From Books

Ehrman and Vermes

The amateur book reviews below were intended for inclusion in my final ten-pack of these for 2017, Ten Books: 2017, Volume 4, but I ran on too long, especially in the first of the two. Since they deal with related subject matter I have elected to package them together here, saving readers the trouble of scrolling past them there. Scrolling here will be fruitless: there is nothing better below. (This may be your cue to bail out!)

Bart D Ehrman and Geza Vermes (in my opinion and based on some, but limited, experience) are the two best scholars writing in recent decades to a general audience on the subject of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, the world of first-century Palestine, and the early history of Christianity. There are and have been others to be sure, but not as many of importance as might be supposed. Please understand that I refer to significant scholars who also write widely for general, non-specialist consumption. (Understand as well that I exclude scholars–as some may be–who write primarily to support one faith-based point of view or another. And of course, I don’t include theologians of whatever stripe; scholars they may be, but in a different field.)

In December I read a collection of recycled essays by Vermes titled The Real Jesus. It showed signs of the winding down of a career, and the author died in 2013 at the age of 88. He did produce new works after this one, including a posthumously-published book on Herod the Great, so I may yet have a chance to read something more substantial from him.

Just a week earlier than that, I read Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?. Published in 2012, it is the work of scholar who should contribute for sometime to come: he turned 62 in 2017.

Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of NazarethBart D. EhrmanDid Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012)

I always learn much from the writings of Professor Ehrman on the history of the New Testament and early Christianity. He has published an impressive corpus of books targeted to a general audience, all while producing scholarly works and teaching at University of North Carolina. He must be a busy guy. Yet he has always taken time to patiently and respectfully respond to critics who have not always accorded him the same respect and courtesy in return. These uncharitable critics have come–almost exclusively–from the ranks of subscribers to the notion of “Biblical inerrancy.” Although his views are far from idiosyncratic–he writes from a position squarely within the broad consensus of Biblical scholarship–he makes a convenient target as one of a too-small number of highly-qualified Biblical scholars to write extensively for a general audience. That he used to be closer to “one of them,” taking undergraduate degrees from the fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College before earning his doctorate at the mainstream Princeton Theological Seminary, hasn’t helped.

One fringe group of Ehrman’s fans (to a point) have been “Jesus mythicists,” a hodgepodge of mostly amateur and self-styled scholars who argue that the first-century man Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. He was, in their view, a creation of the Apostle Paul and other early Christians. Before Did Jesus Exist? they celebrated Ehrman’s writings insofar as he pointed out inconsistencies, contradictions, and the evolving view of Jesus recorded in the New Testament and other early Christian writings. Though the positions Ehrman takes have long been commonplace among scholars, their wide exposure before a general audience is welcome to the mythicists, who revel in any challenge to the historicity of these early sources. That Ehrman never questions the historicity of the first-century existence of the man Jesus is (or was) not the point.

But Ehrman became increasingly aware of the small but vocal zealots who maintained what he saw as the absurd position that Jesus’s very existence is a myth. Worse, they were happy to use his work in support of their claim. So he resolved to lay out the case contra their position. And now Ehrman has vocal and angry critics on both sides.

I can’t begin to summarize the case made in Did Jesus Exist?. I find it logical, well-argued, and compelling. But then I had no real doubts on the issue coming in. Still, I did find it enlightening to read a detailed examination of the evidence we have and can adduce about the question. (Detailed, that is, in a “written for a general audience” context.) I can recommend it enthusiastically to anyone with an interest in the history of the New Testament and early Christianity. To anyone entertaining the thought that mythicists might be onto something, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Earlier I made reference to the patience with which Ehrman engages his critics. He writes a blog at I haven’t read much of it, really (it’s a rabbit hole), but I did peruse some of the back-and-forth between him and some of his mythicist critics. His site provides a “convert-to-PDF” function and I used it to create a copy of his reply one of his more strident critics. Download and read Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier for a taste of the conflict and for just a small sample of the kinds of questions examined.

Two of Ehrman’s other books I’ve enjoyed and can recommend are Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted (which I wrote of in Ten Books – 2016 Part #1).

The Real Jesus: Then and NowGeza VermesThe Real Jesus: Then and Now (2003)

I am a big fan of Vermes’s writing on the history and interpretation of the New Testament. I’ve been reading him since at least the mid 80s in Biblical Archaeology Review and Bible Review, a pair of journals that make Biblical scholarship accessible to people like me: curious, only marginally well-versed in the subject, of average intelligence but capable of critical thought, and open-minded. Since that time I’ve read a couple of his books and a smattering of his essays online. After reading Ehrman (see above), I felt an itch for more on the subject of the earliest writings about Jesus–Christmas was coming up, after all–so I picked up this.

The Real Jesus is a collection of Vermes’s essays from the past 30-odd years. Many I had read before. Not necessarily a problem–I haven’t memorized them. What was a problem for me was the amount of redundancy in the collection. Many of the essays cover similar topics and, especially in the process of laying necessary groundwork, repeat concepts and arguments to a tiresome degree. It’s just a poorly edited collection and adds little that isn’t better and more cohesively presented in his more important books.

Two of Vermes books I’ve enjoyed and can recommend are The Authentic Gospel of Jesus and The Story of the Scrolls (on which I wrote a brief paragraph in Books Read 2015).