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Bart Ehrman discusses the Apocalypticist

This is a very strange video!  One of the strangest I’ve ever been in.  To begin with, the title doesn’t make any sense (I’m not sure who called it this).  The word “apocalypticist” means “a person who holds to an apocalyptic world view.”  So who or what is “The apocalypticist”?  I’ve never heard someone being given that title (“THE” apocalypticist; as if there were just one??).  Maybe it means Jesus the Apocalypticist?  Maybe, but that’s not really what the clip is mainly about.  It’s about the ancient world view of apocalypticism.  It starts with a movie with Richard Harris, moves to an interview with me about what the term “apocalypse” means, goes (briefly) to the question of whether Jesus was an apocalypticist; and ends with Harold Camping, this fellow who claimed the end of the world was coming on May 21, 2011.  It’s a very odd clip.  But here it is!

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Who Wrote the Book of Revelation and the Fourth Gospel?
Some Comments on the Gospel of John: (Based on John Spong’s Book). A Blast from the Past



  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  July 27, 2016

    Bart, you may be interested in a report in today’s UK newspaper, a bible scholar thinks the Jesus story is all a hoax.


    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2016

      Yeah, that’s been around for a while. It’s a flippin’ crazy idea….

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  July 27, 2016

    I think it’s hard for most people to wrap their heads around the purpose of an apocalypticist without understanding the role of divination in ancient societies. Today, if we want or need to predicted future events or states of nature, we use things like mathematical or scientific models to do so. For instance, if we want to know if it’s going to rain next week meterologists have created complex models that will predict next weeks weather with a certain degree of accuracy. Or if we need to know whether the price of wheat is going to go up, economists have mathematical models that can predict with a certain degree of accuracy the change in the prices of commodities. Ancient peoples didn’t have these advanced tools at their disposal. If they needed to know how things would be different in the future, they were pretty much stuck if only one of two options.

    The first option is to simply make an educated guess. For example, a farmer could look at the sky and know from past experience that rain tends to follow from such a sky, or a king might have learned that when the wheat harvest is bad the price of wheat tends to go up. But none of these guesses were even remotely as accurate as our current scientific methods are. The second option was to go to a respected source of knowledge. Maybe to a book or learned person who could offer up some information. But what if that book or that learned person had no idea? Well, they could then appeal to the person or persons who actually know what’s going to happen: the gods. The gods already have knowledge of the future, and if we could simply ask them, then maybe the gods could tell us what’s going to happen. And that’s where divination comes in. Divination is basically a tool bag of methods for communicating with the gods. A prophet, for example, is someone to whom the gods speak to directly. They are simply mouthpieces for a god. A seer is someone who sees visions — visions sent to them by the gods — that the seer then interprets for our consumption. A dream interpreter is like a seer for only dreams. Daniel and Joseph, for example, predicted the future by interpreting dreams. Then there are diviners who intepret signs in nature, such augurs, or cleromancers who make predictions based on throwing bones or lots, and other sign readers. All of these people are essentially appealing to the all-knowing gods for knowledge and guidance of the future. And within their own category of divinationists are the apocalypticists, whose job it was to predict how and when Judgment Day would arrive.

  3. Avatar
    darren  July 27, 2016

    You know, these end-of-the-world-type of characters just have to be right once. Math is on their side in the long, long, long, long, long term!

    • Avatar
      randal  August 7, 2016

      In the end, 2 to 3 billion years from now when the sun goes through its red giant stage an swallows up the earth in fire, they’ll be proved right.

    • Avatar
      gabilaranjeira  August 20, 2016


  4. Avatar
    Judi  July 27, 2016

    The Beginning of the Book of Revelations has colored stones , those are also in the Tibetan Book of living and dying or the colors are , and those colors are call Tikels of Light. The colors and amount of them seem to match. As for future events that is hard to determine, for the Tibetan Book of the Dead, one is seeing a former life, their own , the life they are in and a future life. The Book of Revelations makes it apply to all.

    • TWood
      TWood  July 28, 2016

      It’s called Revelation, not Revelations.

  5. TWood
    TWood  July 27, 2016

    The video is ignoring completely what the you and the other scholars are saying, and applying the ancient apocalypses to our time. Is it some kind of Andy Kaufman styled joke?

    Anyway, you might have missed a recent question of mine (you’ve been busy I know). I asked whether you thought Constantine believed in antipodes (Lactantius certainly did not, and he tutored the emperor’s son).

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2016

      I did reply. I indicated that we have no way of knowing. He never says anything about it in his surviving writings.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 27, 2016

    “Very odd” is right! Did you agree to participate in this thing (not knowing how it would turn out), or did they use footage of you taken from some other documentary?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2016

      I think that I must have been asked to do the interview.

  7. Avatar
    sheila0405  July 27, 2016

    Wow. This brings me back to my childhood, where my pastor preached that the Rapture would occur before he died. My father kept believing that until last year, when he died at the age of 88. I was inculcated with Dispensationalism. It took me years to find out that the Bible is just a book produced by men over centuries, with no Divine Hand guiding them. Right now my brother’s pastor is delving into Revelation, & he was wrong right out of the gate: he said that Revelation is for this time & place. Whew!

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  July 27, 2016

    While we’re on this subject we should note the passing this week of Christian evangelist Tim La Haye, at least nominally responsible (with actual writer Jerry Jenkins) for the truly awful but hugely best selling LEFT BEHIND series of books, based on the fundamentalist dispensationalist “End Times” mythology. Having grown up in the rural South in the 70s when the whole Hal LIndsey, LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH fervor was at its height, I am continually amazed at how this stuff has penetrated into popular culture.

    But if anyone reading this post doubts that a really good book can be written on this theme, allow me to recommend Brian Caldwell’s novel WE ALL FALL DOWN from 2000.


    Caldwell is not a believer but he takes the End Times mythology completely seriously and imagines what it would really be like to live through the “Tribulation”. A dark and disturbing work (what does it say about believers that they’re actually looking forward to this?) which I wholeheartedly recommend. (Makes a great gift for your annoying fundamentalist relatives.)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2016

      Thanks for passing this on. When I was a fundamentalist Le Haye was best known for the book he wrote with his wife Beverly about Christian sex (what was permitted and how it could be creatively pursued). Really.

      • Avatar
        sheila0405  July 28, 2016

        My childhood church also praised that book on sex–in the adult Sunday school classes, of course! Sex was rarely addressed from the pulpit.

        • Avatar
          randal  August 7, 2016

          In my Southern Baptist childhood, sex was was to be dreaded as much as being left behind.

      • TWood
        TWood  July 28, 2016

        Took me forever to escape Dispy fundie nonsense too. I *almost* feel bad about this: https://youtu.be/FvKE3Q0IwJs (at 7:23).

  9. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  July 28, 2016

    That is an odd video! If in Ancient times apocalyptic literature was used to help people keep faith and give them hope that God will soon intervene, would it be a fair assessment that in our modern times this type of literature is not used to give believers hope as much as it is used to promote fear to keep believers inline and from straying from the faith?

    Also, how do Christians today interpret those texts that clearly depict that the events Jesus predicted didn’t happen? I just wonder how they resolve that cognitive dissonance?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2016

      I think for a lot of people today it continues to provide hope. Those other texts: normally they are interpreted to refer to something yet to happen rather than something from Jesus’ own day. (Or to have already been fulfilled in some kind of non-literal way.

  10. Avatar
    silvertime  July 28, 2016

    I live in rural Kentucky. Recently, while sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, I overheard a conversation behind me between an older lady and a man in his 40’s. The topic was about the coming ” end of times” and all of the ‘signs’ that each of their pastors told them had been fulfilled. The lady said that every morning when she awoke, she first checked to see if the rapture had happened. The man said that he expected it at any time. You can’t make up stuff like this

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      Ai yai yai.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  July 30, 2016

      That sounds like rural Kentucky all right.

      • Avatar
        randal  August 7, 2016

        I hear this talk all the time in rural Tennessee. Whenever the Fundamentalist start on how they’re being “persecuted” and “it caint get any worse” I just want to remind them that I haven’t seen and Christians rolled tare and put on poles and burnt alive or sent to you he wild beasts in the arena lately. But I don’t because they’d have no idea what I was talking about.

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  July 28, 2016

    Hmm… yes, a bit strange. I’ve been wondering, how many apocalypses do we have from the era of Daniel to revelation?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      Do we have now? I’m not sure what the number is. (I’m overseas and don’t have any books to consult) The authoritative collection of them is in James Charlesworth’s book on Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

      • Avatar
        brandon284  August 2, 2016

        Being in England, you should drop by Justin Brierley’s studio for another fantastic discussion! It’s already been too long.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 3, 2016

          Ha! Not this time. But I am filming for a TV documentary all day next week. These things are grueling!

          • Avatar
            brandon284  August 4, 2016

            I’m sure it is! What will be the subject of the documentary?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 4, 2016

            It’s the 40-year anniversary of Zeffirelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth. They are having the “Jesus” figure (actor Brian Powell) host the film, as he goes to some of the locations where the film was shot. They then have some talking heads (like me) giving more information.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 28, 2016

    Enough to scare me for sure. Was the video made for some purpose?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      I *think* it was made to promote the documentary film on Harold Camping.

  13. cheito
    cheito  July 28, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    The problem with your assertions is that they are based on the synoptic gospels which aren’t historically reliable. We can’t know for certain that Jesus said what is recorded by the author of “Mark”. The synoptic gospels contradict each other. Attempting to ascertain the truth from these sources is futile and disingenuous.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  July 31, 2016

      Bart’s assertions are based on ALL the available evidence. We can’t know for certain that Jesus said what is recorded anywhere, so we have to work in probabilities. The most likely scenario is all the gospels have some historical data, and some non-historical data. If you throw out everything that’s not 100% historically reliable you’re left with nothing.

    • Avatar
      heronewb  May 27, 2017

      There is a biography on Abraham Lincoln that contained an incorrect date for when he started school. This means nothing can be known about Abraham Lincoln, and the logical default position should be that he didn’t exist at all.

  14. Avatar
    bobnaumann  July 29, 2016

    How do Biblical literalists deal with the fact that the Kingdom has not yet come when Jesus predicted it would?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      They normally claim that Jesus never predicted that it would come yet.

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  August 2, 2016

        I don’t know, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place.“ (Luke 21:27-32) seems pretty explicit to me.

  15. Avatar
    lderochi  July 29, 2016

    My favorite part is when they identify you as “two-time guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”, like that establishes your bona fides.

  16. Avatar
    superfly26  July 29, 2016

    I find it interesting that the theology of the Late Great Planet Earth and Left Behind gives you all the biblical prophecies, the “signs” in current event but still cannot predict when the end will happen. Maybe its not hope but people being lead by a never ending string of crumbs..

  17. Avatar
    ask21771  July 29, 2016

    I’m not saying you’re wrong but, is there any actual evidence that what you’re saying is true I mean how do we know for sure that book of daniel and revelations don’t talk about a modern day apocalypse

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      I can’t think of any evidence that *could* exist. But here is something worth thinking about. Every generation since the first century until today has had Christians who have argued that the prophecies were being fulfilled in their day. Everyone who has argued that has maintained that Daniel and Revelation proves it. And everyone of those people has been demonstrably and incontrovertibly wrong. That should give us pause!

      • Avatar
        ask21771  July 30, 2016

        Yes but you said that the prophecies are talking about something happening in the then immediate future, how can you assume that with no evidence?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 1, 2016

          I’m not sure what kind of evidence you’re looking for. There were numerous books like this written in antiquity, and it is clear they were talking about their own day. I don’t know that this is much debated. In teh book of Revelation there are numerous clear indications that the author is referring to teh imminent overthrow of the Roman empire. (Just search for Revelation here on the blog and you’ll see some discussions of that.)

          • Avatar
            ask21771  August 1, 2016

            then why do so many beleive that the apocalypse is imminent

          • Bart
            Bart  August 2, 2016

            Hope springs eternal.

      • TWood
        TWood  July 31, 2016

        Do you mean the terminal generation didn’t begin in 1948? I know Shallow Hal made this “fig tree” prophecy famous… but do you know where it came from? In The Late Great Planet Earth” he claims many scholars believe this… so it doesn’t seem like it came directly from Hal. I’ve looked and I can’t be sure. Someone had to wrongly decide Jesus was referring to the modern state of Israel. I imagine whoever it was, they must have come up with it after 1948 and before 1970.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 1, 2016

          I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you asking if the last generation on earth really began in 1948? If so, then I would say definitely not. The date (1948) comes form the fact that the “fig tree” that comes to life after winter is taken to be the nation of Israel, which came back to life in 1948.

          • TWood
            TWood  August 1, 2016

            No! I was joking! Sorry. I was asking who first made the very wrong 1948 and fig tree connection? It wasn’t Hal. He says “others” believed before him. My guess is someone at DTS. But I can’t nail down who the culprit is. Questions is: do you know?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 2, 2016


  18. Avatar
    Luke9733  September 18, 2016

    Concerning apocalyptics, I know there’s a common thought that Jesus probably didn’t actually predict the destruction of the Temple and that this may simply have been a prophecy-from-the-event, but from what I’ve read recently, it seems as though this wasn’t a unique prediction on his part. I noticed that Josephus claims Jesus son of Ananias said “…a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house…” – and I’ve read that there were predictions of construction of a third Temple built by God (maybe I was reading it wrong or had the timeline wrong, but I thought the predictions of the new Temple came before the destruction of the second Temple).

    Was this a relatively common apocalyptic idea that the second Temple either would not last or would be destroyed and there would be a new Temple built when God establishes his Kingdom?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2016

      My sense is that Jesus indeed did predict the destruction of the temple, and this is what ultmately led to his demise. You find denunciations of the temple centuries before Jesus by Jewish prophets (e.g., Jeremiah)

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