A question I didn't realize was being asked is the subject of a new book by scholar Bart Ehrman. In Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman lays out the case that an historical Jesus of Nazareth did exist, even with a lack of historical documents or artifacts corroborating this. Ehrman offered an interview to NPR. Listen to the full interview here, and read a snippet below:
"I wanted to approach this question as an historian to see whether that's right or not," Ehrman tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
The answer is straightforward and widely accepted among scholars of all faiths, but Ehrman says there is a large contingent of people claiming that Jesus never did exist. These people are also known as mythicists.
"It was a surprise to me to see how influential these mythicists are," Ehrman says. "Historically, they've been significant and in the Soviet Union, in fact, the mythicist view was the dominant view, and even today, in some parts of the West – in parts of Scandinavia — it is a dominant view that Jesus never existed," he says.
Mythicists' arguments are fairly plausible, Ehrman says. According to them, Jesus was never mentioned in any Roman sources and there is no archeological evidence that Jesus ever existed. Even Christian sources are problematic – the Gospels come long after Jesus' death, written by people who never saw the man.
"Most importantly," he explains, "these mythicists point out that there are Pagan gods who were said to die and rise again and so the idea is that Jesus was made up as a Jewish god who died and rose again."
In his book, Ehrman marshals all of the evidence proving the existence of Jesus, including the writings of the apostle Paul.
"Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did," Ehrman says. "If Jesus didn't exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed," he says.
In Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman builds a technical argument and shows that one of the reasons for knowing that Jesus existed is that if someone invented Jesus, they would not have created a messiah who was so easily overcome.
"The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you're going to make up a messiah, you'd make up a powerful messiah," he says. "You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and the killed by the enemies."
So Jesus did exist, but who was he? Ehrman says when historians focus on the life of Jesus, they discover a Jesus who is completely different from the one portrayed by popular culture or by religious texts.
"The mythicists have some right things to say," Ehrman says. "The Gospels do portray Jesus in ways that are non-historical."
I've long been accustomed to the debtate over whether or not Jesus was divine (which is as old as Jesus himself), but I did not realize there was much of a debate about his actual existence. Are other historical and religious figures questioned in this way? Perhaps in the future, there will be some debate as to George Washington's existence? Afterall, like the Jesus story, Washington's own life story has been embellished and enhanced to strengthen America's creation story, yet we know he existed. Are you interested in the life of the historical Jesus, or do you focus on the risen Christ? Do you need details from the former to believe the latter? Do you think engaging in a debate about the historical Jesus is a helpful pursuit, or should even that part of Christianity be considered faith?
Michael J. O'Loughlin