Illegitimate Arguments In Favor Of and Against the Historicity of Jesus

Bart Ehrman has recently written an article on the Huffington Post (find it yourself) arguing for the existence of the ‘Historical Jesus’. He starts off by illegitimately comparing those who deny the character with obvious crazies (Holocaust-deniers and birthers). This is a dangerous logical fallacy, and a stupid one, when uttered by one as skilled in his field as Ehrman. One might as well compare deniers of the Bible’s creation myth with the deniers of the efficacy of vaccines or global warming. Ehrman then continues by attacking what many of the better Jesus ahistoricists (Carrier, Godfrey, Doherty) would likely consider fairly weak or insufficient evidence for Jesus’s lack of historicity. Of course, citing D. M. Murdock (a New-Ager, not a Skeptic) scores nobody credit. See my “Debunking Vulgar Jesus Mythicism” link in the sidebar for a good debunking of her nonsense. It is true that there are only two mythicists (Price and Carrier) with PhD’s in a relevant field. However, minority ideas should not be suppressed simply because they stem from a minority. They should be suppressed because they flatly contradict the good evidence we have. Ehrman does not do that in his piece. He debunks many of the stupider arguments made by ahistoricists, but hardly even bothers to do so with one of the most misleading (the parallels with exotic pagan gods).

His statement that “With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind. Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus’ life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it!” is filled with lies, and Ehrman certainly knows it. James is not described in the Bible as a “brother of Jesus”, but as a “brother of the Lord”. While this could mean “brother of Jesus”, it could as well be a religious title bestowed on numerous men. The fact we have numerous independent accounts of Jesus shows his historicity no more than the fact we have numerous independent accounts of Zeus, or any other other fictional figure.

Erhman also fails badly with his ‘but no one would make up a crucified messiah!’ argument, ending up sounding like Josh McDowell in the process. A belief in a purely echatological Messiah would die out fairly quickly, since there is no supernatural, and thus, the prophesied Messiah would never come. One who came secretly, without a great announcement, but who managed to be, ironically, an important theological plot point, would be much more appealing to the people of the Roman empire, largely due to his lack of falsifiability and the fact it makes one secure to believe that the Christ had already come. The parallel of crucifixion to animal sacrifice would make the belief even more appealing. Being first in a line of beliefs does not make a belief have any more credibility.

In short, Erhman commits the sin of lying to the public and presenting not a single good argument for his conclusion. The fact he poisons the well by alleging that most Jesus ahistoricists are anti-Christian is an obvious bit of stupidity, considering the existence of placatheism of the Michael Ruse and Karen Armstrong variety, which alleges many historical details in religious texts are false, but religion still has much good to offer to the world. Indeed, the ahistoricist Couchoud praised Christianity for the contributions it has made to advancing civilization (I would disagree; Christianity was the result, not cause of, the expansion of civilization).

However, I am saddened by the poor arguments many have made in this thread. False arguments include the ignorance of the Jewish context of Roman Palestine, where Christianity originated (cf. Epistle to the Galatians), allegations that Roman Palestine was ‘superbly well documented’ (it wasn’t), and the idea anyone but Josephus would mention any failed Messiah from Palestine. The ‘Q community’ was likely limited to a few unprestigious places in the Aramaic-speaking portion of the Roman Empire, and would hardly be mentioned by the leading intellectuals of the day. Other stupidities in the thread include arguing from the uncritical reading of the most fiction-filled parts of the Gospels to show that the ‘Historical Jesus’ of scholarship (an entirely different being from the Jesus of John or Matthew) did not exist, lying and misleading regarding Origen’s use of Josephus, and arguing that Paul’s likely deliberate ignorance of Jesus’s life demonstrates that the twelve apostles knew no physical Jesus the Nazarene.

In short, stupidities and fallacies of argument abound when arguing about Jesus’s historicity.

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

6 thoughts on “Illegitimate Arguments In Favor Of and Against the Historicity of Jesus”

  1. I’d like to hear your opinion on Richard Carrier’s “trashing” of Ehrman’s piece.

    To my untrained mind, Carrier seems to be making good claims but pushes it a bit at places. Specifically, the fact that we don’t have actual sources close to Jesus’ supposed time does not mean that we don’t have good reasons to suspect such existed (nor that we do; I don’t know), and the fact that “brother of the Lord” MIGHT be a cult title is certainly NOT the simplest explanation (although it’s possible) – the most probable a priori position must surely be to read it simply and literally, even if later arguments/evidence can push this probability down.

    Overall, it appears to me Ehrman is trying to sell books more than he is trying to educate the public.



    1. I disagree with Carrier’s criticisms at some minor points, such as the mention of Thomas L. Thompson as a “prestigious professor of biblical studies” (Thompson is currently retired, and was never particularly prestigious) and the criticism of Ehrman’s statement “not even … the most powerful and important figure of his day, Pontius Pilate” is “mentioned in any Roman sources of his day.”. That statement is technically true, if ‘Roman’ is defined to mean only authors originating in Rome. It is, however, still strongly misleading, as Josephus wrote his works while in Rome. I find your assessment of the case as very probably correct in all places.

  2. Is the historicity of Jesus such a big deal? I have not read the DM Murdoch books but in an interview I heard she did not make a claim for ahistoricity. Her point was to put the supernatural aspects into some sort of context.Is her stuff not worth reading? Robert Price seems to give her a reasonable hearing.

    1. The historicity of Jesus is not such a big deal to me, though intellectual integrity is. DM Murdock does appear to make claims for ahistoricity (see her website), and Richard Carrier has critiqued her general scheme of the origin of Christianity quite soundly on his blog.

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