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More on the Historical Problem of Miracles

I continue my reflections on the historical problem of miracles with another "blast from the past":   ******************************************************* Yesterday I started to talk about why historians cannot demonstrate that a miracle such as the resurrection happened because doing so requires a set of presuppositions that are not generally shared by historians doing their work. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about this question, and have tried to explain on several occasions why a “miracle” can never be shown, on historical grounds, to have happened -- even if it did. Here is a slightly different way of approaching the matter, as I expressed it in an earlier publication on the historical Jesus: ******************************************************** People today typically think of miracles as supernatural violations of natural law, divine interventions into the natural course of events. Miracles, by definition, are events that contradict the normal workings of nature in such a way as to be virtually beyond belief and to require an acknowledgment that supernatural forces have been at work. This understanding is itself the major stumbling block [...]

2020-04-03T01:10:06-04:00July 31st, 2018|Reflections and Ruminations|

History is not the Past! Proving Jesus’ Resurrection and Other Miracles

Last week I finished a thread on the criteria scholars use to establish what happened in the life of the historical Jesus.  That series of posts raises an important question: what do historians do about the fact that throughout the Gospels Jesus does lots of miracles -- and at the end the greatest miracle of all happens, he is raised from the dead as an immortal being, never to die again?  Can such miracles be demonstrated to have happened historically? That's a question I've dealt with on the blog before.   Here is the first of a series of posts I made on it from five years ago, in which I make a point about "history" that many people maybe haven't thought of. ************************************************************************************************ Yesterday I started to answer a question from a reader who pointed out that just as the existence of Jesus is multiply attested, so too is Jesus’ resurrection. And so if *one* is established as historical, doesn’t the other one *also* have to be seen as historical? And if one is considered [...]

2020-04-03T01:10:15-04:00July 30th, 2018|Historical Jesus, Reflections and Ruminations|

My First Taste of Critical Scholarship

In this week’s mailbag I deal with an interesting question about how knowing about a topic is not the same as understanding the scholarship on it.  The question begins by quoting something I said on the blog a while back   QUESTION: Quoting me: “That’s because serious scholarship is itself hard. It’s not an easy read. It’s not like reading your favorite novel.”  Can you recall the first book of serious scholarship that you had to read? Did you think, “Gosh. Maybe this course of study ain’t for me”?!   RESPONSE Oh boy do I remember that!   It happened my first semester in graduate school at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I arrived on campus there pretty confident in my understanding of the Bible and most things connected with it.  I had already spent three very intense years doing a diploma in Bible-Theology at Moody Bible Institute and two years at Wheaton College, among other things learning Greek and taking courses on the translation and interpretation of New Testament texts in Greek.  I thought my training at [...]

Upcoming Speaking Events, Fall 2018

I will be doing several speaking gigs hither and yon in the coming fall.   These are the ones that are set in stone, if all goes to plan.   All of them are open to the public, but may require tickets.  I’ve included websites when I have them.   I ope to see some of you at them.  I’d like to schedule a blog event at the ones that will be in the States, if possible, probably a lunch or dinner.  But I’ll let you know!     September 8 Smithsonian Associates, Washington DC Four Great Controversies in Early Christianity https://smithsonianassociates.org/ticketing/tickets/four-great-controversies-in-early-christianity   Description of Seminar The growth of the Christian church from a tiny sect of Jesus’ close followers to a major world religion was not smooth and seamless. Christians faced controversy on every front—externally with both pagans and Jews and internally with various Christian groups holding diverse theological views struggling for dominance. Bart Ehrman, a leading authority on early Christianity, the New Testament, and the life of Jesus, explores four major controversies encountered by the early Christians, [...]

2018-07-27T07:27:47-04:00July 27th, 2018|Public Forum|

Did Peter Use a Secretary for his Writings? A Blast from the Past

Looking through some posts of blogs-past I came across this interesting one from six years ago now!   I think it's an intriguing question, and the answer is not what most people would probably think.   QUESTION: What do you make of the author's reference to a Silvanus in 1 Peter 5:12? Could it be that this really is Peter saying he used a secretary to write this letter? I know you said there is little to no evidence that people used secretaries, but what do you make of this reference to a Silvanus? RESPONSE: Yes, this is a question that I deal with in my book Forged, and that I deal with at yet greater length in the book coming out in the fall, Forgery and Counterforgery. Several points are important to make about the question, but first a bit of background. FOR THE REST OF THIS POST, log in as a Member. Click here for membership options. If you don't belong yet, JOIN!!                 Background.   Scholars have long noted that the book of [...]

Finishing my Work on the Afterlife

I am now virtually finished with all my research for my book on the afterlife, and after mopping up a few loose ends, I should be able to start writing next week.  It’s been a two-year adventure so far. I always find it amazing how much you can learn in two years of intense research on a topic that you already know (or think you know) a good deal about.   The way I can check on how much I’ve progressed is by looking at my early notes on the topic.   Almost always, when I decide I’m going to write a book, I jot down all my initial ideas of what I want the book to contain, what kinds of insights I want to discuss in it, what direction I want it to go, how I’m viewing the topic at the time.   Then, at the end (now!) I look back at what I wrote at the beginning, and I think – this happens every time – Oh my God!   I was *so* ignorant and unaware!! That’s [...]

2020-04-03T01:12:00-04:00July 24th, 2018|Book Discussions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Traditions About Jesus that Are Probably Not Historical

I have been arguing that there are ways to extract historical information about Jesus from the Gospels – even if they were not written to provide disinterested accounts of what he really said and did but were meant to promote faith in him. So far I have discussed two positive criteria: independent attestation (if a tradition is found in multiple independent sources then that increases the likelihood that it goes back to the life of Jesus, since none of the sources themselves could have made it up) and dissimilarity (if a tradition contains information that the followers of Jesus would decidedly not have wanted to make up, then it more likely is something that actually happened). Now I move to a negative criterion, one that eliminates possible traditions from consideration as unlikely to be historical (rather than a positive criterion that shows which ones are more likely).  It is called the criterion of contextual credibility.   Again, this is from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet. ************************************************************ If The Shoe Fits.... The Criterion of Contextual Credibility. You’re [...]

2020-05-27T16:09:15-04:00July 23rd, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

How a Book Gets Its Title

As I am getting set to start writing my book on the Afterlife (the plan is to begin the first week of August), I am mulling over possible titles.  And just as I have been in the midst of my muddling, I have received this question.   QUESTION: Dr, Ehrman, can you explain a little how you go about choosing a title for your trade books ? Is it a collaborative effort between you and your agent or publisher? Can it be a difficult process where the title can change as the book progresses . And if so,, can you give just a couple examples when you had decided on a title (could you name the original title ) and changed the title to the book that finally appeared at our local book store ?   RESPONSE: I’ve dealt with this issue on the blog before.  Here is what I said about it four years ago, soon after publishing How Jesus Became God.   ***************************************************************************** In my previous post I discussed the strategies behind giving [...]

2018-07-22T09:07:21-04:00July 22nd, 2018|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Trickiest Criterion for Determining What Happened in the Life of Jesus

Here I continue the thread on how scholars go about establishing which traditions in the Gospels appear to reflect what actually happened in the life of Jesus.   Of all the things I’ve said so far, this is the most controversial.   But after thinking about it for some forty years, I still think it makes good sense, for reasons I try to explain.   ***********************************************************   What An Odd Thing to Say!  The Criterion of Dissimilarity. The most controversial criterion that historians use, and often misuse, to establish authentic tradition from the life of Jesus is sometimes called the "criterion of dissimilarity."  The criterion is not so difficult to explain, given what we have already seen about the Gospels. Any witness in a court of law will naturally tell things the way he or she sees them.  Thus, the perspective of the witness has to be taken into account when trying to evaluate the merits of a case.  Moreover, sometimes a witness has a vested interested in the outcome of the trial.  A question that perennially [...]

2021-01-10T00:35:48-05:00July 20th, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

An Important Criterion for Establishing What Actually Happened

I am in the midst of a threat talking about how historians can use sources such as the Gospels to know what actually happened in Jesus’ life.  These books were not *meant* to provide disinterested historical information about the past, but were quite intentinally slanted accounts meant to encourage and shape faith in Jesus.  They nonetheless do contain important historical information.  How does the historian determine what his historical and what is legendary in them? Yesterday I gave some of the basics – a few “rules of thumb” that historians use.  Now I get to the harder question of how to reconstruct the life of Jesus based on these kinds of sources.  Again, this is taken from my book on the historical Jesus, from 1999.  I haven’t changed my views of these matters in all these years!   ***************************************************************** Specific Criteria and Their Rationale Over the course of the past fifty years, historians have worked hard to develop methods for uncovering historically reliable information about the life of Jesus.  I need to say up front [...]

2020-04-03T01:12:28-04:00July 19th, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Rules of Thumb for Reconstructing the History behind the Gospels

In yesterday’s post I laid out the “wish list” historians have when it comes to sources of information about persons and events of the past, and evaluated how well the Gospels stack up against the list.  Now I want to move into the kinds of criteria biblical scholars use when trying to extract historical information from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, criteria made necessary by the fact that the Gospel writers were not trying to write objective historical narratives of what really happened, so much as trying to “proclaim the good news” of the salvation brought by Jesus.  These Gospels were not meant to be providing history lessons per se.  But nonetheless, they do contain historical information.  If we want to learn that information, how do we proceed? Here is how I explain the beginning point in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet.   *******************************************************   Using Our Sources: Some of the Basic Rules of Thumb Before elaborating on some specific criteria that scholars have devised, let me say something about a few very basic [...]

2020-04-03T01:12:39-04:00July 17th, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

The Historian’s Wish List

While writing the posts in my thread on the contradictions in the New Testament, I had the impression that some readers thought I considered it virtually impossible to use the New Testament for historical purposes.   That’s actually not the case at all.   I’m going to discuss this issue over a number of posts, focusing on the Gospels.  Oddly enough, it appears I’ve never devoted a sustained thread to this precise end, of explaining how historians go about their business of reconstructing the past when all they have are highly problematic sources. My general view is that when trying to determine what actually happened in Jesus’ life – to figure out what he said, did, and experienced – it is important to avoid two extremes.  On one hand, it simply won’t work to claim that if something is narrated in the Gospels, it is necessarily historical.  There are lots and lots of things that can’t be historical in the Gospels.  Just on the most basic level, if one Gospel really does appear to contradict another about, [...]

2020-04-03T01:12:48-04:00July 16th, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

What I Saw at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai

Yesterday I responded to a reader of the blog who wanted me to repeat a post from a few years ago about my visit to St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, the famed place where Moses allegedly received the Ten Commandments.   The full story took two posts, and here is now the second, where I explain one of the most memorable experiences of my travels. *************************************************************** In my last post I began to relate an anecdote about a traveling adventure I had several years ago, when giving lectures for a UNC trip to Egypt and Jordan with a stop at the famed St. Catherine’s monastery in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula, the place where Tischendorf had discovered the biblical manuscript codex Sinaiticus in the mid 19th century, and where a fire at the monastery in the 1970s had uncovered a hidden room found to contain manuscripts, including the pages from the Old Testament of the codex Sinaiticus that Tischendorf had not come away with from the monastery when he took [...]

Visiting the Monastery at Mount Sinai: A Blast From the Past

A long-time reader has asked that I re-post one of her favorite bits from the blog archives, about my trip a few years ago to Saint Catherine's monastery at Mount Sinai.  It was indeed an amazing trip with an interesting tale connected to it, involving one of the greatest biblical manuscript discoveries of the 19th century (or, actually, of all time).  This will take two posts. ***************************************************************************************************** In my previous post I talked about Constantin von Tischendorf and his discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus in St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai peninsula in 1844 and then 1859.   I have a personal anecdote to relate about the manuscript, one of the most interesting things every to happen to me on my various travels hither and yon. To make sense of the anecdote I need to provide some background information.   As I indicated in my previous post, when Tischendorf discovered the codex Sinaiticus (as it was later called), he considered it to be the most ancient biblical manuscript then known to exist.  He was right.  It was. [...]

2020-04-03T01:12:58-04:00July 14th, 2018|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

A Key Contradiction in the Birth Narratives

Several readers have asked about my comment that Matthew and Luke appear to contradict each other in their birth narratives, especially when Matthew indicates that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt after his birth but Luke claims they went straight back to Nazareth, a month later.   I’ve posted on this issue several times over the years on the blog, but maybe a refresher would be helpful for those with questions.  Here is how I explain the matter in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, slightly edited.  (See especially my final point.) ********************************************************* Matthew and Luke the only Gospels that narrate the events of Jesus’ birth (in both Mark and John, Jesus makes his first appearance as an adult).  What is striking – and what most readers have never noticed – is that the two accounts are quite different from one another.  Most of the events mentioned in Matthew are absent from Luke, and vice-versa.  In itself, this doesn’t necessarily create historical problems, of course: two persons could write completely accurate accounts of WWII [...]

2020-04-03T01:13:08-04:00July 12th, 2018|Canonical Gospels|

Are Matthew and Paul at Odds on the Most Important Issue?

I have been talking about contradictions and their value for knowing about history -- about what actually happened in the past.  There are lots of other kinds of ways that passages of the New Testament are at odds with one another.  Sometimes, and more important for many people, they can have very different theological views, sometimes on absolutely key and important issues.  That is a matter I addressed many years ago on the blog, in this post: ************************************************************************************** One of my major goals as a professor of New Testament is to get my students to understand that the NT is not a single entity with a solid and consistent message.  There are numerous authors who were writing at different times, in different parts of the world, to different audiences, and with different – sometimes strikingly different – understandings about important issues.  In fact, about key issues, such as who Jesus was and what his role was in salvation. One of the assignments that I used to give was to have students compare Matthew’s view of [...]

2020-04-03T01:13:19-04:00July 10th, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Paul and His Letters|

Are the Gospels Principally Concerned to Show What Actually Happened?

I will not be going through the entirety of the four Gospels to point out how contradictions between one account and another make these texts difficult to use for historical purposes.  My previous post briefly summarized the situation with respect to the birth narratives, and similar statements could be made for numerous events of Jesus’ life as narrated in the Gospels.  In this post I’ll instead make an overall point about the kinds of problems one finds throughout these books. Recall: the reason I’m dealing with this matter is that some readers have thought that the only reason biblical scholars identify contradictions in the New Testament is in order to show that these books aren’t inspired.  That’s not true at all.  My points so far are that New Testament *could* be inspired by God even if it has contradictions (I personally don’t think so, but that’s mainly because I’m an agnostic and so don’t think *anything* is inspired by God; but if I were a believer still I probably would think it is in some [...]

2020-04-03T01:13:29-04:00July 9th, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Why Contradictions Matter for Understanding the Life of Jesus

Realizing that there are contradictions in our surviving New Testament texts matters a good deal when it comes to trying to reconstruct the history behind them.  I’ll devote several posts to this question, a couple of dealing with the life of Jesus and at least one other involving the life of Paul. The basic issue, of course, is that if you have two contradictory witnesses to an event, then they both can’t be right: they contradict one another!   At the point of the contradiction, either one of them is wrong, or they are both wrong, but they both can’t be right – unless the contradiction can be reconciled in some way (in which case it is not really a contradiction). And so the first step is to look carefully at the sources and see if they line up with one another or if there are places where they are at odds.  If they appear to be at odds, then the next step is to be see if it is only an *apparent* contradiction or an [...]

2020-04-03T01:13:40-04:00July 8th, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Student Excuses: A Blast From the Past

After I posted the story of the mother who called me about her daughter's failing my class (and then not), a reader of the blog asked me to repeat a post from years ago, of the best excuse I've ever received from a student for missing an exam.   I dug around and found it.  It begins with my apologies for not getting to my Mailbag as much as I should, as it grows longer and longer.  The apologies still apply!  And the excuse remains the best I've ever gotten.  Here's the post: **************************************************************************** My sincere apologies to any- and every-one who has asked me a direct question that I have said I would devote a post or more to.   The list of questions that I need to address is as long as my arm, and in many cases I suppose people forgot that they even asked!  But if you asked and are waiting – apologies.   I still have the questions and I will get to them, slowly.  But I find that once I start answering [...]

2020-04-03T01:13:58-04:00July 6th, 2018|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Historical Significance of Contradictions

I have been talking about the contradictions in the Bible and why they matter – not simply to problematize assumptions about the inerrancy of the Bible (“See: there are contradictions!”) but also for other things.  My overarching point is that they matter both for understanding the historical value of the biblical narratives and for appreciating their literary quality. In terms of historical value, many people read the Bible to know what actually happened in biblical times.  But if the accounts are contradictory, how can we know what happened?   I’ll later be pointing out how that is a difficult question for the New Testament, but I thought it might be useful to show how it is a fundamental problem with the Old Testament as well – right from the beginning, with the stories in Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch. It was the contradictions that made scholars originally come to think that the Pentateuch (i.e., the first “five books” of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were not written by one person (Moses) [...]

2020-04-03T01:14:07-04:00July 5th, 2018|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|
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