Inventing Jesus: An Interview with Bart Ehrman

It’s usually clear to Bart Ehrman who loves him and who hates him. Evangelical Christians have been raking Ehrman over the coals for years for his rejection of biblical inerrancy—and atheists and humanists have embraced his writing as ammunition in the fight against the evils of organized religion.

With his new book, Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman is making friends of his enemies and enemies of his friends as he debunks the work of so-called “mythicists”: writers who have argued that a man named Jesus who taught about the coming Kingdom of God never really existed, and that the religions created around him are nothing but fantasy.

Ehrman, who teaches religion at UNC Chapel Hill, brings his expertise as a historian to the question and concludes that all the evidence available—both from pagan and Christian sources—reveal that Jesus did exist. But while the historical Jesus may not have been invented, it doesn’t mean that invention is not part of the story.

Ehrman took time recently to talk with Religion Dispatches about his new book.

RD: What inspired you to write this book? You write that you had another book in mind instead of this one.

BE: For a long time now, I’ve gotten a couple of emails a week from people asking me whether I think Jesus existed. When I first started getting these I didn’t pay them much attention, but then I realized there were a LOT of people asking the same question. And the reason was that there are these groups of people out there who have been writing books and establishing a presence on the internet arguing that Jesus never did exist, that he was not a historical figure but was completely made up.

So, I thought it would be worthwhile for somebody who is trained as a historian to take on the question, to try to show why Jesus almost certainly did exist.

I was not familiar with this movement before reading your book. What sort of impact are they having?

I wasn’t familiar with it either, but it turns out it’s bigger than you would think. There have been people arguing this since the 19th century. Vladimir Lenin read one of their books, and for that reason it became the dominant view in the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century. It’s the dominant view now in some parts of the West, including Scandinavia. And it’s a view that is widely found in agnostic and atheist circles in the United States.

Churchgoing people may not be familiar with the idea, but their next door neighbor may in fact hold such views.

What has been the reaction so far?

A number of evangelical Christians who consider me to be the enemy are now cheering me on from the sidelines—and the humanists, agnostics, and atheists who thought I was their friend are now really upset with me. 

Well, if everyone is angry, you must be doing it right!

The thing is, I’ve never understood my writing to be debunking religion—even though a lot of people think that’s what I’m about. I’ve never seen myself as attacking Christianity. I have seen myself as a historian, saying it the way a historian would say it, and looking at evidence the way historians look at evidence.

And I think when you do that, it shows that both extremes are wrong. The far right, the fundamentalists, are absolutely wrong in their views of the Bible; but the far left, the mythicists, are wrong in what they think as well.

A historian simply goes where the evidence leads.

So what sources do you use, then, to prove Jesus existed?

I look at everything that exists. There are not many references from pagan authors or from Jewish authors, but I do talk about those references that do exist and whether or not they are valuable. 

Most of the sources that we have are Christian sources, which means they have to be taken with a handful of salt because they’re biased toward their subject matter. And most of them are decades after Jesus’ life.

But, what I show is that if you have a properly historical approach to, for example, the gospels of the New Testament, you realize fairly quickly that these are based on earlier written accounts, and that those earlier written accounts were based on oral tradition that go back even earlier. Some of these oral traditions make better sense when they’re translated back into Aramaic, Jesus’ own language—which means that even if the gospels are 30 to 40 years later, they’re based on sources that go back to very near the time of Jesus in Palestine. So, that’s one kind of source.

I look at the Apostle Paul. His writings were 20 years after Jesus’ life, but Paul himself converted to be a follower of Jesus within a year or two at the latest of Jesus’ death—which means that people were telling enough stories about Jesus for Paul to convert a year or two later. 

All of that shows that the mythicists who claim that Jesus was made up 30 years later in Egypt, or some other claim—that simply can’t be right. We have evidence of people telling stories about Jesus in Palestine within a year or two of the traditional date of his death.

What kind of evidence to the mythicists bring to table to disprove Jesus’ existence?

They have both negative and positive arguments. The negative arguments are such things as the fact that there’s no physical evidence or archaeological evidence that Jesus existed—which is absolutely true. There are no writings from Jesus—absolutely true. There are no Roman sources from Jesus’ day that mention Jesus—again, true.

Our only sources come decades later by biased individuals who believed in Jesus, and that they’re not trustworthy sources. Those are their negative arguments.

I deal with all of those arguments. I lay them out as fairly as I can and then show why they’re not very good arguments, even though they sound really good. When you actually investigate them they’re actually not that strong.

Their positive argument is: they claim that there were other divine beings from the time of Jesus who were thought to have existed—gods who were thought to have died and risen again. They argue that Jesus is modeled along the lines of these other dying and rising gods. He was just a Jewish version, invented to be a parallel to these pagan gods. 

I show in the book why this simply can’t be true. In part, because we have very little evidence, if it exists at all, that there were any dying and rising gods in the pagan world. I also argue that Jesus could not have been invented as a dying and rising god because the earliest Christians didn’t think he was God. 

What can we say, then, from a historian’s point of view, about the historical Jesus? What was he like?

What I argue in the book is that the majority of scholars over the last century or so in Europe and the U.S. have basically been right. Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. By which I mean, Jesus thought that this world was controlled by forces of evil and that’s why there’s so much pain and misery and suffering. But God, as such a prophet would argue, will soon intervene and overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom where there will be no more pain, misery, or suffering. This Kingdom of God will take over.

Jesus thought this would happen within his own generation, and so he told his disciples that they would not die before they saw the Kingdom of God come into power. This is the point of view that was first popularized by Albert Schweitzer, the famous humanitarian and medical missionary to Africa. When he was in medical school he wrote his most famous book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, in which he argued this basic idea that Jesus was an apocalypticist.

Since then, it’s been the dominant view among scholars—even though laypeople don’t have this view.

You also assert that Jesus was wrong about some things.

Well, he was wrong about the date, since the end did not come in his generation. But, you can’t blame Jesus for being a man of his own time. He lived in an age when people widely expected that things had gotten just as bad as they could and that God would soon intervene. And, as a man of his time he also felt that.

Do you think Jesus would even recognize these modern versions we have of him?

No. I don’t think there’s a church in North America anywhere that Jesus could go into and recognize himself. I don’t think Jesus wanted to start a new religion. Jesus was Jewish and he believed in the Jewish God; he accepted the Jewish law; he practiced Jewish customs; and he gathered Jewish disciples and gave them his Jewish interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.

I think Jesus may have had a distinct understanding of Judaism and may have wanted to reform Judaism, but he had no conception at all of the start of a new religion—let alone a religion that was based on his death and resurrection.

What do you think, then, about all of this Jesus-talk, especially taking place in the political arena?

I think Jesus gets used by everybody who claims to be Christian for their own purposes. Most of the time this is an abuse of Jesus. It’s not respecting what he really stood for. It’s manipulating his message for one’s own advancement, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

If there are no churches where Jesus would recognize himself, how can modern churches start to preach about the real Jesus? What would that look like?

When I was a Christian, I still had the same view of Jesus that I have now, that he was a Jewish apocalyticist who thought that the end was coming soon. What I emphasized wasn’t the calendar, but his basic point of view which I found to be theologically fruitful, that evil doesn’t have the last say.

The world may have a lot of pain and suffering going on right now but God has the last say and death isn’t the end of the story. The power of God transcends death and ultimately God will triumph. I think that’s a very positive message and I think it can be preached today.

But, you don’t think Jesus saw himself as the sacrifice that makes that happen.

No, I don’t.

I think Jesus thought that God was going to send a cosmic judge of the earth to overthrow these forces of evil and set up a kingdom. I do think that Jesus thought that he, himself, would be made the king of that kingdom. In other words, he thought he was the future Messiah. He probably taught this to his closest disciples and when they came to think that he was brought back to life they naturally redefined what it meant to be a Messiah—defining it as somebody who had died and been raised from the dead.

They knew Jesus had been crucified and they believed he was the Messiah, so they concluded that the Messiah had to be crucified.

What I point out in the book is that Christians did not invent Jesus; what they invented was the idea of a suffering Messiah. This is a view that is not found among Jews prior to Christianity.

You say that mythicists, humanists, atheists, and agnostics could be making a better argument than “Jesus didn’t exist.” What is that argument?

The mythicists have legitimate concerns. They’ve seen a lot of damage done by organized religion which has, over the years, not only supported crusades and inquisitions, but in our more recent history, supported slavery, racism, and oppression of women.

A lot of these mythicists think that organized religion, especially Christianity, is a dangerous and harmful thing. One of the ways they’ve tried to attack it is by saying it’s all based on a fantasy or myth. I think that’s a mistake. Rather than succeeding in debunking religion they just make themselves look foolish.

A better approach would be not to say that Jesus is unhistorical, but to say that he’s too historical. He was a first-century Palestinian Jew, not a 21st-century American.

The people who claim Jesus today and try to  transplant him from his own environment into our environment without remainder have made a serious mistake. They have failed to take seriously his own historical context.

He’s a stranger to our time because he simply wasn’t like us.