Questioning Jesus' existence

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 In Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman lays out the case that an historical Jesus of Nazareth did exist, even with a lack of historical documents or artifacts corroborating this.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


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Marie Rehbein
6 years 9 months ago
Not only was Paul writing, but so was Josephus, a Roman-Jewish historian.
Jim McCrea
6 years 9 months ago
Tom @ 7:   Then there is the widespread belief in the Kenyan citizenship and Muslim faith of the current president of the United States.

"To the hard of hearing, you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."  Flannery O’Connor

Bill Mazzella
6 years 9 months ago
We do have more evidence for the existence of Jesus than that of Shakespeare. One strong proof in the Gospels, whatever may be the proof of other stories, is that all agree on the death and crucifixion. As far as Erhman is concerned I have the same problem that I have with Dominic Crossan. Both have lost their faith but continue to make money writing about Jesus. They are good examples that while faith builds on reason, faith is a gift you nurture and can be lost if you lose the spirit of the gospel.
6 years 9 months ago
Questioning Jesus’ existence is the same as questioning the reality of the resurrection and is as old as the New Testament itself. In one of his Letters Paul reminds all that if Christ be not risen  our Faith is a sham and we are “the most miserable of men” victims of myths and fairy tales.
 The article on which I comment is interesting and not aggressively anti-Jesus, yet I  can’t  help but wonder why the question of the existence of Jesus is being  addressed at Easter, a question which  as mentioned above calls into question the reality of the resurrection which Easter commemorates.   If there is no Jesus there is no “stone rolled  back” no empty tomb, no anything, including no Abraham, no Isaac, no Moses, no Old Testament, which was supposed to point to Jesus! It seems annually as Christians commemorate aspects of  Belief, somebody comes up with something that tends to debunk Christianity and that’s troubling!  
Scholarship of course  is good, a useful gaget, a tool, that helps to  loosen nails in dank boxed-up information from the past. But scholarship although capable of providing some insight into what might be, or actually is,  is essentially a dusty venture that often hinders objectivity, ending in  blurred, and  hypermetropic conclusions. “farsighted” I mean conclusions  really “far” from the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! Scholarship or craniality is never absolutely conclusive, ever in danger of being toppled by yet another venture hoping to “loosen nails in dank boxed-up information from the past!” Somewhat applicable the words of Paul, “God has chosen to put to shame the “wise” … and “the foolishness of God is wiser than men …”. Far better is cardiality for the heart perceives what the mind cannot comprehend!
Not so with Faith. Faith is a rhythm of the heart, which gives convincing evidence of things not seen! That’s God’s way of understanding best the mystery of Jesus, Faith, the Divinely chosen route from start to finish in understanding Revelation,  providing  the most trustworthy focus on   proving the existence of Jesus. Unless and until Faith enlightens scholarship  uncertainties prevail!
 Yes, as mentioned earlier, scholarship is good and a necessary gaget, a tool, but often an exercise in pure futility, unless it leads to true enlightenment discovered through Belief. Faith although often a dark light, is fortunately a LIGHT, nonetheless, which the endless  gagetry of scholarship cannot give. At least so it seems to me. Simplistic? O.K.!
J Cosgrove
6 years 9 months ago
For a discussion of this topic, here is a posting this week at Tothesource about Richard Bauckham and his research.

In this discussion Bauckham reaches the conclusion that the gospels are eyewitness accounts or are discussions with eye witnesses.
Stanley Kopacz
6 years 9 months ago
It always seemed that if you were out to get religion and faith, Jesus always was the one to get, a troublemaker from the start.  If there's one objective difference of Christianity from other faiths, I think it's that it's prime target.
Kang Dole
6 years 9 months ago
I would like to suggest two adjustments to your concluding thoughts/questions.

The first is that George Washington doesn't really work as an analagous example; there aren't firsthand accounts of Jesus or material evidence, but there are plenty of such things for Washington (including actual autographs for letters, something we can't even boast of for Paul). You don't have to be a mythicist to recognize the difference between the two examples, and the example of Washington won't convince anyone.

The second is about the positioning of the historical Jesus against the risen. There is a third category-and it's the one for which we actually do have material available for discussiona and analysis-and that is the written Jesus (i.e. the literary presentation of Jesus, or even the rhetorical Jesus). That category stands between the other two, and it's the filter through which they have to be viewed.
John Barbieri
6 years 9 months ago
The orignal manuscripts of the New Testament books simply are not available to us. What we have are reconstructions of recnstructions. But without them, we would have nothing it all!
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
6 years 9 months ago
I will probably read the book.  I've liked other things by Bart Ehrman very much.  As to the existence of Jesus?  I like the story of Jesus' great-nephews as related by Hegesippus and quoted by Eusebius (the Father of Church History), Book III, Chapter 20:

The Relatives of our Saviour.
1. ->Of the family of the Lord there were still living the grandchildren of ->Jude->, who is said to have been the Lord's brother according to the flesh.
2. Information was given that they belonged to the family of ->David->, and they were brought to the Emperor Domitian by the Evocatus. For Domitian feared the coming of Christ as Herod also had ->feared-> it. And he asked them if they were descendants of ->David->, and they confessed that they were. Then he asked them how much ->property-> they had, or how much money they owned. And both of them answered that they had only nine thousand denarii, half of which belonged to each of them.
4. And this ->property-> did not consist of silver, but of a piece of land which contained only thirty-nine acres, and from which they raised their taxes and supported themselves by their own labor.->
5. Then they showed their hands, exhibiting the hardness of their bodies and the callousness produced upon their hands by continuous toil as evidence of their own labor.
6. And when they were asked concerning Christ and his ->kingdom->, of what sort it was and where and when it was to appear, they answered that it was not a temporal nor an earthly kingdom, but a ->heavenly-> and ->angelic-> one, which would appear at the end of the world, when he should come in glory to judge the quick and the dead, and to give unto every one according to his ->works->.
7. Upon hearing this, Domitian did not pass judgment against them, but, despising them as of no account, he let them go, and by a decree put a stop to the persecution of the Church.
8. But when they were released they ruled the churches because they were ->witnesses-> and were also relatives of the Lord. And peace being established, they lived until the time of Trajan. These things are related by Hegesippus.
6 years 9 months ago
Don't forget the cottage industry of proving Willilam Shakespeare either didn't exist or didn't write his plays. Someone gins up a best-seller on that subject every eight to ten years, and I once spent an afternoon on Palm Beach being lectured to by a charming hostess who was crazy as a hatter on the subject of the impossibility of Shakespeare.

Personally, I think Mozart is the one who never existed.

Then there is the widespread belief in the Kenyan citizenship and Muslim faith of the current president of the United States.
Amy Ho-Ohn
6 years 9 months ago
I think the question is not quite clear. It is virtually certain that there existed at some time in the first century A.D. a Jewish man with a name at least similar to Joshua, who preached that the end of the world was at hand and got executed as a trouble-maker. In fact, there were probably several; Joshua was a common name, a lot of people thought the end of the world was at hand, and the ancient world was not squeamish about executions.

So the question to ask is, "What attributes would an individual have to have had that we would say, 'OK, the historical Jesus existed, and this was he.'?" Must he have been born in Nazareth? Descended from the house of David? Baptized by a figure recognizable as John the Baptist? Crucified by the Romans? Identifiable by St. Paul as the person whom he saw in his vision?

Obviously, if the answer is, "He must have risen from the dead," then the question of historical Jesus vs. Christ of faith is one and the same.

As to other people whose existence may reasonably be doubted, that was a fairly common question in the first century. For political and other reasons, people debated whether Theseus, Romulus, Aeneas, King David, and all sorts of pseudo-historical figures had existed. (The main question often involved the claim that the figure in question had got possession of some property and bequeathed it to some nation who wanted to retain it.)

Paul Revere existed, but only Samuel Prescott got to Concord on the 19th of April in '75.
Crystal Watson
6 years 9 months ago
I actually do know some people who refuse to believe Jesus ever existed but think instead he was mythical. 

Most people don't realize how tenuous is the evidence for the existence of some historical figures in the ancient world - we know of people like Julius Caesar or Socrates based in part on connecting the dots.

But anyway, there's actually a Wikipedia page on Jesus' historical existence ....


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