Nearly 2,000 years later, it seems at first glance a little bizarre to be wondering whether Jesus of Nazareth really existed.
And yet in the past few weeks I've read works by serious (if quite controversial) religious scholars who felt they had to address the question of whether Jesus really existed. First was John Dominic Crossan in The Power of Parable, which I introduced you to here. Jesus' existence wasn't his primary focus, but he did spend some time on the question. And he concluded that, yes, Jesus was a real historical figure.
Now comes University of North Carolina religion scholar Bart D. Ehrman and a whole new book called Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman, too, is insistent that Jesus in fact existed.
So why all this attention to what seems like a fringe question? Well, one answer is that there are fringe scholars out there insisting that, in fact, Jesus was just made up. They refer to themselves as the mythicists, and Ehrman -- who describes himself as an agnostic who leans toward atheism -- wants to undermine their position.
He says, in fact, hardly any of the mythicists is a serious scholar with credentials and thus need not be taken seriously. And yet instead of simply dismissing them with a wave, Ehrman repeatedly comes back to them in his new book and slams them again and again -- perhaps giving them much more attention than they deserve.
Still, Ehrman concludes that "whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist."
Perhaps it should not be so surprising that we've come to the point where scholars now have to defend the idea that Jesus was a real man who lived at a specific time in a specific place. Many scholars have been at work in the last 100-plus years trying to find this historical Jesus. What almost always seems to happen, however, is that these scholars do not find the historical Jesus but, rather, the historian's Jesus -- someone who looks and sounds a lot like them.
Couple that with scholarship that has sought to understand how the New Testament, especially the gospels, was written and by whom -- scholarship that has undermind a lot of the naive beliefs of biblical literalists -- and eventually you have an atmosphere in which the logical question is, "Well, did Jesus even exist?"
I'm not for a minute suggesting that this biblical scholarship was useless or unnecessary. Indeed, much of it has been of great benefit to both Christianity and Judaism, though as Ehrman notes, "very conservative and fundamentalist Christians do not agree with what other scholars have long said about the Bible."
What I am suggesting, rather, is that once you introduce the idea of uncertainty about sacred texts into the conversation, there really is no limit on where that goes. Thus we get questions about Jesus' existence.
Given all that, Ehrman's book makes an important contribution by offering readers the various sources and contexts they need to answer the question of Jesus' existence in the affirmative. Ehrman himself worries a bit too much about how readers will react to his book and thus sometimes is too much in the way of his conclusions. Still, this is a good addition to the Jesus literature by an author who, like Dom Crossan, has not been a favorite of traditional Christians.
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DUMPING ON RELIGION
Here's a writer who properly decries the trashing of religion in the midst of political considerations. He refers to Andrew Sullivan's cover story in the current issue of Newsweek magazine. It's worth a read.