Bart Ehrman on Whether Jesus Actually Existed

In some other discussions here, the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has been referred to, and several times aggressively attacked, for agreeing with the vast majority of Biblical scholars that a man named Jesus actually existed. I thought it might be useful to start a separate discussion on Bart Ehrman, based on a clear introductory article of his, i.e.:

I should make clear that I do not agree with Ehrman’s anti-Christian religious position and that I am no fan of his; however, in this particular article, he is reasonable and balanced, and I agree with his overall discussion.

Ehrman makes clear that he has no religious motive to oppose the “mythical” view of Jesus, and that his opposition to it springs solely from the historical evidence.

It’s been a while since I read Ehrman’s book on this. I did feel at points that he was guilty of trying to perform the miracle of the multiplication of sources, but perhaps he has grounds for some of his views about these various traditions being independent of one another which he didn’t have room to fully address in a short book for a general audience.

But I do think Ehrman is honest in his approach and is absolutely trying to be objective about the question. I find myself defending him now and again against people who cite him, quite inaccurately, for the proposition that Jesus never existed. I have to remind people that while there is nothing wrong with using him as a source on a point in the course of one’s OWN argument that Jesus never existed, it’s quite another matter to claim that that is Ehrman’s view.

I agree. But to make this more specific: Ehrman agrees with Boris Badenoff here that “the Jesus of faith” never existed (i.e., Jesus wasn’t divine, Jesus never performed spectacular miracles, Jesus didn’t save anyone from sin, etc.), but disagrees with Boris’s claim that no historical person Jesus existed and that the Jesus story belongs to the category of myth rather than history.

In fact, almost all Biblical scholars agree with Ehrman and disagree with Boris on the claim that Jesus was a purely mythical person. Of course, that does not prove Ehrman right – the majority of Ph.D.s can be wrong, as they have many times before, in history, medicine, the natural sciences, etc. – but when the majority is so overwhelming, it’s reasonable to ask why they accept a “Jesus of history” (even if many don’t accept the “Jesus of faith”). Are they all stupid, i.e., incapable of logical reasoning? Or are they all ignorant, i.e., untrained in languages, history, and methodology in the study of religion? Neither of those alternatives seems plausible. So what remains?

Perhaps they are all under the spell of some systemic bias in their scholarship? That could well be, but then one would need to identify the bias. Boris has repeatedly tried (unsuccessfully) to say that the bias is Christian piety, but that cannot be the explanation, since the vast majority of atheist, agnostic, and Jewish scholars agree with the Christian scholars that Jesus was a historical person (though not exactly as described in the New Testament). So if there is no systemic theological or religious bias blinding almost all scholars to the “mythical” interpretation of Jesus, what is the systemic bias? Why would scholars as diverse as atheists and Jews and Christians, who normally disagree with each other quite openly and bluntly on very fundamental issues, unquestioningly accept that there was a historical Jesus? Why would they turn off their critical faculties and not question the evidence for the historicity of Jesus?

Boris has provided no plausible answer (psychological, sociological, political, etc.) to this question. On his account, we have an unexplained, blind, unreasoned acceptance that there was a historical Jesus, even among scholars for whom things would be much more comfortable if it could be shown that Jesus never existed.

Boris aside, Ehrman is an interesting person from a sociological point of view; a former fundamentalist who is now an agnostic or atheist, and who, by his own account, was moved from one position to the other through the academic study of the Bible. This is not just an isolated case, but a pattern religion scholars have seen again and again. Something about the “scholarly study of religion” or “scholarly study of the Bible” seems far more likely to turn people of faith into people of no faith than the other way around. If one wants to inquire into possible “systemic bias,” I’d say this is potentially a more fruitful line of inquiry than the speculations that Boris has so far offered.

Well, I don’t know about systemic bias in reasoning – it’s clear enough that there are a lot of different personalities in Biblical scholarship, so much so that it would just be unfair to paint the whole discipline with a broad brush.

It does seem to me that there are serious problems with developing any confidence over the existence/non-existence of a person who probably died quite obscurely and who is known only from folkloric sources which weren’t reduced to writing for some time. And I do find the willingness of people to express confidence in the existence of a historical Jesus surprising, from that point of view.

But I’m not a mythicist myself. I think the likeliest – but by no means the only possible – cause of the origin of these folkloric traditions includes some amount of material that originated in connection with a real person or persons. I think it would be extremely hazardous to put any confidence in any particular element of the traditions being a part of that historical core. While literary arguments can be made for the authenticity of particular passages, it just seems to me that when one has got to the literary arguments one is far, far too many miles downstream of the facts to say anything with confidence.


I agree that one can’t paint every Bible scholar with the same brush, but still, there might be general tendencies that predominate, and those tendencies may have an identifiable cause. For example, most Biblical scholars today (whether pious or not) accept, to a large degree, methodological principles (e.g., historical-critical approaches) which have descended (with modification, via German scholarship etc.) from people like Spinoza. And once those principles are accepted, even if only partly, they do appear to have a tendency to induce doubt about the truth and even coherence of the Bible where no such doubt existed before. This may not be a logically necessary result of the methodological principles, but there’s a very strong observable correlation that is hard not to interpret causally. I’ve watched it happen to Pentecostals, Baptists, Anglicans, etc., and from what Jewish scholars report, it’s a common event among Jewish students as well.

My point here is that common ground on methods in Biblical studies is documentable, whereas common ground on religious belief among Biblical scholars is demonstrably absent, and so Boris’s charge that Bible-thumping piety is the driving agenda in Biblical studies is not empirically supported, whereas the influence of a certain conception of method is well-supported. So if Boris wants to argue that the “error” of supposing Jesus to be a historical person is caused by the historically-focused methods of Biblical scholarship (rather than the alleged religious prejudices of Biblical scholars), he could actually build up a reasonable case. But he hasn’t argued that – at least, not coherently.

I agree again (though I wouldn’t use the term “folkloric,” which I think is technically wrong for the case we are discussing, but that’s a side point).

Well, yes. And while there certainly are scholars whose theological precommitments bias their views, I think on this particular question the way the issue goes has less to do with that than with the nature of evidence.

The person who, like me, is somewhat skeptical of the value of textual evidence that comes down to us has no “positive” case to make, particularly. I don’t know how the stories of Jesus originated or were propagated, how they may have changed in the telling, et cetera. Rather, my own view of it is shaped by the fact that I do NOT know those things. But not-knowing doesn’t really point to firm conclusions and exciting theses.

The mythicists have a case to put, and they are, for whatever reason, unsatisfied with just stopping at the idea that the origins of Christian tradition are unknown and somewhat obscure. It doesn’t get 'em where they wanna go. So they have to look for a “positive” case to make – one which demonstrates, in some way, the non-existence of Jesus or some specific alternative origin for the stories. I’ve read G.A. Wells and Richard Carrier, both of whom want to make the case on a kind of argument, drawing from works of textual criticism, that the earliest accounts of Jesus have him as a kind of celestial figure without an earthly life; if one accepts that, then it is susceptible to the interpretation that when later works give Jesus that earthly biography, they are layering pseudo-history onto a Jesus that originally had no historical core. I won’t go into detail here because it’s not necessary to my point – I’ll just say that my sense is that they grossly oversell what case they have to make, and I find it not absurd, but just unconvincing (and, sadly, sometimes characterized by such things as quote-mining, which, it is fair to say, do nothing for the credibility of the approach). But to the mythicist who wants to spread mythicism, some demonstration OF myth is necessary. He can’t just stand on the indefiniteness of the foundations of tradition, because that indefiniteness does not show that Jesus did not exist; at the maximum, it only suggests that Jesus not existing is a possibility to consider.

I don’t think that there is a positive case worth making on this. And so I think it’s not very surprising that scholars don’t really try to make it. I wonder sometimes how “actually confident” one might find various NT scholars on the actual existence of Jesus, if one put the question squarely. I sort of suspect that a number of them wouldn’t think it was a very interesting question – they might be more interested in the tradition than in the history, more interested in the cultural developments in the religion than in the opaque origins of the religion, that sort of thing. But if they are mostly (or near-unanimously) persuaded that the best hypothesis – whether they judge that hypothesis as near-certain or as merely likely – is that there is some historical core to the gospel stories, I suppose it’s natural that they follow lines of inquiry that flow from that. If there were a really serious and worthwhile positive case to make to say that Jesus did NOT exist, I suspect it’d get more attention; but if there is such a positive case to make, I haven’t seen it.

I suspect one could make a credible case for some sort of bias in favor of historicity, among those scholars whose faith would be made problematic by non-historicity. But I sort of think that that’s beside the point, most of the time. The reasonable person will try to evaluate the quality of the evidence offered. It does one very little good, in advocating a point, to show “bias” without more. As a lawyer in court one never says, “yes, my opponent seems to be making a pretty good argument, but look! He represents my client’s adversary! He is biased, your honor!” Rather, one has got to do the work of showing not that the other guy is biased – which everyone already knows – but that he’s wrong.

It is not, I think, that the evidence for a historical Jesus is particularly compelling – it’s that there is no alternative view of the origins of Christianity that is compelling, either. That being the case, the most “natural” inference – that there is something or other in history behind it – naturally tends to be where people land. One can doubt it; myself, I most certainly do doubt it, though on balance I’d bet for some sort of historicity over none.


I think we’re in virtually complete agreement here. From a purely academic point of view, there is no way of proving whether or not a historical Jesus existed. But the vast majority of trained ancient historians seem to believe that Jesus was in fact a real person. In their books and articles, they give reasons for believing this. Such reasons don’t establish certainty, but they do establish probability. So even if I take off my religious man’s hat and put on my religion scholar’s hat, I would agree with your final statement:

That’s pretty much my position as well, though I think I have less doubt about his likely historicity than you seem to.

That said, I don’t think mythicism can be entirely dismissed out of hand as mere crankery. Least of all by supposed “scholars” who hold to the utterly crackpot idea that, in historical terms, Jesus was an incarnated god who walked on water and came back from the dead.

As I said on another thread, where this discussion started, I don’t dismiss a “mythical” interpretation as in itself crankery. I said that an intelligent, coherent “mythical” interpretation could in principle be presented. However, Boris has not provided one. Nor, as far as I am aware, have any of the authors he has named.

Boris suggested, for example, that the Gospels, collectively or at least some of them individually, are really sustained allegories of solar religion or whatnot. Well, if that’s the case, then a good scholar should be able to take a single Gospel and show, from the overall structure and from the individual sections and smaller details, that the work was written intentionally as an allegory. But I’m unaware of any study, by any of the authors recommended by Boris, or by anyone else, that does this. And given that the Bible is the most studied work in the history of the human race, and that it has been studied with particular intensity since the 18th century, by thousands of highly trained scholars employing the whole panoply of academic methods (original language analysis, comparative linguistics, comparative religion, history, ancient world context, literary theory, etc.), it would be very odd if not a single scholar had stumbled upon the allegorical character of a Gospel, and if not a single scholar could demonstrate the allegorical character of that Gospel, if that Gospel were in fact written as an allegory.

I’m keeping an open mind on the “mythicist” interpretation, but the fact that its champions are exclusively (as far as I can tell) cranks, dilettantes, and autodidacts, and that none of them are trained Biblical scholars, makes me naturally suspicious. Yes, 200+ years of modern Biblical scholarship might have completely missed the point, and all the Church Fathers, Scholastics, and Reformers might have missed the point, and an amateur without much training might have uncovered the secret way of reading a Gospel never before discovered. Anything is possible. But given what Boris has presented, such a reading isn’t plausible.

All this is mere opinion, and as always everyone is entitled to their own. I wonder why it actually matters what anyone’s opinion is on the historicity of Jesus? There is no hard data and it is vanishingly unlikely that any will emerge after 2000 years. So we are stuck with varous views on an ancient text of unknown provenance. Saying that Jesus existed in some for or another is no better supported than saying that he didn’t. I see no way to establish which one is more likely than any other.

If you limited your claim to “there is no proof either way,” I’d agree with you. But since you are offering a comparative conclusion, i.e., that one side is no better supported than another, you’re implying that you have reviewed all the evidence and arguments, i.e., that you are very familiar with the past 150 years or so of Biblical scholarship on the subject. Are you familiar with that scholarship? If not, shouldn’t you withdraw the claim? And if so, what errors of fact or reasoning do you find in the majority opinion?

Perhaps it would be more fruitful if you would go over some of the evidence that Jesus existed, perhaps even (in keeping with the topic) some of the evidence that Ehrman found convincing.

One might also ask what it means to say that Jesus existed. How much about his life would have to be true? Would he have to have the same name (or its Aramaic or Hebrew equivalent)? Would he have to be a preacher? Would some percentage of the incidents of his described life have to have happened to that same person?

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You are missing the point. Analysing the only source we have for the existence of Jesus (the NT) is like analysing the Odyssee for evidence that Odysseus actually existed. Can you, or anyone else, do that to the point where we can have confidence either way?

This is an excellent point. How much of what is told in the NT needs to be factual for us to conclude that Jesus existed? Is a 20% Jesus still a real and worthwhile Jesus? A 10% one? A 1% one? The mind boggles.

No, it’s not the only source. Jesus is mentioned in a number of Jewish sources, including not only Josephus but also some rabbinic material. And you don’t seem at all interested in reading what scholars have to say about what we can learn from such sources.

You’ll find detailed scholarly accounts in Ed Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, Geza Vermes, Jesus in His Jewish Context, Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician, and many other works. You’ll get a much “tighter” exposition from such writers than you’d get from me, as the detailed historical background of the NT is not my field. There’s a long review of Sanders’s “Historical Figure of Jesus” book on Amazon – that might be the place for you to start. I’ve no time at the moment to write up a precis of the arguments, but anyone who is genuinely interested in the subject can read up on it these authors or in some of Ehrman’s works.

Analysing the NT might serve various purposes: it could inform us about internal consistency of the story, or the lack of it. It might also inform us about the accuracy of the setting, because there is independent data to calibrate that against. What it can’t do is inform us about the factual existence of the person named Jesus who did and said what is attributed to him in the text. For that, we would need independent data as calibration, something we don’t have. Mere consistency and correspondence of the setting with reality just doesn’t provide that.

Imagine we didn’t know that the private detective Philip Marlowe was a fictional character. We could read the stories about him and conclude that they are internally consistent (although to be fair there might even be some doubts around that), therefore allowing for the existence of Philip Marlowe. We could also compare the setting (Los Angeles in the 1940’s) with what we know of LA today and back then, and we would conclude that the storyteller had in-depth knowledge of this setting, again allowing for a person named Philip Marlowe to exist in 1940’s LA. However, none of this would inform us about whether Philip Marlowe actually existed or not.

We simply cannot know this without having independent data for calibration. In the case of Philip Marlowe we happen to know that he was invented by Raymond Chandler. If we didn’t know that, we might investigate the city records, the police records, the papers etc. etc. If we did that and found nothing, we would start to have real doubts about the historicity of Philip Marlowe. Why? Because we would expect there to be records of him somewhere.

In the case of Jesus I don’t think we would necessarily expect independent records of such a person to exist or to be preserved, particularly not if we discount the miracle stories as embellishments. Ancient Palestine simply wasn’t organised like that, even preserved Roman records are patchy at best. Who would keep records of a simple carpenter? So in this case, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

Therefore, we don’t have evidence of his presence, and we don’t have evidence of his absence. All we have are stories about him in what is evidently a non-fictional setting.The only honest and legitimate conclusion then is yes, we know the setting is real, but we simply don’t know if the protagonist is real. Likelihood or probablities don’t even come into this. Hundreds of years of studies of the text won’t shed a ray of light on this particular question. How could it? What in the stories could possible do so? We would need independent evidence, and there isn’t any.

Josephus wrote decades after Jesus’s life. He lived in a time wheren there were people who spoke about Jesus. And? As if nobody has written anything about Odysseus since Homer.

And what is this rabbinic material? I haven’t come across this before.

As to the evidence you point John Harshman to, it must truly be copious if it takes so many books to lay it out. I suspect though that all we have is endless tail chasing. Do you know how many books have been written about the evidence for Bigfoot? The Yeti? Aliens? I rest my case.

Yes, we do. See my earlier reply. Again, I repeat my question: How familiar are you with NT scholarship? Are you speaking from the point of view of someone who had read a great deal of it, or are you simply engaging in “armchair reasoning”? If you’ve done some study, we can talk, but if you’re just “winging it,” I don’t want to invest time in such a conversation.

Often many, most, or all of our historical information about ancient individuals comes from people who wrote decades after someone lived, and we don’t as a general rule doubt the existence of those individuals merely because the reports came in later. Why would you treat Jesus any differently from some Greek or Roman figure that most people accept as historical even though there are no contemporary accounts? I’m not saying you should accept miracle accounts that aren’t from eyewitnesses, but why would you doubt general claims, e.g., that Jesus lived and preached in Galilee, was believed by many to be a healer, was put to death, etc.? I see no intellectual value in hyper-skepticism when even those who had every reason to deny Jesus’s existence (the Jewish rabbis) did not display such skepticism.

Which confirms that you aren’t very familiar with New Testament scholarship – as I suspected. I took a whole course on Jesus and Judaism from a Jewish scholar who was trained as a Classical historian at an Ivy League school. He was anti-Christian and therefore had every motive to teach his Christian students that Jesus never existed, if he thought that was the case. But the whole course was taught as if Jesus was a real historical person and the debatable things were his divinity, his miracles, etc. He mentioned many rabbinic sources which treated Jesus as real, while denying that he was the son of God. One anti-Christian source suggested that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and someone else, neither Joseph nor God. Why would Jews bother with such charges, if they thought Jesus was an entirely fictional person that Christians made up?

Your suspicion is not worth anything unless you already have some background in New Testament scholarship, or at the very least, Classical scholarship. I’ll take the mature scholarly judgment of world-class historians, religion scholars, Classicists, Hellenistic Judaism specialists, etc., over your untrained suspicions any day.

You haven’t made a case, only an assertion.

Eddie, I’m very happy to state that there definitely was at least one man in 1st C. Palestine who was called Jesus, or rather Yeshua. I’m not sure why we should care about that, though.

Rabbis treating Jesus as real doesn’t mean that Jesus was real. I think you are unable or unwilling to differentiate between Jesus being real and people believing the Jesus was real. Believing stuff that isn’t real is unfortunately a deep seated tendency of mankind. That is why I mentioned numerous examples of people believing things that are not, in fact, real. Things that I’m sure you agree with me about. Now, my claim isn’t that Jesus didn’t exist. My claim is that we don’t have sufficient evidence to make a decent case that he did; or, as John said, that if he did exist, who he actually was, and what he said and did. The last things we should consult about this are religious tracts. They are as impartial and reliable as party political

And that’s where I was disagreeing. There is enough evidence to make “a decent case”, though there is certainly not anywhere near a proof. Your original claim was that his existence is “no better supported” than his nonexistence. The vast majority of trained historians of the period disagree with that judgment. I gave you some titles of books by those scholars. If you’re not interested in studying their reasons, that’s up to you, but you can’t possibly know that his existence is “no better supported” than his nonexistence until you’ve read their arguments and can point out the flaws in them.

In any case, as I said above, there are probably a dozen ancient Greek and Roman “historical” figures that are no better attested, or even worse attested, textually, than Jesus is, and I would guess that you don’t doubt their existence, so the question is: Why the selective skepticism?

Too sweeping. Professional historians often are able to get beyond the biases of the texts they are reading to establish certain facts. Again, you don’t seem interested in learning what the arguments are or what the evidence is. Well, there is nothing more I can do. Read the sources I mentioned, or don’t.