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An Easter Reflection 2018

It is highly ironic, but relatively easy, for a historian to argue that Jesus himself did not start Christianity.   Christianity, at its heart, is the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about salvation, and that believing in his death and resurrection will make a person right with God, both now and in the afterlife.  Historical scholarship since the nineteenth century has marshalled massive evidence that this is not at all what Jesus himself preached.

Yes, it is true that in the Gospels themselves Jesus talks about his coming death and resurrection.  And in the last of the Gospels written, John, his message is all about how faith in him can bring eternal life (a message oddly missing in the three earlier Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

These canonical accounts of Jesus’ words were written four, five, or six decades after his death by people who did not know him who were living in different countries, and who were not even speaking his own language.  They themselves acquired their accounts of Jesus’ words from earlier Christian storytellers, who had been passing along his sayings by word of mouth, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.   The task of scholarship is to determine, if possible, what Jesus really said given the nature of our sources.

Fundamentalist scholars have no trouble with the question.  Since they are convinced that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God, then anything Jesus is said to have said in the Gospels is something that he really said.  Viola!  Jesus preached the Christian faith that his death and resurrection brought salvation.

Critical scholars, on the other hand, whether they are Christian or not, realize that it is not that simple.   As Christian story tellers over the decades reported Jesus’ teachings, they naturally modified them in light of the contexts within which they were telling them (to convert others for example) and in light of their own beliefs and views.   The task is to figure out which of the sayings (or even which parts of which sayings) may have been what Jesus really said.

Different scholars have different views of that matter, but one thing virtually all critical scholars agree on is that the doctrines of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection were not topics Jesus addressed.  These words of Jesus were placed on his lips by later Christian story-tellers who *themselves* believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead to bring about the salvation of the world, and who wanted to convince others that this had been Jesus’ plan and intention all along.

My own view is one I’ve sketched on the blog many a time before.  Jesus himself – the historical figure in his own place and time – preached an apocalyptic message that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the powers of evil and destroy all who sided with them; he would then bring a perfect utopian kingdom to earth in which Israel would be established as a sovereign state ruling the nations and there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering.  Jesus expected this end to come soon, within his own generation.  His disciples would see it happen – and in fact would be rulers of this coming earthly kingdom, with him himself at their head as the ruling monarch.

It didn’t happen of course.  Instead, Jesus was arrested for being a trouble maker, charged with crimes against the state (proclaiming himself to be the king, when only Rome could rule), publicly humiliated, and ignominiously tortured to death.

This was not at all what the disciples expected.  It was the opposite of what they expected.  It was a radical disconfirmation of everything they had heard from Jesus during all their time with him.  They were in shock and disbelief, their world shattered.  They had left everything to follow him, creating hardship not only for themselves but for the families near and dear to them – leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves and doubtless to suffer want and hunger with the only bread-winner away from home to accompany an itinerant preacher who thought the end of history was to arrive any day now.

This reversal of the disciples’ hopes and dreams then unexpectedly experienced its own reversal.  Some of them started saying that they had seen Jesus alive again.   In the Gospels themselves, of course, all the disciples see Jesus alive and are convinced that he has been raised from the dead.   It is not at all clear it actually happened that way.  The accounts of the Gospels are hopelessly at odds with each other about what happened, to whom, when, and where.  So what can we say historically?

One thing we can say with relative certainty (even though most people – including lots of scholars!) have never thought about this or realized it, is that no one came to think Jesus was raised from the dead because three days later they went to the tomb and found it was empty.   It is striking that Paul, our first author who talks about Jesus’ resurrection, never mentions the discovery of the empty tomb and does not use an empty tomb as some kind of “proof” that the body of Jesus had been raised.

Moreover, whenever the Gospels tell their later stories about the tomb, it never, ever leads anyone came to believe in the resurrection.  The reason is pretty obvious.  If you buried a friend who had recently died, and three days later you went back and found the body was no longer there, would your reaction be “Oh, he’s been exalted to heaven to sit at the right hand of God”?  Of course not.  Your reaction would be: “Grave robbers!”   Or, “Hey, I’m at the wrong tomb!”

The empty tomb only creates doubts and consternation in the stories in the Gospels, never faith.   Faith is generated by stories that Jesus has been seen alive again.   Some of Jesus’ followers said they saw him.  Others believed them.   They told others — who believed them.  More stories began to be told.  Pretty soon there were stories that all of them had seen him alive again.  The followers of Jesus who heard these stories became convinced he had been raised from the dead.

Jesus himself did not start Christianity.  His preaching is not what Christianity is about, in the end.  If his followers had not come to believe he had been raised from the dead, they would have seen him as a great Jewish prophet who had a specific Jewish message and a particular way of interpreting the Jewish scripture and tradition.  Christianity would have remained a sect of Judaism.  It would have had the historical significance of the Sadducees or Essenes – highly significant for scholars of ancient religion, but not a religion that would take over the world.

It is also not the death of Jesus that started Christianity.  If he had died and no one believed in his resurrection, his followers would have talked about his crucifixion as a gross miscarriage of justice; he would have been another Jewish prophet killed by God’s enemies.

Even the resurrection did not start Christianity.  If Jesus had been raised but no one found out about it or came to believe in it, there would not have been a new religion founded on God’s great act of salvation.

What started Christianity was the Belief in the ResurrectionIt was nothing else.  Followers of Jesus came to believe he had been raised.  They did not believe it because of “proof” such as the empty tomb.  They believed it because some of them said they saw Jesus alive afterward.  Others who believed these stories told others who also came to believe them.  These others told others who told others – for days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, and now millennia.  Christianity is all about believing what others have said.  It has always been that way and always will be.

Easter is the celebration of the first proclamation that Jesus did not remain dead.  It is not that his body was resuscitated after a Near Death Experience.   God had exalted Jesus to heaven never to die again; he will (soon) return from heaven to rule the earth.  This is a statement of faith, not a matter of empirical proof.  Christians themselves believe it.  Non-Christians recognize it as the very heart of the Christian message.  It is a message based on faith in what other people claimed and testified based on what others claimed and testified based on what others claimed and testified – all the way back to the first followers of Jesus who said they saw Jesus alive afterward.


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  1. Avatar
    Bstevens  April 1, 2018

    https://youtu.be/GHJE7cetkB4
    How do these folks sleep @ night? For comedic relief, check the vast and varied credible “sources” at the bottom of the article. If fundamentalist was added in the article before scholars, I wouldn’t be distraught.

  2. Avatar
    scissors  April 1, 2018

    Professor Ehrman
    Bit confused about something. I’m sure the answer is right in front of my nose. But here goes. If Jesus believed that in the Coming Kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first, doesn’t that mean God’s defeated opponents would be in the Kingdom?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2018

      No, their defeat is what makes them last.

      • Avatar
        scissors  April 2, 2018

        Ok, but the context is in the Kingdom, isn’t it?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2018

          Yes, it’s hard to figure that part out. Are they, like, slaves in the kingdom instead of the elite? Or is that pressing the metaphor to hard? I suspect the latter.

        • Avatar
          godspell  April 5, 2018

          They’d be in the outer darkness, gnashing teeth. I mean, we shouldn’t assume Jesus had a blueprint. But I think he felt their punishment would be to stand just outside the kingdom, prevented from coming in–like hungry wolves watching sheep peacefully grazing in a wolf-proof enclosure. He probably never saw a wolf, and liked the goat metaphor (wolves is too dignified). (It came out in an earlier discussion that goats are sometimes mean to sheep, and that the two animals are often kept apart for the good of the sheep).

          They would spend eternity, perhaps, dealing with the fact that because they had lived their lives exploiting and oppressing the good people of the earth, they would be exiled forever from the only fruitful pleasant place on it. Living a very marginal bitter life, preying on each other.

          It would be hell in the sense that hell is bad people.

          And the Kingdom would be heaven in the sense that heaven is good people.

  3. Avatar
    Jon1  April 1, 2018

    Bart,

    Doesn’t Jn 20:1-8 (c.f. jn 20:29) show resurrection belief based only on a discovered empty tomb with no appearance by Jesus (“he saw and believed”)?

    And doesn’t Mt 28:1-8 show resurrection belief based only on a discovered empty tomb and a visit by an angel telling them that Jesus was raised (“they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy”)?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2018

      Note in John 20: Mary finds the tomb empty and thinks the body has been misplaced. So the discovery of the tomb does not lead to belief in the resurrection. You’re right, Peter believes — not, strictly speaking, because of the tomb being empty but because he sees the burial cloths rolled up. It’s that which generates belief. It’s not clear what he believes yet because the author points out that he still didn’t understand that Jesus was to rise from the dead (*after* he finds the burial cloths). The women in Matthew 28 believe not because they find the tomb empty but because an angel tells them what happened.

      • Avatar
        Jon1  April 2, 2018

        Bart,

        1] In Jn 20:1-8, isn’t it “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” who “believed” based on seeing the head wraping rolled up? (You said Peter.)

        2] Doesn’t Jn 20:29 strongly suggest that “believed” in Jn 20:8 is referring to belief in *Jesus’ resurrection*? (Jn 20:29 reads, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’, and Jn 20:9 seems to be saying that they did not yet understand *from scripture* that Jesus must rise from the dead).

        3] Isn’t it more accurate to say that, in Jn 20:1-8, it is a *combination* of seeing the head wraping rolled up and the discovered empty tomb that caused belief in Jesus’ resurrection (as opposed to “the empty tomb only creates doubts and consternation in the stories in the Gospels”)?

        4] Same in Mt 28:1-8 — the discovered empty tomb seems to play a role (along with the angelic visit) in causing belief in Jesus’ resurrection…no?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2018

          1. yes, you’re right — Peter is not said to believe. 2. 20:29 cuts against your point. They believe because of seeing Jesus, not because of finding an empty tomb 3. No, that’s not it says 4. Again, it’s not what it says.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 3, 2018

            Bart,

            In Jn 20:24-28, *Thomas* believes because of seeing Jesus, but doesn’t Jn 20:29 (“Blessed are those who have *not* seen and yet have come to believe”) harken back to Jn 20:8 where the beloved disciple “believed” based only on the empty tomb and possibly also the head wraping? If not, what in your mind has the beloved disciple come to believe in Jn 20:8?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 4, 2018

            I think 20:29 is looking *forward* to the readers of the Gospel — and their converts — who believe on teh basis of the testimony of others.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 4, 2018

            Bart,

            OK, but if Jn 20:8 does not intend that the beloved disciple has come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, what in your mind has the beloved disciple come to believe in in Jn 20:8?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 6, 2018

            It’s not clear I’d say. Since they explicitly are said not to know that he has to rise, maybe it means he believes what the women told them. It *may* mean he came to believe in the resurrection, but that does make 20:9 odd.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 6, 2018

            Bart,

            Jn 20:9 says they did not understand from *scripture* that Jesus must rise from the dead (you left the part about *scripture* out for some reason). Putting Jn 20:8-9 together, these passages seem to be saying that the beloved disciple came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection based on the empty tomb and a rolled up head wrapping, and that everyone would have believed in Jesus’ resurrection earlier than that had they understood the scriptures. Do you still think the gospel writer’s intent here is that an empty tomb and a rolled up head wrapping caused the beloved disciple to “believe” Mary’s story that the body was stolen/moved? Seems far fetched. What is there to “believe” in this case, since obviously the body was stolen/moved if Jesus was not resurrected?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 8, 2018

            It’s not an easy passage to decipher on any reading. I’m not sure why v. 9 is necessary given v. 8….

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 8, 2018

            Bart,

            Jn 20:9 is explaining why the beloved disciple even needed to see an empty tomb and a rolled up head wrapping in order to believe in Jesus’ resurrection — he “did not [yet] understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead”. Seems pretty clear to me. Also, Jesus’ resurrection seems the only plausible explanation for what the beloved disciple came to “believe” in Jn 20:8, otherwise, what is there to “believe” if the beloved disciple just came to agree with Mary that the body was stolen/moved — of course it was stolen/moved if Jesus was not resurrected. Thoughts?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 9, 2018

            I think it seems clearer to you than it does to me. Even though οιδα is in the pluperfect in v. 9 (ηδεισαν), because of the verb itself, that denotes a perfect meaning. If he had wanted a pluperfect sense, he would have had to phrase it differently. But, well, maybe that was his intention.

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  April 8, 2018

            Dr Ehrman
            if jesus was explaining the scriptures which he thought talked about his death and coming back to life, how is it possible “they did not understand ” ?

            and what do you think of doubting thomas story ?

            i quote :

            “Doubting Thomas.”

            Here was a guy who had traveled with Jesus for one (or three) years. According to the apologist who holds to the historicity of the Gospels, Thomas had seen Jesus walk on water, feed 1,000’s with some scraps of food. Watched blind people gain sight, lame walk, deaf hear. Even performed miracles himself!

            Has seen Jesus raise people from the dead and heard more teachings from Jesus than any other person alive (with the possible exceptions of Peter, James and John.) This fellow is an insider.

            He is informed by his friends, “We have seen Jesus post-Resurrection!” (Argument 5 above is a bit deceiving; it should more accurately state, “Disciples reported having experiences they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.”)

            He has almost immediate knowledge regarding the claims Jesus was raised. (I say “almost” because John records 8 days between the first two appearances, so this would be the greatest extent of time. Luke records Thomas heard on Sunday, but this contradicts John. Take your pick: 1-8 days.)

            He was in Jerusalem, he had the opportunity to inspect the empty tomb right away. He had access–friendly access—to all the disciples, Jesus’ family. Everything.

            Can you possibly imagine a witness closer to the scene with a more suitable circumstance to investigate the claims being made about a resurrected Jesus?

            And he wasn’t convinced.

            He wasn’t convinced by the crucifixion, the empty tomb, the message, the transformation of his friends, the claims of his friends, or his proximity to the scene of the event.

            Can I be any clearer? Doubting Thomas–who was far better equipped than any of us to investigate and confirm–was not convinced by the minimal facts!

          • Bart
            Bart  April 9, 2018

            Yes, I think the doubting stories are meant to show that even after the resurrection, not all of the twelve came to believe (historically)

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  April 8, 2018

            one of the greatest confusion is that mary immediately recognise jesus in matthew, but in the writing of john , mary thought it was perfectly NORMAL to believe that the body was MOVED ? huh? whats going on here? i don’t get it.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 9, 2018

            Yes, you’ll find lots of disagreements among the Gospels in the resurrection narratives.

        • Avatar
          Iskander Robertson  April 3, 2018

          “4] Same in Mt 28:1-8 — the discovered empty tomb seems to play a role (along with the angelic visit) in causing belief in Jesus’ resurrection…no?”

          where does mark say that the empty tomb was discovered by the male disciples ?

          where does matthew say that peter went to check the empty tomb ?

          i read matthews text

          Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

          jesus told the women to tell the brothers to go to galilee

          the women do tell,

          Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go

          so we are told that the women report and the 11 do go. if the first thing peter did was run back to the tomb, then he did not do what jesus told him to do.

          that matthew added “where jesus had told them…” means the first thing peter did was go to galilee

        • Avatar
          Iskander Robertson  April 3, 2018

          “3] Isn’t it more accurate to say that, in Jn 20:1-8, it is a *combination* of seeing the head wraping rolled up and the discovered empty tomb that caused belief in Jesus’ resurrection (as opposed to “the empty tomb only creates doubts and consternation in the stories in the Gospels”)?”

          so mary sticks there and still thinks that the body has been taken by someone , she apparently didn’t believe , she thought that an empty tomb meant that the body was taken somewhere else. 2 people see your “combination” and instead of crying and saying “praise god” they just go back to their houses instead of crying along with mary?

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  April 3, 2018

        ” It’s not clear what he believes yet”

        that the body is taken away like mary said ?

  4. Avatar
    madi22  April 1, 2018

    In saying all this Bart, nowadays what do you/your family end up doing on Easter Sunday? I’m aware your wife is a christian, so do you still celebrate together as family? Isnt the actual date based upon a pagan holiday just like christmas?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2018

      No, I don’t attend church on Easter. I’m afraid I would find it hypocritical. The date of Easter was a major debate in early Christianity, having to do with when to locate it in relation to Jewish passover.

  5. Lev
    Lev  April 1, 2018

    I don’t buy that the gospels were written 40-60 years after the events. The ancient evidence points to the 1st editions of Q and Mark being written in the early 40s, Luke around 59 and John in the mid-60s. These gospels were produced on eyewitness accounts within 11-35 years of the events where those same eyewitnesses were still alive and able to verify them.

    However, I don’t buy the conservative belief that the gospels were the inerrant, faultless word of God. I think Bart’s right that Jesus and his disciples honestly believed and preached an apocalyptic message that the world would soon end and a new world without pain and suffering would be created within their lifetimes. So the conservatives, Jesus and his disciples were all wrong on these claims.

    I also believe the majority of scholars are wrong to date the gospels so late, but I think Bart is entirely correct in his assertion that Christianity only had legs with the resurrection claim. For me, the heaviest of evidence is the somewhat offhand remark Paul makes about the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthian 15:6 “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.”

    Here Paul is passing on a tradition not found in the gospels, but which he seems to have a personal connection with. It is most likely that Paul had encountered and kept in touch with at least some of these eyewitnesses, as Paul knows about their welfare – he knows that most of the 500 still live, but some have died. If Paul had encountered some of the 500, probably during his visits to Jerusalem and Judea in the 30s and 40s, he would have spoken to several people who had witnessed the risen Jesus at the same time.

    Whilst it may be possible to write off the testimony of one person who claims to have witnessed an extraordinary event, it becomes more difficult to do so when several witnesses of the same event make the same claim. When you have 500 people making the same claim of the same event, it is virtually impossible to disregard that testimony.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 5, 2018

      Which tends to discredit Paul’s account. Why would the later gospels–which you believe were written not long after Paul’s epistles–tell the story as if it was just a few people who saw Jesus, if it was hundreds?

      Probably because there was a lot of ‘me-tooism’ going on, people who heard the few original accounts and didn’t want to be left out–mass hysteria maybe, like ‘The Great Fear’ of the French Revolutionary period. People in isolated villages, in fear of their lives, imagined they heard bands of bloodthirsty bandits approaching to kill and loot. The hallucinations were extremely vivid and widespread. Sometimes, I’m afraid, it’s more true to say “Blessed are they who have seen, and yet still question.”

      There almost certainly were not hundreds of followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem then. If non-believers were seeing him risen, Christianity would have spread a lot faster than it did.

      Paul probably got a garbled account–he’s writing letters, not books, and he’d have heard a lot of different accounts–and later, it was decided that it wasn’t credible that hundreds saw Jesus. There were surviving accounts that didn’t match what Paul said. Or match each other, for that matter.

      • Lev
        Lev  April 6, 2018

        No, I think Q and Mark were products of the 40s and Luke 59/60, however, there are no risen Jesus appearances in what we have of Mark and what is reconstructed from Q.

        The gospels do not record all the events in Jesus’ life, as the last verse of John’s gospel puts it: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” The appearance of the risen Jesus with the 500 is one of those stories that did not make it into any gospel we have, but Paul knows about it.

        Paul knows about the welfare of some of the 500, so he is likely to have met some of them. Paul was in Jerusalem on several occasions, so it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude he met some of them there.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  April 8, 2018

      “When you have 500 people making the same claim of the same event, it is virtually impossible to disregard that testimony.”

      Except we don’t have 500 claims. We have one.

      If I said that I was in a group of 500 people who watched the sun rise in the west, and yet it was reported by no one else, then that is a single claim, not 500.

      • Lev
        Lev  April 8, 2018

        Except Paul seems to know some of the 500 as he’s aware some of them have died, but most are still alive at the time he wrote. If Paul knew some of the 500, then they would have been able to verify this early report of their encounter with the risen Jesus.

        We don’t know how many of the 500 Paul met, but I don’t think Paul would have passed on this account to the Corinthians if he had any doubts over its authenticity. Paul had a good nose for bullshit, and would call it out when he smelt it: Colossians 2:18, 2 Timothy 4:3-4.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  April 8, 2018

        with all those witnesses just around the corner,paul uttered the following :

        12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

        All those “ifs” even though witnesses were just around the corner? what? 500 +

  6. Avatar
    mikezamjara  April 2, 2018

    Dr Ehrman, In past days you were talking about afterlife. In your debates about suffering, afterlife is used by apologists as a explanation for the suffering of inocent people as this: because they will have an eternity of reward or punishment then their suffering in this life is little in comparison. But in those debates never is discussed why does god do not accept repentance in the afterlife. I mean, a person in hell or purgatory could accept Jesus as his personal savior and praise him. A sincere repentance in hell or purgatory is not posible?. Has any apologist you debated answered that question?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2018

      Nope, it’s simply assumed that death is the end of a person’s chances.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 9, 2018

        I don’t think Orthodox Christianity teaches that. I think they literally believe that all things will be reconciled to God in Christ. I was rereading Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20ff.) which seems to support that notion. “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (6:35b) Isn’t Luke saying Jesus was a universalist in the final analysis?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2018

          I’m not sure that says that *everyone* will be saved. Luke certainly thinks God curses people.

  7. Avatar
    RayC  April 2, 2018

    Bart,

    Why would the apostles say they saw the resurrected Jesus if they really didn’t? Everything you state I agree with, but it is hard to fathom why they would spread a lie – one which they were willing to die for (at least based on the history I am aware of regarding their deaths). I am sure many explanations can be put forward as a basis for an argument as to why, but that would be speculation at best. It seems the only real options are to either believe them or to simply say they lied because resurrections don’t happen, or at least can’t be shown to have happened!

    Ray C

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2018

      I don’t think it was a lie. I think some of them believed they saw him alive afterward. (Just as other people claimed to see yet *others* alive after their deaths. Still happens a lot today.)

      • Lev
        Lev  April 2, 2018

        I find that the difference between someone thinking they see a loved one who has died recently, and the disciples’ experience, is that the disciples spoke with, touched and ate with the risen Jesus whereas people who think they see someone who has just died usually say it was a fleeting glance of someone on the other side of the road or across a crowded room. They never say they had just returned from having dinner with ‘Bob’ who died last Tuesday.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2018

          I don’t think the disciples spoke with, touched, and ate with Jesus. Those are later legendary accretions.

          • Lev
            Lev  April 3, 2018

            Aye, I appreciate this is your understanding. However, these accounts are found in the earliest texts we have – aside from ch 21 of John, they don’t appear to have been added to the texts later.

            – Matthew 28 has the Marys clasping the feet of Jesus.
            – Luke 24 has Cleopas and another eating with Jesus. Also, the eleven examining the wounds of Jesus and eating with him.
            – John 20 has Mary holding onto Jesus. Also, the disciples (especially Thomas), examining the wounds of Jesus. If we include ch 21, we have Jesus eating with his disciples.

            The difficulty with your comparison to people who think they see dead people alive again today, is that when people make these claims it’s because they see someone who looks very similar to a recently departed. They think they recognise that person.

            However, the accounts of Mary Magdalene in John 20, the other disciples in John 21 and Cleopas in Luke 24 are explicit that they *didn’t* recognise the risen Jesus at first. His appearance had changed.

            It is therefore incorrect to compare these risen Jesus appearances to people today who think they’ve seen a dead person alive again because ‘they looked just like them!’, because the gospels accounts state the opposite – the risen Jesus did not remind his disciples of his appearance.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 4, 2018

            Yes, I think they are legends invented by storytellers in the decades after Jesus’ death. Not sure if you’ve read my book Jesus BEfore the Gospels, but it’s where I deal with the phenomenon of altered oral traditions.

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  April 4, 2018


            However, the accounts of Mary Magdalene in John 20, the other disciples in John 21 and Cleopas in Luke 24 are explicit that they *didn’t* recognise the risen Jesus at first. His appearance had changed”

            “his appearance had change” is an excuse for the fact that the man they saw wasn’t jesus? in matthew , the two Mary’s immediately recognise him . they grab his feet . it is some on a mountain who dont think that jesus was the one on the mountain, so the “some” used their previous image of jesus and said to themselves “that isn’t jesus, thats someone else”

            why would they forget the image of jesus so quickly ?

            if one can magically make wounds reappear, then how do we know that the crucifixion was even real?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 6, 2018

            I’m not clear what you’re asking. Are you taking these as historically accurate reports and wondering how they can be right? I don’t think they’re historical accounts, but later stories told about the resurrected Jesus.

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  April 6, 2018

            “I’m not clear what you’re asking. Are you taking these as historically accurate reports and wondering how they can be right? I don’t think they’re historical accounts, but later stories told about the resurrected Jesus.”

            i am only discussing it theoretically, i don’t take them as historically accurate reports.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  April 9, 2018

          My mother-in-law claimed she saw her deceased husband sitting on the hospital bed where their child was near death and that he spoke to her, telling her the child would recover. Did she see that? Was it a dream she later confabulated into a vision? Did she make the whole thing up? I have no clue, but such stories abound.

          • Lev
            Lev  April 10, 2018

            Did she have physical contact with her returned husband, or eat some food with him? Did she struggle to recognise him at first?

            If not, then this isn’t a fair comparison of what Mary Magadelen, Cleopas, Peter, John, James, Nathaniel, Thomas and others experienced when they met the risen Jesus – and that’s the point I’m making.

            I’ve never heard a contemporary account of someone meeting a deceased person alive again (aside from those who have been revived shortly after death) where they have physical contact or they struggle to recognise them. It’s normally fleeting glances from across a crowded street or airport where they “looked just like them”.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  April 2, 2018

        Dr,

        if each disiple was marked for death, then would recanting have saved them?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2018

          Yup.

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  April 5, 2018

            i thought people who get marked for death have had it regardless if recanting or not

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  April 2, 2018

      Vivid dreams! The person knows it’s a dream, but is sure – rightly or wrongly – that there’s *truth* in the dream (in which a recently-deceased person is trying to tell them he or she is, somehow, “still alive.”) In the case of Jesus’s followers, they may have told others they’d seen him in dreams. But as the tales were told and retold, the fact that they’d been dreaming ceased to be mentioned.

  8. Avatar
    prince  April 2, 2018

    I was discussing this issue with a Muslim, who quoted me interesting verses from the Quran that mentions the conjectures surrounding the story of the crucifixion and Jesus resurrection:

    That they (Jews) said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of God”—but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not—nay, God raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise.” 4:157-158

    God said, ‘Jesus, I will take you back and raise you up to Me: I will purify you of the disbelievers. To the Day of Resurrection I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieved. Then you will all return to Me and I will judge between you regarding your differences” 3:55

    “And behold! God will say “O Jesus the son of Mary! didst thou say unto men `worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God”? He will say: “Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing Thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart though I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden. ”
    “Never said I to them aught except what Thou didst command me to say to wit `Worship God my Lord and your Lord’; and I was a witness over them whilst I dwelt amongst them; when Thou didst take me up thou wast the Watcher over them and Thou art a Witness to all things” 5:116-117

    Intriguing

  9. Avatar
    caesar  April 2, 2018

    These are all the verses I’ve ever been able to find that support the idea that Jesus’ death gave salvation, or paid for others’ sins. Are you saying that these verses were interpolations of later Christians?

    –Mk 10:45 Jesus’ life as a ransom for many
    –Mt 20:28–Jesus’ life as a ransom for many
    –Mt 26:26-28–Lord’s supper–his blood, poured out for sins
    –Mk 15:37-38–Temple curtain torn top to bottom (symbolic) just AFTER Jesus dies.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2018

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. Yes, I think the first three are *not* things actually said by the historical Jesus (if that’s the question)

      • Avatar
        caesar  April 2, 2018

        So, Matthew and Mark said ‘The Son of Man (Jesus?) came to give his life as a ransom for many.’…but Jesus himself probably never said this. ‘Matthew’ and ‘Mark’ had a theology that the crucifixion resulted in atonement, but Jesus himself was not the originator of this theology. Does that sound right?

  10. Robert
    Robert  April 2, 2018

    “Christianity, at its heart, is the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about salvation, and that believing in his death and resurrection will make a person right with God, both now and in the afterlife.”

    That’s a pretty good description of ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity, perhaps, but it completely ignores the fundamental importance of following the moral teachings of Jesus. In my view, Christianity should still be a sect of Judaism with a healthy outreach ministry to gentiles. It is nothing without its moral core, worse than nothing if hypocritical.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2018

      I’m not trying to give the modern fundamentalist view, but the traditional view that Christians have had over the centuries.

      • Robert
        Robert  April 2, 2018

        “I’m not trying to give the modern fundamentalist view, but the traditional view that Christians have had over the centuries.”

        But it simply does not do justice to the great importance traditional Christianity attached to caring for the sick, widows, and orphans or even just living a good moral life with respect to personal matters, ie, not lying, cheating, committing adultery, etc. In traditional Christianity (as in traditional Judaism, and other traditions), these things were all important to ‘making a person right with God’. It is not simply a matter of “belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about salvation, and that believing in his death and resurrection will make a person right with God.” That’s a terrible caricature.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2018

          None of those things can bring salvation, in traditional Christianity, apart from the sacrifice of Christ. Otherwise there’s no reason to try to convert anyone. You just have to urge them to be good people.

          • Robert
            Robert  April 3, 2018

            “None of those things can bring salvation, in traditional Christianity, apart from the sacrifice of Christ. Otherwise there’s no reason to try to convert anyone. You just have to urge them to be good people.”

            It is not just believing in Jesus’ sacrifice, but following his example, living a life of grace, love, and sacrifice for others. If you want to characterize the heart of traditional Christianity, you can’t start with the sola fide of Luther and Calvin. Otherwise, how can you possibly understand all the religious orders, hospitals, orphanages, St Francis of Assisi, etc? It is about conversion of life, not just touting a cheap soteriology.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 4, 2018

            Not so sure about that. Look at the Christian creeds! Reads the writings of the church fathers!

          • Robert
            Robert  April 4, 2018

            “Not so sure about that. Look at the Christian creeds! Reads the writings of the church fathers!”

            I suspect you’re arguing against something I have not said. I’m surely in agreement with most of the fathers and a fundamentalist appeal to creeds is irrelevant and cannot possibly erase hundreds of years of lived reality. One cannot point to any ancient creed that supposedly denies the fundamental importance of following the moral teachings of Jesus, or opposes caring for the sick, widows, and orphans, or living a good moral life with respect to personal matters, ie, not lying, cheating, committing adultery, or that says we should not follow the example of Jesus and live a life of grace, love, and sacrifice for others?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 6, 2018

            For Christainity, historically, “being a good person” is not what provides your salvation.

          • Robert
            Robert  April 6, 2018

            “For Christainity, historically, ‘being a good person’ is not what provides your salvation.”

            But my point is that one should not narrow ‘the heart of Christianity’ to soteriology, as is sometimes done by some fundamentalists.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  April 9, 2018

            I’m reading Candida Moss’s The Myth of Martyrdom and she makes the case that some early Christians were anything but moral in a sense that modern social gospel Christians would appreciate. They thought dying for their faith, even if they had to commit horrendous crimes themselves to bring it about, was the key to salvation and heavenly bliss. What contemporary scapegoats do they remind you of?

  11. Avatar
    Tony  April 2, 2018

    In reading this post I’m reminded of the Christian Creeds which ultimately are based on an hypothesis turned into a confessional statement of faith, and subsequently a statement of fact. Of course, the initial purpose of creeds was to fight heresies such as Marcionism or Arianism. The Christian creeds persist to this day and children are still forced to recite and internalize them.

    I’m wondering if some of your followers are interpreting the Christian historical narratives of scholars such as yourself as creeds, and are seeing alternative hypotheses as heresies to be fought. That might explain the nature of some of the comments on your blog.

  12. webo112
    webo112  April 2, 2018

    In regards to the empty tomb, I have always found it interesting that the disciples do not anticipate Jesus resurrection, based on his prophesies…you would think they in fact would expect to find the empty tomb. You would think that the empty tomb would in fact be a sign of the prophesized resurrection – yet, as you pointed out, the reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb is not described as so.

    The followers were not anxiously awaiting by the tomb to see if he was resurrected, instead only the (various) woman go there to prepare his body etc. I think further lending evidence that the historical Jesus did not make asserted claims that he would be resurrected after his crucifixion.

    Professor is this a fair conclusion to arrive to?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      Interesting point. It’s usually argued by believers that the disciples just never “got it.” But I think your view is somewhat more persuasive.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  April 4, 2018

        I noted in January that Jesus’ burial was an unnecessary component for messianic prophecy even though Paul includes it as part of what was passed on to him. Mark includes a tomb story for *other* reasons. I’ve wondered whether Paul excluded part of the creed due to his own motivations. I can’t help but think a piece is missing and originally went something like—Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried according to the law, (or scriptures, meaning the law) that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures. Not to mention, Mark has Jesus die according to prophecy, buried according to the law, and resurrected according to prophecy. It falls in line with the creed.

        Paul wouldn’t have mentioned a tomb story if he thought it meant having to explain why Jesus was buried according to Jewish cutstoms when he supposedly set everyone free from the law. It’s much easier to just say he was buried and leave it at that.

    • Avatar
      mikezamjara  April 3, 2018

      very good point my friend

  13. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  April 2, 2018

    Professor, I’m interested in your thoughts about the theory advanced by Burton Mack that Jesus was a teacher of wisdom (the “Kingdom of God” actually spread on the earth there and then) but not an apocalyptic; and that one of his earliest groups of followers read and interpreted his teachings without any apocalyptic overtones (the “Jesus People”) while other groups (which he calls the “Q” People and the “Thomas People” etc) read his teachings differently (apocalyptic and Gnostic, respectively) ? How do you suppose that Professor Mack disregards all of the “evidence” that Jesus preached an apocalyptic message simply as post-Easter developments and a part of the “myth-making” of a specific group of Q People?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      Yes, I think that’s completely wrong. It was a wave of scholarly thought in the 80s and 90s and on into this century, but it never took over and seems now to be on the wane.

  14. Avatar
    emersongreen  April 2, 2018

    “Jesus was arrested for being a troublemaker, charged with crimes against the state (proclaiming himself to be the king, when only Rome could rule), publicly humiliated, and ignominiously tortured to death. This was not at all what the disciples expected.  It was the opposite of what they expected.  It was a radical disconfirmation of everything they had heard from Jesus during all their time with him.  They were in shock and disbelief, their world shattered.  They had left everything to follow him, creating hardship not only for themselves but for the families near and dear to them – leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves and doubtless to suffer want and hunger with the only bread-winner away from home to accompany an itinerant preacher who thought the end of history was to arrive any day now.”

    This really helped me empathize with the followers of Jesus after the crucifixion. It’s also an interesting counter to the ‘who would die for a lie’ argument. Christian apologists are assuming there that people are entirely rational actors who always admit when they’re wrong as soon as disconfirming evidence appears. It’s not hard to imagine distraught cult members – with a lot of sunk cost, who left their families to starve, immensely pressured by cognitive dissonance – grasped for anything they could cling to and ran with it. (Assuming we know the disciples were martyred in the first place, which we don’t.)

    Anyway, I’m glad I signed up for this blog! It makes for fun reading and I’ve already learned a lot in the backlogs. Thanks!

  15. Avatar
    Eskil  April 2, 2018

    Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus simply died and went straight to Heaven without any zombie stories. Is that the case? How would you explain that?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      I don’t think it indicates one way or the other whether he appeared to his disciples first.

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 2, 2018

    Say, I can’t move on from “Easter” without mentioning the broadcast of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live.” I’d never actually seen or heard that musical before – didn’t care enough to check it out until it came on free TV.

    I thought the *performances* were great, and the staging. But I regretted the inclusion of things like Mary Magdalene having been a prostitute, the “innocence of Pilate,” and so forth. The main plot seemed to be that hordes of people were screaming for Jesus, then turning against him for no reason except their own fickleness. Did the producers not realize those elements in the Gospels, written by Gentile Christians, were meant to blame the Jews? Specifically *as* Jews?

    Interesting bits: Judas lamenting that his betrayal of Jesus wasn’t his own choice (always a problem: if the whole thing was somehow “necessary,” why was Judas vilified for doing what had to be done?). Their making it clear Jesus did have some kind of “powers,” by showing him performing healings. His *extreme* chattiness on the cross. And finally, their giving no hint, one way or the other, as to whether there would be a “resurrection.” So this was a story – the story they chose to tell – in which what was going to happen *after* Jesus’s death didn’t matter at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      It’s a great play. I have my students watch the movie, also great, for my Jesus in Scholarship and Film course.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 9, 2018

      I think JCSS is more about contemporary hero worship than about Jesus, much as The Crucible is about McCarthyism, not Salem.

  17. tompicard
    tompicard  April 3, 2018

    1) What recorded statement(s) made by Jesus in the Gospels leads you to the conclusion that he believed in imminent appearance of zombies (resurrection entailing physical bodies) ?

    2) if those (i think very very few) statements can be understood either metaphorically or literally, SHOULDN’T it be wiser to assume the former rather than latter which ascribes to him a belief that is both supernatural and also silly?

    p.s. I tend to agree with Mike L. that Matthew meant the zombies described at the end of his Gospel to be understood metaphorically.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2018

      THe conflict with the Sadducees over “whose wife will she be?” “at the resurrection,” for example. Or eating with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom. My view is that one should not assume an ancient author is being metaphorical because we moderns consider he views silly.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  April 8, 2018

        doesn’t Jesus answer imply that Abraham Isaac an Jacob were alive 400 years after their physical bodies were deposited in a cave at machpelah ?

        if the patriarch’s resurrection were of their literal physical physical bodies, where were they?

        if on the other hand by saying the patriarchs were figuratively resurrected/ figuratively alive it is understood to mean they were dearly loved by God then the Sadducees would have no grounds to continue the challenge. Additionally, it’s completely consistent with jesus’ teachings that health and maintenance of the physical body is of secondary importance in comparison to a person’s relationship to Heaven, whereas an overly concern and value of the physical is somehow out of place.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 9, 2018

          He thinks they’ll be alive at the resurrection, in any event. It’s not clear what he thinks they are doing or where they are (if anywhere) now.

          • tompicard
            tompicard  April 9, 2018

            it seems to me he thinks they are alive NOW, or at the least at the time of Moses. And maybe even the Sadducees agreed to the point,
            not just that they WILL BE alive at the (future?) resurrection.

            and if their being alive now is right, then it seems to have absolutely no correlation to where their old physical corpses are residing.
            anyway that is one point of view.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 9, 2018

        Is it just me being too cranky, or is the recurring zombie metaphor for resurrection stories just a little too cute?

  18. Avatar
    FluminenseFC82  April 3, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, a wonderful summary of today’s meaning of Easter in modern Christian churches. Well done. Thank you.

    As your colleague, Dr. James Tabor has studied, written and published, Paul/Saul and his Christology is a major force in spreading and growing the Gentile/pagan side of the “faith.” When I super-impose the full context of the Hellenistic Roman Empire and geopolitical and socioreligious infrastructure over and onto Second Temple Judaism and the Messianic Era, to me personally the gradual and eventual overshadowing (and eventual success) of Paul’s “Neo-Religion” opened up to all Gentiles, with several Greco-Roman ideals of Apotheosis, throughout the Empire (endearing the social classes struggling to survive — blossoming welfare system) takes on an entirely DIFFERENT form than Jesus the Reformer had ever intended! Notwithstanding Jesus’ true pure teachings/reforms, the new Gentile religion was too far gone, popular, and honestly distorted — particularly when the Jewish-Roman War wiped out so many of the outlying sects and those in Jerusalem by 70 CE! Which might have been some of Jesus’ very Jewish 2nd generation followers? Perhaps?

    And I am utterly challenged to find out WHY did Paul go to Arabia for 3-years and WHAT was it that he learned there (about Jesus)? Because when Paul returned from Arabia he obviously had a different version of “the Way” and the Kingdom of God than the disciples and the Jerusalem Council had, yes? Any thoughts?

    Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2018

      I don’t think he went into the desserts of Arabia to meditate, reflect, and develop his views. I think he went to the cities of the Nabatean Kingdom (then called Arabia) to begin his missionary work. He clasims that he realized the significance of Jesus for Gentiles as soone as he had his vision.

      • Avatar
        FluminenseFC82  April 4, 2018

        Thank you Dr. Ehrman.

        With yours or any other known or fairly well-known history of 1st century Nabatea, are there alignments or hints of alignments in Jesus’ or Paul’s teachings, reformations, concepts with those in Nabatea? Does Paul’s immediate decision to go there have anything to do with Jesus’ Arabic background? Is this little clue(?) worth exploring?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 6, 2018

          I don’t think so. Nothing suggests Jesus had an Arabic background. His family were lower-class peasants in rural Galilee.

  19. Avatar
    Stanislaw Ruczaj  April 4, 2018

    Prof. Ehrman,

    You write that the empty tomb was not enough to convince anyone of resurrection. It was visions that convinced the disciples. Therefore, we don’t need to accept the empty tomb story to explain the belief in Resurrection.

    I have two questions:

    1) What do you make of D. Allison’s argument for the historicity of the empty tomb. Allison says that there was no reason for the disciples to invent the story, because after the death of Jesus they were “emotionally down but not theologically out”. Death of Jesus was something they expected within their apocalyptic frame of thought. The discovery of the empty tomb changed that.

    2) This leads me to a second question. You seem not to consider the possibility that even though the empty tomb was not *sufficient* for the belief in resurrection, it was still *necessary* for it. What ultimately convinced people that Jesus was risen were visions, but they would not be interpreted like they were if there was no empty tomb.
    What are your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2018

      1) No, the empty tomb didn’t change that: their visions of Jesus did 2) It wasn’t necessary. People came to believe in the resurrection without knowing anything about an empty tomb. See, e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3-8. It’s all about appearances of Jesus.

      • Avatar
        Stanislaw Ruczaj  April 5, 2018

        OK. So visions were enough for the disciples, but when the visions stopped, the apostles needed something more to convince people of the truth of their beliefs? And that’s how the story of the empty tomb started to circulate?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 6, 2018

          Maybe — but there’s no record of the empty tomb leading to faith. I think the stories of the appearances continued to be told. The empty tomb was told to convince people who were already believers that the resurrection was an actual physical resuscitation of the body, something that was debated in the early church.

          • Avatar
            Stanislaw Ruczaj  April 8, 2018

            Thank you! I have one last question: why do you think the earliest disciples believed that the resurrection was “an actual physical resuscitation of the body”, if that issue was debated later? I mean, they had other options, so why did they choose this particular one? Was it something in their beliefs that forced them to interpret their visions in this physical way?

            All the best,
            Stanislaw

          • Bart
            Bart  April 8, 2018

            The earliest ones thought this becaues they were Jewish apocalypticists who believed that *all* bodies would literally be raised, in physical form, at the end of time.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  April 9, 2018

            The Ascension would better explain the end of the appearances than the empty tomb, would it not? And the coming of the spirit at Pentecost would be the evidence that Jesus is alive and well and sitting at the Father’s right hand. No?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 10, 2018

            Sorry, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. (Why would the empty tomb explain the end of appearances?)

  20. Avatar
    Jgapologist  April 7, 2018

    Hi Bart

    What do you make of skeptical James? He did not seem to believe at first.

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