Bart Ehrman’s First Attempt to Grapple with Mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

Uppsala, Sweden — from my visit in 2008

This is a first on Vridar. I am repeating a post. The following I originally published 4th November 2011 under the title, Bart Ehrman’s Failed Attempt to Address Mythicism. But given that the hot topic of the moment is Bart Ehrman’s more dedicated attempt to discredit mythicism I beg for understanding and forgiveness.


In Jesus Interrupted Bart Ehrman describes his first encounter with people who believed Jesus never existed. Some people from Sweden had emailed him to ask if it were true that he thought Jesus was a myth. Ehrman describes his reaction:

I thought this was an odd question. (p. 140)

Bart Ehrman then comes very close to opening the door on something of utmost significance:

This view may seem strange to an American audience, where the majority of people think not only that Jesus existed but that he was, and is, the Son of God. But in parts of Scandinavia the majority of people thinks that Jesus is a completely fabricated figure, that he never actually existed but was invented by a group of people intent on starting a new religion. (p. 140)

But he does not go through with what, I would have thought, a question that cries out for an explanation: the cultural matrix of belief in Jesus and Jesus scholarship. Sometimes the best way to recognise one’s own assumptions and biases is to view one’s position from the perspective of another culture entirely. I don’t think there is anything “universal” (in the sense of being independent of cultures) about the study of Jesus.

So having begun with the question of historicity I was looking forward to Ehrman’s discussion of that very point. But he didn’t. There is a conceptual disconnect between the theme he introduces in his opening two paragraphs and the rest of the chapter.

What happens is this. After introducing the question of whether or not Jesus existed, and expressing his own sense of shock that such a question could even be asked, and even embracing his predominantly American audience as being like-minded on this question, he proceeds to explain (by way of a responding answer to this bizarre question), how anyone can know anything about what Jesus historically said.

I suggested that . . . there were not three options but four: liar, lunatic, Lord, or legend. Of course I chose the fourth word to maintain the alliteration. What I meant was not that Jesus himself was a legend. Of course not! I certainly believe that he existed and that we can say something about him. What I meant was that the idea that he called himself God was a legend. . . .

But how can I or any other New Testament scholar or historian know what Jesus actually said about himself or about anything else? This is the subject of many, many books, some of them extremely erudite — and very long. I cannot cover the entire waterfront in this chapter, but I can deal with the most important issues as they are discussed by historians of early Christianity, and I can give you a taste of what I think we can know about the man Jesus, not just how he is portrayed in this Gospel or that, but that he himself actually was, in history — the historical Jesus. (pp. 142-43)

Note how subtly the transition occurs. Something Bart Ehrman said in a lecture about the possibility of Jesus being a legend was picked up by some who believed Jesus was a myth. Ehrman explains that by legend he meant that what Jesus was believed to have said about himself was a legend. This then leads into a discussion of how we can know what Jesus said.

And notice what is missing. Bart Ehrman skips entirely the very question facing his Swedish interrogators. They are not asking how we can know what the historical Jesus said. They are suggesting there was no historical Jesus at all. It follows, in the minds of such sceptics, that any methods or studies inquiring into the sayings and deeds of such a figure as baseless as if they were investigating the historical Balder.

And this is pretty much the way just about every study of the historical Jesus goes. That there was a Jesus is assumed at the outset.

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson)

Part of the problem, I think, may be that we grow up being taught about famous persons in history and we never stop to ask, or we soon stop asking, how we know such people existed. By the time we get to university to study history of such people we will soon become familiar with the evidence. That such people as Julius Caesar existed is immediately apparent to students as they are required to engage with both primary and secondary evidence for his times. I have never studied theology but I imagine that students of theology are told from the outset that they will be studying “the sources” for Jesus, their different points of view and circumstances of composition, etc. If the historicity of Jesus is raised as a question at all I imagine it will be dismissively covered with the usual routine dot-point culprits: Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny, Suetonius. Historicity will be relatively hastily reassured. But I suspect from Ehrman’s opening remarks (about how he and other Americans would find the question “odd”) that many courses in America would not even seriously raise the question. That situation might be changing in very recent years in order to respond to the dissemination of the idea of mythicism through the internet.

Notice how the existence of Jesus is assumed by Bart Ehrman throughout and how he is thinking entirely within the parameters of his culturally nourished belief system and not according to the evidence itself:

How can sources like this [the Gospels – inconsistent, ‘late’, in places dependent upon one another, biased, etc.] be used to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus? It’s not easy, but there are ways.

The first step is to get a better handle on how the Gospel writers got their stories. If they were living three to six decades after events they narrate, what were their sources of information? The short answer is that the Gospel writers received most of their information from the oral tradition, stories that had been in circulation about Jesus by word of mouth from the time he died until the time the Gospel writers wrote them down. (p. 144)

Notice once again the enormous assumption that was slipped into that second paragraph. The historicity of the narrative is assumed. Ehrman takes it for granted that the narrative of the gospel must have been about a real historical person and set of events.

How do we know? He does not explain. This is assumed. I doubt that his Swedish audience would be persuaded.

How do we know there was an oral tradition from the time of Jesus up to the time the Gospels were written? Ehrman simply pulls that cute ribboned rabbit out of a hat.

On the other hand he could have introduced here a study of comparative literature and shown the relationship between the gospel narratives and parallel narratives in the Old Testament, and perhaps in some cases with other Greek literature. He could have pointed out how each gospel is theologically consistent internally and that this strongly indicates that the stories selected by each author were crafted or adapted to convey a theological message. That is, they were not selected on the basis of the vagaries of whatever had come to the attention of the authors through inconsistent and varying oral traditions.

Neither approach would be radical. Many biblical scholars acknowledge these facts about the Gospels. I suspect it is only the assumption of an oral tradition that is in turn built upon the assumption of the historicity of Jesus that prevents many scholars from drawing the logical — and simplest — conclusion from these two facts: that the Gospels are from first to last creative literature.

He might even have gone further and pointed to studies found among classicist publications that the very name of Jesus was a perfect candidate for such a fiction; and also have pointed to the theoretical deficiencies of all studies that attempt to classify the Gospels in the genre of ancient biography and the theoretical richness underlying a study that places them in the genre of the Jewish novel.

Finally, he might have reflected a moment on how we know any story is based on real events or is a fabrication: external controls. He might have looked a little more closely at the rhetoric of the gospels and the literary devices they deploy to give them an air of historical realism.

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

Against all of the above, perhaps the strongest argument I have encountered to support the core historicity of the Gospel narratives is a fervent: “But no-one would ever have made all that up!”

And the rest follows. The assumption of historicity is used as the edifice for the assumption of the oral tradition.

There is much more to be said and I am not making an effort to answer every question in this post.

But one thing is consistent: Bart Ehrman is no different from probably all other historical Jesus studies I can recall reading (Allison, Borg, Carroll, Casey, Chilton, Crossan, Davies, Edersheim, Fredriksen, Funk, Grant, Keener, Levine, Sanders, Smith, Spong, Tabor, Theissen, Thiering, Vermes, Wright) — Jesus’ historicity is always assumed and never argued.

One scholar even unfortunately protested that the mere fact that we have sayings and deeds recorded about Jesus is evidence of his existence. No one says that the deeds and sayings “recorded” in ballads about Robin Hood or William Tell are evidence of their historicity, or that because we can know about them by the words and deeds recorded about them, we know that they therefore existed! One shudders to think what ruin could result from such fallacious thinking processes in a judge or jury.

Everyone has seen Bart’s pic. Here’s a fellow Aussie getting in the way of my camera on a boat tour in Sweden
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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman’s First Attempt to Grapple with Mythicism”

  1. Elegy [not really] to oral tradition.

    I just love ‘oral tradition”.
    What the hell, it deserves to be capitalized, it is after all a major source [isn’t it?] , so let’s try that again.
    I just love ‘Oral Tradition’!
    It’s so ….convenient.
    When in doubt about something, “Where did this come from, why does it look suspiciously like something it shouldn’t?” then, voila, Aha! I know .
    Oral Tradition.
    Thats the answer. To any question you want it to be.
    And so …. handy. How do you falsify it? Were you there, then, in 1C Palestine so as to be able to say that someone wasn’t saying whatever I claim Oral Tradition was saying?
    Huh? Were you? Thought not. So you can’t say “Oral Tradition” is not the answer can you? Gotcha. So I can explain whatever I can’t explain by simply saying ….”Oral Tradition dunnit”.
    It even explains things that contradict each other.
    2 Oral Traditions [or more].
    I get to choose which one[s] I want to emphasize. Or combination therof.
    Problem solvered.

  2. On page 206, of Ehrman’s new book, he tells readers about all these oral traditions.

    Ehrman can date oral traditions in the Gospels to the early 30’s.

    He does not explain how this dating is done. Pity. It would be interesting to know how historians date oral traditions.

    Part of me says Ehrman dates them to the early 30’s because he starts with the idea that Jesus died in 30 AD.

    But that is a part of me that thinks that reputable historians engage in circular reasoning, logical fallacies, and begging the question.

    A different part of me thinks that Ehrman has really good evidence for this dating, but just ran out of space in his book.

  3. Actually, Bart’s book is really bad.

    His reasoning on page 206-207 is 1) we know the Gospels are based on oral tradition, because the only way of spreading Christianity was by telling people about Jesus, so we know stories were told about Jesus.

    (Yes, but knowing people were speaking about Jesus does not prove they were speaking about a Jesus of Nazareth. Paul never mentions him)

    Bart then considers the question – If all these Gospels were based on oral traditions of a historical Jesus of Nazareth, how come so many ended up looking like plot lines from the Old Testament?

    Answer. Many of the Gospel stories are indeed myths, but the Gospels were based on oral traditions about a Jesus of Nazareth that can be dated to the early 30s.

    Bart’s book reads like the closed world of a Jehovah’s Witness. Mere facts cannot penetrate the rationalisations set up to exclude any worldview that is deemed theologically incorrect.

  4. How do we know there was an oral tradition from the time of Jesus up to the time the Gospels were written? Ehrman simply pulls that cute ribboned rabbit out of a hat.

    As I was reading Ehrman’s argument for an oral history in DJE, I was wondering why he was devoting so much attention to it. Now it seems almost like it was a response to the argument in this post. His argument for there having been an oral history for a “long time” rests on a couple of instances where Aramaic words appeared in the Gospels and another where a particular phrase doesn’t make any sense unless it is translated from Greek back to the “original” Aramaic. To argue that there couldn’t have been an oral tradition unless Jesus had been a real person seems like a stretch, but when you don’t have any evidence you go with what you can think of to justify a belief that Jesus had to have existed.

    Another “argument” that Ehrman makes is that the argument that Jesus didn’t exist is a modern phenomenon and that for thousands of years nobody questioned his existence. It is as if he won’t even let himself think about why this might have been the case. If people are being declared heretics for opinions much less controversial than denying that Jesus existed, there isn’t going to be much chance for anyone who values his or her neck to be questioning the existence of Jesus.

    1. Ehrman in his intro mentions names who have assisted him with the book. They include those whom we know have at least some acquaintance with the internet discussions that have included comments by Steven Carr. I sometimes sense that Ehrman is arguing against points he has heard second hand from right-thinking peers. (He is certainly not interested in presenting even the mythicist arguments he reads in the likes of Doherty — merely in many cases only interested in presenting a dot-point they make as if it is an argument and denouncing it without any reference to its supporting arguments.

  5. 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, I enjoy discussions and have endeavoured to address this point that you have made repeatedly. But you have not responded except to say, if I understand you correctly — I am happy to be corrected, that normal human reasoning is inadequate (according to the best scientific minds today). Yet look at your quotes. They speak of the reconstructions that have come from human reasoning. Perhaps those reconstructions are only one of several hypotheses. I have shown you the many other hypothetical sources scholars also reconstruct behind the Gospels. It is those reconstructions — that are the product of human reasoning — that are being challenged by commenters here and other scholars elsewhere.

      You have copied and pasted the same comment four times now. We do understand what you think and that you disagree with the perspective of commenters here. You have made that clear now.

  6. I think I might be somewhat responsible for the fact that some “Swedes” confronted Ehrman with the Myth hypothesis. On December 2, 2006, I once again got the question on my blog, if there is any exegete or postdoctoral researcher within the field who shares my views that Jesus probably never existed. http://rogerviklund.wordpress.com/2006/11/20/inget-nytt-under-solen/#comment-2 .

    I find that question kind of tiresome and really irrelevant to the actual quest of Jesus’ historicity. But I anyway named Robert Price. However, he wanted more names, and since I recently had read in the Washington Post that Ehrman put forward a “fourth option” regarding Jesus, namely “legend”, I also mentioned that it looks like Ehrman now at least considers the possibility that Jesus did not exist. I said that I only read it in the paper and that I did not know the accuracy of this statement, not having read his latest book (Misquoting Jesus).

    This person was however persistent, and obviously thought the question of Ehrman’s position to be important, not only for the credibility of the hypothesis, but also (my view) for the credibility of my scholarship – implying that I erroneously was referring to Ehrman in support for my views, when in fact I almost never refer to anyone in support of anything – apart from giving credit to the source.

    Anyway, he got back on December 7, 2006 and said that he had contacted Ehrman, who claimed that he was misquoted (as Jesus was) and that he meant that it was a legend that Jesus had claimed to be the son of God.

    This could at least be one instance when Ehrman had encounter with people from Sweden who believed Jesus never existed. If this then lead to Ehrman writing “Did Jesus Exist?” it must have been a lucky move, since I believe this debate will be beneficial, making the mythicist position more widely known.

    Roger Viklund

    1. It might prove interesting were someone to ask Dr Ehrman if this was the basis for his claims about “Sweden”. I trust there wouldn’t have been any rainbow effect stemming from certain American stereotypical views of Scandinavians that magnified the significance of a few queries from that quarter.

    2. Since I am the Swede who contacted Ehrman in 2006 I will give a comment reminding Roger Viklund that his description is not entirely correct. My reason for contacting Ehrman was not Viklund’s answer on his own blog. Earlier the same year, on March 8, Viklund published an article on the Swedish website “Passagen”, declaring that Ehrman had changed his mind on the subject of Jesus’ existence and now had come closer to Viklund’s conclusion. Viklund repeated his declaration in some discussions and his “followers” made a lot of this as argument in the Jesus debate.

      Then I decided to contact Ehrman who denied any changement of opinion on this subject. So I think Roger Wiklund is correct in believing that his actions may be part of the reasons behind Ehrman’s book “Did Jesus exist”. But his and his followers use of their misunderstanding of Ehrman’s words about Jesus was far more important than he seems to admit.

  7. “This view may seem strange to an American audience, where the majority of people think not only that Jesus existed but that he was, and is, the Son of God.” — Ehrman

    Ehrman might add that they believe this not through some careful sifting of the arguments for the “historical” Jesus, but rather for cultural cachet, placebo effect, etc. Americans’ biblical illiteracy was demonstrated by the Pew Forum poll of 2010, where half of the USA couldn’t even name the four gospels. They believe that Jesus was “the son of god” because it makes them feel good about themselves to say so.

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