Bart Ehrman on Did Jesus Exist? Part Two

Bart Ehrman on Did Jesus Exist? Part Two June 6, 2012

Q. Why do you think it is that some atheists are so adamant about trying to eradicate Jesus entirely from the historical record, by claiming he never existed? It seems they protest too much. Wouldn’t it be just as congenial to their views to argue that yes he existed but: 1) he wasn’t God, and 2) he wasn’t nearly as important as Christianity made him out to be, in particular they might simply deny he was the world’s savior? Why do you think they insist on such an extreme position? It’s like they are haunted by the ghost of Jesus and can’t seem to exorcize it properly.

A). Yes, I long wondered that myself, and in Did Jesus Exist I took a stab at answering it. The mythicists themselves never indicate, of course, why they are so outspoken and even vitriolic in their assertions that Jesus never existed, so all we can go on is educated inference. In my book I argue that it is not an accident that the mythicists are all (to my knowledge) atheists or agnostics who find organized religion highly dangerous. In my view, they have a point about that, as religion has indeed been used for very hateful and harmful purposes over the years, from the crusades and inquisition to the justification of slavery to the oppression of woman, minorities, gays, and other people. So I understand the problem. But the mythicist approach to it seems to be to say that the problem is religion itself (I tend to think the problem is people!); moreover, the one religion they are most familiar with is Christianity. So, in order to pull the rug out from under Christianity (= religion, for them), what better approach than to say that it is complete baseless, unfounded, and built on a myth? If Jesus is a myth, then, in their opinion, Christianity is just a fairy tale not worth believing. And so, to accomplish what they think is a good aim they argue that Jesus did not exist.

I do not see this as disinterested history by people who really want to know what happened in the past. I see it as ideologically driven history by people who have an agenda, and who are willing to “find” what they do in history so long as it meets with their agenda. In my judgment, that is not the best way to do history.

Q. It seems that mythicists place a lot of weight on arguments from silence (e.g. no public records that Jesus existed), but as you point out 99% of all ancients do not show up in records or the literature of the first century, and this tells us nothing about whether they existed or not. Why do you think it is that they refuse to accept the old dictum that absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence? This especially puzzles me about someone like Robert Price who should know better.

A. My sense is that some mythicists think that everyone who believes in Jesus’ historical existence accepts a “believing Christian” view of Jesus, namely, that if Jesus existed he really was the miracle working son of God who really did feed the multitudes with a few loaves, who really did cast out demons, and heal the sick, and raise the dead, and that if there really were a person like that who lived in the first century, somebody from his own day would have mentioned him. On one level, that’s a good point – you would indeed expect such a God-on-earth to be mentioned by someone living at the time. But the fact is that we don’t have a single reference to Jesus from someone living at his time – friend or enemy. We have only documents written by people living later, and almost always by people who believe in him.

So the point the mythicists make is not only that there is silence with respect to Jesus, but that there is unexpected silence. That’s the key.
My response is that this is putting the cart before the horse. As a historian, the first thing to do is to decide whether Jesus existed. If you can show, historically, that he did exist, then and only then can you go on to the next step and ask, “What did he say and do?” If you decide that he did in fact perform hundreds of spectacular miracles (he does them all over the map in the Gospels, of course), then I think you are completely justified in asking: “In that case, why does no one mention him?” But as a historian you may end up saying that he lived a completely natural, non-miraculous life. If that’s true, then it would be no surprise at all that no one mentioned him, any more than that no one mentioned any of his cousins, nieces, or nephews – or indeed, the vast majority of people who lived in his time and place.
But that is a separate question from whether or not he existed. We can show he existed, and it has nothing to do with whether or not he actually existed as a human being.

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad