Bart Ehrman on Jesus Mythicism

Bart Ehrman on Jesus Mythicism January 13, 2015

Mike Bird shared this video of Bart Ehrman giving a nice succinct response to a mythicist.

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  • John MacDonald

    It is likely that the passion and resurrection of Jesus are just made up historical fictions. In “On The Historicity of Jesus,” Carrier demonstrates the passion narrative may be constructed by a haggadic midrash rewrite of Isaiah 52-3, the Wisdom of Solomon, Psalm 22, Daniel 9 and 12, and Zechariah 3 and 6.

    But more than this, Jesus’ resurrection seems to be a haggadic
    midrash of Psalm 16. Peter stressed the significance of the
    resurrection and cited the prophecy predicting it in Psalm 16: “God
    raised him up, losing the pangs of death, because it was not possible
    for him to be held by it … Brothers, I may say to you with confidence
    about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb
    is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that
    God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his
    descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection
    of Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see
    corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses”
    (Acts 2:24, 29-32). Of course, Psalm 16 was not making a prophesy
    about Jesus, but rather Psalm 16 was used in a haggadic midrash to
    invent the story of Christ’s resurrection.

    • It depends what you mean by “historical fictions.” If you mean that they are about historical events, but scripture has been used to fill in elements and interpret some that were known, then certainly. If you envisage people starting with the Jewish scriptures and inventing Jesus and the crucifixion from them, that is quite obviously implausible.

      Of related interest, see Daniel Gulotta’s post on parallelomania:

      • John MacDonald

        Whether Jesus existed or not, the New Testament writers wrote about Him in such a way as to make it seem He was fulfilling Old Testament Scriptures. Given this, even if Jesus did exist, this way of writing makes it very difficult to determine which part of the Jesus story is actual biography and which part is invented historical fiction.

        • Johannes Richter

          Even in cases where it’s difficult to tell the history and its application apart, the idea that it is necessary is debatable, since by conflating Jesus with scripture the authors were clearly trying to express something that they thought was true of both. If they knew Jesus at all, and if they knew their own scriptures at all, this makes even their novelties meaningful.

          Unless you believe the “original source” (whatever that means) was more trustworthy or provides objective information or an unadulterated truth you would accept more readily, deconstructing a narrative into its parts proves nothing that isn’t already evident, and just seems like an attempt to avoid dealing with either the message or the messenger.

      • John MacDonald

        I’m not really sure about Dr. McGrath’s reasoning above when he wrote:

        “If you envisage people starting with the Jewish scriptures and inventing Jesus and the crucifixion from them, that is quite obviously implausible.”

        If the writers of that time just wanted to invent a new religion from scratch in the hopes of creating a more moral world (a cause they would die for), and thought they could sell this new religion by claiming the central figure, Jesus, fulfilled all kinds of Old Testament scriptures, then there would be nothing that would be “implausible” in thinking these people started with the Jewish scriptures and invented Jesus and the crucifixion and the resurrection from them. This model would agree with the Christ Myth Theory.

        • Gary

          I can only relate to Joseph Smith. Created a new religion. Crucified (actually shot by a mob for doing apparent treasonous activity). Created scripture. His Paul (Brigham Young) expanded and defined his religion. But some of the aspects of Joseph Smith (golden plates, seeing visions), and his witnesses, highly suspect. But he certainly existed. If he lived in 33AD, there would be no hard evidence that he existed, being a rather marginal individual (a relative no-body from Elmira, NY).

          • Gary

            I should correct, the Nazareth of NY state, Palmyra. I think I was thinking about Elvira, who happens to have some notable features.

        • Why would they, if inventing on the basis of the Scriptures, invent a Jesus who doesn’t actually fulfill many key Scriptures and expectations?

          • John MacDonald

            If Jesus was invented with a story that fulfilled ALL scriptures AND expectations it would have been too much to be believable. No one would have believed it.
            And keep in mind the historical limitations that the writers of the New testament coudn’t invent a story of a messiah that liberated the Jews from the Romans because, historically, that never happened.
            Anyway, those are my thoughts. We’ll agree to disagree.

          • I will not simply agree to disagree on a matter where the evidence points strongly in a particular direction. Making the ancients into modern people with their skepticism, while also positing that they accepted a purely made-up Davidic anointed one, is self-contradictory, as well as not very plausible. The evidence we have shows extensive effort to deal with the awkwardness of things not fitting which you would have me believe were invented precisely to make Jesus not fit prophecy too precisely. That is not plausible, much less more likely than the conlusions of professional historians on this matter.

          • John MacDonald

            Religious skepticism was well established in ancient times. For instance, Lucius Annaeus Seneca taught that:
            “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. ”
            And Protagoras famously commented in his lost work, On the Gods, that:
            “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be.”

          • The issue is not whether there were ancient skeptics. We know there were. The issue is whether most people and most authors in antiquity thought in the modern post-Enlightenment way you depict, and whether the invention of Jesus from texts in the manner you propose fits the historical evidence or not.

          • John MacDonald

            The idea was present in antiquity that pretending someone was a God when they really weren’t could be a good deception for the masses to believe.

            For instance, in Euripides’ “Bacchae” Cadmus says: “Even though this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you say, still say that he is. Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him the son of Semele, for this would make it seem that she was the mother of a god, and it would confer honour on all our race.”
            It would be a short move from this to the invention of the resurrected Jesus.
            Jesus may have lived, but the New Testament writers clearly faked stories about him fulfilling Old Testament scriptures in order to sell the new religion.
            The writers of the New Testament also invented the story about the end of the world coming soon in order to scare people into joining the new religion.

          • Dr. McGrath would not argue that many of the Jesus tales in the New Testament are invented. But that’s a far cry from supposing that the man himself never existed.

            I doubt that all of Socrates’ Dialogues actually occurred (or occurred in exactly the way Plato depicts them). I doubt that the ghost of Julius Caesar appeared to Brutus or that his death was foretold with miraculous prophecies (as more than one Roman historian recounts). But that’s a far cry from arguing that Socrates and Julius Caesar never existed.

            Ancient history is usually a mixture of fact and fancy.

  • John MacDonald

    Gerd Ludemann has an interesting recent article, Paul The Promoter of Christianity, where he writes

    “Until the end Paul claimed that he never consciously abandoned the
    faith of his fathers and never forsook Judaism. That now seems difficult
    to sustain; but rather than charge him with duplicity, might we see it
    as an almost involuntary but necessary strategy on Paul’s part? At a
    time when things were not going terribly well in the mission field, did
    he deem it advantageous to curry a bit of favor with the Jewish converts
    who constituted a significant minority presence in the Roman

    Here is the whole article:

    Question: How far would Paul go to promote Christianity?

  • John MacDonald

    Bart Ehrman will be debating Robert M. Price on the Christ Myth issue:

  • Michael Eberly

    Not a “nice succinct response” it was a “curt and dismissive response”.

    • When someone advocates a view that is found wildly implausible by most or all professionals in a field, they will probably regard a nice succinct response from one of those experts as “curt and dismissive.” But until such time as they themselves cease to treat scholarship in a curt and dismissive way, such complaints seem inappropriate.

      • Michael Eberly

        First, I am saying this as an impression as an layman. Whether or not Christ is a legend or a myth is immaterial to me, he was full of shit either way. Namely “if you you have enough faith you can make something impossible happen”. But dismissive is exactly what I mean when hiding behind a consensus that has yet to subside due challenge. We are fortunate that the consensus regarding the “Ether” theory regarding the propagation of light has gone by the wayside. Not that i really wish to draw a comparison between Einstein and, perhaps, Dr. Richard Carrier. The fact that you were “spun up” by the simple phrase “curt and dismissive” is very interesting. If “Lord is Savior, Messiah” was a living breathing person or a mythological creation, why do I care.

        • In order to be like Einstein, it is not enough to challenge a consensus. You also have to be right.

          I don’t know what some of your comment is supposed to mean, but as to why you should care, my view is that one should always care to get history right, because if one lets oneself be duped by dubious claims in one area, it is unlikely that that will be the only area, and while some rewriting of history may have few practical consequences, in other instances it serves ideological aims that cause very real harm.

          • Michael Eberly

            Bart Ehrman’s response is bizarre. He almost seems personally threatened by the notion that Jesus may be based more on an archetype that on an individual person, or that we may find that the founder of the Christian religion was actually someone we today call Paul who was formerly Saul who had a ecstatic vision which was probably just as dubious as the supposed vision that Constantine had. Actually I don’t give a shit. I was only casually observing how plaintive Bart sounds in this video. It seems, however, that you are Dr. Ehrman’s very own shill, and as such I have found very it very entertaining to get you all spun up. You know if you are upset at me, why don’t you flame out at the Department of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University, since they are the ones who saw fit to publish Dr. Carrier’s book “On the History of Jesus: Why
            We Might Have Reason for Doubt” available on Amazon for $31.50 paperback and $95 hardcover.

            However, I would LOVE to hear what you think are the so called ideological aims that will cause real harm.
            1. What are these ideological aims.
            2. What harm will be caused.

            I find this baffling considering the argument we are commenting on is between whether Jesus Christ was a Legend or a Myth. Most people would consider this a rather mundane and trivial difference, and I marvel at what type of scenario could be concocted to illustrate what the supposed harm would be.

            In summary I think you are ridiculous.

            Oh I get it! Your not a shill for Dr. Ehrman. You’re a shill for the Jesus scam. The brainwashing operation that inculcates people with the psychological stress of the threat of Hell, exploits the inherent sense guilt and shame that people have with respect to selfishness and sexual desire. Argues that truth can be determined by personal revelation, and advocates that an unseen, mysterious, vengeful, omnipotent, omniscient power is the source of justification for any act.

            The impact I hope for is that people will realize that religion is crap, and that the best way to live a good and full life is to live a fully reflective and examined life with a free and reasoning mind, that seeks truth by verification and evidence, not by dictate and presumption, just as we learned from Socrates and Aristotle. Certainly not Jesus Christ whether he was real or not.

          • Please stop using profanity on this blog. This seeks to be a place where people of all ages can discuss things, and can discuss them in a serious manner. I regret now having hoped that the instance in your first comment might be atypical.

            I gather as well that you have not bothered to get to know this blog, where I have been blogging about mythicism in general for many years, and have offered reviews of Carrier’s books more specifically. I presume you know that having your work published in a peer-reviewed venue does not mean that you are correct, since you regard the overwhelming consensus of historians and scholars, published in similar places, as “ridiculous.”

            Are you familiar with Holocaust denial? The same denialist tactics that are used to deal with evidence that does not fit mythicism, are used by other denialists to cast doubt even on more recent and much better attested events. Indeed, the same approach is also used by evolution deniers in relation to the natural sciences. Once one adopts the approach of forcing evidence to fit a preconceived desired outcome, there are few scholarly conclusions that it is impossible to persuade oneself deserve to be doubted or rejected.

            This is not in any way, shape, or form a defense of Christianity. The historical figure of Jesus, who expected the immediate dawn of the kingdom of God, is a problem even for liberal Christians like myself. No one seeking to defend the Christian faith will use the historical Jesus and historical tools to do so, since it is the tools of historians that have made the Bible’s contents problematic to many traditional beliefs.

            Here is a link to a round-up of my earlier blogging about mythicism:

            You can also use tags or the search bar to find everything specifically related to Richard Carrier, Bart Ehrman, and other authors.

          • Michael Eberly

            Well I do feel for you. Mainly for this reason, since this question of whether Jesus was a legend or a myth, is one of those which have no definitive answer, because the amount and quality of the evidence is so poor regardless. That’s why I find it funny when you say “correct”, as if anyone can talk about this with certainty.

            This topic does not come near to the Holocaust in both the obvious weight of evidence, and the implications of understanding what happened to our society today.

            In 40 years maybe, this discussion will seem as silly as trying to argue legend vs. myth with respect to Hercules.

            Let me remind you, I don’t personally think it makes any difference. I am not a religious believer anyway, and I may always entertain the notion (just for fun) that Jesus may have been a mythical figure. Not that I use the word “may” to account for uncertainty. I can understand that for a Christian, certainty of a very high degree of certainty would be desired.

            For a non-believer who spent the first 40 years of his life trying to make the reality of the world fit the Christian mindset, and has finally put away any feeling that Christianity holds any reality to it, I find that the world make a whole lot more sense, while if at the same time seeming both even more wonderful and more troubling.

            So the “reality” of Christ is not important when one rejects Christianity based on say things like.
            1. It is incompatible with how morality actually works.
            a. There is no meaning to asking God for forgiveness.
            b. Improving morality has to do with self reflection, gaining knowledge, and having a desire for self correction, not asking for a “Holy Spirit” to over ride your “freewill”.
            c. That guilt can ever be erased (Jesus’ crucifixion is an allegory for blood sacrifice)
            2. It exacerbates mental illness, with the certainly mythical construction of a eternal torment tied to human actions as a punishment after a finite life. How many women have murdered their children feeling that it was better to guaranty their entry to Heaven base on their state of innocence, that allow them to continue to misbehave and end up in Hell.
            3. It posits a one and only true god, who somehow desires praise. Is it likely that a real god is this emotionally dependent, or is it likely because this god is a fictitious construct and the need for praise and worship is to ensure the identification of members of the tribe. (i.e. for essentially political purposes.)

            I could go on, but I want to go back to practicing my violin. But if you want my input to you existential dilemma, I would suggest that, yes if Jesus did exist in any way, then he had a lot in common with Jim Jones.

          • I see from your comment that the question of the historicity of Jesus is inseparable for you from the Jesus of later Christian piety and the truthfulness of Christian dogma more generally. But the latter are irrelevant to secular historical study, which is just about what the amcient evidenc suggests.

          • Michael Eberly

            No the historicity of Jesus is inseparable for Christianity. The relevance of Christianity and the various dogmas held by the various strains of Christianity depend on the assumption that the things described in the gospels, and the epistles are real. If you are a “Christian” and you don’t feel that this is true then you must not only be a liberal “Christian” you may very well be a Unitarian Universalist.

          • One cannot judge historical questions based on one’s like or dislike for a person’s legacy. Whether one views the Protestant Reformation positively, negatively, or as a matter of indifference, it has no relevance to the question of the historicity of Martin Luther.

          • Michael Eberly

            Of course. I find it hilarious that you are trying argue me out of what was essentially a “subjective” statement. I think a lot of people in the audience were also not impressed by his response either. I can understand how unpleasant it would be though for a person who is a Biblical Scholar to come to admit that perhaps one of the central characters of the Bible is entirely imaginary and that rather that studying an authoritative book about history, you have just been studying a really old novel.

          • Historians deal with unpleasantness all the time. What matters is what the evidence indicates. I am disappointed that you think this is a matter that is merely subjective, and not one that ought to be settled through a careful study of the evidence using accepted secular methods of critical inquiry.

          • Michael Eberly

            I didn’t say that I think that this is matter that is merely subjective, and I don’t think anybody, but you, thinks otherwise.

            That’s it! You are boring the whole of me. A conversation with with you is very much like talking to a brick wall.

          • I am sorry to learn that you are easily bored, and resistant to scholarly consensuses based on evidence. I hope that you will reconsider this anti-academic outlook.

          • Michael Eberly

            I am sorry that I have not be assimilated in the mind hive yet, and I would point out that it is your perspective that is anti-academic. You are free to deconstruct Dr. Carrier’s book anytime you like, buddy. I am looking forward to it. Let me know when the book comes out.

          • So now the consensus of historians and scholars is a “hive mind”? That is precisely what creationists say about the consensus of biologists. You seem to be misinformed about how scholarship works. Merely publishing a book does not show you are right. Presumably you know this on some level since there are countless books on the evidence for a historical Jesus which you consider inadequate for whatever reason.

            You might find my two reviews of Carrier’s book in The Bible and Interpretation of interest.

          • Jim

            What are you even talking about?

            Western history has been affected by this person Jesus. If belief in Jesus had not survived past an initial group then several events in Western history (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Modernity) would have likely been totally different.

            As Bart Ehrman has summarized in the past:

            “So the history of the West has been totally influenced by the belief, very early on, that Jesus was in some way divine as described by the NT writers. Without this belief of the first believers and all those who subsequently bought into this, the history of the west would have been totally different.”

            Historical Jesus research is a relevant exercise that can contribute information towards an understanding of the origins of the western worldview, irrespective if one is religious or not. You seem to be stuck on a specific religious perspective of Jesus and not a historical one.

          • Michael Eberly

            We will never really know who or what Jesus was. I am not saying that Historical research is irrelevant, but I am saying that the distinction between position that Jesus was a myth and Jesus was a legend is really not of great import. Christianity’s importance to the western culture is how it was used to shape and control European society through the end of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and how Christianity’s disintegration starting with the Reformation and the Renaissance and progressing into the age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

            Important topics to contend with with regards to Christianity are
            1. How it contributed to the periodic persecution of the Jewish diaspora.
            2. How it contributed to the development and sustainment of European Monarchies.
            3. How it tried to slow down the growth of free and independent thought during the enlightenment.
            4. How it contributed to the acceptance of Totalitarianism through out history.

            And so on.

            It is not really all that important to have some super accurate picture of who this supposed illiterate carpenter was. Well unless you really think he was the Son of God, that there really is a Hell, and your only way to avoid eternal torment is to believe he existed and managed to get crucified.

            What makes it even more fascinating is that there is so much in the Gospels which are pretty obviously un-historical.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Bart Ehrman’s response is bizarre. He almost seems personally threatened by the notion that… we may find that the founder of the Christian religion was actually someone we today call Paul…

            We may one day discover a letter in which Paul admits that Cephas and the others were a figment of his imagination, but the prospect is unlikely to keep Ehrman awake at nights.
            If you want people to discard “crap”, it will help if this is not what you yourself are offering.