Bible scholar Bart Ehrman talks about Did Jesus Exist?

BART EHRMAN. Photo used courtesy of HarperOne and Bart Ehrman.In Part 1 of our coverage of Bart Ehrman’s new book, we published some of the author’s own words from Did Jesus Exist? This new book is a great discussion-starter in congregations. Yes, once again, Bart shares his own provocative understanding of Jesus’ historical role as a Jewish teacher, a viewpoint that may not be welcome in some traditional congregations. However, the main focus of this new book is providing a detailed proof of Jesus’s reality as a person living 2,000 years ago. That’s a historical case that most Christians couldn’t make without some help—such as the help you’ll find in these pages.

Today, we welcome Bart Ehrman back to our pages for a new interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …


DAVID: You’ve written a lot of books. As a journalist, I’ve been interviewing you for years. So, how many books have you published, now?

BART: This book is number 25. The books are all biblical studies and are almost entirely focused on New Testament and early Christianity.

DAVID: In Part 1 of our coverage, we will share with readers your own words about why this book may surprise people. But, the truth is: You don’t see this as a change of direction.

BART: That’s right. Most of the views I have of the New Testament have been standard scholarly views for a long time and this is another example of that. Scholars agree that Jesus lived. What I’m doing is making that scholarly consensus public. I don’t see myself as a debunker of traditional views of the Bible. I see myself as a historian writing about what really happened in history. That means I sometimes write about the contradictions and conflicts that are present in the New Testament. But I’m a historian, not someone setting out to debunk someone’s tradition.

DAVID: There’s such a huge body of literature bout the historical Jesus now. You reach back in your new book, for example, to Albert Schweitzer. When I was a boy growing up as a pastor’s kid, I remember we had a big coffee-table book about Shweitzer’s life in our living room. He’s all but forgotten today, so I’m glad you include him in your book. But this leads to the question: Why did you write this book, going over this particular subject, right now? This is long-settled territory.

BART: To my surprise, I couldn’t find anyone else who has done a book like this—just providing the proof that Jesus lived for general readers. I don’t think anyone thought there needed to be such a proof laid out, before now. This kind of book was necessary to counter the rise of these people I call mythicists—writers who want to argue that Jesus was a myth and never existed as a real person.


CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.DAVID: I’m a big fan of Bill Bryson’s books and I particularly enjoyed his book on Shakespeare that, among other things, railed against the people who want to claim that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays.

BART: My wife, Sarah Beckwith, is a Shakespeare scholar and she wrote a rather scathing analysis of the movie Anonymous for furthering this old idea that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

DAVID: We’ll provide a link to Sarah’s article about the movie Anonymous, because it sounds like husband and wife scholars are battling similar questions in their respective fields of study. Here’s a line from her commentary on Anonymous: “But when something is shouted loudly enough and often enough and to enough people, with no checks on the accuracy of what’s being shouted, an ignorant, downright silly claim can come to sound like a long-suppressed truth.” I’m quoting that from Sarah because it sounds like it could be a passage from your own new book about Jesus!

BART: My brother is a classical scholar and, in classics, they have these debates about the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some people don’t think that Homer actually lived. My brother’s line is: “Oh, yeah, he didn’t write them. Some other guy named Homer did.” Yes, I think all of these debates are comparable. We’ve got limited evidence about the people who created these amazing bodies of material—and someone always is ready to debate the case that they actually existed and were responsible for the body of work.


DAVID: Let’s clarify a key point for readers of this interview. A lot of people are going to expect your book to take on Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the rest of the so-called new atheists. In fact, you’re not writing about them, at all. You’re actually countering a range of writers who have drawn a following, but who are not household names. You’re actually more famous, Bart, than the folks you’re attacking here.

BART: No, I’m not writing about Harris or Dawkins or Hitchens. And the mythicists I am addressing are not household names, but they do have a large following. When you read my book, if you look around the Internet for the people I mention, you’ll find that they’re all over the place. A number of them have written books arguing that Jesus didn’t exist and they also have Internet sites arguing that Jesus didn’t exist. You have to remember that, in some parts of the world, this has been a dominant view for many years. In the former Soviet Union, it was the dominant view because Lenin was convinced of this in the early 20th Century. Today, it’s also apparently a dominant view in parts of Scandinavia.

DAVID: What are their motive in making this claim that Jesus was pure fiction? Give us a sense of what you’ve concluded.

BART: They have a basic message that organized religion is a dangerous thing and has done a lot of harm. The form of organized religion that these writers are most familiar with is Christianity, so they set out to debunk Christianity. They see themselves as debunking a dangerous force in the world.

DAVID: So, there is some convergence here with books by Harris, Hitchens and the others in that atheist movement. They do see organized religion as dangerous. But, in my reading of their work, they don’t seem to debate that Jesus actually walked the earth, right?

BART: No, it’s not a point they try to make. They probably would be open to the idea that Jesus didn’t exist, but it doesn’t seem to be a point they’ve looked into much. I do have a lot of readers who like their books, who are humanist or skeptical or atheist.

DAVID: You give a good example of this in your book.

BART: Yes, I was given an award last year by a humanist association. It’s a group I actually hadn’t heard of before, but they did honor me and I went to meet with them. I was surprised at how many of the people there were in fact mythicists, as I describe that term in my book. People with that point of view, it turned out, were surprised to discover that I didn’t share it.


DAVID: This is a good point in the interview to ask you to describe your religious affiliation. I know that I’ve asked you this question over a number of years and your answer—as you’ve explained in other books—has changed over the years. Famously, you’ve gone from an almost fundamentalist background to great skepticism about faith today. How do you describe your own religious life now?

BART: I’m a happy agnostic. (laughs) Two words: happy agnostic. The reason I say it that way is: I used to tell people I once was an evangelical Christian and now I’m an agnostic. They would say: “Oh, how sad.” But I don’t think that’s sad at all. No, I don’t believe in the Christian God. I don’t believe there is a greater power in the universe that is actively involved in our world. Then, people would ask me, “Isn’t there any greater force behind the universe?” And my reply would be, “How would I know?”

I am an agnostic and I say, now, that I’m a happy agnostic to make that point clear. I’m not a sad person! But people sometimes want to go on to say: “Then, are you telling people to forget about Jesus as a real person?”

To that I say: Jesus is without question the most important figure in Western civilization. There’s nobody who even comes close to Jesus. As a historian I naturally find that is important. I think it’s important for us to find out how Jesus was firmly rooted in his own historical context. The problem with the mythicists is that they shoot themselves in the foot by taking a position that no other reasonable and informed person in the world takes.

The real problem in understanding Jesus isn’t that he wasn’t historical at all—but that he is too historical. He was rooted in a 1st Century world.

DAVID: You write a lot about that in your book. The Christian church, you argue, later enlarged upon Jesus’s life and teaching to give the world a religious figure far larger than his actual ministry intended.

BART: I do think that it’s possible to re-describe Jesus’s vision for life in this world in a way that makes a lot of sense to us today, 2,000 years later. For example, Jesus taught that we should fight against the forces of evil and I agree that we should fight against the forces of evil. I think we should love our neighbors as ourselves, as he taught.


DAVID: Reading this particular portion in your book, I began to wish that we all could hear a dialogue sometime between you and N.T. Wright. We just featured an interview with Tom Wright about his new book, “How God Became King.” You pretty much say in this new book that you plan to address a similar theme in your next book. Obviously, there’s a long list of points on which you and Tom Wright disagree, but I’m intrigued by this focus both of you make on Jesus’s urgency with confronting the evil powers and principalities in the world.

BART: I think there is a consensus to some extent. I agree with Tom that, for my money, this is what really matters in Jesus’s message. Everything in his adult life is oriented toward this message. Where Tom and I disagree is that I think, when Jesus made an apocalyptic proclamation about what was going to happen very soon, he actually meant it. I think Jesus really thought that the Son of Man was going to come on the clouds of heaven and set up a kingdom on earth. I think Jesus thought it was going to happen in his own generation. Tom, of course, reads that differently. And, if I were a Christian, I would take a line of argument similar to Tom’s viewpoint. I would say: This might sound like a 1st Century idea, but it’s not. I would argue that this teaching has resonance throughout history and we are still confronted with the powers of evil, today.


DAVID: OK, I think we’ve given readers a tantalizing overview of your new book’s major points. Before we wrap up, though, let’s turn to a few examples of myths that you do debunk in your work as a scholar. One of them actually is a plank in your case that Jesus really lived. I think even practicing Christians will find this fascinating. A good place to look is page 165 in your new book, where you argue that it is evidence of the truth of Jesus’ story that he suffered and died. No one expected a suffering messiah. So, because Jesus suffers and dies in the Gospels, you argue, that’s good evidence of his existence. No one would have made up such a story, right?

BART: Yes, that’s an important point and, of course, it’s difficult for most Christians to believe today because they’ve been told that’s what a messiah is supposed to do. But, in fact, this was not a view in Judaism at the time. We don’t have any Jews prior to Christianity describing the messiah in that way. So, if someone wanted to invent a messiah called Jesus, this wasn’t the way that a made-up story would go.

DAVID: You directly address the passage from Isaiah that Christians usually quote, at this point.

BART: Any reader who wants to quote Isaiah 53 should simply go back and read it again. You won’t find the word messiah there. It’s not talking about the messiah. People will say: Well, the word messiah may not be there, but that’s what it’s talking about. And my reply is: No Jews in the 1st Century would have interpreted the passage in this way. The Christians were the first who said this was referring to the messiah.

If someone set out to make up Jesus as a messiah in the 1st Century, they would have made up the story in light of what most people expected. You wouldn’t make up a story about a messiah who didn’t wind up conquering the enemy. You wouldn’t have created a story about a suffering messiah. The suffering messiah idea actually is evidence that Jesus was a real person.

DAVID: So, let’s debunk another myth—and I should warn readers that it’s not really a major point in this particular book. But this myth keeps cropping up in the work of famous writers like Deepak Chopra. You say that the real-life Jesus could never have taken a side trip over to India as Chopra and others suggest.

BART: That’s not plausible. There’s actually a history to his legend about Jesus going to India—and it’s a legend created in the modern era. You’re right, I don’t talk about that in this particular book, but I do touch on it in my earlier work.

DAVID: Anything new that readers may want to check out in coming months?

BART: I am starting a blog that’s not completely set up, just yet, but will be going live this spring. It’s

DAVID: It’s an intriguing concept for a blog. You’re charging a small fee for membership; I’m sure that’s to discourage the drive-by critics and to encourage people with serious interest. You’re giving the money to charity. We’ll provide a link for readers who want to find out more about the blog. Plus, we’ll also provide that video clip you’ve produced for Did Jesus Exist?

Jump back to read Part 1 of our coverage of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?


Click on the video screen below to watch a short clip of Bart describing key points in his new book. (If you don’t see a video screen, below, try reloading this story in your browser.)


GET THE BOOK: Bart Ehrman’s new Did Jesus Exist? is available from Amazon.

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