Every now and then someone flings a book at me that is kind of out of my regular line of reading. This is how I came to read Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, by Bart D. Ehrman.
Had to ask myself two questions about this tome before I even opened it:
1. Why should I read about the historical existence of Jesus when I already believe it, and
2. Should I waste my time reading about the busy god?
Just goes to show you ... move beyond those pesky, nagging questions sometimes. This title turned out to be very interesting, and one of those rare books written by a scholar for a lay audience that is actually understandable and accessible.
Apparently there's a largish movement underway to cast Jesus of Nazareth as a mythical being, totally made up from the fertile imaginations of ancient people. Well, as we all know, the best way to discredit a deity is to stick the "m" word onto His or Her exploits.
Bart Ehrman takes on these mythicists and discredits them ... actually trounces them soundly, using logical, fact-based arguments. But in doing so, in establishing the existence of a real historical figure named Jesus of Nazareth, Professor Ehrman doesn't do the Christian religion any favors. As the author notes, "Jesus would not recognize himself in the preaching of most of his followers today."
Actually, the historical Jesus wouldn't recognize anything about himself in the actions of his followers today, because (as this book explains in refreshing detail), Jesus didn't anticipate the future lasting longer than his lifetime. He was an "apocalypse now" preacher who saw himself as the head of the table in the aftermath of a Rapture that was scheduled to occur before he died. Then, counter to all expectations, he died.
Like many a stripling before me, I used to sit in church, through long, boring sermons of which I can remember nothing. I used to wonder how much of the Bible was real, and how much was made up. (Most of it is made up.) But I never doubted that Jesus was a historical person, mostly for the same reasons that Professor Ehrman discusses in his book: There are just too many sources of somewhat-overlapping data about Jesus, from too many different individuals.
Turns out I was pretty good at honing in on the human Jesus, even as a kid. It seemed to me that Jesus held a high opinion of himself (in my view to the point of megalomania), and all that humility and suffering to save the world was grafted onto a slender stalk of reality at a later date. Did Jesus Exist? may not arrive at this conclusion out-and-out, but the scholarly parsing of the oldest texts does give us evidence of a charismatic human being who came to believe his own press releases to the point of reckless public behavior.
So, while Did Jesus Exist was out-of-the-box reading for me, it was a worthwhile endeavor. I'm not surprised that this author has drawn the ire of the fundamentalist movement, because he has discovered what's really fundamental in Jesus' ministry ... emmm ... awkward.
As a postscript I'll add that I also believe King Arthur was a historical figure, or at least a series of historical figures from a particular moment in the history of the British Isles. Believing as I do in King Arthur, I'm glad there aren't texts like The Gospel of Lancelot, written within a century of Arthur's passing and then revised by hidden hands here and there as fashion and necessity dictated. A little knowledge is not always a bad thing when it comes to poking holes in your heroes.