If it’s an important Christian occasion, you can predict National Public Radio will seek out an atheist expert. In 2008, NPR marked Good Friday by interviewing John Dominic Crossan, who believed the body of Jesus was not resurrected, but was perhaps eaten by wild dogs.
On Palm Sunday, NPR found it was the perfect day for atheist scholar Bart Ehrman, who has a new book out titled "Did Jesus Exist?" NPR weekend All Things Considered anchor Guy Raz was a big fan: “There are probably few people in the world who know more about the life of Jesus than Bart Ehrman. He's a New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where his lectures are among the most popular on campus.” Raz was such a fan he even told Ehrman later that he had bought his lectures on tape:
RAZ: My guest is Bart Ehrman. He's a professor of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill, and he's got a new book out. It's called "Did Jesus Exist?" And if you're wondering what the answer is, it is yes. Bart, I - a few years ago, I downloaded a series of lectures that, you know, are available on these - like, you see these ads in magazines. Great courses, right?
And I downloaded your series of lectures on the life of the historical Jesus. And a lot of people listening will know you. I mean, you are the guy. You're the expert on the life of the historical Jesus. So how are we able to build as accurate an account of his life from the existing material?
Ehrman started from the premise that Jesus existed, but the Bible is junk. Raz coyly began the segment by saying “Ehrman’s not a particularly religious man,” which is like saying that a nudist is "not particularly clothed." It gets more honest as it goes along:
EHRMAN: One of the things I argue is that historians come away with a different view of Jesus from what is popular in the wider culture so that Jesus doesn't really look like the Jesus you might have learned about in Sunday School or that you hear from a televangelist.
RAZ: You say he wouldn't recognize himself if he heard that.
EHRMAN: No, he wouldn't.
RAZ: You write that in the book.
EHRMAN: He most definitely would not recognize himself if he turned on TV on Sunday morning. Jesus, according to the majority of scholars in North America, Europe, was some kind of Jewish apocalyptic prophet, by which, I mean that Jesus believed he was living in an evil age controlled by the forces of evil but that God was soon going to intervene to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a good kingdom on Earth, a good utopian kingdom where there'd be no more pain, misery or suffering, and this cataclysmic break in history was going to happen within his own generation.
In short, Jesus was a delusional man, and not God. Jesus had a very poor idea of history. NPR doesn't see any need for debate on this matter. NPR's fan-boy anchors don't even politely suggest what Christians might offer as a rebuttal. It's just an offering of free publicity (with the financial support of many God-fearing taxpayers).
RAZ: We are, of course, speaking on Palm Sunday, Bart. And as a scholar, how do you sort of begin to assess and analyze what you think is true and what you don't think is true?
EHRMAN: Yes. Well, at this point, the mythicists [those who argue Jesus was invented] have some right things to say. The Gospels do portray Jesus in ways that are nonhistorical. There is absolutely non-historical material in the Gospels as we know because there are contradictions in the Gospels and discrepancies in the Gospels and completely implausible events in the Gospels.
As an example, the idea that's being celebrated on Palm Sunday that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and all the crowds came out crying out hosanna, the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, celebrating the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem, if that had really happened the way it's described in the Gospels, there's no way to explain why the Romans didn't have Jesus arrested on the spot. In the Gospels, Jesus spends another week in Jerusalem preaching to the crowds. But anybody who calls himself a messiah is making a political statement.
RAZ: He would have been arrested right away.
EHRMAN: He would have been arrested right away. And so, probably, the event would've been a much smaller, toned down version from what you get in the Gospels. Jesus certainly came to Jerusalem the last week of his life, and he ended up being crucified there. There's no doubt about that. But the way it's celebrated in the Gospels, simply, is not plausible historically.
RAZ: Bart, a lot of people listening will know you as a well-known scholar of early Christianity. You are controversial - I should point this out - because you are something of a lapsed Christian yourself. You've been described as an agnostic. Is that fairly accurate?
EHRMAN: Yes, that's right.
RAZ: So what is your relationship with Jesus about? I mean, is it historian to historical figure? Is there any part of it that is spiritual?
EHRMAN: Most of it is historical. Jesus is the most important figure in the history of Western civilization. And so people ask me, well, why would you be interested in somebody you don't believe in? I mean, he's tremendously important. So...
RAZ: I mean, is Jesus to you [is] what Lincoln is to Doris Kearns Goodwin, or - I mean, you know? (Laughter)
EHRMAN: To a large extent. Although I must say that I continue to be attracted by the teachings of Jesus. Jesus' teachings of love and mercy and forgiveness, I think, really should dominate our lives, that it really is better to love your neighbor as yourself. On the personal level, I agree with many of the ethical teachings of Jesus, and I try to model my life on them, even though I don't agree with the apocalyptic framework in which they were put.
In other words, in public he will proclaim he favors "many of the ethical teachings" of Jesus that match his liberal beliefs. But he doesn't agree with the "apocalyptic framework" that Jesus is God. The Jesus-is-a-myth people were only wrong in that pagans would have had a superhero narrative:
RAZ: You contend that had he actually been invented by pagans at the time, they would have turned him into this powerful figure of grandeur that was like shooting laser beams out of his...
RAZ: ...his fingers rather than a man who was crucified.
EHRMAN: 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.
RAZ: Like a superhero.
EHRMAN: A superhero. You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and then killed by the enemy.
A religion built on a crucified carpenter is not exactly a compelling narrative -- unless it became to many millions of people an inspiration of self-sacrifice to imitate. NPR did not wonder if Jesus is "the most important figure in the history of Western civilization," that this might be the handiwork of the Holy Spirit, inspiring such devotion that believers would go to the lions for their savior. If Jesus Christ were a transient myth, why are there still two billion Christians? But atheists don't get questioned on NPR. They are honored.