Jesus mythicists are those who deny that there ever was a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth. In this debate, Dr. Bart Ehrman pointed out that mythicists are often perceived as just wanting to drop a bomb on Christian theology. Jesus is the core of Christianity. If there was no Jesus of Nazareth, then Christianity as a theological system will be wholly undone. However, Dr. Ehrman did grant it to Dr. Robert Price (his debate opponent) that he did not have these nefarious motives. This was a pretty interesting debate, because Dr. Ehrman is not a believer. He is a secular scholar defending the existence of the historical Jesus. Consequently, I thought it might be edifying to provide an Ehrman/Price: Did Jesus Exist? debate review.
It might be helpful to begin by summarizing their positions. Dr. Ehrman believes that Jesus was a historical figure, but stripped of all divine and theological implications. He identifies as an agnostic. Dr. Price is likewise an agnostic, but believes that Jesus never existed. On his view, the gospel narratives were the product of legendary development over a long period of time, often borrowed from older mythological sources. In contrast with these two scholars, I am a raving religious fanatic and fundamentalist. Despite that, I will attempt to assess their arguments fairly, providing some insight where it is due, while not hitting too hard on the “these are just angry atheists with a supernatural bias” theme.
A Few Bad Mythicist Arguments
Typically in a debate, the speaker will attempt to anticipate some of the objections that his opponent might raise. However, since this was a scholarly debate, Dr. Ehrman suspected that Dr. Price would not represent some of the bad yet common arguments that linger on the internet. Nonetheless, he wanted to get them out of the way just for the sake of the audience who might have had those arguments in mind. He addressed at least two that I thought were worth noting.
First, he addressed the argument that Nazareth did not exist. If Nazareth did not exist, that would seem to have implications about whether Jesus of Nazareth existed. Ehrman’s two rejoinders were (1) there is evidence that Nazareth existed. Archeologists have found coins and pottery that date back to around the time that Jesus would have lived. (2) Even if one grants that Nazareth did not exist, it would not follow that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. Ehrman said, “Saying that Jesus did not exist because he was not born in Nazareth would be like saying that Obama does not exist because he was not born in Kenya.”
Interestingly, during the Q&A period after the debate, the Jesus mythicist Frank Zindler objected to Ehrman’s argument. Zindler said that he had answered Ehrman’s objection in the book that he co-authored with other mythicists, Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. Ehrman responded that he had read the book twice. But if he were to write a response to the 600 page book, it would be 800 pages. That would prompt a response from Zindler that would be 1600 pages. Then Ehrman would have to write another book that was 3200 pages. “Frankly, I just have better things to do with my life,” says Ehrman. Further, it might be worth noting that Zindler did not actually state his objection. It seemed like he just wanted to advertise his book.
The second bad argument that Ehrman anticipated was this: stories from the gospels were set in certain Old Testament patterns. Since they are set in these patterns, that means that the narratives were altered to some degree. Therefore, the mythicist will argue, accounts of narratives in patterns are likely to be fabrications or theological myths. But Ehrman pointed out that there are many accounts of historical figures that are set in pre-dated patterns. Octavion was allegedly the Son of God and he ascended into heaven. But the fact that it follows this pattern does not mean that Octavion did not exist. After dismissing these bad arguments, Ehrman moved on to more serious business.
Attestation For The Historical Jesus?
Coming off as the radical conservative in this debate, Dr. Ehrman said something that many apologists have probably quoted on social media or in their blogs. He said that Jesus of Nazareth is one of the best (second only to Josephus) attested Palestinian Jew of the era. There is better attestation for Jesus than for the High Priest Caiaphas. The four gospels are historical narratives based on independent streams of oral tradition. There are no narrative accounts of Caiaphas. Historians such as Josephus talk about Jesus. Ehrman asked pointedly: why are there so many sources for somebody who did not exist?
That might seem like a shotgun of arguments, but there was more than enough time for discussion and interaction with these points. Dr. Price accounts for these literary and oral sources by saying that they stories were “figments of pious imagination.” Multiple attestation only means that many people believe a religious claim. There would be multiple attestations among Roman Catholics to the appearances of the Virgin Mary, for example.
Yet, according to Ehrman, there were other men regarded as holy in Israel, and there were others who were believed to perform miracles. Caiaphas was one of them. Ehrman asked how often contemporary authors mention Caiaphas. The fact that Jesus is better attested than prominent figures such as Caiphas and basically every other Jew living during that time fits better with a model that regards Jesus as a historical figure.
Mythicism In The Early Days of Christianity
Contrasting the attestation of the historical Jesus with the attestation of mythicism, Ehrman pointed out that opponents of Christianity never argued that Jesus was not a historical figure. The Greek philosophers would attempt to elucidate errors in their theology, but not in the historicity of Jesus. If Jesus was a product of legendary development, we might expect that the critics would have said that.
But, argues Dr. Price, they did say that. There are accounts of critics who thought that the gospel narratives were legends and that Jesus of Nazareth was a mythological figure. In 2nd Peter 1:16-18, Peter says, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths…” Apparently he was answering a mythicist criticism. Similarly, Justin Martyr said, “You have received a futile rumor and have created some sort of christ for yourselves…”
However, the plain issue with this sort of attestation is that it is ambiguous. There is no indication that Peter is referring to Jesus mythicism, or the doctrine that Jesus was not a historical figure. It may be that their critics thought that myths developed around the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth. But that would be consistent with Dr. Ehrman’s position. Overall, I am skeptical of whether these are truly attestations to Jesus mythicism.
Paul’s Beliefs About Jesus
The apostle Paul is a significant figure in historical Jesus studies. That is not because he knew the historical Jesus during his life. Instead, Paul would have been acquainted with the earliest traditions about the historical Jesus. In addition to that, Paul seems to have been acquainted with people who actually knew the historical Jesus. In the apostle Paul, we have a man who wrote at least 7 letters in which he spoke about Jesus and recited the traditions and beliefs of the day.
Paul said in Galatians 1:19 that he went to Jerusalem 3 years after the crucifixion and met with Peter and James, who was “the Lord’s brother.” What is interesting about this reference is that it is just an off-the-cuff, disinterested comment. He was not making a significant theological point. He was just stating it. Since he refers to James as “the Lord’s brother,” and does not refer to Peter in that way, we can be confident that he was referring to James as a biological relative born of the same mother as Jesus, and not a “brother in the faith.”
Dr. Price takes a different perspective. He thinks that Paul believed that Jesus was a celestial being who lived and died in a spiritual, cosmic realm. After his death, he appeared on earth to the disciples. He says that Paul never described the crucifixion as an earthly event. In fact, in 1st Corinthians 2:8, Paul said that the “principalities” killed Jesus. These were dark, demonic forces. In Price’s view, Jesus was killed in the spiritual realm by demons. Ehrman did not agree that 1st Corinthians 2:8 says that demons killed Jesus, but I think that might be a worthy interpretation.
According to Dr. Michael Heiser in his book The Unseen Realm, the demonic forces thought that the crucifixion was a victory over the Son of God. If they had known that it would result in his defeating death, they never would have crucified him. That is why the death and resurrection of the Messiah was hidden throughout the ages. Of course, this will actually carry the defeater of Price’s point with it. The fact that Paul thought that demons influenced the death of Christ does not exclude an earthly death. The dark forces influenced evil men to bring about his death. That seems to be a perfectly consistent interpretation.
Jesus as an earthly man would be further accounted for by other statements that Paul made. According to Paul, Jesus was a “descendent of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). He was “born of a woman, born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4). He had a brother named James and a disciple named Peter. It seems strenuous to account for these facts on Dr. Price’s model.
Why Invent A Crucifixion?
Most of us already know what Jewish tradition expected of the Messiah. It is almost boring to repeat it again, but it is often necessary in making a historical case. Ehrman pointed out that there were a few streams of tradition, but essentially the Messiah would be a mighty, military hero. He would free the Jews from the grips of Romans and take his seat on David’s throne, reestablishing the eternal kingdom of Israel. You cannot invent a Messiah story unless the kingdom has been reestablished. Yet far from vanquishing the enemies of Israel, Jesus was crucified as a criminal. This would have been a source of embarrassment. Dr. Ehrman said, “The Christians believed in a crucified Messiah because they believed that Jesus was the Messiah and they knew that he was crucified.”
Dr. Price had a bizarre, yet interesting interpretation of the crucifixion. Apparently there was an ancient myth of God’s representative on earth being devoured and coming back to life again. This myth was repeated annually. The righteous Davidic king is a scaled down version of that myth. So there would be a precedent to manufacturing the crucifixion and resurrection. There are a few problems with this hypothesis.
First, there no reason to believe it. Neither the authors of the gospels nor the epistles never compare Jesus to these ancient myths. Second, why would the crucifixion be a stumbling block to the Jews (1st Corinthians 1:23) if it is based in Jewish tradition? Further, if it was a stumbling block to the Jews, it seems plausible to think that Paul, or someone, would have mentioned it in his polemics. The fact that it is never mentioned when there is good reason to bring it up provides a strong basis for us to be skeptical of Dr. Price’s model.
Ehrman/Price: Did Jesus Exist? Debate Review
There was a lot of content that I left out of this review. But since I did not want it to be a transcript, I chose what I thought were the most significant points and focused on them. I was probably harder on Dr. Price than I was on Dr. Ehrman. There was only one time that I actually critiqued what he said during this review (his interpretation of 1st Corinthians 2:8). But I think there are good reasons for that. However, if you are inclined to think that I am just a raving fundamentalist who is desperately trying to defend the historical Jesus, I recommend just watching the debate.
Can A Historian Use God As An Explanation?
Did Josephus Write About Jesus Or Was It Entirely A Forgery?
Bart Ehrman Vs Justin Bass Debate Review