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Book Review: 'Did Jesus Exist?' by Bart Ehrman

UNC-Chapel Hill religion historian Bart Ehrman's latest book, mounting a historical proof for the existence of Jesus, is so convincingly argued that many readers will conclude Ehrman also proves many other things, despite himself.

For the same sources Ehrman uses to document the birth, ministry and crucifixion of Jesus -- the Gospels and Paul's letters in the New Testament -- also chronicle Jesus' resurrection and miracles, core tenets of the Christian faith that Ehrman disavows as unprovable.

The author of about 20 books, Ehrman is renowned for exposing contradictions and fabrications in the New Testament, and analyzing how Christianity was grafted onto the radical teachings of a Jewish agitator from Nazareth. So when Ehrman argues that the core of the New Testament is factually accurate, and peels back layers of myth to uncover the underlying truths, the effect is a historical thriller and page-turner.

Ehrman, a former Christian fundamentalist who repudiated his faith, here takes a welcome break from refuting Evangelicals and turns his scholarly weapons on another target: the misguided "mythicists" who allege Jesus is an allegory and a fiction.

Ehrman's book comes just 11 months after he received the Religious Freedom Award from the American Humanist Association, a group chiefly composed of nonbelievers, many of whom are deeply committed to the view that Jesus never existed, and who have adopted Ehrman as their patron saint.

With some trepidation that he will alienate his core fan base, Ehrman contends that non-belief for such people has become a theology and a blindness. Subjected to Ehrman's withering critique, these Jesus deniers come off looking like some ragtag cult of flat-Earthers.

"The historical witnesses to Jesus' life simply multiply, the deeper we look into our surviving materials," Ehrman contends.

Ehrman is hardly the first to tread this ground, but his is a refreshing and riveting display of erudition and authority, worthy of must-reading lists for churches all across the theological spectrum. Ehrman's torrent of prose reads as if he wrote nonstop in a weeklong fit of inspiration, like Jack Kerouac speed-typing on amphetamines, to behold Jesus, his followers and their enemies acting on history's stage in first-century Palestine. Verily, the incendiary Jesus of history -- whom Ehrman considers a genius -- hardly resembles the modern Jesus portrayed in stained-glass windows.

Impressive proof

But what also comes through in these pages is that the many variants of Christianity -- the righteousness of the Evangelicals, the fellowship of the Presbyterians, the simplicity of the Quakers, the charity of the Catholics -- are historically linked to this Middle Eastern Jew who believed he was chosen as Messiah to usher in the Apocalypse and destined to rule God's Kingdom for ever after.

Ehrman's proofs for the historical Jesus are nothing if not impressive. They boil down to several key points, chiefly Paul's face-to-face confabs with James, the brother of Jesus, and with Peter, Jesus' close associate. Surely these two would have known if Jesus had lived and died.

Just as exciting is Ehrman's deft refutation of the mythicist argument that Jesus was a make-believe bogeyman modeled on the half-man/half-god deities of some ancient mystery cults. That claim doesn't hold up for a number of reasons, chief among them: The historical Jesus and his early followers never claimed Jesus was a god.

It was not until after the movement lost its leader on the cross, Ehrman argues, that Jesus gradually assumed a divine nature. But that doesn't become fully evident until the Gospel of John, written more than a half-century after Jesus died.

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