Arts & Life
4:15 pm
Sun April 1, 2012

'Did Jesus Exist?' A Historian Makes His Case

Originally published on Sun April 1, 2012 5:11 pm

So, did Jesus really exist? With his new book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Bart Ehrman, historian and professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, wanted to provide solid historical evidence for the existence of Jesus.

"I wanted to approach this question as an historian to see whether that's right or not," Ehrman tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

The answer is straightforward and widely accepted among scholars of all faiths, but Ehrman says there is a large contingent of people claiming that Jesus never did exist. These people are also known as mythicists.

"It was a surprise to me to see how influential these mythicists are," Ehrman says. "Historically, they've been significant and in the Soviet Union, in fact, the mythicist view was the dominant view, and even today, in some parts of the West – in parts of Scandinavia — it is a dominant view that Jesus never existed," he says.

Mythicists' arguments are fairly plausible, Ehrman says. According to them, Jesus was never mentioned in any Roman sources and there is no archeological evidence that Jesus ever existed. Even Christian sources are problematic – the Gospels come long after Jesus' death, written by people who never saw the man.

"Most importantly," he explains, "these mythicists point out that there are Pagan gods who were said to die and rise again and so the idea is that Jesus was made up as a Jewish god who died and rose again."

In his book, Ehrman marshals all of the evidence proving the existence of Jesus, including the writings of the apostle Paul.

"Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did," Ehrman says. "If Jesus didn't exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed," he says.

In Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman builds a technical argument and shows that one of the reasons for knowing that Jesus existed is that if someone invented Jesus, they would not have created a messiah who was so easily overcome.

"The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you're going to make up a messiah, you'd make up a powerful messiah," he says. "You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and the killed by the enemies."

So Jesus did exist, but who was he? Ehrman says when historians focus on the life of Jesus, they discover a Jesus who is completely different from the one portrayed by popular culture or by religious texts.

"The mythicists have some right things to say," Ehrman says. "The Gospels do portray Jesus in ways that are non-historical."

When Raz asks Ehrman about his relationship to Jesus, Ehrman says that most of it is very historical but that Jesus teaches us valuable lessons.

"Jesus' teachings of love, and mercy and forgiveness, I think, really should dominate our lives," he says. "On the personal level, I agree with many of the ethical teachings of Jesus and I try to model my life on them, even though I don't agree with the apocalyptic framework in which they were put."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. There are probably few people in the world who know more about the life of Jesus than Bart Ehrman. He's a New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill where his lectures are among the most popular on campus.

And though Ehrman's not a particularly religious man, he's often puzzled by a question he gets asked: Did Jesus exist? So he decided to answer that question in his new book and, fittingly, it's also called "Did Jesus Exist?" Bart Ehrman, welcome to the program.

BART D. EHRMAN: Thank you.

RAZ: Let's start with the premise of your question because - I hope I'm not giving anything away. Your answer is yes, Jesus did exist.

EHRMAN: Yes. That's right.

RAZ: You don't have to get to the end of the book to get to that answer. But why did you feel like the question needed to be answered at all? I mean, is it in serious dispute?

EHRMAN: The deal is that, every week, I get two or three emails from people asking me did Jesus exist. And as I started to do some looking into the matter, I realized there is a large contingent of people, largely on the Internet but also writing books, claiming that, in fact, Jesus never did exist, that he was completely made up by the early Christians, and I wanted to approach that question as a historian to see whether that's right or not.

RAZ: And these are people you call mythicists or I guess they call themselves mythicists. So what is the argument that they make?

EHRMAN: Well, there are several arguments. When you just look at them plainly, they look fairly plausible. Jesus is never mentioned in any Roman source of his day. There's no archaeological evidence that Jesus ever existed, no physical proof. And the Christian sources are problematic because the Gospels are 20, 40, 50, 60 years later. On the other side of the ledger, they point out that many of the things said about Jesus are said about pagan divine beings or pagan gods.

RAZ: That there was this guy, he was a person who was crucified and resurrected.

EHRMAN: Who did miracles, cast out demons...

RAZ: Walked on water.

EHRMAN: ...raised the dead. And, most importantly, they point out that there are pagan gods who are said to die and rise again. And so the idea is that Jesus was made up as a Jewish god who dies and rose again. And so when you simply look at it without any context, it looks like a plausible argument.

RAZ: Why do you think it is implausible, then?

EHRMAN: A lot of the arguments don't really count for anything. I mean, the fact there's no archaeological evidence for Jesus...

RAZ: Doesn't matter.

EHRMAN: ...doesn't really matter, because there's not archaeological evidence for hardly anybody who lived in this world.

RAZ: Moses, Abraham...

EHRMAN: Yeah. And then...

RAZ: ...and on and on.

EHRMAN: Well - or the 60 million people who lived in Jesus' day. So what I do in the book is I marshal all of the evidence. The Gospels were written 40 or 50 years after Jesus, but they incorporate earlier written sources, and they're all reliant on oral traditions.

And you can actually translate some of these Greek traditions in the Gospels back into the original Aramaic of Jesus and they make better sense, which means these were traditions floating around in Palestine probably just a few years after Jesus' death.

RAZ: And we should just make it clear. I mean, the Gospels according to scholars, these are not eye witness accounts. I mean, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written long after Jesus died.

EHRMAN: That's right. By - they're all anonymous, in fact. It's only about 100 years later that people said they were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So they're written by Greek-speaking Christians living decades later. Moreover, we have the writings of the apostle Paul who was writing before the Gospels and who converted to be a follower of Jesus just a year or two after the traditional date of his death.

RAZ: He knew Jesus' brother James.

EHRMAN: Yeah. Paul knew Jesus' brother James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did. And if Jesus didn't exist, you would think his brother would know about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EHRMAN: So I think Paul, probably, is pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed.

RAZ: You contend that had he actually been invented by pagans at the time, they would have turned him into this powerful figure of grandeur that was like shooting laser beams out of his...

EHRMAN: Yes.

RAZ: ...his fingers rather than a man who was crucified.

EHRMAN: The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies. And so if you're going to make up a messiah, you'd make up a powerful messiah.

RAZ: Like a superhero.

EHRMAN: A superhero. You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and then killed by the enemy.

RAZ: My guest is Bart Ehrman. He's a professor of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill, and he's got a new book out. It's called "Did Jesus Exist?" And if you're wondering what the answer is, it is yes. Bart, I - a few years ago, I downloaded a series of lectures that, you know, are available on these - like, you see these ads in magazines. Great courses, right?

And I downloaded your series of lectures on the life of the historical Jesus. And a lot of people listening will know you. I mean, you are the guy. You're the expert on the life of the historical Jesus. So how are we able to build as accurate an account of his life from the existing material?

EHRMAN: One of the things I argue is that historians come away with a different view of Jesus from what is popular in the wider culture so that Jesus doesn't really look like the Jesus you might have learned about in Sunday School or that you hear from a televangelist.

RAZ: You say he wouldn't recognize himself if he heard that.

EHRMAN: No, he wouldn't.

RAZ: You write that in the book.

EHRMAN: He most definitely would not recognize himself if he turned on TV on Sunday morning. Jesus, according to the majority of scholars in North America, Europe, was some kind of Jewish apocalyptic prophet, by which, I mean that Jesus believed he was living in an evil age controlled by the forces of evil but that God was soon going to intervene to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a good kingdom on Earth, a good utopian kingdom where there'd be no more pain, misery or suffering, and this cataclysmic break in history was going to happen within his own generation.

RAZ: We are, of course, speaking on Palm Sunday, Bart. And as a scholar, how do you sort of begin to assess and analyze what you think is true and what you don't think is true?

EHRMAN: Yes. Well, at this point, the mythicists have some right things to say. The Gospels do portray Jesus in ways that are nonhistorical. There is absolutely non-historical material in the Gospels as we know because there are contradictions in the Gospels and discrepancies in the Gospels and completely implausible events in the Gospels.

As an example, the idea that's being celebrated on Palm Sunday that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and all the crowds came out crying out hosanna, the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, celebrating the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem, if that had really happened the way it's described in the Gospels, there's no way to explain why the Romans didn't have Jesus arrested on the spot. In the Gospels, Jesus spends another week in Jerusalem preaching to the crowds. But anybody who calls himself a messiah is making a political statement.

RAZ: He would have been arrested right away.

EHRMAN: He would have been arrested right away. And so, probably, the event would've been a much smaller, toned down version from what you get in the Gospels. Jesus certainly came to Jerusalem the last week of his life, and he ended up being crucified there. There's no doubt about that. But the way it's celebrated in the Gospels, simply, is not plausible historically.

RAZ: Bart, a lot of people listening will know you as a well-known scholar of early Christianity. You are controversial - I should point this out - because you are something of a lapsed Christian yourself. You've been described as an agnostic. Is that fairly accurate?

EHRMAN: Yes, that's right.

RAZ: So what is your relationship with Jesus about? I mean, is it historian to historical figure? Is there any part of it that is spiritual?

EHRMAN: Most of it is historical. Jesus is the most important figure in the history of Western civilization. And so people ask me, well, why would you be interested in somebody you don't believe in? I mean, he's tremendously important. So...

RAZ: I mean, is Jesus to you what Lincoln is to Doris Kearns Goodwin, or - I mean, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EHRMAN: To a large extent. Although I must say that I continue to be attracted by the teachings of Jesus. Jesus' teachings of love and mercy and forgiveness, I think, really should dominate our lives, that it really is better to love your neighbor as yourself. On the personal level, I agree with many of the ethical teachings of Jesus, and I try to model my life on them, even though I don't agree with the apocalyptic framework in which they were put.

RAZ: That's Bart Ehrman. He's professor of religious studies at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. His new book is called "Did Jesus Exist?" Bart joined me here in our studios in Washington. Thank you so much for coming in, Bart Ehrman. Appreciate it.

EHRMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.