Review: 'Did Jesus Exist?' a worthy read

Lowcountry book reviewerJuly 8, 2012 

"Did Jesus Exist?"

by Bart D. Ehrman.


361 pages.


The author of this provocative book answers the question posed by the title on Page 6 of his introduction: "He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believed in or the Jesus of the stained glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite evangelist ... but he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty about him."

Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and the author of more than 20 books (including "Misquoting Jesus," "God's Problem") makes his position clear. "I am not a Christian" he states, "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. ... But as a historian, I think evidence matters ... Jesus did exist."

This book, then, consists of that evidence. He begins with an analysis of the "mythicists"; that is, those who hold that there was no Jesus. While he treats their views with respect, he leaves no doubt about where he stands. "Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified in Jerusalem ... when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea."

Mythicists base their charges in part by saying that Jesus is never mentioned in the histories of that time. Ehrman points out that even Pontius Pilates rates no mention, so why would an obscure Jewish teacher get one? He goes through the non-Christian references to Jesus, which, except for the Roman historian Tacitus, are a little vague (Tacitus makes reference to a man for whom the much persecuted Christians are named, and was executed by Pontius Pilate).

The author then examines the Jewish sources, of which the historian Josephus is the most reliable. He quotes Josephus: "At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds ... And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out."

He talks about the historical accuracy of the Gospels, including some that did not make it into the Bible and finds much persuasive evidence. He cites seven Gospels "completely independent of one another" that lead to the conclusion "whatever one wants to say about Jesus, at the very least one must say that he existed."

Ehrman goes into other evidence outside the Gospels, the most convincing being the writings and sermons of Paul, who gave many details of Jesus' life and family. Paul knew James personally, referring to him as the "brother of the Lord," and knew some of his other siblings as well. "It's hard to imagine how Jesus could have been made up. Paul knew his best friend (Peter) and his brother."

Part II goes back to the mythicists again, calling their case "weak and irrelevant." Just because some Bible stories contradict each other, or are apocryphal and not meant to be believed literally, does not prove that Jesus himself was not real. He admits that stories about Jesus have been shaped to conform to pagan stories about their own gods, such as Mithras, but insists this in no way denies Jesus' existence. The author concludes this section by agreeing with Albert Schweitzer: "Jesus appears to have been a Jewish apocalypticist who expected God ... to overthrow the forces of evil and so bring in his own kingdom ... and this would happen soon, within his own generation."

The final section of the book deals with ways of finding out just what Jesus was like, which of the stories about him we can believe. Ehrman finds no evidence supporting the Christian belief in a virgin birth, he finds no records of a census that caused Joseph to bring his pregnant wife to Bethlehem and thinks the baby was born in Nazareth. He does believe that Jesus celebrated a Passover feast (the Last Supper), that he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, that he was charged with calling himself "king of the Jews"; after a brief trial, Pilate ordered a standard Roman method of execution: crucifixion.

At the end, he restates once again: "Jesus did exist, whether we like it or not." Many will disagree with him either in part or completely, but Ehrman is one of the foremost religious scholars of our time, and his conclusions about the man we call Jesus deserve thoughtful consideration.

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