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.