Book Review: Bart Ehrman’s Argument for a Historical Jesus

Call me late to the party, but I am finally getting at the whittling away of my books-to-read list, a list which simply keeps getting longer because there’s just so many interesting books, or at least books that look interesting to read, that I want to read, need to read, and simply must read.

Over the past few days I was finally able to finish reading Bart Ehrman’s 2012/2013 (conflicting publishing dates) book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. I’ve cited passages from the book in a cursory skimming of it responding to Jesus Mythicists here on the blog before, but I finally got to sit down and tread into the book, in its entirety, and listen to his arguments.

I don’t want to spend the majority of this post going through the particulars of the book, after all other reviewers have already done that and have done so in admirable fashion. Rather I want to give my readers a fair review of a book that could, could be helpful.

Dr. Ehrman gives a very engaging presentation of the material and does a very interesting job presenting an argument for the historical existence of Jesus that is flavored with a very heavy dose of his anti-supernaturalistic skepticism. I found myself somewhat amused at his apparent befuddlement of the Mythicist movement, as he writes in the introduction,

Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

Ehrman spends a great amount of time describing in elaborate detail what constitutes evidence and what doesn’t and then goes to unpack what he considers to be convincing evidence for the historicity of Jesus as a historical person, going so far as to use an analogy of George Washington to essentially summarize the Mythicists rejection of biblical sources as legitimate historical sources in Chapter 3, writing,

To refuse to use them as sources is to sacrifice the most important avenues to the past we have, and on purely ideological, not historical, grounds.

The primary issue that I have with Ehrman’s methodology is his blind acceptance of Markan priority and his ignoring of its inherent problems, problems that I discussed here, and how it completely overwrites any meaningful reading of the gospels.

Ehrman does a very good job pointing out he fact that Mythicists have to make a number of fallacious arguments that often play on the ignorance of their audiences, I often find that their arguments are viciously circular, and are often heavily dependent upon severely outdated scholarship and a great deal of speculation.

I did find myself agreeing with much of what Ehrman said when it comes to how Jesus is often misrepresented in so much of what presents itself as evangelicalism today because it is often a caricature of the historical Jesus, although I did have to stop short of complete agreement for what should be obvious reasons. I agree with some of what he said when he discusses the misconceptions of how we got the Bible, and the New Testament in particular, simply because most evangelicals are simply ignorant of how it has come down to us. I do not agree, at all, with his conclusions about Jesus.

So, what’s my takeaway?

I want to recommend this book simply because it gives an agnostic/atheist response to the atheist myth that Jesus did not exist. I said that I want to, that doesn’t mean that I can.

Ehrman is an engaging writer and does a very good job representing the best arguments of the Mythicists. He also does an admirable job responding to them and demonstrating the mistakes in reasoning and the factual errors that they engage in. Ehrman knows his New Testament and does a very good job making his arguments as well as from the texts but his theology sucks. He’s an unbeliever and his unbelief shines.

Should believers read this book? I definitely think it would be worth the time, but I would only recommend it to strong, theologically grounded believers.

Ehrman answering a mythicist at a speech

12 comments

  1. “Ehrman gives a very engaging presentation of the material and does a very interesting job presenting an argument for the historical existence of Jesus that is flavored with a very heavy dose of his anti-supernaturalistic skepticism.” The Triggerman

    The Triggerman does a fine job highlighting succinctly the pros and cons of this book.

    Let me add that Ehrman’s “historical” method of analyzing the New Testament is gross error and leads to predetermined conclusions that the miracles described did not occur. Ehrman does not use the New Testament. He relies on another book, minus all the miracles, which are in the New Testament. For example, before he opens the Scriptures he already knows the resurrection did not take place.

    • “It is not good enough, in my view, to say that in fact it does *not* matter if Luke has a doctrine of atonement, because Mark and Paul clearly do, so you can find the doctrine of the atonement in the NT even if Luke doesn’t have it. That is doing the work of the theologian (which, in fact, I do not object to) rather than the work of the interpreter. If it turns out that Mark does have a doctrine of the atonement, and that Luke has a *different* understanding of Jesus’ death, then you have to figure out which one is right – especially if they cannot be reconciled. And that leads to an entirely different approach to the books of the New Testament. And that in itself is highly significant.” Ehrman

      Bart forbids proselytizing on his blog, except once in a great while. However, notice, if you will, that Bart engages in every conceivable way to tear apart the gospels and Christianity.

      • Bart, in his infallible way, insists that the author of Luke does not refer to the doctrine of redemption in either Luke or in the “second part” of Luke called The Book of Acts. Howe was right. The amount of time it takes to point out all Bart’s errors is staggering. He is wrong in this case, too. His list goes on and on and on.

        Bart’s disdain for Christians and Christianity has skewed his thinking. His perspective has shifted and by the time he finishes opining about Scripture he has left planet earth. When building a foundation, being off by a little creates a skyscraper that cannot stand. Let’s not forget to pray for Bart and for those hanging in the balance. In 50 years many folks will be damned for good I fear due to his influence. When this life is gone–in a mere mist of moments marching on–eternity remains and never ends.

      • You got it, Triggerman. Great job here. Much interesting stuff.

        Without Christ I’m reminded of those words from a song,
        “A million generations removed from expectations of being who you really want to be”

        If I had been able to map out my life, I would have been a successful S.O.B. concerned with the externals and self obsessed. Trying to turn my life over to Him, I’m becoming like Him on the inside and that is something I never could have achieved on my own.

        More words from another one of my favorite songs comes to mind,
        “I’m sitting on the corner feeling glad.
        Got no money coming in but I can’t be sad.
        That was the best cup of coffee I ever had.
        And I won’t worry about a thing
        Because we’ve got it made,
        Here on the inside, outside so far away.” ISA

  2. This is one of the great scholars of our day, yet he just recently changed his mind and now acknowledges the synoptics do indeed support the divinity of Christ. So, for years this guy denies that the synoptics demonstrate that Christ was God, suddenly he sees the light and he maintains his lofty status as an expert on the Bible without skipping a beat.

    How many people did Bart mislead? How many people rejected Christ’s claims to be God based on the inaccurate assessment of this “scholar”? If the stakes weren’t so high, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But, we are discussing ideas/facts/truths that have temporal and eternal consequences.

    Why doesn’t any one care? Where are our church leaders? Where is our burden to present the Gospel to all the world, including Bart’s disciples, who cling to his every word? He is a best selling author directing people away from saving trust in God’s Son. Where are our theologians/historians/ancient language experts? Where are our prayer warriors?

    Why haven’t we presented an easy to read, well written, intelligent response that point by point refutes his errors?

    • To answer your question: there have been books written responding, point by point, refuting his assertions, and demonstrating his errors. The problem is that they don’t have the publishing house firepower that Ehrman has behind them to promote them.

      • I know. BUT, we have this Fellow called GOD on the side of glory, as our General, and He can help us mount an offense more powerful than we can imagine. Just think: a handful of crude, unbelieving, screwy knuckleheads took the world by storm and shook it to its core just 2,000 years ago. They saw Him. They heard Him. They handled Him and they shouted at the top of their lungs that GOD had come to town. (And He’s still here.) If we love one another all men will know He Is.

        BTW, have you read Driven To Distraction?

      • I have an ever-expanding list of books that I intend to read. There’s only so many that I can read at one time and keep straight depending on what I’m working on at the time.

  3. Having never actually written anything of substance, aside from the occassional college research paper, and being struck by an awful case of A.D.D.,

    Triggerman, if you are being serious and you really have A.D.D., or if you think you have its symptoms, you must read “Driven” before you take another breath. Written by a Harvard educated doctor who has it and is on the staff at Harvard Medical School, realized he had it in med school. Extremely well written and it will blow your mind.

    Guarantee it will be the second most important book you will ever read.

    A suggested diagnostic criteria for adults with A.D.D.:

    “(A) A chronic disturbance in which at least twelve of the following are present:

    A sense of under achievement, of not meeting one’s goals (regardless of how much one has actually

    accomplished). We put this symptom first because it is the most common reason an adult seeks help. “I

    just can’t get my act together,” is the frequent refrain. The person may be highly accomplished by objective

    standards or may be floundering, stuck with a sense of being lost in a maze, unable to capitalize on innate

    potential.

    Difficulty getting organized. A major problem for most adults with ADD. Without the structure of school,

    without parents around to get thing organized for him or her, the adults may stagger under the

    organizational demands of every day obstacles. For the want of a proverbial nail… A missed appointment,

    a lost check, a forgotten dealling….their kingdom may be lost.

    Chronic procrastination or trouble getting started. Adults with ADD associate so much anxiety with

    beginning a task, due to their fears that they won’t do it right, that they put it off, which, if course, only adds

    to the anxiety around the task.

    Many projects going simultaneously; trouble with follow through. A corollary of number 3. As one task is

    put off, another is taken up. By the end of the day, week, or year, countless projects have been

    undertaken, while few have found completion.

    Tendency to say what comes to mind without necessarily considering the timing or appropriateness of the

    remark. Like the child with ADD in the classroom, the adult with ADD gets carried away in enthusiasm. An

    idea comes and it must be spoken.

    A restive search for high stimulation. The adult with ADD is always on the lookout for something novel,

    something engaging, something in the outside world that can catch up with the whirlwind that rushing inside.

    A tendency to be easily bored. A corollary of number 6. Boredom surrounds the adult with ADD like a sink-

    hole, ever ready to drain off energy and leave the individual hungry for more stimulation. This can easily

    be misinterpreted as a lack of interest; actually it is a relative inability to sustain interest over time. As much

    as the person cares, his battery pack turns low quickly.

    Easy distractibilty, trouble focusing attention, tendency to tune out or drift away in the middle of a page or a

    conversation, often coupled with an ability to hyper focus is also usually present, emphasizing the fact that

    this a syndrome not of attention deficit, but of attention inconsistency.

    Often creative, intuitive, highly intelligent. Not a symptom, but a trait deserving a mention. Adults with ADD

    often have creative minds. In the midst of their disorganization and distractibility, they show flashes of

    brilliance. Capturing this “special something” is one of the goals of treatment.

    Trouble in going through established channels, following proper procedure. Contrary to what one might

    think, this is not due to some unresolved problem with authority figures. Rather, it is a manifestation of

    boredom and frustration: boredom with the routine ways of doing things and excitement around novel

    approaches and frustration with being unable to do things the way they’re supposed to be done.

    Impatient, low tolerance for frustration. Frustration of any sort reminds the adult with ADD of all the failure

    in the past. “Oh, no!” he thinks, “here we go again.” So he gets angry or withdraws. The impatience has

    to do with the need for stimulation and can lead others to think of the individuals as immature or insatiable.

    Impulsive, either verbally or in action, as in impulsive spending of money, changing plans, enacting new

    schemes or career plans, and the like. This is one of the more dangerous of the adult symptoms, or

    depending on the impulse one of the more advantageous

    Tendency to worry needlessly, endlessly, tendency to scan the horizon looking for something to worry

    about alternating with inattention to or disregard for actual dangers. Worry becomes what attentions turns

    to when it isn’t focused on some task.

    Sense of impending doom, insecurity, alternating with high risk taking. This symptom is related to both

    tendency to worry needlessly and the tendency to be impulsive.

    Mood swings, depression, especially when disengaged from a person or project. Adults with ADD, more

    than children, are given to unstable moods. Much of this is due to their experience of frustration and/or

    failure, while some of it is due to the biology of the disorder,

    Restlessness. One usually does not see, in an adult, the full-blown hyperactivity seen in a child. Instead

    one sees what looks like “nervous energy”: pacing, drumming of fingers, shifting of position while sitting,

    leaving a table or room frequently, feeling edgy while at rest.

    Tendency toward addictive behavior. The addiction may be to a substance such as alcohol or drugs, or to

    an activity such as gambling, shopping, eating or overwork.

    Chronic problems with self-esteem. These are the direct and unhappy results of years of conditioning:

    years of being told one is a klutz, a space out, an underachiever, lazy, weird, different, out of it, and the

    like. Years of frustration, failure, or of just not getting it right to lead to problems with self-esteem. What is

    impressive is how resilient most adults are, despite all the setbacks.

    Inaccurate self-observation. People with ADD are poor self-observers. They do not accurately gauge the

    impact they have on other people. This can often lead to big misunderstandings and deeply hurt feelings.

    Family history of ADD or manic-depressive illness or depression or substance abuse or other disorders of

    impulsive control or mood. Since ADD is genetically transmitted and related to the other conditions

    mentioned it is not uncommon (but not necessary) to find such a family history.”

    Hallow and Ratey

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