By Bart D. Ehrman, 03/20/2012 7:25 am
In a society in which people still claim the Holocaust did not happen, and in which there are resounding claims that the American president is, in fact, a Muslim born on foreign soil, is it any surprise to learn that the greatest figure in the history of Western civilization, the man on whom the most powerful and influential social, political, economic, cultural and religious institution in the world — the Christian church — was built, the man worshipped, literally, by billions of people today — is it any surprise to hear that Jesus never even existed?
That is the claim made by a small but growing cadre of (published ) writers, bloggers and Internet junkies who call themselves mythicists. This unusually vociferous group of nay-sayers maintains that Jesus is a myth invented for nefarious (or altruistic) purposes by the early Christians who modeled their savior along the lines of pagan divine men who, it is alleged, were also born of a virgin on Dec. 25, who also did miracles, who also died as an atonement for sin and were then raised from the dead.
Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine. There are a couple of exceptions: of the hundreds — thousands? — of mythicists, two (to my knowledge) actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study. But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.
Why then is the mythicist movement growing, with advocates so confident of their views and vocal — even articulate — in their denunciation of the radical idea that Jesus actually existed? It is, in no small part, because these deniers of Jesus are at the same time denouncers of religion — a breed of human now very much in vogue. And what better way to malign the religious views of the vast majority of religious persons in the western world, which remains, despite everything, overwhelmingly Christian, than to claim that the historical founder of their religion was in fact the figment of his followers’ imagination?
The view, however, founders on its own premises. The reality — sad or salutary — is that Jesus was real. And that is the subject of my new book, “Did Jesus Exist?”
It is true that Jesus is not mentioned in any Roman sources of his day. That should hardly count against his existence, however, since these same sources mention scarcely anyone from his time and place. Not even the famous Jewish historian, Josephus, or even more notably, the most powerful and important figure of his day, Pontius Pilate.
It is also true that our best sources about Jesus, the early Gospels, are riddled with problems. These were written decades after Jesus’ life by biased authors who are at odds with one another on details up and down the line. But historians can never dismiss sources simply because they are biased. You may not trust Rush Limbaugh’s views of Sandra Fluke, but he certainly provides evidence that she exists.
The question is not whether sources are biased but whether biased sources can be used to yield historically reliable information, once their biased chaff is separated from the historical kernel. And historians have devised ways of doing just that.
With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind. Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus’ life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.
Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the “pagan” savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandized versions).
Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus. They invented the idea that the messiah had to be crucified.
One may well choose to resonate with the concerns of our modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion (or not). But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you — has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.
Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.
Bart Ehrman is the author of ‘Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth,’ now available from HarperOne.