(We welcome FTN guestwriter and fellow mythicist Frank Zindler, editor of American Atheist Magazine and Director of American Atheist Press, rebutting the “historical” Jesus of Bart Ehrman’s rendering in his recent book Did Jesus Exist?)
By Frank R. Zindler
The subtitle of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? promises The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. This leads prospective readers to expect that the Jesus of concern in the book is to be associated with the “town” of Nazareth and that it is this identifying tie between Nazareth and Jesus that will be the major investigative concern of the book. One would expect to find evidence supporting the historical existence of not just any-old Jesus. Rather, one anticipates learning the evidence supporting the existence of a Jesus who lived in a place called Nazareth at the turn of the era.
Evangelical and fundamentalist readers might further expect to learn whether or not the Nazareth from which Ehrman’s Jesus came was the place described in the gospels—a town big enough to have a synagogue placed “on the brow of the hill” (Luke 4:28-30).
Alas, the Jesus of Nazareth found in Bart’s subtitle is almost completely absent from the book. Only eleven times in the 360-page book can we find the expression “Jesus of Nazareth,” although the word “Nazareth” occurs 87 times. Three of the 11 appearances of “Jesus of Nazareth” occur on the title page, the copyright page, and a section heading. He appears two more times in the references at the back of the book, leaving a total of six places in the book where the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth” is actually employed by Ehrman himself. This averages one occurrence per every 60 pages! This fact does not promote the impression that Jesus of Nazareth is the actual character whose historical existence Ehrman intends to establish.
“The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence.“
But it seems I have miscounted the number of places where Ehrman himself refers to Jesus of Nazareth. One of the six actually turns out to be a quotation from Albert Schweitzer:
“There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence…”
It is hard to see how this quotation supports Ehrman’s thesis, even though it is true that Schweitzer himself believed in the existence of an historical Jesus from somewhere or other. (In fact, Ehrman nonchalantly comments on page 191, “If Jesus existed, as the evidence suggests, but Nazareth did not, as this [mythicist] assertion claims, then he merely came from somewhere else.”
Jesus of Timbuktu!
So there you have it! Ehrman’s book proving the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth might actually be proving the existence of Jesus of Hoboken, Jesus of Rancho Cucamonga, or even the Jesus of Timbukthree instead! In the second edition of this book, I would suggest the subtitle be changed to read The Historical Argument for Jesus of Fill-in-the-Blank.
Of the remaining five places where Ehrman uses the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth,” one of them is a misrepresentation of the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus:
“In his various writings Josephus mentions a large number of Jews, especially as they were important for the social, political, and historical situation in Palestine. As it turns out, he discusses several persons named Jesus, and he deals briefly also with John the Baptist. And on two occasions, at least in the writings as they have come down to us today, he mentions Jesus of Nazareth.”
Contrary to Ehrman’s claim, however, Josephus never refers to a “Jesus of Nazareth.” (Amazingly, Ehrman actually quotes the two disputed Josephan passages in his book where readers can immediately see that Nazareth does not occur in the passages quoted!) This fact is important, because Josephus, although he refers to forty-five places in Galilee and fortified a town less than two miles from present-day Nazareth, knew nothing of Nazareth itself. Naturally, then, he could not be witness to any character styled Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, Josephus was from a priestly family. How could he have ignored a polis [city-state] that had a synagogue?
This leaves four references to Jesus of Nazareth for us to examine amidst 360 pages of expectedly well-written prose. One of the three remainders is a rather anecdotal comment about Ehrman’s experience at a Humanist conference where many of the participants expressed mythicist leanings:
“…many of them were completely taken aback when they learned that I have a different view, that I think that there certainly was a Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and about whom we can say a good deal as a historical figure.”
Formally, this anecdote is merely a reference to personal experience. Even so, it makes the concealed unsubstantiated claim that “we can say a good deal [about Jesus] as a historical figure.” One easily can forget that this hidden claim is a wild exaggeration. We can say a good deal about Jesus of Nazareth? Really? Why, then, does Ehrman say virtually nothing specifically pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth in his entire book?
Two of the remaining three references to Jesus of Nazareth are simple instances of the fallacies of informal logic known as the appeal to authority and the ad populum (“three million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”) fallacies. The first quotation of this sort is from his argument that mythicists generally do not have enough specialized education to qualify them to write about a mythical Jesus of Nazareth. They aren’t experts:
“It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure.”
The second passage embodying these fallacies is found in the section of his book entitled “The Gospels and Their Written Sources”:
“Once it is conceded that the Gospels can and should be treated as historical sources, no different from other historical sources infused with their author’s biases, it starts to become clear why historians have almost universally agreed that whatever else one might say about him, Jesus of Nazareth lived in first-century Palestine and was crucified by the prefect [Ehrman corrects Tacitus concerning Pilate’s title] of Judea.”
Simply stating the obvious fact that the vast majority of New Testament specialists are historicists is not evidence for the concealed proposition “Jesus of Nazareth once lived in Roman Palestine and was crucified by Pontius Pilate.” That is a statement in need of proof—proof for which mythicists seek in vain in the pages of Ehrman’s book.
That fact leaves us with only one passage in the entire book where Ehrman uses the name “Jesus of Nazareth” as an integral part of his argument. This instance is found in his discussion of methodology to separate the miraculous Jesus from the mundane Jesus:
“The reason this line of reasoning is in error is that we are not asking whether Jesus really did miracles and, if so, why they (and he) are not mentioned by pagan sources. We are asking whether Jesus of Nazareth actually existed. Only after establishing that he did exist can we go on to ask if he did miracles. If we decide that he did, only then can we revisit the question of why no one, in that case, mentions him.”
We are left, therefore, with a book that isn’t really intended to prove the existence of a god-man who came from a place called Nazareth. Ehrman has hedged his bets and is attempting to prove the existence of any Jesus who can be pressed into service to explain a unitary origin of Christianity.
One may fairly ask at this point, “Why should this initiating stimulator have been named Jesus either? Wasn’t he named Jesus because the Aramaic equivalent (yeshua‘) means Savior? In Septuagint Greek, the word IESOUS can also represent the name Joshua. Maybe we should be looking for a Joshua instead of a Savior?
But why, exactly, would Ehrman suppose that Jesus is the first name of his putative character, rather than a title or epithet? He knows that Christ is a title, not a name. Why not Jesus? Moreover, wasn’t Jesus the ultimate name bestowed upon Paul’s “Christ Jesus” in the so-called Kenosis Hymn (Philippians 2:5-11)?
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him [Christ Jesus], and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.”
Isn’t Jesus here a name of magical power given to a being who was called “Christ” before he was titled Jesus? Isn’t that why we still find occasional references to Christ Jesus instead of Jesus Christ?
Is it not the case that if – as the consensus of historicist scholarly opinion holds – unlike Hinduism and traditional Egyptian, Greek and Roman religions, Christianity began at a single point in time and was initiated by a single person, couldn’t that person have been named Ichabod as well as Savior? Couldn’t the name of Savior have been given to him after his death? If we no longer have to think of Christianity as having been founded by a “Jesus of Nazareth,” couldn’t it have been founded by someone named anything at all?
In Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman claims to have presented evidence for the existence of “Jesus of Nazareth.” Mythicists in the rebuttals that will follow me, however, shall look for evidence for the existence of Ehrman’s evidence.
Nazareth is not mentioned even once in the entire Old Testament, nor do any ancient historians or geographers mention it before the beginning of the fourth century. The Talmud, although it names 63 Galilean towns, knows nothing of Nazareth. Josephus, who wrote extensively about Galilee (a region roughly the size of Rhode Island) and conducted military operations back and forth across the tiny territory in the last half of the first century, mentions Nazareth not even once — although he does mention by name 45 other cities and villages of Galilee. This is even more telling when one discovers that Josephus does mention Japha, a village which is just over a mile from present-day Nazareth! Josephus tells us that he was occupied there for some time. Today, Japha can be considered a suburb of Nazareth, but in Josephus’ day, I’ll wager, the people of Japha buried their dead in the tombs of the unnamed necropolis that now underlies the modern city called Nazareth….