The Historicity Of Jesus

There is an interesting discussion shaping up on the atheosphere, among other places. It started with the publication of Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman. Actually, it was just a bit prior to that. There was an article in the Huffington Post written by Ehrman that provoked a shocked response from Richard Carrier. He then followed up with a full scale review of the book.

Ehrman’s book (which I have not read yet) apparently concludes that Jesus was not a myth, but actually existed. Carrier is a mythicist, concluding that there is little evidence for an historical Jesus. So it’s not surprising that he might disagree with Ehrman. His conclusion, though, is not very dispassionate. In fact it’s downright harsh, to say the least, at times devolving into the personal.

It is for all the reasons documented in this article (which are again just a sample of many other errors of like kind, from false claims, to illogical arguments, to self-contradictions, to misrepresentations of his opponents, to errors of omission), especially this book’s complete failure to interact with even a single complete theory of mythicism (which alone renders the book useless, even were it free of error), that I have no choice but to condemn this thing as being nothing more than a sad murder of electrons and trees.

Others have weighed in. PZ Myers claims that Carrier “cold-cocked’ Ehrmans’ thesis. Jerry Coyne has posted on it. R. Joseph Hoffman, a professor of Classical Studies (I think) at the New England Conservatory in Boston has too, promising that he and two other scholars will issue substantive scholarly responses, chastising the criticism over at the “Freethought Blog Ghetto”. There are others.

And Bart Ehrman himself has issued one comment about one aspect of the Carrier review, and promises another, more detailed one on the public portion of his blog (he has a members only, subscription-only-for-charity section of his blog). It might be up by the time I post this. [EDIT: Here it is.].

I must admit that I’m a great admirer of Bart Ehrman. I’ve read a number of his books, all both scholarly and entertaining, and reviewed a few of them here. I was looking forward to Did Jesus Exist?, and was hoping he’d conclude that he didn’t, but if he in fact did, that’s OK too. I will read the book with highly piqued interest, after reading all of this commentary, and will look forward to some of the promised responses, so that I can arrive at my own conclusion.

Now, I’ve read Carriers critiques, and Hoffman’s call to arms, but I have not read the book in question. However, when I read Carrier’s review, I could see an argument shaping up in the first bit of contention that Carrier raised, about the cock-nosed statute in the Vatican. Ehrman says

“there is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up” (p. 24).

Carrier says there is, and there are pictures of it.

At the very least I would expect Ehrman to have called the Vatican museum about this, and to have checked the literature on it, before arrogantly declaring no such object existed and implying Murdock made this up. I do not assume Murdock’s interpretation of the object is correct (there is no clear evidence it has anything to do with Christianity, much less Peter). But its existence appears to be beyond dispute.

When I read that, I though, “well, all Ehrman has to do to refute this is claim that there might be a cock-nosed statue in the Vatican, but it’s not a “penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock”, i.e. it does not relate to Peter at all. In fact, that’s exactly what Ehrman claims, and I think validly so. In other words, Carrier seems to make much ado about nothing. He’s criticizing him for making a “massive error” by failing to acknowledge that there is a statue in the Vatican that has nothing to do with Peter. If the statue has nothing to do with Peter, then Ehrman is correct. There is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock there. So the answer does not, as Carrier seems to imply, revolve around the existence of the statue itself, but whether it is a representation of Peter. I figured that out from reading Carrier’s review alone, so why couldn’t Carrier?

I don’t know what the final conclusion of this small portion of the argument will be, but if does sound like it will be fascinating to watch. I’m getting the popcorn out.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really make a difference whether Jesus the person actually existed, though it might tend to help the atheist side of the debate (on the larger issue of God’s existence) if he didn’t. The real question that needs to be argued is whether, if he did exist, whether he was divine.

Clearly, if there is no God, there cannot be a Son of God.

24 thoughts on “The Historicity Of Jesus

  1. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really make a difference whether Jesus the person actually existed, though it might tend to help the atheist side of the debate (on the larger issue of God’s existence) if he didn’t.

    The way I look at it, if you remove all the supernatural and magic stuff from the Gospels, I see no reason to believe why the person who remains could not have been an actual person who lived.

    I think the example of Joseph Smith provides a useful analogy. We know he was an historical figure who really lived. But we don’t believe that he was actually visited by an angel named Moroni or that we was able to find and translate long lost golden plates that told the story of Jews who came to North America around 500 BC.

    To me, at least, it makes more sense that there was a charismatic Galilean preacher who had a small dedicated group of followers who continued after his death just as Mormonism survived the death of Joseph Smith, rather than a fictional character who was invented by one or more persons trying to create a new religion.

    Unlike Joseph Smith though, we lack any contemporary extra-Biblical sources for Jesus during his alleged lifetime. Unfortunately, the Gospels don’t really provide a useful timeline as to how long his itinerant ministry lasted. If it was just for one or several years, then we shouldn’t be surprised that there are no records of him from Roman or Jewish sources from when he was supposed to have been alive or if there were such records were lost during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the First Jewish War.

    • One of the themes running through a lot of the comments is that the idea of a mythical Jesus is something the so called “Gnu Atheists” have embraced, yet, other than on Carrier’s blog and a few others, I don’t see it.

      As an atheist, I don’t’ think it’s necessary that Jesus be mythical. I think it’s probably 50/50 whether he was or not. Probably more like 30/70, mythical/real. (I could change that percentage after I read the book) When all the other so called gods that people believed in during those times turns out to be mythical, God clearly is too. As falls God, so falls the Son of god.

      Even if he was real, it doesn’t affect my atheism, becuase I never came to my atheism through a historical sense (or lack thereof) of Jesus. There are so many other reasons for being an atheist, that even if he had a house in Tel Aviv, one we could walk through like the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, that wouldn’t detract from the fact that there most probably is no god. For me, at least.

      The debate then is purely academic, and like a lot of academics, means something only to those that derive a living from it.

      As for your analogy, Tommy, Ehrman says there are no records from the Romans in the Palestinian area for that time period, so there’s no way to tell if there ever was a record of Jesus. There ARE record from that time in Egypt, but Jesus wasn’t from Egypt.

    • > I see no reason to believe why the person who remains could not have been an actual person who lived.

      I dont think that the mythicist side is claiming that there under no circumstance was a person. They are claiming that a person was not *necessary* for Christianity to evolve out of the mythic and religious melting pot that was the middle east.

      A nice example is Paul, he didnt need a person named Jesus at all to become the biggest apostle of christianity, he just needed a vision, a personal revelation. And all the people whom he converted and all the churches he founded also didnt need more than what Paul taught them, so who exactly did? Whose conversion would have been impossible without a historical Jesus?

      • Don’t most myths actually have some basis in fact? It’s not like Paul sat down and thought “Now. How can I create a new religion?” then concocted Jesus out of sheer imagination. Frankly, I think it makes more sense, and would be easier to create (not to mention convince others) if there was in fact some man walking around that time from which the myth could be layered on to.

        • > Don’t most myths actually have some basis in fact?

          Did Greek and Roman myths?

          > I think it makes more sense,

          So the gist of your “belief” is that he existed because you cant imagine people making up mythical allegories and stories? Again, how do you explain greeks making up the whole greek pantheon living on mount olympus?

          > and would be easier to create (not to mention convince others)

          How do you explain Zeus then? Or any other godman deity?

          > if there was in fact some man walking around

          Why didnt Paul then mention that he is talking about a man was walking around? He doesnt.

          • Did Greek and Roman myths [have a basis in fact]?

            Well, in a way they did. Being earlier myths, they were based on facts (like the existence of the sea, lightning, love, whatever a god was the god-of) and the myths were created to explain those facts, to anthropomorphize them, in a way.. That’s not the same thing as basing Zeus after Joe Zeus who lived on the hilltop, but then Jesus is a latter day iteration and evolution from those earlier, more primitive, myths, so in a way he also is an explanation for those facts.

            So the gist of your “belief” is that he existed because you cant imagine people making up mythical allegories and stories?

            No, I CAN imagine it. That’s what fiction is, stories made out of whole cloth. The Greek pantheon posits a different kind of god, and the creation of those myths could have been as I said above. But Jesus was supposed to be god AND man, and it makes sense that the man part of him was based on a real person, or maybe a conglomeration of a number of real persons.The whole “darwinization” of god as you said.

            Why didn’t Paul then mention that he is talking about a man was walking around? He doesn’t.

            The myth hadn’t been fully formed? Although you may be right. If Paul’s writing came first, and there was no historical basis for Jesus when he was writing, and then the Gospels are written, putting actual flesh to the character, then how can we say Jesus was historical? Wouldn’t it make more sense, chronologically speaking, that Paul talked about the human person, and then the supernatural aspects were layered on later, rather than in reverse?

            I just think that we will never know, barring some fantastic archeological discovery, exactly where the whole Jesus thing came from. Since the stuff that survived in writing that forms the Canon most likely started out as fireside stories, told and re-told (and consequently changed and embellished beyond the source) and then was put down as we now have it years later, it makes perfect sense that the kernel of truth contained in it is probably far simpler and understandable. A walking talking Jesus could be true, with just about everything else about him a myth.

            I need to read the Ehrman book. I started the Price book (The Christ-Myth Theory) but haven’t gotten very far into it.

            But then, I need to finish The Swerve first. Good book, and somewhat apropos to this discussion.

            • > But Jesus was supposed to be god AND man

              According to the gospels. But they came later. What was he supposed to be _before_ the gospels came along?

              > If Paul’s writing came first

              I dont know. According to the scholars, it did. And not only Pauls own writing, but also the so called pseudo-pauline epistles, which were forgeries in Pauls name, to bear his authority. They were written by several authors, and they also argue on the same non-human level as Paul. It is not only Paul, it is basically all Christian writings before the gospels.

              > Wouldn’t it make more sense, chronologically speaking, that Paul talked about the human person, and then the supernatural aspects were layered on later, rather than in reverse?

              That is probably the intent behind placing the gospels first in the bible, and only then all the epistles. This is saying: There was a man, who was later exalted to a god. Mythicists argue chronologically: There first was a god, who became a man.

              > I need to read the Ehrman book. I started the Price book (The Christ-Myth Theory) but haven’t gotten very far into it.

              I’m reading Ehrman’s and Doherty’s (Jesus, Neither God Nor Man) in parallel.

              • I once bought Warrens’ “The Purpose Driven Life” (used, and I really had to hold my nose) just so i could read it in tandem with Price’s “A Reason Driven Life”. Unfortunately I’ve yet to get around to reading either of them.

    • > character who was invented by one or more
      > persons trying to create a new religion.

      That is exactly what mythicists (like Doherty) are not claiming. They are claiming, as I understand it at this moment, that Christianity slowly evolved from whatever was there before. They are not claiming that somebody just sat down and invented him from scratch and started preaching about him, but that the idea of a heavenly savior figure was pre-existing in various mythologies of that time, and slowly over time was enriched with pseudo-historic details.

      What the mythicists are attempting here is basically a “darwinization” of Christianity. Nobody created man in its final form, man slowly evolved from his ancestors. Nobody created Christianity, it slowly evolved from its mythological ancestors. And, like man, it is still evolving, the best example would be Joseph Smith’s “Jesus goes America”.

      • What the mythicists are attempting here is basically a “darwinization” of Christianity.

        And doesn’t that make far more sense? I think so.

        …Joseph Smith’s “Jesus goes America”.

        Never heard it put quite like that, I like that. Consider it stolen. ;)

    • > I think the example of Joseph Smith provides a useful analogy.

      He does, but not for Jesus, but for Paul.

      > We know he was an historical figure who really lived.

      Because he wrote stuff, and we have his writings. Like we have Paul’s.

      > But we don’t believe that he was actually visited by an angel named Moroni

      Similarly, we dont believe Paul had any connection to a historical Jesus. The input for whatever he preached and wrote came from “personal revelations”, of which a modern, more frank translations would be “he made it all up, like Joseph smith”.

      Historical Jesus, or at least _Paul’s_ Jesus, doesnt seem to have had more substance than angel Moroni.

  2. I am not really into bible crap, but I found Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” quite interesting. I read Robert Price’s “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man,” and thought that made a good case for Jesus being at best an amalgam of actual people and long-extant mythological figures. I had not yet heard of this book, or I’d have gotten it immediately. I am curious as to what sort of information Ehrman has dug up to make him come to that conclusion.

  3. Actually, this silly statue has caused Ehrman a lot of trouble, as he went on the radio to say that it had been drawn by Acharya S, that it was completely made up and laughed at mythicists for making things up.

    Only a few days later to write that the statue ‘does appear to exist.’

    As he could have found out by looking at the references Acharya gave in the very book where Ehrman thought that Acharya had drawn it herself.

    It shows you the level of research he must have put in.

    Now he is back-pedalling claiming that he only said it was not a statue of Peter, denied ever saying the statue did not exist (despite laughing on the radio about Acharya drawing it herself)

    But the claim that it was a statue of Peter is Ehrman’s own invention, more evidence of his incompetence.

    Acharya never said it was a statue of Peter.

    Ehrman has now been reduced to claiming that his strawman distortion of her book is correct.

    Ehrman basically slandered Acharaya by claiming she drew it herself, when her book had enough references for him to check that the statue did actually exist.

  4. Sadly, this is how to succeed in academia. Write something provocative that others can write responses to which, of course, all cite you in the papers, then you respond to each of them, and so on and so on…

    Anyway, it doesn’t matter whether there was a single person the Jesus character was based on, or if he’s a composite of multiple historic figures, a composite of actual and fictional, or completely fictional. The advice and instruction from the character is dodgy, his acts are questionable, and certainly the extra-human actions attributed to him are dubious to say the least and lack any extra-biblical corroboration.

    Once could base their lives on any fictional character and find success and personal fulfillment. You have Spiderman’s humility and “with great power comes great responsibility.” Harry Potter is a nice chap, too. Fashion a guide of heroism and chivalry for your life through Le Morte D’Arthur or the Song of Roland. Conversely you can look at characters for examples of how not to be, like Heathcliff or Anakin Skywalker.

  5. The advice and instruction from the character is dodgy

    Ain’t that the truth.

    Several years ago, I went through the Gospels and highlighted every passage attributed to Jesus that I thought to myself, “Now, here’s something worthwhile.” I only found a handful. People says how wonderful and beautiful the Beatitudes are. But when you look at them clearly, all he is saying is “Blessed are the [fill in the blank]” It’s all meaningless pablum.

    If you read the Analects of Confucius, there is much more wisdom in there that one can apply to one’s life than any wisdom that Jesus allegedly offered.

    • Perhaps the philosophy of Confucius is far more enlightening than the relatively little we get of Jesus third hand. But we should remember that Confucius’ writings aren’t devoid of healthy doses of equine excreta either. In fact one thing good thing many (perhaps most) Chinese people have to say about an otherwise awful human being Mao Zedong is that he helped reduce the importance of the blatantly misogynistic and authoritarian philosophy of Confucius.

  6. I’ve never read any of Ehrman’s books or heard him give any lectures, so I couldn’t speak for the quality of his work, though I understand he had a good reputation. I don’t know if his new book is an example of someone who had gotten lazy and phoned in his performance or if it will result in people looking at his past work more carefully and finding more examples of things he got wrong.

    If anyone here saw the movie Shattered Glass, about the New Republic journalist who was outed for writing a bogus article, there is a scene where his editor starts reading Glass’s previous articles and realizing that a lot of the stuff he wrote in them were also pulled out of his ass.

  7. The first argument for Jesus’ historicity you can read in non-expert forums, and Ehrman uses it often himself, is the argument from authority that “a majority of scholars agree he existed”.

    Are there any numbers for this claim?

    And even more important, are there any numbers on the personal beliefs of the bible scholars who form that consensus? How many of them are practicing, believing Christians?

    Is there any way to reughly estimate religious influence on that consensus?

    Ehrman’s book was expected to be _the_ the definitive rebuttal of mythicism and the definitive reference for a historical Jesus for decades to come, but what I’ve seen of it so far, it is absolutely unimpressive and unconvincing, compared to his earlier books, which I enjoyed very much, he sounds very aggressive and defensive at the same time, I simply can not imagine that this is the best historicists have. All points to that either Ehrman’s book is in itself very bad and not representative for the overall historicist argument at all, or that he is simply lawyering and protecting a quasi-religious dogma, basically preaching to the choir and that his book _is_ the best historicists got and that this whole “consensus” is primarily of rleigious nature because a majority of biblical scholars will happen to be christians. (Or how many hindu new testament experts do you know?)

    • All points to that either Ehrman’s book is in itself very bad and not representative for the overall historicist argument at all, or that he is simply lawyering and protecting a quasi-religious dogma, basically preaching to the choir and that his book _is_ the best historicists got and that this whole “consensus” is primarily of rleigious nature because a majority of biblical scholars will happen to be christians. (Or how many hindu new testament experts do you know?)

      Well, as a non-expert, I’ve written here before that all theistic arguments, coming from theists, are suspect. That goes for biblical scholars. Atheism, or at least agnosticism, is the neutral position, and scholars need to be neutral. Christian biblical scholars have a dog in the fight.

      I always trusted Ehrman because he came with a history that indicated neutrality. Indeed, he first got involved in textual scholarship to confirm his old beliefs, and discovered they couldn’t be confirmed.

      So, yes, I suspect the “open mind” of any Christian who claims he is a practicing, believing Christian. He’ll always be tempted to give the benefit of the doubt to his beliefs.

      • I think that Ehrman is neutral with respect to a historical Jesus, but he is heavily invested in the methodology of historical Jesus studies by which scholars convince themselves that they can know all sorts of details about what a first century peasant thought and did which real historians of the ancient world would never pretend to know about much more prominent figures.

        • Having yet to read it, from the discussions about it elsewhere, I get the impression that he’s only trying to write for a layman what he thinks the bulk of Biblical scholars have established. It’s not that he’s arguing one way or the other, just that he agrees with the established scholarly conclusions.

  8. I’ve read and enjoyed several of Ehrman’s books but I’m not particularly interested in reading this one (for the record, I wasn’t overly impressed with Forged, as it seemed to be a rehashing of stuff he’d said in earlier, better books; more of the same in a pretty new cover – gotta keep selling books…). I don’t really care whether “Jesus” was an historical figure, a composite of several historical figures, or entirely mythological. The key point is whether he was a god-man. Without a foundation for the claim that he or anyone else was a god or a son of a god or whatever other formulation one cares to devise, the rest doesn’t matter. Questions about Jesus are of secondary importance to the primary questions of whether a god or gods exist.

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