Yesterday Bart Ehrman posted a brief article at the Huffington Post (Did Jesus Exist?) that essentially trashtalks all mythicists (those who argue Jesus Christ never actually existed but was a mythical person, as opposed to historicists, who argue the contrary), indiscriminately, with a litany of blatant factual errors and logical fallacies. This is either the worst writing he has ever done, or there are far more serious flaws in his book than I imagined (Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth). Amazon just reported that it shipped my copy of his book yesterday as well, so I will be able to review it soon.
I am puzzled especially because this HuffPo article as written makes several glaring errors and rhetorical howlers that I cannot believe any competent scholar would have written. Surely he is more careful and qualified in the book? I really hope so. Because I was expecting it to be the best case for historicism in print. But if it’s going to be like this article, it’s going to be the worst piece of scholarship ever written. So stay tuned for my future review of his book. For now, I will address this brief article, not knowing how his book might yet rescue him from an epic fail.
Attacking Academic Freedom
I won’t address his appeal to the genetic fallacy (mythicists are all critics of religion, therefore their criticisms of a religion as myth can be dismissed) or his sniping at credentials (where he gets insanely and invalidly hyper-specific about what qualifies a person to speak on this subject [which as one reader pointed out is the no-true-Scottsman fallacy]), except to note that it’s false: mythicist Thomas Thompson meets every one of Ehrman’s criteria–excepting only one thing, he is an expert in Judaism rather than Christianity specifically. And I know Ehrman knows of him. So did he just “forget” when he says he knows of no one who meets his criteria? Or is he being hyper-hyper specific and not allowing even professors of Jewish studies to have a respectable opinion in this matter? As Thompson’s book The Messiah Myth introduces the subject, “the assumptions that the gospels are about a Jesus of history…are not justified.” He says (my emphasis) that “a historical Jesus might be essential to the origins of Christianity,” but is not essential to the construction of “the gospels” (p. 8), not even the sayings in them come from a historical Jesus (pp. 11-26).
Thompson allows the possibility of a historical Jesus, but concludes that the “Jesus” of the New Testament is mythical, and calls for renewed study of the question of historicity generally. In his introduction to a recent anthology on the topic, which includes works by mythicists alongside historicists, Thompson (as co-author) concludes that “an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts” (p. 8 of Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus) and the possibility that Jesus didn’t exist “needs to be considered more comprehensively” than the dismissive attitude of historicists (like, as it happens, Ehrman) has allowed (p. 10). Currently all we have, Thompson concludes, is “a historical Jesus” who “is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship,” which “is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David.”
That’s a prestigious professor of biblical studies. Is Ehrman really pooh-poohing his qualifications? Because if he is, this article becomes a massive case of foot-in-mouth. Because in it, Ehrman commits some glaring factual errors that entail he is either the one not qualified to discuss this subject, or one of the sloppiest and most careless writers on earth. I’ll get to that. But first I must remark on the significance of all this. Ehrman intimates that any professor who entertains this hypothesis will be fired or otherwise never hired, that he will in effect suffer career persecution. He does not say this with sadness, but with glee, satisfaction even. Indeed Ehrman’s own article represents a variety of this persecution: ridicule and the slandering of credentials. Thompson may have only felt free to be honest about his views after he retired, when no one could fire him or persecute his career. I personally know a few professors who themselves also feel this way: they do not touch this topic with a ten foot pole, precisely because they fear the kind of thing Ehrman is doing and threatening. They do not want to lose their jobs or career prospects and opportunities. They do not want to be ridiculed or marginalized.
This makes Ehrman’s observation that no mythicist presently has a professorship (a distinction he did not make, but I am) a self-fulfilling prophecy: since Ehrman has all but explicitly stated that professors in “accredited institutions” do not have academic freedom, that indeed Ehrman opposes that freedom, verbally and institutionally, and endorses persecuting, verbally and institutionally, any who dare exercise it, who else do you think is free to challenge the consensus on this issue? Obviously, only outsiders can. The fact that that is what he observes is therefore not an argument against the merits of mythicism, but against the merits of attacking academic freedom.
Few other issues have this problem. You can challenge the consensus on almost anything else in Jesus studies, but this is sacrosanct, and if you dare, “we’ll ruin your career.” Such is Ehrman’s message. The fact that he then finds this a mark against mythicism betrays his circular reasoning. No, Dr. Ehrman, it is a mark against mainstream scholarship. You are acting like it is a religion, with dogmas that cannot be challenged, lest you suffer the consequences. Just imagine all the professors who find some mythicist theories plausible, reading your article. You have just successfully intimidated them into shutting the hell up. Or at least, apparently, you hope to have. That’s not admirable. And it’s not how an institution that values the pursuit of the truth should behave.
The only people who should be in danger of losing their careers in the field, and who should be criticized as such, are those who persistently fail to follow sound and defensible methods, or persistently demonstrate dishonesty or incompetence (James Tabor I fear might be going down that road; time will tell). Taking a controversial position and arguing a controversial theory does not rise to that level (much less merely considering or discussing it as a possibility). Thus, you should not attack mythicists as a group, for merely sharing a common position or theory, as if there were no distinctions among them as to capability and quality of work. That’s defending a dogma, not a method. Rather, you should attack particular and demonstrable failures of method and competence. And not just claim incompetence, but prove it. Anything else is just special pleading and ad hominem. To do it in the guise of shaming anyone who would dare side with us by denouncing in advance their competence and sanity and implicitly threatening their jobs only makes this despicable rather than merely fallacious.
I’m told Ehrman might make a cleaner distinction between quality and crank mythicism in his book. But many more people will read this article than his book. It’s therefore irresponsible of him to cast this nuance to the wind.
An example of proving a specific instance of incompetence is to identify a factual error that no one who claims to be an expert on the issue in question could possibly have made. There are many other errors one can make, which don’t rise to that level, but I mean here errors of a very exceptional kind. Ehrman commits several, which I find astonishing, given his competence generally (his works in Jesus studies and textual criticism are among the best available, and I have and will always recommend Jesus Interrupted as the book anyone should read who wants to get up to speed on the current consensus in New Testament and Early Christianity, being a perfect parallel to The Bible Unearthed, which plays the same role for the Old Testament). A single error would be a minor lapse; but four in one brief article is a trend.
Perhaps these aren’t mistakes, and just very, very, very badly worded sentences. When I receive his book in a few days I’ll be able to check. Possibly he does a much better job there, and gets his facts right. We’ll see. But for now, I have to address this article…
Mistake #1: Ehrman says “not even … the most powerful and important figure of his day, Pontius Pilate” is “mentioned in any Roman sources of his day.” False. Philo of Alexandria was a living contemporary of Pilate, and wrote a whole book about him (or rather, against both Sejanus and Pilate, documenting the ways they had persecuted Jews contrary to prior imperial edicts, cf. Schürer and Eusebius, History of the Church 2.5, who had read this book), which we don’t have (it is one of the missing volumes of the Embassy to Gaius), but we do have Philo discussing one event involving Pilate in another book we do have, written in the 40s A.D., probably while Pilate was still alive, in his retirement (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 299-305).
We also have discussions of Pilate in Josephus’ Jewish War, written in 78 A.D., the same distance from Pilate’s life as the earliest Gospels are assumed to be from Jesus. But perhaps Ehrman is being hyper-specific again and only talking about contemporary attestation, although that would be disingenuous, since it is precisely this kind of early secular reference to Pilate that we don’t have for Jesus, and Ehrman is trying to say Pilate is an example of a famous person for whom we don’t have this–but, alas, we do. But even if we assume the disingenuous limiting of relevance to texts composed in “his day” we have Philo. If Ehrman is being hyper-specific as to his use of the word “Roman,” that would be even more disingenuous (as Philo’s cititizenship would hardly matter for this purpose; and at any rate, as a leading scholar and politician in Alexandria and chief embassador to the emperor, Philo was almost certainly a Roman citizen).
Forgetting (or not knowing?) that Philo attests to Pilate’s service in Judea is a serious error for Ehrman and his argument, because the absence of any mention of Jesus or Christianity in Philo is indeed very odd. In fact, the loss of his book about Pilate’s reign is a very curious omission–even though Christians preserved over three dozen other books of his, amounting to nearly 900 pages of multi-columned small type in English translation, Christians chose not to preserve the book on Pilate, and that despite preserving other volumes in the very same treatise. Why? Maybe the loss was just accidental (I suspect it was because no mention of Jesus was in it, but obviously we can debate that). Christians were evangelizing in Alexandria during Philo’s lifetime. If Acts is to be believed, Jewish leaders were very concerned to oppose this and took active effort to persecute Christians. If that is at all true, we can be certain Philo knew of Christians and their claims and stories, and thus knew of Jesus. He was a leading scholar, who wrote on various Jewish sects, and a significant political figure plugged into the elite concerns of Alexandrian Jews, who even chose him to lead their embassy to the emperor of Rome. (He also made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem: Philo, On Providence 2.64.)
The only explanation for why Philo never mentions Christianity is that it was not as important to Jews as Acts depicts, but was a tiny fringe cult of no significant interest to the Jewish elite. And that is an important conclusion. Mythicists will say he doesn’t mention Jesus because there was no Jesus, but that does not explain why he doesn’t mention Christianity. Certainly, if Jesus was as famous and controversial as the Gospels and Acts depict, then Philo’s lack of interest in either the man or the threatening and grandiose claims made about him becomes improbable, but if we accept that the Gospels and Acts hugely exaggerate his fame and importance, then Philo’s disinterest goes back to being probable again. The consequence of this is that you must accept that Philo’s silence argues against the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. One must therefore conclude the Gospels substantially fictionalize the story of Jesus. I don’t think Ehrman disagrees with that conclusion, but he loses sight of it in his attempt to mock the importance of this kind of evidence, the silence of external sources.
But that is not the extent of his mistake. Forgetting (or not knowing?) about Philo (or even Josephus) mentioning Pilate is bad enough. Worst of all is the fact that Ehrman’s claim is completely false even on the most disingenuous possible reading of his statement. For we have an inscription, commissioned by Pilate himself, attesting to his existence and service in Judea. That’s as “Roman” an attestation as you can get. And it’s not just contemporary attestation, it’s eyewitness attestation, and not just eyewitness attestation, but its very autograph (not a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, but the original text, no doubt proofed by Pilate’s own eyes). And that literally carved in stone. How could anyone not know of this, who intended to use Pilate as an example? Even the most rudimentary fact-check would have brought this up. And one of the most fundamental requirements of Ehrman’s profession is to check what sources we have on Pilate, before making a claim that we have no early ones. Ehrman thus demonstrates that he didn’t check; which is an amateur mistake. I’ve occasionally made errors like that, but only in matters of considerable complexity. We’re talking about something he could have corrected with just sixty seconds on google.
The lack of comparable inscriptions erected by any Christian churches or any wealthy convert at any time throughout the first century is indeed a curious thing. It can be explained (apocalyptic expectations, poverty, humility, the extremely small size of the movement). But it is still a fact, and it is not disingenuous to at least concede that we don’t have this or any comparable evidence. Explaining why we don’t have any evidence (like we have for Pilate: an inscription; a neutral contemporary text, and a neutral near-contemporary text) does not permit us to ignore the fact that we still don’t have it. And where evidence is missing, the possibilities multiply. Again, this entails things about early Christianity (whatever explanation you have for this lack of evidence, you must then accept as true about early Christianity as a whole, and that means accepting all the consequences of that fact as well).
So this certainly does not prove Jesus didn’t exist. Because we can retreat to the hypothesis that he was not anywhere near as famous as the Gospels portray, and the Christian movement not anywhere near as large as Acts implies. But Ehrman didn’t make that valid argument; he made the invalid argument instead, and premised it on amateur factual mistakes. Emotion seems to have seized his brain. Seeing red, he failed to function like a competent scholar, and instead fired off a screed every bit as crank as the worst of any of his opponents. Foot, mouth.
This is simply not how to argue for historicity. It’s a classic example of boner mistakes made by historicists, which calls into question their competence to speak on this issue. Usually I see this claim made of Socrates or Alexander the Great, for each of whom we have vastly more contemporary attestation than we do for Jesus, despite actual claims to the contrary made by Jesus scholars who incompetently didn’t bother to check. Thankfully Ehrman didn’t make that foolish a mistake. But making the same mistake in using Pilate puts him right in their company.
Mistake #2: Ehrman actually says (and I can’t believe it, but these are his exact words):
With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.
He actually says we have such sources. We do not. That is simply a plain, straight-up falsehood. I can only suppose he means Q or some hypothesized sources behind the creedal statements in Paul or the sermons in Acts, but none of those sources exist, and are purely hypothetical. In fact, barely more than conjectural. There is serious debate in the academic community as to whether Q even existed; and even among those who believe it did, there is serious debate about whether it comes from Aramaic or in fact Greek sources or whether it’s one source or several or whether it even goes back to Jesus at all. The background to the creeds and sermons are even more conjectural (the creeds might go back to Aramaic sources, but none attest to a historical Jesus in the required sense of the term; and the sermons almost certainly do not go back to Aramaic sources, but are literary constructions of the author of Acts, writing in a Semitized Greek heavily influenced by the Septuagint; see Proving History, pp. 184-86 and Richard Pervo’s The Mystery of Acts, just for starters).
So what Aramaic sources do we “have,” Dr. Ehrman? Do tell. And on what basis do you conclude they were written down “within just a year or two of his life”? How can you be so precise? I can only assume this is an allusion to the origin of the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (whose origin some scholars date to the formation of the cult), which we do not have in Aramaic, and could have originated in a Semitized Greek (and therefore we cannot be certain it began in Aramaic; and it certainly is not the words of Jesus). But when did it originate? When did it originate in that form? (Since it is not a given that it hasn’t changed; it obviously did, since Paul has added to it, attaching a reference to his own revelation at the end; how many other changes did it undergo on its way to him?) More importantly, that creed contains no reference to Jesus living on earth, having a ministry, or doing or saying anything in life. All it says is that scripture says he died, was buried, and was resurrected (it notably does not say anyone witnessed this, or when it happened or by whom, e.g. it does not say Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, a key component of later creeds) and only then this Jesus appeared to some people (in a fashion I know Ehrman himself agrees is not relevant to this debate: because a historical Jesus did not “appear” after his death, but a cosmic, revelatory Jesus, a product of the apostles’ imagination).
The fact that Jesus is not said to have appeared or taught or done anything at all before he died is not something to just brush under the rug. Nor also the fact that the only source being given for his death and burial in this creed is scripture, whereas the source for his “subsequent” (post-mortem) ministry is given as seeing him, and that only in “revelations” (Galatians 1:11-12, which then must be the same as all the others: 1 Cor. 15:5-8). Likewise, note that many mythical godmen “died, were buried, and resurrected,” or a near enough equivalent, thus Paul stating such a creed no more attests the historicity of Jesus than it attests the historicity of Osiris (or Romulus or Hercules or Inanna or Zalmoxis or Bacchus or Adonis and so on; Osiris is the only one of these who was explicitly “buried,” but similar stories were told of all these others, e.g. Hercules was burned on a pyre, and certainly before Christianity: see Not the Impossible Faith, chapters 1 and 3). None of this entails Jesus didn’t exist, but it certainly allows the possibility. If Ehrman doesn’t see that, then he is not being objective or reasonable.
Thus when he touts this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source (in fact he says sources, so we even have multiple imaginary attestation!), which in fact argues as much for the non-existence of Jesus as otherwise, as being comparable to a slam-dunk confirmation of his historicity, this is some very slipshod argument indeed. Had any of his opponents pulled that trick on him, he would not be at all kind in pointing out how fallacious it is. But alas, he cannot see that he is committing the very same fallacy, and in his effort to attack his enemies, has become just like them. That he actually says we have this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source is, by contrast, profoundly incompetent writing. I am certain he did not really mean to lie. In his emotional pique, he just didn’t proof his own article and thus didn’t notice how badly he misspoke. But that suggests he is driving on emotion and not reason or any careful process.
And yet one could easily mistake him for lying. Because he actually says of this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source that “historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.” You mean, not having a source is pretty astounding for an ancient figure? Stated correctly, his sentence makes no sense (there is nothing astounding about not having a source). Thus, it seems as if he really did intend the readers of his article to believe we have this source he is talking about (and indeed, many a layperson will make this mistake in reading it, and I fully expect to have people repeating to me that “Dr. Ehrman said we have multiple Aramaic documents dating to just a year or two after Jesus attesting his existence,” requiring me to correct them, an annoying phenomenon I usually have to deal with from mythicists, not proper scholars like Ehrman).
Altogether, these two sentences from him look more crank than anything he accuses mythicists of. A hypothetical source we don’t have is simply not “pretty astounding.” Indeed, if that’s the standard, then we have vast quantities of sources for other ancient persons. Really, if we get to count “hypothetical” sources like that, then in fact don’t we have such sources for all historical persons attested in antiquity?
Mistake #3: Ehrman says “we do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum [sic] in their propagandized versions).” Taken strictly literally, this sentence is true. But that is misleading, and therefore disingenuous. As such, it amounts to a straw man (at least of many mythicists; some few mythicists, the more incompetent of them, make that specific claim, but attacking only the weakest proponent of a position is precisely what makes this a fallacy). No competent mythicist makes this claim. Rather, they claim that virgin-born gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time and dying-and-rising gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time (in precisely the way these were not anywhere else, e.g. in ancient China), and so for Jews to suddenly start claiming they have one, too, looks pretty easily explained in terms of standard theories of cultural diffusion. (See my chapter on the origins of Christianity in The End of Christianity, ch. 2, pp. 53-74.)
Ehrman appears to be denying this, and as such is making himself look like a crank again–in fact like an ignorant Christian apologist spewing contrafactual propaganda. That makes him at the very least guilty of really terrible writing. What I suppose he means to say is the disingenuous, strictly literal thing, but as I already noted, that would be fallacious and thus logically incompetent. Religious syncretism is the process of combining ideas from several sources, often the most popular or useful ideas in the air, into a new whole, making for a new religion. All religions are produced this way. Christianity therefore certainly was as well (it would go against all prior probability to claim otherwise, and against all the evidence as well). Judaism had a prominent component of sacrifices atoning for a nation’s entire sins, a belief in the holy spirit making Jewish kings into the sons of god (see Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 9), and a tendency toward ascetic denigration of sexuality. Paganism had a prominent component of dying-and-rising savior gods, who likewise offered ways to cleanse their followers of sins and thus procure them entry into paradise–not necessarily by their death, but always in some way, and in many cases through baptismal rituals long predating Christianity’s adoption of the same or similar ritual (see The Empty Tomb, p. 215, n. 210); and pagans had many traditions about virgin born sons of god. Note what happens when you combine the Jewish side with the pagan: you get Christianity. This is actually almost certainly what happened, and thus should not even be in dispute.
This does not equate to concluding that Jesus was a fictional person; rather, even if he was historical, the attribution to him of the properties of pagan deities had to come from somewhere, and cultural diffusion is the obvious source. Ehrman appears to be denying even that latter fact, which puts him at the far extreme of even mainstream scholarship. He is implausibly implying that it’s “just a coincidence” that in the midst of a fashion for dying-and-rising salvation gods with sin-cleansing baptisms, the Jews just happened to come up with the same exact idea without any influence at all from this going on all around them. That they “just happened” to come up with the idea of a virgin born son of god, when surrounded by virgin born sons of god, as if by total coincidence. (Can you imagine it? They independently think up the idea, then go preaching around Gentile cities and discover there are all these other virgin born sons of god…why, golly gee, what a coincidence! See Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 76-78, near the end of chapter 2, where Perseus is an example recognized even by early Christians as being “virgin born”; and to which can be added, in some traditions, the virgin birth of Romulus: Plutarch, Life of Romulus 3; Ra, in the tradition that had him born of the virgin Neith; Dionysus, in the tradition by which Semele is impregnated with a potion; etc.)
So does Ehrman mean we have no precedent who satisfied all those attributes at once? (A straw man.) Or does he mean we have no precedents for any of those attributes individually as available material for syncretism? (A false claim, of the most incompetent kind.) Either he is engaging in patently illogical argument, or disturbingly incompetent reporting. Neither makes him look like he’s the one to trust in this debate. Again, this makes him look like the slipshod crank.
Mistake #4: This might not be a mistake, so much as an allusion to an argument in his book: he says “prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah.” He knows I have presented ample evidence refuting this, both as to the fact of it (Daniel 9:26 says a messiah will die, and the pre-Christian Melchizedek scroll explicitly identifies this passage as being about the messiah, or at least a messiah who would cleanse the world of sin), and also by demonstrating its irrelevance, since even Ehrman cannot deny later Jews taught and believed in a future messiah “son of Joseph” who would be killed by his enemies (as attested in the Talmud and other Judaica), and they certainly didn’t borrow this idea from the despised heretical sect of Christianity, which means the idea was not anathema to Jews and could easily be conceived by them (and likely predates Christianity, since both Jews and Christians imagining the dying messiah’s father as named “Joseph” seems otherwise a remarkable coincidence, but that need not be supposed to make my present point).
On all these points, see my essay The Dying Messiah. I can only presume Ehrman builds some sort of argument against my case in his book, which from our correspondence I predict will be fallacious (making a straw man of my evidence, selecting scholarship that agrees with him and ignoring scholarship that agrees with me, etc.). But in this article, to make so adamant an assertion, knowing full well there is a respectable case to be made to the contrary, is again crank behavior, not reasoned scholarship. Once again he is acting exactly like the worst of those he denounces.
His mistake here is two-fold, in fact, since it does not merely consist of a factually questionable assertion, and one that does not entail the conclusion he wants even if the assertion were true (since imagining a murdered messiah was possible for Jews, he cannot mean to argue Christians wouldn’t have invented it, when later Jews clearly had no problem inventing one), but he leverages it into a whopper of a logical fallacy: a self-contradictory assertion. Ehrman says “the messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy” (certainly, that was the most common view; but it is a fallacy of hasty generalization to assume that that was the only view, especially since we don’t know what most of the dozens of Jewish sects there were believed about this: see Proving History, pp. 129-34). From this fallacious hasty generalization, Ehrman then concludes “anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that.”
Now, I want to pause for a moment and perform a brief logic test. Before reading on, read that last quotation again, and ask yourself if you can see why that conclusion can’t be correct. Why, in fact, what he is suggesting, what he predicts would happen on mythicism, is impossible.
Answer: the only kind of messiah figure you could invent would be one who wasn’t like that. Otherwise, everyone would notice no divine being had militarily liberated Israel and resurrected all the world’s dead. This means the probability of that evidence (“anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that”) on the hypothesis “someone made up a messiah” is exactly zero. In formal terms, by the Bayesian logic of evidence (which I explain in Proving History), this means P(~e|h.b) = 0, and since P(e|h.b) = 1 – P(~e|h.b), and 1 – 0 = 1, P(e|h.b) = 1, i.e. 100%. This means that if “someone made up a messiah” we can be absolutely certain he would look essentially just like Jesus Christ. A being no one noticed, who didn’t do anything publicly observable, yet still accomplished the messianic task, only spiritually (precisely the one way no one could produce any evidence against). In other words, a messiah whose accomplishments one could only “feel in one’s heart” (or see by revelation, as the Corinthian creed declares; or discover in scripture, as that same creed again declares, as well as Romans 16:25-26).
Ehrman’s Only Evidence
Ehrman lists only one single item of evidence for Jesus’ historicity that survives basic review: the fact that Paul once refers to having met “James the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:18-20; Paul also mentions a generic “brothers of the Lord” in 1 Cor. 9:5). Ehrman slightly misrepresents the evidence when he claims that Paul met “Jesus’ closest disciple Peter,” since Paul never once calls Peter a “disciple” (in fact, no such term appears anywhere in Paul’s letters), and never mentions him being close to Jesus at all, much less his “closest.” But Paul does say he met the brother of the Lord, and mentions “brothers of the Lord.”
However, Paul does not say “brother of Jesus,” but “brother of the Lord,” which can only be a cultic title (one does not become the brother of “the Lord” until the person in question is hailed “the Lord,” thus the phrase “brother of the Lord” is a creation of Christian ideology). Yes, he may have earned that cultic title by actually being the brother of Jesus. But he could also have earned it by simply being a baptized Christian. Since all baptized Christians were the adopted sons of God, just as Jesus was (Romans 1:3-4), Jesus was only “the first born among many brethren” (Romans 8:29), which means all Christians were the brothers of the Lord (or rather, all baptized Christians were, as there is evidence to suggest one did not become adopted until baptism, e.g. Romans 6:3-10, and Christians were not baptized right away, they had to undergo a period of initiation first). Though true in that sense, possibly one was not allowed to use that specific title until they had achieved full ascension through all the grades of initiation, and thus it was a title of rank, since there is evidence in Clement of Alexandria that one did not become fully a son of God until ascending several levels of initiation.
But one can question at what time that multi-stage process was begun, and exploring that would be too lengthy a digression. It’s enough to test the hypothesis that every Christian would be called brother of the Lord. The fact of it is true: as just shown, all Christians were brothers of the Lord, by their own religious conceptions; there are numerous passages in Paul that confirm this: Romans 8:15-29, 9:26; Galatians 3:26-29, 4:4-7; and Christians explicitly taught that Jesus himself called all of them his brothers in Hebrews 2:10-18, via a “secret message” in the Psalms (Psalms 22:22). They had obvious inspiration from what they regarded as scripture, the Psalms of Solomon 17:26-27, which Paul appears to reference, and which predicted that the messiah would gather a select people and designate them all the sons of god (and thereby, his brethren).
This is hypothesis (1); the alternatives are (2) that only actual brothers could use this title, even though all Christians were brothers of the Lord, which would entail some policing of the use of the phrase, which is not in evidence in Paul or (3) such policing was done, but to secure the title as one of rank and not actual biological kinship. Notably, (2) and (3) both require a practice of policing the use of the exact phrase, to prevent other brothers of the Lord from calling themselves or each other Brothers of the Lord. The probability that (1) or (3) is true is greater than the probability that only (1) is true, and only on (2) is this phrase evidence of the historicity of Jesus. So if we ignore (3) and only focus on (1), our conclusion against (2) will be even stronger when we include the possibility of (3).
So what happens when we compare (1) against (2)? Hypothesis (2) requires there to have been policing of the cultic title so that only biological brothers could use it or be referred to by it. Hypothesis (1) does not require that ad hoc assumption. This means (1) is the simpler hypothesis. It therefore has the greater prior probability (see Proving History, pp. 80-81). Furthermore, (1) is actually in evidence (we know all Christians in Paul’s time were brothers of the Lord in cultic fact, as all the passages above prove), whereas (2) is not (not one time in all of Paul’s letters does he ever say or even imply that this phrase means only biological brothers). (1) is therefore the most probable hypothesis. Which therefore means this phrase is not evidence for the historicity of Jesus. In Bayesian terms, this means: given the background evidence (the facts pertaining to Christians regarding themselves as all sons of God and thus brothers of the son of God), (1) has greater prior probability, and greater net consequent probability (since on  the probability can’t be zero that we would have better evidence against , whereas on  the evidence we have is 100% expected). [This conclusion could change if we verify that the claims in the Gospels (and subsequent sources) that Jesus had brothers are true, but that would first have to be done.]
The one argument left is to suggest that if (1) were true, it would be redundant of Paul to mention that James was a brother of the Lord (that would not, however, be the case in 1 Cor. 9:5), and redundant expressions are less probable (i.e. they are unexpected). But this fails a basic test: Paul often calls people “brother” along with their name even when the context makes this redundant (Philm. 1:1, 1 Thess. 3:2, Philp. 2:25, 2 Cor. 2:13 and 1:1, 1 Cor. 16:12 and 1:1, Romans 16:23). That he would on rare occasion use the complete phrase “brother of the Lord” would not be unexpected. The more so if Peter had a brother named James, as that would require Paul in this instance to distinguish the apostle James from James the brother of Peter, in which case saying just “brother” wouldn’t do, necessitating the full epithet “brother of the Lord,” i.e. not of Peter (because Paul says he met with “Peter” and no other apostle except this James).
[Nevertheless, after discussing this in comments, I do agree we should allow that his use of the phrase here nevertheless has some probability less than 100%, since it is not assured that he would have used it here. So we have to break the matter down into all competing explanations and work the numbers for each. And to argue a fortiori (Proving History, pp. 85-88) we might even lower that probability a lot, making this evidence for historicity rather than against. But these reasons are precisely why these conclusions have to be debated and not assumed.]
It is also entirely possible that “of the Lord” (tou kyriou) was a later scribal addition, aiming to turn this James into the brother of Jesus by harmonization with the Gospels and later legend. These kinds of harmonizing and retrodictive emendations to the text of the NT were common, and assuming they haven’t occurred in cases, like this, where they are most likely, is a dangerously weak platform to erect a theory upon (see the slideshow for my debate with J.P. Holding on the textual reliability of the NT, linked in Debates & Interviews and my post on Pauline Interpolations). Since this is literally the only evidence Ehrman has that Jesus existed, the weakness of it should be alarming to him, not cause for arrogant displays of unshakable certainty.
Ehrman might answer “we have the Gospels” and “we have Paul relating sayings of the Lord” and “we have second century references” but none of these hold up, as he perhaps knows when he admits there is a lot of mythmaking in the Gospels, for example. But one myth is as good as another. To say that the Gospels contain a lot of myth, therefore they “can’t” be entirely myth, is not valid reasoning. They might contain a historical core, they might not. That has to be determined, and is at least an honestly debatable question. As Dr. Thompson admitted. I think on full analysis they come out as completely mythical (most of the attempts to argue otherwise fail on basic logic, as I demonstrate in Proving History, chapter 5). That should at least be a respectable position, even if Ehrman or anyone disagrees with it.
The second century references, meanwhile, cannot be shown to be independent of the Gospels (e.g. the reference in Tacitus, even the Testimonium Flavianum, even if it were completely genuine–and it’s not–says nothing that could not have simply been read out of a Gospel or gotten from any other Christian source relying on one), or to derive from any real source at all (e.g. the Infancy Gospels). And like any other mythic being, the Gospels would not be the earliest versions of the creed; many mythical demigods “died and were resurrected,” some were even “buried” or hung or burned or cut to pieces; that doesn’t make them historical. Thus, in Paul, that Jesus was created out of the “seed of David” (in fulfillment of prophecy) and “born of a woman” are claims that could just as easily be made of any mythical demigod (all of whom were born of a woman, and some of whom were “magically” born from the seed of their fathers, like Perseus, or even, as in the case of Dionysus, their previous corpses). They also said things–none of which were historical. Paul himself only identifies two sources for his sayings of the Lord: scripture and revelation (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23 in light of Galatians 1:18-20). No historical Jesus is needed there.
That leaves nothing.
Obviously, saying all this is by no means sufficient to demonstrate that Jesus didn’t exist. There is still evidence to debate and logic to test. But it ought to be sufficient to demonstrate that this is at least a respectable theory to consider. As long as it is considered competently and with due attention to facts and logic and productive peer debate, why not?
[For a follow up to this post see McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman. For my reply to Ehrman’s response to this review see Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round One). And for my subsequent critical review of Ehrman’s book see Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic.]