The Importance of Reading Well: Michael Paulkovich, Bart Ehrman, and the Existence of Jesus

Sometimes talking to Mythicists1 is like talking to pop-apologists. Both groups tend to be poorly read, overly dogmatic, and have a penchant for misunderstanding – willingly or not – historian Bart Ehrman. This kinship with pop-apologists is one of many reasons I don’t typically engage Mythicists on social media. Honestly, it’s a waste of my time. But I made an exception (kinda-sorta) recently on Twitter. 

I stumbled across a thread wherein Michael Paulkovich, a former engineer with NASA and author of Beyond the Crusades,2 claimed that the city of Nazareth from which Jesus purportedly came (Mark 1:9) did not exist during the early part of the first century CE. 

I’ve seen this sort of claim on social media before and it is quite obviously wrong. But this isn’t a post about the existence of Nazareth during the time of Jesus and so both of my readers will need to look elsewhere as to why Mythicists are wrong on this point.3 In any event, in the context of the thread, Paulkovich posted4 about René Salm’s The Myth of Nazareth published in 2008.5 In response to this, Twitter user @Elishabenabuya made the statement that Bart Ehrman had “convinced [him] that [Salm’s] book was only fit for a mythicist’s bookshelf” and included a screenshot from a post Ehrman had written on the subject.6 

In response to this, Paulkovich tweeted this: 

What Paulkovich is essentially implying is that Ehrman believes that there was no historical Jesus and claimed as much in his writings. But then with the publication of his 2012 book Did Jesus Exist?7 he makes a public-facing turnaround because, in Paulkovich’s words, Ehrman “knows on which side his bread is buttered.” He makes this even more apparent in this tweet: 

So, for years Ehrman claimed Jesus never existed. Since 2012, he has apparently reversed course to keep his job at the UNC Chapel Hill. 

Frustrated with Paulkovich’s claim, I tweeted out the following: 

He, of course, disagreed. 

Color me skeptical, but I have my doubts that Paulkovich has read Ehrman’s books, at least not for any other reason than to quote mine. (In fact, the quote that he provides from Ehrman is a prime example of this!)

The question before us, then, is this: Did Bart Ehrman really teach Jesus never existed only to change his mind – duplicitously so – with his 2012 work on the historical Jesus? Is Paulkovich right or is this yet another example of how poorly read so many Mythicists tend to be? To answer those questions, let’s look at just three of Ehrman’s works that were published prior to 2012.

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999)

The first volume we’ll consider is perhaps one of his best known works – Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.8 It should almost go without saying that on the basis of the title alone one could infer that Ehrman believed in the existence of Jesus. After all, a non-existent person could not be an “apocalyptic prophet,” at least not in any historical sense. But even if the title was not somewhat of a dead giveaway, the contents themselves point the way. On p. 3, Ehrman writes that “[t]he thesis of this book is that [the belief in the imminent End of the world] is as ancient as the Christian religion itself, that it can be traced all the way back to the beginning, to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth” (emphasis added). Such a feat would be hard to do if you believed such a figure never existed. 

What about their reliability? On p. 86 Ehrman asks, “Are these books [i.e., the Gospels] reliable for reconstructing what Jesus actually said and did?” (Note here the assumption of Jesus’s historicity.) To answer that question, Ehrman lays out some “rules of thumb” including the importance of early sources (pp. 87-88), the general unreliability of theologically saturated accounts (pp. 88-89), and the problem of bias (p. 89). Following this, he discusses three criteria for evaluating historical sources: independent attestation (pp. 90-91), dissimilarity (pp. 91-94), and contextual credibility (pp. 94-95). He then writes, 

We know that Christians were modifying and inventing stories about Jesus, and that our written sources preserve both historically reliable information and theologically motivated accounts. In light of this situation, the traditions that we can most rely on historically are those that are independently attested in a number of sources, that do not appear to have been created in order to fulfill a need in the early Christian community, and that make sense in light of a first-century Palestinian context (pp. 95-96, emphasis added)

While we can and should debate the utility of these criteria, it is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. The main point is that Ehrman in this volume believes that the Gospels are not so unreliable that from them we can not yield a harvest of useful information about the historical Jesus. Nor are they so reliable that they can be trusted on every single point. As with any ancient source, responsible historians exercise caution when making use of them. 

So, what does Ehrman think is knowable about the historical Jesus from the Gospels (apart from his death)? He thinks that Jesus was likely born a Jew and raised in Nazareth (p. 98), that his parents were also from Nazareth and were named Joseph and Mary (pp. 98-99), that he had brothers and sisters (p. 99), that he spoke Aramaic and had a rudimentary education (pp. 99-100), and that he probably worked as an apprentice in the same line of work as his father, i.e., a tektōn (p. 100). All of this, Ehrman believes, can be mined from the Gospels and accepted as relatively certain historically. 

On the basis of just a brief survey of this volume we would be well within our rights to deny Paulkovich’s claims about Ehrman’s position on the historical Jesus prior to 2012. But why stop there?

The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, second edition (2000)

The next volume we’ll look at is the second edition of Ehrman’s introduction to the New Testament published by Oxford University Press.10 I was unable to track down a copy of the first edition but the second edition, having been published well over a decade before Did Jesus Exist?, suffices for our point. It should be noted, however, that the preface to the first edition appears in this edition of the volume and in it  Ehrman states explicitly, “I am interested…in the life of the historical Jesus” (p. xxi). 

Ehrman devotes ch. 13 of this introduction to the subject of the historical Jesus and queries the reliability of the accounts found in the canonical Gospels and reiterates many of the points he made in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. He notes the various ways in which the Gospels are problematic and even unreliable writing that “in no case…can we simply ignore the problems of our sources and accept everything they say about Jesus’s words and deeds as historically accurate. Once it is acknowledged that these Gospels are historically problematic, then the problems must be dealt with in a clear and systematic fashion” (p. 201). From there, he reiterates the “rules of thumb” mentioned in the previous book we looked at as well as the criteria for historical authenticity. In ch. 16, Ehrman presents his take on Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, writing that on the basis of various historical criteria “I should think that we would be justified in thinking that Jesus must have been an apocalypticist in some sense of the term” and that “we know beyond any reasonable doubt what happened at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and we know what happened in its aftermath” (p. 231). 

So, does this evidence stand in favor of Paulkovich’s claims about Ehrman’s position on the historical Jesus prior to 2012? Not hardly. 

Jesus, Interrupted (2009)

The final volume we’ll briefly look at is Ehrman’s 2009 volume Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them).11 I chose this volume because in a tweet Paulkovich responded to @potentialtheism by telling him to read chapter five of this book because in it “Ehrman goes on and on not just about how unreliable the gospels are, but how NO OTHER WRITER of the first century mentions him.” He specifically singles out a quote from p. 148 wherein Ehrman says, “In no first-century Greek or Roman (pagan) source is Jesus mentioned.”

What is absolutely hilarious here is how poor Paulkovich’s reading skills truly are. Though he calls attention to ch. 5 of Jesus, Interrupted, it is painfully clear that he hasn’t read this particular chapter very well. In the very first paragraph, Ehrman talks about emails he had received from Sweden from people asking him if he truly believed Jesus never existed. He writes, 

I thought this was an odd question. Several years ago I had written a book about the historical Jesus, indicating what ancient sources give us information about his life and outlining what I thought we could say about the things he said and did. Not only did I think there was a historical Jesus, I also thought we could make historically credible statements about him (p. 139, emphasis added)

Despite Paulkovich’s bluster that Ehrman spent years writing about how Jesus never existed or that there was no evidence for his existence, Ehrman is quite clear that he not only believes in a historical Jesus but there is evidence to support just such a conclusion! And what are among those sources? The Gospels! And while Paulkovich is correct that Ehrman shows how unreliable these sources can be, Ehrman is quite clear that they are not so hopelessly: “How can sources like this be used to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus? It’s not easy, but there are ways” (p. 144). 

So much for Paulkovich. 


In his tweets, Paulkovich makes the claim that Ehrman is a duplicitous actor, advocating for Jesus’s nonexistence in volumes prior to 2012 and then, with the publication of Did Jesus Exist?, advocating for the opposite. It is especially biting because he implies in not so subtle terms that Ehrman does so to retain employment with UNC Chapel Hill. But Paulkovich’s assertion is not only baseless, it rests on either a deliberate misreading and cherry picking of Ehrman’s work or an historically ignorant consideration of it. Given how often Paulkovich has repeated this falsehood and been corrected, I’m inclined to believe it is the former. And who knows? Maybe he perpetuates this falsehood because, to use his own words, Paulkovich knows on which side his Mythicist bread is buttered. 


1 For the purposes of this post, a Mythicist is someone who believes that there was no historical Jesus of Nazareth. There are many varieties of Mythicism but the one with which I am most familiar is represented by Richard Carrier and his ilk. 

2  Michael Paulkovich, Beyond the Crusades: Christianity’s Lies, Laws and Legacy, third edition (American Atheist Press, 2016). I have not read this volume and so will not comment on its contents. 

3  See Tim O’Neill, “Jesus Mythicism 5: The Nazareth ‘Myth’” (10.30.19),

4  I can’t pull up the tweet, in part because Paulkovich has now blocked me. Darn.

5  René Salm, The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus (American Atheist Press, 2008).

6  See Bart D. Ehrman, “Did Nazareth Even Exist in the Days of Jesus? The Weird Claims of Rene Salm” (4.16.22),

7  Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012). 

8  Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

9  The term likely refers to one who was a builder, thus many translations render tektōn as “carpenter.” I prefer “construction worker.”

10  Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

11  Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them, electronic edition (HarperCollins, 2009).


1 thought on “The Importance of Reading Well: Michael Paulkovich, Bart Ehrman, and the Existence of Jesus

  1. Ha! So, to sum up: Paulkovich subjects some of Ehrman’s work to motivated eisegesis, attributes a specific position to Ehrman that Ehrman has never espoused, then smears Ehrman for abandoning this position for pecuniary gain.

    Not terribly rational, gotta say. And rather bad form.

    Liked by 1 person

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