This may shock some readers—as Ehrman himself acknowledges in his new book: This spring, the famously skeptical Bible scholar has gone from charging that much of the New Testament is “Forged,” last year, to defending the truth of Jesus’ life against skeptics in Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.
Is this really a role reversal?
Short answer: No. But this move certainly is shaking up some of the skeptics who assumed that Ehrman questions Jesus’s very existence as a real person 2,000 years ago. Ehrman says as much in his new book.
Today, we will let Bart Ehrman explain this move in his own words.
Later this week, we welcome Bart Ehrman for our author interview.
Want to catch up on Ehrman’s background? Read our 2011 interview with Bart on Forged.
DID JESUS EXIST?
BY BIBLE SCHOLAR
BART D. EHRMAN
From the opening section of Erhman’s new book …
Every week I receive two or three emails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these emails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?
But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder: Why are so many people asking? My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles—misquoted rather—as saying that Jesus never existed. I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.
I was surprised because I am trained as a scholar of New Testament and early Christianity, and for thirty years I have written extensively on the historical Jesus, the Gospels, the early Christian movement, and the history of the church’s first three hundred years. Like all New Testament scholars, I have read thousands of books and articles in English and other European languages on Jesus, the New Testament, and early Christianity. But I was almost completely unaware—as are most of my colleagues in the field—of this body of skeptical literature.
I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities or colleges of North America or Europe, or anywhere else in the world. Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed. But a whole body of literature out there, some of it highly intelligent and well informed, makes this case.
The sundry books and articles, not to mention websites, are of varying quality. Some of them rival The Da Vinci Code in their passion for conspiracy and the shallowness of their historical knowledge, not just of the New Testament and early Christianity, but of ancient religions generally and, even more broadly, the ancient world. But a couple of bona fide scholars—not professors teaching religious studies in universities but scholars nonetheless, and at least one of them with a Ph.D. in the field of New Testament—have taken this position and written about it. Their books may not be known to the general public interested in questions related to Jesus, the Gospels, or the early Christian church, but they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a very small but often loud minority voice. Once you tune in to this voice, you quickly learn just how persistent and vociferous it can be. …
Those who do not think Jesus existed are frequently militant in their views and remarkably adept at countering evidence that to the rest of the civilized world seems compelling and even unanswerable. But these writers have answers, and the smart ones among them need to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than to show why they cannot be right about their major contention. The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist. That is what this book will set out to demonstrate. …
What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to the question of Jesus’s historical evidence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous or immortal.
But as a historian I think evidence matters. And the past matters. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matters, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch , or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things with relative certainty about him.
In any event, I need to admit that I write this book with some fear and trepidation. I know that some readers who support agnostic, atheist, or humanist causes and who appreciate my other writings will be vocal and vociferous in rejecting my historical claims. At the same time certain readers who have found some of my other writings dangerous or threatening will be surprised, possibly even pleased, to see that here I make common cause with them.
Come back later this week for our interview with Bart Ehrman about his new book.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.