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About BDEhrman

Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has served as the director of graduate studies and chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?

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

Some Random Reflections on Our Significance

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

2024-02-19T18:32:51-05:00February 21st, 2024|Reflections and Ruminations|

Changing the Past in Light of the Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do People in Oral Cultures Have Better Memories?

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

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

Were Matthew and Luke Plagiarists?

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

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

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

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

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

February Gold Q&A: Ask Away!

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

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

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

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

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

How Do Scholars Make the Apocalyptic Jesus Non-Apocalyptic?

In my previous posts I’ve given some of the evidence that is generally seen among most New Testament scholars today as a clear indication that Jesus delivered an apocalyptic message:  the end of the age was coming soon, God was to intervene in the horrible state of affairs here on earth, destroy (through a figure called the Son of Man) the powers of evil aligned against him, and bring in a good kingdom, a utopian world ruled by his own chosen one.  This was to happen very soon. This evidence that Jesus was an apocalypticist is old hat to historians of the New Testament.  But how then can some scholars contend that Jesus was not an apocalypticist?  There are several strategies that have been used, some of them marvels of ingenuity.  Two of these strategies are widely enough known among the reading public that I should say something about them.  Both involve ways of reconceptualizing our sources so that, strikingly, it is the earlier ones that are non-apocalyptic. Here's how I describe them in my [...]

2024-02-05T08:58:10-05:00February 6th, 2024|Public Forum|

A Less-Expected Argument that Jesus Preached the End of All Things

In my previous posts I've given some of the arguments for thinking Jesus delivered an apocalyptic message that the end was coming soon with a divine intervention in which all the forces of evil would be destroyed and all people judged.  I’ve actually saved what I consider to be the strongest argument for last, a final coup d’grâce.  The argument is both simple and compelling.  I wish I had thought of it myself. In a nutshell, the argument is that we know beyond any reasonable doubt what happened at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and we know what happened in its aftermath.  The continuity between the two is Jesus’ public ministry itself.  This ministry began on a decidedly apocalyptic note; its aftermath continued apocalyptically.  Since Jesus is the link between the two, his message and mission, his words and deeds, must also have been apocalyptic.  That is to say, the beginning and end are the keys to the middle. Here is how I explain it in chapter 8 of my book Jesus: Apocalyptic [...]

2024-02-07T15:25:09-05:00February 4th, 2024|Historical Jesus|

How the Gospels Transformed the Apocalyptic Jesus

Contrary to the claims of the “Jesus Seminar,” Jesus is best understood as delivering an apocalyptic message – or so I began to argue in my previous post, where I explained that all the earliest Gospel sources independently record Jesus delivering apocalyptic teachings. Equally interesting, some of the most clearly apocalyptic traditions come to be “toned down” as we move further away from Jesus’ life in the 20s to Gospel materials produced near the end of the first century.  Sources closest to Jesus: apocalyptic; sources further removed in time (as the end doesn’t come) less apocalyptic.  And then non-apocalyptic.  Eventually anti-apocalyptic. I resume here with another extract from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999). ****************************** Let me give one example.  I’ve already pointed out that Mark was our earliest Gospel and was used as a source for the Gospel of Luke (along with Q and L).  It’s a relatively simple business, then, to see how the earlier traditions of Mark fared later in the hands of Luke.  Interestingly, some [...]

2024-02-07T15:22:17-05:00February 3rd, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

The Jesus Seminar and the Non-Apocalyptic Jesus. Hey, Why Not?

I have recently received several questions more or  less out of the blue about what I think about the “Jesus Seminar” and its views of Jesus.  I looked and it appears I’ve only had one brief posting on this issue, so I thought I should say a few things, first by explaining what the question means. The Seminar was made up of a group of about fifty New Testament scholars who, in the 1980s and 1990s, met twice a year to discuss the ancient Gospels (mainly the canonical Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas) to determine which traditions about Jesus were likely to be authentic, and which, as a corollary, were likely to have been later creations of the early church as they told stories about Jesus. The members of the seminar would then vote on each tradition – after extensive, learned discussion -- and publish the results of their votes. The voting procedure proved to be controversial. The Seminar’s original raison d’être was to establish what Jesus actually said, and so they [...]

Blog Dinner, Waynesville NC, Feb 7. Anyone Interested?

I'm going to be off to Waynesville next week  for some time away from the hustle and bustle of my normal routine (actually, now that I think about it, what *is* bustle?), to work on the next book.  And I've decided, HEY, time for a Blog Dinner!  Anyone want to come?   It's a chance to shoot the breeze with others about whatever strikes your fancy. Wednesday, February 7, 6:30 pm, place TBD (in Waynesville). The table will be limited to 8 (so we can actually all talk), so that means me and 7 others. The only requirements for attendance to the dinner would be that (a) you are a blog member; (b) you pay your own way – both getting to the event and your meal itself.  Otherwise:  no expense, no requirement, and no expectations, apart from having a scintillating evening together. If you want to come and know for sure you can, zap me a note ([email protected]). Do so right away: if past experience is any guide, the table will fill rather quickly.   I [...]

2024-01-31T21:14:32-05:00January 31st, 2024|Public Forum|

In Support of Religious Studies at a Major University

How dispensible is Religious Studies to the mission of a modern university? To the mutual chagrin of the faculty colleagues in my department, we recently learned that the chancellor of one our affiliate schools, UNC Greensboro, was considering closing down their own very fine Department of Religious Studies ( the UNC "system" has 16 public universities, over which there is a President; each university has its own Chancellor as its chief executive officer). We have signed petitions in support of the department, and several of us have written letters to explain our support. I thought it might be interesting for blog readers to see mine, since it explains why I consier Religious Studies (as a discipline) significant for university education.  There's a lot more that I could say, of course, but that would take a book, not a letter. In any event, we are hopeful that the message gets through, since all of us understand how imporant the academic study of religion is, especially in our times. ******************************   January 23, 2024   Dear Chancellor [...]

2024-01-26T10:34:17-05:00January 31st, 2024|Public Forum|

How to Sugarcoat Scripture but Seem Sophisticated. Final Guest Post by Jill Hicks-Keeton

It's amazing how committed New Testament scholars often try to tame the Bible, making it upbeat and relevant for today when, on the surface, it affirms views that most of us, when we're honest about it, simply can't abide.  And not just the Old Testament celebration of slaughter (those damn Canaanites) and execution (for, say, disobeying parents) but also the New Testament (and not just the grotesque torture and annihilations of Revelation).  Jill Hicks-Keeton, professor of Religious Studies at Oklahoma, deals with how evangelical Christians (one could pick other groups!) try to whitewash the Bible in her book Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves.   This now is Jill's third and final guest post for us on the topic. Once again, she names names. Any comments?  Bring 'em on! ****************************** The ancient people who wrote the texts that would become “the Bible” lived in patriarchal societies. Modern Bible readers who see these texts as scriptural and who also deem patriarchy an undesirable way to order society have a problem to solve: [...]

How To Make the New Testament Non-Patriarchal. Good Luck with *That* One. Guest post by Jill Hicks-Keeton

I'm very pleased to post this second contribution by Jill Hicks-Keeton, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, and an author who does not appreciate "experts" who try to explain away the problems of the Bible (e.g., with respect to women) and sees no need to pull her punches!  This is an unusually effective and interesting instance; here she reveals the the flaws of a recent attempt by a  New Testament scholar to make Paul patriarchally palatable.  She names names. The post is an adaptation from her recently published Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves.  ****************************** In my last post, I introduced the concept of Bible benevolence, which is the rhetorical and intellectual work that people do to make ancient texts in the Bible square with modern moral sensibilities. The Bible is not good by itself. People have to make it so. My recent book, Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves, uses white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. as a case study to illustrate [...]

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