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An Example of a True Story that Didn’t Happen: Part 1

I have been trying to explain (without complete success) that the Bible, in the view of some scholars starting in the early 19th century, could contain “true” stories that “didn’t happen” – or at least didn’t happen as they are narrated.  One important point I want to make about this claim: I am *not* saying that I personally hold this view.  I’m not saying I think these stories are necessarily “true” as far as I’m concerned.  I’m saying that the idea is that these stories were designed to convey truths, rather than objective history lessons.

I talk about that in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, and try to demonstrate the point by giving a couple of particular examples.  The first example will take two posts for me to cover.


What, though, is the evidence (that there could be true stories in the Bible that didn’t happen)?  Or is this simply a theory cranked up by biblical scholars with too much time on their hands and not enough sense simply to let the texts of the Bible speak for themselves?

In fact there is evidence, lots of evidence, and of various kinds.  Rather than go through all the evidence – a task that would take about twenty volumes of detailed, and possibly not altogether scintillating, demonstration – I’ve decided to give just a couple of examples to show what happens more widely throughout the Gospels.  The evidence presupposes a certain canon of logic, namely, that two contradictory accounts of the same event cannot both be historically accurate.  If you disagree with this logic, then the proof will not be persuasive.  But then again, you’ll also never be able to figure out what happened in the past, since you’ll think that every contradictory account is true.

My examples, then, have to do with accounts about Jesus that appear to be contradictory in some of their details.  Let me stress that my point is not that the basic events that are narrated didn’t happen.  Since these particular accounts deal with the birth of Jesus and his death, I think we can assume they are historically accurate in the most general terms: Jesus was born and he did die!  My point, though, is that the Gospel writers have given us accounts that are contradictory in their details.  These contradictions make it impossible for us to think that the stories are completely accurate.  Moreover, it is precisely these contradictions that can (sometimes) point us to the “truths” that the writers wanted to convey.  We’ll begin with the end of Jesus’ story, the accounts of his death.


“True” Stories that Didn’t Happen (at least as narrated): Jesus’ Death in John

I’ll begin with an example that strikes me as particularly clear.  It involves just a couple of details concerning Jesus’ crucifixion.  The issue relates to a very simple question: …

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Is Theological “Truth” More Important than Historical Accuracy?
Would I Be Personally Devastated if the Mythicists Were Right? A Blast From the Past



  1. Avatar
    jonfoulkes  May 29, 2017

    Hi Bart, I understand the concept that a story might not have actually happened for it to have meaning but isn’t that a subjective judgement on the part of the individual? I might find a story is deeply powerful and holds a deeper truth, you might find it puerile and worthless. On this basis, any story could be considered ‘true’ depending on one’s individual perception of it.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 30, 2017

      Yes indeed: it’s a completely subjective judgment!

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 1, 2017

        Most judgments are, by their nature, subjective. We don’t ‘judge’ 2+2=4, because we know that’s a fact. Judgment is only called for when there is an element of uncertainty. Actual legal judgments considered entirely sound at the time they were handed down can be reversed later on.

        What’s beautiful or personally meaningful is about as subjective a judgment as one can possibly make, and yet what judgment could possibly be more important?

        Incidentally, I think the word is spelled ‘judgement’. In time, my judgment about judgement shall be borne out. Then I shall come again in glory to judg the living and the dead. 😐

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 29, 2017

    I still can’t imagine that the Gospel authors knowingly made up and/or passed on non-historical myths to illustrate moral truths. I can imagine that the storytellers in the culture passed on and unintentionally changed historical events over time to better fit these “truths” and then the Gospel authors wrote down what they thought was historical, but it had now become mythical due to changes as the stories were passed along. This is well illustrated by your superb book entitled “Jesus Before the Gospels.”

  3. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  June 4, 2017

    As I’ve stated earlier in some of my other post, but to further comment and add some clarification…

    My studieds and research for over 20 years now has led me to conclude that a lot of the early people who professed to be “Christian” were influence by the non-Christian people around them, some of these non-Christians (and false Christians as the Bible calls them) had ideas that influenced the so-called development of Christian doctrine.

    For instance, it was only several centuries after the birth of Christ that the “official” Church made Christmas an “official” Church holiday and the same was done for Easter, most of the earlier Christians were “Quartodecimans, i.e. they observed the death of Christ annually on the day of the Bible’s lunar calendar of Nisan 14 or the Jewish Passover and once again Roman Emperor Constantine intervened in this dispute among early groups of those professing Christianity and because of Contantine had some influence over this matter some church groups today reject the day of Easter party because political leaders had some influence of Easter’s celebration.”

    So what influence did the non-Christians and “pagans, or heathens” have on the development of Church doctrine and the celebration of holidays such as Christmas and Easter and other Church traditions that are common in most churches down to this day?

  4. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  June 5, 2017

    I dont necessarily view the sometimes seemingly contradictory accounts written in the Bible as “contradictions.”

    I view the Bible as different views of different “witnesses to a news event or crime. Sometimes an account of an event in the Bible may provide additional facts that another account omits.

    I’ve learned to view the Bible doesnt always answer every question we may have about something.

    I have heard used humans to write the Bible in such a manner that it sometimes “tests what is in out heart”. Some people may disagree with some accounts in the Bible because it does not provide enough facts sometimes. While other people with a different “heart” may be willing to accept that God does not always provide all the facts.

    Christ often mentioned the figurative “heart” in his talks.

    Some people say the Bible is wrong but other people say the Bible does not contradict, it depends on how a person may perceive one account in relation to a different account.

  5. Avatar
    dred37@gmail.com  November 30, 2017

    Bart, I am greatly interested in your intellectual and spiritual journey….as you tell your class on the last day of class. I have tried to follow it through your blog, but you digress into explanations of scripture to such an extent I am having a hard time following YOUR story. I have traveled the intellectual/spiritual route concerning Christian theology, scripture, the historical Jesus, etc. from college through seminary and then through other graduate education including the PH.D. So I’d like to dispense with the discussion of myth, history, and such and learn about the psychological/spiritual/emotional journey of Bart. Where can I find such a straight forward and focused discussion? or Can I? Perhaps this should be your next book …. with references to your other works relative to the theological/Biblical content.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2017

      I suppose the place where I lay it out most clearly is in my book God’s Problem.

  6. Avatar
    Eaglesjack  January 25, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman:
    This is my first post, and most certainly will not be my last. First off, thank you for such attentiveness to this blog and your subscribers, and most importantly, for the rather “christian” work of charity that this blog supports. I am happy to be a small part.
    As for questions, what do you understand Mark is trying to convey by portraying Jesus having established the Passover or “covenant” on 1.14 day and having Jesus crucified on 1.15 (Feast of Unleavened Bread-Lev 23:5)? Additionally, do you feel like the “Bread of Life” discourse has any connection to Mark, Matthew, Luke in as keeping the Passover Feast has any implication for the promise of eternal life? Some argue the Quartodecimens keep Passover as a sacramental means which gives eternal life, but I’m not sure that was the concern with the 1.14 vs Sunday conflict..? Thank you, again!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2020

      1. I think Mark inherited the tradition: my sense is that Jesus really was crucified on the Passover day, after eating a last meal. His later followers took the symbolism of the meal and applied it to Jesus’ death; 2. The Bread of Life discourse in John 6 is a still later way of understanding the salvific significance of Jesus “giving his body” (you’ll note that in John Jesus doens’t die on the Passover, but the day before; so he never eats the Passsover meal with his disciples int hat account)

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