Reviewed by Kathy London
Bart D. Ehrman is a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, and the subtitle of his book is “The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.”
He is up-front about his personal beliefs as an ex-Christian and agnostic. Whether Jesus really existed would not change his beliefs or make him happier or sadder. This book is a historical work, not religious. He just thinks “evidence matters.”
Ehrman does not leave readers waiting for the answer. He says in the introduction that he wrote this book because “I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles – misquoted rather – as saying that Jesus never existed…. Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity… none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubt that Jesus existed. But a whole body of literature out there… makes this case.”
The idea that Jesus did not exist began with a book published in 1791. Today there are “a slew of sensationalist popularizes” and some books are so filled with “factual error and outlandish assertions that it is hard to believe the author is serious.” Ehrman sets out to answer the best arguments by the most serious “mythicists”.
Ehrman seems befuddled that, when experts overwhelmingly agree, a contrarian literature by non-experts can persist. He notes that expert consensus “in itself is not proof, of course.” He goes on to describe what makes an expert in early Christianity: years examining the original texts in the original languages, thoroughly studying the history, culture, and many religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, “and, well, lots of other things.”
The book explains what kinds of evidence historians use. Ideally there is physical evidence, eyewitness reports, and lots of independent sources close in time to the event. I enjoyed learning how scholars reconstruct the history of ancient times where sources are far from ideal.
Ehrman says fundamentalist Christians and atheists “make common cause” to claim the Gospels cannot be used as historical sources because they are scripture. He says “they are still books… written by people in historical circumstances…. Their authors were human… they wrote in human languages and in human contexts… [they are] historical.”
There are earlier, independent writings about Jesus than I expected, some tracing sources to within a couple years of Jesus’ death. As sources, Ehrman uses the Gospels included in the Bible and some that are not, other sections of the New Testament such as Acts of the Apostles, and early Christian writings independent of the biblical Gospels (many known from copies of the originals). There is an interesting exploration of oral traditions about Jesus. These would have been spoken in Aramaic. There are Aramaic words in the earliest Greek versions of the Gospels, and Greek phrases that only make sense when a Greek word is translated back into Aramaic. This is illustrated in a famous line: “Unless you are born ‘anothen’ you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Greek work means either “second time” or “from above.” Jesus explains a person needs to be “born from the Spirit who comes from above.” However, the conversation would only work if it were in Greek and not in Aramaic. It could not have happened as reported. It is thus given as an example of how those recording “history” might tailor the description to match their personal beliefs.
Where there are disagreements on interpretation, historians can’t simply get more sources. Ehrman extracts a lot of meaning from the limited sources available. Sometimes this gets a bit tedious. Ehrman encourages the reader to continue reading with promises of topics he will cover later. One of the more interesting examples is this: “the Jesus who really existed was not the person most Christians today believe in…I will get to that point…” This trick worked for me. I kept reading.
Most of this review discusses Ehrman‘s positive arguments on how historians know Jesus existed. He also tackles disproving the arguments against Jesus’ existence. With the same level of detail as his positive arguments, he shows that many arguments against Jesus’ existence are irrelevant, unsupported, or invented.
Ehrman summarizes what is most confidently known about the historical Jesus: that he was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher and he anticipated a new kingdom of God on earth within a few years; that he came from the lower class in Nazareth; that he had biological brothers; and that he was crucified.
Ehrman says “Jesus would not recognize himself” in modern Christian preaching. “[H]is world was not ours, his concerns were not ours, and – most striking of all – his beliefs were not ours.”
In one foray into speculation, Ehrman thinks that most of the authors who deny that Jesus existed are militantly anti-religious. They see the harm that religion does in society, but none of the good. Ehrman says whether religion is good or bad for modern society does not matter to the question at hand.
“I refuse to sacrifice the past in order to promote the worthy cause of my own social and political agendas. No one else should either. Jesus did exist, whether we like it or not.”