Thursday, April 27, 2017

Did Jesus Exist? by Bart D. Ehrman

Subtitle: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

(Book Review)

Background / My Own Biases
Before I get into the actual book itself, let me just lay out my own biases.

I suspect my own story is something that a lot of people from religious backgrounds will identify with:  When I lived in a religious community, I was considered one of the radical liberals.  When I got out of that religious community and went into the wider world, I discovered that in some ways my views were conservative.
Specifically, I've always believed in a historical Jesus, despite the fact that I've discovered that many secularists think that there is no good evidence that Jesus ever existed.

Over the years I've transitioned from a Christian to an agnostic.  But I've never doubted that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed.
I've doubted that he was the son of God, I've doubted that he performed miracles, and I've doubted that he was raised from the dead.  But I've never doubted there must have been some sort of charismatic religious figure in first century Palestine who got crucified by the Romans.  For the same reasons that I don't doubt that Buddha or Mohammed existed.  Religions don't just spring up spontaneously out of nowhere.  There must have been some sort of historical event which started the whole thing.

But...once I moved out into the wider world, I've been surprised by how many people don't think Jesus even existed.
It is a surprisingly widespread view among secularists nowadays.
Over the past 15 years, I've encountered it numerous times in conversation.
Also, to the extent I follow these things online, it's also a very popular view among the secularist community on the Internet.

And for those of us who know anything about history, it is extremely irritating.  After all, there are four different Canonical Gospels, several apocryphal Gospels, all the letters of Paul, all the early Church debates--how could people think this just spontaneous sprung out of nothing.  Whatever else you might say about the Bible, it is not something that someone made up in a dark room somewhere to fool everyone.   So why were people just persisting with this dumb assertion?

Bart Ehrman is in the same position as me.  He's not a Christian, he's an agnostic.  But he's getting seriously annoyed at the number of secularists who think Jesus didn't even exist.

As Bart Ehrman says, this view is now disturbingly widespread: "For decades it was the dominant view in countries such as the Soviet Union.  Yet more striking, it appears to be the majority view in some regions of the West today, including some parts of Scandinavia" (Author's introduction p.3)

And so Ehrman decided to write a book about it.
As Ehrman says in his introduction: " a historian I think evidence matters.  And the past matters.  And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist."  (p.6)

Why I'm Reading This Book Now
I already agreed with Bart Ehrman before I even cracked open the cover of this book.
In that respect, I guess there was probably no need for me to buy the book.  But if I'm being completely honest, a large part of the reason I handed over the money for this book was the pleasures of confirmation bias--we humans get immense pleasure from reading something which confirms what we already believe.
I thought of all those stupid conversations I'd had in bars where people said, "There's no evidence Jesus even existed," and I thought, "I can't wait to see how thoroughly Bart Ehrman demolishes that dumb argument."

I was also curious, even though I already agreed with its conclusion, to see just how thoroughly the argument could be made for Jesus's existence.
I'm not a very smart or logical guy myself, but I can take a certain pleasure in following someone else's logic, and I wanted to see seeing how Bart Ehrman would use simple logic and the ancient sources to construct his argument.
And as an ancient history nerd, I was interested in the time period.

Finally, this book was of interest for its "Man-bites-dog" factor.  Usually Bart Ehrman outrages the Christians, and delights the atheists.  It was funny to see the guns turned in the other direction for once, and to see the Bart Ehrman upsetting the atheists.

This book actually came out a few years ago now, but I've avoided picking it up for a while.
In 2013 I read several books by Bart Ehrman: Forged, Misquoting Jesus, and Jesus, Interrupted, all in the same year.  I loved each of those books (I reviewed each of them favorably on my blog), but I also noticed that a lot of the same information and examples were getting repeated from book to book.
A friend of mine warned me that Did Jesus Exist? also repeated a lot of the same information.  So I thought I'd wait a few years before diving into Bart Ehrman again.
But, now it's 2017, enough time has passed, and when I saw this book in an airport bookstore while waiting for my flight, I snatched it up.

The Review
So, as I mentioned above, I was already on board with Bart Ehrman before I even cracked open the book.
But for what it's worth, I think he makes his case brilliantly.  He thoroughly demolishes any argument for Jesus being a myth.

The book is divided into three parts.
Part 1 is on the positive evidence for the historical Jesus.

Although this confirmed what I already thought, it was a brilliant case.  Bart Ehrman brings out all the evidence, both from Christian and non-Christian sources.
What's great about this book is how thoroughly it goes into all the evidence.
To give one example of many: there's a much debated passage from Jewish historian Josephus in which Josephus talks about the life of  Jesus--the infamous Testimonium Flavianum (W) .  Some people think it's authentic, some people think it's a Christian forgery, and some people think it contains some authentic material that Christians later touched up.
Bart Ehrman goes into a lot of detail on this section, giving all the evidence for and against each opinion.  If you're enough of a nerd to be fascinated by all this detail (and I am) then it's great stuff.

There's another excellent section on what we can learn from the Gospels and Paul's letters.  Although Bart Ehrman is not a Christian, he does a good job of showing what a historian can learn from these documents if they are examined as historical documents and not as religious documents.

It's not narrative history (which is normally my favorite), but for history nerds it's a fascinating look into the way historians use ancient sources, and how historians problem-solve these kind of riddles.

The middle of the book is part 2, in which Bart Ehrman rebuts the mythicists' claims.
I suppose a this section is unavoidable.  Bart Erhman can't very well set out to write a book like this and not address the mythicists' claims head on.  But for me, it was the most boring part of the book.

Part of the problem is that there is not one mythicist theory, but many mythicist theories.
Bart Ehrman sensibly decides not to bother arguing against every crazy person with an Internet account, and restricts himself to rebutting only mythicist theories that come from credentialed scholars.
But even here, there are several different competing theories, and the whole section has an endless feeling of "This person says this, and here' s why he's wrong, and this person says  this, and here's why he's wrong, and this person says this, and..."

Plus, Bart Ehrman had made the positive case for Jesus so thoroughly in the previous section that when he comes to rebutting the mythicists, he is largely just repeating what he already established in part 1.

I'll be honest, my eyes glazed over a bit in Part 2.  But I struggled through it, and made it to Part 3.
The good news is that Part 2 can easily be skipped over.  None of the information in Part 2 comes back again in Part 3, so if you find yourself getting bored by Part 2 (as I did) then just skip ahead to part 3 and nothing will be lost.

Part 3 is on "Who Was the Historical Jesus?"
Much of Part 3 is ground Bart Ehrman already covered in Jesus, Interrupted, but it is still interesting.

Nitpicks, Addendums, and Other Links

Robert Price
* One of the more famous mythicists that Bart Ehrman argues against in this book is Robert Price. I've never read any of Robert Price's books, but I'm somewhat familiar with him by reputation.  I mentioned him briefly before in this post here.

Youtube Debate
* Bart Ehrman recently debated Robert Price in person.  The debate took place on October 21, 2016, but only just last month got uploaded onto Youtube.  If you want to get a good flavor for the arguments in Bart Ehrman's book, this debate is a great starter.  Watch it here.

Dale Martin on the Historical Jesus
* For anyone who's interested, Dale Martin in his lectures on the New Testament  also has a great lecture on The Historical Jesus.  See here:  Lecture 13 - The Historical Jesus .  Dale Martin is in agreement with Bart Ehrman, and uses the exact same evaluative criteria as Bart Ehrman, but Dale Martin cites several more examples that Bart Ehrman leaves out of his book.  For example, Dale Martin does a good job of explaining in more detail why historians believe Jesus's baptism by John the Baptist must have been historical.  (Bart Ehrman mentions this, but Dale Martin explains it better).

Christopher Hicthens on the Historical Jesus
*Atheist Christopher Hitchens, while he does hedge his bets somewhat on this question, does admit that it's precisely the contradictions and problems in the Gospels that actually seem to point to a historical basis for Jesus.
For example, both Matthew and Luke come up with clumsy and contradictory stories to explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Even though Jesus was well-known to have come from the town of Nazareth, it was necessary for the Gospellers to have him born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies.  As Christopher Hitchens points out, the clumsy forgeries themselves are indicative of something.  If someone was just making the whole story up from scratch, why not just have Jesus come from Bethlehem and be done with it?  (Watch this video from 2:40 to see Hitchens make this point.)
This is something else that Bart Ehrman could have said in his book, but doesn't.  (He hints at this, but doesn't make the point nearly as well as Christopher Hitchens does.)

But How Do We Know That Paul Existed?
* In the debate I linked to above, one of the audience members catches Bart Ehrman off guard by asking, "How do we know that Paul existed?"  (Watch the video from 2:28:14 ).
In Did Jesus Exist?, Bart Ehrman rests much of his case on the historical evidence of Paul's letters.  Ehrman takes it for granted that everyone agrees that Paul existed.
Indeed, anyone with any sort of background in history or Biblical studies takes it for granted that Paul existed, so Bart Ehrman probably thought he didn't need to explain why Paul existed.
But when writing for the general public, you can't take anything for granted.  And a lot of skeptics out there are skeptical of everything.  (Indeed, one of the criticisms that Erhman's critics make in this video here is that he relies too much on Biblical sources, when the whole debate is calling into question the accuracy of those Biblical sources).  So this is one place where I think Ehrman slipped up slightly.  When writing for a general audience, Bart Ehrman should have explained why historians believe Paul existed, and why historians believe 7 of Paul's letters are authentic.
But to be fair to Ehrman, he does do a good job in the video of answering the question on the historical Paul once it is brought up.  After explaining that historians generally assume people existed unless they have a reason to think otherwise, Ehrman cites all the outside evidence for the existence of Paul.
If one wants to supplement what Ehrman said in the video, a further case for the historical Paul is made by Dale Martin in his New Testament lecture series.
At one point in his lecture, Dale Martin is talking about the letters of Paul.  Of the 13 letters of Paul in the New Testament, 3 of them are definitely forgeries, and 3 of them may be forgeries (scholars are still debating), but the remaining 7 letters are universally regarded by scholars as having been authentically written by Paul.
A student asked, "But how do we know that those letters were written by Paul?"
Dale Martin answered that those 7 letters cohere together--both in terms of theology, and in terms of linguistic style--so they appear to be all written by the same author.
"There's a joke in Biblical Studies that the 7 letters must have been written by Paul, or by someone else with the same name," Dale Martin said.  "I mean, they could have been written by someone else, but then you have to accept that there was someone else living at the same time, travelling to the same places, who had the exact same concerns."  (I'm quoting from memory, but it was something very close to that.)
In addition to this, another reason not to doubt the authenticity of these 7 letters is that Paul appears to be airing out a lot of the Church's dirty laundry.
For example, in Galatians 2, Paul says:
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong.  Before some men who had been sent by James arrived there, Peter had been eating with the Gentile brothers. But after these men arrived, he drew back and would not eat with the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who were in favor of circumcising them. The other Jewish brothers also started acting like cowards along with Peter; and even Barnabas was swept along by their cowardly action
Dale Martin points out that the author of Acts goes through considerable effort in Acts 15 to smooth over this problem and indicate that this was just a minor disagreement that got resolved amicably.  But that's not the impression you get from Paul himself.
So once again, the conflicts and contradictions indicate that there must have been a real incident here that needed to be smoothed over.  If the early Church was just forging these letters in Paul's name, then why invent this quarrel between Paul and Peter and James?  Why not indicate that all the Church fathers got along like one big happy family, as in the book of Acts?
Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians 1:9 that Peter is taking his wife on missionary trips at Church expense.  The tone of the letter is open to interpretation, but some people (like Robin Lane Fox) think that Paul is complaining about Peter in that verse.
To be fair to Bart Ehrman, he does indeed get a lot of mileage out of the references to Peter and James in Paul's letters.  Ehrman says (repeatedly) that the fact that we have in Paul's letters an eye-witness account of both Jesus's brother and Jesus's closest disciple is some indication that Jesus probably really did exist.  But perhaps Ehrman missed an opportunity to emphasize how Paul's adversarial relationship with Peter and James is another indication that this is not something the early Church would fabricate.

What About the Ressurection?
* Bart Ehrman believes that there really was an historical Jesus, but that he was just a man, and that he didn't rise from the dead.
The challenge, then, for people like Bart Ehrman is to explain how Jesus came to be regarded as God if he was just a man.  Without that piece of the puzzle, the evidence for a historical Jesus is incomplete.
Very little of that information is in Did Jesus Exist?, although that's by design.
Bart Ehrman says in the introduction that he wanted to write a book about how Jesus became God, but that first he had to establish that Jesus existed in the first place.
And indeed, a couple years later, Bart Ehrman did publish How Jesus Became God (A).
I've not read that book yet, but Bart Ehrman discusses some of this in  Jesus, Interrupted, which I have read, and which I'll borrow from below.
The earliest Christian documents are Paul's letters (30-50 A.D) followed by the Gospel of Mark (70 AD) followed by Matthew and Luke (somewhere around 80 AD) followed by John (around 90 AD or later).
If you put all the resurrection stories in order of when they were written, you can see the myth gradually become bigger and bigger.
In Paul's letters, the only information we have is that Jesus appeared to his disciples after his death.  We have none of the stories about Jesus being in a physical body, and no stories of an empty tomb.  All we know is that the some people claim to have seen Jesus after he died.  Bart Ehrman suggests that this was just some sort of vision they had (perhaps similar to Elvis sightings nowadays).
Not until the Gospel of Mark in 70 AD do we get the story of the empty tomb.
And not until Matthew, Luke and John do we get any stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples in a physical body after the resurrection.  And Matthew, Luke and John each have a completely separate and contradictory stories about Jesus's post-resurrection appearances in which none of the details are mutually collaborated (they can't even agree in which city the resurrected Jesus appeared) which would seem to suggest that these post-resurrection stories are just inventions by their authors.
So although there is good evidence for a historical Jesus, there is not good evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

Bart Ehrman on Papias
* Even though I'm in agreement with Bart Ehrman's argument, I still feel like I've got to nitpick him on the details.
Regular readers of Bart Ehrman may feel a bit of whiplash when reading this book.  Bart Ehrman doesn't outright contradict himself (as far as I can remember) but the tone of the book does shift here.  In his previous books, Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted , Bart Ehrman gave the impression that Church tradition is unreliable.
In Did Jesus Exist?, Bart Ehrman bases a lot of his case on Church tradition.
The most glaring example is the Church Father Papias.  As I wrote in a previous post:

            As Bart Ehrman points out in Jesus, Interrupted, Papias is problematic to use as a source because he had a credibility problem.  The Church historian Eusebius (W) called Papias “a man of very small intelligence.”  Papias also seems to have believed in a lot of crazy stuff.  Papias believed that after Judas betrayed Jesus, Judas was cursed to bloat up, becoming so fat that eventually he couldn’t walk down the street because his head couldn’t fit between buildings, and eventually exploded and died. Ehrman cites other writings of Papias (surviving in Eusebius’s records) in which Papias quotes bizarre sayings of Jesus that no one today takes seriously at all.  Papias claimed that these sayings came from via the same church elders who vouched for Mark’s authorship. As Bart Ehrman notes, the only reason Christians ever bring up Papias is to establish the authorship of the Gospels.  Other than that, everything else he wrote is completely disregarded.  But, Erhman asks, if we can’t trust Papias on any of his other writings, why trust him about the authorship of the Gospels?

And yet in Did Jesus Exist?, Bart Ehrman is citing the testimony of Papias as more evidence that a historical Jesus actually existed.
In the video linked to above, Robert Price pulls Ehrman up on this, and points out all the other crazy things Papias says.
Fortunately for Ehrman, the testimony of Papias is not crucial to Ehrman's argument.  So one can easily disregard Papias and still agree with Erhman's overall thesis.

History and Myth
* Reading over what I've written above, it strikes me that I might be exaggerating my own credulity.  So I should make this clarification.  It is certainly not the case that everyone who appears in the Bible is ispo facto a historical figure.
Scholars are pretty much universally agreed that the Exodus and the Conquest of Canaan never took place (see HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE), and so consequently all of the Old Testament narrative that takes place during the Exodus and the Conquest, and before it, belong more to myth than history.  And so Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Joshua probably did not exist.
Also historians doubt the existence of some later figures: the books of Ruth, Esther and Daniel all appear to be historical fiction.
But that's the "glass-is-half-empty" way to view the historical accuracy of the Bible.  On the glass is half full side, historians think that the narrative in 1 & 2 Kings is based on real history.  (The history is adjusted to fit Old Testament polemic, of course, but there was probably a historical basis at its core).  And we have outside evidence for some of these figures--the house of David (if not David himself), the house of Omri, Jehu, Jeconiah, et cetera.
The point being, I guess, is that each case has to be judged on its own merits.  You can't say everything in the Bible is a myth, or that everything in the Bible is historical.  You have to look at the evidence for each case.

Video Review
Video review here and embedded below.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Profit Over People

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