Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians once counted biblical scholar Bart Ehrman among their number. But Ehrman eventually became an agnostic, and many of his former brethren have found fault in his bestselling books that question common beliefs about Jesus Christ, Scripture, and the early days of Christianity.
His newest book has turned some of his perennial critics into fans, at least temporarily. In "Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth," Ehrman decimates the persistent arguments of those who not only deny the divinity of Jesus but insist that no such man ever even existed.
In an interview, I asked Ehrman about the motives of the "mythicists," the evidence supporting the existence of Jesus, and his own spiritual beliefs.
Q: As you explain in your book, many mythicists continue to try to debunk the very existence of Jesus Christ. What's the motivation of those who try to turn Jesus into an imaginary figure?
A: It's been a bit of a mystery. I don't have a solid answer, but I have a hunch. It's based on the fact that everybody who’s a mythicist is a very strong agnostic or, more typically, a hard-core atheist.
And virtually [all mythicists are] diehard opponent[s] of organized religion. They think it's done so much harm in the world, not just crusades and inquisitions, but by supporting slavery and racism and sexism and so forth.
These people, who are quite strongly opposed to religion, live in a culture where the dominant religion is Christianity. These people think that by showing Christianity is founded on a myth, they can show that it's in fact a fairy tale not worthy of belief.
Q: How influential are these people?
A: They are not influential among scholars of antiquity, historians of the ancient world, classicists, and biblical scholars. There, they've made virtually no impact.
Where they have made an impact is in popular circles, especially with the advent of the Internet. There is an increasing following of these people on the Internet, and a number of them have written books that have sold a lot of copies.
Q: Does the existence of Jesus matter for people who aren't Christian?
A: For people who have allegiance at all to Jesus, whether they consider themselves Christian or consider him an ethical teacher, it matters whether he existed or not.
I myself am an agnostic, and one would ask why would it matter to me.
The answer is that history really matters. It's important that we not rewrite it as the way we want it to be. Once we give people that license, it can lead to all sorts of dangerous political and social implications. It's important to get history right even if it's something that we're not that concerned about.
The second thing is that whether we're Christian or not, there's no doubt that Christianity is the most important phenomenon in Western civilization. Jesus stands at the foundation of Christianity and the Christian church. It's important to understand Jesus.
Q: Why has this book been popular among fundamentalist Christians, who have criticized your conclusions in the past?
A: I actually argue for a position that they would be comfortable with, although I do so on grounds that many wouldn't be familiar with.
Most accept Jesus because they have a personal relationship with him, so of course he exists. I approach it as a historian, looking at how a historian would go about establishing that he exists. Just by doing work as a historian, we can show that Jesus existed.
Q: What about historical evidence of his miracles and his divinity?
A: History only deals with matters that cannot invoke supernatural causality. That’s simply the nature of historic evidence.
Q: Many biblical scholars believe that the canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – weren't written by anyone who personally knew Jesus. Does that make it difficult to rely on them as historical narratives of what really happened?
A: Scholars have worked on this problem for a very long time, starting in the 1770s. We're talking about a discipline that’s hundreds of years old.
And the majority of scholars have believed that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist. Jesus believed there were forces of evil that were in charge of this world, and that's why there's so much pain and suffering, but God would soon intervene to overthrow the forces of evil. Jesus probably expected this to happen within his own lifetime or his disciples' lifetimes.
Q: What’s your next book about?
A: My next popular book is about how Jesus became God. How do we get within a hundred years from this apocalyptic prophet who was preaching his message in Galilee to someone who's considered the second member of the Trinity?
Q: I'm curious about your status as an agnostic. I wonder if it's similar to being a political moderate who gets accused by both conservatives and liberals of really being on the other side.
A: For many years, I was a conservative evangelical Christian. At the time, I thought agnostics and atheists were basically the same thing.
It wasn't until I became an agnostic that I realized that atheists basically think agnostics are wimpy atheists, that they don't have the guts to go all the way. And agnostics think that atheists are arrogant.
Q: What do religious people think of agnostics?
A: There's hope because they don't know the answer, and Christians are happy to tell them so they can learn the truth.
Q: Why not become an atheist yourself?
A: I don't know whether there's a superior being. I prefer to call myself an agnostic because it simply acknowledges what I don't know.
Also, I think that given the vastness and awe-inspiring nature of the universe, it does deserve a little bit of humility.
(For more about biblical scholarship, check my recent Christian Science Monitor interview with Elaine Pagels, author of the new book "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.")
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.