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Finally! How To Understand the Symbols of Revelation

First let me apologize for being absent from the blog for three days.   As you probably know, the South got nailed with a storm on Wednesday evening.   Among other nasty things, it knocked my power out – and I was powerless, so to say, until yesterday (Friday) afternoon.   This wasn’t a *complete* disaster:  I had virtually nothing to do but sit in front of my fireplace and read books, and I read an *unconscionable* amount – more than I’ve read in any two-day period in my life!   That part was good.  But I was without access to email or Internet, and so the blog had to take a hit. But I’m back now and the future looks good. Speaking of the future, I wanted to make one more post on the book of Revelation.   Two questions I often get asked about it (including from readers of the blog) are whether the symbolism is meant to keep Roman authorities from understanding what was in the book in order to protect the author from persecution and whether [...]

2020-04-03T13:59:29-04:00February 28th, 2015|Revelation of John|

The Book of Revelation as an Apocalypse

I can now give a brief description of how the book of Revelation functions as an apocalypse – that is, how the features of the genre, that I’ve already mentioned, work themselves out in the narrative of the book.  Again, this is taken from my textbook on the New Testament. ******************************************************** In general terms, Revelation corresponds to the basic description of apocalypses that I have given.  It is a first-hand account written by a prophet who has been shown a vision of heaven that explains the realities of earth, a vision that is mediated by angels and that is chock-full of bizarre and mysterious symbolism.  The nature of the book is indicated at the outset, in the magnificent vision of the exalted Christ that the prophet describes in ch. 1.  Here Christ appears as "one like a Son of Man" (cf. Dan 7:13-14, where the phrase describes the cosmic judge of the earth) and is seen walking amidst the seven golden lampstands (i.e., he is present among the seven churches of Asia Minor, 1:20), with [...]

2020-04-03T13:59:37-04:00February 25th, 2015|Revelation of John|

The Book of Revelation in Historical Context

I resume here my thread on the book of Revelation, trying to situate it in its historical context.   This will not be a long thread, in no small measure because I am not an expert on this very complicated book and have not written extensively about it.  I’ve thought that maybe it would be a good trade book at some point, in which case I would spend a year or so reading everything.   And then I would have lots of other posts!  But if that happens, it will be some years down the line.  Assuming the world hasn’t been destroyed by that time. Here I talk about putting Revelation into its historical context.  Again, this is taken from my textbook on the New          Testament. ********************************************** The Revelation of John in Historical Context I have already pointed out that the book of Revelation is virtually unique among apocalypses in that it does not appear to be pseudonymous.  I say that it does not "appear" to be pseudonymous because the author simply calls [...]

2020-04-03T13:59:47-04:00February 23rd, 2015|Revelation of John|

On Debating a Fundamentalist

READER COMMENT: I just came across a post by Kyle Butt regarding your debate with him in 2014: He accuses you of “deception” and dishonesty. He says it is not credible that you spent much time writing books and going to debates, if it weren’t for the motive of convincing and persuading people that the Christian God doesn’t exist. He names you as someone who “has done as much or more than any single individual in modern times to destroy the Christian faith of literally thousands of people, young and old alike, across the globe.”   RESPONSE: Wow.  I didn’t know about Mr. Butt’s post.   It is virtually beyond belief.   If it weren’t so outrageously funny, I would find it completely outrageous. But look – maybe he doesn’t mean it seriously?  I mean, his rhetoric certainly seems serious.  But to say that I have “done as much or more than any single individual in modern times to destroy the Christian faith of literally thousands of people, young and old alike, across the globe” – [...]

2017-12-09T11:04:43-05:00February 21st, 2015|Bart's Critics, Public Forum, Reader’s Questions|

The Book of Revelation and the Apocalypse Genre

I’m devoting a thread to the book of Revelation and its interpretation.  This began by my raising the issue of what 666 stands for, which led me to say a few things about the symbolism of the book, which occasioned several comments from readers wanting to know what my broader take is on how to interpret it. Yesterday I began to stress the importance of knowing what an “apocalypse” is before trying to interpret any one particular apocalypse.   Today I pursue that a bit more, by talking about this genre which has numerous representatives in ancient Jewish and Christian writings.  Here is how I begin to describe the genre more fully in my textbook on the New Testament: ************************************************************ Despite their wide-ranging differences, our surviving apocalypses typically share specific literary features.  The most common of these are the following: Pseudonymity. Almost all of our ancient apocalypses were written pseudonymously, in the name of a famous religious person from the past (the book of Revelation, interestingly enough, is a rare exception). Among our surviving Jewish apocalypses [...]

2020-04-18T11:46:01-04:00February 20th, 2015|Forgery in Antiquity, Revelation of John|

Apocalypticism and Apocalypses

In the just finished thread I discussed the number of the Beast, 666, in the context of the book of Revelation and its broader symbolism.  In response, several readers asked me to say some more about Revelation (which by the ways does NOT have an “s” on the end!!  That’s one of my pet pieves.  It’s not the book of Revelations but the book of Revelation).  So I think I’ll do two or three posts on it.  It is the one book my students are *most* interested in.  The book is so weird, so unlike anything they’ve ever seen, that they assume that it can only have come about by  divine revelation, and that it is in fact predicting something that is to happen in our near future. I’m afraid that I end up disappointing my students by my understanding of the book.   I don’t think it is a blue-print for what is to transpire in the early 21st century.  It is a book written in its own day, and for its own audience, to [...]

2020-04-03T14:00:04-04:00February 20th, 2015|Early Judaism, Revelation of John|

666: The Number of the Beast

This post will be the culmination of my thread that deals with ancient numerology, especially as it is based on the fact that ancient languages used letters of the alphabets for their numbers, making it possible to add up the numerical equivalent of any word.   In this post I will explain how that relates to one of the great mysteries of the Bible, the identification of the Antichrist in the book of Revelation, whose number was 666. Yesterday’s post was meant as background to this brief discussion, and I’d suggest reading it first to make sense of what I’ll say here.  I also need to point out that this kind of numerological investigation was turned into a major interpretive method in Hebrew-speaking and –reading circles, since the inspired words of Scripture each had numerical equivalents, and one can always play with numbers.  The ancient interpreters who did such things were not “playing” of course.  It was a very serious and complex business.  This use of the numerical value of words in Hebrew, to help fathom [...]

2020-04-03T14:00:11-04:00February 18th, 2015|Revelation of John|

Symbolism in the Book of Revelation

I will soon conclude this thread dealing with the ancient use of letters of the alphabet for numerals by discussing the most famous instance of them all, the “number of the beast” in the Book of Revelation:  666.  What is this number referring to? I’ve decided that to make sense of this intriguing number, I need first to say a brief word about how the symbolism of the book works more generally.  My students usually think of the book of Revelation as an amazing one-of-a-kind book, unlike anything ever written, a blue print for the future of earth.   What they learn in class is that in fact it is a lot one-of-a-kind, but instead is like a number of ancient books, both Jewish and Christian, that are called “apocalypses.”   The term “apocalypse,” in this context, refers to a literary genre.   Like all genres, apocalypses had set literary features.  The reason Revelation seems so weird and unusual to readers today is that they are not familiar with the genre.  But there were numerous other books like [...]

2020-04-03T14:00:19-04:00February 17th, 2015|Revelation of John|

Creative Uses of Numbers in Scripture

Here I resume my interrupted thread on the use of letters as numbers in ancient languages.   As I had indicated earlier, Greek and Hebrew did not use a different system for their alphabets and their numerals, but the letters of the alphabet played double duty, so that each letter had a numerical value.  One pay-off of that system was that every word had a numerical value, discovered simply by adding up the letters.   In Greek, for example, the six letters in the name Jesus, Ιησους , add up to 888. Or another example: in Hebrew, the three letters in the name “David” (ancient Hebrew did not have vowels, only consonants), D-V-D were worth 4-6-4, so that the name added up to 14.   That may have been significant for the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 1:1-17), since, as Matthew presents it, Jesus, the “son of David” had a genealogical tree that can be organized around the number 14:  between the father of the Jews, Abraham, and the greatest king of the Jews, David, was 14 generations [...]

2020-04-03T14:00:26-04:00February 17th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Debates For A Price

QUESTION: Robert M. Price posted on his FB wall a few weeks ago that he was considering starting a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to debate Ehrman. Looks like things might be going ahead? Ehrman said on 'The Skeptic Fence' podcast a few months back that he'd be OK with debating Price. Reading between the lines, it looks like that they may made some sort of verbal agreement? Dr. Ehrman, are you aware of this challenge??   RESPONSE: Ha!  No, I’m afraid we haven’t made any kind of arrangement – Bob hasn’t said anything to me about this.  But before pursuing the matter, I should probably provide a little bit of background and context. For those of you who don’t know, Robert Price is a mythicist, one of those small minority of human beings who does not think Jesus actually existed.   In their opinion it is not simply that there are lots of myths and legends told about Jesus that are not historical; it is instead that the man himself never lived.  This is a [...]

2017-12-09T11:06:17-05:00February 14th, 2015|Mythicism, Public Forum|

Three Murders in Chapel Hill

As probably all of you know, we have experienced a heart-wrenching tragedy here in Chapel Hill, as three young, happy, and good Muslim students were murdered on Tuesday, point-blank, in their home.   The issue is tangential to the topics I normally deal with on the blog, but I did want to take time out to reflect a bit on what has happened. On Wednesday I did something that I’ve never done before in my 30 years of university teaching.   I blew off the lecture for the day and discussed the issue with my class of 240 students – giving them my thoughts about the matter, having one of my teaching assistants, a graduate student who is an expert in Islam, say a few words from his perspective, and, mainly, letting the undergraduate students emote and express their views and concerns and ask questions.  For many of the students it was a welcome catharsis. The big issue that is being posed in the newspapers – at least the local ones (less so the national ones, and [...]

2017-12-09T11:06:26-05:00February 13th, 2015|Public Forum, Religion in the News|

More on Greek Numerals

A member of the blog, Douglas Harder, was inspired by yesterday's post on how to make numbers in Greek, to come up with a full description and chart of how it works.  He sent it to me and gave me his approval to post it.  I think it is very clear and interesting.   So here is what he has come up with.  (In my next couple of posts I'll talk about how knowing this information matters for understanding some early Christian texts, including a curious passage in the letter of Barnabas and, then, the 666 -- the number of the Beast -- in the book of Revelation.) ************************************************************************ Greek numerals Like the Romans, the Greeks used letters to represent numbers.  An older pre-Hellenistic Greek alphabet had 27 characters, not 24, and this allowed them to create three groups of nine letters where the first nine represented the values 1 through 9, the next nine represented 10, 20, 30 up to 90, and the last nine represented 100, 200, 300 and up to 900. These [...]

2020-04-03T14:06:02-04:00February 11th, 2015|New Testament Manuscripts, Reader’s Questions|

How To Make Greek Numbers (!)

QUESTION: Listening to your Great Courses lesson on Greatest Controversies: you say Alpha and Omega adds up to 801. How? Your lessons also refer to the meaning of 666, etc. Could you post something sometime about how the Greek alphabet was used numerically? I get Alpha as 1, but Omega as 800? Some lessons on Biblical numerology would be interesting.   RESPONSE Ah, good question!  And the answer is not one that is widely known.  So it works like this. In English, we have different alphabetic and numerical systems.  That is to say, we use the roman alphabet (a b c d… etc.) but arabic numerals (1 2 3 4 … etc.).   Sometimes we use roman numerals (LXIV; CVII; etc.), but only in rare instances when we’re trying to confuse one another. Most ancient languages... THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY.  If you don't belong yet -- GET WITH THE PROGRAM!!! Most ancient languages did not have a separate alphabetic and numerical system.  They used the letters of the alphabet for their [...]

2020-04-03T14:07:01-04:00February 10th, 2015|Reader’s Questions|

My Non-Disclosure Agreement and the Gospel of Judas

I broke off the thread on the Gospel of Judas and the non-disclosure agreement that I had to sign at … at the point where I had to sign the non-disclosure agreement!   Here I resume. So the deal was this:  in order to be allowed to see the manuscript, to examine it, to have access to a translation of it, to study the translation, and to write an essay based on it for the National Geographic’s intended book on the Gospel of Judas – all of this before anyone else in the universe (apart from Rodolphe Kasser who had access to the manuscript, and the people that he was working with to restore it) had a chance to see it – I had to agree not to tell anyone about it.   The choice was this:  I could agree not to tell anyone, and so be given access to the text and its translation; or I could decide not to agree and not be given access.   I didn’t like the choice, but it was really a [...]

2020-04-03T14:07:11-04:00February 10th, 2015|Bart’s Biography, Christian Apocrypha|

False Rumors (or lies?) About My Teaching

QUESTION: In my talks with my family I have referenced your work, and my family typically rolls their eyes and tells me that they hold no respect for your work. When pressed on why I have gotten different answers most of them I can dismiss easily but lately they have been sticking to a new story and it goes like this. “I have a friend from church who has a son and he as a faience who took one of Dr. Ehrman’s classes at UNC. The first day of class he walked in and asked if there were any Christians in the room. He then told them that if they were still Christians by the end of the course that they are idiots and would probably fail. “ So first off please let me know if you have ever said anything like this before and if so why or was it in jest?   RESPONSE: I find this comment about me (from the person’s family) to be deeply disturbing and really offensive.  It’s not their [...]

2017-12-09T11:07:11-05:00February 9th, 2015|Reader’s Questions, Teaching Christianity|

My UNC Seminar Tomorrow

Tomorrow I will be doing an all-day seminar at UNC for the Program in the Humanities and Human Values.   This is a terrific organization on campus.  Among other things, it puts on weekend seminars -- usually Friday afternoon/evening; Saturday morning -- that involve four faculty lectures on a set topic.   Scheduling was such that we decided to put all four lectures on a Saturday this time.   I've done these things for 25 years, and love them.  *Most* of the time the program chooses a topic and has four different professors from UNC (and occasionally one from Duke or another school nearby) each giving a lecture, and then at the end the four doing a kind of brief panel discussion of each other's papers.  For some years now I've not done those, but have done a four-lecture seminar on some topic or other on my own.  That will be the case tomorrow. There will be about 130 people there, all adults, many of them senior citizens but younger folk (i.e., my age.  Or [...]

2017-12-09T11:07:21-05:00February 6th, 2015|Christian Apocrypha, Public Forum|

The Gospel of Judas: Discovery, Restoration, and (Non-)Disclosure

I’ve decided not to give a detailed summary of this thread each time I resume it.  To make sense of what I’m saying, you’ll need to go to the beginning a few days ago.  Short story, though:  it’s about how I came to learn about the discovery of the Gospel of Judas through a phone call from a representative of National Geographic who wanted me to be on the team that established its authenticity, back in the fall of 2004. Before I flew to Geneva, I learned a great deal more about the text and its discovery.  I give a fuller account in my book, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot.  It is all a very interesting story indeed, and reads (not because of my writing but because of the facts of the case) more like a Dan Brown novel than a factual narrative of what actually happened in real time and space.   I won’t give all the ins and outs here, but will make just three points. The first is that the manuscript had [...]

2020-04-03T14:07:19-04:00February 5th, 2015|Christian Apocrypha, Religion in the News|

How I First Learned that the Gospel of Judas Had Been Discovered

I started this thread by mentioning a non-disclosure agreement I once had to sign, involving the Gospel of Judas.   To explain the situation, I have been discussing how I first came to know about the existence of the text.   After receiving an out-of-the-blue query about the Gospel of Judas I looked it up to refresh my memory: it was allegedly a book used by a group of Gnostics named the Cainites, a book that told the story of Jesus from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, his betrayer – not in order to malign Judas but, evidently, to celebrate his deed, since it was (somehow) to Jesus’ advantage. Soon after reading up on the Gospel (there was very little to read about it, since we didn’t have it; all we had were some comments in the writings of church fathers who opposed it, principally Irenaeus), I received a second phone call, this one from a person at National Geographic, asking what I knew about the Gospel of Judas.   I obviously realized that something was up. So [...]

2020-04-03T14:07:30-04:00February 4th, 2015|Bart’s Biography, Christian Apocrypha|

Finding Out about the Gospel of Judas

In my previous post, which started out talking about non-disclosure agreements, I began to explain a time when I myself had to sign one, in reference to the Gospel of Judas Iscariot.  To make sense of that, I decided I needed to give the fuller story about how I got involved with the Gospel to begin with.  That takes a bit of telling.  It all started with an odd phone call, recounted yesterday, in which a distant friend asked me about a Gospel of Judas in fall of 2004, before we had (or knew we had) any such thing. After that call I decided to see what we *did* know about the Gospel of Judas.   I looked up what Irenaeus, the late-second-century heresiologist (= heresy hunter) had to say about it.  He refers to it in his discussion of the Cainites, a group of Gnostics that revered Cain, the son of Adam and Eve. So, OK, why would any group of Christians revere the first bad guy of the Bible, who committed fratricide, murdering his [...]

2020-04-03T14:07:39-04:00February 3rd, 2015|Christian Apocrypha|

Non-Disclosure Agreements and the Gospel of Judas Iscariot

A number of people have asked me about scholars and non-disclosure agreements.   This is tangentially related to the long thread I’ve just finished on the alleged first-centry copy of the Gospel of Mark.  Scholars have told us it exists and that they have had something to do with it.  We all *assumed* it was because they had actually seen it and probably studied it; turns out *that* was wrong.  They almost certainly haven’t studied it and evidently haven’t seen it. Why do I say “almost certainly and “evidently”?   Because they won’t tell us.  And why won’t they tell us?  Is it because they are mean-spirited?  Unreliable?  Boasters-but-not-doers? Liars?   No, not at all.  It’s because they’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement.   So, what does that mean, and what do I think about it? It turns out that I’ve been in that boat myself – of having signed a non-disclosure agreement --  and later took a lot of heat for it, a few years ago.  That had to do not with an alleged early manuscript of the New [...]

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