I posted about Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? last month, here and here. I was addressing the fact (discussed by Richard Carrier on an article by Ehrman in the Huffington Post) that Ehrman says “we have” sources that we don’t actually literally have, because they didn’t survive. I confirmed that he does it in the book too (because Richard didn’t then have the book), and that it had jumped out at me. There are other things to say about the book though.
First, however: there are more places where his wording is (in my view) too realist about hypothetical early sources that have not survived.
In a passage where he is talking about the NT evidence (Galatians 1:18-19) that Paul knew Jesus’s brother James he writes
He calls him the brother of the Lord. In other traditions that long predate our Gospels it is stated that Jesus had actual brothers and that one of them was named James. [p 156]
To an unwary reader that would surely sound as if he meant actual existing manuscripts, but he doesn’t.
…we saw in earlier chapters that in addition to the surviving Gospels (seven from a hundred years of his death), there are multiple independent witnesses to the life of Jesus, including the many written and oral sources of the Gospels… [p 188]
That “there are” is too realist; it’s confusing, at least to unwary readers. Scholars in the field will no doubt easily understand that he’s including sources that don’t physically exist any more, but non-scholars may not.
I like the book as a whole, though. I like meta-books, that are about how the scholars know what they’re telling us, and how they go about figuring out what they know, and how certainly or tentatively they know it. Ehrman points out several times that historians work with probabilities rather than certainties (which is another reason he should be more careful with the realist wording), but he also makes a reasoned case for thinking Jesus did exist.
On the way he reports on recent archaeological findings that indicate Nazareth was a real place, a tiny hamlet of about fifty houses with no expensive rubble left behind, just ordinary clay fragments. Jesus was perhaps a tekton (or perhaps his father was, or both), a carpenter who made not cabinetry but yokes and fences and the like: farming tools. He was probably illiterate, and even if he could read he probably couldn’t write; the disciples were probably illiterate.
He was all wrong for a messiah. A messiah is powerful, chosen by God to rescue his people from oppression. Jesus got busted by the Romans and then swiftly executed in the most degrading way possible. Not the messiah then; how disappointing for his followers. How to make it a better story?
You know the rest.