Preliminary Overview of Bart Ehrman’s ‘Did Jesus Exist?’

I will write up a full review in due course (when I can muster the patience and the time necessary to sit down and write it). I had very high hopes for this book; it was the book for which I had been waiting.  So now that I have finished the book, what do I think?

To put it bluntly: I found it disappointing.

In fact I’m greatly surprised by the amount of positive reviews of the book by fellow bibliobloggers and I wonder if (a) they really read it all and (b) if they are really familiar with the various mythicist arguments (and keep in mind, I am not a mythicist).  Errors and contradictions and fallacious logic abound and my book is marked up in red ink throughout!

For example (h/t to Carrier for putting me on the look out for this), on pages 51-52, in his discussion of Pliny’s letter to Trajan on the Christians, Ehrman confuses Book 10 (in which all of Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan can be found) with Letter 10.  I had at first assumed it was an editorial mistake or a typo but when I saw it was repeated twice, I am starting to wonder if Ehrman even read the letter in question or if he is simply discussing it via a secondary source (who must have had the source quoted wrong).  The letter number is actually 96 (so: Epistulae 10.96) and Ehrman never once cites it accurately which is either extremely sloppy or he just doesn’t know what is the proper citation.     And on the same section he seems to believe that the same letter discussing Christians contains mention of the fire in Nicomedia (which is entirely another letter, in fact 10.33-34) and there is quite a large amount of unrelated discussion between those letters concerning the fire and the letter containing mention of the Christians (most of it having to do with this or that building project or this and that business matter).  But Ehrman doesn’t seem to know this or even hint that these are two separate letters at all, which again raises the issue as to whether he actually read the letter in question. And there are multiple instances of this sort of mistake.

On top of that he often contradicts his own arguments.  On page 56, Ehrman writes:

“It should be clear in any event that Tacitus is basing his comments on hearsay rather than, say, detailed historical research.”

But on page 97, he contradicts himself:

“Tacitus almost certainly had information at his disposal about Jesus, for example, that he was crucified in Judea during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. …. Indirectly, then, Tacitus…provide[s] independent attestation to Jesus’s existence from outside the Gospels…”

Anyone with a grasp of logic can tell that not only is he contradicting himself (if it is hearsay, it cannot be considered historical ‘independent attestation’ to anything) but making wildly unsound arguments.  Simply repeating something from someone else, even if that person had better information, does not necessarily mean that what was repeated was historically true.  Tacitus goes on and on in his Histories about the Jewish exodus from Egypt which, as many scholars now agree, never happened historicallyAnd we actually know which sources he was using and what his sources were probably using as their sources–this is actually Tacitus using source material (rather than hearsay from a Christian or someone who knew of Christian tradition)–and yet his repeated testimony is completely historically inaccurate.  So repetition of tradition actually proves nothing.  So why does he think this is even worth mentioning?

He also ignores, or refuses to engage with, rather recent scholarship on subjects which are integral to his case, or rather are integral because if they prove fruitful could damage his arguments.  For example, he only mentions Mark Goodacre in a footnote and claims that his work on Q has failed to convince most of scholarship.  But this is silly; Mark’s arguments stand on their own weight.  Simply because a large chunk of historical Jesus scholarship refuses to engage his arguments (probably more out of self preservation than anything else–after all, no Q = one less hypothetical source for Jesus) in no way suggests that they are unconvincing.  As it goes, I am unconvinced that Ehrman has spoken to enough scholars on the subject to make such a bold claim.

And then there is that whole Acts thing (pages 106-113).  That Ehrman considers Acts to be an “independent witness” (p. 107) bespeaks of the sorts of brazen claims that plague his book.   This may be one of the more conservative claims Ehrman makes, but there is no engagement of the recent scholarship on Acts at all–either in the structure of Acts which shows quite decidedly that Acts engages with Josephus (even though Ehrman cites Mason’s work on Josephus and the New Testament a few chapters earlier on a completely irrelevant point; he would have been better off citing a Loeb text or something more primary in its place), he never discusses, even in passing, the relationship between the two which makes one question whether he is aware of it.  Nor is there any discussion of the dating of Acts which has come under fire in recent years.  This is crucial since if it can be shown (and I believe it can) that Luke-Acts are second century compositions, it would decimate the argument that these are early Christian testimony and independent of tradition.  One would expect a cursory review of this work, or even a footnote containing bibliographical information with references to rebuttals for the reader to review.   Alas, the reader finds none of this.  None of the recent collections of essays to come out of Westar Institutes’ Acts Seminar chaired by Joe Tyson, nothing from SBL’s recent collection of essays on Luke-Acts, nothing from Richard Pervo or Todd C. Penner or Caroline Vander Stichele or Dennis MacDonald.  It is really unnerving how he spends so much time on explaining the legitimacy of Acts without once dealing with the elephant in the room: the legitimacy of Acts!

He writes on Acts (page 107):

“For the writer of Acts, Jesus was very much a man who really lived and died in Judea, as can be seen in the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection in Chapter 1 and in the speeches that occur abundantly throughout the narrative.”

On what does he base this claim?  The author of Acts accepted the historicity of Jesus as much as the author of Judith accepted the historicity of Holofernes, or Tobit’s author accepted the historicity of Raphael or Sarah.  Just because a character in a narrative is portrayed as historical does not mean the character is historical.  If that were so we would have to accept the historicity of every character in every piece of literature ever written.

Ehrman may feel as though the Acts of the Apostles warrants a special consideration, but he hasn’t made the case.  He just presumes that the author believed that Jesus lived and died–maybe s/he did, but his conclusion does not follow from his argument.  And it certainly doesn’t follow that, assuming the author of Acts believed Jesus lived and died in Palestine, due to the mention of Jesus in Acts this counts as an “independent witness!”  By this logic, we must accept the testimony of Livy on Romulus’ death and resurrection and subsequent post-resurrection meeting with Julius Proculus on the road to Rome on the Appian Way!  It is an unconscionably unsound argument to make and, considering his vitriolic article on the Huffington Post site, it is rather embarrassing.

Finally, for this roundup of preliminary comments on the book, I am dismayed by Ehrman’s discussion of the messiah concept in Jewish tradition in the second temple period.  He actually wrote (seriously, he wrote this):

“But weren’t there any Jews who expected the messiah to suffer and die? The short answer is that so far as we can tell, there were not.”

This statement flies in the face of all second temple period scholarship, particularly that scholarship which focuses on the concept of ‘messiah’ which, above all else, proves that the concept was so varied and inconsistent–due largely to the varied levels of syncretism of the period, different levels of assimilation, and so forth–that to claim ‘no Jews expected a messiah to suffer and die’ is simply wishful thinking and nothing more.  The absurdity of this claim is only matched by the hubris of the dismissal of Daniel 9:26, where Ehrman completely ignores the reference in the Dead Sea Scrolls to this very verse whereby the author of the commentary on the scroll interprets the passage in the exact way Ehrman suggests doesn’t occur anywhere from the time!  And he does this all while completely misrepresenting Carrier’s whole point (showing once more that he doesn’t have a clear grasp of the arguments by those he is criticizing).

This is only a fragment of the errors and fallacies in this book.  It is shocking because I was expecting much better–especially after reading his book Forged!  I can’t believe I’m reading the same scholar.


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