Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" (1)

I got my copy of Did Jesus Exist?:  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth yesterday and I'm enjoying it a lot.   I am happy to say that the article Bart Ehrman wrote for the Huffington Post two weeks ago does not fairly reflect the arguments in the book.  Although he is convinced that Jesus was a historical person, the book does not paint all doubters with nearly as broad a brush as the article.  More importantly, while the article made it sound like historians have a lot more evidence for the existence of Jesus than they really do, I think the book fairly describes the evidence and arguments upon which Ehrman at least is actually relying.  

One of the things I have admired most about Ehrman's books is the way that he lays out the evidence upon which he bases his conclusions.  Even if you disagree with those conclusions, you come away with a good overview of the main points of contention and the arguments that each side is making.  After reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, I found that I was able to follow debates between scholars of textual criticisms and ask reasonably intelligent questions.  I think that anyone who reads  Did Jesus Exist? will get similar insights into the historicist/mythicist debates.

Despite my appreciation of the book and Ehrman, I don't think it is going to be enough to push me off the fence of historical Jesus agnosticism.  While Ehrman is reasonably respectful of Robert Price, G.A. Wells, and Richard Carrier, he does make a lot of mythicism look very foolish.  My problem is with his positive arguments for Jesus' existence.  They seem to me to rely far too much on hypothetical reconstructions of the sources behind the gospels using techniques which scholars invented for the specific purpose of reconstructing the sources behind the gospels.  The evidence still seems awfully speculative and conjectural and the arguments somewhat circular.

Ehrman honestly acknowledges that we do not have the kind of sources for Jesus that historians would like to have and he points out correctly that the absence of these sources doesn't disprove Jesus' existence because we wouldn't reasonably expect to have such sources for a person of Jesus' social status.  The upshot of this according to Ehrman is that historians need to find other ways of establishing Jesus' existence.  To me, however, the upshot of not having the kind of sources historians like and not expecting to have them is that we probably shouldn't expect to have a great deal of certainty about the question.  If there is a problem with the application of techniques that are generally accepted as reliable when considering historical questions, how much confidence can we have in techniques that are developed specifically for determining the historicity of stories about Jesus?

There are many mythicists who have been quick to accuse Ehrman of selling out or knuckling under to religious orthodoxy, but I don't see any reason to question his integrity.  I don't think that his conclusions are driven by a vested interest in the existence of a historical Jesus.  I do think, however, that he may be said to have a vested interest in the methodology of New Testament studies and I think he may be overestimating the degree of certainty that can be achieved by the application of those techniques.  I hope to look at some of those techniques in upcoming posts.


  1. '....because we wouldn't reasonably expect to have such sources for a person of Jesus' social status.'

    If Jesus had not existed, wouldn't we have lots of critics of Christianity pointing out that Jesus did not exist?

  2. Not lots, but maybe a few.

    Ehrman points out that for the better part of eighteen centuries, nobody questioned the existence of a historical Jesus, but for much of that time anyone one who did would have risked being put to death as a heretic. When Bruno Bauer finally worked up the gumption to do it, he only lost his job.

  3. Did nobody early on question the existence of Jesus?

    Well, you have to remember that Jesus was so little known that we would not expect people to mention him, just like there are no mentions of lots of other people.

    Unless Jesus had never existed, when people would have written that he didn't exist.

    It is very significant that there are no contemporary reports claiming Jesus never existed.

    But as he did exist, the lack of contemporary mentions of his existence mean nothing.

    I hope Ehrman has cleared that up for you.

  4. Vinny, maybe you are setting the bar too high?

    In the subject of History, many uncontroversial school-taught truths are based on one existing document or one existing inscription or one quote in the works of a contemporary. Or perhaps they are based on only two conflicting documents. We might be 80% certain, and if the original writer was lying or mistaken, then we currently accept a false claim.

    Compare that to Physics or Chemistry, and we are 99.999999999% certain.

    (I imagine) you would be happy to accept claims about e.g. Spartacus or The 300, but the bar for jesus seems higher.

  5. Boz,

    You certainly could be right and I appreciate having my thought process tested.

    I haven't read enough ancient history to be sure whether I'm setting the bar too high for Jesus or I'm not setting it high enough for Spartacus or The 300. I did recently read a book about the source material for Alexander the Great and it seemed to me that historians are reasonably circumspect about the certainty they express and they don't claim to know things in greater detail than the evidence warrants.

    It is no doubt true that most of the people we think we know existed only left small marks in the historical record. For example, there are probably lots of Roman senators who are only known by a single reference. On the other hand, the fact that there are lots of Roman senators who left such a mark is itself a reason to have a little more confidence. Moreover, there are probably some senators for whom we have more extensive records and the fact that we know something about Roman senators generally is part of the basis for our confidence.

    By the same token, I am sure that there are many battles that are only known by a brief report from a single participant. On the other hand, there are at least some battles that are documented by reports from both sides as well as archaeological corroboration. This gives us a baseline of knowledge about the kinds of things that happened in ancient battles and the kinds of things that were likely to be lost or distorted which may give us a little more confidence about extrapolating from a single report.

    I don't think we have any well documented cases of phenomenon that are even reasonably analogous to the origin and spread of Christianity. When a historian says that one scenario in an ancient battle is more likely than another, I can see where the empirical basis for such a claim might lie. When a historical Jesus scholar says one scenario is more likely than another in the development of a story about Jesus, I am hard pressed to even see how there could be an empirical basis for comparing the probabilities.