Bart D. Erhman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne, 2013.
Dr. Bart Erhman’s new book, Did Jesus Exist? is an excellent refutation of the fringe, but sometimes loud, position of bellicose atheism that Jesus of Nazareth called the Son of God never actually existed. Professor Erhman’s reflective introduction sets the stage for the book and his position (including a reference to what I hope is an upcoming book). To be clear, this book is not a mere “skeet shoot” of the Mythicists position (that is, the position that Jesus was a myth made up by those who founded Christianity at the end of the first century). Did Jesus Exist is a thoughtful and well organized account of the arguments for and against the historical existence of a man named Jesus/Joshua from the town of Nazareth in the early part of the first century of the so called “common era” who is described as being executed by the Roman authorities in the Gospels and other accounts.
Although Erhman sometimes simply dismisses arguments of “a slew of sensationalist popularizers who are not, and who do not bill themselves as, scholars in any recognizable sense of the word” (19) — in his defense, there is no defense for the positions to knock down — he takes the time to detail the arguments presented by the most scholarly of the Mythicists (Bruno Bauer, J. M. Robertson, Arthur Drews, Earl Doherty, Robert Price, and George A. Wells, among others). In this sense, Erhman’s book may be the only (certainly the most recent) work to take seriously the arguments of the Mythicists and, in a scholarly way, argue for the actual existence of the historical figure Jesus described in the Christian Gospels.
Among his more satisfying and enlightening refutations is how Erhman argues against the often proclaimed contention that Jesus is part of a larger motif of ancient gods: the dying-rising gods of the Ancient Near East. Professor Erhman spends a significant amount of time discussing the scholarship, both old and new, about the existence of such a class of gods. In the end, he argues that such a class does not exist in the Ancient Near East and, therefore, Jesus could not have been fabricated by a group of Jews to fit that motif. Among his arguments against the “Christianity is a copy of ancient mystery cults” line, Erhman points out that we know next to nothing about these mystery cults because there is no written account of their rituals or beliefs. All we have are ruins of temples where these mystery cults would meet and worship. The entire discussion is well written and very insightful, bringing together all sorts of historical fields in a very approachable way.
Professor Erhman strives for objectivity and distance from the subject. This is a very admirable trait in his historical analysis. At times his biases slip (his interpretation of Philippians 2 is an example, in my opinion; also worth mentioning is the wholesale rejection of the Gospel According to John not entirely on historical, but theological grounds) but Did Jesus Exist overall is an excellent historical work. A summation of his attempt can be found in his last sentences: “I refuse to sacrifice the past in order to promote the worthy cause of my own social and political agenda. No one else should either, Jesus did exist, whether we like it or not.” (339)
In conclusion, if your faith is shaken by the idea that Jesus might not have been born on December 25 in a manger in Bethlehem exactly as Luke describes it, you probably shouldn’t read this book. However, if you are interested in the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” and want to learn some interesting history, this is an excellent book. Although Erhman is at times guilty of the same logical fallacies he points out in the Mythicists, his research is fairly sound and his refutation of the myth of the historical Jesus is quite excellent. His insistence that Jesus is not God, since he does not believe in God at all, gets in the way of his interpretation of New Testament passages but one could argue that my insistence that Jesus is God gets in the way of my interpretation of New Testament passages as well. He is an excellent scholar and this book is an excellent resource for anyone able to read it through without losing their faith or hating it the whole way through.
Additionally (shameless plug), I recently posted a video where I discuss faith and knowledge using the example of the Historical Jesus, check it out.