Book Review: Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman

I’ve had an interest in religion and atheism for a long time, especially since I started writing on this blog three years ago. I’ve covered topics like evolution and creationism, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (the religion I was raised in), and a whole lot of thoughts and opinions on religion in general and the existence of God. While I’ve done plenty of research, it still shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I tend to have my own personal biases when looking at evidence for things like God or evolution.

Even though I’ve been writing and reading about this stuff for years, there is still one very relevant topic here that I have not touched at all, and that’s the existence of a historical Jesus. In my experience, when I first thought about the existence of Jesus without the Christ-colored glasses of Christianity, I thought, “You know, the bible is so messed up, and God almost certainly does not exist, and so I have no reason to believe that Jesus ever even existed.” Thinking this, I know that deep down, I was allowing a bias to creep in that for some reason, if there was a historical Jesus, then Christianity might be true and I might be wrong.

There was a reason why I wouldn’t publicly profess a disbelief in Jesus: I had no basis for it. It was a literal, complete guess. My only research into a historical Jesus was reading his Wikipedia page, which said that “Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed historically, although the quest for the historical Jesus has produced little agreement on the historical reliability of the Gospels and on how closely the Jesus portrayed in the Bible reflects the historical Jesus.” Although I don’t tend to believe in things just because of a majority rule, I kept this in mind throughout the years; I’m no “modern scholar of antiquity,” and I’m betting that those who are have a much better picture of Jesus’ existence than I do.

So I finally decided it was time to figure this out. While I may have a stronger bias with topics like Christian apologetics or the case for evolution (both of which I’m more familiar with), I didn’t really start famed New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? with any great biases. I had come to figure out that Jesus’ existence doesn’t really have anything to do with the bible being infallible or Jesus being the son of God. I just wanted to know the truth.

Ehrman starts the book on kind of a distasteful note. He essentially says, “Well, I wanted to write a different book next, but people keep annoying me about whether Jesus existed or not. I didn’t even know that this is something people don’t know already. Of course Jesus existed! Are you really going to make me spell it out for you?” So he didn’t seem particularly thrilled to have to write this book. I understand why; while it’s the first book of his that I’ve read, I get the impression that his other books are a lot more exciting. He has books on who wrote the bible, the contradictions of the bible, the beginnings of the Christian church, and more. This is just “Did Jesus exist?” and nothing more.

For the amount of people that even I have seen on Twitter and Instagram who don’t believe that Jesus existed, I think that this book is important, even if it’s not a thriller. It’s not exciting, and it’s not really fun to read. It’s more like something you might need to read for a class, but in the class of the historicity of Jesus… you do need to read this.

Did Jesus Exist? has two main parts and a third, much shorter part, which I’m sure is a compressed version of something he’s covered extensively in other books. They are:

Part One: Evidence for the Historical Jesus
Part Two: The Mythicists’ Claims
Part Three: Who Was the Historical Jesus?

From Bart Ehrman’s YouTube channel

Part One is exactly what it sounds like: evidence for Jesus. Ehrman just lists out all of the sources that point to the historical Jesus. They include some extra-biblical sources and many biblical sources. Of course he includes the gospels, and before you say “Why would I believe something included in a book with a virgin giving birth, a guy turning water into wine, and more than one bodily resurrection!?” you have to understand the context in which this was all written. Ehrman knows that the bible says these things, but if you understand the order in which the gospels were written, where they got their stories from, and what their authors believed, then you would be able to figure out which parts are historically likely to have happened and which aren’t. The miracles aren’t. Jesus’ ministry, his having apostles, and his crucifixion are all pretty well-substantiated historical events.

In “The Mythicists’ Claims,” Ehrman takes on pretty much any mythicist argument that may be running through your head right now if you think that Jesus was entirely fictional. These include the most popular mythicist argument, which is that Jesus was invented as a dying-rising god based on pagan myths.

I had heard of Jesus being plagiarized off of previous deities before, and I was persuaded by it briefly years before actually getting into researching or writing about any of this. (I’ll talk about this more in next week’s post!) My idea was reinforced when I saw this Jaclyn Glenn video, but once I saw it, it didn’t take long for me to realize that while these ideas would be condemning for Christianity, they were just entirely made up. Jaclyn had probably heard them from someone who heard them from someone (repeat probably dozens of times) who said that it would be a really bad look for Jesus if he was plagiarized off of more ancient gods.

Start at 5 minutes in.

The link that people make between gods like Horus and Jesus is fascinating, and can easily cause people (like me) to fall down rabbit holes on Google and Wikipedia. But all that I will say on the topic for now is that if you search “Horus” and NOT “Horus and Jesus,” you don’t find anything that Jaclyn listed there. It should also be noted that the video description has absolutely no sources; the closest thing to a source is Jaclyn’s saying that Horus was described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead in 1280 BC. I don’t have any reason to think that the Book of the Dead says anything about Horus at all (source), or that Horus is in any way the inspiration for the invention of Jesus (source). The Wikipedia page for Horus has the following to say concerning his story. I’ll warn you now to read at your own discretion, as it’s kind of… rated R. And gross, and unsettling.

If this story is hidden in the bible somewhere, I’m glad I missed it.

I think that’s enough of that for now, but definitely come back next week when I will dive back into these weird claims! Suffice it to say that while Did Jesus Exist? didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat, it finally answered the question I’ve been cluelessly wondering about for years. I’m excited to read more about this, and in order to give both sides an equal opportunity, I also plan to (eventually) read Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We May Have Reason for Doubt. But for now, you could say that I’m an atheist who believes in Jesus.

22 thoughts on “Book Review: Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman

  • If you want to read a powerful argument for the probability that Jesus did not exist you might want to check out the work Richard Carrier. His most pertinent work is On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. I admit that I don’t care for his use of Bayes’s theorem, but the research is solid. Another fine work is by Raphael Lataster, His work There Was No Jesus, There Is No God actually critiques Ehrman’s book. I admire Ehrman’s writing and accept his major reason for being agnostic. His bug a bear is the problem of evil. One more author of note who is also a minimalist is Robert M. Price. He even concludes that Paul might not have exist and his letters were actually written by Marcion and then was doctored up by the church.

    I believe it is more likely that Jesus did not exist. Even if he did historically exist the Gospels are certain to be mythological portrayals of him. Also if there were a historical Jesus it would not change my atheism one iota. I believe beyond a doubt that Jesus if he did exist was certainly not god, as there is no god period anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Sorry, must have missed it.

        Carrier’s in love with Bayes theorem. I guess he thinks mathematics will strengthen his argument. I love Price. I have read many of his books. He is a minimalist through and through. A fun book to read of his is Preaching Deconstruction. He used to be a Baptist minister and these were some of his sermons. I kept thinking what in the hell did his congregation think about them. The one on Paul is The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul. Sorry for all the book suggestions i’m on Goodreads, a book and social media site.

        Liked by 1 person

  • The Gospel of Mark was written some fifty or so years after the death of a man the so-called author, Mark identifies as Jesus. Not only do we know whether or not Jesus existed, but we don’t even know who Mark is.

    But, the literate Greek-speaking person gives us a unified narrative of a man (Jesus) an apocalyptic prophet who believes he is ushering in the kingdom of God. On more than one occasion the protagonist of Mark tells his followers that a number of people alive will not die until “they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” And it is the protagonist who near his own death, tragically realizes that he has been forsaken by the very god he had spent his life proclaiming would come pretty soon and set up his kingdom on earth.

    Now there are one or two interesting possibilities here. One, the Gospel of Mark is a work of fiction, and the anonymous author, a highly literate, Greek-speaking person, produced a notable work of literature that spawned similar narratives.

    Two, the Gospel of Mark is a fictive narrative based on an actual apocalyptic Jewish prophet named Jesus and the author, a highly literate, Greek-speaking person, wrote the story as he heard it from one or more persons–the way Thomas Keneally uses the actual testimony of the Schindlerjuden—Schindler’s Jews to compose the novel Schindler’s List.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There’s a third possibility, and one more likely to be the case. The author of Mark wrote the pericopes and stories as they had been passed to him, perhaps using some fictional accounts as literary devices, sincerely believing his work to be a historical account of an actual person.

      There’s no reason to think the author of Mark intended his work to be read as fiction, just as there is no reason to think Suetonius or Porphyry intended their bios literature to be read in such a manner.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Cat on a bookshelf!!! She’s right about there being many “jesus stories” through out time and all over the world. There’s many flood stories too. And… like…Neo was the sixth “One” to come and save humans from the machines. True!

    Like

  • That a man existed 2,000 years ago who upset others, who made spiritual claims, who was a Jew and given a Jewish name, who was executed for any reason, seems likely. There may have been several.
    That his mum got knocked up by a Roman soldier (or not, and some god the father did it), that some sects lied about him, seems quite possible.
    If you’ll read “Lamb” by Christopher Moore, you’ll learn as much and have much more fun. Bet ya didn’t know he invented coffee.
    Unless you’re talking about THE Joshua guy born of a virgin (pick one, there were hundreds — men, not virgins) then you might as well pick a random dude from a line up.
    There needs to be proof he is THAT Jesus guy and not some random dude who pissed off the Sadducees, the sola-scriptura skeptics of the day.

    Liked by 2 people

  • For me personally, it does not make any difference whether Jesus existed or not. So I’ll go with the evidence.

    The evidence for the existence of Jesus seems pretty weak.

    The evidence for the construction of an entirely mythical Jesus seems far weaker.

    I’ll tentatively go with historicism (that there was an historical Jesus). I don’t doubt that the gospel accounts are greatly embellished.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Re “Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed historically,…” This is clearly an overstatement as “all modern scholars of antiquity” have not studied the Jesus question and so, those who have not (the majority?) have no opinion on the question. Clearly this should have been ““Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity who have expressed an opinion agree that Jesus existed historically, …” What many “modern scholars of antiquity” have done is criticized Biblical scholars for their methods as being un-historical.

    This field (Biblical scholarship), however is full of people who have presupposed the existence of an historical Jesus (some for religious reasons), which is hardly a scholarly position. (Even if there were such a person, the abject failure of a great many attempts to characterize this person shows that we have too little information to discover anything about his life.)

    And Ehrman’s take down of the mythicists is little more than ad hominem attacks. I do suggest you read Carrier’s book and then see if the mythicists have a case. Attacks against Carrier have been similarly ad hominem.

    Liked by 3 people

  • I spent year 2010-2013 at Bible College getting ready to go into ministry. It wasn’t until 2017 that I started to question things like, ‘is the Jesus we read about in the Bible literally true?’

    Having, (obviously) read a lot of conservation theological books and also majored in Early Church History for my disitation, I really do believe that there was a man who made ripples within the Jewish & Roman society in the same way and in the time period as Jesus.

    But I also massively question if validity of the Old and New Testaments, as I don’t think they are trying to give us a 21st century retelling of the literal events. Rather I think there is leeway and artistic licence to portray and express religious hopes and desires within the text, because they are written with an agenda and for a community.

    Much like you, I believe someone (possibly named Jesus) existed. But I don’t think we can stand on solid ground for much of the New Testament in our claims about its relevance for today, and our eternal destinations.

    That’s kinda why my faith fell apart tbh…
    -Sam

    Liked by 1 person

  • You’re right that Ehrman’s other books are more fun. “How Jesus Became God” in particular is highly recommended as it covers how, at least according to the author, how people began to speak of him as God over the course of the 400 years after his death. You probably know this but Ehrman has been a biblical scholar for decades and when he started he was a Christian but now he’s an atheist.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Jesus’ ministry, his having apostles, and his crucifixion are all pretty well-substantiated historical events

    Are they?
    If we accept that the mention in Josephus – the TF is an interpolation- and the reference to a James has nothing to do with the christian Jesus what does that leave us with?
    Tacitus? There is doubt surrounding the passage in annals and at best it can be said to be hearsay.

    What other sources would be considered reliable?
    None that I am aware of.
    If this is the case then what does this leave us with?

    Liked by 2 people

    • That Jesus was known as a healer and exorcist is also widely attested by our sources, even embarassing ones (cf. Mark 6:5, 8:22-26). This fits comfortably in ancient Jewish context as their were many healers and exorcists at the time.

      Like

    • Being on the other side of the argument where I believe in Jesus and that he is God, I recommend reading Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. He was an atheist setting out to proof Jesus didn’t exist nor that he is God but converted to Christianity in favour of all the evidence. My only recommendation in being curious and finding out truth is to being open to both possibilities being true at the outset. It is easy to find literature proving what one believes, risking the alternative is however something few people dare.

      Like

      • I respect your open mindedness! The way that I see it, there are 3 possibilities for the existence of Jesus, and I have one book for each argument. There’s the argument that he existed and was God (The Case for Christ by Strobel), that he existed and was just a man (Did Jesus Exist? By Ehrman), and that he did not exist (On the Historicity of Jesus by Carrier). I’ve only read the Ehrman book so far but I have the others and plan to read them. So far I did find this book persuasive but I’m curious about what the others say. Unfortunately, after reading Strobel’s The Case for a Creator, I feel like he didn’t examine the question in the most honest way so I don’t feel like he is very trustworthy.

        Like

      • As far as I am concerned Strobel’s book is little more than apologetic drivel.
        I didn’t think the movie any better either.

        However, as you are convinced the book contains evidence for Christ (and God) then perhaps I missed it?

        Please, I encourage you to post the evidence you consider verifies the claims Strobel makes.

        Regards

        Ark.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s