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Our Controversial Sources About the Controversial Paul

Peter and Mary Magdalene are not the only early followers of Jesus whose lives are shrouded in mystery.  What about Paul?  As it turns out, of all of Jesus’ female disciples after his life, we have the most information about Mary Magdalene, and of all his male disciples, Peter and Paul.  All are mentioned (Mary just briefly) in the New Testament, and all have lots of stories floated about them after the New Testament, and there are writings allegedly by Peter and Paul in the New Testament, and more outside.  That’s a lot to go on. But, we have seen in previous posts that information about Peter and Mary is scanty, and much of it unreliable.  With Paul we are in better shape, since we really do have letters he wrote available to us (at least 7 of the 13 in the New Testament really do appear to be his).  But we also have lots of other material that is … iffy at best. In some ways separating out the fact from the fiction about [...]

2024-02-26T14:24:45-05:00February 29th, 2024|Paul and His Letters|

How Much Fact, How Much Fiction? The Life of Peter

History or Legend?  Fact or Fiction?  A bit of both?  It’s hard to know how to understand stories about the apostle Peter found both inside and outside the New Testament.  I began with some examples yesterday, involving his allegedly raising people from the dead.  OK, probably fiction, but still – presented as fact!   I pick up there with this post, taken from my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University, 2006). *************************** The resuscitation of dead bodies may not seem all that remarkable to readers of the New Testament.  To be sure, we don’t see this kind of thing happen every day, but they do seem to happen in the Bible.  Other miraculous events, though, while no less “impossible” in a literal sense, may strike us as a bit more peculiar and subject to doubt.  Consider the episode of Peter and the smoked tuna fish.  Peter is back in Rome, trying to convince the crowds that his God is all powerful and deserves to be worshiped.  They ask him for a [...]

2024-02-26T14:25:18-05:00February 28th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha|

Archaeology in the Time of Jesus! New Course March 2-3!!

If you're interested in what archaeology can tell us about the world in which Jesus lived, moved, and had his being -- you need to check out the course on offer this weekend, March 2-3, by world-class archaeologist Jodi Magness, my colleague at UNC and one of the leading experts on the archaeology of ancient Israel. Jodi will be giving four lectures on key topics of interest, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, with a live Q&A each day. I will be M-C'ing the event, and can't wait.   If you want o check it out, click on this link. And if you want more information before checking it out, here's a quick synopsis of what Jodi will be covering:   Lecture 1:  Jesus in Galilee Although the Gospel accounts focus on Jesus’s final days in Jerusalem, he spent most of his life in Galilee.  What does archaeology tell us about the villages and towns of Galilee in the time of Jesus? In this lecture, we survey archaeological remains in the hamlet of Nazareth; [...]

2024-02-27T17:22:48-05:00February 27th, 2024|Public Forum|

The Disciple Peter in History and Legend

Probably my best-named book is Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.  This is a book I wrote so I could use the title.  (A) In fact a publisher wanted to give me a contract for the book, but I turned it down because they wanted me to do other apostles too.  NO! I said.  It’s gotta be these three.  It’s perfect!  They disagreed.  Some people just don’t have a sense of humor.  So I went with a different publisher.  (!) The short thread I just did on Mary Magdalene gave me an occasion to look back at the book.  I recall writing it with some fondness, in part because it is such a great topic: three of the most important figures in the early years of Christianity: Jesus' closest disciple, his most important convert/missionary, and the one who is said to have found his empty tomb.  All three have great stories told about them in the New Testament, and from there the stories get, if anything, even more interesting.  Highly legendary, but just as highly intriguing. [...]

2024-02-26T14:26:04-05:00February 27th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha|

Jesus and Mary Magdalene Seen Kissing??

While I'm on the "Jesus and Mary Magdalene" question (see my earlier posts), what about the claims that some (lots) of people have heard, that there is a story in a later Gospel that talk about them kissing? The later Gospel in question is the Gospel of Philip, one of the "Gnostic Gospels" discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi Egypt.  Does it actually talk about this moment (or repeated moments) of intimacy? I have a reasonably full discussion of the relevant issues in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press 2006).   In the book I put the discussion in the context of that one-time-source-for-all-things-bibical,  Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Back 20 years ago, (nearly) everyone had read it and (most of them) thought the fictional account was, as Brown himself claimed at the outset, based on historically factual information.  Sigh....   In any event, here's what I say about it all in my book: ****************************** Some of the historical claims about the non-canonical Gospels in the Da Vinci Code have struck [...]

When Did Mary Magdalene Become a Prostitute?

Mary Magdalene has become one of the most talked about figures from the life of Jesus, even though she hardly ever shows up in the Gospel accounts about him (during his public ministry, just in one verse, total!, Luke 8:2).  (She shows up only at the crucifixion and, most important, the empty tomb). In my last post I began to explore the tradition -- not found in the New Testament -- that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  Here I pick up  the thread where I left it off. I had mentioned a number of passages that people read *AS IF* they were talking about Mary Magdalene, even though her name does not occur in them.  Here I'll show that none of these passages is about her. And then I'll explain why everyone today thinks she is a prostitute and where that idea came from.  Spoiler alert: a sixth-century Pope! Once again, this comes from my book on Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press, 2006) ****************************** None of these New Testament stories, however, deals [...]

Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?

It is "common knowledge" that Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute in the New Testament, but like so much "common knowledge" this view, while common, is not "knowledge."  In fact it's not true.  I get asked about this on occasion, and so I thought I should devote a couple of posts on it. I discuss most of what I think we can know in the final section of my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press, 2006) (A book I remember fondly, in part because I wrote it in a coffee shop in Wimbledon!).  In that book I devote six chapters to each of these important Christian figures, in each case explaining what we can know about them historically and then what we can know about the later legends that sprang up about them. In my introductory comments to my discussion of Mary Magdalene, I explain why she is widely thought of as a prostitute (in the popular imagination, not by scholars), even though she is not called that in [...]

Some Random Reflections on Our Significance

I think a lot about significance these days, about why we, or rather, why I, matter.  I mean really, this universe is 13.8 billion years old and I’ve been around for, well, 68 of those years and certainly won’t be around for another 68.  So, for how much of time to this point?  Do the math. Then there’s the space factor.  I’m a small dot in my house; my house is a small dot in my neighborhood; my neighborhood is a small dot in my city; my city is a small dot in my state; my state is a not-large dot in the country; the country is a not-large dot on the planet; our planet is a tiny dot in the solar system; the solar system is an infinitesimal dot in the galaxy of some 100 billion stars; our galaxy is an an even more infinitesimal dot in a universe of maybe 2 trillion galaxies.  And the universe itself?  Who knows if there is a multiverse? Where does that leave me?  Tiny doesn’t [...]

2024-02-25T21:22:17-05:00February 21st, 2024|Reflections and Ruminations|

Changing the Past in Light of the Present

Did people in oral cultures even care if stories were changed?  We do! We have an interest not just in story but in establishing with some kind of accuracy what actually happened in the past, whether it is about the Civil War, the assassination of JFK, or the last election.  Did people in oral cultures have a way to know the past with historical accuracy?  Did they care? Here I end this thread on what we know about how oral cultures passed along their traditions – not just their myths and customs but also the past events that affected their communities, in what Jan Vansina calls “testimonies” about the past, as shared by word of mouth in non-literate cultures.  Were they concerned to repeat the past "accurately"? Again this comes from my 2017 book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne).   ****************************** Traditions that are passed along by word of mouth in oral cultures experience massive changes not simply because people have bad memories.  That may be true as well, but even more important, as Vansina [...]

2024-02-19T18:20:56-05:00February 20th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Still Spots Open: Blog Dinner in Wichita KS, this Thursday Feb. 22

In case you happen to be in striking distance of Wichita KS this week, and missed my announcement: there are still a couple of spots open for the blog dinner this coming Thursday (Feb. 22).  Here's my original announcement.  If you can come, let me know! *********************** I'm will be in Wichita Kansas to give some talks at the Plymouth Congregational Church ( on February 23-25, and have decided to come a day early in case anyone wants to do dinner with me on Thursday Feb. 22.    Anyone want to come?   It's a chance to shoot the breeze with others about whatever strikes your fancy. Thursday, February 22, 7:00 pm, place TBD (in Wichita). The table will be limited to 8 (so we can actually all talk), so that means me and 7 others. The only requirements would be that (a) it is for blog members only; (b) each one pays her/his your own way – both getting to the event and your meal itself.  Otherwise:  no expense, no requirement, and no expectations, apart [...]

2024-02-18T19:14:47-05:00February 18th, 2024|Public Forum|

Proof That Historical Narratives (not just myths) Constantly Change in Oral Cultures

I have been discussing some of the many problems with assuming that oral traditions are passed along intact, without significant change, in oral cultures.  In graduate school we all learned that they are and did, so that, for example, the fact that we might have a saying of Jesus or story about him in a source 50 years removed from his life isn’t really a problem.  It would have been kept intact from the beginning without being changed.  That’s how oral cultures work and always have worked. Nope.  Not true.  At least based on the hard-core research that actually examines the question.  My previous two posts have marshaled some of the evidence.  Here I continue on the theme, again in an excerpt from my 2017 book, Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne). *************************** Given these realities (that oral traditions are constantly changed when told and retold in oral cultures), as attested by numerous anthropological studies, why is it that people in literate cultures so often claim that people in past oral cultures had phenomenal memories and [...]

2024-02-09T12:03:03-05:00February 18th, 2024|Catholic Epistles, Historical Jesus|

When is “The Same” Memory/Tradition/Story Not Actually “The Same”?

Do we mean the same thing by “the same” that people in oral cultures do? Here I pick up on my discussion of oral cultures; in the previous post I talked about how Milman Parry began to study one such culture, and his discoveries were starting.  Professional memorizers/reciters would claim that various performances of the “same” tradition/account/story/song was in fact the “same” as earlier performances.  But, well, apparently not.  At least by our standards. Again, this is excerpted from my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2017). ****************************** How different could “the same” song be in different versions?  Social anthropologist Jack Goody has noted that when Milman Parry first met a singer named Avdo, he took down by dictation a lengthy song that he performed called “The Wedding of Smailagić.”  It was 12,323 lines in length.  Some years later Albert Lord met up with Avdo again, and took down a performance of “the same” song.  This time it was 8,488 lines.[1]   Parry himself observed this phenomenon.   He at one time had Avdo sing [...]

2024-02-21T11:24:26-05:00February 17th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

How Do We Know About Oral Cultures? By Starting Where You’d Never Suspect!

How do oral cultures “work”?  How do they pass along their traditions?  How accurately?  And why did scholars first get interested in the question.  Not at ALL in the way that you might think! Here’s how I discuss the matter in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2017). The Beginning of Studies of Orality:  Singers in Yugoslavia The twentieth-century study of oral cultures can be traced back to the groundbreaking work of Milman Parry (1902-35), a scholar of classics and epic poetry at Harvard, and his student Albert Lord (1912-91).   As a classicist, Parry was especially interested in the Homeric Question, which is actually a set of questions about Homer, the alleged author of the great classics the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Was there a Homer?  Were these books actually written by him?  Were the two books even written by the same person?  Even more, is each book itself a single literary composition?   Is each of them instead a collection of earlier stories that have been patched together?  Is it possible [...]

2024-02-09T12:25:13-05:00February 15th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Do People in Oral Cultures Have Better Memories?

Do people in oral cultures “remember” things better, and work hard to memorize what they learn? The other night I was hanging out with a friend and she started talking (in a context unrelated to the New Testament) about how oral (non-literate) cultures always worked so hard to preserve their communal memories of the past, by passing along traditions that would not change since, of course, they had no way to preserve them in writing.  I simply nodded my head and let her get on with it. I was tempted to tell her that I had written a book about memory, how it works and sometimes doesn’t, how oral cultures preserve traditions, and sometimes not so well, etc..  I decided not to mention it to her; didn’t matter in the context. My book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2013) is, in my personal opinion, the best book I’ve written that (almost) no one has read.  I gave it a bad title.  Plus, my publisher wasn’t that interested in it and didn’t do much [...]

2024-02-09T12:29:55-05:00February 14th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Memory Studies|

Were Matthew and Luke Plagiarists?

Were Matthew and Luke plagiarists?  They copied word-for-word passages from Mark, without any indication that they were using someone else’s work.  Today that will get you fired (or, say, removed from the presidency of an Ivy League school).  But what about in the ancient world? Here I continue here with my discussion of plagiarism in the antiquity, citing some sources that talk about the phenomenon only to condemn it, before considering whether Matthew and Luke can be considered culpable. You may be surprised by my answer. First, I give some more ancient  writings, starting with where I left off, with Vitruvius (a famous Roman architect; not a famous volcano) ****************** Elsewhere Vitruvius himself delivers a stringent judgment on those who engaged in the practice of plagiarism: “While, then, these men [viz. Those who left a written record of past events and philosophies] deserve our gratitude, on the other hand we must censure those who plunder their works and appropriate them to themselves” (Book 7, Preface 3).   This attitude coincides with other ancient discourse about [...]

2024-02-09T12:55:44-05:00February 13th, 2024|Forgery in Antiquity, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Blog Dinner Wichita Kansas, Feb. 22. Interested??

I'm will be in Wichita Kansas to give some talks at the Plymouth Congregational Church ( on February 23-25, and have decided to come a day early in case anyone wants to do dinner with me on Thursday Feb. 22.    Anyone want to come?   It's a chance to shoot the breeze with others about whatever strikes your fancy. Thursday, February 22, 7:00 pm, place TBD (in Wichita). The table will be limited to 8 (so we can actually all talk), so that means me and 7 others. The only requirements would be that (a) it is for blog members only; (b) each one pays her/his your own way – both getting to the event and your meal itself.  Otherwise:  no expense, no requirement, and no expectations, apart from having a scintillating evening together. If you want to come and know for sure you can, zap me a note ([email protected]). Do so right away: if past experience is any guide, the table will fill rather quickly.   If it doesn't more fun for the rest of [...]

2024-02-12T21:17:07-05:00February 12th, 2024|Public Forum|

February Gold Q&A: Ask Away!

Hey Gold and Platinum members, I'd like us to get ahead of schedule for the February Gold Q&A; my plan is to record it some time this coming weekend, to be published early next week. If you have a question -- most anything related to the blog -- send it along!  To do so, do NOT reply on a comment here, but zap an email to Diane at  [email protected]. DEADLINE: Please get your question in by this Friday (01/26/2024) midnight (whenever midnight is in your time zone). Every question I get is interesting, but remember that shorter and to-the-pointer questions are more likely to be picked.  Many are called but few are chosen...

2024-02-07T17:11:27-05:00February 12th, 2024|Public Forum|

Plagiarism! Was It Condemned in the Ancient World? (Is Matthew Guilty of It?)

Just over a week ago I did an eight-lecture on-line course on the Gospel of Matthew, not connected with the blog but with BECO (Bart Ehrman Courses Online); you can find out more about that here: The Genius of Matthew.  Someone who came to the course asked me an intriguing question:  if it’s true that Matthew used Mark for a number of his stories, actually copying his account word for word in many places, wouldn’t he be guilty of plagiarism? Ah – right!  That’s certainly something we would be thinking about today!  Did people in the ancient world think about plagiarism?  There weren’t copyright laws or, in fact, any laws about the theft of intellectual property.  So was plagiarism even a THING? As it turns out, this is a topic that, I venture to say (with good reason), the vast majority of New Testament scholars don’t know about.  My (good) reason for saying so is that you can hear many such-a-scholar say oh-so-wrong things about it, either based on what they assume or what they [...]

2024-02-07T14:25:46-05:00February 11th, 2024|Forgery in Antiquity, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Gospel Thrillers Part III by Andrew Jacobs

In this third and final post on his new book Gospel Thrillers, Andrew Jacobs moves into where the rubber meets my (our) road: how these novels really do seem like real life when you think about Bible scholarship and the real discoveries (or discoveries *claimed* to have been made, by bona fide scholars) of new Gospels that threaten to undo everything we think about Jesus and / or the New Testament.  Intriguing stuff.  What do you think? You can get Andrew's just now published book anywhere good books are sold, including here: Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible: Jacobs, Andrew S.: 9781009384612: Books   ****************************** III. Gospel Thrillers come to Life   In my first blogpost I described the quirky genre of novels I call Gospel Thrillers and the way they illuminate cultural fears and desires about the Bible; I then described some of their “bombshell” secrets which, at the end most novels, turn out to be duds: readers of conspiratorial fictions more often want status quo restored than to see our [...]

2024-02-05T14:43:00-05:00February 10th, 2024|Bart's Debates, Public Forum|
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