Bart Ehrman on ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ Part Seven

Q. In both the past and the present, people have often drawn parallels between Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana, a real person who lived some 50 years after Jesus’ day, and had a biography written about him by Philostratus which considerably post-dates our canonical Gospels. As you point out, even when we compare these two historical figures, or, for example compare Jesus to some of the lives of the Caesars, we have no stories in pagan literature about a virgin who becomes pregnant without sex or a story about a crucified messiah or divine figure. Why do you think it is that parallelomania seems to be such a popular modus operandi for mythicists who want to explain away the existence of Jesus, especially when various of the supposed parallels are in fact made up? And one more thing—- why shouldn’t we think that the pre-existing Gospel stories may have influenced the way the story of Apollonius of Tyana was later told, rather than vice versa?

A. There are several points that need to be made, I think, about all the parallels that exist between the stories of Jesus and other supposed “divine men” of ancient Greece and Rome. The first is that there were indeed a number of similarities between the ways Christians talked about Jesus and the ways pagans (and in some instances, Jews) talked about other “sons of God.” There is no point denying this (it comes as a huge surprise to my students). We have stories of other “divine men” from antiquity who were thought to have been supernaturally born; to have been preternaturally wise, religiously, while still youths; to have engaged in itinerate preaching ministries; to have done miracles such as miraculously feeding the hungry, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead; and at the end of their lives to have ascended to heaven. These other stories do exist (and not just about Apollonius of Tyana.)

But – the second point – the fact that Jesus was talked about in ways similar to how others were talked about does not mean that he (or they) did not exist. Some of these stories are told about figures who are absolutely and incontrovertibly historical (Alexander the Great; the Emperor Vespasian; Apollonius; and so on). If you wanted to tell stories about a figure you considered to be more than human, to be in some sense divine, these are the kinds of stories you told. That means that the stories about Jesus may well have been shaped by the expectations of the Jewish and pagan audiences to whom they were told, so that one needs to take that into account when deciding what actually happened in Jesus’ life. But as I indicated in my previous answer, this is unrelated to the question of whether Jesus actually existed.

And finally – my third point – it should be stressed that all of these figures about whom such stories were told were also different in key ways from one another. They were not all the same. The stories varied from one person to the next. The stories about Jesus are different in many ways from the others (just as each of them is different from the others). This is important to bear in mind because mythicists often claim that everything said about Jesus can be paralleled in the myths and legends told about other divine figures on earth. And that simply is not true. A number of the key stories about Jesus are in fact unique to him, including some of the most important.

Just to take two examples. As I spell out at greater lengths on one of my blog posts, even though there are numerous instances of divine men who are supernaturally born, there is no instance of a divine man being born to a “virgin,” as happens in the case of Jesus, for example in the Gospel of Matthew. The entire point of most of the pagan supernatural birth stories is that a (mortal) woman is made pregnant by a God, precisely by having sex with her (often in human form, though sometimes Zeus preferred being in the form of a swan, or a snake, or…. some other animal, for some odd reason). I don’t know of any instances in which a woman gives birth as a virgin. So too: the resurrection. The Gospel understanding of the resurrection is that Jesus came back into his body (a one-time corpse) which was then transformed and raised and exalted (explicitly in Luke-Acts) to heaven. This reanimation of the body type of resurrection is not attested, so far as I know, for any other divine man in antiquity.
This is an important point because mythicists want to claim that all the stories about Jesus were simply taken over from the pagan environment. And this is simply not true.

Q. It appears that mythicists have not read Jonathan Z. Smith, and do not realize that there is no unambiguous evidence for the historical argument that ancients believed in dying and rising gods before the time of Jesus, and that therefore the story of Jesus is just a historicized version of that myth. Why do you think this theory of dying and rising gods became so popular in the 20th century, and what caused its scholarly demise? Was there new evidence that Smith and others unearthed, or just closer reasoning about the existing evidence?

A. Yes, for a long time it was widely thought that dying and rising gods were a constant staple of ancient pagan religions, so that when Christians claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they were simply borrowing a common “motif” from pagan religions. This view was first popularized by Sir James George Frazer at the beginning of the twentieth century in his enormously influential (and very large) book, The Golden Bough. (As I explain in Did Jesus Exist, Frazer did in his day what Joseph Campbell did in ours – popularized the view that at heart, all religions are basically the same).

This view was exploded by Jonathan Z. Smith in the late 1980s, chiefly in an article on the “dying-rising gods” in the scholarly and authoritative Encyclopedia of Religion. Smith showed that the notion that there was a widespread category of gods who died and rose again was, in fact, a modern myth, not based on a careful reading of ancient sources. In his own words: The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation , must be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts….

All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case the deities return but have not died; in the second case the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity. (Jonathan Z. Smith, “Dying and Rising Gods,” Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. Lindsay Jones, (Detroit: Macmillan, 2005 [original: 1987]), 4:2535)

Smith’s findings were based not on new discoveries, but on a more careful reading of ancient sources. Unfortunately, even though these findings have made a major impact on the research of New Testament scholars and other scholars of Christian antiquity, they appear to be unknown to the mythicists, many of whom continue to make the now dated claim that the resurrection of Jesus was simply invented along the lines of the common pagan myth.

Q. In what way is the Jewish notion of a resurrection a different idea than either the fertility crop cycle idea, or what is sometimes said about pagan deities that either disappear or die?

A. One of the reasons for thinking that the belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection is not exactly like what you can find in pagan myths about their gods is that it is solidly rooted in Jewish apocalyptic beliefs of the first century. This should come as no surprise, since Jesus and his followers were not pagans with pagan views of the divine realm, but first-century apocalyptically minded Jews. In some pagan circles, there was a belief in fertility gods, who would spend some time in the underworld and some time in this world, alternating year after year. These gods were closely connected to the crops: they (both the crops and the gods connected with them) die in the winter and come back to life in the Spring. And they do that year after year. That obviously is not like the early Christian belief in Jesus, who does not go into the underworld then return to this world year after year. Instead, Jesus was believed to have gone to the underworld for three days and then to have been raised from the dead and exalted to heaven where he is to stay until he returns. This is not rooted in pagan mythology, but in apocalyptic theology.

To explain how “resurrection” is a Jewish apocalyptic idea, it is necessary to give a bit of background on Jewish apocalyptic thought. According to apocalypticists of ancient Judaism, this world controlled by forces of evil who were making life miserable for people, especially those who sided with God. That’s why there is so much pain and misery all around us. God is not doing it. The powers of evil are doing it (for example the Devil, the demons, the powers of sin and death). But God, these apocalypticists believed, was soon to intervene in history, overthrow the forces of evil, and set up a good kingdom here on earth. When he did that, he would destroy all people who sided with evil, and reward all those who sided with him. And this applied not only to people who were living at the time, but also those who had died. All people would be raised from the dead to face judgment, either eternal punishment or eternal reward. Moreover, this was to happen very soon – within their own generation!

Jesus himself preached an apocalyptic message of the coming judgment and the entrance of the Kingdom of God, to appear very soon. This would include a resurrection. Som time after Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified, some of his followers (all of them? It’s hard to say) came to believe that he had been restored to live and exalted to heaven. They interpreted this as an act of God, and understood it to be a “resurrection.” The implications for them were clear and certain, and they are not the implications that Christians typically draw today. For these ancient Jewish apocalypticists, if Jesus was raised from the dead, that means that the resurrection – to come at the end of time – had already started. In other words, the kingdom was virtually here!

That’s why Paul calls Jesus the “first fruits of the resurrection.” He was the first to be raised, and everyone else will soon follow suit, very soon, very very soon indeed. Paul expected to be alive when it happened.

This apocalyptic notion of resurrection is rooted in a belief that even though this world is filled with pain and suffering, God is ultimately sovereign, and he will have the last word. By raising Jesus, he has started the sequence of events that will transpire at the end. This is not a belief rooted in pagan ideas of a dying-rising god (if there ever were such ideas). It is a belief rooted in a Jewish apocalyptic worldview.

Q. The technique used by Frazier, and by later mythcists to reconstruct a pagan model of a dying and rising god which then is assumed to be the prototype on which Jesus is supposedly modeled has been called ‘the synthetic fallacy’. Whats wrong with the notion of cherry picking ideas from various ancient religious stories and then constructing a paradigm out of it which is supposed to be the basis for the Jesus story? To what degree do you think Frazier’s Golden Bough suffers from reading the pagan evidence on the basis of Christian views and assumptions, and so reading that evidence wrongly?

A. I’ve covered some of this in my discussion of Frazer earlier.

Q. The views of G.A. Wells seem in various ways to be different from other mythicists. He argues that Paul thought Jesus existed long before the first century, and that the Jewish personification of Wisdom was used to create the mythical Jesus. What’s wrong with this sort of reasoning about the historical Jesus? Why does it seem that persons like Wells and Doherty are prepared to grasp at straws or extreme arguments to prove their point, using an ‘any stick to beat a dog’ kind of approach to the Jesus question?

A. G. A. Wells is probably the best known mythicist of modern times, although, interestingly, he has shifted his perspective on the existence of Jesus. In his early writings Wells maintained the standard mythicist view that there never was a Jesus who lived. But as he did more research (he is not a New Testament scholar or a scholar of early Christian history; his field is modern German intellectual history) he came to realize that yes, there actually was a Jesus. Rather than completely backtracking on his earlier published views, however, Wells simply modified them so that he no longer said that Jesus did not exist, but that the Jesus who existed is virtually unrelated to the person we think of as Jesus of Nazareth. Specifically, for Wells (now), Jesus was not the Galilean preacher/healer of the first century. That figure is the creation of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was a completely unknown and obscure Jewish figure who lived over a hundred years earlier. Christ on the other hand was an invention of a Jewish sect of the first century, based on their understanding of Jewish myths about “Wisdom.”

These Wisdom traditions are based on passages such as Proverbs 8, where “Wisdom” is said to have been with God in the beginning and to have created the universe. The early Christians called Jesus God’s “Wisdom” (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:23-24), and so had begun to imagine him as that one referred to in Proverbs. This was not in reference to the man Jesus who lived in almost complete obscurity a hundred years earlier, however. This was a myth that they invented about the divine Christ, God’s Wisdom.
This view is a bit complicated, but I spell it out in greater length in Did Jesus Exist. Among other things I show that the references in Paul to Jesus do not make sense if they are referring to a person who lived in obscurity a hundred years earlier, and that it is completely implausible that the entire “Christ myth” was invented on the basis of Jewish ideas about “Wisdom,” since Jesus was not primarily identified as Wisdom in the earliest traditions about him, but instead, precisely, as the Messiah – and a crucified messiah at that (Wisdom is never called the messiah in Jewish sources). This shows that Christians knew that Jesus had lived. Recently. And they knew that he had been crucified. But they called him the messiah anyway.

  • Eric Sawyer

    Hi Ben,
    You can view the seven videos from this link:
    If there are any more to follow, I’ll simply add them on. I made a couple of mistakes, but all-in-all it was wonderful to go through them again and discover how much I’ve still to learn from both you fine gentleman.
    God bless,

  • adam

    Great job, Eric!

  • Moonsong

    When Osiris is said to bring his believers eternal life in Egyptian Heaven, contemplating the unutterable, indescribable glory of God, we understand that as a myth.

    When the sacred rites of Demeter at Eleusis are described as bringing believers happiness in their eternal life , we understand that as a myth.

    In fact, when ancient writers tell us that in general ancient people believed in eternal life, with the good going to the Elysian Fields and the not so good going to Hades, we understand that as a myth.

    When Vespatian’s spittle healed a blind man , we understand that as a myth.

    When Apollonius of Tyana raised a girl from death , we understand that as a myth.

    When the Pythia , the priestess at the Oracle at Delphi, in Greece, prophesied, and over and over again for a thousand years, the prophecies came true, we understand that as a myth.

    When Dionysus turned water into wine , we understand that as a myth. When Dionysus believers are filled with atay, the Spirit of God, we understand that as a myth.

    When Romulus is described as the Son of God, born of a virgin , we understand that as a myth.

    When Alexander the Great is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman , we understand that as a myth.

    When Augustus is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal , we understand that as a myth. woman

    When Dionysus is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman , we understand that as a myth.

    When Scipio Africanus is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.

    So how come when Jesus is described as
    the Son of God,
    born of a mortal woman,
    according to prophecy,
    turning water into wine,
    raising girls from the dead, and
    healing blind men with his spittle,
    and setting it up so His believers got eternal life in Heaven contemplating the unutterable, indescribable glory of God, and off to Hades—er, I mean Hell—for the bad folks…

    how come that’s NOT a myth?


  • Ben Witherington

    Because Moonsong, none of those figures are historical figures at all, with the exception of Jesus and Augustus, and frankly, Augustus did not himself make such claims. Jesus however is different. BW3

  • Moonsong

    Because Moonsong, none of those figures are historical figures at all, with the exception of Jesus and Augustus, and frankly, Augustus did not himself make such claims. Jesus however is different. BW3


    Dr. Witherington, I’m honored that a top evangelical scholar such as yourself has taken the time to answer a few simple questions from a layman. Thank you.

    You are misinformed, Dr.

    Scipio Africanus was a historical person.
    Alexander the Great was a historical person.
    Apollonius of Tyana was a historical person.
    The pythia were historical people.
    Vespatian was a historical person.

    Shall we now agree that Vespatian’s miracle was real? And Apollonius’, and Scipio’s? And Augustus’?

    Or shall we agree Jesus’ miracles were not real?

    Or shall we accept that there is no consistent explanation of the evidence that makes all those other stories myths and our stories true?


  • Scott

    FWIW, although I am still working my way through the following material myself (and am not qualified to make a proper assessment of the research therein), I have found some articles at the Christian Thinktank on this matter to be very informative. At least it’s good food for thought.

    E.g. this page on Jesus’ miracles ( Note especially at the bottom the links to 13 (!) separate, more detailed studies on the subject all done by Glenn, the site owner, some of which studies interact with the Moonsong’s very points. (Btw, the ‘studies’ at this site are usually in the form of responses to emails but are, nevertheless, often quite lengthy.)

  • http://webtv Ed Jones

    Atheist Ehrman may well find it reasonable to make the claim that Jesus existed as head of a University NT Studies department, more to the point, such a claim is particularly self-serving. What Ehrman as atheist cannot do is to come to the recognition of the one NT source of apostolic witness to Jesus to reveal his true significance.
    A viable historical solution to the “Jesus Puzzle” has taken place within the Guild of NT studies, the only discipline capable, not only of identifying our primary Scriptural source of apostolic witness to Jesus, but of appropriately interpreting this source as well. However, “few are they who find it” even among well-known NT scholars. Finding it, this historical solution, is “a task to which specialized knowledge in the areas of philology, form and redaction criticism, literary criticism, history of religions, and New Testament theology necessarily applies.” (Hans Dieter Betz). “Over the last two centuries, there gradually emerged a new access to Jesus, made available through objective historical research.” (James M. Robinson). Under the force of present historical methods and knowledge this new access was brought to a highly creditable understanding during the 1980’s. Schubert Ogden: “We now know not only that none of the Old Testament writings is prophetic witness to (Jesus), but also that none of the writings of the New Testament is apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church itself understood apostolicity. The sufficient evidence for this point in the case of the New Testament writings is that all of them have been shown to depend on sources, written or oral, earlier than themselves, and hence not to be the original and originating witness that the early church mistook them to be in judging them to be apostolic. [“The sufficient evidence” without the agonizing detail of what the writings of the NT does contain, which now supplies the grist for the blogosphere mythicists’ mill] – - the witness of the apostles is still rightly taken to be the real ‘Christian’ (Jesus tradition) norm, even if we today have to locate this norm, not In the writings of the New Testament but in the earliest stratum of (Scriptural) witness accessible to us, given our own methods of historical analysis and reconstruction. Betz identifies this earliest stratum to be the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3-7:27). “This source presents us with an early form – deriving from (the Jerusalem Jesus Movement, to date it around 50 CE) — which had direct links to the teaching the historical Jesus and thus constituted an alternative to Gentile Christianity (hence to orthodox Christianity) as known above all from the letters of Paul and the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the New Testament. [All are written in the context of imaging the Christ of faith, not the man Jesus]. If the Sermon on the Mount represents a response to the teaching of Jesus critical of that of (Pauline) Gentile Christianity, then it serves unmistakably to underline the well-known fact of how little we know of Jesus and his teaching. The reasons for our lack of knowledge are of a hermeneutical sort and cannot be overcome by an excess of good will (apologetics). The Gentile Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus that they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thought categories of Gentile Christianity, and which they judged to be worthy of transmission. (More to the point they included no more than they thought sufficient to lend historical credence to their Pauline Christ of faith myth). – - from these texts his original teaching can neither be reconstructed nor abstracted in its entirety.” This calls for a new reconstruction of post-execution Jesus traditions. Ed Jones Dialogue -Vridar is such an attempt.

  • Eric Sawyer

    Hi Ben,
    I don’t know if you followed the earlier exchanges in April between Richard Carrier and Bart Ehrman, but methinks there’s going to be a meeting in the baseball court between these two once their beards are full grown.

    Here’s Richard’s conclusion: (at the head of his reply)

    ‘Having completed and fully annotated Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Harper 2012), I can officially say it is filled with factual errors, logical fallacies, and badly worded arguments. Moreover, it completely fails at its one explicit task: to effectively critique the arguments for Jesus being a mythical person. Lousy with errors and failing even at the one useful thing it could have done, this is not a book I can recommend..’
    From: Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic :