Sep 28, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Despite his agnosticism, author effectively argues for Jesus' existence


 

NATIONAL

Reviewed by Brian Welter
Catholic News Service

Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman. HarperOne (San Francisco, 2012). 361 pp., $26.99.

In Did Jesus Exist?, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman successfully refutes the idea that Jesus never existed, pointing out the weaknesses and irrelevancy of points raised by the so-called mythicists, who fight belief in God partly by denying the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Ehrman uses well-known writings to prove his point. The differing and independent traditions we have about Jesus, many of which are found in the New Testament, show that Jesus wasn't simply made up by a group with an agenda.

These sources show that Jesus really lived. Ehrman points out how St. Paul cites older Christian traditions in his writings, such as ancient hymns which acted as creeds. Luke uses many ancient authorities in Acts of the Apostles, usually in the form of speeches. The Gospels, with much in common, also differ greatly in many areas, which indicates the variety of groups attesting to Jesus' existence.

How could so many Christian and non-Christian sources exist independently about a man who had been made up? Such a diverse collection of stories shows that many had seen and heard Jesus, and talked about him to others. Mostly just common sense, this reflects the author's point that the mythicists mislead people with faulty logic that hides their atheist agenda.

Ehrman takes things one step further, showing how religious history sheds light on Jesus' existence: "The idea of a suffering Messiah ran so counter to Scripture and the righteous expectations of God's people that it was completely unthinkable, even blasphemous." Jews at the time did indeed believe that the coming of the Messiah was at hand. Yet he would be a triumphant anointed one, a king ready to overturn the social order and install God's chosen ruler.

The crucifixion of Jesus certainly happened, then, because it was such a terrible shock, something that people had no notion of ever happening. What would anyone gain from making up something so at odds with Jewish messianic expectations?

A big book, Did Jesus Exist? leaves no stones unturned. Ehrman spends at least one chapter examining each of his major reasons for believing that Jesus existed. Much more than a narrow polemic against mythicists, Ehrman offers a general introduction to the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, with a particular focus on the surrounding cultural milieu.

Ehrman argues forcefully that mythicists themselves often misunderstand this culture. In refuting Jesus and indeed Christianity, they have argued that Mediterranean peoples worshiped dying-rising gods, and that Christians had simply copied this.

James Frazer's Golden Bough supposed this, as did mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell claimed that all religious belief originated in a few key, identical concepts, and that all religions shared the essentials.

Ehrman shows the uniqueness of basic Christian belief. Frazer and others were simply projecting Christian doctrine onto these other religions. Their arguments have been strongly refuted by scholars. No precedent existed for the basic Christian belief in the Son of Man dying and then rising.

Ehrman, an agnostic himself, doesn't aim to destroy anyone's faith, though he avoids discussing the virgin birth, Jesus' miracles and the resurrection as historical realities.

Readers are not forced to agree with his agnosticism on these points, so believers can still take a lot away from the book.

Based on the available scholarship, Ehrman provides a clear image of who he thinks Jesus was. A first-century apocalypticist, Jesus believed in the supernatural world of angels, demons and the devil, and that God would come within a very short time to overturn the social order. Jesus followed the Jewish law, but not as the Pharisees did. He preached the heart of the law as loving God first, and then your neighbor as yourself.

He was concerned with the poor, yet without having an agenda of fixing society himself. He left that in God's hands.

Did Jesus Exist? offers a wide-ranging assessment of Jesus and the early Jesus movement. Those overly sensitive to challenges to their faith will find the book troublesome and unhelpful. Readers with a greater thirst to be challenged and learn something will find it a satisfying read without having to compromise their deeper convictions.

  • Welter is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology and teaching English in Taiwan.