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Religion in the News: Dating Jesus’ Death by the Earthquake

Geologists claim now that they have established the date of Jesus’ death. It was April 3, 33 CE. Thus: Jesus 'died on Friday, April 3, 33AD', claim researchers, who tie earthquake data with the gospels to find the date For those who don’t know, the date of Jesus’ death has long been in dispute. The reality is, we are not sure when Jesus was executed (i.e., what year). It almost certainly happened during a Passover feast during the reign of Pontius Pilate as the Prefect of Judea. His rule lasted between 26-36 CE. All of our early Gospel accounts agree that the crucifixion happened on a Friday. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this Friday was the day after the Passover meal was eaten (and so, technically, it was still “Passover Day; see Mark 14:12). According to John the Friday was the day before it was eaten – on the day of Preparation for the Passover (John 19:14). But which year was it? FOR THE REST OF THIS POST, log in and access the membership [...]

The Life of a Professional Scholar 9: Editorial Work, Journals (2)

In addition to serving on an editorial board and participating, chiefly, in reading and evaluating journal submissions for publication, there is the task – a far more onerous, time consuming, and significant task – of editing a journal.   I have never had the desire to be the chief editor of a major journal; like a lot of my colleagues, I see my contributions to the field coming in from other directions.   But I have been an associate editor and have seen what editing a journal involves first hand.  It involves a lot. The editor has numerous jobs and responsibilities.  All submissions comes to the editor, who decides on which established scholar(s) should evaluate them for possible publication (the peer-review process).   The editor normally has the final say, based on a careful reading of the article and of the readers’ reports.   The editor is responsible for putting together each issue of the journal, deciding what can fit in and when each article should appear.   (Normally, from the time an article is accepted for publication until it [...]

At the Beach (3): Thinking Yet More of Books

As with a lot of scholars, books seem to make up my life. Books I’ve read, books I’ve studied, books I’ve revered, books I’ve scorned (my favorite professor in graduate school used to say: “Any fool can write a big book. And many have!”). There are also the books I’ve written and books I’ve edited; books my relations have written and edited (e.g., my brother, a Latin scholar at Kent State University; and Sarah, whose books are amazing for their erudition); books my friends have written and edited. Nearly all my friends are scholars. And all of them have written books. (My one really close friend who is not a scholar is Robert Miller – and he is my editor for Oxford University Press! He happens to live in Chapel Hill, and we have been close for many years; his wife Silvia is an editor as well –at Routledge Press in NYC when I first met her, and now at UNC Press in Chapel Hill). To access the rest of this post, log in as [...]

2020-04-03T19:41:47-04:00May 29th, 2012|Reflections and Ruminations|

Question: Would I Be Personally Devastated if the Mythicists Were Right?

QUESTION: Was also wondering - and maybe you addressed this in your book ... would you feel an emotionally traumatic disappointment if it was conclusively proved that Jesus was indeed a mythical figure? In all honesty how would you feel if it were true beyond a doubt that all the arguments the 'mythicists' have presented were found to be correct (or mostly correct) regarding his assumed existence? This question is not meant to be offensive or unnecessarily provoking - I'm just curious. RESPONSE: I don’t address this in the book, and I think it is a terrific question! The reason I do is this. I think every historian of religion who makes a case for one thing or another needs to be queried: what is at stake for you in the matter? For example, I have participated a number of public debates with conservative evangelical Christian scholars who have wanted to insist that they can PROVE, historically, that Jesus was raised from the dead. Now I should state with vigor and emphasis – the only [...]

2020-04-03T19:41:56-04:00May 28th, 2012|Historical Jesus, Mythicism, Reader’s Questions|

At the Beach (2): Reflecting on Books

One of my favorite parts of the beach (in addition to the walks, the eating, the drinking, the talking, the sleeping) is thinking about books. The novels I’m reading, the books I’m writing. The books I learn about from Sarah and Dale. What I pick up from these two is really something. Sarah in particular is a voracious reader; I’ve never met anyone or seen anything like it before. This week she is reading through the novels of Elizabeth Taylor (not the American actress! The British novelist, who wrote twelve, evidently amazing, novels). And the nice thing about Sarah is that I almost never can read a book she hasn’t read. This week I was devouring Vanity Fair. Oh yes, she was examined on it for her Alevels (back when she was, like 17, before heading off to read English at Oxford. And yes, she can still talk about it….) Among other things, since this beach holiday always comes at the end of the school year, I spend some time thinking back over what I’ve [...]

2020-05-27T16:26:19-04:00May 27th, 2012|Book Discussions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Personal Reflections: At the Beach

I have decided to make some personal posts about the things I’m up to and doing, especially, but not exclusively, as they relate to Christianity in Antiquity. I’m seeing this as a kind of public diary/extended-twitter sort of thing. I’m not sure if it’ll be of any interest to anyone. If not, well, no one has to read it! I’ve spent the past ten days at the beach with two of my best friends. One of them happens to be my wife, Sarah; the other is Dale Martin, one of the country’s top New Testament scholars, senior professor at Yale, who years ago introduced Sarah and me when he (and Sarah) were both teaching at Duke. Sarah lived across the street from Dale in Durham, I lived in Chapel Hill. (This was 1996.) Dale thought we might be interested in each other, and introduced us, thinking it might lead to a wild weekend. He had no idea that it would turn out like this. For the rest of this post, please log in. If you [...]

2020-04-03T19:42:23-04:00May 26th, 2012|Bart’s Biography, Reflections and Ruminations|

Personal Reflections Page

I have decided to include a new category on my blog (available for members only) for personal reflections. This will give me a chance to talk about things that are happening in my life. Most of the time there will be a close, or, well, more-or-less close, tie in to the themes of the rest of the blog: the study of Christianity in Antiquity. But these comments will be more personal in nature. At this point, I’m imagining it to have more of an “extended-twitter” feel to it. I can understand that some people may simply not be interested. To those people, let me say: Don’t read these posts! For anyone who is interested, feel free to ask me about anything I post, and I will be happy to elaborate.

2016-02-05T22:57:21-05:00May 25th, 2012|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Life of a Professional Scholar 8: Editorial Work, Journals (1)

    One aspect of the life of a professional scholar, which may not be well known to the general public, involves editorial work.   For some scholars, this kind of work takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort, although much of the work, and many of the hours, are not transparent or evident to outsiders.  I have done a lot of editorial work over the years, but I do not think that my case is at all exceptional.  A lot of my colleagues have done less, but some have done a good deal more.  Many scholars see editorial work as a major component of “service” to the discipline.  Which means that, for the most part, it is really important but normally thankless! As is my wont I will use my own experience as a guideline for describing this kind of work, since it is really the only experience I know much about in excruciating detail.   I will devote three posts to the matter, two (including this one) dealing with editorial work involving academic / [...]

2020-04-03T19:42:34-04:00May 25th, 2012|Bart's Critics, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Question on How We Got the Canon of the New Testament

QUESTION: I just read Jesus, Interrupted … and have now seen that you have written quite a few books and articles. I am particularly interested in how the books of the New Testament were chosen and why/how the others were not. Can you recommend a good read for this?   RESPONSE: Ah, this is one of the BIG questions of early Christian studies! I have been interested in it for over 35 years. My first PhD seminar in graduate school was devoted to just this question, and I started thinking about it years even before that! I do address the question in several of my books. As you know from having just read Jesus Interrupted, I devote a good chunk of chapter 6 to it; in particular it is the overarching subject of Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (that book is my long version of the answer!). FOR THE REST of my response, log in!  If you don't belong, please join today! It only takes a small contribution [...]

2020-04-03T19:42:44-04:00May 24th, 2012|New Testament Manuscripts, Reader’s Questions|

Undergraduate Courses (2): Introduction to the New Testament (Part 2)

Once students have come to see what the contents, characteristics, and emphases of each of the Gospels are, and have recognized that the Gospels cannot be taken as historically reliable accounts of what “really” happened in the life of Jesus, both because of their many discrepancies and because of historical implausibilities (as just two examples: Luke’s “census” that gets Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem; or the Triumphal Entry, where Jesus is publicly acclaimed messiah by the massive crowds and the authorities do nothing about it) – once students have recognized this, they are in a position to consider the criteria that scholars use to ferret out from sources such as these bona fide historical information. I stress with my students that the literary questions one brings to the Gospels are different from historical questions.  The literary questions are the ones we ask about the Gospels as works of literature: what they want to teach and what message they want to convey.  The historical questions are ones we ask about the Gospels as sources: what they [...]

2017-12-25T12:23:10-05:00May 22nd, 2012|Historical Jesus, Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

Did the Gospels Originally Contain Miracle Stories?

QUESTION: I have looked up the content of all the papyri I'm aware of (off of links on wikipedia, so who knows if they're accurate). It is my understanding that although p52, p90, and p104 are dated around 125-150 AD, they contain fragments of John 18 and Matt 21 only, and that it's not until 200 AD that manuscripts emerge which actually contain accounts of supernatural actions by Jesus. So, it's possible that accounts of miracles existed in copies that got destroyed, but is it fair to say that the earliest available copies of accounts of Jesus's supernatural actions date from around 200 AD? In other words, assuming people on average had kids by age 20 back then, and thus 20 years counts as a generation, is it fair to say that the earliest available accounts of miracles by Jesus were written by the great, great, great, great, great, great, grandson of somebody who would have been alive at the same time as Jesus?   RESPONSE: This is an interesting question!   It is true that we do not start getting [...]

Undergraduate Courses (1): Introduction to the New Testament (Part 1)

In my post on The Work of a Professional Scholar I gave a brief overview of the sorts of courses that I teach at UNC.  There is nothing particularly unusual about the courses I teach.  I have hundreds of friends and colleagues who teach classes on the New Testament and on Early Christianity around the country, and most of them have courses very similar to the ones I teach – so long as they are not teaching in a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical environment.  One difference among my friends and colleagues has to do with the teaching load.  At major research institutions such as UNC, the normal teaching load is relatively light – two courses a semester (for me that translates into one undergraduate lecture course and one PhD seminar each term; the seminars are much smaller, but they are also way, way more work!).   At smaller colleges the load may be as many as four or five courses each term.   Obviously the research expectations in that setting are much lower, just as the expectations [...]

2017-12-25T12:25:18-05:00May 20th, 2012|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

Why Did Jesus Go To Jerusalem?

QUESTION Just what did the historical Jesus think he was doing that last week in Jerusalem? It looks to me like he was working as hard as he could to get himself killed. If that's what he was doing, then why was he doing it?   RESPONSE Interesting question!  There have been scholars, of course, who have argued that this is precisely what Jesus was doing, that he went to Jerusalem in order to be crucified. It is interesting that those who take that view cover as wide a range of ideology and theology as you could possibly imagine.   Conservative Christian thinkers (from protestant fundamentalists to Roman Catholic theologians to … well, take your pick) have long thought that the point of the Jerusalem trip was in fact the crucifixion, since this was all part of God’s plan.   Jesus’ mission on earth was to be crucified; he went to Jerusalem to make it happen.   This is what I myself thought for many, many years. On the other side of the theological spectrum is someone like [...]

The Work of a Professional Scholar 7: Publishing in Academic Journals

The most obvious activity that professional scholars engage in is research, and the most obvious way research becomes known to a wider public is through publication. In some fields of inquiry (most of the sciences), the academic journal is the principal area of significant publication. In other fields (most of the humanities), academic books matter even more. But even in the humanities scholar typically publish in both venues. Books take a lot longer to write, but articles play an extremely important role both in disseminating knowledge – the results of research – and in providing grounds for a scholar’s academic tenure and promotion. The articles that scholars write – when they are writing as research scholars – are not the sort of thing that you would find in Time Magazine or Newsweek. Every field has its own set of academic, peer-reviewed journals (there are a large number in biblical studies in the U.S. and Europe); and every scholar who is active in his or her field or research publishes in them. These are not journals [...]

2020-04-03T19:43:07-04:00May 16th, 2012|Bart's Critics|

Question on Mistakes in Ancient Sources

QUESTION A question that has long bothered me insofar as NT history is concerned: How is it that authors from the times and places mentioned in the NT got historical facts wrong? Or, more to the point, how can we compare our relatively scant evidence to what would have been first-hand experience of these authors? Granted, in some cases there was some 'bending' going on to support major theological ideas; but in less-important cases it seems less likely that they would have gotten things wrong.   RESPONSE: This is a good question, one that my students ask a lot. In particular, how can scholars today think they know more about early Christianity than the early Christians themselves?  How can we know more about Jesus than the people of his own time? I think the answers can be fairly uncontroversial, when we think about it a bit. For one thing, all of us get things wrong, all the time, about matters within our own experience.   When my wife asks me for driving directions from Durham [...]

2020-04-03T19:43:15-04:00May 15th, 2012|Reader’s Questions|

Question about Eyewitnesses and the Gospels

Please Note: Normally I will be addressing questions that I receive in the members only site ("Bart Answers His Readers"). But occasionally I will post a question and answer here, in the Public Forum, to give a sense to everyone what sorts of things are available for anyone willing to give a bit to charity and to join the site. QUESTION One of the major points of your work (if I understand correctly) is that the contents of the New Testament are at a vast remove in time, place, and source from any eyewitness account of Jesus' life. But when I consider this point in my ignorance, and simply from the perspective of chronology (from the time of Jesus to the accounts in the earliest gospels), it seems to me that at least one very old eyewitness of Jesus' life might have been able to report a significant amount of information about Jesus and his teachings directly to, say, Mark. In view of this, I wonder how scholars know that no New Testament account of [...]

2013-11-08T22:52:22-05:00May 14th, 2012|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

The Work of a Professional Scholar 6: Getting the PhD

I sometimes get asked what it takes to become a professional scholar in the field of New Testament/early Christian studies. The answer, in short, is the same as for any academic discipline. It takes years of intense training. My own training in the field of New Testament studies was nothing at all unusual, but rather was fairly typical for someone in the field. What is unusual is that I knew that I wanted to pursue this kind of study already when I was in college. I started taking courses in New Testament as a 17-year old. For my foreign language requirement in college I took Greek, since I knew that I wanted to read the New Testament writings in their original language. I was pretty good at Greek and so, while still in college, decided that I wanted to be trained in the study of the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament. My beloved Greek professor at Wheaton College, Gerald Hawthorne, informed me that the leading scholar in that field was Bruce Metzger, who [...]

2020-04-03T19:43:24-04:00May 13th, 2012|Bart's Critics|

Did Jesus Exist? The Birth of a Divine Man

As most of the readers of this blog know by now, in my new book, Did Jesus Exist, I take on the claims made by that vociferous group of nay-sayers who call themselves “mythicists.” For those still not familiar with this rare breed, it comprises a growing cadre of writers – many of whom have published books (Acharya S [a.k.a D. M. Murdoch], Earl Doherty, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Tom Harpur, Robert Price, Thomas Thompson, and many others), and many more of whom are a loud presence on the Internet (as you can see for yourself; just do a couple of obvious Google searches) – who all claim that Jesus of Nazareth did not actually exist, but that he was invented by the early Christians out of whole cloth to be a savior, comparable to the divine men “known” in pagan religions. In my book I show why this view is completely wrong. Whether we like it or not (some of us do, some of us don’t) Jesus certainly existed. What he was like [...]

2020-04-03T19:43:30-04:00May 11th, 2012|Historical Jesus|

The Work of a Professional Scholar 5: Graduate Seminars

              In addition to my undergraduate classes, I teach one PhD seminar each semester.   We have a small but terrific graduate program in the Department of Religious Studies.   Students admitted each year are the cream of the crop.  Most of them come to us already with both an undergraduate and master’s degree, and we admit students (maybe 7-10 a year) in a range of fields: Islamic studies, Religion in the Americas, Asian Religions, Religion and Culture, Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and Ancient Mediterranean Religions. My area is Ancient Mediterranean Religions, which comprises religions of the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, Graeco-Roman Religions (i.e., “pagan” religions), ancient Judaism, and early Christianity (which includes the New Testament).    We have probably 35 or so applicants a year who want to study early Christianity with me and my brilliant colleague Zlatko Plese (who specializes in Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, Gnosticism, Coptic, and lots of other things).  Normally we can admit one or maybe two of these students.   So, as with all good graduate programs, competition to get [...]

2020-04-03T19:43:40-04:00May 9th, 2012|Bart's Critics, Teaching Christianity|

Dates of the Gospels

EMAIL QUESTION How are the dates that the Gospels were composed determined? I've read that Mark is usually dated to 70 or later because of the reference to the destruction of the temple. Is this the only factor that leads scholars to conclude that it was composed in 70 CE or later or are there other factors? I've heard that Luke and Matthew are likewise dated aroun 80-85 CE to give time for Mark to have been in circulation enough to be a source for them. Is this accurate? How is John usually dated to around 95 CE (or whatever the correct period is) since it is usually described as independent of the other Gospels? RESPONSE This is a great question, and one that I get asked a lot.  How do we actually know when the Gospels were written?   It is actually a difficult question to answer, but the things you’ve already read and heard cover some of the important territory. So let’s start on some basics that I think everyone can agree on.   (Well, [...]

2020-04-03T19:43:50-04:00May 7th, 2012|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|
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