As anyone who reads this site should know, Bart Ehrman has published a new book on the historicity of Jesus: Did Jesus Exist? The historical argument for Jesus of Nazareth. You’ll also know that that the book doesn’t assert the divinity of Jesus, claiming, as Ehrman has consistently, that the man was a fully human apocalyptic preacher. It does, however, assert that there’s no doubt about a historical figure on which the Jesus myth is based.
The book has inspired a fracas, with several scholars—including Richard Carrier—claiming that Ehrman’s scholarship is dreadful, giving little evidence for his thesis (see Carrier’s website for many posts on this issue). Others, including the irascible R. Joseph Hoffmann, have defended Ehrman and attacked Carrier.
Disgusted with the book (you’ll know this if you’ve been reading this site), intrepid poster Ben Goren discarded it by sending it to me. Last night I looked through it, trying to see if I wanted to read it. I don’t think I do, but I want to give a few reactions, based on a reading of some parts and a skimming of others. Take these comments, then, with that in mind.
My look-through does support the assertion that the scholarship is thin. The non-Biblical sources quoted by Ehrman often seem dubious, and he appears to rely largely on the Scriptures themselves, and on the supposedly “independent” sources of the Scriptures that we simply don’t have, like “Q” and “M” sources of the Gospels, whose existence is purely hypothetical. The book has no index, an unforgivable omission, even in a popular book. The notes at the end are not thorough, and very often refer only to Ehrman’s previous writings. Finally, much of the book comprises an attack on mythicists rather than a popular documentation of the proof for Jesus’s existence. Perhaps Ehrman needed to do that, but the attack seems defensive and overly long. It is a peculiar book.
One thing that struck me toward the end is how often Ehrman presents as fact a seemingly fictional scenario drawn completely from the Gospels. There is no doubt that these scenarios will be taken as established fact by naive or by some religious readers. Take Jesus’s betrayal, trial and execution, for instance. They are simply glosses on Scripture, with no independent documentation, and include a lot of speculation. Have a look at these:
Judas’s betrayal (p. 328):
There are solid reasons for thinking that Jesus really was betrayed by one of his own followers, Judas Iscariot. It is, of course, recorded in multiple independent traditions: Mark, M, John, and the book of Acts (Thus Mark 14:10-11; 43-50; Matthew 27:3-10; John 18:1-11; Acts I:15-20). Moreover the tradition seems to pass the criterion of dissimilarity, as it does not seem to be the sort of thing that a later Christian would make up. Jesus had no more authority over his closest followers than that?
We are completely handicapped in knowing why Judas would have done such a thing, though there have been a plethora of suggestions over the years [here Ehrman has a footnote referring to his previous work.
Now this evidence of betrayal by a man called Judas comes completely from within the Gospels; there are no independent sources for Judas’s existence beyond the “independent” ones Ehrman cites above. Yet the betrayal is portrayed as a pretty solid fact. Note as well the “criterion of dissimilarity” used as evidence: it must be true because it doesn’t seem to be the thing that people would fabricate.
What’s more distressing is how Ehrman simply takes the Gospels as gospel when writing about the crucial issues Jesus’s trial and demise. I reproduce the last few paragraphs of his treatment (pp. 330-331):
It makes sense that Jesus would have been arrested by the Jewish authorities, as they had control over all local civic affairs. Accounts of Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin appear in the Gospels, but little there can be trusted as historically reliable. The onlly ones present there were the Jewish leaders and Jesus, none of his followers and no one taking notes. It seems unlikely that the leaders themselves would tell later Christians what happened at the time (if they remembered). And Jesus himself could not have told, since he was jailed and then executed the next morning. What is clear is that the Jewish authorities did not try Jesus according to Jewish law but instead handed him over to Pilate.
We also do not know exactly what happened at the trial with Pilate. Again, there are no reliable sources. What we do know, as I indicated, is that Jesus was charged with calling himself the king of the Jews. That was a political charge, and of course Pilate was interested only in the political issues. He could not have cared less about disputes among the Jews about their own religious traditions. Since this is the charge that lead to Jesus’s execution, it is not difficult to imagine what may have happened at the trial. Pilate had been informed that Jesus considered himself a king. This was a treasonous offense. Only the Romans could appoint a king, and Jesus was certainly not chosen to rule over Israel. He was claiming an office that was not his to claim, and for him to assume the role of king he would first need to overthrow the Romans themselves.
Jesus, of course, did not understand his kingship in this way. He was an apocalypticist who believed that God would soon intervene in the course of human affairs to destroy the Romans, and everyone else opposed to him, before setting up his kingdom on earth. And then Jesus would be the one awarded the throne. Still, it may simply be that Pilate interrogated him briefly, asking him what he had to say to the charge. Jesus could hardly deny that he was king of the Jews. He thought he was. So he either refused to answer the charge or answered it in the affirmative.
In either case, that was all Pilate needed. He had other things on his hands and other demands on his time. As governor, he had the power of life and death—no need to appeal to Roman federal law, which for the most part did not exist. If there were troublemakers, the easiest thing to do was simply to dispose of them. And so he did. He ordered Jesus to be crucified. The whole trial may have lasted no more than a couple of minutes. And the order was carried out immediately. The soldiers reportedly flogged Jesus and led him off to be executed, presumably outside the city walls. Before anyone knew it, the apocalyptic preacher was on a cross. According to our earliest account, he was dead within six hours.
Now this may all be true, but it’s all from Scripture, and clearly Ehrman is interpolating things that he doesn’t know for sure. This bit, and some of the other stuff, has an air of not history but of historical fiction. Granted, Ehrman is often clear about where he’s speculating, but really, what happened above is drawn entirely from the Gospels.
Now I don’t have a dog in this hunt, and think that it’s not logically impossible for a Jesus to have existed who was the basis of the Christian myths, and that perhaps he was crucified (though I have some doubts about the Judas part). But the evidence for the stuff above is pretty thin (there are no independent sources cited). Caveat again: I’m not trained in biblical scholarship, nor have read extensively about this issue, though I have read Carrier’s critiques.
I decry those atheists who issue a kneejerk denial of Jesus’s existence largely on the grounds that they don’t want Jesus to have existed. But I also worry that the kind of thinly-supported speculation that I see in Ehrman’s book will give succor to Christians who automatically conflate the existence of a historical Jesus with that of a divine Jesus. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and since so many people’s beliefs are intimately connected with the existence of Jesus, it would pay scholars to be very careful on this issue. Jesus is not simply an anonymous carpenter in the Middle East: his existence is the basis of millions of people’s faith and hopes. The most careful and impeccable scholarship is needed here, even in a popular book. I don’t see that in this one.