Bart Ehrman on Did Jesus Exist? Part Two

Q. Why do you think it is that some atheists are so adamant about trying to eradicate Jesus entirely from the historical record, by claiming he never existed? It seems they protest too much. Wouldn’t it be just as congenial to their views to argue that yes he existed but: 1) he wasn’t God, and 2) he wasn’t nearly as important as Christianity made him out to be, in particular they might simply deny he was the world’s savior? Why do you think they insist on such an extreme position? It’s like they are haunted by the ghost of Jesus and can’t seem to exorcize it properly.

A). Yes, I long wondered that myself, and in Did Jesus Exist I took a stab at answering it. The mythicists themselves never indicate, of course, why they are so outspoken and even vitriolic in their assertions that Jesus never existed, so all we can go on is educated inference. In my book I argue that it is not an accident that the mythicists are all (to my knowledge) atheists or agnostics who find organized religion highly dangerous. In my view, they have a point about that, as religion has indeed been used for very hateful and harmful purposes over the years, from the crusades and inquisition to the justification of slavery to the oppression of woman, minorities, gays, and other people. So I understand the problem. But the mythicist approach to it seems to be to say that the problem is religion itself (I tend to think the problem is people!); moreover, the one religion they are most familiar with is Christianity. So, in order to pull the rug out from under Christianity (= religion, for them), what better approach than to say that it is complete baseless, unfounded, and built on a myth? If Jesus is a myth, then, in their opinion, Christianity is just a fairy tale not worth believing. And so, to accomplish what they think is a good aim they argue that Jesus did not exist.
I do not see this as disinterested history by people who really want to know what happened in the past. I see it as ideologically driven history by people who have an agenda, and who are willing to “find” what they do in history so long as it meets with their agenda. In my judgment, that is not the best way to do history.

Q. It seems that mythicists place a lot of weight on arguments from silence (e.g. no public records that Jesus existed), but as you point out 99% of all ancients do not show up in records or the literature of the first century, and this tells us nothing about whether they existed or not. Why do you think it is that they refuse to accept the old dictum that absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence? This especially puzzles me about someone like Robert Price who should know better.

A. My sense is that some mythicists think that everyone who believes in Jesus’ historical existence accepts a “believing Christian” view of Jesus, namely, that if Jesus existed he really was the miracle working son of God who really did feed the multitudes with a few loaves, who really did cast out demons, and heal the sick, and raise the dead, and that if there really were a person like that who lived in the first century, somebody from his own day would have mentioned him. On one level, that’s a good point – you would indeed expect such a God-on-earth to be mentioned by someone living at the time. But the fact is that we don’t have a single reference to Jesus from someone living at his time – friend or enemy. We have only documents written by people living later, and almost always by people who believe in him.
So the point the mythicists make is not only that there is silence with respect to Jesus, but that there is unexpected silence. That’s the key.
My response is that this is putting the cart before the horse. As a historian, the first thing to do is to decide whether Jesus existed. If you can show, historically, that he did exist, then and only then can you go on to the next step and ask, “What did he say and do?” If you decide that he did in fact perform hundreds of spectacular miracles (he does them all over the map in the Gospels, of course), then I think you are completely justified in asking: “In that case, why does no one mention him?” But as a historian you may end up saying that he lived a completely natural, non-miraculous life. If that’s true, then it would be no surprise at all that no one mentioned him, any more than that no one mentioned any of his cousins, nieces, or nephews – or indeed, the vast majority of people who lived in his time and place.
But that is a separate question from whether or not he existed. We can show he existed, and it has nothing to do with whether or not he actually existed as a human being.

  • http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    That last sentence is very confusing. What have I missed? (Great Q&A series, though!)

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric Sawyer

    The opening question is right on the button!

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben Witherington

    I think Bart means we can show Jesus existed but that doesn’t tell us what kind of person he was, whether for example he was divine as well as human. BW3

  • Chris

    I’m with Andrew Wilson. Last sentence clarification please!

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric Sawyer

    btw. The following by Prof. Ehrman: “I do not see this as disinterested history by people who really want to know what happened in the past. I see it as ideologically driven history by people who have an agenda, and who are willing to “find” what they do in history so long as it meets with their agenda. In my judgment, that is not the best way to do history. ” A discussion on Theology Web Campus titled: “There is not evidence for the biblical jesus” ( http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/showthread.php?146594-There-is-no-evidence-for-a-biblical-jesus&p=3417427#post3417427 ) , which has currently reached 3,573 posts is a classic example of this sort of thing. Refer my summary: http://broapocalypse.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/doonan-and-shaver-discuss-ehrman-and-meier/

  • http://patheos.com david gibbs

    I am currently reading Bart’s book in conjunction with Ben’s interview – quite interesting. Ultimately things will come to a head: can we seperate the “historical Jesus” from the miracle-working Man-God Messsiah? If we discover that there was some fella name “Jesus” living in Palestine at that time – is he “our Jesus” in question? Let’ go a step further: If that fella was put to death by the Romans , doesn that make him “our Jesus” in question.?” Another step: if that fella also purported to be a Messsiah/saviour and had a following, does he now therefore qualify to be considered “our Jesus” in question? When does a “Jesus” qualify to be considered our God-man “Jesus” ? Or are we pursuing an imponerable, unanswerable question?

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben Witherington

    Hi David: Much depends on how trustworthy our sources are. I believe they are much more trustworthy and dependable than some scholars do. Jesus’ death of the cross is an agreed on fact, but how one interprets its significance is another matter. While I certainly agree the Gospel writers interpret Jesus from particular points of view, and in my view do so perspicuously, I would also point out that there is no such thing even now as disinterested or purely objective interpretations of Jesus. So, it is a mistake to contrast modern ‘objective’ readings with ancient ‘subjective’ readings. The question is— whose readings are more accurate, and more adequately convey the actual significance of the historical Jesus? My money’s on those who were there and knew Jesus, or knew those who had known him. See Luke 1.1-4. BW3

  • Brad Johnson

    This is a fruitful dialogue, both in content and tone. Thanks to both of you.
    Here’s a question/thought I have, however, w/re: to Dr. Ehrman’s take on Christianity. He says, “it is not an accident that the mythicists are all (to my knowledge) atheists or agnostics who find organized religion highly dangerous. In my view, they have a point about that, as religion has indeed been used for very hateful and harmful purposes over the years, from the crusades and inquisition to the justification of slavery to the oppression of woman, minorities, gays, and other people. So I understand the problem.” This is a common tactic to disparage “religion” (Christianity, specifically), but it’s a skewed argument. Let’s take the justification of slavery, for instance. On one hand, we have a history of people in America who defended slavery from a biblical basis. On the other hand, we have a history of people in America who opposed slavery from a biblical basis. The Underground Railroad is a case in point. So is Christianity the problem, or is it the Bible, or is it a misreading of the Bible (and thus, a flawed expression of Christianity) that is the problem?

  • john

    I refer to Ben’s question “It seems that mythicists place a lot of weight on arguments from silence (e.g. no public records that Jesus existed), but as you point out 99% of all ancients do not show up in records or the literature of the first century, and this tells us nothing about whether they existed or not. Why do you think it is that they refuse to accept the old dictum that absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence? This especially puzzles me about someone like Robert Price who should know better.”

    I wish to make two points:

    (Point 1) To empathize with mythicists’ reasoning (for the record, I believe that Jesus existed, died and bodily resurrected): I think some of them would say that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is not applicable in all cases, and in particular, is not applicable in cases where someone/something’s presence is EXPECTED to leave behind evidence. In such cases, an absence of evidence would be reasonably an evidence of absence.

    So in Jesus’ case, some mythicists (an example: Richard Carrier) would first argue that, base on the practices of Roman officials and commoners at that time (e.g. if they keep official records of births, tax-payment, criminal trials etc), if Jesus existed and as a result certain situations came about, one example being the way he was tried by Pontius Pilate and the various resulted situations (including his crucifixion, what happened to his movement etc) then it is expected to leave traces in records such as official and non-official records during Jesus’ pre-ascension lifetime. Though it is not expected for the direct records to survive till our time, we should have traces of secondary records (including data found in literature resulted from Jesus’ followers’ interest in PRESERVING AND USING SOME DATA found in such records). And, according to Carrier, Philo’s case would be another case showing that evidence of Jesus is expected but not really found (I reproduced that part below after my next paragraph).

    (Point 2) Another point is that even it is unfair comparison to say we do not have 99% of ancients do not show up in records. We need to exclude all the ordinary ancients from the comparison. We need to compare Jesus with people who, because of their presence or their actions, would unexpectedly or naturally have attracted public attention or official attention.

    An example of one argument relating to absence of expected evidence is an evidence of absence (I quote part of an argument about Philo & Jesus from Richard Carrier’s blog):

    “…the absence of any mention of Jesus or Christianity in Philo is indeed very odd. In fact, the loss of his book about Pilate’s reign is a very curious omission–even though Christians preserved over three dozen other books of his, amounting to nearly 900 pages of multi-columned small type in English translation, Christians chose not to preserve the book on Pilate, and that despite preserving other volumes in the very same treatise. Why? Maybe the loss was just accidental (I suspect it was because no mention of Jesus was in it, but obviously we can debate that). Christians were evangelizing in Alexandria during Philo’s lifetime. If Acts is to be believed, Jewish leaders were very concerned to oppose this and took active effort to persecute Christians. If that is at all true, we can be certain Philo knew of Christians and their claims and stories, and thus knew of Jesus. He was a leading scholar, who wrote on various Jewish sects, and a significant political figure plugged into the elite concerns of Alexandrian Jews, who even chose him to lead their embassy to the emperor of Rome. (He also made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem: Philo, On Providence 2.64.)”

    “The only explanation for why Philo never mentions Christianity is that it was not as important to Jews as Acts depicts, but was a tiny fringe cult of no significant interest to the Jewish elite. And that is an important conclusion. Mythicists will say he doesn’t mention Jesus because there was no Jesus, but that does not explain why he doesn’t mention Christianity. Certainly, if Jesus was as famous and controversial as the Gospels and Acts depict, then Philo’s lack of interest in either the man or the threatening and grandiose claims made about him becomes improbable, but if we accept that the Gospels and Acts hugely exaggerate his fame and importance, then Philo’s disinterest goes back to being probable again. The consequence of this is that you must accept that Philo’s silence argues against the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels.”

  • john

    Sorry for my significant typo error in my Point 2. I reproduce the corrected version of Point 2 here:

    (Point 2) Another point is that it is an unfair comparison to say 99% of ancients do not show up in records (implying it is not much of a surprise if Jesus not show up too in public records or otherwise). We need to exclude all the ordinary ancients from the comparison. In principle at least, we need to compare Jesus only with people who, because of their presence or their actions, would unexpectedly or naturally have attracted public attention or official attention. Ehrman did use such a person as comparison by saying that even a prominent person as Pontius Pilate did not have any surviving record contemporary to Pilate’s time. But it seems that it was a mistaken comparison by Ehrman, because apparently we do have surviving Roman records of Pilate contemporary to his time.

  • john

    Hi Ben, please delete my previous post on the “corrected version of Point 2″ and use this one instead. Sorry for the inconvenience. The corrected version of Point 2 should be this:

    (Point 2) Another point is that it is an unfair comparison to say 99% of ancients do not show up in records (implying it is not much of a surprise if Jesus not show up too in public records or otherwise). We need to exclude all the ordinary ancients from the comparison. In principle at least, we need to compare Jesus only with people who, because of their presence or their actions, would expectedly or naturally have attracted public attention or official attention. Ehrman did use such a person as comparison by saying that even a prominent person as Pontius Pilate did not have any surviving record contemporary to Pilate’s time. But it seems that it was a mistaken comparison by Ehrman, because apparently we do have surviving Roman records of Pilate contemporary to his time.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben Witherington

    Hi John: I would argue that Tacitus must be referring to some sort of official record of executions by Pilate that he had seen. If you look at the Latin it looks like he is citing something, in which case there was a Roman record of both Pilate and Jesus. BW3

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

    If Jesus of Nazareth was actually an obscure itinerant preacher known only to a small group of illiterate peasants, then we shouldn’t be surprised if he had come and gone without leaving any mark in the historical record whatsoever. Most of the people in the ancient world who are known to us made their mark because they said or did things during their lives that had an impact on the prominent and literate people of their day. Jesus is unique in that his existence is known to us as a result of a belief that arose about supernatural events that took place after his death. Unlike Alexander the Great about whom supernatural tales arose because of the significant accomplishments during his natural life, the stories about Jesus natural life were preserved and transmitted as a result of a belief in his postmortem supernatural accomplishments. If you scrape away the supernatural from Alexander, you are still left with a significant historical footprint. If you scrape away the supernatural from Jesus, you scrape away the reason he was remembered in the first place. I am not aware of any comparable cases.

  • James Mace

    “Andrew Wilson says:
    June 6, 2012 at 4:21 am
    That last sentence is very confusing. What have I missed?”
    Andrew asks what Ehrman means when he says, “We can show he [Jesus] existed, and it has nothing to do with whether or not he actually existed as a human being.”

    Ehrman confusingly seems to most readers to be addressing the existence of Jesus when he is really addressing the existence of other people for whom we cannot show (in contrast to Jesus) their having existed.

    I.e., for most of the people in the world who have in fact existed, we cannot show that they did. In Jesus’s case, we can show that he did exist, but that does mean that the vast majority of people who have existed did not exist simply because we cannot show that they did.

    It may have been clearer to have said, “Although we CAN show Jesus existed, it is not necessary to be able to SHOW that someone existed for them to have in fact existed.”


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