Now I have seen what Ehrman makes of the Testimonium Flavianus – he doesn’t seem to set much store by this either. But I did want to make sure to mention the other mention of Jesus Christ in today’s copies of Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus. This occurs in Book 20:

But the emperor, when he learned of the death of Festus, sent Albinus to be procurator of Judea… But the younger Ananus who, as we have already said, had obtained the high priesthood, was of an exceedingly bold and reckless disposition… Ananus, therefore, being of this character, and supposing that he had a favorable opportunity on account of the fact that Festus was dead and Albinus was still on the way, called together the Sanhedrin and brought before them the brother of Jesus, called Christ, James by name, together with some others and accused them of violating the law, and condemned them to be stoned.  But those in the city who seemed most moderate and skilled in the law were very angry at this, and sent secretly to the king, requesting him to order Ananus to cease such proceedings… And the king, Agrippa, in consequence, deprived him of the high priesthood, which he had held three months, and appointed Jesus, the son of Damneus.

Unlike the Testimonium, the time frame for this was during Josephus’s lifetime, and as such might seem to have a better chance of Josephus having some personal knowledge with what was being said about this as it happened.

Here’s all the discussion Ehrman makes of this passage:

Here, unlike the pagan references we examined earlier, Jesus is actually called by name. And we learn two things about him: he had a brother named James, and some people thought he was the messiah. Both points are abundantly attested as well, of course, in our Christian sources, but it is interesting to see that Josephus is aware of them.

No discussion of whether this passage, like the earlier one, might also have been tampered with (as is almost universally acknowledged about the Testimonium). No discussion as to whether the James mentioned here might not be the brother of the Jesus who is anointed High Priest at the end of the story.  No discussion of the curious notion that if this James was indeed the head of a heretical Jewish sect pious Jews would come to his defense (surely that would make an interesting tale of political intrigue!). Ehrman blandly accepts it as authentic to Josephus and that it does refer to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

Like the earlier passage, it is questionable whether Josephus would ever call ‘our’ Jesus by the title Christ, as that would pretty much make Josephus a christian.

It’s actually clever, I think, of Ehrman to try to slip this bit past his readers quickly with virtually zero discussion. A brief investigation shows that in discussions regarding the historicity of Jesus this passage in Book 20 also gets a lot of discussion over its provenance and its meaning. Earl Doherty, for one, is able to devote several paragraphs to this ‘evidence’ which Ehrman can only spare a couple dozen words on:

Here is more discussion by another author of this passage:

…and also:

Now Ehrman may uncritically accept the passage, but no one else is obliged to do so.

One wonders if Ehrman will try to make use of this unvetted ‘evidence’ later in the book as corroboration of claims based on our christian sources…?

Ehrman names names – a colorful ensemble of mythicists

Ehrman continues his brief history of mythicism by running quickly through a list of some authors whose views touch on the subject. After Bruno Bauer’s career was destroyed by anti-mythicist fanaticism:

The mythicist view was taken up some decades later in English-speaking circles by J. M. Robertson, sometimes considered the premier British rationalist of the beginning of the twentieth century… Robertson argued there were striking similarities between what the Gospels claim about Jesus and what earlier peoples believed about pagan gods of fertility, who, like Jesus, were said to have died and been raised from the dead… while there may have been a man named Jesus, he was nothing like the Christ worshiped by Christians, who was a mythical figure based on an ancient cult of Joshua, a dying-and-rising vegetative god who was ritually sacrificed and eaten.

Here Robertson’s views seems to mirror that of many supporters of an ‘historical Jesus’ – especially when they try to draw a sharp distinction between the ‘Jesus of faith’ whose biography is pretty much laid out faithfully in the Gospels and the ‘historical Jesus’ who was a mortal man and likely did not say and do many of the things ascribed to him by the Gospels. That very little beyond ‘Jesus existed’ can be agreed upon by those who hold this position would seem to indicate that Robertson was right in thinking this Jesus was a cipher.

Many of these views came to be popularized by a German scholar of the early twentieth century named Arthur Drews, whose work, The Christ Myth (1909), was arguably the most influential mythicist book ever produced because it made a huge impact on one reader in particular. It convinced Vladimir Ilyich Lenin that Jesus was not a real historical figure. This, in large measure, led to the popularity of the myth theory in the emerging Soviet Union.

Unfortunately Ehrman is unable to sketch out for his readers the arguments that were found to be so convincing. I’m sure Ehrman will get around to that, eventually…

But I do notice the widespread acceptance of Jesus as a figure of myth in this part of the world is put down to the personality of one man. It couldn’t bet that where christianity is a political force to be reckoned with Jesus historicism is found acceptable, while in regions where christianity is impotent it is at least within reason to suppose this figure is more myth than fact – could it?  But why does it matter in which nations this or the other view might prove more popular?

Ehrman follows this all too brief ‘history’ with a few paragraphs to bring his readers up to date on mythicist authors today. I will not do much more than touc on this section as the living authors have works which can be referenced easily independently of Ehrman’s characterization and they are perfectly able to respond to any valid criticisms offered as well as defend themselves if they find that Ehrman mischaracterizes them or their views.

Ehrman mentions Earl Doherty, Robert Price, Frank Zindler, Thomas L Thompson, Richard Carrier, Tom Harpur, and George A Wells – these are the ‘colorful ensemble’ Ehrman considers to be the contemporary champions of the position that Jesus may well not have existed at all. Why they are any more ‘colorful’ than the card-carrying members of the New Testament academy remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s their ties?






Historical Jesus vs the Jesus of Faith vs the Mythical Jesus

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?