romans messiah — except the Christians. Ditto for the time and the would-be messiahs after Jesus.

      So analogies would lead us to believe that when Jews who believed in a messiah were confronted with failure of their hopes, they ditched their messianic beliefs in that person.

      So what Ehrman and the academy would appear to be arguing is that Christianity was unique — not so much that Jesus himself was unique but that his followers were unique in history.

      But if we suggest that the notion of a spiritual messiah was developed, one who saved and conquered spiritually, then we are in familiar and analogous territory. It was a common enough philosophical trope that the man who conquered himself, his own nature, was a greater than an Alexander who conquered the world.

      A basic principle of historical enquiry is to understand by analogy. Uniqueness, by definition, is inexplicable.

  10. EHRMAN
    …there were no Jews at all of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a 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.

    Christians weren’t preaching a dead Messiah. They were preaching a messiah of grandeur and power who was about to come and overthrow the enemy and usher in the Kingdom of God.

    1. Of course. This stock “argument” flies in the face of so much other study on the views of the messiah within the scholarly community, too. It is not hard to find scholarly views arguing that the Son of Man in Daniel represented the final glory to be given to the persecuted, scattered and martyred Jews, or that David himself even as a messianic figure was one who was exalted after suffering utter abasement, even to the point of death. One might even start to entertain thoughts of “intellectual dishonesty” when one hears this from scholars (one can understand it coming from fundamentalist apologists). Even Dr McGrath quickly learned to be more careful with his language on this one, and appears to have attempted to blame Ehrman’s gaffe on the Huffpo editor. But of course, as you point out (and as I also did on the good doctor’s blog), Ehrman is quite unambiguous in the book.

  11. I am not among those convinced that Jesus was a completely mythical figure, unlike John the Baptist or Saul of Tarsus, but I do support unimpeded rational debate on this subject, free from name-calling and deliberate misrepresentation.

    I am interested in the possibility that some exorcisms and healings attributed to Jesus resulted from his use of pyschological techniques and also psychoactive substances; and further that these known to his immediate followers explain to some degree their postmortem visions of Jesus associated with shared meals. Any comments would be appreciated.

    1. Hi David. A full answer would require more than a brief comment but I’ll try.

      The very short answer is that the stories of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are merely stories just like the stories of the empty tomb and walking on water. There is no historical basis for assuming any of them are anything more than creative literature. So such questions as yours here, and others such as the question of what Jesus really thought about his mission, etc, are misguided.

      What has concerned me most about the publications on Christian origins is that so many of them are written from a perspective that gospel narratives were originally composed in order to record historical memories. Of course it is nearly always admitted that these “memories” were embellished by theological and mythical imagination but nonetheless, beneath the hyperbole and doctrinal themes, lies historical tradition. This tradition is generally assumed to have been preserved orally although some written sources (Q, Signs Gospel, etc) are also postulated.

      But as far as I have been able to determine through extensive reading and engagement with quite a few of the scholars themselves all of the above is simply assumption. And that assumption derives ultimately from the Christian belief itself that God acted in history. In other words, it is an assumption so deeply embedded in our culture that it is difficult for many of us to see it as such.

      I have posted many times elaborating on this point and the fallacious method at the heart of so many studies on Christian origins. I am encouraged to learn that I am not alone in my views (they in fact were extrapolated from my reading of modern critics of OT history) but it is also clear that such criticism made public earns hostile reactions from many of the scholars whose entire life’s work and vocation has been based on this cultural assumption.

      I said that my own views were originally stimulated by modern critics of OT history. You can see a summary of these criticisms on my webpage at IN SEARCH OF ANCIENT ISRAEL.

      I cover there the logical fallacies at the heart of so much of biblical studies.

      Some critics have scoffed in response that if we decide Jesus is not historical then we will have to remove most other persons from ancient history, too. But that criticism completely misses the fallacy at the heart of so much Christian origins studies. See, for example, Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons and Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”

      So I see the question of what means Jesus might have used in reality to heal and exorcise as based on an unfounded assumption: that the Jesus of the gospels was more than a literary creation.

      Now if we remove the gospels from our sources for a historical Jesus as incapable of telling us anything for certain, then we are left with the writings of Paul.

      Paul interestingly leads us to understand that Jesus was never at any point known as a miracle worker.

      Sorry to offer what must be a disappointing answer to your question.

  12. I do not approach the NT with the presupposition that God acted in history, although some Christian apologists have made some good responses to sweeping criticisms. I do take the view that the “mission” of Jesus of Nazareth was embellished and redacted in various ways by the time we get the gospels written, and we can probably wind back to a basic substratum. The exorcisms &c may well be explained by psychological or psychoactive actions. I don’t think we can just ditch the Gospels and Acts altogether, or suppose that Paul was writing for some yet unfathomable reason about a person who never lived and his followers whom he never met. Than you for the time spent on this; I shall think over your comment again, and always welcome both debate and criticism.

    1. Agreed that exorcisms in the early church have excellent psychological explanations, by the way. I think both Hanges and Davies make this point very well. And I do accept that Paul’s letters are evidence for this practice being one of the “gifts of the spirit” and among the “miracles” and “signs” Paul and his followers performed.

  13. Found him among scores – James C. Hanges, and will get to him too in the end. NT criticism is beginning to reach Himalayan proportions, but neither faith nor atheism will scale let alone move these mountains.

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