Did Jesus Exist?
The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
- by Bart D. Ehrman
HarperOne, Copyright, 2012
368 pages, hardback
Review by Jim Walker
In my previous review of Ehrman's excellent book, "Forged," I questioned a statement he made in the last chapter:
"He [Jesus] certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence."
I felt puzzled because he cited no sources. How could he have such certainty? I've never come across any certain evidence. What am I missing? Where has he written about it before, I wondered. That's what made me purchase this book-- to find the evidence. And why did he not mention Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier as competent scholars?
This book explains why he had not written about it before. He never took the idea of a non-existent Jesus seriously so he had no need to write a book explaining his existence. Ehrman explains: "Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don't They?" But after he started getting so many e-mails from people questioning him about whether Jesus existed, he decided to write a book about it.
I must say, this book impressed me. Ehrman has a gift for explanation and he is considered to be one of the most authoritative, if not the most authoritative and respected scholar on the subject today. I now know the reasons why he thinks Jesus existed based on the kind of evidence (or rather lack of good evidence) he supplies.
So who am I to review a book from a scholar? I am not a Biblical scholar. I don't read Greek, nor do I have an understanding of all the nuances and source evidence that is required for Bible scholarship. In fact, the little information I do have comes from the scholars themselves. But I don't need to be a scholar to form an opinion on a subject anymore than I need to be an aeronautical engineer to form an opinion about the flight characteristics of an airplane.
For example, if several aircraft of a particular manufacturer happened to disintegrate in mid-air, I don't need an aeronautical engineering degree to declare, "Hey, there's something wrong here." [The de Havilland Comet is one example] Even a badly designed aircraft requires more expertise than I have. But I might dig up some information about the manufacturer's inspection standards and discover that it's flawed. Poor quality standards might have something to do with the crashes. In fact, the engineers may have made a perfectly sound design, just that they were unaware of poor inspection practices (or something like that). This is the approach I take whenever I read scholarly work. I don't have the knowledge to make historical claims, but I do get to ask questions.
This book is addressed to those who think that Jesus did not exist, especially the mythicists who claim that Jesus Christ came from Jewish and pagan myths, and therefore, he was not historical. This is not my position. I have never claimed that Jesus did not exist. I am a skeptic. I don't know if a real Jesus existed or not. My concerns lie mainly about how beliefs can create falsehoods and delusions. I could care less whether or not Jesus existed. My skepticism aims at the evidentiary claims that people make. Like poor inspection standards by an aircraft manufacturer, the same holds for historical standards for evidence. If the standards are flawed, then problems are bound to arise.
As arrogant as it may seem, my standards of evidence for historicity are higher than those scholars of Jesus studies. But my standards aren't really that high. I don't expect scientific level of evidence but rather evidence of at least that of a court of law (and In my opinion this the lowest kind of evidence). Courts of law allow eyewitness evidence, circumstantial evidence, demonstrative evidence, etc. What courts do not generally allow is hearsay evidence. There are rare exceptions for using hearsay, for example, to establish the delusional state of a witness, or something like that, but never would a court allow nothing but hearsay.
An eyewitness is only the starting point. As psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has experimentally demonstrated, even eyewitness testimony can be influenced by the misinformation effect. (I suspect this could be a neurological bases for syncretism.)
In Jesus scholarship there are no eyewitness accounts. In fact, hearsay is the only kind of evidence they have to offer us. Although scholars rarely use the word hearsay, they do admit that they have no eyewitness evidence, in fact no contemporary evidence at all. To Ehrman's credit, he openly admits there is a lack of evidence. He writes:
"There is no hard, physical evidence for Jesus." [p.42]
"No Greek or Roman author from the first century mentions Jesus." [p.43]
"I need to stress that we do not have a single reference to Jesus by anyone---pagan, Jew, or Christian---who was a contemporary eyewitness, who recorded things he said and did." [p.46]
"The Gospels of the New Testament are not eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus. Neither are the Gospels outside the New Testament, of which we have over forty, either in whole or in fragments. In fact, we do not have any eyewitness report of any kind about Jesus, written in his own day." [p.49]
"And how many eyewitness reports of Pilate do we have from his day? None. Not a single one. The same is true of Josephus." [p.49]
It is this lack of evidence that has always concerned me. It is doubling concerning when he claims to have clear and certain evidence from all this lack of evidence. Houston, we've got a problem.
Ehrman is not deterred at all about this lack of evidence. Among all the non-contemporary sources, stories, mind you, that are filled with supernatural imagination, interpolations, and even outright forgeries, he believes he can find a real Jesus among it all. And he finds him! He's virtually certain of it (whenever I see someone using the world "certain" or "virtually certain" I see a red flag). But he's not finding him from a skeptical point of view. I say this because according to his Introduction, he always believed in a historical Jesus, from the time he was a Christian and to the time he became agnostic. His fellow scholars all think Jesus existed. In fact Ehrman reports that he was, "almost completely unaware---as are most of my colleagues in the field---of this body of skeptical literature."
I never realized that there is such a lack of skepticism among Jesus historical scholars. Another red flag.
After reading 50 pages, Ehrman makes it abundantly clear that he believes in a real historical Jesus. Before he even gets to the evidence, he states over 15 times about how certain he is. Here are a few examples:
"Jesus, he certainly did exist"
"that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet"
"Jesus did exist"
"but he did exist"
"there was a Jesus of Nazareth"
"He really existed"
"he certainly lived"
And so on. . .
This is what magicians do before they perform their magic tricks. They prepare their audience. Now I don't think for one moment that Ehrman is trying to trick us here. In fact this is a great literary device to get the reader interested. It certainly got my interest. As I'm reading the book I'm expecting to find clear and certain evidence that doesn't require eyewitness accounts. One of the best scholars of Jesus is telling me so. I'm hooked. Ehrman may not even know what he's done.
For example look at the photo below of the Jesus Head:
Do you see Him? The floating Jesus head is between the man sitting on the left and the woman standing on the right. It's obvious isn't it? That's because I preconditioned you to see it by labeling it a Jesus Head and also because human brains are already wired to find faces among patterns [source].
In reality there is no head there at all. It's an example of pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon that causes believers to see things from vague sources. In actuality, it's a photo of a man, a woman and a child dressed in white (or light colored) clothing (she's sitting on the man's knee). In our modern world of photoshopped images it's easy for us to imagine someone copy & pasting such an image onto a photo, but the photo looks old, probably made during the early 1900s, long before people photoshopped images. I suspect the original photographer didn't see the head because he already knew he was photographing a man, woman, and child and was not conditioned to see such strange faces on photos as we are in the 21st century.
I suspect this kind of phenomenon is happening with our Bible scholars but with stories written in ancient times instead of photos. As modern magicians will tell you, the easiest people to fool are the academics and scientists.
"I've observed that scientists tend to think and perceive logically by using their training and observational skills — of course — and are thus often psychologically insulated from the possibility that there might be chicanery at work."
--James Randi (Why Magicians Are a Scientist's Best Friend)
I found it interesting that Ehrman spends several chapters debunking the mythicists theories. Why would he need to do that if He has clear and certain evidence for Jesus? For example, if archeologists discovered Pontius Pilate's trial records of Jesus, and it recorded Jesus' very words, then he would have evidence that could be called clear and certain. The mythicists are done. You wouldn't need to mention them at all.
So basically, Ehrman is saying that virtually every expert in the field agrees that Jesus existed, but we have no contemporary evidence, the mythicists are wrong, and they don't have the credentials to do serious scholarship, but there is evidence that is convincing and certain. And when he finally gets to the evidence, what do I find? The same ole same ole: The non-Christian references to Jesus, Rabbinic Sources, the Gospels, oral traditions about Jesus, Christian sources, canonical sources outside the Gospels and Paul, and the epistles. Out of all these many non-contemporary sources, Ehrman begins to build his case.
Not only that but he's relying on invisible documents that don't exist (and may have never existed, according to some scholars). Ehrman claims that the gospel of Luke is partly based on a now-lost document called L. Matthew is partly based on a special (but lost) source labeled M. And Mark is partly based on an invisible document called Q.
It is also revealing when Jesus scholars use the word "witness." For example, Ehrman writes on page 103: "Ignatius, then, provides us yet with another independent witness to the life of Jesus."
Ignatius could not possibly be a witness to the life of Jesus because Ignatius was born after the alleged life of Jesus. There are several types of witnesses. There are eyewitnesses, expert witnesses, character witnesses, etc. Ignatius can only serve as a hearsay witness. Ignatius could be a witness to what others said about Jesus but not as a witness to his life. Rarely will you find historians even use the word hearsay, yet in every source about Jesus, we are only given hearsay witnesses without reporting that it is hearsay. Hearsay can only represent beliefs or reported beliefs by others about Jesus.
Ehrman puts a lot of emphasis on independent sources, the more the better. But if only one source exists, then it could be 'made up". Ehrman writes:
"Suppose a tradition about Jesus is found in only one of these sources (the visit of the magi to Jesus, for example, found only in Matthew, or the parable of the Good Samaritan, found only in Luke). It is conceivable that the source "made up" that story. But what if you have the same or very similar stories in two independent witnesses? Then neither one of them could have made it up since they are independent, and it must then be earlier than both of them. What if a story or kind of story is found in a large number of sources? That kind of story is far more likely to be historically accurate than a story found in only one source."
While it may very well be more likely to be historically accurate, as a story, but what does this have to do with it being historically accurate for a human Jesus? Just because they are stories, doesn't mean they are true. For example, the Chupacabra legend started around 1995 in Puerto Rico. We have eyewitnesses who "saw" a goat-like animal with spines along its back. There's nothing supernatural about this. Perhaps some people really did see some sort of animal like this (like a large Iguana that actually lives in Puerto Rico), or maybe they hallucinated it. The story spread quickly to locations as far as Maine, Chile, Russia, and even the Philippines. There are lots of independent sources. Do these abundant independent sources increase the likelihood that the Chupacabra is real? Would even more independent sources make it more historically accurate? Of course not. It does, however, confirm that there are lots of stories about it. In fact, in eyewitness accounts for Chupacabra, Big Foot, and UFO sightings, for example, the more stories there are make those claims even more unlikely. Why? Because if the stories were true, we should expect actual evidence to emerge out of all that claimed evidence. But if no evidence occurs, then the more stories there are, the more likely they are mythical or fictional.
Furthermore, by independent, surely Ehrman doesn't mean totally independent. If that were the case, then mythicists would have a field day because then it would look very much like Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." This would then be similar to the spread of archetype hero worship stories.
Ehrman must mean that there was once a single source from which all the other independent sources sprang. And if Ehrman is right, that primary source had to be either Paul or the "twelve" disciples. If Ehrman's hypothesis is true then during the time of the disciples only one source existed. Well then. . .
According to Ehrman's own logic, the single source for Jesus could have been made up!
But it doesn't necessarily mean that the independent stories were made up. The believers might have simply misunderstood the original story. If a second independent source misinterpreted the information from the original source, then every other source could have carried the mutation. In genetics, for example, if a mutation occurs in a DNA sequence, the mutation could carry onto the offspring until every independent animal along that line contains the mutation.
So imagine if the original twelve believed that Christ was a servant sent from God, in the flesh, not as a biological person but as a kind of flesh-angel sent down to earth to experience suffering (this is basically Earl Doherty's mythicist position). In telling this story to outsiders, the outsiders may have misinterpreted this as a real historical Jesus, and carried this mutation to other Christian cults. Now, I'm not saying this happened, only that it is just as reasonable a possibility as the hypothesis Ehrman proposes.
In Chapter Five, Ehrman gets down to two key data for the historicity of Jesus, namely Paul and his associations with Peter and James. But the real key point is Paul because we hear about Peter and James from Paul. Here is where everything about the origins of Christianity funnels down to the closest source we have for the Jesus story-- Paul.
Although Ehrman goes to great length to dismiss mythicists about their credentials as historians, not once does Ehrman question the reliability of Paul, Peter, and James as witnesses, and as hearsay witnesses at that!
"One point I want to reemphasize. From what Paul does tell us, it is clear that he did indeed know about the historical Jesus." (p. 139).
He can reemphasize all he wants. Again, Ehrman confuses belief for knowledge. Paul never met a historical Jesus and at best, could only have believed the stories about Jesus from other people like James. He could not have known for certain. Paul's epistles only provide hearsay evidence. How do we know that James was not deluded or deceiving others into believing he had a real brother Jesus or a mythical brother who appeared as a flesh-angel? I submit that there is no way to know unless someone can find contemporary evidence. Historians, two-thousand years later could only believe that Paul knew. The problem here is that beliefs provide no good reason for establishing facts. Facts are independent of beliefs, and trying to gain "certainty" from beliefs alone is a fools game.
To make matters worse for the historical believers, some of the mythicists claim that when Paul reports about James as "brother of the Lord," he is not referring to a biological brother but as a spiritual brother. (see Gal. 1:18-20, 1 Cor. 9:5). In that sense all Christians are brothers or sisters of the Lord. Now I don't know if this is right or not but it certainly seems like a valid hypothesis from my layman's perspective. Ehrman dismisses this by claiming:
"Paul could not be using the term brothers in some kind of loose, spiritual sense. . ." (p. 146). Why? Because, "when he speaks of 'the brothers of the Lord' in 1 Corinthians 9:5, he is differentiating them both from himself and from Cephas. That would make no sense if he meant the term loosely to mean 'believers in Jesus' since he and Cephas too would be in that broader category. And so he means something specific, not something general, about these missionaries."
That's about as lame an argument as I can imagine. Just because Paul doesn't describe Cephas or himself as brethren of the Lord here doesn't mean that they were not brethren of the Lord. He may have meant it in the sense that Cephas and himself were special brethren (after all they were leaders of their cults) and they were differentiating themselves from the other brethren. For example, It would be like Obama and Joe Biden at a Democrat rally: "Joe and I would like to give thanks to all the Democrats out there." In this sense Paul and Cephas would not need to identify themselves as brethren of the Lord because the other brethren would already know that they were brethren of the Lord.
Moreover, in every case, Paul never refers to anyone as brother of Jesus, it is always brother of the Lord, a title consistent in the communal sense.
The problem, as I see it, is that there is not enough information or context to make a certain determination one way or another. For example, If I say, "I love fish," what would you think I meant? Some people might argue that I love to eat fish. Other might argue that I meant I had a love for aquarium fish (as pets). There's not enough information there to make a determination.
And on what scholarly credentials are we to accept Paul as an authority? What I find amazing is that historians don't seem to realize that Paul was an ignorant wacked-out-hyper-religious-hallucinatory-bat-shit-delusional Christian! Paul's beliefs were not based on evidence but rather on curses, angels, ghosts, dreams, visions. His world of information was based on revelation and faith (belief without evidence). "For by grace are ye saved through faith..." (Eph. 2:8), "The just shall live by faith," (Gal. 3:11), "through Jesus Christ that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith," (Gal. 3:14). "For we walk by faith, not by sight" (II Cor. 5:7). Paul saw visions such as a man of Macedonia, a kind of guardian angel (Acts 16:9-10). During his travel to Damascus, he allegedly saw a light from heaven flashing around him as he dropped to the ground and heard a voice, "I am Jesus". Three days afterward he remained sightless (Acts 9:3-9). If this story is true, then that means Paul couldn't tell the difference between what was happening inside his brain verses outside his brain!
And we're supposed to rely on Paul to tell us about whether Jesus was a real man or not? I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Paul lived a world of illusion, fantasy, and delusion. This is not to say Paul was insane. Even the most delusional person can manage to put one foot in front of the other. One only need to look at religious leaders such as Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite. Their followers thought their leader as a visionary, and completely sane. But there leaders were, in fact, delusional, like Paul.
How in the world can any historian use Paul as a reliable witness for a historical Jesus when he can't even tell the difference between reality and unreality? And remember, he is a delusional hearsay witness.
Paul's delusional mind is precisely the kind of mind that would accept mythological explanations, in fact his own words (mentioned above) proves he was mythologically motivated.
I'm not trying to demean Paul. It wasn't Paul's fault for being ignorant during a time of high illiteracy, with little scientific understanding of the world. Of course by "ignorant' here, I mean it as a comparison to today's average educated citizen. In Paul's day he would have been considered highly educated. He attended the rabbinical school of Gamaliel and knew Hebrew and Greek, could write, and had knowledge of religious scripture, and Roman and Greek culture. However, he had little scientific knowledge of the world and, indeed, just as most people of the 1st century, he had a difficult time telling the difference between what happens in his mind verses what happend outside his mind (what we would call delusions). But Paul appeared to exhibit delusions beyond that of most people. Some people today have commented that Paul's visions are similar to symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy.
Poor guy. I might feel sorry for him except that people who have visions can be highly respected, especially from a religious community like Christianity. No doubt Paul's religious followers held Paul's hallucinations as highly meaningful. It's not really that different from our televangelists in the 21st century. I see Paul very much like delusional religious leaders of today except he was even more ignorant of the world around him. And what might have inspired Paul to believe in such nonsense? Jewish scripture and pagan mythology are certainly influential possibilities.
The Old Testament is filled with mythology. Similar to ancient pagan mythologies that predate Christianity (and in some cases predates Judaism), the Old Testament contains theopanic appearances, Angelic living beings who visit earthlings. In Numbers 22:23-30, an angel appears with sword in hand and makes a donkey speak. In 1 Kings 19:5, an angel touches Elijah and speaks to him. In Daniel angels are given personal names and has direct contact with them. In Exodus 15:3, "the LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name (some bibles use 'warrior' instead of 'man of war'). The Midrash Rabbah gives an explanation of The Man God: "His lower half was 'man', but his upper half was as God. [Only the lower half of his body, the seat of the sexual and secretory organs, belonged to the earthly within him, but his head and heart, given over entirely to holiness, were as divine.]". In Exodus 33:20-23 God shows Moses his ass. If God can appear to Moses and send theopanic beings to earth, why couldn't God do the same for a Christ? Delusional people can believe anything.
Now perhaps as a layperson I have misinterpreted scripture, but that is exactly the point. Imagine illiterate believers of the 1st century who heard by ear what their cult leaders were trying to teach them. Do you think they might have misinterpreted what they heard? How do we know that Paul didn't interpret scripture to match his own visionary experiences? One thing I do know is that many Christians today do exactly that. For example, some see a Jesus-UFO connection in scripture and their religious beliefs reflect that (see UFO religion).
Not only did Paul witness Jesus through a hallucination, in 1 Cor. 24-25 he believes he's actually eating the Lord's body and blood when he eats bread and drinks wine. If that isn't flesh-incarnation mythology I don't know what is. Even today, the Catholic church believes the Eucharist represents the actual eating of the Lord's body.
And later as the stories spread, we have an empty tomb where Jesus' flesh and bones mysteriously disappear just like a flesh-angel. If Christians can believe that Jesus reincarnated into the heavens leaving an empty tomb, why couldn't they have believed He incarnated to earth appearing in the flesh?
If I used Ehrman's methods, I could find a real human in the Superman comic book stories. Simply eliminate the fictional characteristics, the super-powers, the allusion to his alien planet and there he is: Clark Kent, a newspaper reporter, who grew up in an obscure country town, with his adoptive parents. For all I know, perhaps the writers of the Superman stories did base this character on a real reporter. I can't tell without good evidence. What the writers did do is make Clark Kent as human as possible with all the flaws and embarrassments that humans go through.
Superman not only resembles Christ the Son of Man, but also Heracles before Christianity began. Remember that most of these 1st century believers were uneducated and delusional. Even those who did not believe might have enjoyed the stories and passed them orally the way kids today pass on comic books.
So here we have Ehrman, one of the most respected scholars of Jesus studies who admittedly has no eyewitnesses or a shred of contemporary evidence, and relies on invisible texts, but has no problem in using St. Ignoramus as a source.
Let me stress that I find nothing wrong with Ehrman's argument for a historical Jesus, as a hypothesis. He could be right. But without good evidence, how can anyone know? I am a member of his target audience, his book is intended for laypersons like myself, and he hasn't come close to convincing me. I'm still as uncertain about the historicity of Jesus as I was before because Ehrman's evidence is not really evidence in my book. And I'm sorry, I just do not buy a claim just because the majority of Bible scholars believe so.
Moreover, Ehrman's logic appears to be two-valued: either people believe that Jesus existed, or that people do not believe he existed. What about "maybe"? What ever happened to uncertainty and doubt? Does the historical method really rely on virtual certainties? Why? For what purpose? Might it be to help sustain religious views that go back hundreds of years?
In ancient times Euhemerism was a method that treated mythological stories as historical events (named after Euhemerus of 4th century BC who tried to prove the Greek gods were real). Interestingly, Euhermerus was also considered to be an atheist, similar to Ehrman. No one today tries to prove the Greek myths are historical because no one believes in them. However, in this one tiny area of academics today, scholars not only believe Jesus existed, they feel certain he existed. The majority of Bible scholars, as well as the majority of Western people still believe in Jesus Christ. No wonder you find no skeptics in Jesus studies because skepticism, apparently, is not allowed in Jesus studies.
What if the mythicists are right? Where would that leave the area of study that involves the historicity of Jesus? It would simply disappear like that of euhermerism. Think about it. The very existence of the study of a historical Jesus depends on establishing that Jesus existed and to support arguments in favor of it. Moreover, this field of study allows a very loose standard of evidence that simply wouldn't be allowed in other studies. That's a built-in bias based on loose standards that is guaranteed to produce falsehoods.
If you wish to find the truth about history and science, skepticism and doubt should be a requirement. Unfortunately, that's precisely what seems to be missing from Jesus scholarship (in the area of establishing the history of Jesus).
Is it so bad not knowing? As Richard Feynman once said, "I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong."
It appears to me that Bible scholarship, at least concerning the narrow field of Jesus historicity, has a deep systemic problem rooted in the methods of evidentiary material. Just like in the aircraft industry, if the inspection standards are poor, one can expect poor results. A few scholars out there have attempted to address this problem, but perhaps not to the extent of Richard C. Carrier (one of the scholars whom Ehrman unfairly criticizes in my opinion). Carrier has recently released a book called Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Carrier proposes a more scientific method of historical analysis (the question about a historical Jesus is, after all, a scientific question) by using Bayes Theorem. If Ehrman could provide us with a percentage number of what he means by virtual certainty, perhaps by using Bayes Theorem, that could go a long way toward explaining what he really means by certainty.
As I wrote above, this book impressed me, not as a book about historical truth but more as a historical novel. Of course this was not Ehrman's intention but his caricaturization of his antagonists (the mythicists), his use of anecdotal evidence, and his use of certainty where certainty can't exist produces a story that sounds plausible and convincing but, in the end, fails to convince, but it does entertain.
I recommend this book, not because I think Ehrman is right, but because it is an example of how a highly distinguished scholar can get trapped into confusing beliefs for facts.
Ehrman did little damage to the core mythical hypothesis, and in fact, I think this book will spur even more debate about the alleged history of Jesus and, hopefully, the Jesus scholars will allow more skeptics into their field. We shall see who has the better argument.