Having established to his satisfaction that the texts that make up early christian literature is on par with any other sort of literature, Bart Ehrman delves into The Gospels, meaning the four canonical narratives about Jesus Christ found in every New Testament. They are commonly referred to by the names The Gospel According to Matthew,  …to Mark, …to Luke, and …to John. These are not, of course, the actual names of the authors, as they are generally thought to be the work of now unknown authors and at some point attributed to persons bearing those names.

Once it is conceded that the Gospels can and should be treated as historical sources, no different from other historical sources infused with their authors’ biases, it starts to become clear why historians have almost universally agreed that whatever else one might say about him, Jesus of Nazareth lived in first-century Palestine and was crucified by the prefect of Judea…

This opening section will not be convincing to naysayers, for reasons I will explain, but we need to start somewhere, and the place to start is with the surviving witnesses we have in hand.

I’m already on record as being somewhat skeptical of treating literature of every genre as equally good sources of history. But in this section quoted above I am interested in the notion of these narratives as ‘witnesses’ which on the face of it might imply more to the average reader than what can be safely claimed. After all, very few in the field of bible studies assert that these are accounts written by persons who have seen Jesus in life, or heard him speak any words. These are generally thought to be written some decades after anyone meeting the basic criteria of ‘the historical Jesus’ must have died.

If the Gospel of Mark (hereafter gMark) was written as early as 70 AD, this would be about 40 years after Jesus is thought to have died. Well within the realm of possibility of a surviving witness to recount their eyewitness testimony. However it does not seem many scholars conclude the author of gMark was himself an eyewitness, that at best he is recounting stories in circulation at the time of the composition of the narrative. Therefore he is at best a ‘witness’ to stories about Jesus. and not a witness to Jesus himself.

It is almost (but not quite) universally thought among New Testament scholars that both Matthew and Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark and used it for many of their stories about Jesus… Some mythicists – as we will see in chapter 7 – have taken this critical conclusion to a faulty end to argue that all of our Gospel accounts (even John, which has very little to do with Mark) ultimately go back to Mark so that we have only one source, not multiple sources, for the life of Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nothing? For now let us be content to wait until chapter 7 to discover whether the other narratives are independent or dependent on gMark. Suffice to say that for now let us see how Ehrman develops his theme of each of the four canonical Jesus narratives as being independent sources.

Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death… The Gospel of John is sometimes described as the ‘maverick Gospel” because it is so unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Prior to the narrative leading up to Jesus’s death, most of the stories in John are found only in John, whereas John does not include most of the stories found in the other three Gospels. And when they do share the same stories, John tells them in such a different way that he does not appear  to have received his accounts from any or all of them.

Now Ehrman’s dating of these narratives seems to be as follows:

  • gMark 70 AD
  • gMatthew  80 – 85 AD
  • gLuke 80- 85 AD
  • gJohn 90 – 95 AD


So within the first century we have four independent accounts of Jesus’s life and death…

Aside from these four there are others which Ehrman includes as independent accounts (because they were not considered to be ‘canonical’ they are not included in most bibles and are thus lesser known to the general public). He includes:

  • The Gospel of Thomas 110 – 120 AD
  • The Gospel of Peter (fragmentary,date unknown)
  • Papyrus Egerton 2 (fragmentary,date unknown)

To bring the independent witnesses up to lucky seven.

There are, of course, lots of other Gospels, some forty or so, down to the early Middle Ages, that are not found in the New Testament. These include narratives of Jesus as a newborn, and as a young child, where he uses his miraculous powers sometimes for mischief and sometimes for good; narratives of his public ministry; narratives of his death and resurrection.

It does appear to be the case there was quite a cottage industry in composing stories about Jesus. And this does not include narratives that did not survive into our own day, or that remain to be discovered.

But if we restrict ourselves here, as we did earlier, to a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, we have at least seven independent accounts, some of them quite extensive… For a historian these provide a wealth of materials to work with, quite unusual for accounts of anyone, literally anyone, from the ancient world.

Quite unusual, indeed.

One might say unprecedented.

This prompts me to wonder why it might be that so many persons felt compelled to write their own versions of a biography of this Jesus, people so far removed in time from the events, so remote in geography and culture from the vanished world of Judea when this Christ is supposed to have lived? It is quite the literary phenomenon.




Let us leave the argument here.

To recap: The mentions of Jesus or Christ in secular and Jewish sources have been discounted as unhelpful in establishing the existence of a real man – an ‘historical Jesus’ – underneath the mythology of the Jesus of Faith that christians worshiped.

But the accounts of christians themselves bear some sort of ‘witness’ to stories about Jesus, and there are at least seven independent sources that may provide the evidence needed.



I must admit, it has been hard to continue reading Ehrman’s book as it’s of the kind where one cannot long resist the temptation to throw it down in disgust. This reputed scholar exhibits so many failures of logic that it is difficult to take him or his arguments seriously. One wonders whether he really believes as he writes or if he’s merely cynical – and which of these is the worse?

Chapter Three of Did Jesus Exist? begins with the assertion that Ehrman’s critics are mistaken when they assert that his work is needlessly hostile to ‘the Bible’ and/or merely repeating that which is already well known. Alleged hostility to ‘the Bible’ is much the same as far as I am concerned as allegations that one is ‘anti-christian’ – ultimately meaningless attacks on one’s motives without regard to the verity of the evidence and arguments. It’s interesting that Ehrman makes out the ‘saying nothing new’ critique as some sort of ad hominem attack when Ehrman has no  reluctance to compare some of his critics to ‘Holocaust deniers’ and other popular bugbears. Ehrman should look to the log in his own eye before attempting to pick the dust from anyone else’s eye…

With that introductory salvo we are treated to a preliminary comment on using the gospels (presumably the four canonical narratives included in present day versions of ‘the Bible’ and not the many other ‘gospel narratives’ produced in the same time period) as historical sources.

As I will try to show momentarily, the Gospels, their sources, and the oral tradition that lie behind them combine to make a convincing case that Jesus really existed.

One admirable trait Ehrman possesses as a writer is the ability to pack a great number of claims into a short and pithy remark, such that one is apt to see that a great many assumptions lie behind a sentence of a few well-chosen words. Here we are treated to three distinct entities, each of which is somewhat problematic, as if they are givens that we should accept without examination.

Firstly, let us consider ‘the Gospels’ – what we have is a plethora of versions of each ‘gospel’ – notably in the case of the Gospel of Mark there are ‘long’ and ‘short’ versions.This is due in part to the necessity of copying books by hand in earlier ages, but also to the opportunity provided by that necessity to alter the text as it is passed through different hands from one generation to the next. For the ordinary reader we are presented with what is considered the ‘best’ version (much like we find in reading Shakespeare’s plays) but no version is necessarily definitive as there is no original with which to compare extant copies. When interpretation can depend on even a single word such difficulties in transmission must always be kept in mind.

We then are presented with the assertion of the ‘sources’ for the various gospel narratives, and here  it is fitting to remember that there is but one ‘original’ and several derivatives: in this case the ‘Gospel of Mark’ is the original and the other three are almost universally considered to be dependent on that work. What do we know about ‘sources’ for this story? Virtually nothing, except that it seems to be influenced by several sources: the translation of the scriptures into the Greek language known as the Septuagint and Greek literature (especially Homer, who for the Greeks of this time was as Shakespeare is to speakers of English).

[As a side note I find it interesting that there is not to my knowledge any significant early christian literature in Aramaic (or Syriac) which is supposed to be the native language of Jesus and his disciples. When it came time to proselytize in the land of Jesus’s alleged homeland Greek texts were imported and needed to be translated into the local language! Imagine if all our ‘originals’ of Shakespeare’s plays were in Italian!]

The third claim is of an ‘oral tradition’ supposed to lie behind the extant versions of the gospel narratives that have survived to the present day. Our confidence in being able to say much (if anything) about an alleged ‘oral tradition’ claimed to be a source for any gospel narrative can only be strained at best.

So of the three claimed entities, we have only direct evidence of the written gospel narratives (themselves at times garbled, added to, and edited), inferred evidence of literary influences ( the Septuagint, the works of Homer and Greek novels, and the theoretical ‘Q’ document), and only theories about supposed ‘oral traditions’.

It is not that one can simply accept everything found in the Gospels as historically accurate… This historical information must be teased out by careful, critical analysis.

I agree that there may be historical information found in literature, There may well be historical information in the ‘Gospels’ just as there may be in the Homeric epics or in the works of Sophocles or in the mysteries of Mithras. One would be well advised to proceed with caution with such dubious materials.

Ehrman, it would appear, is unable to distinguish between different genres of literature: a poem, a play, a history, a military report, a hagiography, and a satire are all alike:

Sometimes the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible… whatever else you might think about the books of the Bible – whether you believe in them or not, whether you consider them inspired or not – they are still books.

Actually, it would appear it is the other way around: the ‘gospel narratives’ are included in the collection known as ‘the Bible’ because they are a distinct kind of literature derivative of the sorts of stories found in the ‘Old Testament’: tales like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and his technicolor coat, Moses and the generic pharaoh, Samson and Delilah, Job, Jonah, Judith, Daniel, etc. It’s rather disingenuous of Ehman to complain about how poorly Jesus is treated without mention of the august company this figure of biblical literature shares with these other figures of ‘history’.

Ehrman tries again to link the fundamentalist christian view of the bible with that of skeptics, that we should neither consider blatantly religious tracts as above criticism nor should we treat them with any special care due to their polemical nature. Apparently we should consider the ‘historical Noah’ on a level playing field with the ‘historical Heracles’ and the ‘historical Augustus’. Yes, perhaps there can be extant literature about each figure, and this literature can be supposed to be based on previous literature, and even a certain ‘oral tradition’ can be imputed to each. But can it be honestly argued that there is no difference between the literary evidence we find for these persons?

My impression is that Ehrman goes a bit far in claiming that he is merely following any ‘consensus’ among historians that all literature is equally indistinguishable as sources for history, or that it is ‘common knowledge among scholars’ that stories about Noah are no different than stories about Julius Caesar. On the other hand, if this is indeed the attitude of ‘scholars’ known to Ehrman this notion should serve as a big red flag that these ‘scholars’ are out of touch with reality. It’s as if one asked today’s readers to consider the New York Times, The Onion, and The Watchtower magazine as equally good sources of information. Absurd!




At this point I must point out that the questions raised by Ehrman’s claims are more numerous than can easily be enumerated. This is what makes it a long and difficult slog for anyone the least bit familiar with the territory. I returned to this book because I learned there are some interesting claims made in this latter part, but it is painful to read.

This will be the place to let this rest for now – I realize I have only begun Ehrman’s foray into the Bible as his last, best source for evidence of a real man behind the Jesus represented in the Bible.












For the time being I’m going to skip Chapter One and try to concentrate on Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of an historical ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ – that seems to me the proper way to approach this topic. The evidence that has persuaded ‘everyone else’ that there must have been such a person.

One reason I’m having a difficult time slogging through the book is the endless hand-wringing about how he expects others to respond to his arguments. He begins his chapter on non-christian sources with seven paragraphs about how he’s ‘not attacking Christianity’ but only a certain kind of christianity. That’s great and all, but it makes actually finding the important information he’s supposedly trying to get out to the public more difficult.

After a couple of pages genuflecting to the christians he then begins his preliminary remarks about historians and their work. Again putting off making the argument and presenting evidence for later, all the while dropping more (so far) unsupported assertions that ‘Jesus is real’. Sheesh!

Ehrman uses Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon as examples. Would any historian have to pussyfoot for 57 pages before they could bring themselves to advance a single argument or bit of evidence regarding such events? It makes for extremely tedious reading for this reader to have to wade through page after page of chaff in hopes there might be a kernel of real substance.

One is tempted to drop the book as tl;dr. For Christ’s sake, spit it out!

No, first we have to take a detour through the sorts of evidence we don’t have: No physical evidence? Check. No disinterested contemporaneous accounts? Check. No eyewitness accounts? Check.

Obviously the mere existence of this Jesus fellow is a long way from being as certain as the sorts of things Ehrman compares it to – Lincoln or Caesar, or evolution, or Moon landings. A long, long way.

Finally we come to the actual evidence we do have from non-christian sources. They should be familiar to anyone who’s taken more than a passing interest in the topic:

They are Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus.

And anyone who’s taken more than a passing interest in this topic is probably aware each of these are controversial in their own way. But at least we have arrived at some of the evidence which is supposed to be persuasive!

This discussion in Ehrman’s book takes up about 18 pages.

The next section of his book will focus on the biblical and other christian sources, which runs about 100 pages.

I will take some time to explore each of these ‘non-christian’ sources individually. Beginning with Pliny in the next post.

Bruno Bauer – mythicist martyr?

Ehrman introduces Bruno Bauer in his brief history of mythicism section:

The first bona fide scholar of the Bible to claim that Jesus never existed was a German theologian named Bruno Bauer, generally regarded among New Testament scholars as very smart and very idiosyncratic… When he started out as a scholar, Bauer concurred with everyone else in the field that there was historically reliable material in the first three Gospels of the New Testament… As he progressed in his research, however, and subjected the Gospel accounts to a careful, detailed, and hypercritical evaluation, Bauer began to think that Jesus was a literary invention of the gospel writers. Christianity, he concluded, was an amalgamation of Judaism with the Roman philosophy of Stoicism. This was obviously an extreme and radical view for a professor of theology to take at the state-supported German University of Bonn. It ended up costing him his job.

I do hope Ehrman intends to revisit Bauer and discuss some of the actual evidence which convinced this smart and careful scholar that Jesus was a literary invention. As it is we are left to wonder what could prompt an academic to go against the  cultural and political prejudices of his time. We are only told by Ehrman that Bauer was ‘idiosyncratic’, that his views were ‘extreme’ and ‘radical’ and that 

…[Bruno Bauer] had virtually no followers in the scholarly world.

Hardly surprising Bauer had virtually no following among scholars when you consider how Bauer was punished for holding the view that Jesus never existed outside the pages of literature. He lost his position, which rather makes you wonder about those who cite ‘no one in academia holds the mythicist view’ when it is evident that expressing that view is apparently enough to get you fired.

Considering how hard people work to obtain jobs in academia, and the prestige that comes with it, you can understand why someone might be loathe to jeopardize their place in academia by even considering the question and keeping your dangerous ideas to yourself. As academic scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann notes

I should also mention that the biggest reason for the shyness of scholars with respect to the non-historicity thesis had/has to do with academic appointments (as in security thereof) rather than common sense. As a middle-of-the road Hegelian like Strauss discovered.

This is not even something that could only happen in the ‘bad old days’ – recently another respected and reputable scholar lost his job when he publicly declared his considered opinion that Jesus was not an historical person: Thomas L Brodie was dismissed from the institution he founded when he revealed his conviction that Jesus was a figure of myth. 

But the ‘no academic mythicists’ mantra rings rather hollow when you realize this is not so much an observation about scholars as it is apparently a statement of enforced policy. In a piece appearing on the Huffington Post website Ehrman stated

…there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

So not only will mythicists be fired if they are found out, they won’t even be hired in the first place, for no other reason than considering Jesus a myth. It begins to sound like members of a restricted club claiming ‘Jews can’t play golf’ simply because they don’t allow them to join the club.

But I do want to go back and look at some of the words Ehrman uses to describe Bauer and his views: idiosyncratic, hypercritical, extreme, and radical.

It’s not abundantly clear what ‘idiosyncratic’ is supposed to mean here. Certainly Bauer seems to have been bold enough to go against the grain of the times, but that tells us nothing about the value of their approach or their findings. Perhaps it’s just a word used to underscore the ‘mythicists are a minority’ meme Ehrman wants to emphasize, with the implication that there’s something wrong with taking a minority position. And as we’ve seen, steps are taken to make sure it’s a minority position.

And what is ‘hypercritical’ meant to stand for? Literally it means ‘overly critical’, but just how critical is the ‘just right’ amount? The amount that Ehrman is critical? I often hear the term ‘hyper-skeptical’ thrown at atheists because they dismiss claims of magic and other supernatural phenomenon on the grounds that evidence for such things is lacking. Perhaps it’s just meant to mean ‘not credulous enough for my taste’.

Then we have the charge of ‘extremism’. There’s not much one can do with that – I mean how much of a spectrum of views is there? Yes Jesus existed, no he didn’t? Aren’t they both equally ‘extreme’? Or is Bauer’s views ‘extreme’ only to mean ‘unpopular among scholars who want to keep their jobs’? It seems to me that ‘extremism’ is just another scare word flung at a scholar like Bauer in hopes it will stick in the mind of his readers even if only subconsciously.

Then there is ‘radical’ which has a couple of senses to it, one which may well be technically accurate: Bauer’s years of study and scholarship led him to conclude that the very root belief about the origins of christianity – that it was based more or less on the biography of an historical Jesus – turns out to be a false trail. In this sense Bauer is addressing the roots of the whole enterprise, introducing a whole new paradigm, and could be described as radical just as Copernicus’s heliocentric model was a ‘radical’ shift in perspective.

Having grown up during the Cold War I also know that ‘radical’ is often used in a pejorative sense – every time I would read in the newspaper about ‘radicals’ I knew exactly what point of view I was supposed to take about these persons. They weren’t ‘our kind’, they were dangerous. and if not actually evil they were certainly misguided. Certainly for the general reader a less emotionally loaded way of characterizing Bauer’s work could be found?

For those interested in a little more in depth discussion of Bauer I include a couple of links to a blog I highly recommend: Vridar


Though perhaps Ehrman will revisit Bauer later in his book, we’ll have to leave it here for now.

The Importance of Being Expert

Now that Ehrman has broached the topic of being an ‘expert’ I think we should try and grasp what he thinks that means. 

Let’s see what he compares expertise in New Testament studies to: 

Dentists, Architects, Biologists, Historians…

Now the thing about some of these comparisons is that we know teeth exist and know what good dentistry is thereby, we know buildings exist and can judge good architecture from the performance of their designs, and we know living things exist and thus there is something real by which we can judge the accomplishments of a biologist entails. Success is measurable. There are real consequences which are perceptible to all of us.

Moreover no one needs to have a dentist who teaches dentistry, or an architect who teaches architecture, or a biologist who teaches biology to consider them able to do their job. So all the breast-beating about ‘anyone not holding a teaching position can’t have expertise’ rather loses its luster after a few moment’s reflection.

Now is someone who studies Jesus in the same ballpark with any of these? I think it’s comparing horses and unicorns. The base of knowledge for these other disciplines is cumulative, obtaining better results over the generations because discoveries here are palpable and solid.

But look at the record of the various ‘quests’ for an historical Jesus. Time after time they come up empty, or with conflicting results. Never securing anything lasting, because the next consensus can easily overturn the previous ‘certainty’ – the only thing they seem to agree on was that there was a man called Jesus: everything else is up for grabs. And if Ehrman is correct that ‘there was a man called Jesus’ is never questioned, discussed, or demonstrated by any of these ‘experts’ then the only thing they agree on is an uncritically accepted assumption.

For the other ‘experts’ Ehrman compares himself to, the proof is in their results.

You may notice I haven’t discussed his comparison of Jesus scholars to historians.

Indeed he claims to be an historian. Now what does he compare the ‘certainty’ of Jesus’s existence to in the field of history?

The Holocaust, the moon landing, the assassination of Presidents, Obama’s birthplace.

Well, at this point Ehrman is going to have to pony up some pretty new and startling evidence to demonstrate that the existence of Jesus is anywhere near as sure as any of these facts. We’ve got physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, photographs, films, and all kinds of original documents pertaining to the historical events he lists. Has Ehrman like evidence for Jesus?

So I’m just about ready to jump into the first chapter of his book where Ehrman will try to make good on this promise: that the existence of Jesus is as undeniable as the Holocaust (to which we have living witnesses to this very day, reams of original documents, physical remains, photographs and films, eyewitness accounts, and confessions of some of the evil-doers).

If Ehrman can equal the literally tons of evidence for the reality of the Holocaust, he will have accomplished something no human in history can boast of.

But I do have at least one thing to add before we leave behind Ehrman’s introduction, and I will post on that next time.

Who is addressing the issue of whether Jesus existed?

Moving slowly through Ehrman’s book DJE? (still evaluating his introduction for goodness sake!) I have been trying to elucidate Ehrman’s point of view going into the book proper.

1) The question of whether Jesus existed is not an issue among the scholars in Ehrman’s field – despite the large interest in trying to figure out who this Jesus was: teacher, rebel, folk healer, cynic, peasant philosopher, etc.

2) Ehrman discovers there is a body of literature discussing this profound question.

…none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world).

So if the professional scholar class isn’t discussing this problem, who is? Obviously it has been undertaken by those beyond the pale of academia.

Their books may not be known to most of the general public interested in questions related to Jesus, the Gospels, or the early Christian church, but they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a (very) small but (often) loud minority voice. Once you tune in to this voice, you quickly learn just how persistent and vociferous it can be.

Apparently these people are ‘loud’ and ‘vociferous’ – yet no one seems to notice them. It would seem they aren’t loud and vociferous enough to be heard above those who insist that there really was a man called Jesus.

The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be “mythicists” – that is, those who believe Jesus is a myth… When mythicists use the term they often seem to mean simply a story that has no historical basis, a history-like narrative that in fact did not happen.

This would appear to be a fair description of how myth is being used by those authors I am familiar with who question the existence of Jesus outside of literature. Similarly one could argue that Noah is mythical – a world-wide flood did not in fact occur, nor did someone build a boat in anticipation and fill it full of animals. Likewise one might say Moses is mythical – despite the stories concerning his life and deeds it is becoming apparent the Exodus did not in fact happen.

There is nothing particularly shocking in learning that characters can be created, biographies crafted, speeches written about people and events which are not historical. Yet once the scholarly consensus was that these, too, were people who certainly existed. I have read accounts where scholars have attempted to ‘explain’ Moses’s speech impediment, naturalistic ‘explanations’ of the Ten Plagues, even Freud tried to psychoanalyze Moses.

We learn, therefore, that the scholars can be wrong – dead wrong – about the real existence of Biblical heroes. Why should Jesus be any different?

…the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet. That in itself is not proof, of course. Expert opinion is, at the end of the day, still opinion. But why would you not want to know what the experts have to say?

It’s not clear who this rhetorical question is aimed at – has anyone said they don’t want to know what the experts have to say? There’s no end of ‘historical Jesus‘ theories to be read, with new versions released from every quarter. Hippy Jesus, Orthodox Jew Jesus, feminist Jesus, apocalyptic Jesus, Jesus the business guru, Jesus the life coach, etc. If anyone takes any interest in Jesus they can’t escape the onslaught of the plethora of ‘real Jesuses’ some scholars have just now discovered in Scripture.

So Ehrman can hardly complain that the ‘experts’ aren’t being heard. Indeed the experts are everywhere hawking their wares. So why pretend that they aren’t?


As a side note Ehrman complains of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code and Monty Python – little noting the irony that the novel posits an historical Jesus (not a mythical one) and that Monty Python’s Life of Brian also features an historical Jesus.