Tag Archive: Mythicism

Harry McCall Objects to My Rejection of Mythicism, Says I “Hate” Him

jesus walking dead

The real Jesus (from The Walking Dead)

Over the weekend, Harry McCall, an acquaintance of mine, took to Facebook to let his friends know what kind of person he thought I was. He was doubly upset that yet another atheist had unfriended him on Facebook. Here’s what McCall posted to his Facebook wall:

Oddly, I find Atheists, especially those who were former Christian pastors, to be very thin skinned to criticism about their belief system. Thus far, I have had four Atheists, all of whom were either former conservative or Fundamentalist pastors Defriend me on Facebook with almost all of them expressing hatred towards me in doing so (I am not an Atheist and never was).

The latest self proclaimed Atheist to Defriend me (just tonight) is a former Fundamentalist Baptist pastor of 25 years, 62 year old Bruce Gerencser (pictured). The fact that most of my friends on Facebook are Christians with whom I have discussed my studies on the Bible and Christianity, and who have not defriended me points to the fact that they, unlike these former pastors turned Atheist, are at peace and happy with their belief system just as I am with my spiritual religious belief system.

Thus, if you are a former Christian pastor turned Atheist, don’t look for support and sympathy from me as I’m tired of being cursed at before being Defriended.

So long Bruce. I hope you find inner peace someday!

Previous to me unfriending McCall, I had a brief Messenger exchange with him. After receiving McCall’s last reply, I decided to remove him from my friends’ list. What follows is the discussion that transpired between McCall and the “self-proclaimed” atheist Bruce Gerencser (all grammar in the original).

McCall: Several years back on a blog by James McGrath in which he as criticizing me for not believing Jesus existed, you made a statement to the affect that you agreed with McGrath that a Gospel figure of Jesus did infract exist. Since that time, I published my review of David Clumney’s book “Jesus Eclipsed” (My review is on Amazon, I suggest you review it when you have time). I emailed McGrath at Bulter University making him aware of my review and asked him to prove me wrong since McGrath made it a point on both his blog and at his faculty description to let people know he made a point of disproving all mythical Jesus claims. McGrath never responded to me via email, but I happen to see his follow-up on his blog that my scholarship that Jesus did not exist was, “absurd!” (see my respond to him on my review). Since that time he has removed from both his blog and Butler University religion faculty description any claim that he debunks claims that the New Testament Jesus never existed. Likewise, I asked via email that both John Loftus and his co-blogger David Madison respond to my review (see my responses to my Clumney review), but like McGrath, they never did at least anywhere I’m aware. So, do you still think a Gospel Jesus existed? I want to get any input because I want to know if my last four points on my review on Amazon are rock solid.

Bruce: Here’s my take on the issue: Questions: Do You Believe Jesus was a Real Person?  Honestly, this is not an issue that greatly interests me. My focus is on helping doubting Evangelicals where they are.

McCall: Hi Bruce, While I read your “take on the issue”, I don’t believe you even bothered to look at my book review on Amazon of “Jesus Eclipsed”. Maybe I assumed you were a scholar the same way I’m a scholar on the existence of a Historical Jesus. You seem overly dependent on Bart Erhman, who like David Chumney, uses the New Testament to prove the New Testament, a practice that would never be allowed as evidence in a court of law. Secondly, I was hoping for at least a response to my last four short major points as to why pointed out why Jesus don’t exist. Your closing comment, “What I am saying, however, is that I don’t find their arguments” (including mine) “compelling, as things now stand, I see no reason to overthrow the status quo.” In short, I thought you were a more of an independent objective thinker. Could I ask you a question about Bart Erhman (who I have met and talk to in person)? Why is it that neither Bart Erhamn and others who cites Josephus a evidence for a Historical Jesus have not used the Greek Concordance to his works: “The Complete Concordance to Flavius Josehpus: Study Edition”? I invested $500.00 in this Greek 2 Vol. set while Erhman can only cite an English translate (this workd is not even mentioned in his “Bibliography”! Bruce, I still thank you have a great blog, but when it comes original work of the Historical Jesus, I feel as if I expected too much from you. In short, I feel you simply gave me the liberal Apostles Creed as to why you need a Historical Jesus to exist. Finally, if you are anyone you know wants to respond, please leave a review of at least my closing four point of my review at Amazon. I checked this comment section often.

Bruce: Fuck, Harry, I read your review. I even read Bob’s [Robert Price] review. You might want to rethink your approach. Your “believe as I do” or you are in denial approach is not helpful, nor what I would expect from a friend/acquaintance of mine. I get it, this is a big issue for you. Sorry, but it’s not for me, nor will it be. I know my “calling.” Be well.

McCall: Thanks Bruce! You just proved my point.

I first became acquainted with McCall when he was a regular contributor on John Loftus’ blog, Debunking Christianity. Based on this, I assumed McCall was an atheist, as did some of Facebook friends. One of his friends asked, “I thought you were an atheist?”

Harry responded:

I’m not a Christian, but a Biblical scholar who is spiritual be it over a warm cup of coffee on a cold winter’s night as I look out into nature (very spiritual) or a wonderful sunset (no theology to ruin this). The term “atheist” has too much baggage associated with it and, frankly I have been attacked more by one to many Atheists to make me ever want to convert and leave my peaceful spiritual religious life and enter a world all to often dominated by bitterness.

I knew that McCall had publicly called out James McGrath, David Madison, Tim O’Neill, John Loftus, and Bart Ehrman over their rejection of mythicism — the belief that the historical Jesus is a myth. I am acquainted with all of these men, some more so than others. (I wrote the forward to David Madison’s book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.) All of them are students of the Bible and Christian history. All of them are far more educated than I am. McGrath, O’Neill and Ehrman have all been quite vocal in their opposition to and rejection of mythicism. Harry McCall, on the other hand, is a mythicist zealot. He’s the kind of “believer” who puts people into two categories: “against” him or “for” him. McCall is convinced that he has overwhelmingly proved that the historical Jesus is a myth, and anyone who reads his writings will come to the same conclusion. Those who don’t are immediately condemned and summarily executed.

McCall thinks that just because he writes something, that those who disagree with it or mythicism, in general, are obligated to refute him. I see similar behavior from Christian Fundamentalists. Over the years, I have had countless Evangelicals demand that I answer their “irrefutable” arguments for their peculiar brand of Christianity. There was a time when I would do so, but I later came to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Zealots, be they Christian, atheist, or “spiritual,” are closed-minded. Their goal is not discussion, it’s conversion.

Due to pervasive, painful health problems, I have a limited amount of time each day to write. As I made clear to McCall, I know my “calling” in life. I have a target audience that I hope to reach and engage. Mythicism is not on my radar. I have read a few books on the subject, and I follow the blogs of the aforementioned anti-mythicists. Quite frankly, for the reasons mentioned in Questions: Do You Believe Jesus was a Real Person?, mythicism doesn’t interest me. I am settled in my opinion that there once was a real Jesus who lived and died 2,000 years ago. End of discussion.

McCall was wrong when he wrote that I believed a “Gospel figure of Jesus did in fact exist.” I have never made such an assertion. I take a reductionist view of Jesus, rejecting many (most) of the stories about him recorded in the Gospels. This, of course, is not good enough for McCall. He demands complete and total capitulation; his way or the highway. When I refused to bow to his intellect, he went after me personally, suggesting that I am neither at peace with my beliefs or happy. It was only then that I unfriended McCall on Facebook. Of course, McCall expected that I would unfriend him. After sending me his final retort: “you just proved my point,” McCall immediately checked to see if I had unfriended him, suggesting, at least to me, that he expected me to do so. I aim to please, right?

I am sure McCall will continue to call me out over my refusal to abandon the historical Jesus. To that I say: Harry, go fornicate with yourself. 🙂

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

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Questions: Do You Believe Jesus was a Real Person?

i have a question

I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

Peter asked:

I am an avid follower of your blog and wholeheartedly agree with your views on God, the Bible, and Evangelical Christianity. I am interested in your belief as to whether Jesus was a real individual or mythical. I have read both Bart Ehrman’s book, “Did Jesus Exist” and Richard Carrier’s book “On The Historicity Of Jesus,” where they promote and support opposing views. I myself find Carrier’s arguments more compelling mainly due to Paul’s letters not mentioning an earthly Jesus, nor using details and teachings from his life to support his points when doing so would have been easier than describing his communications through visions with a celestial Jesus. It seems to me that the Gospel story would have been discussed had it existed during Paul’s time. Also, there is no secular evidence for an historical Jesus. While the Gospels could be mythicized stories of a real person, I just cannot believe that Paul’s Jesus or any biblical Jesus actually lived.

What do you believe and why?

It is increasingly popular in atheist circles to deny the existence of Jesus.  More than a few atheist readers have asked me if I also take such a view. I understand that it would make things a lot easier if Jesus was just a mythical being and the stories told about him are works of fiction. No Jesus, no need to think about the Christian God, Jesus, and the teachings of the Bible.

That said, I am of the opinion that Jesus was a real flesh and blood person who lived and died in Palestine almost 2,000 years ago. The Christian gospels do contain historical data, and from that data I have concluded that there was a Jesus who walked the shore of Galilee and hills of Judea centuries ago. One need not believe the miracles attributed to Jesus to be true, to believe Jesus was a real person. One can believe that Jesus lived and died without accepting the irrational notion that he resurrected from the dead three days after his death. As a lifelong reader of the Bible and student of Christianity, I can separate the historical narrative from the fanciful. Saying this has led some atheists to attack me, saying that I am a closet Christian or that I secretly desire to be a follower of Jesus. Such claims are absurd, but some atheists simply can’t accept that two people can look at the evidence for the historicity of Jesus and come to different conclusions. Based on the available evidence, I have no reason to believe that Jesus was not a historical person.

Peter raises the question of the Apostle Paul not talking about Jesus’ history. Is it true that Paul doesn’t mention Jesus? Dr. Bart Ehrman writes:

It is significant that Paul converted to be a follower of Jesus after being a persecutor of the Christian church.  Paul himself is quite straightforward about that, and more than a little ashamed of it (which is one of the reasons we can trust he’s not making it up).  That is also the emphatic claim of the book of Acts written after his life.  Paul persecuted the church before he joined it.

That would mean that he must have been persecuting the Christians by around 32 CE, just two years after Jesus died.   And that means that he knew about Christians, and their claims about Jesus, already at that extremely early point.  We don’t have to wait for Mark in 70 CE for evidence that Christians were talking about Jesus.  We have clear and certain evidence they were doing so in the early 30s.  What they were saying about Jesus was highly offensive to Paul.  And so he persecuted them.

In a later post I’ll be talking about what they were saying about Jesus that Paul found offensive.  Here I simply want to stress that Paul knew about a historical Jesus already by 32 CE.   And what did Paul know about him?   For some reason (strange, as I suggested earlier), mythicists often claim that Paul doesn’t tell us anything about the historical Jesus.  That simply is not true.  At all.  Here are the things tells us:

  • Jesus had a real, human birth to a real human mother (Galatians 4:4)
  • He was born as a Jew (Galatians 4:4)
  • He was a descendant of King David (Romans 1:3-4)
  • He had brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5)
  • One of whom was named James (Galatians 1:19) (Paul knows him personally)
  • His ministry was to and among Jews (Romans 15:8)
  • He had twelve disciples (1 Corinthians 15:5)
  • One of whom was Cephas/Peter (Paul knows him personally as well)
  • He was a teacher, and Paul knows some of his teachings (1 Cor. 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:22-24)
  • He had a last supper with his disciples at which he predicted his coming death (1 Cor. 11:22-24)
  • He was crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 and millions of other places)
  • This was on orders of the civil authorities (1 Corinthians 2:8)
  • At the instigation of the Jewish leaders in Judea (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15)
  • He was then buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
  • Paul also thinks, of course, that God raised Jesus from the dead.
    How can anyone say that Paul doesn’t think Jesus was a real, historical Jewish teacher in Israel who was crucified?  You might wonder why Paul doesn’t tell us more – we have all wondered that, a good deal.  But there are obviously possible explanations: for example, that he wasn’t writing a gospel but personal correspondence dealing with problems his churches had.

To say that Paul would have to mention Jesus’ baptism, temptation, parables, transfiguration, miracles, and so on if he knew about them seems to me to be completely wrong.   If you were to take seven letters of my own dear mother, who is highly religious and deeply committed Christian in every way — even letters in which she talks about her faith — and looked for places where she talked about Jesus’ baptism, temptation, parables, transfiguration, miracles, and so on, you would look in vain.  That’s probably true of most Christians today.

Paul possibly had no reason to mention such things.  He possibly didn’t think such things were all that important for his message and ministry.  He possibly didn’t know much about such things (remember: he is writing before the Gospels).  It’s hard to say.  But what is easy to say is that Paul certainly knew about the man Jesus.  He tells us some things about him.  And he learned about Jesus no later than 32 CE or so.   The historical man Jesus could not have been myth invented many decades later.

It’s clear, at least to me, that Paul does indeed talk about Jesus. Yes, I find it troubling that Paul doesn’t mention much of the historical information about Jesus found in the gospels. Dr. Ehrman writes:

Paul of course has a lot to say about the importance of Jesus, especially the importance of his death and resurrection and his imminent return from heaven. But in terms of historical information, what I’ve listed above [i.e., in the previous posts] is about all that we can glean from his letters. Imagine what we wouldn’t know about Jesus if these letters were our only sources of information. We hear nothing here of the details of Jesus’ birth or parents or early life, nothing of his baptism or temptation in the wilderness, nothing of his teaching about the coming Kingdom of God; we have no indication that he ever told a parable, that he ever healed anyone, cast out a demon, or raised the dead; we learn nothing of his transfiguration or triumphal entry, nothing of his cleansing of the Temple, nothing of his interrogation by the Sanhedrin or trial before Pilate, nothing of his being rejected in favor of Barabbas, of his being mocked, of his being flogged, etc. etc. etc. The historian who wants to know about the traditions concerning Jesus — or indeed, about the historical Jesus himself — will not be much helped by the surviving letters of Paul.

It is up to each of us to determine whether what Paul does say about Jesus is sufficient to conclude that Paul believed Jesus was a real person.

My wife and I were discussing this issue the other day. I told her that even if I had doubts about the existence of Jesus, I wouldn’t share them publicly. My goal as a writer is help Evangelicals who have doubts about Christianity and help people who have recently left Christianity. Telling doubting Evangelicals that I don’t believe in the existence of Jesus would kill any hope I had of helping them. Such a belief is what I call “a bridge too far.” Doubting Evangelicals would stop listening to me if I said to them, “you know Jesus never existed.” But Bruce, doesn’t truth matter? Of course it does. However, I don’t believe that mythicists have an overwhelming amount of evidence to bolster their claims. I am not saying that mythicists don’t have any evidence, they do. What I am saying, however, is that I don’t find their arguments compelling, and as things now stand, I see no reason to overthrow the status quo.

Let me be clear, I believe in the existence of the historical Jesus, not the Biblical Jesus. Almost 2,000 years ago, a Jewish man named Jesus lived and died. I can reasonably conclude that he was a Jewish rabbi or political operative who was executed by the Roman government at the request of Jewish leaders. Anything else is a matter of myth and legend. Whether Jesus was a “good” man depends on how much weight you give the stories told about him.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Book Review: Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman

did jesus exist

Repost from 2012

I am delighted to review Dr. Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. The book was sent to me by the publisher.

Anyone who reads this blog knows I am a big fan of Bart Ehrman. When I began to move away from Christianity, Ehrman’s books were extremely helpful. They forced me to confront my beliefs about the English Bible and the underlying Greek and Hebrew text. I was also forced to consider that many of the ideas I had about Christianity and its history were either complete fabrications or an admixture of truth and error.

I have stated many times that any Evangelical Christian who honestly reads Bart Ehrman’s books can no longer say, I believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Evangelicals might be able to hang on to some form of progressive or liberal Christian belief but Ehrman’s books are an axe to the root of Evangelical Christianity.

Ehrman’s latest book, Did Jesus Exist? is 368 pages long. As he has in the past, Ehrman writes in a manner easily understood by the non-scholar. I am sure he will be faulted, as he is every time he comes out with a new book, for not having enough footnotes or endnotes, but Ehrman knows who is target audience is and he does not weigh them down with copious notes that only the scholars among us would appreciate. The bibliography does list 45 authors and 66 books, with ample representation by authors who believe Jesus existed and those who don’t. Anyone wanting to research this matter further will find plenty of material listed in the bibliography to help them with their research.

I am not a scholar, at least in the sense the word is used in the Did Jesus Exist debate. I was a Christian for 50 years. I spent 25 years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I have a rudimentary Bible College education. While in college I received no training in Hebrew or Greek. I was taught a narrow, truncated version of Christian church history. What knowledge I gained about Hebrew and Greek and Christian church history came from tens of thousands of hours spent in the study.

As a pastor, I was largely self-taught, and books became my education. Over time, I came to trust certain authors. This is what most non-scholars do. We decide which authors, which experts, we are going to trust. We do this all the time in virtually every sphere of life in which we are not expert. However, when it comes to the Bible, it seems everyone is an expert.

I am not a expert. I am not a novice but I am certainly not a university- and seminary-trained scholar. I am also at the place in life age-wise and health-wise where my ability to improve my academic lot is limited. I read and study as much as I can. As I do this, I again look for authors that I can trust. Dr. Bart Ehrman is one such author.

In Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman states several times that history is not a science. There is no test to prove that Jesus existed. The historian must look at the available evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion. From those conclusions, we end up with probabilities. The main question that Ehrman asks is, is it probable that Jesus existed? Based on the available evidence Ehrman says, Yes, Jesus existed.

Ehrman states in the introduction that his goal is not to convince mythicists (those who don’t believe Jesus existed) of the folly of their view. He writes :

I do not expect to convince anyone in that boat. What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and the Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to the question of Jesus’s historical existence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal.

But as a historian I think evidence matters. And the past matters. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local mega-church, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.

In any event, I need to admit that I write this book with some fear and trepidation. I know that some readers who support agnostic, atheist, or humanist causes and who typically appreciate my other writings will be vocal and vociferous in rejecting my historical claims. At the same time certain readers who have found some of my other writings dangerous or threatening will be surprised, possibly even pleased, to see that here I make common cause with them. Possibly many readers will wonder why a book is even necessary explaining that Jesus must have existed. To them I would say that every historical person, event, or phenomenon needs to be established. The historian can take nothing for granted. There are several loud voices out there, whether you tune into them or not, who are declaring that Jesus is a myth. This mythicist position is interesting historically and phenomenologically, as a part of a wider skepticism that has infiltrated parts of the thinking world and that deserves a clearheaded sociological analysis in its own right. I do not have the skills or expertise to provide that wider analysis, although I will make some brief remarks about the broad mythicist phenomenon in my conclusion. In the meantime, as a historian I can show why at least one set of skeptical claims about the past history of our civilization is almost certainly wrong, even though these claims are seeping into the popular consciousness at an alarming rate. Jesus existed, and those vocal persons who deny it do so not because they have considered the evidence with the dispassionate eye of the historian, but because they have some other agenda that this denial serves. From a dispassionate point of view, there was a Jesus of Nazareth.

Did Jesus Exist? has three parts:

  1. Evidence for the Historical Jesus
  2. The Mythicists’ Claims
  3. Who Was the Historical Jesus?

In the first chapter Ehrman gives a brief history of the mythicist view and its relevant present-day authors. Later in the book he will come back to these authors and give their views more careful consideration. Ehrman looks at the mythicist claims of such men like Robert M Price, Richard Carrier, Frank Zindler, Thomas L. Thompson, Earl Doherty, George A. Wells, Acharya S, D.M. Murdock, Timothy Freke, and Peter Gandy.

In chapter two Ehrman talks about the non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus. Ehrman makes it clear that there is no hard, physical evidence for Jesus. There is no archeological evidence. There are no writings from Jesus. Does this mean the Jesus did not exist? Hardly.

Ehrman writes:

This is not much of an argument against his existence, however, since there is no archaeological evidence for anyone else living in Palestine in Jesus’s day except for the very upper-crust elite aristocrats, who are occasionally mentioned in inscriptions (we have no other archaeological evidence even for any of these). In fact, we don’t have any archaeological remains for any non-aristocratic Jew of the 20s CE, when Jesus would have been an adult. And absolutely no one thinks that Jesus was an upper-class aristocrat. So why would we have archaeological evidence of his existence?

We also do not have any writings from Jesus. To many people this may seem odd, but in fact it is not odd at all. The vast majority of people in the ancient world could not write, as we will see in greater detail. There are debates about Jesus’s literacy, if of course he lived. But even if he could read, there are no indications from early sources that he could write, and there is no reference to any of his writings in any of our Gospels. So there is nothing strange about having nothing in writing from him. I should point out that we have nothing in writing from over 99.99 percent of people who lived in antiquity. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they didn’t live. It means that if we want to show that any one of them lived, we have to look for other kinds of evidence.

Ehrman spends a good bit of the book talking about the non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus. He talks about:

Roman references: Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Tacitus

Jewish sources: Josephus

Mythicists often claim that the passage in the writings of Josephus that makes mention of Jesus was not written by Josephus, that it was added by a Christian years later. Ehrman charts a path between the extremes of yes, Josephus wrote this and no, he didn’t by suggesting that the passage in question had been embellished.

Ehrman writes:

The big question is whether a Christian scribe (or scribes) simply added a few choice Christian additions to the passage or whether the entire thing was produced by a Christian and inserted in an appropriate place in Josephus’s antiquities.

The majority of scholars of early Judaism, and experts on Josephus, think that it was the former–that one or more Christian scribes “touched up” the passage a bit. If one takes out the obviously Christian comments, the passage may have been rather innocuous, reading something like this:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. When Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.

If this is the original form of the passage, then Josephus had some solid historical information about Jesus’s life: Jesus was known for his wisdom and teaching; he was thought to have done remarkable deeds; he had numerous followers; he was condemned to be crucified by Pontius Pilate because of Jewish accusations brought against him; and he continued to have followers among the Christians after his death.

As can be expected, Ehrman spends considerable space detailing why the gospels must be considered as historical sources. Ehrman does a good job defending the view that that gospels are a historical source and certainly are appropriate for use in determining whether or not Jesus existed. Mythicists like to reduce the gospels down to one gospel, Mark, and Ehrman makes short work of the folly of such an argument.

Ehrman concludes his chapter on The Gospels as Historical Sources with this:

The evidence I offer in this chapter is not all there is. It is simply one part of the evidence. But it is easy to see why even on its own it has proved to be so convincing to almost every scholar who ever thought about the issue. We are not dealing with just one gospel that reports what Jesus said and did from some time near the end of the first century. We have a number of surviving gospels—I name seven—that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions. These all attest to the existence of Jesus. Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data—for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Even more important, these independent witnesses are based on a relatively large number of written predecessors, gospels that no longer survive but that almost certainly once existed. Some of these earlier written texts have been shown beyond reasonable doubt to date back at least to the 50s of the Common Era. They derive from locations around the Mediterranean and again are independent of one another. If historians prefer lots of witnesses that corroborate one another’s claims without showing evidence of collaboration, we have that in relative abundance in the written sources that attest to the existence of the historical Jesus.

But most significant of all, each of these numerous gospel texts is based on oral traditions that had been in circulation for years among communities of Christians in different parts of the world, all of them attesting to the existence of Jesus. And some of these traditions must have originated in Aramaic-speaking communities of Palestine, probably in the 30s CE, within several years at least of the traditional date of the death of Jesus. The vast network of these traditions, numerically significant, widely dispersed, and largely independent of one another, make it almost certain that whatever one wants to say about Jesus, at the very least one must say that he existed. Moreover, as we will now see, there is yet more evidence.

In chapter four Ehrman talks about the evidence for Jesus from later sources outside the gospels. He briefly talks about Josephus and Tacitus but he spends the bulk of this chapter giving evidence for Jesus’s existence from Christian sources like:

Papias

Ignatius of Antioch

1 Clement

The book of Acts

The writings of Paul

Ehrman writes:

As a result of our investigation so far, it should be clear that historians do not need to rely on only one source (say, the gospel of Mark) for knowing whether or not the historical Jesus existed. He is attested clearly by Paul, independently of the Gospels, and in many other sources as well: in the speeches in Acts, which contain material that predates Paul’s letters, and later in Hebrews, 1st and 2nd Peter, Jude, Revelation, Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement. These are ten witnesses that can be added to our seven independent Gospels (either entirely or partially independent), giving us a great variety of sources that broadly corroborate many of the reports about Jesus without evidence of collaboration. And this is not counting all of the oral traditions that were in circulation even before the surviving written accounts. Moreover, information about Jesus known to Paul appears to go back to the early 30s of the Common Era, as arguably does some of the material in the book of Acts….

In chapter five Ehrman talks about two key data for the historicity of Jesus:

Paul’s association with Simon Peter and Jesus’s brother James.

The crucifixion of Jesus.

Ehrman writes:

Paul indicates that he received some of these traditions from those who came before him, and it is relatively easy to determine when. Paul claims to have visited with Jesus’s closest disciple, Peter, and with his brother James three years after his conversion, that is around 35—36 CE. Much of what Paul has to say about Jesus, therefore, stems from the same early layer of tradition that we can trace, completely independently, in the Gospels.

Even more impressive than what Paul says about Jesus is whom he knew. Paul was personally acquainted, as I’ve pointed out,with Peter and James. Peter was Jesus’s closest confidant throughout his public ministry, and James was his actual brother. Paul knew them for decades, starting in the mid 30s CE. It is hard to imagine how Jesus could have been made up. Paul knew his best friend and his brother.

Paul also knew that Jesus was crucified. Before the Christian movement, there were no Jews who thought the Messiah was going to suffer. Quite the contrary. The crucified Jesus was not invented, therefore, to provide some kind of mystical fulfillment of Jewish expectation. The single greatest obstacle Christians had when trying to convert Jews was precisely their claim that Jesus had been executed. They would not have made that up. They had to deal with that and devise a special, previously unheard of theology to account for it. And so what they invented was not a person named Jesus but rather the idea of a suffering Messiah. That invention has become so much a part of the standard lingo that Christians today assume it was all part of the original plan of God as mapped out in the Old Testament. But in fact the idea of a suffering Messiah cannot be found there. It had to be created. And the reason it had to be created is that Jesus—the one Christians consider to be the Messiah—was known by everyone everywhere to have been crucified. He couldn’t be killed if he didn’t live.

In chapters six and seven, spanning almost a hundred pages, Ehrman talks about, and discredits, the claims of those (mythicists) who say Jesus did not exist. He returns to the writings of the mythicists I mentioned earlier.

What claims do mythicists make? Ehrman gives four claims that mythicists make:

Claim 1: The Gospels are Highly Problematic as Historical Sources.

We do not have the original texts of the gospels

We do not know the authors of the gospels

The gospels are filled with discrepancies and contradictions

The gospels contain non-historical materials

The stories in the gospels are filled with legendary material

Claim 2: Nazareth Did Not Exist.

Claim 3: The Gospels are Interpretive Paraphrases of the Old Testament.

Claim 4: The Nonhistorical “Jesus” is based on Stories About Pagan Divine Men.

In chapter seven Ehrman homes in on mythicist claims that Jesus was a mythical being. He asks and answers several questions:

Did the earliest Christians invent Jesus as a Dying-Rising God, based on Pagan myths?

Was Jesus invented as a personification of Jewish Wisdom?

Was Jesus an unknown Jew who lived in obscurity more than a century before Paul?

Was Jesus crucified in the spiritual realm rather than on earth?

Did Mark, our first Gospel, invent the idea of a historical person, Jesus?

Ehrman’s answer to each of these questions is NO!

The final part of the book asks the question, Who was the historical Jesus? If Jesus existed who was he?

Ehrman makes clear that we must differentiate between the historical Jesus and the Jesus who Christians claim was born of a virgin, worked miracles and rose again from the dead. Before the supernatural claims can be addressed we must first determine if Jesus existed. We can believe Jesus existed without believing Jesus was born of a virgin, worked miracles, and rose again from the dead. The former is a matter history can decide. The latter is a matter of theology, of faith.

According to Ehrman, who was Jesus? After reading the book, I would summarize Ehrman’s view like this:

Jesus was born in relative obscurity in the town of Nazareth. His parents were poor and his father was a common laborer. As an adult Jesus became a disciple of John the Baptist, and over time became an Jewish apocalyptic prophet. He was crucified by the authority of Pontius Pilate.

In the final part of the book Ehrman has much to say about the apocalyptic proclamations of Jesus and his apocalyptic activities. He makes a compelling case for Jesus, the apocalyptic prophet. I plan to write several posts in the future about several interesting points Ehrman makes about Jesus and the works he did during his three years of public ministry.

I have no doubt that the diehard mythicists who frequent this website will not be convinced by Bart Ehrman’s, Did Jesus Exist? I can only hope they will read the book and it will force them to add a bit of nuance and temper to their claims. I also hope their wilder claims will die the swift death they deserve.

For the rest of my readers I hope the book will be instructive and will provide ammunition when debating with Evangelical Christians about the inerrant, inspired, infallible Word of God.

For Christian readers of this blog (yes, I know you are out there) the book is likely to be offensive, instructive, or affirming depending on how you open you are and how you view the Bible itself. I can only hope this book will be widely read in Christian circles.

As our family gathered together to watch Ohio State go down in flames to Kansas last night, I told them that I thought Did Jesus Exist? was Bart Ehrman’s best book (and I have all of them). While Ehrman spends a good bit of time dealing with mythicist claims he also spends a lot of time detailing how we should read the Bible and judge its historical reliability. I daresay if Evangelical Christians are willing to read the book with an open mind they will never view the Bible or Jesus the same again.

Who is Dr. Bart Ehrman?

Bart D. Ehrman is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestselling Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, Jesus, Interrupted, and Forged. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is a leading authority on the Bible and the life of Jesus. He has been featured on a variety of top media outlets.

You can buy Did Jesus Exist? here.