Bart Ehrman on ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ Part Five

Q. Two of the real linch pins in your argument that Jesus existed is the evidence from Paul that he knew both the brother of Jesus and Peter, the most important early disciple of Jesus, and secondly, the omnipresent evidence that the earliest Christians all admitted that Jesus whom they followed had been crucified. Why is this evidence so telling, and the attempts by mythicists to dismiss so unconvincing?

A. I dealt a bit with the evidence from Paul in an earlier answer. The short version: even though Paul is not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, he personally knew two people (at least) who were: Jesus’ closest disciple Peter, and his brother James. This is as close as you can get to eyewitness testimony as you can imagine, without an eyewitness actually writing up a report himself. It’s very good evidence.

The other argument is at least as important, even though it’s a bit complicated. Most Christians today think that the Jewish messiah was *supposed* to die and be raised again (showing that he was the messiah). The reality, however, is that ancient Jews had a variety of expectations of who the messiah would be – some thought he’d be a great warrior king like David, others that he would be a cosmic judge of the earth (a Son of Man figure), others that he would be a powerful priest who judged God’s people. In NONE of these expectations was there any sense at all that the messiah would be someone who would be executed by his enemies, squashed by his opponents. Christians who think that is what the messiah was supposed to be have been influenced by OT passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, which seem to speak about a future suffering person whose death will make people right with God. But ancient Jews did not interpret these passages as referring to the messiah (and in fact, the messiah is not mentioned in these passages). On the contrary, for ancient Jews, these passages were decidedly NOT speaking about the messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power, not someone who was weak and powerless.

This means that if the followers of Jesus were going to make up the claim that he was the messiah they would not ALSO make up the claim that he was crucified, since that was the LAST thing that would happen to the messiah. But the reality is that Christians did call Jesus the messiah, and yet did indicate that he was crucified. How can we explain that? If a group of Jews wanted to make up a messiah (as the mythicists claim) they would not have made up a crucified messiah, since there was no such thing as the idea of a crucified messiah in Judaism at the time. And so they must not have made up Jesus. Instead, the historical reality was this: Christians thought that Jesus was the messiah, and they KNEW that he had been crucified. And so they developed the idea that the messiah was supposed to be crucified. (And they started to appeal to non-messianic texts such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 in support of their views.)

That is why Paul talks about the crucifixion as the greatest “stumbling block” for Jews. Most Jews thought it was ludicrous to say a crucified man was the messiah. This is the reason they rejected the Christian message.
In short, Jesus must have existed, and must have really been crucified – since if Christians wanted to convert Jews, they would not have made up the idea that a crucified man was their messiah. But the reality is they had no choice. They thought Jesus was the messiah and they knew he had been crucified, and so they devised the idea that the messiah had to be crucified. Christians today would say that these early Christians were *right*; non-Christians would say they were *wrong*. But for the question of whether Jesus existed or not it doesn’t matter which side of that issue you stand on. The fact that Jesus was declared as the (crucified) messiah shows that he could not have been made up by his Jewish followers. And so he must have really existed, and been crucified.

Q. Various mythicists have tried to argue that in fact there is only one source, namely Mark, that provides evidence that Jesus existed and presumably he made up the idea? Why is this not a fair representation of the evidence, and why do you think it is that various of them hardly even deal with the evidence from Paul?

A. Most mythicists claim that Paul never mentions the historical Jesus or says anything about him, but that he only speaks of a “mythical Christ” who was not a real human being. That is completely wrong. Paul tells us that Jesus was born of a woman, that he was born Jewish, that he had brothers, one of whom was named James (whom Paul personally knew), that he had twelve disciples, that he ministered to Jews, that he taught that it was wrong to get a divorce and that you should pay your preacher, that he had the last supper (Paul indicates what Jesus said at the time), and that he was crucified. Anyone who says that Paul never mentions the historical Jesus or never refers to his teachings simply hasn’t read the letters of Paul
Mythicists also like to claim that Mark is our only source to mention the life of Jesus (on the assumption that Matthew, Luke, and John all base their accounts on Mark). But that is far too simple, for two reasons. One is that Matthew, Luke, and John (as well as the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas) had other, multiple, sources for their accounts, some of which were at least as early as Mark. And so Q provided Matthew and Luke with a good deal of their materials, independently of Mark, as did M and L (each of which may in fact have been multiple sources). John had his own sources (for example, a Signs source for the miracle stories he relates, a couple of Discourse Sources, etc.). Some of these can be shown to have been based on oral traditions (yet further sources) that were passed along in Aramaic – that is, in Jesus’ native land of Israel, rather than elsewhere in the Roman world. That would make them very early (and strikingly, these Aramaic based traditions are found independently in both Mark and John).
And so to limit all references to the historical Jesus to Mark is completely and utterly wrong. It’s easy to see why mythicists would want to do so – if there’s only one source to a person’s life, you can claim that that source made it all up. But if you have numerous independent sources (Mark, Q, M, L, Signs Source, Discourse Sources, Gospel of Thomas and its sources, Gospel of Peter and its sources, etc. etc.), then almost certainly in the claims they ALL make (e.g., that Jesus existed and was a Jewish teacher) have a high degree of historical credibility, unless there is something in those claims that make them historically incredible (e.g., if they claimed Jesus was a Tanzanian born of Irish parents in Jerusalem).

The Trials and Tribulations of Temptation--- Part One
NT Theology and Ethics is Coming!
Paul and Covert Ops
Nova Scotia-- Part Four

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