Bart Ehrman’s new portrayal of Jesus is surprisingly sympathetic

RNS photo courtesy Rev. Lawrence Lew/Flickr

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (RNS) For years, nonbelievers rejoiced at the publication of a new book by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, relishing the professor's pugnacious attacks on the cherished beliefs of evangelical Christians.

Bart Ehrman, Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bart Ehrman, Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But in his latest offering, the University of North Carolina historian and author of such provocative titles as “Misquoting Jesus,” “Forged,” and “Jesus Interrupted,” targets the very crowd that formed the bulk of his audience.

In “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth,” Ehrman soundly refutes the arguments — sometimes made by atheists, agnostics and humanists — that early storytellers invented Jesus.

As Christians prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, Ehrman, an agnostic, convincingly demonstrates in clear, forceful prose that there was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher of the first century who was crucified by Pontius Pilate. As for the so-called “mythicists” who argue otherwise, Ehrman has some choice words: “sensationalist,” “wrongheaded,” and “amateurish.”

“They're driven by an ideological agenda, which is, they find organized religion to be dangerous and harmful and the chief organized religion in their environment is Christianity,” Ehrman said in an interview.

The fact that Ehrman is siding with Christians on the historical truth of Jesus does not indicate a change of heart, much less a conversion. Instead, he said, it's an attempt to say, “history matters.”

But for fellow nonbelievers, who cheered Ehrman's previous books as proof that evangelicals are wrong about many biblical claims, the latest publication seems like the beginnings of family feud, if not an outright betrayal.

Some have already suggested Ehrman is painting atheists with too broad a brush.

“I don't personally know a single atheist who would deny that Jesus existed,” said Louise Antony, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It would be really unfair to suggest that it's part of being an atheist to deny the existence of Jesus as a historical person.”

Yet Ehrman who said he spent a summer boning up on mythicist books, such as “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” and “The Jesus Mysteries,” sees a growing embrace of the position that Jesus was a fictional figure.

Ehrman said he had long received occasional emails from atheists and others asking him if he thought Jesus actually lived. Then last year, he accepted an award at a meeting of the American Humanist Association in Cambridge, Mass. While there, he was dismayed to find many humanists, who describe themselves as “good without God,” adhered to widely discredited notions that Jesus never lived.

Victorian glass in St. Etheldreda's Catholic church, Ely.

Victorian glass in St. Etheldreda's Catholic church, Ely.

It eventually dawned on him that the Jesus deniers were the flip side of the Christian fundamentalists he had long ago foresworn. Both were using Jesus to justify their relationship to Christianity.

“I keep telling Christians, they don't have to be afraid of the truth,” said Ehrman.  “The same thing applies to atheists and humanists. It's not going to kill them to think Jesus really existed.”

Largely missing from the quarrel is an acknowledgement of how far atheists and agnostics have come.

“They're squabbling over the existence of a man, not a messiah or a god,” said Ryan Cragun, a sociologist at the University of Tampa. “No one is saying Jesus was God. If you step back it's not that cataclysmic.”

If anything, said Cragun, who studies atheists, the sparring may be a sign the atheist movement is maturing. Meanwhile, evangelical Christians, watching from the sidelines, are enjoying a breather. 

“I wrote Bart a note and said, 'Thank you for doing our dirty work for us,'” said Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and an evangelical blogger. “This saves us some time.”

What do mythicists argue?
If Jesus really existed, mythicists ask why so few first-century writers mention him. These mythicists dismiss the Gospel accounts as biased and therefore non-historical. To many mythicists, the Jesus story is based on pagan myths about dying and rising gods.

What does Ehrman argue?
Ehrman points out that only about 3 percent of Jews in Jesus' time were literate, and Romans never kept detailed records. (Decades after Jesus' crucifixion, three Roman writers mention Jesus in passing, as does the Jewish historian Josephus.) Though the Gospel accounts are biased, they cannot be discounted as non-historical.  As for Jesus being a Jewish version of the pagan dying and rising god, Ehrman shows that there is no evidence the Jews of Jesus' day worshipped pagan gods. If anything, Jesus was deeply rooted in Jewish, rather than Roman, traditions.


About the author

Tracy Gordon


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  • I’m anxious to see for thoroughly Ehrman documents his claims about Jesus’ certain historicity. There is lots of debate about all this, and since the Jewish scriptures and then the later stories about Jesus followed so closely upon the mythological origins of religion as we know it, a lot of reliable documentation would be needed to support the historical certainty of the man Jesus. Even after that might be done, it is a very long leap of faith to move from a historical Jesus to divinity.

    I knew a great organist who worked for a very large and wealthy Methodist church. He admitted that he did his church work because there wasn’t much other worthwhile employment for a teaching organist, no matter how good he might be. But he didn’t accept much of Christian “dogma.” He said the Trinity gave him the most trouble. The mathematics of the claim was more than he could compute. One might say, as the Trinity goes, so goes Christianity.

  • About the scant 1st century archeological evidence for Christ : Many seem to forget the Sanhedrin was sending agents out to destroy Christians, their writings and artifacts. The Jews were rabid too eradicate any trace of Jesus’ ministry, trial and crucifixion. Then the Romans totally destroyed Jerusalem, reducing it to rubble. Caesar was no friend of Christ either, seeing he was deemed a god and Christ refused to worship him. With literacy not being prevalent, there wasn’t that much literature to begin with in the early years of the church. Enemies and time destroyed much of that. But there is ample historical evidence of that century to prove Jesus did exist, and was tried in Pilate’s Roman court. Roman historian and senator Tacitus wrote of the trial of Jesus, for one. At least Ehrman is trying to be honest with history if not actually embracing Jesus Christ as the Son of God, his Lord and Savior.

  • @gilhow: Mr. Ehrman covers the material very well and shows that much of the so-called “parallels” is exaggerated at best- but none of this is surprising, as any amateur examination of the actual mythologies would show.

    Also, considering that you have Jesus Only Pentecostals, Unitarian Christians, liberal Christians who do not outright deny the Trinity but consider it a metaphor, and a whole range of religious people who would consider themselves Christians but do not accept the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (in fact, I would say that very, very few Christians I know have a truly orthodox understanding of the Trinity, and most fall within any number of ancient heretical positions)… the Trinity is hardly necessary for one to consider themselves a Christian.

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