I’ve decided to write two posts on agnostic Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman’s new book. This is the main review, which discusses Ehrman’s main theses and arguments. The other post will be about issues of interest to people involved in atheist-Christian debates, but which are secondary issues within the book itself.
For those who don’t know already, Ehrman’s answer to the question in the title of the book is that yes, Jesus did exist, but he was not like what most Christians today think he was like. For one thing, he didn’t think he was God, for another, he thought God was going to set up a literal Kingdom of Heaven on Earth very soon in the future. I agreed with Ehrman about those things when I first started reading the book, and his book made me more confident in them.
A few arguments worth mentioning: there are a number of indications in the Gospels that the writers were working with previous traditions and, in fact, written documents. For example, most scholars think Matthew and Luke had access to a written collection of Jesus’ sayings which is now lost. This is known as the two-source hypothesis, if you want to read up on it, and from what I’ve read this is a case where the arguments of Biblical scholars are quite good.
Ehrman gives other examples, such as stories in Mark that appear to have been translated from Aramaic, and hypothesized sources behind the Gospel of John and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. He also notes that the beginning of Luke refers to “many” people trying to write accounts of Jesus’ life. Unfortunately, with some of these hypothesized sources, Ehrman makes an annoying jump from mentioning that many scholars have made a conjecture to taking the correctness of the conjecture for granted.
But I still think Ehrman’s right in his main point about the gospels. If you look at them closely, it does look like in the 1st century A.D., there were a fair number of independent strands of tradition about Jesus’ life floating around. (The introduction to Luke actually mentions that “many” people were trying to write accounts of Jesus’ life.) That’s a serious problem for some mythicists (people who deny the existence of a historical Jesus), namely the ones who try to argue the idea of a historical Jesus was made up by Mark, or that Mark was the first one craft an allegory that got misinterpreted as being about a historical Jesus, or something.
Ehrman also discusses apparent references to the life of Jesus in the letters of Paul. In some cases, I think he gives too little consideration to the possibility that when Paul says Jesus said something, he may not even be claiming that it’s what the other apostles told him Jesus said, he may be claiming to have received it in a vision (see I Cor 7:10-11 and 11:22-24, pp. 121 and 125-6 in Ehrman’s book). In other cases, though (such as the references to Jesus’ brothers in I Cor 9:5 and Gal 1:18-19), I think Ehrman is right that the mythicist interpretation of these passages is unlikely.
One really interesting argument Ehrman makes, which I hadn’t thought much about before, comes from the fact that there are good reasons to doubt that the first Christians believed Jesus was God. According to Ehrman:
That the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God is not a controversial point among scholars. Apart from fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals, scholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles (p. 231).
Scholars think this because the idea of Jesus’ divinity doesn’t appear anywhere in the first three gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke). And some passages in the Bible even seem to suggest that Jesus did not become the son of God until his resurrection (Rom. 1:3-4). That’s a real problem for mythicist theories that Jesus was originally a dying and rising god who only later came to be understood as a historical person who had lived recently.
Ehrman has a couple of other arguments for the historicity of Jesus which he considers important, and argues against mythicists on many specific points. I won’t get into those here, though. And I’ll save comments about what we can know about the historical Jesus, in particular his teachings, for my next post.