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What Did Jesus Look Like?

I recently read an intriguing short article by my friend and colleague at King’s College London, Joan Taylor, on what Jesus probably looked like.  Good question.  I’ve always thought: how would we know?  But in fact, there are some things to be said.  I zapped her a note and she agreed to write up something for the blog.   The original piece was published in The Irish Times, here:  <>.  She has slightly edited it for us.  Here is what she says.   ****************************************************************  What Did Jesus Look Like Joan Taylor   Everyone knows how to recognize Jesus. He is portrayed in art, film and literature in much the same way. His image is found repeatedly in countless churches and Christian buildings. He is usually somewhat European: a man with nut-brown hair (sometimes blond) and light brown or blue eyes. He has a long face and nose, and long hair and a beard. His clothes are also long: a tunic down to the ground, with wide baggy sleeves, and a large mantle. He is fairly well-tended [...]

2018-02-27T07:46:44-05:00February 27th, 2018|Historical Jesus|

Do We Know How Paul Died?

In response to a question about what we know about the deaths of the apostles yesterday (short answer: almost nothing!) I talked about the hints about Peter’s death in the NT, and the later legend about it in the apocryphal Acts of Peter.  Today I can talk about what we know about the legends about the martyrdom of Paul, from the equally apocryphal Acts of Paul.  Here is what I say about it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.   ************************************************************ The Martyrdom of Paul We do not have any contemporary accounts of Paul’s death, although traditions from several decades afterwards indicate that he was martyred.   The earliest reference comes in the letter from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth known as 1 Clement, written around 95 CE, some thirty years after Paul’s death.  This anonymous author refers to the “pillars” of the Christian faith who were persecuted for their faith, “even to death.”  He refers especially to the apostles Peter and Paul.  About Paul, he states: Because of jealousy [...]

2020-04-03T01:32:52-04:00February 26th, 2018|Christian Apocrypha, Reader’s Questions|

The Legend of Peter’s Martyrdom

QUESTION: Can you do a post on what we know about the deaths of the Apostles from the early sources and include your opinions?   RESPONSE: Many, MANY Christians have argued that Jesus must have been raised from the dead, because “all the apostles” died for their faith, and “no one would die for a lie.”  The latter of course, is not true, as people die for lies all the time (for example, in war); but that’s not really the point.   The point is (or rather the points are): (a) Just because the disciples believed Jesus was raised from the dead doesn’t mean that he was raised from the dead; (b) They could have been wrong about him being raised without lying about it.  They may, for example, have heard that some of their number had “seen” Jesus alive, and they genuinely believed it to be true. (c) And *most* important, we actually don’t know how most of the apostles died. This last point is really significant, and not widely known.  It is widely assumed [...]

2020-04-03T01:33:01-04:00February 25th, 2018|Christian Apocrypha, Reader’s Questions|

My Interview with Michael Shermer

On Sunday, February 18, 2018, I did a podcast interview with Michael B. Shermer, a well known author on issues related to science and religion (the one I most recently read: The Science of Good and Evil), based on my new book: The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. The interview is part of the Science Salon series, number eighteen. Dialogues are hosted by Michael Shermer and presented by The Skeptics Society, in California. Dr. Michael B. Shermer holds a graduate degree in experimental psychology. He is a historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. Shermer engages in debates on topics pertaining to pseudoscience and religion in which he emphasizes scientific skepticism Among other things in this interview we discuss the modern atheism movement, religion and politics, the intractable problem of evil, the early understandings of Jesus (how could he be both man and God?), the beliefs of ancient pagans about the gods and [...]

Pilate’s *Own* Account of Why He Crucified Jesus

I have been talking about how Pontius Pilate becomes increasingly innocent over time in Christian accounts of the death of Jesus.  One of my arguments is that the motive behind this exoneration of the Roman governor is an attempt to blame “the Jews” for killing their own messiah.  This exoneration increases over time and after a while stops being at all subtle. Check out this non-canonical account that allegedly gives Pilate’s own version of the matter.  This is in an apocryphal text called the Anaphora Pilati (= The Report of Pilate – a report he allegedly sent to the emperor Tiberius).  You can find this text in the book I co-edited with my colleague Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels.   Here is the introduction taken from there and my translation of the text itself (it’s preserved in Greek) *********************************************** Introduction   The “Report” of Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Tiberius (the “Anaphora Pilati”) relates the events of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection from the perspective of the Roman governor.  We learn that despite his many divine [...]

2020-04-03T01:33:08-04:00February 22nd, 2018|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

The Ironies of Jesus’ Trial

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that fact that John’s Gospel has a very different portrayal of Jesus’ trial before Pilate than any of the other Gospels.   It is longer, more involved, and highly intriguing. Unlike the other Gospels, it is not a short trial where Jesus says only two words (in Mark, Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews and Jesus replies: “You say so” – in Greek SU LEGEIS).  There are numerous back and forths, including, at one point, Pilate’s famous question “What is truth?” To make sense of the scene it is important to realize that John is going to have Jesus die on a different day from the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In those earlier Gospels, the day before Jesus’ death his disciples ask him where he wants them to “prepare the Passover meal” (Mark 14:12).  He gives them instructions how and where to prepare the meal and they do so.  That evening (which, in Jewish reckoning, is the beginning of the next day) they [...]

2020-04-03T01:33:15-04:00February 20th, 2018|Canonical Gospels|

The Increasing Innocence of Pilate in the Death of Jesus

QUESTION: How is it that all four gospels portray Pilate as recognizing the innocence of Jesus and being extremely reluctant to order his execution?   RESPONSE: What is most intriguing (and enlightening) is that over time in the Christian tradition – both inside the New Testament and outside of it – Pilate becomes more and more innocent in the death of Jesus with the passing of time.   You can see this clearly simply by lining up the Gospels chronologically and seeing how they portray Pilate at the trial of Jesus. Our earliest Gospel is Mark (15:1-15).  There Pilate is somewhat reluctant to do what the Jewish leaders ask him to do – crucify Jesus – and he seems a bit bewildered.  He has a custom of releasing a prisoner during Passover and suggests Jesus.  But the crowd, stirred up by the chief priests, wants Barabbas instead.  And so, after a very brief trial Pilate, does what they ask.  Here Pilate is simply complying with the Jews’ wishes; he puts up some resistance, but not a [...]

2020-04-03T01:33:26-04:00February 19th, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Why Discrepancies Matter for Interpretation

In the last post I pointed out that Mark and Luke have very (very!) different portrayals of Jesus going to his death.  In this post I want to explain why that ultimately matters for understanding each of the Gospels: without understanding this difference, you will misunderstand *both* Gospels. *********************************************************************** I have argued that the two portrayals of Jesus going to his death in Mark and Luke are radically different, and that recognizing this radical difference is of utmost importance for understanding what each author is trying to say.   The in-shock, silent Jesus of Mark, who is betrayed, denied, abandoned, and mocked by everyone, who wonders at the very end why God himself has forsaken him, simply is not the same as the calm confident Jesus of Luke, who knows God is on his side, who understands what is happening to him, and who knows what will happen to him after it happens to him: he will wake up in paradise. A deeper understanding of each Gospel seeks to understand the portrayal of Jesus found in [...]

2020-04-03T01:33:34-04:00February 18th, 2018|Canonical Gospels|

Why Differences and Discrepancies Matter Theologically/Religiously

On Wednesday I will be having a public debate with Mike Licona at Kennesaw State University on the topic: "Are the Gospels Historically Reliable."  This is something I've thought long and hard about for my entire adult life, and so has he.  But we disagree, heartily.  It should be a lively and interesting debate. Just now I was looking through the ancient history of the blog, and I ran across this post where I discuss the issue from a different perspective (different from what I usually say) -- one in which I claim that it is *helpful* for Christians to realize that the Gospels have discrepancies.   Interesting thought, I think, and think I thought! - Mike Licona is the author of The Resurrection of Jesus, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels and Evidence for God. ***************************************************************************** In my two previous posts I’ve been trying to explain that the historical-critical view of the Gospels, in which they are recognized not always to represent historically accurate information about Jesus, is not necessarily a view that “trashes” them.  [...]

2021-02-13T01:07:23-05:00February 16th, 2018|Bart's Critics, Canonical Gospels|

A Welcome Review of The Triumph of Christianity

It is every author's dream to have a book reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.   I've never had that happen before.   Until now.   This Sunday The Triumph of Christianity will be reviewed by Tom Bissell, whose writings some of you may know. Most reviews in the NYT bring out both the outstanding features and the shortcomings of the book under consideration.   A damning review can be devastating.  Rarely is a review all praise.   I would say this one is extremely generous and exceedingly gratifying, written by a knowledgeable scholar who "got" the book. You can see it here, with graphics: But here is the text of the review itself: ************************************************************** THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY  How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World By Bart D. Ehrman 335 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28. “I used to believe absolutely everything that Bill just presented,” the scholar Bart D. Ehrman once said during a 2006 debate with the conservative theologian William Lane Craig. “He and I went to the same evangelical Christian college, Wheaton, where these things are taught. … [...]

2020-04-09T13:05:36-04:00February 15th, 2018|Book Discussions, Spread of Christianity|

Being Blindstruck by Triumph

O frabjous day, callouh, callay.   My book was published, just today! The Triumph of Christianity was, in some senses, many years in the making.  Here is how I talk about how the idea for it first blindsided me, two decades ago.   *************************************************************   The idea for this book struck me twenty years ago during my first trip to Athens.  I was keen to explore the archaeological wonders of the city, and most especially the Agora and the Acropolis.  The Agora was the ancient center of the city and is still filled with monumental buildings: the old Athenian meeting place called the Metroon; the impressively reconstructed Southern Stoa with its rooms, shops, and areas for people to mingle; and a number of ruined sacred sites – including the single best preserved Greek temple to come down to us from antiquity, one dedicated to the Greek god Hephaestus, god of volcanos, fire, and metal working. Constructed from 449 BCE- 415 BCE during the glory days of Athens, it is a large and imposing structure in the [...]

2018-02-13T08:52:25-05:00February 13th, 2018|Book Discussions|

The Conversion of Constantine

My book comes out tomorrow and I’m very excited!  Here is a foretaste of what is in it.   This is how I begin Chapter 1, which focuses on the conversion of Constantine. ***************************************************** Few events in the history of civilization have proved more transformative than the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in the year 312 CE.  Later historians would sometimes question whether the conversion was genuine.  But to Constantine himself and to spiritual advisors close to him, there appears to have been no doubt.  He had shifted from one set of religious beliefs and practices to another.  At one point in his life he was a polytheist who worshiped a variety of pagan gods -- gods of his hometown Naissus in the Balkans, gods of his family, gods connected with the armies he served, and the gods of Rome itself.  At another point he was a monotheist, worshiping the Christian God alone.  His change may not have been sudden and immediate.  It may have involved a longer set of transitions than he later [...]

Beginning the Triumph of Christianity

I’m in Washington D.C., where I just now gave my first “book talk,” a reading from part of my new book The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, at the wonderful bookstore, “Politics and Prose.”   The book is officially published on Tuesday!   And for those interested, this is how I begin the Preface, on a personal note before getting to the matter at hand. *************************************************** In my junior year of college I took a course in English literature that made me understand for the first time how painful it can be to question your faith.  The course introduced me to poets of the nineteenth century who were struggling with religion.  Even though I was a deeply committed Christian at the time, I became obsessed with the work of the great Victorian poet of doubt, Matthew Arnold.  Nowhere is Arnold’s struggle expressed more succinctly and movingly than in that most famous of nineteenth-century poems, Dover Beach.   The poem recalls a brief moment from Arnold’s honeymoon in 1851.   While standing by an open [...]

2020-04-04T12:51:20-04:00February 11th, 2018|Book Discussions, Public Forum, Spread of Christianity|

How Was Jesus *Really* Born? The Proto-Gospel of James

In my last post I mentioned the Proto-Gospel of James in relation to a textual variant (in Luke) that indicates that Mary gave birth not *in* Bethlehem but *en route* there.   That made me think it would be a good time to say something about what else is in this intriguing book.  You can find my recent translation of it in the collection of non-canonical Gospels that I edited, translated, and introduced with my colleague Zlatko Plese, called The Other Gospels.   Here is what I said about the Proto-Gospel many years ago now on the blog, with an excerpt from the translation of one of the most amazing sections, to whet your appetite.   *********************************************************************************************   In my graduate course last week, we analyzed the Proto-Gospel of James (which scholars call the Protevangelium Jacobi -- a Latin phrase that means “Proto-Gospel of James,” but sounds much cooler….).  It is called the “proto” Gospel because it records events that (allegedly) took place before the accounts of the NT Gospels.   Its overarching focus is on Mary, the mother [...]

2020-04-03T01:35:42-04:00February 9th, 2018|Christian Apocrypha|

Small Differences that Make a Difference

Here is something different on the significance of textual variants for understanding the Greek New Testament.   Most of the hundreds of thousands of variations are completely insignificant in the big overall scheme of things (e.g., misspelled words and slips of the pen); others involve enormous differences that matter a lot (the story of the woman taken in adultery).  Lots of others are between the two, small differences that are interesting for how they might change the meaning of a passage slightly but possibly significantly. This semester I’m teaching an intermediate Greek class for the Classics Department with some exceptionally bright undergraduates who are already proficient in the ancient language.  Yesterday we in class we translated the birth narrative of Luke 2, and I realized anew how a slight change can be important. Among the changes attested in our manuscripts is one whose significance had never registered with me.  Luke 2:1-5 indicate that Caesar Augustus send out a decree for “the entire world” to be enrolled, and that Joseph needed to enroll in the town of [...]

Jesus Kissing Mary Magdalene: A Blast From the Past

Now for something *completely* different.  Here is a question that was asked and answered almost exactly four years ago, of ongoing intrigue! ****************************************************************** QUESTION: I know that the “Gospel of Philip does not have much if any real historical veracity to it about Jesus’ life, but does the references about Jesus and Mary Magdalene being lovers and the holes in the papyrus ‘kissing’ verse (verses 32 and 55 in your “Lost Scriptures” book), help support the view that this most likely Gnostic Christian sect truly believed and taught that Jesus and Mary M were married? RESPONSE: Yes, this is one of those questions I get asked about on occasion.   I have a reasonably full discussion of the relevant issues in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.   In the book I put the discussion in the context of – yes, you guessed it --  Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the one source many people turn to for the Gospel of Philip. (!)   Here’s what I say there: ************************************************************** Some of the historical claims about the [...]

Do We KNOW the Original Words of the NT?

A final post on the conservative evangelical critics of my book Misquoting Jesus.   One of the most common views they express is that we are virtually certain about what the authors of the New Testament wrote.  We have thousands of manuscripts, and are better informed about the text of the New Testament than for any other book from the ancient world. By way of response, to begin with, I completely agree (of course!) that we have thousands of New Testament manuscripts of the New Testament and are better informed about its text than any other book in the ancient world that is absolutely right.   (It’s not surprise why we have so many more manuscripts of the NT than for any other ancient book, btw.  Who was copying manuscripts in the Middle Ages – whence the vast bulk of our manuscripts derive?  Monks in Christian monasteries.  What books were Christian monks more inclined to copy -- the writings of Sophocles or the writings of Scripture?) My conservative opponents sometimes press the fact that we are well [...]

2020-04-03T01:36:15-04:00February 5th, 2018|Book Discussions, New Testament Manuscripts|

On Being Controversial

I woke up this morning thinking I'd like to start finishing out this little mini-thread on Misquoting Jesus by talking about how I never thought of anything in the book being particularly controversial, even though it struck a lot of people that way.  I was going to call the post "On Being Controversial."  And then I thought Wait a minute: That sounds familiar!  And I checked it out, and I wrote almost exactly that post some three years ago.   So, rather than reinventing the wheel, I give it here. After this, in my next post, I'll explain how one claim that I do make about the manuscripts among the New Testament *is* controversial -- not one I make (to a general audience) in Misquoting Jesus but one I make in scholarly contexts, one that really irritates some (a lot) of my colleagues. ******************************************************************* In this post I am going to take a bit of time out to do some self-reflection.   An issue I’ve been puzzling over for some time is the fact that people keep [...]

2018-02-04T10:48:26-05:00February 4th, 2018|Book Discussions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Do the Differences in Our Manuscripts Matter?

The final two arguments that conservative critics of Misquoting Jesus have made, time and time again, are that (a) none of the variations in our manuscripts is particularly significant and (b) at the end of the day, we really do know what the original words of the New Testament were – far better than for any other book from the ancient world.  These are two points that my old friend and debate opponent Dan Wallace makes emphatically every time he hears a whiff of my name. On the matter of significance there are a couple of things to be said.  The first is that some readers of my book have misunderstood my claims and have thought that I was saying something like “There are manuscripts of the New Testament that get rid of the resurrection!” or “There are manuscripts of the New Testament that deny God exists!” or “There are manuscripts of the New Testament that claim that Jesus was a Zoroastrian!” or some such thing. That’s obviously not at all what I’ve ever said [...]

2020-04-03T01:36:27-04:00February 2nd, 2018|Book Discussions, New Testament Manuscripts|

Conservative Reactions to Misquoting Jesus

I don’t think I was prepared for the reaction that my book Misquoting Jesus elicited, especially among conservative evangelical Christians.  I was suddenly transformed from being a competent scholar with whom others might disagree here or there to being a Major Public Enemy. Conservative scholars said all sorts of bizarre things about me in the wake of the book.  My long-time acquaintance and occasional debate opponent, Craig Evans, wrote, in a book, that I had become an agnostic as soon as I realized that there were lots of textual differences among our manuscripts, and he pointed out how absurd that was. It was indeed absurd – but not because this was why I became an agnostic but because Craig assumed (and informed his readers) that it was.   My realizing that there are differences among our manuscripts had precisely NOTHING to do with my becoming an agnostic, and Craig should have known that.  If he didn’t know it, he could have asked me.  But instead he made this outrageous claim to his conservative readers, eager to [...]

2018-02-01T11:44:06-05:00February 1st, 2018|Book Discussions, New Testament Manuscripts|
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