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Another Problem with Calling Jesus the Messiah

I have been arguing that most Jews rejected Christian claims about Jesus because Jesus was just the *opposite* of what the messiah was expected to be.  The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who would overthrow God’s enemies and set up a new kingdom on earth in which God’s will would prevail.  Jesus was and did none of that.  He was a lower-class peasant who was arrested, humiliated, tortured, and executed.  He didn’t destroy God’s enemies.  He was crushed by them.

Paul is the first Jewish persecutor of the Christians that we know by name; there is really no doubt that he was bent on wiping out the followers of Jesus – since he himself says so (and says so to his own shame [Gal 1:13); he did not gain any glory for this rather despicable past) (despicable in both his eyes and the eyes of the Christians).  Presumably his reasons for hating and opposing the followers of Jesus were comparable to those of other Jewish persecutors.

But Paul gives us another even more specific hint of why Jesus, in particular, could not be the messiah – at least as he thought prior to becoming a follower of Jesus.  The hint comes in his exposition of his gospel message in his letter to the Galatians.

Galatians is a short but very difficult letter, arguably the most…

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Jesus, the Messiah, and the Resurrection
Jesus and the Messianic Prophecies – Did the Old Testament Point to Jesus?



  1. Avatar
    godspell  November 9, 2015

    This is maybe a bit out of left field, but could this be one reason why Jesus was crucified? To prove to his followers that he was not the Messiah? Given the relatively mild nature of his activities reported in the time leading up to his death–overturning a few tables at the Temple courtyard, questioning the authority of the Temple Priesthood (which to be sure, could also be seen as questioning the authority of Rome)–crucifixion seems like a very harsh punishment. And yet there’s no doubt that it happened.

    The Romans were mainly very ignorant of Jewish beliefs, but could some of Jesus’ enemies among the Temple authorities have pushed hard for crucifixion precisely as a way of demonstrating Jesus was a false Messiah? Because he was hung from a tree?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 11, 2015

      Interesting idea. I think the Romans certainly meant for the crucifixion to prove that Jesus could not be the future king!

  2. Avatar
    MMahmud  November 9, 2015

    But didn’t Christians even before Paul think he died for their sins or was Paul probably the first to come up with that?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 11, 2015

      YEs, Paul got it from Christians before him.

      • acircharo
        acircharo  November 16, 2015

        What “Christians?” I have to say, I am uncomfortable with that term used for the followers in the Jerusalem Church. Do you mean his Jewish brethren? Jesus lived his life as a Jew; his birth, his ministry, his attendance at the Temple, his words of not changing a “jot or a tittle..” etc. By the term “Christians” do you not just mean his orthodox Jewish followers? Wasn’t that also what James was also known for, his super-orthodox adherence to the Law?
        Personally I find it a little confusing – as do some believer friends of mine that I speak to often about this issue – to refer to his followers as “Christians.” I don’t see what he changed about the faith (Judaism) that created a “new strain” so to speak.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 16, 2015

          By “Christian” I mean anyone after Jesus’ death who claimed adherence to him as the messiah.

  3. Avatar
    Mike  November 9, 2015

    Galatians is my favorite. It really shows the personality of Paul, especially 5:12. I regularly use Gal 5:12 when a strict “Word of God” ‘literalist’ wants to argue. Really? “I hope they go all the way and chop their man parts off!” is the Word of God? Try it sometime. Seems to pop their bubble quit well.

    I paraphrase of course, but good luck finding a more accurate translation as everybody wants to dance around this sensitive topic.

    It also shows that Paul was clever and articulate. His double entendre has survived countless transcriptions and translations so we may appreciate it today. Tip of the hat to to a flustered, intelligent Paul (Saul).

  4. Avatar
    Omar6741  November 9, 2015

    Thank you for this very helpful clarification. I find it interesting that a Jewish Christian group called the Athinganoi survived for a long time in the very area to which Paul sent his letter; even more interesting, they appear to have followed all the Jewish laws *except* circumcision — maybe they got scared of the knife slipping, thanks to Paul’s letter?

  5. Avatar
    Omar6741  November 9, 2015

    I wonder if I could ask a question related to Galatians. Right at the beginning of chapter 3, Paul’s outburst begins:
    “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?”
    This first line seems to me to clearly presuppose that the Galatians were actually denying the crucifixion took place, (rather than just its saving efficacy); that’s what is suggested by the insistence that ” Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” before the Galatians’ eyes. There is plenty of other nearby material in which Paul insists on the salvific efficacy of the crucifixion. Here, however, Paul’s wording seems to be designed to insist on the reality of the crucifixion; and this makes sense only if the Galatians denied the crucifixion altogether as well as adhering to the Law.
    No commentator points this out, to my knowledge; can you help me understand what I am missing?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 11, 2015

      It’s usually taken to mean: Remember how I portrayed Christ to you — as the one who died for your redemption! (So you don’t need anything else for your redemption)

  6. Avatar
    Jana  November 9, 2015

    Is this difference in views so great that it drew even a bigger wedge between Jews and Christians? (I’m thinking on context of developing bigotry against the Jews). As a personal note, mysticism could explain the vision of Jesus without developing an entire religion based upon what seems to me to be a literal interpretation of the event. Your revelations are simply astonishing Dr. Ehrman.

  7. Avatar
    stokerslodge  November 9, 2015

    Apart from Christian beliefs about Jesus – were Jewish ideas and beliefs about a coming Messiah based on specific Old Testament scriptures, or did they view any scriptures as referring to a future Messiah? If not, how did the notion or concept of a coming Messiah develop?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 11, 2015

      Passages such as Psalm 110:1 and Ps. 2:7 could be read messianically.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 9, 2015

    I don’t dispute any of this. But I’m wondering… If we today heard that someone had been “hanged on a tree,” we’d take for granted he’d been suspended from a limb by a noose around his neck. Was that type of hanging (which seems rather obvious) unknown in the ancient world? Was it *reasonable* that Paul equated being “hanged on a tree” with crucifixion?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 11, 2015

      It’s usually thought that the term means “impaled”; when people were hanged (as Judas was) it is not usually said to be connected directly with a tree.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  November 11, 2015

        I just Googled this bit about the tree. Acts, Galatians and 1 Peter all reference Jesus hanging from a tree (or something similar). Is it believed that a literal tree was involved in the crucifixion?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 12, 2015

          Only to the extent that the crosses were made out of trees.

      • Avatar
        Robert Wahler  November 12, 2015

        Judas doesn’t hang in Acts 1, as you know. He falls to his supposed death. The New Testament is not history.

  9. Avatar
    tcelikel  November 9, 2015

    Very interesting. Goes to show how easy it is to turn your beliefs around 180 degrees and use the very scripture that compelled you the most for believing a certain thing, to in turn use that very same scripture to believe something the opposite. I suppose this happens all the time when two Christians arguing entirely different points point to the same verse to back them up. I suppose in Paul’s case it was easier to change his thinking because he had a vision, which would be rather compelling for anyone (whether it was a hallucination or something supernatural).

  10. Avatar
    doug  November 9, 2015

    I wonder how much Paul learned about Christianity from the Christians he was persecuting? And I wonder if any of the Christians he persecuted made enough of a good impression on Paul that it helped lead to his vision and conversion? Seems possible that they could have made *some* impression on him. Stuff we’ll probably never know.

  11. Avatar
    essamtony  November 10, 2015

    If I understood you correctly, the early Christians re-read the Old Testament with new eyes. Any passage that seemed to allude to an event that happened in the life of Jesus was declared a prophecy that Jesus fulfilled.

    Now, there was no reason for the early Christians to invent that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and then go to Micah 5:2 and imagine it as a prophecy about Jesus. There is no requirement for the Jewish Messiah to be born in Bethlehem.

    I am reasoning t be that Micah 5:2 grabbed the attention of the early Christians because it matched a story in the life of Jesus; that he was born in Bethlehem, regardless of the reasons that placed him in Bethlehem that night.

  12. Rick
    Rick  November 10, 2015

    “Paul changed his mind, of course…..” I’ve always wondered about that – notwithstanding the road to Damascus story. Have been reading Elis Rivkin on Christianity and Paul. Rivkin somehow saw that ” Paul’s dying and redeeming Christ was at bottom an extension of the “Pharisees’ quest for the kingdom within.” Ok, maybe but – Saul had had been a Pharisee of the Hillel School in which he no doubt wished to rise in wisdom = authority. Did he perhaps persecute Christians as a way to advance himself? Did he jump ship and switch sides seeing an opportunity to rise to the top (of a different school) more quickly? To become a big fish even if it was a smaller pond?

  13. Avatar
    Steefen  November 10, 2015

    Oh, Jesus was quite cursed.
    All you have to do is read Jesus in the Talmud by Schafer.

    In a sense, first century Jews were quite secular.
    What is that one sense? No miracles. Especially, no political miracles.

    Any grounded person would know: no Kingdom of God/Heaven/Righteousness was going to supplant the Roman Empire. That kind of talk would make things worse. Jesus misled people from realism.

    It is quite clear that God did not bestow enough blessings on Jesus, the blessing of Temple Authorities. The blessing for Rome to listen to the message: let my people go.

    In how so many ways was Ancient Rome not Ancient Egypt of the Exodus?

    Paul did not see that?

    No, it wasn’t a curse. It was the free and politically astute free will of the leaders of Jerusalem to not let Jesus continue to make shows of a new kingdom in Jerusalem when Rome did not initiate that.

    Even if Jesus were not cursed by God, the Temple Authorities and leaders of Jerusalem knew the danger.

    Even when it came to healing. At least one rabbi would rather a relative die than to be healed by the name of Jesus. No healing miracles, please.

    Definitely, not another protest movement out of Galilee. Jesus, a Jerusalem outsider, coming from Galilee.
    Judas of Galilee (6 CE), Judas led a violent resistance to the census imposed for Roman tax purposes by Quirinius in Iudaea Province around 6 CE. The revolt was crushed brutally by the Romans.

    Do not bring danger to Jerusalem, Jesus. Sacrifice one man and many will not be brutally crushed by Rome.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  November 10, 2015

      Even if Jesus were not cursed by God, the Temple Authorities and leaders of Jerusalem saw him as cursed and a curse because they knew the danger.

    • Avatar
      Robert Wahler  November 12, 2015

      There is a theory that Judas of Galilee was ‘Jesus’.

  14. Avatar
    TruthMan  November 10, 2015

    Bart, I would like you to consider revisiting this argument, because there is a better translation of Deuteronomy 21:23 that reflects a completely different meaning. Although the LXX and virtually all Christian bibles, as well as some Jewish bibles, translate it this way, it isn’t correct.

    The actual, or better, translation is, “For an impaled body is an affront to God” (NJPS) This is essentially the same translation by Richard Eliott Friedman (Commentary on the Torah, HarperCollins 2003) and Everett Fox (The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books 1997).

    Robert Alter explains it thus: “The meaning of these words is in dispute, especially because of the polyvalence of ‘elohim — God, gods, divine beings, spirits. Some modern commentators prefer the last of these alternatives, yielding the sense: a corpse left hanging is a curse or blight to the departed spirit that once inhabited it. This suggestion, however, does not jibe well with, “You shall not pollute your soil,” a clause suggesting that a corpse left unburied is a violation of the sacredness of the human body, a violation that pollutes the land. (In this connection, compare Antigone.) To leave a body hanging, then, may simply be a disgrace or curse in the eyes of God…” (The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton 2004)

    I would say that Alter’s last assumption quoted here is very close. Deuteronomy 21:23 warns that to treat even a criminal deserving of death with wanton disregard, disrespect and mockery, affronts the image of God in man, and thereby defiles the land.

    Either Paul got it completely wrong because, assuming as I do, he didn’t understand Hebrew and relied on the Septuagint, or he purposefully misrepresented and ‘Christianized’ the event because everyone knew that a person who is crucified dies an agonizing and humiliating death (while naked), and that such a death could only be considered a curse on a person if there ever was one — but not because Deuteronomy 21:23 says it is.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 12, 2015

      I’ve noticed that a lot of people, even experts, are thoroughly confused by Deut. 21:23. The only way I can even begin to untangle the mess that has plagued this passage is to breakdown the verse from the MT piece by piece (irrespective of the LXX).

      לֹא-תָלִין נִבְלָתוֹ עַל-הָעֵץ
      Lo-thalin nivlatho ‘al-ha’etz: general meaning: “He is not to be left hanging to rot on the tree.”
      כִּי-קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא
      Ki-qavor tiqbrennu bayyom hahu: “For on that [very] day you will inter [the corpse].”

      For starters, this is a continuation of verse 22, which states that if a man is worthy of death, וְהוּמָת וְתָלִיתָ אֹתוֹ, עַל-עֵץ “and he has been killed and you have hanged him on [a] tree…”

      This phrase leading from verse 22 into 23 is integral to fully understanding verse 23. Verse 22 is not necessarily saying that the convicted man is actually killed on the “tree”. Indeed, it’s not even totally clear that the passage unequivocally means tree, because the same word for tree in Hebrew, ‘etz, also means wood in general. So it’s just as possible that it’s refering to hanging from wooden beams or poles (or impaling on a wooden spike, which was quite popular back then). This distinction is important, because it gives us a better understanding what the writer is actually talking about, namely, the practice of displaying the body of a freshly executed person in order to make an example of him. In other words, it was common practice at the time to leave a criminal’s body hanging to show he’s really dead, and, moreover, that this is what’s awaiting anyone who does the same as he. What the Deutronomist is saying, in essence, is don’t do that, and here’s why…

      כִּי-קִלְלַת אֱלֹהִים, תָּלוּי; וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא, אֶת-אַדְמָתְךָ
      Ki-qil’lath elohim, talui; walo th’dtame, eth-admathkha: “For [the] hanged [man] is cursed [by] God, and you will not make unclean your land…”

      The word for cursed, qil’lah, has the implication of being condemned by God. That is to say, the hanging corpse is a blight in the eyes of God. God doesn’t like to see dead bodies. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to care for dead bodies in general, hence why in the next part the corpse is described as dtame, or “unclean”. The dead man’s body is impure, a pollutant that becomes a blight on the land itself. It’s also interesting that the word used for land here is not eretz, “earth”, but adamah, “ground”, as if the body pollutes the very soil. The writer is saying that a bunch of dead bodies left hanging to rot is gross, so don’t do that.

      In light of this mundane interpretation, we can conclude that A) Jesus being left to rot on the cross was, in the eyes of the Jews, thoroughly disgusting and disgraceful, and B) might have been the reason for the actual burial narrative in the Gospels, in which, even as Paul himself points out, Jesus is not left to rot on the cross, as Deut. 21:23 says would make him disgraceful, but instead is buried and “nor did his body see decay” (Acts 2:31), i.e. he wasn’t subjected to the disgrace of being a pollutant on the land. Jesus’ actual followers–with the possible exception of the women–most likely fled Jerusalem after Jesus’ arrest, so they didn’t even witness the crucifixion, so they must have only gotten bits and pieces of what happened second- and third-hand. So the disciples reasoned that, if Jesus is the magic man that they thought he was, he could not have possibly been left to rot on the cross, as proscribed by Deut. 21:23, so he must have been taken down and buried right after he died, just as the Torah says he must be. So, in that regard, the death and burial parts of the Gospel narrative were probably just a speculative confabulation based on scriptural interpretation more than on any actual historical account.

      • Bart
        Bart  November 12, 2015

        Yes, the big problem is that the Christians were not reading the text in Hebrew, but in Greek.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  November 12, 2015

          The Christians outside of Judea (both Jew and Gentile) would have probably been reading the LXX, but there’s no reason to dismiss the possibility that the Jerusalem church was reading the Hebrew, or, at the very least, a Targum. I’ll admit I haven’t read much of the Targums, and now that I think about it, they could be a good resource for Jerusalem church interpretations of scripture. Vermas appears to use them a lot. As I’ve commented before, I don’t find it so outlandish that Jesus and the Disciples could understand Hebrew. I’m sure even Paul, who claimed to be a student of Rabban Gamaliel himself, would have had to have knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures just to be able to make such a claim.

    • Avatar
      maryhelena  November 12, 2015

      TruthMan wrote regarding Deuteronomy 21:23 ‘’The actual, or better, translation is, “For an impaled body is an affront to God” (NJPS) ‘’

      I can’t argue the linguistic issues – *affront* verse *cursed*. However, what a quick search on google indicates is that this translation issue is open-ended – with the majority of translations opting for *cursed* or *accursed*.

      Perhaps, with the text being ambiguous both approaches can contribute to understanding the meaning of the text. After all, an *affront* often leads to a punishment, a backlash, a curse…..;-)

      The suspension is an *affront* to God – an *affront* resulting in the land being defiled. The consequences of the *affront*, the defiled land, remain in place as long as the victim is suspended. The suspended victim thereby being contaminated, sharing in, the defilement, the cursing or the punishment of the land.

      According to Deut. 21:23 it is the suspension itself that defiled the land – NOT the victim staying suspended overnight. The land would be returned to its undefiled state once the suspended victim was removed from the pole/tree. The suspended victim would become part of the curse, the defilement, that was on the land while the body remained suspended.

      Why does a suspended body defile the land? What suspension does is raise the body above the land. The land, re the OT, is where the Lord dwells among the Israelites. (Numbers 35:34). The land is consecrated; it is ‘sacred ground.

      Suspension is lifting a body above where the Lord is dwelling. (albeit symbolically). Resulting in the character of the land being compromised or being defiled. The land becomes an abomination; it’s sanctity or purity has been violated. Punishment for defiling the land was that its inhabitants would be ‘vomited’ from out of the land. (Lev. 18:25).

      What opting for *affront* and dropping *curse* does is to remove the stumbling block that the Pauline writer says the Jesus crucifixion was for Jews. History indicates Paul was right – there was something about a crucified/suspended messiah that was beyond the pale for most Jews. *Affront* does not fully capture the issues involved with crucifixion/suspension – as the ambiguity of the Deuteronomy text demonstrates.

      Yes, re the Pauline writer, crucifixion/suspension is a curse that was a stumbling block for the Jews. That the Pauline writer was able to re-work the Deuteronomy curse to suit his theology/philosophy – well that is an issue for Christianity…..

      On another level, apart from the OT theological concerns, we do live on ‘sacred ground’. Suspension results in a body being separated from its natural habitat. It’s a humiliation, an assault upon the dignity of our human nature.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  November 12, 2015

      Good for you, TruthMan! This non-expert finds your comment very cogent.

      • Avatar
        Kirktrumb59  November 12, 2015

        OOPS! Sorry. My comment added mistakenly to this member’s string. Apologize for my inattention.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  November 12, 2015

      Good for you, TruthMan! This non-expert finds your comment very cogent.

  15. Avatar
    dragonfly  November 10, 2015

    Wow, Paul really was a deep thinker.

  16. Avatar
    Robert Wahler  November 10, 2015

    The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who would overthrow God’s enemies and set up a new kingdom on earth in which God’s will would prevail.

    Why do keep saying Jesus intended to set up his “kingdom ON EARTH” when he says it is exactly the opposite in John 18:36? You may not say it here (you say here the Jews were expecting it) but you have consistently in the past, both here and in your books. I pointed this verse out to you before but you said you disagreed, without elaborating.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 11, 2015

      Because I don’t think the Gospel of John accurately records Jesus’ own words.

      • Avatar
        Adam Beaven  November 11, 2015

        in other words there are hints in synoptics that jesus intended to set up his kingdom on this earth?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 12, 2015


          • Avatar
            Robert Wahler  November 12, 2015

            Not from any Master, there weren’t. How about a cite?

  17. Avatar
    maryhelena  November 10, 2015

    Pauline visions of a resurrected Jesus aside, how could the NT writers justify the transforming of the curse of crucifixion, the hanging of a flesh and blood human figure upon a tree, into a salvation theology/philosophy? Visions, after all, are subjective and don’t travel well nor have longevity. A suggestion: One way would be to appeal to the OT and the concept of the Red Heifer sacrifice.

    ‘’With its contradictory “regulations” rendering the unclean clean and the clean unclean, it was regarded as a classic example of a ḥukkah (i.e., a statute for which no rational explanation can be adduced, but which must be observed because it is divinely commanded)’’


    The unclean becoming clean, the curse being overcome, the unclean spirits being removed, all point to the NT writers being aware of changing a non-value into a value. A reversal of fortunes, as it were; a transformation. A situation that is reflected in the Red Heifer OT sacrifice. (The Epistle of Barnabas referencing the Red Heifer sacrifice in connection to the gospel Jesus).

    Applying the ‘principles’ involved in the Red Heifer sacrifice to a crucified and cursed figure – in order to transform the curse into a value – makes possible a rebirth/resurrection salvation story; the cursed crucified one becoming the lamb of god that saves the world. In other words; the NT writers derived the methodology to counteract, to transform the curse of crucifixion to a positive value, from an interpretation, application, of the OT Red Heifer sacrifice. And by doing so, by preaching a crucified messiah, by preaching crucifixion as a positive value, a salvation value, not a curse, early Christians could be accused of breaking the OT Law. A flesh and blood crucifixion being a stumbling block to Jews. (1 Cor. 1:23)

    However, since a non-value can’t become a value without abandoning the very notion of value, it seems that the NT writers were simply transporting, applying, their non-value into value concept into a context other than a flesh and blood context. In other words, an intellectual context, a philosophical context, a theological context. A ‘spiritual’ context where the laws of reality can be side-stepped when required. Old ideas giving way to the new. The Jerusalem above is free from the Law. Thus, the NT writers moved away from political ideas about a messiah figure that would ‘redeem Israel’ to a ‘spiritual’ messiah figure, a ‘resurrected’ figure, that would save the world. (Luke 24:21).

    Jewish High Priests and the Red Heifer sacrifice.

    The first Moses made, the second Ezra made, and five from Ezra and onward, according to Rabbi Meir. And the Sages say: Seven [were made] from Ezra and onward; and who made them? Shimon the righteous and Yochanan the high priest made two each, Elyehoeinai ben Hakof and Chanamel the Egyptian and Yishmael ben Pi’avi made one each.


    The last Red Heifer sacrifice:


    High priest under Agrippa II.; not to be identified (as by Grätz and Schürer) with the high priest of the same name who was appointed by Valerius Gratus and who officiated during 15-16 of the common era. Ishmael was a worthy successor of the high priest Phinehas. He was appointed to the office by Agrippa in the year 59, and enjoyed the sympathy of the people. He was very rich; his mother made him, for the Day of Atonement, a priestly robe which cost 100 minæ. Ishmael at first followed the Sadducean method of burning the sacrificial red heifer, but finally authorized the procedure according to the Pharisaic teaching.

  18. Avatar
    Todd  November 10, 2015

    Very well stated. Very clear as to what Galations is saying.

  19. Avatar
    shakespeare66  November 10, 2015

    Quite fascinating. Paul had that change of thought and the rest is Christian history.

  20. Avatar
    mcgred  November 11, 2015

    Thank for making this post. I have often wondered about Paul’s mental state and wondered why so many Christians are enamored by him and with his teaching. Even when I was a Christian his writing always caused me to pause… Your explanation above has shed an even brighter light on his repeated mis-use of certain verses in the Hebrew bible — frequently used to castigate and slander the Jews but in the same breath used to validate his new so called “life giving” religious belief.

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