The Rev. Dr. Charles P. McGathy, aka Chuck, takes a look at a provocative book about the existence of Jesus as a historical person.
By Charles McGathy
DID JESUS EXIST?: THE HISTORICAL ARGUMENT FOR JESUS OF NAZARETH. By Bart D. Ehrman. HarperOne. 361 pages. $26.99.
Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a self-described “agnostic with atheistic leanings.” This is important to keep in mind as this book is his refutation, as a religious historian, of the claim made by a growing minority that Jesus of Nazareth was not in fact a real historical character, but a mythological invention. Ehrman states his objective rather plainly in his introduction: “Jesus existed, and those vocal persons who deny it do so not because they have considered the evidence with the dispassionate eye of the historian, but because they have some other agenda that this denial serves. From a dispassionate point of view, there was a Jesus of Nazareth.”
Ehrman goes on in his book, with his unassailable confidence, to disabuse the mythicists of their contention that Jesus never existed. He is, however, only a contributor to Christian apologetics, not an apologist himself. Ehrman makes very clear his belief that the historical Jesus is not the Jesus worshiped by millions of Christians: “In my view humanists, agnostics, atheists, mythicists, and anyone else who does not advocate belief in Jesus would be better served to stress that the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of modern Christianity than to insist – wrongly and counterproductively – that Jesus never existed. Jesus did exist. He simply was not the person that most modern believers today think he was.”
To be sure, he raises intriguing questions for doubters and believers alike. Yet this book is not the final word, but only a contribution for a more serious discussion by the church. Christians (not just modern believers) have long asserted the eternal nature and divinity of Jesus. While accepting that he was a man of his times (a Jew in first-century Palestine), the church has also developed a theology that understands Jesus more clearly in retrospect than while he trod the roads of Galilee. One can understand this to mean, as does Ehrman, that later Christians made Jesus into God, or, as I do, that later Christians discovered and acknowledged the incarnation for what it actually was.
I’m thankful for this book and its scholarship. If understood as a work that is essentially unchristian, it provides additional weight to the Christian contention that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a real person “who existed in history, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and about whom we can say a good deal as a historical figure.” As work supporting historic Christian theology, however, it is inadequate. Of course, it was never the author’s intention to do that, and his commentary on Christian theology is indeed challenging. Still it can be and should be challenged by equally great minds who not only embrace the existence of Jesus but also see in him the living Son of God.
- Chuck McGathy, a retired Navy chaplain, is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Madison, N.C.