Chapter One of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? is titled An Introduction to the Mythical View of Jesus opens with a discussion of some of the variety of views held by some scholars about who this Jesus might have been:
Modern scholars of the New Testament are famous – or infamous – for making claims about Jesus that contradict what most people, especially Christians, believe about him.
Ehrman gives examples such as Jesus as a political revolutionary, an ancient Cynic philosopher, a kind of proto-Marxist, a proto-feminist, a Pharisee, an Essene, a bourgeois, a gay man, and so on.
I think it is important here to mention that the term ‘historical Jesus’ as Ehrman will be using it is in contrast to the ‘Jesus of Faith’, that is that when Ehrman is describing an ‘historical Jesus’ he does not mean a Jesus as accepted by most christians: the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ, capable of performing miracles, uttering true prophecies, or raising others or himself from the dead, or really appearing as a spirit or some such thing to real humans after a resurrection. The sort of Jesus Ehrman is proposing to establish the real existence of is a mortal man like any other who is born, lives his life, and eventually dies and stays dead.
Now assuming that most christians believe in the “Jesus of Faith’ who did indeed exercise miraculous powers and did rise from his tomb we can see that these scholars choose to believe something contrary to evidence that a great majority of people find very convincing. In point of fact it’s not abundantly clear how many teachers in theological seminaries, divinity schools, major and minor colleges and universities hold to this mortal ‘historical Jesus’ model. Unless we can see the research on how many real scholars of the New Testament adhere to one or the other view it’s difficult to accept any claim that most or (unlikely) all of them think Jesus was merely a mortal man like any other.
Yes, it may well be that virtually all the experts believe Jesus really existed, but that doesn’t mean they believe in an ‘historical Jesus’ as Ehrman defines it. This is I think a major difficulty for Ehrman’s thesis because on the one hand he wants to stack the deck in favor of the historical existence of Jesus by citing the united front of ‘all New testament scholars’, but to do so he has to include the many, many people – scholars and laymen alike – who are convinced on the evidence that Jesus was a real miracle-worker who could raise the dead, raise himself from the dead, and was if not a god in his own right the son of a god. For most people Jesus was not a failed prophet, a street-corner rabble-rouser, or a social reformer: Jesus was Lord and Savior, the long-promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, Son of God reigning even now in Heaven, coming soon to judge the living and the dead.
If Erman were to acknowledge this inconvenient truth, his ‘consensus of scholars’ would shrink, if not to a minority, at least to a mere plurality. The force of his rhetoric would lose much of its power if he were forced to admit ‘many scholars believe in a mortal Jesus’ instead of the ‘overwhelming majority’ he’d like to have his readers believe. Thus far Ehrman has chosen to leave his readers in ignorance of this embarrassing reality.
This is a point to keep in mind when Ehrman tries to scoff at mythicists as being a minority opinion – it would appear he is himself arguing from a minority opinion.
As evidenced in the quote above, Ehrman cannot escape the fact that even among this group of scholars that there is no consensus – there are many ‘historical Jesuses’ touted by those who think Jesus was merely a mortal man.
Despite this enormous range of opinion, there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. Even though this is the view of nearly every trained scholar on the planet, it is not the view of a group of writers who are usually labeled, and often label themselves, mythicists.
As you can see, there is nothing in this definition of his ‘historical Jesus’ which an ordinary christian would deny either. It’s all found in their Bibles.
Now against this view of Jesus acting in history – whether as a god or a man – there are mythicists:
In a recent exhaustive elaboration of the position, one of the leading proponents of Jesus mythicism, Earl Doherty, defines the view as follows: it is “the theory that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single identifiable person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition.” In simpler terms, the historical Jesus did not exist. Or if he did, he had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity.
And in the simplest terms of all, the question of this debate is this: is the real existence of a single person named Jesus necessary to explain the existence of the New Testament literature and christianity? Many say yes, this includes the vast majority of christians and (some) New Testament scholars. Some say no, and these are the mythicists.
It’s critical to understand that this is the ultimate question – Lord? Liar or Lunatic? Or Legend?