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).

  • Chris

    Is Dr Ehrman saying that OT passages that we link to a crucified Messiah aren’t to be interpreted that way? He seems to hint that Jesus would also have been wrong in the ways he appears to have referenced those passages. It’s obvious that the notion of a crucified Messiah is a stumbling block for Israel, but is Ehrman saying that Jesus would not have referenced Psalm 22 as a relation to crucifixion? Does he suspect that Jesus’ words were doctored?

    Ben, what do you make of Dr Ehrman’s appeal to “the gospel” of Thomas? He apparently thinks it has historic value.

    Fascinating series of posts.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Chris: Yes, I believe Bart is saying those OT passages aren’t originally about Jesus, though he will need to speak for himself on this matter. As to whether Jesus would have used such passages to understand and explain his ministry, I believe he would and he did, but I’m not sure that Bart does. As for Thomas I think it has some historical value as a probably second century document. But as even the Jesus Seminar said, there are only one or two sayings in there, not found in the canonical Gospels that may go back to Jesus himself. This means its value for understanding the historical Jesus is not all that great. BW3

  • J.J.

    I find it curious that Ehrman mentions M, L, and sources to John as part of his appeal to sources independent of Mark. Granted, I doubt he considers M & L to be complete written documents like Streeter proposed, but still it seems a mythicist could easily counter that M & L were just building off of Mark and carrying certain aspects of Mark to their own independent conclusions. That wouldn’t seem to allow M & L to be used as separate witnesses to the existence of Jesus. Q, however, is not that way since Q seems to be quite independent of Mark and curiously devoid of passion references. So I’m a little surprised that in this particular argument against mythicists that Ehrman would appeal to M, L, and sources to John. It seems to weaken his argument.

  • Ben Witherington

    I’m not surprised. M and L by definition involve non-Markan material culled from elsewhere. They are not reworkings or expansions of Mark. So they definitely count as extra sources surely. BW3

  • Joe Canner

    Chris: in the book, Ehrman clearly outlines his case that OT Messianic passages were either about something else or misinterpreted by the Gospel writers. Psalm 22 could easily be interpreted as being only about David himself and he suggests that Isaiah 53 is about Israel.

    Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that Ehrman is a self-professed agnostic/atheist, albeit one who has a significant Christian heritage and who is very interested in and conversant with the Bible. Accordingly, he has some biases when it comes to interpretation of Messianic passages. His point here is to explain why early Christians would not have made up stories about Jesus’ crucifixion. If we think that the Messianic passages are obvious and self-evident then we would have to come up with different arguments to counter charges that the crucifixion stories were made up.

  • Patrick

    They are obvious to us, not ancient near eastern Jews. Bart is alluding to Jewish writings ( mainly Qumran) that detail many Jews expected 3 “messiahs” in a certain sense and in John chapter 1 the Levites ask Baptist about each.

    According to these Qumran writings, “Elijah” that the Levites asked Baptist about probably was not Elijah the prophet, but, Elijah-Phineas, a man made combo of Elijah the prophet and Phineas the priest that ANE Jews believed was basically what we believe Jesus is.

    At any rate, what most surprises me about Bart’s commentary in this piece is it is excellent logic for belief. If the early believers made this up, Bart’s knowledge here shows they would not have made up a Messiah with all 3 roles rolled up into 1 Messiah AND they for a certainty would not have had a Jewish Messiah get murdered by Roman pagans in total human weakness.

    There are several other things they would not have done making up a faith, but, Bart hits on some biggies here. I’ve prayed for him, I wish he would come back to the faith, he was a believer into his early adulthood and is clearly talented.

  • Chris

    Thanks all. That’s where I was headed Patrick. At what point does historic value remain for Ehrman and others like him but the claims Jesus and others made about Jesus are not trustworthy? I have a feeling in a few more installments of this series we will see some of that.

  • Antonio Jerez

    I think Ehrman is definitely on the wrong track when he claims that there are so and so many independent sources. Q is just one of many mirages in NT scholarship and GJohn is at a minimum dependent on GMark. And Luke had read and used both GMark and GMatthew. The author/authors of GThomas knew ALL the synoptics. There really aren´t that many independent sources for the existence of Jesus, although the internal evidence of the gospels and Paul´s letters certainly makes me belive that the prophet from Nazareth is not a mythical invention.

  • Mike

    @Antonio even if you dismiss Q, Luke and Matthew have material independent of Mark, so it came from somewhere. Most scholars will not suggest that Luke had Matthew to work on, but nevertheless… they have shared material that originated somewhere. Don’t call it Q, call it something else. In either case you have two independent sources.

    Depending on who you read, your statement on Thomas is fairly controversial. Outside of a few evangelical scholars, such as Perrin, many look at Thomas as a composite document with some of the material dating to original Jesus tradition.

  • Mike

    @Antonio *one side note. I’m not necessarily in disagreement with you on Q. The simplicity of the Farrer hypothesis and Goodacre’s extension forces you to consider it.

  • Antonio Jerez

    even if Luke and Matthew share material that is not found in Mark they are technically speaking not independent if one believes that Matthew used Mark and Luke used both Mark and Matthew. Besides, I believe that Matthew made up himself much of the material unique to his gospel (like The last judgment and many of the Matthean parables), just as Luke made up himself much of the material exclusive to his gospel.
    And I am sure that Mark Goodacre´s new book on Thomas will give a lot of ammunition to us who believe that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics. Personally I am an atheist but I try to go where the evidence leads me.

  • Patrick

    I myself do not think you need any of the Bible to conclude Jesus is resurrected. It’s 2000 thousand years removed now, but, we all need to remember the culture in 30 AD.

    Within Israel, they were desperately seeking another King David, Judas Maccabees butt kicking military leader to destroy the Romans and we know this from Josephus, we don’t need the Bible.

    The society was in a violent roiling, with the sicarii and zealots causing Rome lots of problems as early as Jesus’ day. It got way worse in the next generation and all of us should know of 70 AD. Even in Jesus’ day, there was an Egyptian Jew said to have 30K armed soldiers ready to invade Jerusalem and run out the Romans for example.

    Within the Gentiles of the empire, they were 99%( some were into Judaism by then) into the various gods of each locale, each also worshipping Rome’s gods as well which was SOP among pagans. You could worship your gods as long as you worshipped Rome’s, too.

    THE main theme of all pagan religions in that part of earth was driven by Plato’s thinking, which was that all matter is evil and having your soul escape the body was divine and THE goal for all humanity.

    Along comes Jesus in Jerusalem, 30 AD. Documented by Tacitus that He had been crucified while Tiberias ruled and Pilate in Jerusalem. His followers immediately preach in the Jerusalem temple that Jesus was the Jewish long promised Messiah and has been bodily resurrected to prove it by God. Just the opposite of what the pagans wanted and strived for all their lives.

    Josephus documents that Jesus’ brother, James was murdered in Jerusalem a few years later and most folks don’t question the fact that Peter and Paul were in Rome by Nero later.

    That alone is a very strong case. James and Paul especially. Both had been enemies of Jesus until they saw Him alive again. Both willing to be butchered for this faith.

    Those pagans that converted certainly believed the original eyewitnesses and IMO, Nero’s persecution expanded the Church dramatically. It took believers being willing to be murdered to convert the pagans to an extent for obvious reasons, why would a pagan want to have a bodily resurrection in 30 AD? Answer, they wouldn’t. Why would a Jew make up a religion with that and try and sell it to pagans? Answer, he wouldn’t have.

    Why would James want to worship His brother when he had despised Him previously and the Jews wanted a Messiah to kick Rome’s can, not die in weakness on a pagan cross?

    IMO, there is no explanation except the resurrection happened. This faith in every respect is exactly the opposite of what one would have made up in 30 AD.

    Women were the first eyewitnesses, that is unheard of in 30 AD and honestly only has become palatable in the last 50 years of OUR society, yet there they are.

    Women played a huge role in the entire ministry of Jesus and that was certainly not popular in His culture. If you study Jerusalem 30 AD what you are going to discern is it was very similar to conservative Islamic culture today.

    Yet, how many pericopes has Jesus spending time specifically with females including the highest honors, including Mary of Bethany was chosen for His anointing( which ticked off his 12 males), Mary of Magdala was chosen as the first eyewitness to the empty tomb and resurrection along with several other women and in 30 AD Israel a female was not even legally capable of testifying!

    Yet these early Christians made all this up and were willing to die for it?

    Some more extra Biblical proof is the academic hostility to Christianity. Why would that be? Why wouldn’t academia be opposed to Buddhism, Islam or 5000 other religions?

    Some of the various “counters” to the validity of the faith are so ridiculous, that alone should show a reasonable human there is something weird here.

    1) Jesus didn’t really die on the cross – Weak, doesn’t deserve a reply.

    2) The earliest Christians were on LSD or something- ………

    3) The earliest Christians wanted to believe so bad they had visions of delusion – Better attack. Deserves a reply. The earliest Christians had lost their faith when they saw Jesus murdered and did not get it back until they saw Him alive again.

    Remember, we have the Qumran community writings, we know Jews did not understand bodily resurrection of Messiah and expected Him to be a tail kicking king, so when He was murdered by pagans instead of massacring the pagans, they lost their faith and assumed He had been a nice fraud. UNTIL His resurrection that is.

    4) The orthodox Christianity we worship today is an invention of Constantine and Nicea and the Vatican around 340 AD, the first guys didn’t worship Jesus as God. That takes about 15 minutes of net searches to disprove.

    There is ample evidence centuries before Constantine the Christians worshipped Jesus as God and preached the resurrection and you won’t need the Bible for this proof.

    This leaves all serious people with the conclusion, Jesus was real or a fraud and I have this extra Biblical evidence to examine, including of all people ancient near eastern non Christian Jews within proximity to Jesus’ era who corroborated the following:

    1) Jesus claimed to be Yahweh

    2) His mother was named Miriam

    3) He did miracles

    4) He was crucified on passover eve

    5) Those same rabbinical Jews corroborate what Isaiah 54:3 and the canonical Gospels say about themselves relating to Messiah, that they would see and saw His murder as just.

    This is all very disrespectful commentary, but, the haters inadvertently have given us this further academic evidence outside the Bible.

    One last thing, I have access to a presentation if anyone wants to watch it on video pretty much proving the 4 canonical Gospels are legit 1st century AD Jewish documents and the gnostic Gospels everyone raves about are not.