If you’re not reading Eric MacDonald’s website, Choice in Dying, you should. I think a lot of people may be dissuaded by the fact that his posts are often long, but I’ve found that they repay careful study. Eric, an ex-Anglican priest who started his website as a protest against restrictions on legal euthanasia (he got into trouble for helping his wife die when she was in the last stages of multiple sclerosis), has—like me—expanded his website into larger issues, especially religion. And although Eric and I sometimes differ on issues like free will, I admire him immensely. And nobody can say he doesn’t understand religion!
His latest post, “Did Jesus exist?” is a classic, and well worth reading, especially if you’re one of the many people on this site who have debated Bart Ehrman’s latest book on the topic.
What is decisive, to my mind, against the existence of a single figure around which the Christian myth crystallised, is the fact that the gospel narratives are so conflicting, especially when it comes to the mythical parts, but the teaching conflicts too, and no one person is plausible as the speaker of all the words uttered by the gospel Jesus. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are entirely incompatible, and the resurrection narratives are no better; and in neither case are the disagreements such as might be expected from witnesses whose testimony is not entirely consistent. Perfect consistency almost always points to collusion, but differing about where Jesus would and did appear — whether in Jerusalem or Galilee — is simply too big of a mistake to support belief that the resurrection narratives are the result of eyewitness testimony.
What might give historical weight to the narratives is something about which they agree, where agreement is unexpected and unlikely. This may be the case in the birth narratives, present only in Matthew and Luke. The birth narratives in these two gospels conflict at almost every point. The only common features seem to be Nazareth and Bethlehem, though for different reasons. Does this limited agreement point to a historical core? Since Bethlehem and Nazareth are used for entirely different reasons in the two gospels, I judge the coincidence to be more likely the result of a common myth-making activity, in which it was believed, for prophetic reasons, that the messiah should be related to these places; but since there is no prophetic evidence for the messianic importance of either Bethlehem or Nazareth, the agreement is probably related to a common myth-making activity, than it is to the existence of an historical person who was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. And while it is difficult to exclude the strongly Galilean aspects of the story, it should also be remarked that, though Galilee was a highly urbanised, pagan region, the gospels seem profoundly ignorant of this fact. There is very little sense of geographical place in the gospels, and though some of the parables do evoke familiarity with some features of Judaea, these are incidental features which would have been familiar to most country places in the region — birds, lilies, fishing, stony ground, weeds, vineyards, etc.
As you can see, Eric rejects not only the notion that there was a miracle-working, supernatural Jesus (no surprise there: Eric’s been an atheist for a while), but also that there was a single historical individual around whom the Jesus myth coalesced. He faults Bart Ehrman for dismissing “mythicists”:
I do find it a bit dismaying that Bart Ehrman, who has taken a lead in showing the gospel stories to be an unreliable basis upon which the build a faith, should so strongly condemn others who are working the same seam, trying to show that the Christian scriptures as we have them cannot be taken as evidence for the existence of the man described so fulsomely therein. That there never was a man who is plausibly described as the gospels describe Jesus goes, I think, without saying. The stories are obviously heavily worked over pieces of religious fiction, a way of turning defeat into victory. Whether there was an historical person around whom these stories crystallised in the first place seems to be a question without a reliable answer. However, contrary to Ehrman, I do not think we have sources close to the time of Jesus that can corroborate any parts of the story
. . . I think it is much more likely that Jesus is a compilation fashioned within exiled messianic communities which had known (and possibly also followed) a number of messianic pretenders, until, after their final defeat in the Jewish War, by reworking their myths they came to the “realisation” that their real vindication had already come and they had not recognised it.
Eric’s piece is erudite, and yes, long for a website post, but well worth reading. If you read Ehrman’s book yet (I haven’t), do weigh in.
UPDATE: For a less scholarly (but equally impassioned) critique of Ehrman, regular Ben Goren has produced a long one, “Ehrman’s folly,” that you can read here.