Is the Jesus Story a Myth?

Is the Jesus Story a Myth? September 12, 2011

Every now and then I’ll hear from someone who has bought into the “Jesus Myth” hypothesis.  You can find this in books like Jesus Potter, Harry Christ, in the “historical” studies of Acharya S., or from your neighborhood atheist who heard that there are some similarities between the stories of Jesus and Mithras, and who finds it expedient to believe that the Jesus narrative was fabricated like a patchwork quilt from various other stories that might have floated through Palestine two thousand years ago.

Bart Ehrman is not at all a defender of the historically orthodox version of who Jesus Christ was and what he did and taught.  Our own Ben Witherington is a faithful documenter of the various things Ehrman gets wrong.  Yet there is no doubt over the fact that Bart Ehrman is a respected scholar who does his homework.  And here is Dr. Ehrman confronted with the “Jesus Myth” hypothesis on a radio program (HT Scott Rachui):

If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend the series from James Hannam which we published on the Evangelical Portal – in Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.  For other online sources of information on the pagan parallels theories, see this detailed examination of various pagan deities and whether their stories coincide with that of Jesus, this note from William Lane Craig, or (as a more specific example) this response to the Jesus-as-Mithras claim, or this article from Ronald Nash. For book-length responses, consult R. T. France’s The Evidence for Jesus or Nash’s The Gospel and the Greeks.

It’s difficult, of course, for a non-historian to know how to sort through these things.  If one historian (or at least a person who holds herself out as a historian) claims that the Jesus story is a composite of pagan myths while another historian says otherwise, how do you know whom to believe?

This is why responses like this from Bart Ehrman are so difficult for the Jesus Mythers.  It’s not as though the historians and New Testament scholars who affirm the existence of Jesus are ultra-conservative Christians who will defend their Jesus no matter what.  That’s not the case at all.  I’ve never met Ehrman, but I’ve met plenty of people in the field, plenty of historians and biblical scholars who are eager — truly eager — to overturn traditional views of Jesus.  They’re also eager to publish books that make a splash, get on the cover of Time magazine, and sell like hotcakes.  The fact that even they cannot bring themselves to say that Jesus never existed is devastating to the Jesus Myth hypothesis.

As Ehrman says, there is no serious historical scholar who believes that Jesus never existed.  In fact, for the longest time there was no scholarly response to the Jesus Myth hypothesis, just because there were no credible proponents of the hypothesis in scholarly circles.  Ehrman makes the reason plain.  We have more evidence for Jesus than we do for anyone else in the ancient world — and arguably (I would add) more than anyone up through the medieval period.  If the abundance of evidence for Jesus is insufficient, then the evidence for every other figure is even more insufficient and we might as well stop reading history books.

Simply put, if you can’t say that Jesus existed, then you can’t do history at all.  Dismissals of the existence of Jesus are not historical.  They’re ideological.

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