Jesus the Unremarkable Man

I’ve been staying clear of the arguments around Bart Ehrman’s new book, Did Jesus Exist. For those arguments, you can go visit Thom Stark or our neighbor James McGrath for the historical Jesus side. For the mythical side, see Richard Carrier. For helpful diagrams, and your own Jesus pie, go see Sabio at Triangulations.

That said, a book review at MIT’s The Tech caught my eye, particularly the closing paragraph:

The historical Jesus that emerges from Ehrman’s mainstream defense is a purely human, miracle-free Jewish male with a very common name living in first century Palestine, who after an unremarkable youth went on to teach things that many others had taught before; one more apocalyptic preacher, among many others at the time, whose predictions were proven wrong within a generation; one more “troublemaker” crucified like countless others by the Romans after a drive-thru trial during the Pilate administration. Being such, the Jesus that can be reconstructed from history with any certainty is, for all practical purposes, as irrelevant as the mythical one, effectively shrinking the debate on his existence from a grandiose quest with theological implications to an inconsequential and endless exercise in academic hair-splitting.

John Shuck gives another review worth reading. He responds to Ehrman’s view of Jesus:

I find his apocalyptic Jesus really depressing. That Jesus is hard to preach. I am not sure if we have to have Jesus resemble Harold Camping to be a real guy. We might be skeptical of a Jesus we admire, but we might also be skeptical of a Jesus we despise. It may be equally hard to accept that Jesus is an onion. Peel off each layer of fiction until you get to…nothing? Give this country preacher a break! I have to encourage the folks, you know?

Shuck also has a worthwhile review of Robert M. Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems. He catches Price in one of his agnostic moods and quotes him:

There may once have been an historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth.

In a way, this isn’t all that far from Ehrman’s position. Ehrman would argue that Jesus probably existed and probably was an apocalyptic preacher. However, beyond that there’s little we can say, because all the details are mired in the religious belief of Jesus’ followers.

I Cannot Tell a Lie
The Dome Overhead
Being Agent Scully
Quote of the Moment: So Not His Father
  • Paul D.

    I think that’s what’s frustrating about this debate. In practical terms, there is no substantial difference between Ehrman’s position (or even that of James McGrath, a Christian) and an agnostic mythicist like Robert M. Price. If the historical Jesus is just a first-century Palestinian who had some followers and got killed by the Romans, there are probably lots of them, but none of them are the Jesus of the religious creeds. Instead, we just have the historicists trying to offer their arguments with caveats that will keep them in the good graces of the institutions that hire them.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Thanx for the mention, vorjack. And thanx for the tastings of the various views.

  • vasaroti

    I come down heavy on the myth slice of the pie, because I’ve read quite a few ancient works from a wide range of cultures, and all sorts of narratives, letters, etc. depict humans as we would today- with mention of their appearance, their likes and dislikes, quirks, habits, their deeds and interactions with other people, places and things. There’s almost none of this in the Jesus stories. He’s just a cardboard figure that spouts doctrine. If this guy were so personally beloved, wouldn’t his disciples preserve some trivial memories of him, some minutiae?
    Don’t let anybody tell you that “that’s the way people wrote back then.” BS. At the time the gospels were written (in Greek) there would have been no less than 5 extant accounts of the life of Alexander the Great written (in Greek) by people who knew him personally. I more apt to believe what I read about Alexander’s favorite horse. I can’t believe anything I read about Jesus.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I come down on the mythicist side as well, with the weak view, not the strong view. I would not claim it is established that Jesus was a myth, but Ehrman and co. claim that Jesus’ existence is well-evidenced. Now he’s had his chance to show us the evidence, and it is not impressive at all.
    Aside from the preaching and the miracles, almost every detail about Jesus’ life was fabricated for purposes of fulfilling some alleged prophecy. Sired by God? No believable. Census in a city your forebears lived in hundreds of years ago? Obvious fabrication to forge a tie to Bethlehem. Childhood in Egypt? Another attempt fulfill an out of context OT quote. And so on.
    So what is left? A mention of Nazareth, which is not mentioned in the OT, and a few lines from Paul mentioning siblings of Jesus. Really, is that it?
    Richard Carrier makes some very good points, for example that a fabricated story is not evidence of a real person, no matter whether that story was fabricated in Greek or in Aramaic.

  • Gregory Marshall

    “the Jesus that can be reconstructed from history with any certainty is, for all practical purposes, as irrelevant as the mythical one”
    This line from the review from MIT’s the tech. Is how I feel about this.
    I also like the way you summed it up and the end. Ultimately, the details of the life of the “real” Jesus (if there was one) is lost to the annals of history.

  • vinnyjh57

    Had people not come to believe in the resurrection, it is entirely possible that Jesus of Nazareth would have come and gone without leaving a trace in the historical record. When you scrape away the miraculous stories about Alexander the Great, you still find a flesh and blood human being whose accomplishments left a significant historical footprint. When you scrape away the supernatural elements surrounding Jesus, you scrape away the reason he is remembered at all. The supernatural stories about Alexander were preserved and repeated as a result of the natural events during his life. The stories about the earthly Jesus were preserved and repeated as a result of supernatural events that were thought to have taken place after he died. I think this creates problems that the historical Jesus scholars never seem to address.

    • Gregory Marshall

      That is an excellent point.

  • Ken

    So you’re saying Robin Hood did not split someone else’s arrow in an archery contest. And that Excalibur was not delivered by a woman living underwater. How about George Washington and the cherry tree? Oh, my. How disappointing.

    • Elemenope

      Your sarcasm is not illuminating.

  • Robster

    ‘Tis funny how the deluded followers of jesus are prepared to place their faith so solidly with a bloke that for a start is dead, without any ‘real’ proof that he ever existed, or was any way a magic jew. The only explanation they seem to be able to offer is the bible story. Not a good foundation for anything really.

  • john shuck

    Thanks for mentioning and linking to my reviews. Price, Ehrman, and Crossan all interviewed with me for my radio program about this issue. Beginning May 17 on