Tag Archives: Bart Ehrman: Did Jesus Exist?

Another Name to Add to the Who’s Who Page of Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics

Bart Ehrman has a new critic. I have just been notified (thanks, emailers!) of a new paper uploaded to academia.edu by a philosophy lecturer at the University of Oslo,

Why Jesus Most Likely Never Existed: Ehrman’s Double Standards

by Narve Strand (link is to CV).

I especially liked his conclusion since it expresses my own stance perfectly:

We don’t even have to hold this as a positive thesis, only to point out that Paul believed in this figure and that nothing follows from this about his existence. A consistent ahistorical stance here is like atheism: The only thing we really need to show is that the historicist doesn’t have real evidence that would make his purely human Jesus existing more probable than not.

Narve’s engagement with Ehrman’s arguments are spot on. Here is the beginning of his response to Ehrman’s appeal to criteria of authenticity:

Ehrman of course would say he doesn’t take the New Testament as good, reliable evidence. Not straightforwardly, anyway. His take is more sophisticated: The trick is to get behind the author and his agenda, digging out the real nuggets of historical information by a special set of authenticity-criteria. But: If the text itself breaks the basic rules of evidence (cf. E1-4), how can introducing more rules help? You can’t milk good, reliable information from bad, unreliable evidence (NE1-3) like that. To think that you can, like Ehrman clearly does (e.g. ch. 8), is sheer alchemy.

And again,

Bad evidence plus bad evidence equals bad evidence. Multiple attestation of hearsay is still hearsay. Here the rule is totally useless.

Ehrman lets his lay readers down badly, a point I am glad Narve brings to wider notice:

The insufficiency and unreliability of authenticity-criteria is well-known in biblical studies (see e.g. Allison 1998; 2008; 2009; Avalos 2007; Bird 2006; Le Donne 2002; Porter 2000; 2006; 2009). By not reporting this simple fact to his lay audience, Ehrman creates a false or misleading impression of the state of research in his own field.

On Ehrman’s two “knock-down” arguments, read more »

Multiple Sources or a Single Source? Two Views

Multiple sources

Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death. . . .

But that is not all. There are still other independent Gospels. The Gospel of John is sometimes described as the “maverick Gospel” because it is so unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Gospels continued to be written after John, however, and some of these later accounts are also independent. Since the discovery in 1945 of the famous Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, scholars have debated its date. . . . [A] good portion of Thomas, if not all of it, does not derive from the canonical texts. To that extent it is a fifth independent witness to the life and teachings of Jesus.

The same can be said of the Gospel of Peter, discovered in 1886. . . .

Another independent account occurs in the highly fragmentary text called Papyrus Egerton 2. . . . Here then, at least in the nonparalleled story, but probably in all four, is a seventh independent account. (Ehrman, 75-77)

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. (Ehrman, 83)

We have a number of surviving Gospels—I named seven—that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions. (Ehrman, 92)

Indirectly, then, Tacitus and (possibly) Josephus provide independent attestation to Jesus’s existence from outside the Gospels although, as I stated earlier, in doing so they do not give us information that is unavailable in our other sources. . . . As a result of our investigations so far, it should be clear that historians do not need to rely on only one source (say, the Gospel of Mark) for knowing whether or not the historical Jesus existed. He is attested clearly by Paul, independently of the Gospels, and in many other sources as well: in the speeches in Acts, which contain material that predate Paul’s letters, and later in Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement. These are ten witnesses that can be added to our seven independent Gospels (either entirely or partially independent), giving us a great variety of sources that broadly corroborate many of the reports about Jesus without evidence of collaboration. (Ehrman, 97, 140f)

. . .

A Single Source

Significantly almost every scholar who pushes for the authenticity, and the early dating, of various extra-canonical items, does so with the argument that these texts were part of the core tradition of early Christianity: in other words, that they are not independent witnesses to the historical Yeshua. (Akenson, 552)

The Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John not alternative independent witnesses, but slightly variant editions of a single source: both are found within the Christian interpretative tradition and, as we have seen (Chapter Nine), this tradition required that for Yeshua of Nazareth to be come Jesus-the-Christ, he had to be identified as a Passover sacrifice. Thus, we have here a single tradition, not a multiply-attested set of historical observations. Emphatically, this does not mean that the single-source tradition is wrong, merely that it is not confirmed by the self-repetition of certain points within the Christian scriptures. (Akenson, 553)

Some scholars have suggested that cella in of the para-biblical books – such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter – intermixed with ”Q” and Mark and the unique portions of Matthew and of Luke in the biblical equivalent of the primal soup from which all life is said to stem. Some few others throw into the stew a “Cross Gospel” which is an hypothetical document, said to underlie the Gospel of Peter. Just how far out of control this is, and unrelated to anything a professional historian would recognize as a testable hypothesis or as having probative value, is illustrated by the following summary of his own theory of the formation of the Gospels, put forward by John Dominic Crossan, one of the best-known of Roman Catholic biblical historian

The process developed. in other words, over these primary steps. First, the historical passion, composed of minimal knowledge, was known only in the general terms recorded by. say, Josephus or Tacitus. Next, the prophetic passion, composed of multiple and discrete biblical allusions and seen most clearly in a work like the Epistle of Barnabas, developed biblical applications over, under, around, and through that open framework. Finally, those multiple and discrete exercises were combined into the narrative passion as a single sequential story. I proposed. furthermore, that the narrative passion is but a single stream of tradition flowing from the Cross Gospel, now embedded within the Gospel of Peter. into Mark, thence together into Matthew and Luke, and thence, all together, into John. Other reconstructions are certainly possible. but that seems to me the most economical one to explain all the data.

– a strange brew indeed. (Akenson, 573)

[E]ven if one finds the heuristic-Gospel “Q” useful in understanding the evolution of the biblical text, it docs not constitute multiple attestation by independent witnesses of the sayings or deeds of the historical Yeshua. All the sayings are derived from a unitary source, the extant canonical scriptures, and just as the canonical scriptures are a single witness, so any hypothetical derivative from the canon is pan of the same single unitary source. To be blunt: one cannot obtain multiple independent attestation of the historical Yeshua simply by chopping up the “New Testament.” (Akenson, 574-5)

Compare Akenson’s point with Schweitzer’s:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him 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. (See Schweitzer in context for full quote and variant translations.)


Akenson, Donald Harman. 2001. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. New edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ehrman, Bart D. 2013. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne.


10. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Listening to the Sounds of Silence

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Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 10

Listening to the Sounds of Silence

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Silence: Why did no-one until modern times deny the existence of Jesus?
    • – Does anyone on the early Christian scene deny the existence of the Gospel Jesus?
    • – Ignatius’ letters the first to show support for the Gospel story
  • Sounds in silence: Or were they?
    • – Does 1 John reveal the first dispute over an historical Jesus?
    • – Should we expect Celsus to be a New Testament exegete?
    • – Trypho’s “groundless report”
    • – Sound of Silence: Ehrman fails to hear
  • Golden silence of the Rabbis
    • – Silent rabbis on Jesus’ non-existence
  • The silence of Irenaeus, Tertullian and their heretics
    • – Why do 2nd century apologists not attack the Christ cult of Paul as a heresy?
  • The sound of transition: From Paul to Orthodoxy
    • – The process of transition from a heavenly to earthly Christ
  • The sound of diversity: A Logos religion

    • – The Logos religion of the 2nd century apologists
  • Silence complete: Revisiting Josephus and Tacitus
    • – Ehrman’s unsupportable assumptions

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Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 94-97)

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Later Sources from Outside the New Testament

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Silence: Why did no-one until modern times deny the existence of Jesus?

Ehrman spends a few pages at the beginning of his Chapter Four on the old canard which too many historicists seem to think is a knockout blow against the mythicist theory: that no one in all the documents we possess from the earliest period right up to the 18th century ever suggests, or deals with an accusation, that Jesus never existed. A moment’s reflection ought to reveal why this might be the case. (There are in fact a handful of notable exceptions to this silence that I will go into shortly, which puts the lie to Ehrman’s sweeping statement.)

First of all, if an earthly Jesus did not exist for Christians of the Pauline variety of faith in a sacrificed Savior through almost the first hundred years of the movement, how would we expect to find a denial that he had? No one would have been claiming it.

We also have to ask, who would have been in a position to know that Christians were claiming something that was false?

When do we first see that claim surfacing? One can’t point to the Gospels themselves because the very issue in question is whether there is any support for their presentation of a supposedly historical figure and set of events; and their traditional dating is dubious.

The first direct reference by a Christian to an historical man who was crucified by Pilate is found in the letters of Ignatius, which if authentic can be dated no earlier than 107 CE, or if forgeries, some time after that. Is anyone going to be around in Antioch in 107 or later who had been alive in Galilee or Jerusalem three-quarters of a century earlier—with the upheaval and destruction of the Jewish War occurring in the interim—someone who knew everything that happened there in the 10-year period of Pilate’s governorship and was thus in a position to verify that such a figure never existed? A preposterous idea. Christians themselves show no sign of being familiar with the Gospel story, let alone that it had any circulation outside their circles, before the time of Ignatius. read more »

9. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Form Criticism and the Sources of the Gospels

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Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.9

Form Criticism and the Sources of the Gospels

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus
    • The Fallacy of Form Criticism
    • The Written Evidence of Common Patterns Versus the Oral Hypothesis
    • Literary Construction out of Scripture, not Oral Traditions
    • Traditions in Thomas and Q — not independent
    • The Path to Jesus is Paved with Good Assumptions
    • How Ehrman Dates the Sources to the Day After Jesus
    • From Contradiction and Confusion to Total Chaos
  • The Aramaic Origins of (Some) Oral Traditions
    • Aramaic originals?
    • An Aramaic Son of Man?
  • Conclusion

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The Oral Traditions About Jesus

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 83-93)

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Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus

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In a section entitled “Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus,” Ehrman encapsulates the traditional scholarly approach to analysing the content of the Gospels, and sets these beside the current views he is espousing. But there are inherent contradictions in his scenario.

The Fallacy of Form Criticism

The “form-critical” approach, or “form criticism,” has sought to understand how the various stories about Jesus took shape as they were being “transmitted orally.” Scholarship has long observed something curious, says Ehrman:

Why is it that so many miracle stories seem to follow the same basic pattern? A person comes up to Jesus, his or her problem (or illness) is described, there is a brief interchange with Jesus, Jesus agrees to heal the person, he does so by a word or by a touch, and all the crowds marvel. Every miracle story seems to have the same elements.

Or take the controversy stories. Jesus or his disciples do something that offends the Jewish leaders; the leaders protest; Jesus has a conversation with them; and the story ends with Jesus delivering a withering one-liner that shows that he gets the better of them. Time after time, same form. (p. 84, emphasis added)

As Ehrman puts it, form criticism has asked: How did the various kinds of stories assume their various forms?

The stories about Jesus came to be shaped in the process of telling and retelling, as they assumed their characteristic forms. This means that the stories were changed, sometimes radically, when they were retold, and thus formed over the years. (p. 84)

Something doesn’t compute here. Ehrman has just told us that all the healing miracle stories, for example, are found in the Gospels in a more or less identical form. But oral transmission over a wide area, within an uncoordinated movement, is not likely to produce conformity. Quite the opposite. read more »