latest book takes on one of my biggest pet peeves: the skeptical "cottage industry," as he calls it, that suggests Jesus was a fictional character (Ehrman, like virtually every other scholar of antiquity on the planet, calls this nonsense).
I haven't read Ehrman's book yet (it's being released tomorrow), but his introduction is available at the link above. What I look forward to most is Ehrman setting out for a popular audience a thorough understanding of the term μῦθος, most often translated as "myth" today. In just his introduction, he takes aim at the so-called "mythicists" who claim Jesus was only a myth and not a historical person:
"The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be 'mythicists' -- that is, those who believe that Jesus is a myth. Rarely do mythicists define what they mean by the term myth, a failure that strikes scholars of religion as both unfortunate and highly problematic, since in technical scholarship the term has come to mean many things over the years."
Indeed. When I teach mythology to college freshmen, the first week or two is always occupied with defining this difficult term. Most students think it means "something that isn't true," or an "explanation of something" for the ancients that no longer satisfies a modern mind. Some of those meanings can, indeed, be found in the ancient literature. By the time of the material I study, the prose "fictional" narratives of late antiquity, it has come to mean "a fable," much in the talking-animal, Aesopian sense. But the relation between "myth," even in this sense, and "truth" can be the subject of a dissertation (ahem, mine, to be precise), so it's hardly as simplistic as this literature points out.
This isn't new material for Ehrman. Anyone who has heard his lectures or his entertaining take-down of "The Infidel Guy" on YouTube should know his position on the historical Jesus.
In light of those prior remarks, I also expect Ehrman to address what any scholar of antiquity knows: that to contend that Jesus did not exist, with the arguments often used, is to eradicate from existence pretty much any major figure from antiquity. Skeptical "mythicists" often use a methodology I have never seen used by scholars of antiquity. They argue, often on the model of Lord Ragland's scale -- a popular tool for freshman mythology courses but not really one in scholarly use today -- that any figure layered with legend, myth, and fantastical narrative, must necessarily have been invented. This of course overlooks the fact that authors wrote such narratives about historical figures all the time: were we to subject Alexander the Great to this same model, he would probably be deemed purely fictional.
What's particularly galling about this claim about Jesus is that it's so unnecessary. There are plenty of things to critique with respect to Christianity, even with respect to Christianity and history. Just read Ehrman's other books. To stake out such a sensationalist claim, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, merely puts one on par with holocaust-deniers, anti-evolutionists, and those who think the moon landing was film-reel hoax.
Yet persistent the claim remains, which is why Ehrman says he wrote this book. One of the most popular iterations of this industry is the documentary "The God Who Wasn't There," a particularly unfortunate hatchet job that, while trying to humiliate believing Christians by showing their ignorance of ancient deities like Bacchus and Mithras, itself butchers their mythology considerably.
I'm no Christian apologist, as anyone who has read this blog knows, but in the same way I'm averse to the pseudo-intellectual shell games often played by them with respect to the Bible and Christianity, that same aversion should be aimed by any honest scholar toward those polemicists who, in equal fervor for their distaste for Christianity, propagate bad scholarship, ironically in the name of enlightenment.
I'm glad to see Ehrman is just that sort of scholar.