Did Jesus Exist?
Interview with Robert Price and Bart D. Ehrman, speakers at Friday’s Mythinformation Conference at Turner Hall
“Did Jesus Exist,” the second debate in the taboo-busting Buzzed Belief series, is the finale of the Mythinformation Conference at Turner Hall this Friday. Two distinguished former fundamentalists turned humanists-scholars have “a friendly exchange” over the impassioned topic of the existence of a historical Jesus Christ.
Former Baptist minister Robert Price,” who holds PhDs in systematic theology and the New Testament, will assert the Jesus mythic viewpoint while Bart D. Ehrman, professor of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will present his evidence for historicity.
You’ve debated many times before, How will the Buzzed Belief debate be similar or unique?
Bart Ehrman: I’ve debated a number of Christian apologists over the years and in every case they have been conservative evangelical Christians who want to argue the accuracy of the bible or the historical reality of the resurrection. In this debate it will be completely different because I will be the conservative. There are very few New Testament scholars who side with the mythicist position, Robert Price is one of them, so this will be new.
Are there any myth building elements incorporated in the Gospels?
Bart Ehrman: I think that quite clearly there are all sorts of legendary aspects of Jesus’s life that have been colored by the mythology of Greece and Rome, but also by some other historical figures. Just to give an example, the story of Jesus in broad outline in the New Testament can be found in lives of other figures of history, including somebody named Apollonius of Tyana. Storytellers are speaking of Jesus in light of other figures who were also thought to be sons of God. There really was an Apollonius of Tyana, he was a Pythagorean philosopher.
Robert Price: The very fact that historical figures did get mythologized is not a dispute. The question is do we have examples mythical figures that became historicized? We do. Plutarch of the second century was convinced that Osiris and Isis were an ancient king and queen of Egypt. Herodotus figured that Hercules must have been a historical strong man and tried to figure out from the data of the various myths when Hercules must have lived. Euhemerism, named after a Greek Mythographer, supposes that historical accounts became myth. There is no real connection to the surrounding history with Jesus, you have a few stories that seem very dubious to scholars.
Why do you think Christianity spread so far and so fast?
Bart Ehrman: I have a new book coming out next year, The Triumph of Christianity, on how it evolved from a tiny group of Jesus’s followers to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire by the 4th century. The reason the news about Jesus spread so quickly is because people felt they had to convert and save others or be destroyed, which was unlike any other religions in the ancient world. We don’t know of any missionary religions in antiquity until Christianity came along. They had a theological incentive to spreading the word.
Robert Price: Christianity, specifically Catholicism, seems to have assimilated three elements of ancient Greek Hellenism: The first is the Gnostic idea of an earthly appearance of a pre-existing heavenly being. Next, the redemption mystery religions of the dying and rising gods through sacramental involvement, such as the sprinkling of blood or eating of sacred meals like the Mithra worshippers. You were participating in death and resurrection of the savior god. Finally, the Hellenistic hero cults like Hercules who had great victories after great labors. These things seemed to have been combined in Catholicism.
What is the relationship between Paul’s epistles and the four Gospels?
Robert Price: Paul’s epistles and the gospels do not overlap. The epistles mention Christ Jesus, Jesus Christ or some other variation. They never tell us that Jesus was an itinerant teacher or reference any of his miracles. There are many places where the epistles deal with questions that came up in the gospels, about divorce, adultery and paying taxes to Caesar. You would think that if the writer of the epistles knew the stuff we find in the gospels he would have quoted it, but he doesn’t.
If you could add one book that didn’t make it into the New Testament, which would it be and why?
Robert Price: The Gospel of Thomas is fascinating with theologically and spiritually provocative statements, some of which are very puzzling unless you put them in a first century context. It’s a collection of 114 sayings and about half are parallel sayings in the New Testament gospels. This is Zen like Christianity.
Bart Ehrman: I really love the Infancy Gospel of Thomas which is filled with highly legendary accounts of Jesus as a boy. It tells stories of him between the ages of five and twelve and even though he had all the power as the Son of God, he’s just a kid. Jesus is not very mature sometimes uses power for mischievous purposes. If children get on his nerves they’re zapped with a word or if a teacher irritates him they’re withered on the spot. Eventually he learns how to use his powers for good and heals everybody that he hurt or killed before with a word.
What defining moment instigated your shift to agnosticism?
Robert Price: I remember in 1977 reading James Barr’s great book, Fundamentalism, which kind of confirmed a lot of my suspicions that the arguments of the most sophisticated evangelical conservative New Testament scholars were just a lot of spin. I thought it really is arbitrary, you cannot demonstrate the authority of the bible or the resurrection of Jesus. I became agnostic, but not hostile toward religion. I make scathing critiques of both religion and atheism, but I just want fair play and intellectual honesty.
Bart Ehrman: I was a fundamentalist Christian for several years in my late teens. My first significant turning point was my realization that the bible is not some kind of inerrant revelation from God. There are contradictions, discrepancies and historical mistakes, as well as science and geographical errors. This changed my view of the bible, but it didn’t make me inclined toward agnosticism. What ended up turning me toward humanism rather than a theism was unrelated to that field of scholarship. It was dealing with the problem of suffering in the world. I don’t think there’s some God who intervenes in history that helps people. I think we have to help each other. Becoming a humanist has made me focus on helping other people. I’m now more concerned about social justice, hunger and homelessness.