Mention the University of North Carolina during March madness, and the Tar Heels basketball team will come to mind–the Religious Studies department, not so much. But, Chapel Hill professor Bart D. Ehrman made March news of his own with the release of his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?
Professor Ehrman has carved out his own slice of fame as a best-selling author of historical books of the early Christian era, offering his own take on the recurring quest to discover the historical Jesus.
Ehrman’s popularity stems from his down-to-earth writing style that targets the folks in the pews rather than the scholarly elites of the academy—and always with tantalizing hints of controversy. Not that his views are outside the scholarly consensus; to the contrary, Ehrman interprets the findings of the academic community for a lay audience.
Ehrman is often about debunking simplistic Christian notions learned in third grade Sunday school. Not so with his current book. This time, he takes on the conspiratorially-minded “mythicists” who would argue that early Christian writers, primarily the person behind the gospel of Mark, created a Christ out of whole cloth; in other words, they made him up.
From the outset, Ehrman makes it clear that there is overwhelming evidence that there really was a Jesus of Nazareth and that no serious, credible scholar would disagree. He’s probably right, but that begs the question: “why respond to a few crackpots and internet blog conspiracists who won’t accept your evidence anyway?” It would seem his task is akin to arguing with political “birthers”.
Are there thick theological layers to the gospels? Yes. Did the gospel compilers awkwardly attempt to squeeze Jesus into preexisting Hebrew models? Yes. Does the Jesus of the third grade Sunday school class misconstrue the historical person? Yes. Are some gospel episodes fabrications? Yes. Ehrman argues that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. The leap of the mythicists from these starting points to the conclusion that Jesus never existed goes well beyond reason and the evidence.
So, what is Ehrman’s essential argument and what evidence does he cite to support it?
The reality is that every single author who mentions Jesus—pagan, Christian, or Jewish—was fully convinced that he at least lived. Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, his nonexistence is never one of them. pp. 171-72.
Ehrman meticulously takes the reader through the earliest sources, including canonical and non-canonical gospels, letters, early Roman and Jewish authors, and the oral and written traditions that predated and served as source material for the gospel accounts. He identifies the independent strains that underlie the gospels. Ehrman concludes that there are multiple sources that go back to the decade following Jesus’ death and each early story begins with the premise that there was a Jewish man named Jesus “known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified … in Judea during the reign of Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea.” That the stories contain theological interpretations doesn’t negate this common root assumption.
Most importantly, Ehrman cites Paul the apostle, which is ironic since the mythicists base much of their argument on the fact that Paul writes little about the life of Jesus. True enough, says Ehrman, but what Paul does say is compelling. According to Paul’s written account in his letter to the Galatians, he traveled to Jerusalem where he visited Peter and James, “the brother of the Lord”, a few years after the crucifixion.
Paul was personally acquainted with … Peter and James. Peter was Jesus’ closest confidant throughout his public ministry and James was his actual brother. Paul knew them for decades, starting [soon after the crucifixion]. It is hard to imagine how Jesus could have been made up. Paul knew his best friend and his brother. p. 173.
The more intriguing question for me, Ehrman, and a century’s worth of scholarship that goes back, at least, to Albert Schweitzer and his Quest of the Historical Jesus is not did he exist but who was he? What did Jesus of Nazareth do? Believe? Say? Finally, in the last of his three sections, Ehrman gets around to what is really interesting to all but the conspiracy-minded—Who was the historical Jesus? His conclusion? Turns out he thinks Schweitzer had it right all along:
I agree with Schweitzer and virtually all scholars in the field since his day that Jesus existed, that he was ineluctably Jewish, that there is historical information about him in the Gospels, and that we can therefore know some things about what he said and did. Moreover, I would agree with Schweitzer’s overarching view, that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish prophet who anticipated a cataclysmic break in history in the very near future, when God would destroy the forces of evil to bring in his own kingdom here on earth. p.14.
Let the theologizing begin.
**Disclaimer. I was given a complimentary copy of the book by a publicist representing the author/publisher and asked to offer a review.