Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship

While Ehrman spends a great deal of time analyzing the evidence, he does so in ways which ignore the more recent critical scholarship which undercuts his entire position. In other words, the case for a historical Jesus is far weaker than Ehrman lets on.

See Also: Artifacts and the Media: Lead Codices and the Public Portrayal of History

By Thomas S. Verenna
Independent Researcher and Student
May 2012

To read this article in its entirety, we have presented it here in PDF format.

Comments (9)

If we take 'Jesus' to mean 'the important person alleged in the writings of Paul, and later in those of others, to have been crucified' then we should ask whether Paul, in the first place, conceived of the Jesus of his narrative to have been one individual person. I'd say that the answer is Yes, pretty obviously.
Was this a case of imagining a fictional character or of recalling a real one? All fiction is based on reality to some degree and all recall, at least recall for literary purposes, involves some degree of idealisation. The narratives of Paul and of the Evangelists certainly idealise Jesus, in that they present a biography through a theological lens. But any narrative depends for its power on the readers' sense that something real is being conveyed: and these narratives are among the most powerful ever written.
Among the things conveyed are the dangers, often lethal, surrounding preachers and teachers amid the religious and political turmoil of first century Palestine. This is something that readers over the generations have grasped and which scholarship has confirmed.
To this degree Paul and the Evangelists are talking of real experience, something they did not need to imagine. Real experience has to be the experience of at least someone.
If we combine this point with the point that the narrative concerns an individual I think we can conclude with certainty that the narrated Jesus is based on a real person whom the narrators could in some degree recall, though there might have been more than one person who approximately fitted the bill.
This reality does not exclude massive misrepresentation or idealisation in highly misleading forms, of course. That is what people keep arguing about, quite legitimately. But I don't think existence is worth that much dispute.

#1 - Martin - 05/09/2012 - 16:37

Speaking as one who had been a thoroughgoing Mythicist as to Jesus Christ for many years (for the very reasons enumerated by Thomas S. Verenna) I was rudely jostled from my position by the Talpiot Tomb. The first and only actual concrete evidence that Jesus existed. Forget the meager and oblique historical references. We now have archaeological evidence.


#2 - Nathaniel J. Merritt - 05/12/2012 - 05:27


If only that were the case. Unfortunately I do not find the case presented for the tomb to be at all convincing. Some of my colleagues, like James Tabor, find it compelling enough to argue for the position you present, but I am not alone in the opinion that the evidence just isn't there.

Many scholars have argued strongly that there are severe challenges in the argument that the tomb is the family tomb of Jesus (Mark Goodacre and Bob Cargill are good to start with). The statistics still have not been done properly, the linking of NT names to the names at Talpiot A are tenuous and the context stretched, and there is no good reason to presume that the James ossuary is in any way related to Talpiot A or B (note the many discrepancies between geological reports and the state of the tombs when they were discovered by excavators; this suggests that the James ossuary was a part of another tomb all together).

Also, I am not sure in what manner you suggest that I am giving an argument for mythicism. I was very clear in my paper that this is precisely what I was not doing. My argument is only for the acceptance of more doubt about historicity; in no way is that the same thing as arguing for mythicism.

Thanks for your comment.

Thomas Verenna

#3 - Thomas Verenna - 05/14/2012 - 19:37

Fascinating stuff, but what are Tom Verenna's academic qualifications?

#4 - James Blair - 05/14/2012 - 21:01

I disagree Mr Verenna. For the record I was a thoroughgoing Mythicist before learning of the TT but now I accept the historical fact of his existence. Jesus fell and he couldn't get back up so he was interred in the Talpiot Tomb with his family. Thus has sounded the Death Knell for literalist Christianity. I will not reinvent the wheel in this response. An article written by Eldad Keynan and myself is soon to be published.


#5 - Nathaniel Merritt - 05/16/2012 - 17:06

Thanks for your piece Tom. I have not read Bart's book yet, have it on order, but it seems to me you raise some valid points regarding the tendency in the academy toward pillorying minority views with appeals to what "reputable scholars" think. Often those who turn out to be correct over time have taken minority views and more often than not been castigated for it. That is not to say, of course, that any wacko idea that is rejected by so-called "mainstream" scholars must thereby have some kind of unrecognized credibility. Everything, in the end, must turn on argument and evidence, and thus the less hyperbole and rhetorical heat against those with whom we disagree, the better. I for one am among those who has seen no reason to doubt the existence of the historical figure of Jesus, indeed, if anything I would tend to be among the more maximalist of historical Jesus scholars, as per my book, The Jesus Dynasty. I assume Bart discusses the place Paul's authentic letters have in this debate but for me that is the place to begin--reliably dated to the 50s CE by any chronologist of which I am aware, Paul is clearly linking up with a movement centered on Jesus, crucified just 20 years earlier (think Koresh and Waco in 2013), and was personally acquainted with James his brother, Cephas, etc. I realize Price, Carrier, and others have made arguments counter to this but I find them noteably weak.Jesus existed, no doubt about that, the question is what can we know and how can we know what we think we know. And that enterprise, as you rightly point out, is fraught with methodological pitfalls and challenges, as is all historical work of this type, and moreso when your figure is the subject of such myth making.

#6 - James D. Tabor - 05/20/2012 - 13:29

P.S. Although I find any query about Verenna's academic credentials to be irrelevant here, since his piece should be judged by its substance, not by Verenna's CV, I do take exception to what he says here in comments about the case for the Talpiot tombs belonging to Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The statistics, even published here on this site, are solid and impressive and the various posts take full note of critical responses. As for the James ossuary I would suggest a bit more reading, again, even of the most basic materials published right here at https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/article-topics/25. Just do a search for "Talpiot" or "James ossuary" and you will get it all, a balanced view of both sides, which I think Tom does not well represent here with his dismissive comment. So far as the latest criticisms on our Talpiot tomb II interpretations I have responded fully both here and in more detail at my blog, jamestabor.com.

#7 - James D. Tabor - 05/20/2012 - 13:35

Having been a Jehovah's Witness in my teen years I have a horror of bowing to any Grand Poobah religious figure or figures no matter how ancient or orthodox their pedigree. I prefer instead to trust to my own intelligence and critical thinking faculties. For this reason scholars such as James Tabor, Bart Ehrman, and others who are equally open-minded as well as deeply and widely informed are a breath of fresh air, bringing a much-needed draught of reality to the mass-psychosis of the Christian religion. By that I mean believing the unbelievable and having faith in events that are unrepeatable and empirically unverifiable and that are instantly recognized as nonsense when encountered in another world religion.

The two Talpiot Tombs give me hope that one day Christianity will adopt a far less bizarre notion of resurrection, embracing the resurrection of a spiritual body as Dr. Tabor suggests (and which the "Jonah" ossuary in the "Patio tomb" gives much weight to) rather than the reanimation of a corpse. I confess to never having had much faith in the Frankensteinian view.

Fascinating new questions now emerge as well as new impetus and direction to NT studies regarding the resurrection, even as the "Jesus" tomb gives rise to questions as to the marital status of Jesus. Also, the question as to who was first responsible for the Frankenstein view of resurrection, of starting the rumor of an empty tomb and of a reanimated Jesus who got up and flew away into the sky sans aeroplane and the principles of aerodynamics.

The death of literalist, triumphalist Christianity will occur within several generations. A humbled, chastened, conciliatory and more gracious Christianity will emerge and take the place of the current versions.

That is my hope.


#8 - Nathaniel J. Merritt - 05/21/2012 - 15:22

Fantastic article, I really enjoyed it. Though I was a bit skeptical from the start, I am now curious to reread quite a few Roman sources to assess the situation more thoroughly.

#9 - Alexander Z. Miller - 06/04/2012 - 08:07


Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.