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: 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.
For about the last century, the majority of scholars in Europe and North America have agreed that the earliest gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, do contain historically reliable information.