Coming out in defense of the claim that Jesus was a historical figure who did in fact exist is Barth Ehrman. Some might find this surprising since Ehrman is better known as the chief nemesis of conservative Christian scholars. His books include Misquoting Jesus and Forged: Why the Bible's authors are not who we think they are. Ehrman is a former evangelical turned agnostic. But he is also the author of a new book Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012) in which he lays out the historical evidence for Jesus.
Ehrman was interviewed for All Things Considered on NPR recently about the book and mythicism. Here is some of what he had to say.
"It was a surprise to me to see how influential these mythicists are," Ehrman says. "Historically, they've been significant and in the Soviet Union, in fact, the mythicist view was the dominant view, and even today, in some parts of the West - in parts of Scandinavia — it is a dominant view that Jesus never existed," he says.
Mythicists' arguments are fairly plausible, Ehrman says. According to them, Jesus was never mentioned in any Roman sources and there is no archeological evidence that Jesus ever existed. Even Christian sources are problematic - the Gospels come long after Jesus' death, written by people who never saw the man.
"Most importantly," he explains, "these mythicists point out that there are Pagan gods who were said to die and rise again and so the idea is that Jesus was made up as a Jewish god who died and rose again."
In his book, Ehrman marshals all of the evidence proving the existence of Jesus, including the writings of the apostle Paul.
"Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did," Ehrman says. "If Jesus didn't exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed," he says.
In Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman builds a technical argument and shows that one of the reasons for knowing that Jesus existed is that if someone invented Jesus, they would not have created a messiah who was so easily overcome.
"The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies - and so if you're going to make up a messiah, you'd make up a powerful messiah," he says. "You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and the killed by the enemies."
You can read some of the interview here and you can also listen to the ten minute interview. At the end the interviewer even asks Ehrman about his own relationship with Jesus. Whether you read the book or not, the interview is worth hearing.