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Being Consistently Critical (in the good sense)

I know that by now I’m supposed to  be citing Craig Evans’s best arguments that Jesus was probably given a decent  burial on the day of his crucifixion by Joseph of Arimathea, rather than being left hanging on the cross for a few days in accordance with standard Roman practice.  But I’ve realized that before I get to the first of these arguments, I have to say something about how historians need to use their ancient sources.  The short answer to that question is that they need to use them … gingerly.  And consistently gingerly.

This perspective will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read this blog for a long while and seen how I think we need, consistently, to use the books of the New Testament itself as sources for what actually happened in the past – whether we are considering the Gospels for knowing about what Jesus really said and did, or considering the book of Acts for knowing about the life and teachings of Paul, or considering the letters allegedly, but not really, written by Peter, James, and Jude for knowing the teachings of the historical Peter, James, and Jude – and so on.

But I do need to stress the point to make sense of what I want to say about Josephus, whom I introduced in my previous post.

Let me make the point by telling an anecdote.  This has happened to me a dozen times, but I’ll recount simply one instance.   A couple of years ago…

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Another Anecdote about Being Consistently Critical
Discovered Crucifixion Nails



  1. Robertus
    Robertus  July 22, 2014

    Josephus is obviously very much biased in favor of the Romans against the Jewish rebels of his time and he criticizes the rebels for their shameful treatment of corpses sometimes. So do you think he made up the idea that the Romans might have allowed crucifixion victims to be buried?

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    Scott F  July 22, 2014

    Indeed, when you discussed Philo’s accounts of Pilate’s escapades in Jerusalem, I was already thinking about possible motivations for Philo to portray each incident the way he did. I, for one, assume that my sources are prone to fabrication when it suits their message. I probably need to apply this principle to modern sources as much as I do to ancient 😛

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    Matilda  July 22, 2014

    Years of religious brainwashing absolutely blinds one to common sense and reality. Only the brave of heart can shed the myth. It isn’t easy sometimes. That and people who get caught up in Jesus/Bible cults simply loose their power of clear thinking. Christopher Hitchens said that teaching religious dogma to children was child abuse. In the modern era in which we live, I have to agree.
    I don’t know what it is about the human psyche that is so resistant to facing facts. Fear, I guess. They have learned to fear their own minds and their own judgment so rely on hocus pocus.
    Bart, I have said this before, but thank you for your common sense and work in this area. What your readers/students should understand is that they don’t have to agree with everything you say but can learn to think for themselves- think and question. It is all food for thought and can be used a source of enlightenment.

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    RonaldTaska  July 23, 2014

    Amen! I watch the news by channel surfing from CNN to MSNBC to Fox News and what a difference there is between sources. So, if we cannot get current history straight today, little wonder we have such trouble with 2,000-year-old history.

  5. Shanewag1
    Shanewag1  July 23, 2014

    When it comes to the sayings in the NT (particularly those of Jesus), what do you think of the Jesus Seminar? I know they are big proponents of discovering the “authentic” sayings and then constructing a basic context in which to determine other aspects of Jesus’s life based on those sayings as opposed to creating a context and then seeing which sayings align with that perspective (I believe this is the view Dale Allison takes). What are your thoughts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 23, 2014

      I don’t disagree with the general idea of the Seminar — debating which traditions actually go back to Jesus and which not, on the basis of established criteria, and then making a decision. I vigorously disagree with the view of Jesus that has emerged from the seminar as a non-apocalyptic preacher of wisdom.

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    rsNvt  July 24, 2014

    I’ve only perused Josephus, but I know there is pretty good archaeological evidence for some things that he wrote (it would be kinda hard to ignore Masada). But, if we read him critically, how accurate does he seem in relation to other sources, say Roman archives and such?

    On a related note, Herodotus seems to get credentials from some writers, but even I know that some of it is imagination (how would he know what was said in conversations in Persia if he wasn’t there?). I’ve been fortunate to have Dr. Vandiver, another Great Courses instructor, clear up some of Herodotus via email. You, too, do a good job of answering questions here, for which I am grateful.

    -Robert Shearer

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 24, 2014

      He’s a good historian. But there are obvious distortions — as becomes clear when you compare what he says about the same event in different ones of his writings.

      • Avatar
        rsNvt  July 27, 2014

        Taking into consideration your entry on having “original” manuscripts, how close in time do we get to the time of Josephus with our earliest manuscripts of his histories?


        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 27, 2014

          I don’t know the exact information offhand (I’m out of the country and away from my books), but there are very few manuscripts of Josephus and that they date from the Middle Ages.

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    Blackie  October 26, 2014

    The Canadian poet, Irving Layton, remarked at our university that most Christians had a hard time coming to accept the human Christ. He went on to mention that Jesus would have all the bodily functions and in his list included that he would have broken wind. This created a storm of controversy but our Catholic chaplain agreed. However, too many could not accept that Christ was truly human and seem to favour a monophysite kind of Jesus that he was really only divine with a human shell. I can understand this feeling of seeing Jesus as only divine for he is the believed coeternal divine entity who redeemed us. No human could do this. This dual nature is a complexity hard to understand like the enigma of the Trinity..

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      shakespeare66  August 26, 2015

      I quite agree. Incongruity all over the place.

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