A Short Review of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

DidJesusExistBart Ehrman is the most popular New Testament scholar in the U.S., a professor at UNC, and the author of “Did Jesus Exist?” This book provides a devastating rebuttal to “Jesus Mythicism”, a growing, Internet-fueled movement of skeptics who deny that a historical person named Jesus even existed.

Very well-written and accessible, which is typical of Ehrman.

Fascinating discussion of how crazy and wildly conspiratorial some of the popular works of Jesus Mythicism are. Ehrman points out how some authors have simply invented claims out of thin air without a shred of documentation. I was surprised to discover that wholesale fabrication existed in the 19th century, long before reddit was invented.

Ehrman recognizes the importance of trusting trained scholars. But he also recognizes that arguments can’t simply be dismissed out-of-hand because they aren’t advanced by scholars. Theories needs to be evaluated in terms of evidence, not in terms of consensus, even scholarly consensus.

The last two chapters, about Ehrman’s view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, seemed like they were tacked on as an afterthought and didn’t really fit the book’s main purpose.

Despite my obvious agreement with the book’s central thesis, I was surprised to find myself disagreeing with some of Ehrman’s tactics. Other reviewers have criticized Ehrman’s tendency to exaggerate or sensationalize his claims or to fail to distinguish between consensus and his own pet theories. Oddly, I noticed those features most clearly in this book. For example, Ehrman argues (correctly) that our knowledge of Jesus comes from multiple independent sources. Yet he occasionally makes very odd appeals to inflate the number of these sources, like claiming that the account of the Transfiguration in 2 Pet., which he undoubtedly thinks is a 2nd century forgery fabricated by 3rd- or 4th-generation Christians, is independent of the gospels. Similarly, his confident assertions about the interpretation of certain passages often left me unsatisfied. He would quote only a portion of the passage, but would leave out or fail to discuss sections that seemed to contradict his conclusions. I don’t see this tendency as particularly surprising or blameworthy; everyone’s writing is biased to some extent by their own beliefs. But it should serve as a reminder that all authors should be read critically, whether they are scholars or not.

At its best when discussing the tremendous amount of evidence we have for Jesus’ existence and documenting the problems with Jesus Mythicism. Less convincing when it touches on tangential issues, for which it makes a more tenuous case.