Having completed and fully annotated Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Harper 2012), I can officially say it is filled with factual errors, logical fallacies, and badly worded arguments. Moreover, it completely fails at its one explicit task: to effectively critique the arguments for Jesus being a mythical person. Lousy with errors and failing even at the one useful thing it could have done, this is not a book I can recommend.
I was certain this would be a great book, the very best in its category. And I said this, publicly, many times in anticipation of it. It’s actually the worst. It’s almost as bad, in fact, as The Jesus Mysteries by Freke & Gandy (and I did not hyperlink that title because I absolutely do not want you to buy it: it will disease your mind with rampant unsourced falsehoods and completely miseducate you about the ancient world and ancient religion). I was eagerly hoping for a book I could recommend as the best case for historicity (but alas, that title stays with the inadequate but nevertheless competent, if not always correct, treatment in Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament and Theissen & Merz’s The Historical Jesus). I was also expecting it to be a good go-to rebuttal to the plethora of bad mythicism out there, so I could just refer people to this book every time they ask me why (for example) Freke & Gandy suck.
But I cannot recommend books that are so full of errors that they will badly mislead and miseducate the reader, and that commit so many mistakes that I have to substantially and extensively correct them. Did Jesus Exist? ultimately misinforms more than it informs, and that actually makes it worse than bad. Like the worst of mythicist literature, you will come away after reading it with more false information in your head than true, and that makes my job as a historian harder, because now I have to fix everything he screwed up. This is why I don’t recommend anyone ever read bad mythicist literature, because it will only fill your head with nonsense that I will have to work harder to correct. Ehrman’s book ironically does much the same thing. Therefore, it officially sucks.
The most alarming irony that struck me is that part of his failure is apparently a matter of professional qualifications. I say ironic because it’s something he makes so much of: we supposedly can’t do competent work because we don’t have degrees “specifically” in early Christian history (though in fact I and Robert Price do; Ehrman falsely claims my degree is only in “classics,” a strange ploy I’ll remark on later); but it is his incompetence in classics (e.g. knowledge of ancient culture and literature) and ancient history (e.g. understanding the methodology of the field and the background facts of the period) that trips him up several times. In the next part of this article I will document several examples.
This book is also badly written (I’ll give some examples of that, too) and almost useless in its treatment of mythicist authors (even when he’s right). The latter failure I find the most disappointing. Almost none of this 361 page book is a critique of the “bad” mythicists. He barely even mentions most of them. Indeed, if he mentioned Atwill even once it was in passing at best, and for the few authors he spends any time discussing (mainly Murdock and Freke & Gandy), he is largely dismissive and careless (indeed, his only real refutation of them amounts to little more than nine pages, pp. 21-30). I was hoping for a well-researched refutation of these authors so I could recommend this book to students, so they could see what sound scholarship looks like and to correct the errors in their heads after reading authors like these. But this book simply doesn’t do that.
That alone I could live with (although I would have rather he not addressed them at all if he wasn’t going to address them competently). But even his treatment of the “good” mythicists (which comprises maybe half the book) is weak to the point of useless. This would be (principally) myself, Robert Price, Earl Doherty, G.A. Wells, Thomas Thompson, and (perhaps) Frank Zindler. He treats our arguments only selectively, never comprehensively, and I never once saw him actually engage directly with any single mythicist case for their theory of Christian origins–as in, describing the theory correctly, listing the evidence its proponent offers for each element, and then evaluating that evidence and the logical connection between it and their conclusion. You won’t find this done once, anywhere in this book, for any author. He just cherry picks isolated claims and argues against them, often with minimal reference to the facts its proponent has claimed support it.
The next most alarming thing about this book is its astonishing plethora of blatant logical fallacies and self-contradictions. An attentive reader, who was aware of the actual facts, would come away from this book believing historicity can only be defended by deploying a methodological framework that would produce absurd conclusions if applied to any other subject in the history of myth and religion (I’ll demonstrate what I mean in the last half of this article). I wrote Proving History in part to bring to public attention the fact that even specialists in the methodology of Jesus studies have all concluded that its methodology is logically fallacious and urgently in need of replacement. But Ehrman not only uses that fallacious methodology (completely unaware of any of the literature in his own field refuting it), he makes the field’s methodology look even worse, routinely resorting to the most egregiously illogical arguments for his positions, yet with such absolute confidence one might not think they are reading the work of a careful and cautious scholar but a wild sensationalist, like some Christian apologist or the whackiest of mythers.
Like Freke & Gandy, Ehrman is occasionally right. For example, that many mythicists are incompetent or do not argue their case well; or that they are often fanatically unmoved by evidence and logic and won’t abandon their theory no matter what is presented them. But historicity proponents are sometimes just as guilty of these faults–Ehrman included, as I’ll demonstrate below. Ehrman will also decry bad mythicist literature, quite rightly, as “filled with patently false information and inconsistencies” (p. 27), but as we shall see, this sentence also describes Ehrman’s book. In fact, there are so many errors and fallacies and questionably worded statements in his book that documenting them all would produce a monstrously long article. So I will restrict myself to explaining several key examples, which are representative of countless other defects throughout the book. I might catalog more examples in future blog posts (and if I do I will link to them here). But I need to get on with doing what I must do here, which is give evidence for all that I have claimed above.
[For those who want more examples, there are other reviews that address the flaws in this book, from the Preliminary Overview of Thomas Verenna to the extensive rebuttal series of Earl Doherty and Neil Godfrey. I am interested in any others you deem worth reading, so post any you know of in comments later and I might include them here. Also, for those who read my critique of Ehrman's Huffington Post article, and my response to his inept defender James McGrath, who want to know if Ehrman's book repeats the same errors as his article, the answer is technically no, it treats the same issues somewhat less erroneously/fallaciously, although the mistakes he made in that article remain relevant evidence of his carelessness and unreliability on this issue, and my responses to it likewise illustrate many elements of the mythicist case that are misrepresented or not even addressed in Ehrman's book.]
Errors of Fact
The Priapus Bronze: In response to D.M. Murdock’s claim that there is a statue of a penis-nosed cockerel (which she says is a “symbol of St. Peter”) in the Vatican museum, Ehrman says that “there is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up” (p. 24). Ehrman evidently did no research on this and did not check this claim at all. Murdock quickly exposed this by providing numerous scholarly references, including actual photographs of the object (see The Phallic Savior of the World). Most important of these is Lorrayne Baird, “Priapus Gallinaceus: The Role of the Cock in Fertility and Eroticism in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” Studies in Iconography 7-8 (1981-82): 81-112. It does not have the name “Peter” on it (Murdock never claimed it did; that it represents him is only an interpretation), but it apparently exists (or did exist) exactly as she describes.
At the very least I would expect Ehrman to have called the Vatican museum about this, and to have checked the literature on it, before arrogantly declaring no such object existed and implying Murdock made this up. I do not assume Murdock’s interpretation of the object is correct (there is no clear evidence it has anything to do with Christianity, much less Peter). But its existence appears to be beyond dispute. She did not make that up. The reason this error troubles me is that it is indicative of the carelessness and arrogance Ehrman exhibits throughout this book: like Freke & Gandy, he often doesn’t check his facts, and clearly did little to no research. This makes the book extremely unreliable. A reader must ask, if he got this wrong, what other assertions in the book are false? And since making sure to get details like this right is the only useful purpose this book could have had, how can we credit this book as anything but a failure? I needed this book to do a good job of refuting bad mythicism. Because if it doesn’t do that, it’s useless.
The Doherty Slander: Ehrman says Earl Doherty “quotes professional scholars at length when their views prove useful for developing aspects of his argument, but he fails to point out that not a single one of these scholars agrees with his overarching thesis” (p. 252). This claim is so completely false I cannot believe Ehrman read the work of Doherty with any requisite care. Neil Godfrey documents the fact (in Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman?) that Doherty repeatedly points out exactly what Ehrman claims he doesn’t. This is actually a typical error I found in Ehrman’s book. He often makes blanket false statements that make mythicists look incompetent, thus the reader is misled into thinking they are.
This is a serious error, because it makes Ehrman’s book into nothing more than falsified propaganda. It is his responsibility as a scholar to have read these writings and accurately represent them to his readers so they don’t have to read them themselves. That he doesn’t do that erases any scholarly value this book could have had. Here, for example, the key point is that Doherty engaged himself like a competent scholar, used mainstream scholarship extensively, and correctly identified where his conclusions and interpretations differed from the scholars he cites and from mainstream scholarship generally. Ehrman hides this fact from his readers, and even misleads his readers by declaring exactly the opposite. Where else does Ehrman completely hide and misrepresent the views, statements, and methods of the mythicists he criticizes? If we cannot trust him in this case (and clearly we can’t, since what he says is demonstrably exactly the opposite of the truth), why are we to trust anything he says in this book?
The Pliny Confusion: Ehrman almost made me fall out of my chair when he discusses the letters of Pliny the Younger. He made two astonishing errors here that are indicative of his incompetence with ancient source materials. First, he doesn’t correctly cite or describe his source (yet in this particular case that should have been impossible); and second, he fails to understand the difference between a fact and a hypothesis. Ehrman says that Pliny discusses Christians in his correspondence with emperor Trajan in “letter number 10,” and that “in his letter 10 to the emperor Pliny discusses” the problem of the imperial decree against firefighting societies in that province, “and in that context he mentions another group that was illegally gathering,” the Christians (pp. 51-52). This is all incorrect, and demonstrates that Ehrman never actually read Pliny’s letter, and doesn’t even know how to cite it correctly, and has no idea that the connection between Pliny’s prosecution of Christians and the decree against illegal assembly affecting the firefighters in Bithynia is a modern scholarly inference and not actually anything Pliny says in his letters.
In fact, Pliny never once discusses the decree against fire brigades in his letter about Christians, nor connects the two cases in any way. Moreover, neither subject is discussed in “letter number 10.” Ehrman evidently doesn’t know that all of Pliny’s correspondence to Trajan is collected in book 10 of Pliny’s letters. His letter on the fire brigades is, in that book, letter 33; and his letter on Christians is letter 96 (and therefore nowhere near each other in time or topic). On their possible connection (which I do believe scholars have correctly inferred), see my discussion in Not the Impossible Faith (pp. 418-22). But Ehrman has still gotten the context wrong. The law against illegal assembly was not a special law in that province, but had long been a law throughout the whole empire, and it was not targeted at fire brigades. Existing law required all social clubs to be licensed by the government, and many clubs were so licensed (including religious and scientific associations, burial clubs, guilds, and, of course, fire brigades). What was unique about Pliny’s province was that the state had been denying these licenses even to fire brigades, and Pliny asked Trajan to lift that injunction (and in letter 34, Trajan denies Pliny’s request, citing recent unrest in that province).
The connection between the Bithynian fire brigades and Christianity is not that there was any special injunction against Christians (Trajan, in letter 97, explicitly says there wasn’t), but that in letter 96 Christianity appears to be treated by Pliny like any unlicensed club, and both letters (96 and 97) make it clear there was no specific law or decree against Christians. Therefore, modern scholars conclude, the same law is probably what was being applied in both cases (prosecuting Christians and banning firefighting associations). And that’s kind of what Ehrman confusingly says (except he is evidently unaware that this is a modern conclusion and not actually stated in the source).
Ehrman’s treatment of the sources and scholarship on this issue betray the kind of hackneyed mistakes and lack of understanding that he repeatedly criticizes the “bad” mythicists of (particularly his inability even to cite the letters properly and his strange assumption that both subjects are discussed in the same letter–mistakes I would only expect from an undergraduate). But if even historicists like Ehrman can’t do their research properly and get their facts right, and can’t even be bothered to read their own source materials or understand their context, why are we to trust the consensus of historicists any more than mythicists? And more particularly, how many other sources has Ehrman completely failed to read, cite, or understand properly?
The Pilate Error: In the past I have noted that I don’t trust G.A. Wells to be sufficiently competent in ancient history because he makes mistakes that exhibit ignorance of basic background knowledge of Roman history. The example I often give is his argument that Tacitus’ passage about Christians cannot be from a reliable source because it “incorrectly” claims Pilate was a procurator, when in fact everyone knows he was a prefect. This betrays ignorance of the fact that provincial prefects were often also imperial procurators, and from his treatment of the scandal of this fact throughout the Annals Tacitus has a particular motive to emphasize that fact here (see my discussion in Herod the Procurator, particularly the section “So Was Pontius Pilate a Prefect or a Procurator?”). In other words, Pontius Pilate was both a procurator and a prefect. And the recent literature on the subject confirms this, as would any consultation with an expert in Tacitus or Roman imperial administration.
Imagine my surprise when I saw Ehrman making the same argument, that “Tacitus is precisely wrong” in saying Pilate was a “procurator” (p. 56). Like Wells, Ehrman doesn’t understand his source (why Tacitus would choose to say “procurator”) or the historical context (why prefects were often also procurators). Moreover, he speaks with absurd hyperbolic certainty: Tacitus is “precisely” wrong; as opposed to, say, Tacitus “appears” to be or “might” be wrong, or “according to Wells, Tacitus is wrong,” or any of a dozen other more accurate and suitably cautious remarks one would expect from someone who ought to know he is out of his element when treating Roman imperial administration or sources (like Tacitean literature) that he is not well versed in. If I cannot rely on Wells because of this error, this means I cannot rely on Ehrman, either.
Now, one or two mistakes like this would be excusable. We all make them. And we can’t all know everything. But my point is that this is an example of a pervasive number of similar errors throughout the book that indicate Ehrman doesn’t actually know what he is talking about. And since a lay reader won’t know that, they will come away from this book with more false information in their heads than true. And as I said, that makes this book worse than bad.
The “No Records” Debacle: Ehrman declares (again with that same suicidally hyperbolic certitude) that “we simply don’t have birth notices, trial records, death certificates—or other kinds of records that one has today” (p. 29). Although his conclusion is correct (we should not expect to have any such records for Jesus or early Christianity), his premise is false. In fact, I cannot believe he said this. How can he not know that we have thousands of these kinds of records? Yes, predominantly from the sands of Egypt, but even in some cases beyond. I have literally held some of these documents in my very hands. More importantly, we also have such documents quoted or cited in books whose texts have survived. For instance, Suetonius references birth records for Caligula, and in fact his discussion of the sources on this subject is an example I have used of precisely the kind of historical research that is conspicuously lacking in any Christian literature before the third century (see Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 182-87).
From Ehrman’s list, “birth notices” would mean census receipts declaring a newborn, tax receipts establishing birth year (as capitation taxes often began when a child reached a certain age), or records establishing citizenship, and we have many examples of all three; as for “trial records” we have all kinds (including rulings and witness affidavits); we have “death certificates,” too (we know there were even coroner’s reports from doctors in cases of suspicious death); and quite a lot else (such as tax receipts establishing family property, home town, and family connections; business accounts; personal letters; financial matters for charities and religious organizations). As one papyrologist put it, “a wealth of papyrus documents from the Graeco-Roman era have come to light on the daily lives of ancient people in Egypt, including their love letters and marriage contracts, tax and bank accounts, commodity lists, birth records, divorce cases, temple offerings, and most other conceivable types of memoranda, whether personal, financial, or religious” (see Greco-Roman Papyrus Documents from Egypt).
That Ehrman would not know this is shocking and suggests he has very little experience in ancient history as a field and virtually none in papyrology (beyond its application to biblical manuscripts). Worse, he didn’t even think to check whether we had any of these kinds of documents, before confidently declaring we didn’t. Instead, Ehrman only demonstrates how little we can trust his knowledge or research when he says such silly things like, “If Romans kept such records, where are they? We certainly don’t have any” (p. 44). He really seems to think, or is misleading any lay reader to think, that (a) we don’t have any such records (when in fact we have many) and that (b) our not having them means Romans never kept them (when if fact it only means those records have been lost, because no one troubled to preserve them; which leads us to ask why no one in Jesus’ family, or among his disciples or subsequent churches, ever troubled to preserve any of these records, or any records whatever, whether legal documents, receipts, contracts, or letters).
We can certainly adduce plausible answers for why we don’t have any of these documents for Christianity, answers that do not entail Jesus did not exist. Which is what a competent author would have done here: admit that we have lots of these kinds of records and know they once existed, but due to factors and conditions relating to where Christianity began and how it developed, it would be unreasonable to assume any of these records would be preserved to us (see my discussion of the corresponding logic of evidence in regard to the trial records under Pontius Pilate in Proving History, pp. 220-24). But we have to accept the consequences of any such answer we give.
For example, we cannot claim the Christians were simultaneously very keen to preserve information about Jesus and his family and completely disinterested in preserving any information about Jesus and his family. An example is the letter of Claudius Lysias in Acts, which if based on a real letter has been doctored to remove all the expected data it would contain (such as the year it was written and Paul’s full Roman name), but if based on a real letter, why don’t we still have it? It makes no sense to say Christians had no interest in preserving such records. Moreover, if a Christian preserved this letter long enough for the author of Acts to have read it, why didn’t they preserve any other letters or government documents pertaining to the early church, just like this one?
I personally believe we can answer these questions (and thus I agree with Ehrman that this argument from silence is too weak to make a case out of), but not with this silly nonsense. A good book on historicity would have given us educationally informative, plausible, and thoughtfully considered answers and information about ancient documents and the total Christian failure to retain or use them. Instead Ehrman gives us hackneyed nonsense and disinformation. Again, the relevance of this is that if he failed so badly in this case, how many other statements and claims of his are misinforming us about the evidence and the ancient world? And if he didn’t do even the most rudimentary fact checking (“Let’s see, do we have any Roman documents?”) and didn’t know so basic a background fact as this about the field of ancient history (that we have tons of these documents, as any ancient historian cannot fail to know because she will have worked with them many times, even in graduate school), then how can we assume any of his work in this book is competently researched or informed?
The Tacitus Question: Ehrman says “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think” the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a forgery (p. 55). Now, I agree with Ehrman that it’s “highly unlikely” this passage wasn’t what Tacitus wrote; but the fact that he doesn’t know of the many classical scholars who have questioned it suggests he didn’t check. See Herbert W. Benario, “Recent Work on Tacitus (1964–68),” The Classical World 63.8 (April 1970), pp. 253-66 [and in 80.2 (Nov.–Dec. 1986)], who identifies no less than six classical scholars who have questioned its authenticity, three arguing it’s an outright interpolation and three arguing it has been altered or tampered with [correction: he names five scholars, one of them arguing in part for both--ed.]. This is important, because part of Ehrman’s argument is that mythicists are defying all established scholarship in suggesting this is an interpolation, so the fact that there is a lot of established scholarship supporting them undermines Ehrman’s argument and makes him look irresponsible.
That the overall consensus of scholarship, myself included, sides with Ehrman on the conclusion is true (I am sure the passage is authentic and has not been relevantly altered), but that does not change the fact that readers are being seriously misled by Ehrman’s characterization of the matter. For him to claim that mythicists “just made this up” because it was convenient for them is false. But more alarming to me is the fact that this demonstrates that he didn’t even check. And again, if he didn’t check this, what else didn’t he check? This kind of sloppy work, the failure to check his facts, to do any basic research we should expect of a scholar, and consequently to misrepresent his opponents and their position, and misinform the public about the debate, is the same kind of crap we get from the bad mythicists. Why, then, are we now getting it from a prestigious historicist? Can we speculate that it’s because Ehrman is simply defending a dogma, and as such is simply a priori “certain” he is right and therefore “doesn’t need to check”? What credibility can arguments against mythicism have, when they rest on this kind of arrogantly dogmatic and irresponsible thinking?
The “Other Jesus” Conundrum: Ehrman says the fact that “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events” is “the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all” (p. 251). This is false. And it’s astonishing that he would not know this, since several other scholars have discussed the sources that place Jesus in the reign of Jannaeus in the 70s B.C. Ehrman seems to think (and represents to his readers) that G.A. Wells just made this up (pp. 247-51). In fact, Wells is discussing a theory defended by others, and based in actual sources: Epiphanius, in Panarion 29, says there was a sect of still-Torah-observant Christians who taught that Jesus lived and died in the time of Jannaeus, and all the Jewish sources on Christianity that we have (from the Talmud to the Toledot Yeshu) report no other view than that Jesus lived during the time of Jannaeus. Though these are all early medieval sources, it nevertheless means there were actual Christians teaching this and that the Jews who composed the Babylonian Talmud knew of no other version of Christianity.
This is indeed a strange curiosity, since it is hard to explain how a religion that taught from its inception a Jesus who lived and died under the Romans, and Pontius Pilate specifically, could ever evolve a sect that placed him a hundred years earlier, or how this sect could become so ubiquitous east of the Roman Empire that the Jews there had not heard of any other. Make of that what you will. My point here is that Ehrman falsely claims no sources say this (when in fact several do) and misleads readers into thinking Wells just made this up, when in fact others have made the same argument, including:
- Alvar Ellegård, Jesus: One Hundred Years before Christ (Overlook 1999)
- Michael Wise, The First Messiah (Harper 1999)
- Frank Zindler, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew (American Atheist 2003)
- John Marco Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth (Prometheus 1984).
These are all arguably “fringe” scholars, and they may well be as wrong as Wells or even more so. I am not defending anything they argue (I do not believe Christianity originated in the 70s B.C.). I am merely pointing out that Ehrman misleads his readers (and demonstrates his shoddy and careless research) by not even mentioning any of this (neither the many other scholars nor the primary sources), but in fact even arrogantly and ignorantly declaring the contrary (that there are no sources that say this), as if he checked (which is what a naive reader will assume he did).
That Dying-and-Rising God Thing: Case in point. Regarding the claim that Osiris “returned to life on earth by being raised from the dead,” Ehrman insists that in fact “no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods)” (p. 26). He relies solely on Jonathan Z. Smith, and fails to check whether anything Smith says is even correct. If Ehrman had acted like a real scholar and actually gone to the sources, and read more widely in the scholarship (instead of incompetently reading just one author–the kind of hack mistake we would expect from an incompetent myther), he would have discovered that almost everything Smith claims about this is false. In fact, Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life (literally: he uses the words anabiôsis and paliggenesis, which are very specific on this point, see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and that in the public myths he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19.358b).
Although Plutarch does say that in the private teachings Osiris’ death and resurrection took place in outer space (below the orbit of the moon), after which he ascended back to the heights of heaven in his new body (not “the underworld,” as Ehrman incorrectly claims on p. 228), that is irrelevant to the mythicist’s case (or rather, it supports it, by analogy, since this is exactly what competent mythicists like Doherty say was the case for Jesus: public accounts putting the events on earth, but private “true” accounts placing it all in various levels of outer space: see my Review of Doherty). In fact the earliest Christians also believed Jesus was resurrected into outer space: he, like Osiris, ascended to heaven in his resurrection body, appearing to those below in visions, not in person (see my survey of the evidence in The Empty Tomb, pp. 105-232; the same is true of many other dying-and-rising gods, like Hercules). The notion of a risen Jesus walking around on earth is a late invention (first found in the Gospels).
That these kinds of beliefs about Osiris’ death and resurrection long predate Plutarch is established in mainstream scholarship on the cult: e.g. S.G.F. Brandon, The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation (Greenwood 1963), pp. 17-36 and John Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris and His Cult, 2nd ed. (Brill 1980). But we hardly need point that out, because there is already zero chance that the entirety of Isis-Osiris cult had completely transformed its doctrines in imitation of Christianity already by 100 A.D. (I shouldn’t have to explain why such a claim would be all manner of stupid). Ehrman’s claim that Plutarch is making all this up because he is Platonist is likewise nonsense. Ehrman evidently didn’t check the fact that Plutarch’s essay is written to a ranking priestess of the cult, and Plutarch repeatedly says she already knows the things he is conveying and will not find any of it surprising.
So regarding the death and resurrection of Osiris, Ehrman states what is in fact false. And this is most alarming because much of his case against mythicism rests on this false assertion. But worse, Ehrman foolishly eats his foot again by hyperbolically generalizing to all possible gods (he repeatedly insists there are no dying-and-rising gods in the Hellenistic period). Which is really bad, because that proves he did no research on this subject whatever. I shouldn’t have to adduce passages such as, from Plutarch, “[about] Dionysus, Zagreus, Nyctelius, and Isodaetes, they narrate deaths and vanishings, followed by returns to life and resurrections” (Plutarch, On the E at Delphi 9.388f-389a). That looks pretty cut and dried to me. But it’s worse than that. Because for Romulus and Zalmoxis we undeniably have pre-Christian evidence that they actually die (on earth) and are actually raised from the dead (on earth) and physically visit their disciples (on earth). And likewise for Inanna, a clear-cut death-and-resurrection tale exists on clay tablets a thousand years before Christianity (she dies and rises in hell, but departs from and returns to the world above all the same).
I was very alarmed to see that Ehrman never once mentions Romulus or Zalmoxis or Inanna. Thus demonstrating he did no research on this. He didn’t even read my book Not the Impossible Faith, even though he claims to have and even cites it. I know he can’t have actually read it, because I document the evidence, sources, and scholarship on these gods there (pp. 17-20 and 85-128), yet his book shows no awareness of these gods or any of the evidence I present for their resurrection cults. As well as many others, besides those I’ve just here named. (Do not mistake me for supporting false claims in this category, however; Mithras was almost certainly not a dying-and-rising god, and Attis only barely was.)
Even if Ehrman had done any responsible literature review on this, he would have found the latest peer reviewed scholarship establishing, for example, that vanishing bodies as elements of resurrection tales were a ubiquitous component of pagan mythmaking: Richard C. Miller, “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129.4 (2010): 759-76. And thus a dying-and-rising hero theme was incredibly ubiquitous, even if highly flexible in the different ways this theme could be constructed. To be fair, Ehrman does address Tryggve Mettinger’s work on pre-Hellenistic dying-and-rising gods, dismissing it as questionable but ultimately admitting he might have a case for there being such gods (Ehrman arguing instead, albeit implausibly, that they can’t have influenced Christianity). But Ehrman doesn’t address any of the evidence for these same (much less other) gods in the Hellenistic period, the period actually relevant to Christianity, which proves he did no checking, and isn’t even aware of such evidence, nor even thought it was important for him to be.
Again, Ehrman exposes himself as completely uninformed, and incompetent as a scholar (like any hack, trusting a single biased scholar and not checking any of the evidence or reading any of the other literature), and as consistently misinforming his readers on the actual facts, and thus hiding from them almost everything that actually adds strength to the mythicist thesis. That he does this on a point so central and crucial to his book’s entire argument is alone enough to discredit this book as worthless.
The Baptism Blunder: Ehrman says “we don’t have a single description in any source of any kind of baptism in the mystery religions” (p. 28). That is outright false, and one of the most appallingly incompetent statements in this book. Apuleius gives us a first person account of baptism in Isis cult, which he describes as a symbolic death and resurrection for the recipient, exactly as Paul describes Christian baptism in the NT (see Not the Impossible Faith, p. 376; and e.g. Romans 6:4), a fact that surely undermines Ehrman’s entire argument and makes the mythicist case look significantly stronger. So this is certainly important for him to know (and yet he would know it, if he actually read my work, which as we’ve seen, he did not), and crucial for the reader to know. Evidence of baptism in Osiris cult (and that it granted eternal life) exists in pre-Christian papyri, and several other sources: see Brook Pearson, Corresponding Sense: Paul, Dialectic, and Gadamer (Brill 2001), pp. 206-18, 312-29.
We also know that something like baptism into eternal life was a feature of the cult of Bacchus-Dionysus, and we know this not only because Plato mentions it (Plato, Republic 364e-365a, where we’re told of Orphic libations “for the remission of sins” that secure one a better place in the afterlife), but also from actual pre-Christian inscriptions (that’s right, words actually carved in stone). See examples in Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians (Fortress 1975), pp. 275-76, n. 116. Both sources (Plato and inscriptions) also confirm the Bacchic belief that one could be baptized on behalf of someone who had already died and thus gain them a better position in the afterlife. It cannot be a coincidence that exactly the same thing, baptism for the dead, is attested as a Christian rite in Paul (1 Corinthians 15:29). We have hints of baptismal rituals in other cults (Tertullian, for example, in On Baptism 5, describes numerous pagan rituals of baptism for the remission of sins, clearly understanding it to be a common practice everywhere known). Sure, in many of these cases the baptism was part of a larger ritual (perhaps involving prayer or incense), but Christian baptisms were not free of their own ritual accoutrements, so those hardly matter to the point.
This also undermines Ehrman’s claim that there is no evidence that the death of Osiris (or any other god) “brought atonement for sin” (p. 26). We know Egyptian afterlife belief made the physical weight of sin a factor in deciding one’s placement in the afterlife, and that (as just shown above) baptism into the death and resurrection of Osiris washes away those sins and thus lightens the soul to obtain the best place in heaven. It is hard to imagine how this does not entail that the death and resurrection of Osiris somehow procured salvation through remission of sins (and clearly a similar belief had developed in Bacchic and other cults). One could perhaps get nitpicky as to what might be the exact theology of the process, but whatever the differences, the similarity remains: the death and resurrection of Osiris was clearly believed to make it possible for those ritually sharing in that death and resurrection through baptism to have their sins remitted. That belief predates Christianity. Ehrman is simply wrong to say otherwise. And the evidence for this is clear, indisputable, and mainstream. Which means his book is useless if you want to know the facts of this matter. Or any matter, apparently.
The Dying Messiah Question: Ehrman declares “there were no Jews prior to Christianity who thought Isaiah 53 (or any other ‘suffering’ passages) referred to the future messiah” (p. 166), yet he does not even mention much less address the Dead Sea pesher (11Q13) or the 1st century targum that both explicitly evince this belief. And he knows about all this, so I cannot explain why he doesn’t even attempt a rebuttal, or even in fact mention this evidence, which can only misinform the reader, who will think there is none, and mistakenly conclude his assertion has not been disputed. That is simply irresponsible. See my discussion of this in The Dying Messiah Redux [updating and correcting my earlier article The Dying Messiah, which I know he had read well in advance of publishing his book, so it appears like he is suppressing arguments and evidence presented by mythicists, in order to make our claims look weaker than in fact they are.]
Besides his false (or at least debatable) statement, there is a logical fail here as well, since he bases his conclusion that no Jews would develop a belief in a dying messiah on the premise that no Jews had a belief in a dying messiah, which apart from being a circular argument (all novel beliefs start somewhere; you can’t argue that x would not arise because x hasn’t arisen), and apart from the fact that the inference is refuted by the fact that Jews later did develop such a belief (independently of Christianity, as I also demonstrate in the preceding link) so clearly there was no ideological barrier to doing so, but besides all that, his premise requires knowing what all Jews, of all sects, everywhere, believed or imagined, which knowledge Ehrman doesn’t have (not even close: see my discussion of what I and other scholars have said about such preposterous claims to omniscience in Proving History, pp. 129-34). He even knows his own inference is illogical, because he makes the exact same argument I just did (on p. 193): “how would we know this about ‘every’ early Christian, unless all of them left us writings and told us everything they knew and did?” Substitute “Jew” for “Christian” and Ehrman just refuted himself. (This is not the only instance in which Ehrman contradicts himself in this book; I will cite another egregious example below.)
The Matter of Qualifications: I could list dozens more of these kinds of serious factual errors. They plague the book, cover to cover. But I will end my sample of them with this, because it’s indicative of both his carelessness and his skewed attempts to distort the facts in his favor:
Twice Ehrman says I have a Ph.D. in “classics” (p. 19, 167). In fact, my degrees are in ancient history, with an undergraduate minor in Classics (major in history), and three graduate degrees (M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D.) with four graduate majors (Greco-Roman historiography, philosophy, religion, and a special major on the fall of Rome). One of those, you’ll notice, is in the religions of the Roman empire–which included Christianity (and my study of Christianity featured significantly in my dissertation work). I shouldn’t have to explain that the classics and ancient history departments aren’t even in the same building, much less the same major. Although I did take courses from each and studied under both classicists and historians, and have a considerable classics background, it’s a rather telling mistake of his to think (and then report) that I am just a classicist and not a historian, much less a certified historian of Christianity (and, incidentally, its surrounding religions, ignorance of which we have seen is Ehrman’s failing).
Ehrman can’t have learned my degree is in classics from any reliable source. He can only have invented this detail. I am left to wonder if this was a deliberate attempt to diminish my qualifications by misrepresentation. Or if he is really so massively incompetent it never even occurred to him to check my CV, which is on my very public website (he also has my email address, and we have corresponded, so he could even have just asked). Did he not even think to check? Why? And if he didn’t check, why did he decide to say my degree was in “Classics”? Where did he get that notion? This is important, because Ehrman makes such an absurd issue out of exactly what our degrees are in, so for him to even get it wrong is again damaging to his reliability.
Why These Factual Errors Matter
I also notice that Ehrman ignores a larger category of historians: historicity agnostics. He insists no historians of Christianity with professorships in the history of Christianity exist who doubt the historicity of Jesus, but I happen to know of at least one: Arthur Droge, professor of early Christianity at UCSD. At the Amherst conference in 2008 Droge said publicly that he had no idea whether there was a real Jesus, and gave a presentation using Ned Ludd as an example of a quickly historicized fictional person, around whom a whole movement grew, which Droge argued demonstrated that we could not be confident the same thing hadn’t happened to Jesus. Here we have someone who meets all of Ehrman’s hyper-specific requirements, yet who does not share Ehrman’s certitude about the historicity of Jesus. I suspect there are many more like him. Droge simply hasn’t published on this. How many other scholars are there out there, who likewise have not published an opinion in the matter, but nevertheless are far more skeptical than Ehrman?
At any rate, competence to argue a case on this issue cannot be decided by precisely what degrees one has (whether they are in “ancient history” or “ancient Judaism” or “classics,” or as he desires, “Christianity” specifically), or where one works (whether someone holds a professorship is wholly irrelevant). No. This will be decided by the quality and informedness of one’s work. And on that score I would ask that Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? be compared with my latest on the same subject, Proving History. Just compare the extent and content of our endnotes alone, much less the way we argue, the difference in our attention to method and its logical soundness, the diverse range of scholarship we cite. Even my book Not the Impossible Faith is superior on all these measures, and it was a deliberately colloquial book designed to be entertaining. Both undoubtedly have occasional errors (as all scholarly work does)–but I doubt anything even remotely like what I have documented above (in degree, quantity, and cruciality).
Proving History also illustrates how Ehrman is out of touch with the extensive work in his own field discrediting the very methods he assumes are still valid (and naively relies on throughout). As I said before, every expert who has published a study of these methods has concluded they are invalid. Ehrman doesn’t seem to be aware of any of this literature, even though it is now quite extensive. Proving History also refutes many of his specific arguments for historicity (such as that Christians would not invent the baptism by John or a Nazareth origin for Jesus), on every point citing peer reviewed scholarship or presenting clear logical demonstrations from primary evidence. So it is already an adequate rebuttal (even though I will not actually defend the thesis that Jesus didn’t exist until my next book, which is nearly completed: On the Historicity of Jesus Christ). But as you can see from my many examples above, Ehrman’s book is so full of egregious factual errors demonstrating his ignorance, sloppiness, and incompetence in this matter, it really doesn’t even need a rebuttal. It can be thrown straight into the trash without any loss to scholarship or humanity. It is, quite simply, wholly unreliable.
The Methodologically Absurd
I could end with that. But it’s crucially important to address another side of how Did Jesus Exist? fails at its central task: the bankruptcy of Ehrman’s methods. Even with sound methods, to start with dozens of false facts (which this book does, as just demonstrated with a sample of them) will produce false or logically unsound conclusions. Which is why that is enough to discredit the book. One needn’t even question his methods. We know he made so many factual errors, we can’t trust any of his factual claims. And in light of that even a perfect method couldn’t have rescued this book. But the failure of his methods remains important precisely to the extent that other historians in this field might be fooled into trusting them and continuing to use them. And lay readers might similarly be duped into trusting and using them themselves.
I will not address here the one aspect of his methodology that the scholarly literature has already soundly refuted (the “method of criteria”). My book Proving History already does that, in meticulous detail. Instead, I will here address his strange method of inventing sources and witnesses.
I could call out many examples of his use of ordinary fallacies and self-contradictions, too, but I will have to leave those for perhaps a later blog (if I even care to bother). I will just give one example that simultaneously illustrates both: Ehrman attacks Robert Price for using the “criterion of dissimilarity” negatively (on p. 187), insisting that’s a “misuse” of the criterion, and then defends using it negatively himself (on p. 293), a blatant self-contradiction. It is also fallacious reasoning. Price was using it “negatively” (in Ehrman’s sense) to show that the case for historicity from the Gospels is weak because for every story about Jesus the Christians had a motive to invent it, which is a logically valid way to argue: he is rebutting the contrary claim (that some of these stories must be true because they didn’t have a motive to invent them) and thereby removing a premise that ups the probability of historicity, which necessarily lowers the probability of historicity (by exactly as much as that premise being true would have raised it). Ehrman outright denies this (on p. 187) which betrays a fundamental ignorance of how logic works. Perhaps what Ehrman meant to say was that this argument cannot alone prove Jesus didn’t exist, but Price never says it does.
As bad as those kinds of self contradictions and fallacies are (and there are more than just that one), far worse is how Ehrman moves from the possibility of hypothetical sources to the conclusion of having proved historicity. He argues that because Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas (yes, Thomas) and various other documents all have material the others don’t, that therefore we “have” a zillion earlier sources, which he sometimes calls by their traditionally assigned letters like M, L, and Q (he is irrationally dismissive of Mark Goodacre’s refutation of Q, and claims no one is convinced by it but cites not a single rebuttal; I myself find Goodacre’s case persuasive, well enough at least to leave us in complete doubt of the matter). We don’t in fact have those sources, we aren’t even sure they exist, and even if we were, we have no way of knowing what they said. To illustrate why that matters, take a look at the second redactions of the Epistles of Ignatius and ask yourself how you would know what the first redactions of those epistles said if you didn’t in fact have them (then go and look at those first editions and see if you guessed successfully!). Just try that, and you’ll see why Ehrman’s entire procedure is methodologically ridiculous.
According to Ehrman’s method, the material added and changed in the second redaction of the Ignatians had a “source” and therefore we can rely on it. But that’s absurd. The material added to the second redactions of the Ignatian epistles is made up. It did not “have a source.” The same is true of most if not all the material unique to any given Gospel. The miracle at Cana is something John just made up. He did not “have a source” for it. And even if he did, that source made it up. Obviously. That’s why no one had ever heard of it before, or anything even remotely like it before, and why it involved a patently impossible event (the transmutation of matter; or if you have a rationalist bent, a deceptive magician’s trick that would make no sense in context and could not have any plausible motive). There is no argument for historicity here. The story is false. And false stories cannot support the existence of real people. And yet Ehrman repeatedly cites false stories, even stories he himself confesses to be false (indeed, even false stories in forged documents!) as evidence for the existence of Jesus, which is the most unbelievably illogical thing I could imagine any historian doing.
(1) He cites Jesus’ cry on the cross, which Mark gives in Aramaic and translates, as evidence Mark was using an Aramaic source (p. 88). Well, yes. His source is the Bible. If he was not translating the Hebrew into Aramaic himself, then he was using a targum (which would explain the biblical citations in the Gospels to verses that we can’t find in our Bible, like Matthew’s Nazarene prophecy: Mt. 2:23; because the Aramaic targums often altered the text, and we don’t have most of the targums that were then in use). Everyone knows this. Scholar after scholar has pointed out that the entire crucifixion scene is created out of material extracted from the Psalms, this specific cry on the cross in particular, which is a quotation from Psalm 22 (see my discussion of the evidence and the scholarship in Proving History, pp. 131-33). Ehrman doesn’t mention this (misleading his readers already, by concealing rather crucial information that undermines his point). But notice what happens when we take it into account: Mark dressed up a scene by borrowing and translating a line from the Bible, and Ehrman wants us to believe this is evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Really. Think about that for a moment. Then kick his book across the room to vent your outrage.
(2) Mark does the same thing (puts a sentence in Jesus’ mouth in Aramaic, then translates into the Greek) in the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, which Ehrman again cites as evidence that Mark was using Aramaic sources (p. 87). Apart from the fact that we should sooner suspect Mark drew this line from the same targum (and we just don’t have that targum to confirm), the bigger problem is that everyone knows the Jairus story is fabricated. It didn’t happen. It’s a literary creation, a reworking of an Old Testament story (a targum of which may have contained, for all we know, the very line quoted by Jesus), with obvious puns, and a symbolic and allegorical purpose (see Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions, pp. 65-67). It’s possible it was invented in Aramaic, but why would that matter? How does a story being fabricated in Aramaic prove the characters in that story existed? Jairus (whose name means “he will awaken [or be enlightened]” ; get it?) is most likely a fictional character. So why couldn’t Jesus (whose name means “savior” [lit. "God saves"]; get it?) be just as fictional? But even the notion that the story originated in Aramaic cannot be proved. If Mark is an Aramaic speaker, then he may simply be translating his own Aramaic thoughts and ideas into Greek. And even if he is using an Aramaic source (and that source is not simply a targum), then that source made this up. And made up stories cannot be used as evidence for the existence of the characters in them. Yet that is what Ehrman does with them.
Consider how his “method” would work if we applied it to the nativity stories (which Ehrman himself concludes are fiction). According to Ehrman’s methodology we have six independent sources for the miraculous birth of Jesus: Matthew, Luke, the Protevangelion of James, Ignatius (Ephesians 19), Justin Martyr, and Q (because some elements of the nativities in Luke and Matthew are shared in common). And there are probably others. Now, we know these are all made up. Not a stitch of them is true. But Ehrman’s method would compel us to assert that we have undeniable proof of the miraculous birth of Jesus. For example, every one of these attests that a miraculous star or light from heaven attended his birth.
These are all different stories, written in different words, so (by Ehrman’s logic) they “cannot” have been influenced by each other; except where they are nearly identical, then (by Ehrman’s logic) they corroborate each other. This is actually the way Ehrman argues for the historicity of Jesus. That his very same method produces absurd conclusions (“a miraculous star or heavenly light attended the birth of Jesus”), demonstrates its logical invalidity. He is simply not allowing for the obvious fact that all the new material in these stories is made up (even if they used now lost sources; the material is still made up, it was just made up in those sources), and that people can use a source by completely rewriting it in their own words and changing any detail they please (which is why nearly every specialist I have read on the Gospel of John disagrees with Ehrman’s claim that John did not use Luke as a source: see The Christian Delusion, p. 312, n. 11; I think Ehrman is not nearly honest enough with his readers about this).
Someday I might compose a blog applying Ehrman’s method to prove a flying saucer crashed at Roswell and alien bodies were recovered from it. Because I have a dozen independent sources (which by Ehrman’s method I can convert into several dozen sources, by inventing a “Q” for material two sources share but change up, and an “M” for material unique to one source but not in the others, and so on), which contain stories written in the original language of the time and place the event happened (namely, American English; because analogously, Aramaic, you see, was not only spoken in first century Judea; it was spoken in parts of Syria and to an extent across the diaspora, continually for centuries, so “Aramaic source = Judean source written in the 30s A.D.” is a ridiculous inference, yet Ehrman uses it again and again), all written within fifty years of the event (thus an even better source situation than we have for the historicity of Jesus!). If I limited myself only to material written by “believers” and people quoting them or relying on them alone as a source, then by Ehrman’s method I would have to believe a flying saucer crashed at Roswell and alien bodies were recovered from it.
Omitting mention of these kinds of facts is irresponsible. Because most readers won’t know these things. Yet concealing this information from them makes Ehrman’s case seem stronger than it is. His readers should rightly feel betrayed by this. It also seems to me that Ehrman did not do any discernible research into ancient literary or educational methods. And to illustrate this (this being another glaring error of omission; these are by no means the only ones) I will close with just one example:
Ehrman appears to be blithely unaware of the routinely fabricatory nature of ancient biography, as documented throughout the literature on the subject (which is cataloged under his despised category of “classics,” a section of the library Ehrman seems never to visit), which demonstrates that things an author said or wrote (even fictionally) were often converted into stories about them, and these legends then spread and were collected by biographers and became the ancient pagan equivalent of “Gospels” for such luminaries as Euripides, Homer, or Empedocles. Lest you think I’m making this up, here is a bibliography to get you started:
- Mary Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (Johns Hopkins University 1981)
- Mary Lefkowitz, “Biographical Mythology,” in Ueli Dill, ed., Antike Mythen (de Gruyter 2009), pp. 516-31
- Janet Fairweather, “Fiction in the Biographies of Ancient Writers,” Ancient Society 5 (1974): 231-75
- Janet Fairweather, “Traditional Narrative, Inference, and Truth in the Lives of the Greek Poets,” Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar 4 (1983): 315-69
- Barbara Graziosi, Inventing Homer (Cambridge University 2002)
- Ava Chitwood, Death by Philosophy: The Biographical Tradition in the Life and Death of the Archaic Philosophers Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Democritus (University of Michigan 2004)
The significance of this is that it demonstrates Ehrman’s naivety when it comes to interpreting ancient literature and source materials and tradition formation. He is evidently not a competent classicist. And yet understanding how the Gospels likely came together requires being a competent classicist: you have to study and understand how ancient literature operated, especially comparable literature like this (for example, knowing that schools of the time specifically taught students to redact and alter stories in their own words–contrary to Ehrman’s baseless assumption that John cannot be a redaction of Luke because it does not follow Luke verbatim).
If things a person said were routinely transformed into stories about them (for example, Euripides occasionally made remarks about women in his plays that were transformed into a story about his troubled marriage–a completely fabricated story, that nevertheless became a standard element of his biography), doesn’t this change substantially how we view the possible tradition history behind the stories in the “biographies” of Jesus? Especially considering how many times we have caught them fabricating! (As even Ehrman admits several times in this book.) Biographies were also written of non-existent people (like Romulus, Numa, Coriolanus, Hercules, and Aesop). And we know for a fact Jesus said all kinds of things to the earliest Christians in revelations. And Ehrman concedes this is true. So we don’t have any need of a historical Jesus to get sayings of Jesus out of which to construct a life of Jesus.
The book of Revelation itself is an example of how easily Christians believed this: Jesus even there dictates whole letters from heaven, yet no one would argue that this is therefore evidence of a historical Jesus. Paul in his own letters frequently talks about revelation as a source of Jesus’ teachings. Again, Ehrman even agrees that some of the teachings of Jesus were probably “learned” that way. But if some, why not all? Paul never once mentions any other source (except scripture: Romans 16:15-26; e.g. Hebrews 10:5-7 records a saying of Christ, which is in fact simply Psalms 40:6-7, so evidently Christians were also learning the “teachings” of Jesus by reading them as hidden messages in scripture). Even in Galatians 1, Paul is explicitly denying not only that he received any human tradition, but that such traditions would even have any worth to him or his fellow Christians.
When we combine that fact, with what we know of the literary practices of the time, in the way stories and biographies were fabricated from sayings by (or even just attributed to) famous people (which often included nonexistent people), the mythicist case does not look as improbable as Ehrman portrays it. Which I find to be yet another example (among the great many I have already cataloged here, which again are just the tip of the iceberg) of how Ehman didn’t do his job as a scholar, and doesn’t inform (but in fact substantially misinforms) his readers, and comes to silly conclusions based on exactly the kind of naive ignorance of the relevant scholarship that he accuses mythicists of.
It is for all the reasons documented in this article (which are again just a sample of many other errors of like kind, from false claims, to illogical arguments, to self-contradictions, to misrepresentations of his opponents, to errors of omission), especially this book’s complete failure to interact with even a single complete theory of mythicism (which alone renders the book useless, even were it free of error), that I have no choice but to condemn this thing as being nothing more than a sad murder of electrons and trees.