Review: Did Jesus Exist?, Bart D. Ehrman

Neither a preacher, nor a scholar, nor a Christian, I; merely a party with an interest in history and religion. That caveat now stated, I must say, too, that I agree with the conclusion Bart Ehrman reaches in his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?: Yes. He just wasn’t who you think.

Ehrman wrote Did Jesus Exist? to counter the arguments of a “movement” (although it is not really as organized as the term implies) he terms “mythicists”: Amateur historians and a handful of genuine scholars who assert that Jesus did not exist, either as the Son of God as portrayed in the Gospels, or as the historical Jesus studies by scholars. This belief is growing rapidly in the West, Ehrman notes, and he is adamant that they are wrong.

Did Jesus Exist?, Bart D. Ehrman

Did Jesus Exist?, Bart D. Ehrman

Did Jesus Exist? is a fascinating study in historiography. Ehrman divides the book into three sections. In the first unit, Ehrman examines the sources we have for Jesus’ existence and explains their validity. Following that, Ehrman describes and counters mythicist claims. Finally, Ehrman states his “vision” of what the historical Jesus was probably like. It is impressive to observe the scope of Ehrman’s knowledge, the methodology he employs and the force with which he makes his case.

I won’t go into details regarding Ehrman’s methodology here; suffice it to say that the logic he uses is subtle and of a technical nature (that is, it is specific to the practice of history as an academic discipline), which ultimately, I think, means that his points may be lost on the majority of readers. If you have an open mind, you will enjoy this book. If prior to reading this book you are convinced that Jesus did or didn’t exist, Ehrman’s arguments won’t sway you one way or the other. They will simply infuriate you.

From my perspective, Ehrman made several points that go far in asserting the reality of the historical Jesus. I appreciated in particular his assertion that the Gospels (both canonical and non-) can be counted as distinct historical sources. That is, they should not be treated with any special consideration by historians of either persuasion: They are part of the Christian Bible, yes, but they are still sources nonetheless. And each Gospel is in some way informed by unique traditions, regardless of the ways in which some might be dependent upon others. Indeed, the differences between the Synoptic Gospels go a long way in assisting the historian in his study of Jesus. Mythicists and their sympathizers will not accept these claims.

Two other points, theological, further support Ehrman’s claims. (In my opinion; he makes many others, of course.) These are: 1. Ancient Jews anticipated an earthly (that is, real) messiah to deliver them from their enemies in the (real) world; and 2. Adherents of that messiah would not have portrayed him as having been crucified. These are unassailable points. Judaism has been, and remains, a religion focused on this world. The messiah figure anticipated by the apocalyptic elements within Judaism was one of flesh-and-blood; believers expected him to be a military hero or a priestly deliverer, or both, who would cast off the Roman yoke and unify the Jews under the Law. This is not an allegory or something that might happen in an “Other World.” It was (and for some Jews, in some ways, remains) something to await in this world.

I agree with Ehrman, too, that believers would not have depicted their messiah as having been crucified had it not been based on a historical event. Mythicists claim that this trope was borrowed from neighboring pagan religions in which a god-man dies for the betterment of mankind and then is raised from the dead. (I am not claiming that Jesus rose.) Ehrman effectively disproves this assertion. His most important point is theological. It is commanded in Deuteronomy that, if someone is executed and their body hanged from a tree (as was the practice among the Israelites, long before the days of Jesus), the body should be taken down before nightfall, lest the dead “come under the curse of the Lord.” Additionally, as discussed by John Dominic Crossan in his works on the historical Jesus, there are the honor and shame traditions of ancient Mediterranean society: The public display of the executed, and especially the inability of his family to remove him (or her), tarnished the honor of the family. Imagine the horror and confusion Jesus’ followers must have felt knowing that their supposed messiah had been nailed to a cross: It defies all of their expectations, their beliefs, their sense of decency. “How could this happen? Was Jesus’ ministry all for naught? That can’t be. Maybe we misunderstood the nature of the messiah…”

I accept Ehrman’s assertion that a historical Jesus existed. That is not to say that mythicists will not find fodder here. There are problems. Ehrman’s previous book argued (again, effectively) that many of the books of the New Testament had been forged (i.e, not all of the Pauline letters were written by Paul, etc.). He maintains here that that is irrelevant to the reality of the historical Jesus. That is a fine point to make, and I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by it. I’m not sure Ehrman entirely is, either; he almost skirts the issue by referring to these books as “forgeries” only twice.

Likewise, Ehrman is adamant that the Gospels can be used as historical sources. (I agree.) But perhaps he is too generous. He dismisses the miracles as irrelevant; historians do not trade in miracles. (I agree; mythicists might claim this renders them illegitimate sources.) For instance, Ehrman describes Jesus’ trial by Pilate as a (very abbreviated) historical reality. That is, it may have happened, in a very perfunctory way, lasting only moments, and certainly not as depicted by the Gospels. Crossan, in Who Killed Jesus? effectively demonstrates that any trial at all is historically unlikely; Jesus was, probably, rounded up and executed without ceremony. If that whole episode can be invented—well, then there are greater implications.

Finally, Ehrman notes that the Jews who were Jesus’ earliest followers were unlikely to incorporate into their understanding of him beliefs from neighboring pagan societies. I agree. But Ehrman later notes that there were traditions stating that Jesus may have had a twin brother and that his harkens back to pagan myth (twin gods). The Gospels, canonized and non-, were written in Greek; their authors must have been familiar with Hellenistic culture. Here, then, is evidence of paganism seeping into Christian belief. If at this early stage paganism had begun to influence embryonic Christianity, might it not have had an earlier effect?

All of this is to say that this book is bursting with information. Thinking readers will enjoy it; readers who are militant in their positions, either mythicist or believer, may wish to avoid it. Some readers may be put off by Ehrman’s incessant appeals to authority: In every chapter, and on nearly every page, Ehrman states that almost every reputable scholar of whom he is aware agrees on this point or that. Likewise, Ehrman has a habit of raising an argument and then putting it off: “For now it is enough to say…” He also consistently refers readers to other books, particularly his own, but this is understandable given the scope of his argument. It is not a perfect book; none are. But it is a great one.

(Note: I wrote this review on April 15, 2012, and originally posted it on LibraryThing and Goodreads. Its cross-posting here is part of an effort to consolidate all of my reviews in one place.)

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