Here's another deconstruction of Ehrman's book, this time from an ex-minister. There are also several comments that might be of interest.
Did Jesus Exist?
The existence or non-existence of Jesus is not an issue with me, and I still find it hard to understand why it should be an issue with anyone else. I spent years talking about the Jesus of the gospels, his teachings, his life and death, and, believe it or not, his resurrection — which was the hardest part of all — and for a while Robert Funk and his Jesus Seminar interested me strangely, and I attempted to understand the basis upon which the Fellows of the Seminar distinguished between the actual words of Jesus from words put in his mouth by later myth-making and tradition. Of course, the latter exercise has to presuppose Jesus’ real existence as an historical person who not only said things of interest and importance, but whose actual words can be distinguished from sayings that are not reliably attested and cannot be ascribed to the apocalyptic preacher from Galilee.
But still this didn’t lead me to wonder whether Bart Ehrman’s HuffPo article “Did Jesus Exist?” had anything of importance to say. If there is no god, and it makes no sense to speak of god in the absence of its existence — contrary to people like Don Cupitt and Jack Spong — then Jesus, whether as an historical or a mythical figure, must lose traction in the mind of anyone who has said farewell to god. So, when Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne (here and here) and Richard Carrier showed such keen interest I was mystified, and, I suppose, I still am. After all, if there is no god, then, whatever can be said about Jesus, there could not have been a Jesus who was more than an apocalyptic prophet who carried on a ministry of some kind in Palestine, and who anchored a number of mythological beliefs which are not directly related to anything that he said and did. Anything else, besides the sheer humanity of the man, and his wit and wisdom, if any, must be a mythological construction — must be, because there can be no sons of god if there are no gods. The most that the gospels can be is special pleading either for a mythological figure at the centre of a new religious movement, or the myth-making writings of people whose real human leader either died by crucifixion as a pretended messiah figure or even royal pretender, about whom stories were composed that supposedly reflected not only his wisdom, but his wonder-working powers and divine transcendence.
Ehrman seems to think that his having been a lowly figure, who is supposed to have been executed as a criminal, is evidence that the story has an historical kernel. As he says in his HuffPo piece:
The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that.
However, as Ehrman would surely be the first to acknowledge, there was no other kind of messiah figure available. Messiahs are mythical beings. As I shall suggest below, there is reason to think that Christianity was given a fillip by the defeat of the Jews in the First Jewish War (66-72 CE), and the destruction of the Temple. But long before that there were lots of pretended messiahs, as the historical record indicates. Modern Jerusalem is not the only time this supposedly sacred place has been a magnet for messianic pretenders, all of whom, in the past, if not dismissed with contempt, were dispatched peremptorily by the authorities, who did not want riots over mythical beings at the holy seasons. So, if there was to be a messiah, the only available candidates would have had to have been contemptible (in social terms), people who would have been most likely to have run afoul of the law, as Richard Carrier points out. Making a virtue of necessity in this way is precisely what new religious movements are adept at. Explaining away the obvious objections is just what creating a myth of a lowly messiah would need to do, and that would simply stoke the fires of imagination. A figure of grandeur and military power and nobility would be the unlikeliest of figures to be a messiah, no matter what prophecies may say. Generals and Tyrants do not, after all, usually go into business for the sake of raising up the lowly or fulfilling ends dreamed in desperation. Even Ehrman would have to acknowledge that. A crucified messiah is just the ticket, and since it is a good guess that there were a number of such figures from which to choose, it wouldn’t be hard to develop a myth around the type of messiah which the myth invoked.
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.
In his book Who Killed Jesus? Dominic Crossan gives a very vivid appreciation of how mythmaking, and the historicisation of prophecy, probably took place in relation to the crucifixion (or passion)-resurrection narratives. If we think of the passion-resurrection narratives as prophecy historicised, as Crossan suggests we do, it becomes clear why there are so many glaring disagreements amongst the gospels. It would indicate that there were probably centres of Christian activity both in Jerusalem and in Galilee, and possibly elsewhere, and that their testimony did not agree — that it was based, not on events that actually occurred, but on the diverse creative activities of different myth-making groups of believers, possibly refugees from a messianic attempt to bring about a supernatural transformation in Jerusalem. Perhaps it even resulted in the death by crucifixion of the leader, and he was not likely the first to suffer such a fate. Having fled, they began, separately, to mythicise and historicise both the life of the leader as well as the supposed prophecies that were thought relevant to his failed attempt to bring about God’s decisive action to redeem his people. There may have been several such messianic leaders who attracted many of the same followers, so there may well have been a tradition of attempts to make sense of an ongoing process of challenging the existing authorities, failing, and then trying again. This would have been related, but not identical to, the many revolutionary attempts to break Roman dominance in Palestine. All this is consistent with what we know of the Essenes, as well as the Sicarii and other revolutionaries, movements which came to a head in 70 CE, with the destruction of the Temple, as well as in 132-26 CE, with the Bar Kokhba insurrection. Remembering that the gospels were almost certainly written after the 66-72 CE insurrection and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, there were no doubt many such mythmaking, prophecy-historicising exercises underway in the region. What is remarkable is that the exercise which resulted in Christianity, and the one that issued in Rabbinic Judaism, flourished at the same time, that there are signs that they were related, and that both were based on processes of scriptural exegesis, and myth-making based on tragic and far-reaching historical failure.
I guess my point in all this is that I cannot see in the Christian tradition any reason to believe in the existence of an overpowering, supernatural figure such as Jesus became in the years following the disasters of the First Jewish War, which ended with the conquest of Masada and the suicide of all its defenders and their families in 72 CE. These were, for the people engaged in them, cataclysmic events of almost cosmic proportions. Without them, it is doubtful that the Jesus movement would have developed at all. It was one Jewish response to the events of the defeat of the rebellion, and the destruction of the Temple, just as Rabbinic Judaism was another. The Jesus movement became much more syncretistic than Rabbinic Judaism, and thus incorporated elements of pagan mythology, especially beliefs having to do with divine visitations and epiphanies, redemption myths and rites of purification. Much of this took place with the help of Paul, who mythicised not only the supposed saviour at the centre of Christianity, but also mythicised himself, and his mission. He pictures himself as an opponent and then as a disciple, an apostle, equal in dignity to the twelve, who were themselves in the process of mythicisation, a process in full tilt in the sequel to Luke, the Acts of the Apostles.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. Ophelia quotes from the book which Ehrman is touting in his HuffPo piece to this effect:
The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced. [my italics]
That ‘must’ is a conjectural must, and so far as I know there is no evidence for it, and Ehrman’s unlovely parti pris about academic expertise, though distracting, does not produce any. I certainly do not put myself forward as a scholarly expert in these matters, yet 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. Their failure to respond (in this reworked message of messianic figures) is represented, in the gospels, by Peter’s denial, and the flight of the disciples. Many Christian apologists use these accounts as proof that the resurrection took place as an historical event, since men who had fled in fear now are ready to declare courageously that “this Jesus, whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2.36) These events in the gospel narrative should be seen as representing the long history of failure to recognise their god working in ways simply misunderstood over many years and many failures. By then it was clear that Roman arms would not be overcome by the power of god. Other forms of faithfulness were required. These problems of life in the absence of the old Isaianic hope of Jerusalem as a beacon to the nations had to be resolved by redirecting religious energies in different directions. An unexpected outcome was the growth of two religions, which would, in time, become fratricidal, as each condemned the other. Neither can securely anchor their beliefs in history. They are simply different ways of understanding how life will go well on the basis of belief in a being imagined thousands of years before as one who would be faithful in his own way to his covenanted people.