Book Review: DID JESUS EXIST? (Spoiler: Yes, he did.)

by waxbanks

Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Bart Ehrman)

(Personal note: I’ve used A.D. and B.C. here, rather than (B.)C.E., out of three decades’ habit, and because ‘A.D.’ looks nicer on the page to my eye than the ungainly three-letter alternative.)

I recognized Ehrman’s name from How Jesus Became Christ, which I’ve wanted to read for a while, and picked this one up last week from the remainder stacks at Harvard Book Store. The first 3/4 of the book gives the scholarly consensus answer to the titular question, which is: Yes, unquestionably. Jesus of Nazareth did exist. Ehrman deals generously but firmly with the ‘mythicists,’ those writers who insist that Jesus was a fictional (mythological) character invented by cultists a few years after his supposed death. In passing, he makes an observation which shook me: the atheist (or pan-spiritualist) insistence that the canonical Gospels be treated not as historical documents but as a kind of shared-world mythmaking project is just as ahistorical and myopic as the fundamentalist/literalist insistence that the Gospels are faultless records of a god-man’s earthly existence in first-century A.D. (C.E.) Roman Palestine. In other words, it’s wrong to hold the Gospels (and the often much weirder noncanonical lowercase-G gospels) out as exceptions to every established practice of historical documentary analysis — Ehrman points out that trained (he keeps saying ‘credentialed,’ justifiably embittered at having to write this book in the first place) scholars possess well-oiled interpretive/analytical machinery for determining which parts of the New Testament can be treated as historical accounts and which are, y’know, wish-fulfillment.

(For instance: the fact that a story appears in Mark, Luke, and Matthew doesn’t count as corroboration, since the writers of Luke and Matthew based their gospels on Mark; whereas stories that appear in just one of the gospel sources, or widely vary in their presentation, are more useful for that purpose, etc.)

This portion of the book is wholly convincing. The verdict is in. Jesus of Nazareth existed. (He almost certainly wasn’t born in Bethlehem, but what can you do.)

The final section is a quick rundown of scholarly consensus on what the historical Jesus actually said and did. This is what I was most interested in. Ehrman’s argument, in brief: Jesus was an apocalypticist preacher (a term with specific theological connotations, not just ‘guy talking about the end times’), not a proto-Marxist or proto-feminist or radical anticapitalist or proponent of military uprising. And (a bit of speculation here) he was probably executed for suggesting to the apostles, privately, that in the coming kingdom of God — where they, the twelve, would be seated as kings of the twelve tribes of Israel — Jesus himself would be capo di tutti capi. That, Ehrman suggests, was the content of Judas’s betrayal, seeing as there’s no record of Jesus ever describing himself, in his public ministry, as ‘king of the Jews.’

Ehrman runs through some of Jesus’s teachings and teases out which of the utterances ascribed to Jesus were likely later additions to the tradition, including a weirdly thrilling description of the phrase ‘Son of Man’ and its role in apocalypticist rhetoric. And he situates Jesus’s ministry within a tradition, dating back to the prophet Daniel at least, of apocalypticist contributions to theological/political debates within Jewish culture. (I’d heard of the Essenes, for instance, but had never understood that the Dead Sea Scrolls were a collection of Essene literature having nothing to do with Jesus but contemporary with him.)

The continuity between late-B.C. Jewish political/theological debates, the early Jesus cult, and the youngish Christian churches is one of those incredibly important areas that we were never ever taught about as young Catholics. But the power of Catholicism for me has always come from its intertwining of mysterious, mystical sensuality with a proud tradition of intellectual preservation — which would have been well served, I think, by a little more book-learnin’ and a lot less finger-waggin’.

But here we are, better late than never; and it’s a superb book which I heartily recommend, with just the small caveat that Ehrman’s patience for considerations of historical evidentiary standards will surely outlast your own, and you’ll skip pages as I did. No shame in that. The skipping won’t do you or the book any harm, and what you don’t skip will do you good.

Why does it matter, by the way?

The ‘Christ myth’ (that Jesus was a fiction, that the Gospels are the only ‘evidence’ of his existence, etc.) is itself a myth. Ehrman’s book takes it up as a scholarly question, or at least a pseudoscholarly one, but the book’s worth reading partly because, I suspect, the ‘Christ myth’ myth is more widely believed, or at least entertained, than we’d think. I’m guessing that a hell of a lot of people, not just Nü-Atheists and New Age goofs, are dubious about the historical fact of the preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Which is bad for our civilization. It’s one thing to be agnostic as to Jesus’s divinity or the existence of deities — or, say, psychic powers! — but it’s quite another to go on as if the existence of perhaps the single most influential human being in history were a legitimately open question. Whether or not you’re a believing Christian (or any other theist, or more generally a ‘credulous sort’), your beliefs can only be made more robust, and your sense of the world and your place in it more…sensible, by firming up your vague sense of our species’s shared past.

Indeed, the more ‘realistic’ your personal sense of the way one rabble-rousing end times prophet became the focus of an apocalypse cult, which in turn grew to remake half the human world, the better equipped (I suspect) you’ll be, we’ll be, to deal with the enormous and actually apocalyptic changes to that world which are already underway.

So that’s that, I guess. Have a read. I didn’t see it as such a big deal when I picked it up, but the more I think on it, the question of ‘what are the facts behind Western civilization’s chief myth?’ does seem, y’know, worth looking into.