Was there an actual historical figure that corresponds to the biblical Jesus? The debate on this question has been going on for some time in academic circles but has seen a resurgence with the recent publication of Bart Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.
It should be made clear at the outset that this debate has nothing to do with whether a divine Jesus existed, someone who did miracles and died and was resurrected. Both sides in the current debate dismiss that possibility. What is at issue is whether there is sufficient evidence to conclude whether there was a single person around whom the story of the biblical Jesus was constructed or whether Jesus was merely a fictional composite of the myths that were prevalent at that time. The group that holds the latter view is referred to as ‘mythicists’.
I have not read Ehrman’s book and do not plan to because it is somewhat tangential to my interests but he has an article that summarizes his case. He dismisses the arguments of the mythicists in quite strong terms, implying that they are dilettantes and not credentialed scholars, even lumping them with Holocaust deniers and birthers.
Why then is the mythicist movement growing, with advocates so confident of their views and vocal — even articulate — in their denunciation of the radical idea that Jesus actually existed? It is, in no small part, because these deniers of Jesus are at the same time denouncers of religion — a breed of human now very much in vogue. And what better way to malign the religious views of the vast majority of religious persons in the western world, which remains, despite everything, overwhelmingly Christian, than to claim that the historical founder of their religion was in fact the figment of his followers’ imagination?
Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the “pagan” savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: 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 in their propagandized versions).
One may well choose to resonate with the concerns of our modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion (or not). But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you — has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.
Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.
The suggestion that his conclusions should be shared by any ‘sane’ historian, coupled with his strong rhetoric impugning non-scholarly motives to those who disagree with him, is unfortunate.
The vehemence with which he expresses his anti-mythicist views has aroused their ire. Richard Carrier is a mythicist and has written a response that critiques Ehrman’s position in equally strong terms. Carrier says that there is a lot of ‘bad’ mythicist literature out there that uses shoddy scholarship to buttress its case and in the process discredits the ‘good’ mythicist case that can and has been made. He says that he had looked forward to Ehrman’s book, hoping that it would provide a solid debunking of the bad mythicists but was disappointed that it consists largely of a poorly sourced attack on mythicists in general. Carrier says of the book:
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.
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.
Those who are outside the world of academic scholarship might wonder why, if Jesus was not divine, the question of his possible existence is even important let alone rouses such passions. Who cares if some itinerant preacher lived around the time of Jesus who shared much of his life story? It helps to view this question the way we view the issue of whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays that bear his name. That too is unimportant in some sense since nothing tangible rests on the answer. We have the plays and poems associated with that writer and that would seem to be the main thing. But for scholars, issues of historical accuracy matter and matter deeply, enough to wage wars of words.
I have no position on this particular dispute and am nowhere near competent to venture an informed opinion. For me the lack of any evidence of a divine Jesus (which Carrier and Ehrman both agree on) is the key point. But that does not mean the historicity of Jesus is not an important question, at least in a negative sense. If there is no evidence for a historical Jesus, then the claims of Christianity are even weaker. But this will likely concern only academics and theologians. The average religious believer won’t care about this question. After all, if you think that Jesus rose from the dead and can manufacture reasons to believe that, then you are living in a different world from those who question whether he even existed.