The Big Debate is Past

No, I don’t mean the one between Hillary and Trumpenstein, but rather the great debate on the historicity of Jesus.  The much anticipated debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price went down Friday in Milwaukee, courtesy of the Milwaukee Mythicists.

This debate was much anticipated because it featured two guys who normally argue for “our side,” the atheist position, generally against Christian apologists.  But here they were arguing variations of the atheist position in front of an overwhelmingly secular audience.  Even given that, I have to say that more than a few sparks flew and I have to say that I changed my opinions over the course of the evening.

Since the point of such events should be to move the needle in people’s opinions and mine did move a bit, I am going to deal with this first and in future posts do more of a review of the debate itself.  It may take several posts, as it was actually a long evening.  I do also have to say that I was “working” during the debate.  I volunteered to take photographs of the event, so during the whole time I was not just sitting, taking notes and that.  I waking around the room looking for things to snap.  So my impressions may be hazy in places.

Now, where was I before and where am I now?

Prior to the debate I was leaning pretty heavily to the mythicist position.  I had read the Christ Puzzle by Earl Doherty and found it convincing.  I have also looked at Richard Carrier’s follow-up to that and also found that the information there made sense.  Finally I have also read quite a bit of Dr. Price’s work as well.  I have also read many books by Dr. Ehrman and frankly they just added to my leaning toward mythicism.

So, what was said, and what convinced me?

Dr. Ehrman spoke first and started (and pretty much ended) with the notion that Jesus is the “best attested” first century Jew in history, other than perhaps Josephus.  Personally, I find this argument weak.  Most of the evidence that Ehrman presented related to Biblical texts, which he ranks much more strongly as actual history.  Although I disagree with him, obviously he is much more well versed (pardon the pun!) so I can’t really make a case there.  The most interesting thing to come out of Ehrman’s presentation (and Price’s rebuttal) is that Ehrman sees a “minimal” Jesus.  That is to say, one completely stripped of any supernatural element.  A Jesus that did not have a virgin birth, did not walk on water, feed 5,000, raise the dead or walk out of the tomb himself.  Even with that, Ehrman believes that there was a real live preacher and teacher that inspired the writings about him and the Christian church to form in his wake.

Price’s contention is that Christianity, like many social movements, grew out of a number of cultural currents coming together.  Price sees such elements as the Hellenization of Jewish thought, combining with the popularity of mystery religions, with a dash of Zorasterianism and Gnosticism coming together to create a new religion.  Price then theorizes that “Jesus” was just the mythological persona that evolved out of these currents.  As I see Price’s view, Christianity was just something that was “in the air” in the first and second centuries and it coalesced into the structured religion we now know sometime in the third and fourth centuries.

For me, the “Great Debate” came down to how you might feel about the “Great Man” theory of history.

When you read most history books, you see a succession of great actors on the world stage: Napolean, Washington, Martin Luther.  Leaders of movements and armies.

But many historians point out that most of the time these “leaders” end up at the front of cultural movements that were roiling for some time and those leaders are people who come to be the face of the movement.  Which is not to say that they did nothing or were not true leaders, but rather are sort of a shorthand way to refer to something that was “in the air” at the time.

For example the roots of the civil rights movement in the US has roots that run back at least to the 1920s and even further back.  World War II accelerated the movement, and by the late 1950’s it had reached full flower.  Martin Luther King did not start the movement, was not the sole leader of the movement, but eventually became it’s public face, at least in part because of his charisma as a speaker.  I am pretty sure that there are more than a few high school history books that present the highlights of King’s career as “the civil rights movement.”  In reality, we know that there were hundreds, if not thousands of leaders who helped organize civil rights events.  We also know that civil rights was a movement whose time had come, combining the new media (television) with a renewed sense of social justice following World War II.  If not King, someone would have risen to the front of the movement.

So, here is where I stand on the historicity of Jesus:  He is irrelevant.

Ehrman argues in favor of a fully human person: Jesus.  As Price brought up again and again, this is not who (or what) Christians worship.  They do not worship a clever social justice spouting rabbi.  They worship a guy who walked out of a tomb and opened the doors to heaven.  Both Price and Ehrman agree that there is no such guy.

Ehrman never came up with (to my hearing) a coherent picture of who the historical Jesus really is.  Did he bring together all the threads of religious thought that now represent Christianity?  Did his resistance against the Romans inspire people such as Peter and Paul to do so?  Or did Peter and Paul elevate some random preacher when they pulled together the treads in the air?

It is pretty clear that Jesus himself never pushed the movement that far forward.  I always find it interesting that early Christianity doesn’t seem to emanate from Jerusalem.  It seems to spring up in the near east, Turkey Thrace.  Ehrman said (essentially) that Paul was persecuting Christians almost immediately after Jesus’s death.  Where did they come from?  Ehrman never said.  So, if Jesus didn’t push the movement into Tarsus, who did?  Jesus never got outside of Palestine.

Price would say that Christianity was able to spread like that because it did not depend on a human founder, per se, but rather it brought together a number of elements, literally in the air.  People could bring their visions and interpretations of “Jesus” to the mystery dinners.  The idea spread and eventually, a story was put together around the idea.

I still tend to agree with Price, but I can now also accommodate Ehrman as well.  So maybe there was a historical Jesus.

I just wish someone would explain to me what he actually did then.  Ehrman certainly did not accomplish that during the “Great Debate.”

Maybe we need another one now!



  1. Johanobesus says

    That’s the big point that seems to be missing in so many discussions. Every secularist theory is a flavor of mythicism, because any historical Yeshua was not the Jesus described in the Gospels and worshiped by even early Christians, so any way you look at it, Jesus did not exist.

    It does seem to me the default position should be complete mythicism: assume that the Gospels are entirely myth and maybe see if there is any real evidence at all of a founding Jesus. Serious scholars don’t begin with the assumption that there really was some Moses or Weyland or Hercules or Romulus or Horus or John Frum to inspire the myths, so why do so with Jesus?

  2. says

    One thing that inclines me toward a (weak) historicist position is the amount of material in the gospels devoted to explaining (or explaining away) “facts” that are inconsistent with the Christian narrative of Jesus’s life and nature. The relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is a good example. The gospels jump through all kinds of weird hoops to explain why Jesus started out as a follower of John, and yet was much the more important figure. If we were just making the story up, why invent the whole John problem in the first place? But if we were a splinter movement in active competition with John’s heirs, the whole “our guy was your guy’s rabbi” issue is something that would need to be addressed. (Apparently, a smallish sect of John the Baptist followers exists even today!)

    Not dispositive, I suppose, but, “If I was going to make something up, why would it be that?”

    • says

      My counter to that would be that the “making up” part happened decades before the gospels were ever written. By the time the gospel writers got down to business, there already was a strong oral tradition about what the Messiah was supposed to be.

      Also, we shouldn’t forget that proto-Christianity wasn’t one movement; it was a collection of religious sects, with very different ideas on a number of subjects. Something which would have been a problem for later unified Christianity need not have been so for the early Christians who came up with the doctrines in the beginning.

      E.g. Jesus was a righteous man – John calls people to repentance – Jesus goes to be baptized. There’s simply no conflict in that at all. The problem only occurs when you add the doctrine that Jesus is the perfect son of god. If he’s simply a human being, everything is fine.

    • Johanobesus says

      One thing you have to keep in mind is that myths are not supposed to be literally true but “true.” That’s one of Joseph Cambell’s main theses, that a myth inspires the enlightened to perceive the higher truth and teaches good values to the ignorant masses. It is never meant to be taken literally by the priests, but eventually they forget that and the symbolic story becomes history. Carriar’s theory is similar, except the higher truth was still about a literal death and resurrection, just in the heavens. This can lead to illogical elements becoming fixed as traditions are merged, beliefs evolve, and stories are forgotten and corrupted. So we get a Genesis that includes contradictory and illogical details, such as two different creation stories, Cain getting a wife and founding a city, two of every kind but no seven of every clean animal, etc.

      As to this specific point, the story has Jesus coming to John and accepting his ritual, and immediately being recognized by John as the Messiah. This makes him superior to John, not subordinate, and says to John’s followers, “see, even your prophet owned Jesus as his lord.”

  3. Nil Est says

    I don’t think we should pay too much attention to the details and chronologies in the gospels. I believe that the man known as Jesus existed, preached a philosophy of peace and harmony that resonated with a populace tired of Roman domination, and was killed by the Romans. Martyred, if you will. He could have been one of many preaching the same or similar philosophies. But, for some reason, what he said, whom he said it to,combined perhaps with his particular personality and random chance, came together to form what might be called a “perfect storm” of circumstance to keep him in the public memory. Those who subscribed to his teachings kept them and him alive. As so often happens in human affairs, as time went on the man became “legendized”, first perhaps performing “miracles,” then rising from the dead, and, finally, becoming divine. I’m reminded of a scene from the movie, “Sgt.York,” where as the story of his exploits was handed down, he went from capturing a company of soldiers to capturing the whole German Army, including the Kaiser! I think this is what happened with the man Jesus. Maybe it was a case of “My god is better than yours,” or people aggrandizing themselves by elevating /inflating the importance of the one they follow..Maybe it was none of these. Ultimately, the answer to the Jesus conundrum is to be found in human frailty and human need.

    I’m reminded of a scene from the movie


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