Jesus is a myth, some say. Conjured like a fairytale. There’s no proof that he existed, some people will tell you, other than a bunch of miracle-laden stories written decades after Jesus was said to have walked the earth.
On the internet you can find a lot of people who say that the stories of Jesus are just stories. These naysayers call themselves mythicists, and I concluded a long time ago that they’re a few cards shy of a full deck. So when I heard that Bart Ehrman, a distinguished professor of religious studies at UNC, wrote a book titled, Did Jesus Exist?, I rolled my eyes. Et tu, Bart? I thought he was throwing in with the mythicists.
I was wrong. My assumption was silly. But I wasn’t alone.
Ehrman is the Stephen King of Bible criticism; he publishes a book about the New Testament or early Christianity every year or two. He even advertises his next book in the introduction of the book he’s just published. (I truly can’t wait for him to explain in his next book just how Jesus became God.)
In two of his books, Misquoting Jesus and Forged, he used a boatload of facts from original sources to show that there’s no possible way the modern Bible is the literal, unerring word of God—the Bible is not only full of allegory, metaphors, and similes, but also errors, forgeries, and alterations. So Ehrman has made some enemies among evangelicals. In a third book, God’s Problem, he took on the subject of suffering and how it seems to conflict with the existence of a loving God. This offended, or at least frustrated, a broader spectrum of believers.
Ehrman was raised Christian but now describes himself as an agnostic atheist. So when I heard about his latest offering, Did Jesus Exist?, I thought he might try to convince us that the evidence for Jesus’s existence is spotty. I should’ve known better, because in his previous books he’s detailed exactly who he thinks Jesus was.
More to the point, Ehrman might write best-selling books for the general public, but he’s one of the foremost Bible scholars of his generation. Both are reasons why he gets a lot of attention and why thousands of readers send him emails. Only one strain of emails, though, caused him to write a book, as he explains in Did Jesus Exist?:
“Every week I receive two or three emails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these emails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they? But the question kept coming up, and soon I began to wonder: Why are so many people asking? My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles—misquoted rather—as saying that Jesus never existed. I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.”
When the rest of us need to get something off our chests, we might reach out to family, friends, or social media. Ehrman writes a book, which leads to public lectures, YouTube videos, and appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Most scholars consider some of the mythicist claims too laughable to even answer. But Ehrman does acknowledge the arguments, because many other people believe them. That’s reason enough for Ehrman to take them on.
He’s read what the mythicists have written. In his book he views their “evidence” through the lens of scholarship, and in great detail debunks every single bit of it in astonishing detail. Even if you need no convincing that Jesus existed, you’ll still likely find Ehrman’s book worth a read because of how well he dispatches with the erroneous claims.
Now, who Jesus really was, according to Ehrman and others, is still up for debate. And how Jesus became the equivalent of God in some religious circles is yet another story.
I doubt we’ll have to wait too long to read it.