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.











Ehrman’s Take on The Basic Mythicist Position

Having run through his word-portraits of mythicist personalities and even gone into some detail in characterizing and criticizing the works of some authors he feels particularly ‘sensationalist’ Ehrman is finally ready to talk about what mythicism is all about.

The case that most mythicists have made against the historical existence of Jesus involves both negative and positive arguments, with far more of the former.

Which I think is to be expected – if one were to argue that unicorns do not really exist the lack of evidence for them would loom large in any discussion of the matter. This in itself speaks to the burden of proof: it’s generally agreed that those who propose something like the existence of unicorns need to make their case – it’s not up to anyone else to disprove them. But it’s not unusual for those unable to meet the burden of proof to challenge the skeptical listener to ‘prove I’m wrong’.

We see this in debates between theists and atheists all the time. Because belief in gods is so ubiquitous, it is often argued that the burden of proof is on the atheist to prove there aren’t any gods. Which seems rather absurd. Because the characteristics of these gods are so mutable and vague it’s difficult to know what would constitute ‘proof’ that none exist. A more reasonable view is for those making the positive claim to define what they mean and then back it up with what they think might be evidence for their view.

Likewise for the debate about the existence of Jesus: just because many belief there was a Jesus does not mean that there is no burden of proof on those who make this claim. As we have seen, Ehrman has characterized the question of Jesus’s historical existence as an unexamined axiom of Biblical studies which only with the publication of his book Did Jesus Exist? became an explicit argument intended to make that case.

I realized when doing my research for the book that since New Testament scholars have never taken mythicists seriously, they have never seen a need to argue against their views, which means that even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it. Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise. How do you prove that someone from 2000 years ago actually lived? I have to say, it was terrifically enlightening, engaging, and fun to think through all the issues and come up with all the arguments. I think really almost any New Testament scholar could have done it. But it ended up being lucky me.

Obviously if no one is really making a case for an historical Jesus (up until now) then one can hardly fault mythicists for failing to rebut one.

In any case, I think it is a fair assessment to say that there are both positive and negative arguments for a mythicist position: on the negative side there is the lack of evidence for Jesus as an historical person and on the positive side there should be arguments for how the figure of Jesus came about. To return to the unicorn example we have the lack of evidence for unicorns plus hypotheses as to how such a fabulous creature should have been developed.

On the negative side, mythicists typically stress that there are no reliable references to the existence of Jesus in any non-Christian sources of the first century. Jesus allegedly lived until about the year 30 CE. But no Greek or Roman author (or any other non-Christian author, for that matter) mentions him for over eighty years after that.

This would seem to be a fair characterization of a negative argument. While it is in itself not a decisive argument (after all most people who may have existed during this time period were not mentioned in surviving texts either), it would certainly help the case for an historic Jesus if there were some record of him outside of devotional literature. For instance, if there were no references to Boudicca by known contemporary authors what reason would we have to conclude she existed? And indeed the documentary evidence is slim – but slim is not none.

Ehrman will revisit this negative claim in detail later, so I will reserve discussion of it until then

(On a side note I’m getting rather frustrated by the constant flitting about: topics keep getting mentioned, hints dropped, promises made to go into detail later, etc such that it’s difficult to get a fix on the full argument. There’s a certain vague hand waving air that ‘all will be shown in due time’ that I get the impression I’m supposed to take these bland statements on faith for now. Is this how arguments are generally developed by established academicians? Make insinuations about the personalities of the people whose conclusions you disagree with before you address their arguments? Assert things as facts with only a promise that you will eventually establish them as facts?)

But let us move on to the other area where ‘lack of evidence’ is thought to plague claims for an historical Jesus:

In addition, they typically claim that the historical Jesus does not appear prominently even in early Christian writings apart from the New Testament Gospels. In particular, they maintain that the apostle Paul says hardly anything about the historical Jesus or that he says nothing at all. This may come as a shock to most readers of the New Testament, but a careful reading of Paul’s letters shows the problems. Paul has a lot to say about Jesus’s death and resurrection – especially the resurrection – and he clearly worships him as his Lord. But he says very little indeed about anything that Jesus said and did while he was alive. Why would that be, if Jesus was in fact a historical person?

This also seems like a good summing up of arguments I have seen regarding the epistolary record. The New Testament is a body of ‘canonical’ devotional literature part of which consists in texts in the form of letters supposedly written by various early christian heroes. Some of these are thought to have originated in the first century between the alleged date of Jesus’s crucifixion and the composition of the famous Four Gospels.

Now there are several issues connected with this – the first I should mention is ‘canonical’: there was a great deal more written about christianity by early christians which was not deemed as worthy of  acceptance when it came down to deciding which texts would be held as ‘theologically correct’ by an emerging orthodoxy. That is to say, there were many different ideas about what christianity was, who or what Jesus was, and many versions and variations of tales circulated from the earliest record. Those who thought their version was the correct one condemned the others as ‘heretics’ just as christians do today.

In any event, the version of christianity that won out over the others enforced its version of christianity in part by selecting among all the available literature which texts were required reading and how those texts were to be interpreted. So the New Testament is just a selected collection of devotional works that fit the agenda of one particular sect. Since everything that was excluded from this sample was either considered unimportant or even harmful, much of it was lost or deliberately destroyed. Much of what we know about these other christianities that flourished from the earliest times is literature from the winners in the historical contest – often polemical treatises condemning them.

How accurate these portrayals are is questionable indeed. Imagine if the only record we had of Abraham Lincoln was that of the secessionists in the United States, or the only record we had of Winston Churchill was written by Joseph Goebbels. Fortunately for historians some of the documents of alternative christianities have managed to survive and we are able to read for ourselves what else was thought and taught during this fertile time.

Of a variety of portraits of Jesus available to people of that time (on the assumption that the epistles do in fact predate the gospel tales) it is interesting to compare and contrast the earlier version of Jesus as found in Paul to the later-emerging narratives of the Jesus story. It would seem that much that was later put out about Jesus was different than the Jesus who appears in the epistles. This is another oddity which must be accounted for.

So if it is true that the historical Jesus is not known from disinterested contemporary authors, and not known from what is thought to be the earliest writings of the christians, where do we get information of an historical Jesus?

This means that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are our only real sources for knowing about the historical Jesus, and mythicists find these four sources highly problematic as historical documents. For one thing, they were written near the end of the first century at best, four or five decades or more after Jesus allegedly lived. If he really did live, wouldn’t we have some earlier sources? And how can we rely on such hearsay from so many years later?

Moreover, mythicists typically point out that the Gospels cannot be trusted in what they do say. Their many accounts of what Jesus said and did are chock-full of contradictions and discrepancies and so are completely unreliable. The Gospels are thoroughly biased toward their subject matter and so do not present anything like disinterested history “as it really was.” They can be shown to have modified the stories they relate, and in some places they obviously have made up stories about Jesus. In fact, virtually all – or even all – of the stories may have been invented.

Likewise this seems to be a reasonable statement of some criticisms made by many people of the gospel tales, whether they believe in an historical Jesus or they don’t.

As such these facts are further hurdles for those who want to argue for an historical Jesus – not only the lack of evidence from disinterested sources, but even from the earliest interested sources. And when sources for a biography of Jesus belatedly arrive on the scene, they are highly dubious.

Furthermore, many mythicists insist that the Four Gospels ultimately all go back to just one of the Gospels, Mark, on which the other three were based.

This is hardly a controversial claim. It is widely accepted that the Gospel of Mark (so called – really just attributed to someone named Mark who, as legend has it, took down the testimony of Simon Peter, allegedly a disciple of Jesus) was the first of the canonical four to be written, as the others seem to copy it and then expand upon it.

This does not impose an insuperable difficulty for someone who wants to argue for an historical Jesus, though it should serve as a warning that attempts to ‘multiply’ the number of sources in an effort to bolster the case is on notice that it’s well known that four versions of one story is not four independent sources.

Given all these problems, some mythicists insist that the burden of proof rests on anyone who wants to claim that Jesus did in fact exist.

We don’t even need to enumerate the problems to realize that the burden of proof is on those who make such a claim. That is where it always belonged. Ehrman seems to think there’s something wrong in mythicists ‘insisting’ on holding true to this basic principle of reasoning. Why this should be surprising to anyone, or a point that must be insisted upon against those trying to shrug off their responsibilities, is quite telling about the attitude Ehrman has toward meeting those responsibilities.

Added to these negative arguments is one very important positive one, that the stories about Jesus – many of them incredible, all of them based on late and unreliable witnesses – are paralleled time and again in the myths about pagan gods and other divine men discussed in the ancient world.

Thus Ehrman sums up what he takes to be the basic mythicist position, which I think is fair as far as it goes. Although it’s my understanding that there is much more to the positive case, but that is where we find much more diversity among those proposing that Jesus is more likely a literary figure than an historical one.

The discussion about the content of the epistles and the gospel tales touches on this – if it’s true that much of this material is literary in character (for instance, it’s widely recognized that half of the epistles attributed to Paul in the canon are forged in his name) then that is in itself positive evidence for a ‘mythical’ Jesus – evidence that the authors are ‘caught in the act’ of invention rather than faithfully recording history as they know it.

But now we are finally ready to embark on Ehrman’s discussion of what he takes to be the positive case for an historic Jesus, a task long avoided by the mainstream scholarly community.















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?