Anything about the Jesus Myth Theory quickly comes up on my radar as it is one of my main areas of research. For that reason, Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has been on my must-read pile for some time.
In some ways, this is a surprising book for Ehrman to write. Ehrman is a former evangelical who has lost his faith and now identifies as an agnostic (see my article Losing Christianity). Ehrman regularly writes books that are critical of the Bible and Christian theology.
Did Jesus Exist? took two groups off guard. Jesus mythicists (those who deny Jesus existed) are often agnostics and atheists. Ehrman, as a respected New Testament scholar, would be valuable on their side. More than once, Ehrman has surprised mythicists by contradicting their claims about Jesus.
Evangelical Christians, especially those involved in Christian apologetics, have also had to rethink Ehrman. While his other books seem critical of Christianity, at least in its evangelical form, Ehrman provides in this book a helpful resource for refuting the Jesus Myth Theory.
There is much about Did Jesus Exist? that I liked. It must be granted that Ehrman is a gifted writer. Ehrman has done what many scholars cannot do, and that is present technical theories that the average layperson can understand.
I also appreciated Ehrman’s summary of the development of the Jesus Myth Theory. Not only does he he provide the history, he distinguishes between those forms of the theory that deserve a response and those that go beyond the fringe.
Ehrman persuasively argues that the Gospels should be used as historical sources. Mythicists frequently dismiss the Gospels as historical sources because of their status as religious scripture. Ehrman responds:
“The fact that their books later became documents of faith has no bearing on the question of whether the books can still be used for historical purposes. To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.” (p. 73)
While providing a convincing case that Jesus existed, Ehrman also responds to mythicist claims about pagan inspiration. Ehrman clarifies the current scholarly understanding of “dying and rising gods.” While this theme was made popular by James George Frazier (1854-1941), more recent scholarship has been much more skeptical. One scholar who done much to debunk the idea of the dying and rising gods is Jonathan Z. Smith.
One of the things I disagree with Ehrman is his conclusion that the New Testament is “filled with discrepancies and contradictions” (p. 182). My problem with this is not based on clinging to a theological doctrine of inerrancy. Rather, having studied the New Testament and compared them to other ancient writings, I find the New Testament to be rather consistent. There are definitely differences between the Gospels, but they differences are much smaller than even what we get when Josephus records the same event in Antiquities and the Jewish War.
I also disagree with Ehrman’s view that a divine understanding of Jesus was a later invention. Not only do I see evidence of this in Mark’s Gospel, I think it is clear in Paul’s letters, which Ehrman agrees are our earliest Christian writings. I won’t fully respond here, but I will recommend Pauline Christology by Gordon Fee and my podcast episode Jesus: Before the Early Years.
Having said that, I do appreciate this book by Ehrman. I respect him from following the evidence where it leads and not giving in to the mythicist camp, even though they would gladly take him.
Christians will find a number of things in Did Jesus Exist? that they will disagree with. Still, this book provides both a compelling case for the existence of Jesus and a damaging critique of the Jesus Myth Theory.