In my previous posts I summarized the eight lectures that can be found on my new eight-lecture online course, “The Unknown Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”  As I’ve indicated before, this course is not connected directly with the blog: it is a separate endeavor run off my personal website for the Bart Ehrman Professional Services.  You can see it here.

Included in the course packet are questions for reflection, meant to help listeners think through the issues I’ve discussed and reflect on them from their own perspective.  I deal with each of these issues in some depth in the course of the lectures.  If you are interested in these issues, and have trouble answering the questions as fully as you like, or would like additional information about them to go on – take a look at the course and see if it’s your cup of tea!


The Unknown Gospels

Questions for Reflection

Lecture One

  • To what extent do you think we can understand the Gospels without knowing what scholars say about their authors, dates, sources of information, and reliability? Largely?  Moderately?  Not at all?
  • What do you see as the most significant problems with the Gospels and how might these affect how we understand them?


Lecture Two

  • What about Martin Luther’s views could lead scholars eventually to adopt a more historical approach to the New Testament?
  • Do you think that Rationalists like Hermann Samuel Reimarus and Heinrich Paulus went too far in eliminating all the miraculous elements from the Gospels? What is gained by their approach, and what is lost?


Lecture Three

  • How would you describe David Friedrich Strauss’s understanding of the Gospels as “myth”? What (if anything) about this view strikes you as insightful and what (if anything) seems problematic?
  • Everyone recognizes that the Gospels are different from each other. In your opinion, do the differences matter significantly?  If so, in what way?  And if not, why not?


Lecture Four

  • Do you think the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or at least were based on eyewitness testimony? If they were, in your view, would this suggest we can trust their historical accuracy?  If they were not, in your view, does that mean they are necessarily untrustworthy?
  • What is your view about the historical reliability of traditions that circulated by word of mouth for years in fundamentally oral cultures? How would traditions change (if at all), and would they necessarily move away from historical reliability?


Lecture Five

  • What strikes you as the most important reasons for knowing about the written sources of the Gospels (especially if one or more of them used one or more of the others as sources for their own accounts)? That is, how would it help us to understand them better?
  • How do you differentiate between a textual difference and a contradiction? Do you think the differentiation matters for studying the Gospels?  If so, give a couple of examples where you think it might affect your understanding.


Lecture Six

  • Many people think that critical scholarship on the Gospels that focuses on their problems – for example, issues of historical reliability and literary discrepancy – is entirely negative and unhelpful for understanding their message. Others think it is helpful for understanding them.  Explain your view.
  • Explicate one instance in which Gospel differences may help us understand the meaning and/or emphasis of a passage.


Lecture Seven

  • In your view, just how significant is the fact that we do not have the original copies of the Gospels but only copies made many years after the originals, and that they all differ in many ways (usually minor, but sometimes major)? Explain just why it matters, or does not.  In your view do we have a completely solid idea of what the authors actually wrote, a really good idea, a pretty good idea, or no idea at all?  What makes you think so?
  • Choose one passage of the Gospels that is worded in different ways in our manuscripts, explain what the difference is, and show how it affects the meaning of the passage. How significant is the difference, in your view?


Lecture Eight

  • What do you see as the major reasons early Christian leaders wanted to have a collection of authoritative accounts of Jesus life? Why was the collection needed?  What was it meant to achieve?  And in what ways did it achieve it?
  • How did church leaders decide which Gospels should be included in the canon, and which left out? Do you think the process was fairly cut and dried?  How much was it driven by historical contingencies and uncertainties?

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2022-09-29T10:23:30-04:00September 25th, 2022|Canonical Gospels|

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  1. Seeker1952 September 25, 2022 at 11:40 am

    I believe you understand the Beatitudes mainly as forecasts of how the world will be turned upside down when God’s kingdom arrives—with which I agree. But I know that they are often presented as ethical principles people should follow in order to be happy or blessed. Do you think the latter also has a significant amount of validity? I’m thinking especially of things like being peacemakers and merciful and pure of heart.

    Perhaps there’s a difference depending on whether Matthew’s or Luke’s version is being considered? Or maybe there’s some degree of difference between what they meant and what the historical Jesus probably meant?

    • BDEhrman September 25, 2022 at 4:48 pm

      I too think they are ethical principles to be practiced now. Absolutely. The ehtics of the kindom are to be implemented by peole NOW.

  2. Seeker1952 September 25, 2022 at 11:52 am

    My understanding is that there are three main schools of contemporary secular ethics: deontological, consequentialist/utilitarian, and a relatively recent revival of virtue ethics. The last, as I understand it, focuses on people’s character rather than on the moral rules they follow. Forming habits of things like courage, kindness, self-control, honesty, etc are emphasized.

    I know of some theologians who have explored interpreting the ethics of Jesus as an example of virtue ethics. Could that give us insight into Jesus’s character, what he was like as a person? My understanding is that such insight is not possible for the historical Jesus. But could each of the evangelists have “constructed” a character for Jesus out of their understanding of his ethics? What might that character be?

    • BDEhrman September 27, 2022 at 10:55 am

      I’d say that Jesus was not interested in teh classical virtues, which were normally pursued to improve personal character. He had an entirely different understanding of what it meant to be human, and it was completely in relation to the God of Israel and his commands for obedeince, in particular in caring for others rather than focusing on ones self (whether for wealth or virtue).

  3. giselebendor September 25, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    I learned about Reimarus from the Unknown Gospels lectures, of which I am now on my way to hear for the third time (I usually go over everything ” only” twice).

    I grew up learning that the hero and pioneer of Biblical High Criticism was Spinoza. He lived some 50 years earlier than Reimarus and paid a high price ( excommunication, a severe penalty in those days) for his convictions and writing.

    After learning about Reimarus, I was curious to see if Spinoza had written anything about the NT.
    I was astonished to find that with regards to the NT, he sounded pretty much like a Christian in his Tractatus,which to me seems a huge contradiction or paradox regarding his critical ideas, rejection of miracles, and mostly, his personal understanding of God and his quasi pantheistic viewpoint.

    I found this article from a blog about Spinoza’s Christ, and don’t know what to think, how to reconcile these seemingly opposite views.

    I am sure, knowing Spinoza’s character, that he did not write so devoutly about Christ to protect himself, as a Jew, from Christian displeasure.

    It is a comprehensive article:

    What do you make of this? Is Spinoza even mentioned when the Gospels are discussed?

    • BDEhrman September 27, 2022 at 10:58 am

      It’s a great question. But no, when dealing with the history of NT research, Spinoza is not usually dealt with as a major player; at his time peole like Richard Simon (French) and Hugo Grotius are prominent figures. I”m not sure how they all relate to each other though.

  4. Jtwarren September 25, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    Hey Dr. Ehrman. I saw a video about the mcgrews argument about undesigned coincidences. Does this prove anything? It’s like they always say atheists use the same arguments. Bb

    • BDEhrman September 27, 2022 at 11:00 am

      I’ve never found it convincing. At least when I’ve heard it, it has never been triangulated (e.g., these coincidences *here* vs. what kinds of coincidences we typically find here and there in otehr texts). But maybe they’ve done that.

      • Jtwarren September 27, 2022 at 11:20 am

        Do you think it matters if they triangulated the coincidences to prove that Christianity is true?

        • BDEhrman September 29, 2022 at 6:33 pm

          They can’t prove that Christianity is true by making claims about the Bible. CHristianity rests on the belief in the acts of God, especially by raising jesus from the dead. That is true, or not, independently of whether the Bible has mistakes in it.

  5. Seeker1952 September 26, 2022 at 10:16 am

    In one of your recent posts concerning Christian love and salvation, you said something to the effect that God wants us to “imitate” God’s own goodness to the world. My interest in Deism has led me to a similar summarizing statement about morality made by Thomas Paine.

    Such statements strike me as a “fresh” summary of Christian morality. Christians are often exhorted to imitate Jesus. But the material for that seems kind of limited to the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life. Talk about imitating God’s goodness to his creation has a more universal sense to it that goes to the heart of reality—not just to one (God-)man’s life.

    I imagine some such statements have been fairly common in Christian history. I wonder why it sounds fresh to me. Maybe because there’s no (direct) mention of obedience to God’s commands? That it urges a more or less natural benevolence that already pervades creation?

    Anyway, thanks for reinforcing the value of that phrase to me.

  6. Seeker1952 September 26, 2022 at 10:46 am

    With regard to your first big question, I think that knowing what scholars say is hugely important for understanding the gospels. On the other hand though, many Christians throughout history have not had access to that knowledge. It seems to me that, “existentially,” people have always had to bring their own concerns, desires, fears, questions, prior knowledge and understanding, to the gospels. Perhaps the main question for them has been whether and how the gospels help them make sense of and guide their own lives.

    Of course, the knowledge conveyed by NT scholars can be of enormous help with this too. Yet that knowledge-all by itself-seems kind of impersonal, detached, disconnected to their major life concerns. I suppose that statement cries out for a good example. Perhaps the fact that the historical Jesus did not refer to himself as God would be one. But that doesn’t necessarily falsify Christianity in its entirety. If it’s disturbing to people they need to reflect on how their deepest concerns are connected to that belief. Maybe a mythical understanding would work better for them. Or maybe humanism.

    Does that make sense? Is there a phrase-other than “existential”-for this kind of understanding?

    • BDEhrman September 27, 2022 at 11:06 am

      I”m not sure “existential” is quite the right term, given its connotations in the broader philosophical tradition; you could probably keep the idea simpler in your sentence simply by eliminating the words “that, ‘existentially'”

  7. Stephen September 26, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    Re: …the most significant problems with the Gospels and how might these affect how we understand them?

    Wouldn’t one “problem” for us be that these authors were thinking and writing out of a fundamentally different conceptual universe than the one in which we inhabit? Sometimes I wonder if a modern Christian can even be said to “believe” in the same way as these ancient peoples. Doesn’t our interpretation of these ancient documents rest mostly on the assumption that there are points of contact with their way of thinking that we can trust?

    • BDEhrman September 27, 2022 at 11:07 am

      Yup, for me that’s a HUGE problem, and one of the reasons we need historical scholarship, to explain the ancient views that were simplly assumed to be true at the time. disabledupes{4f5c65ba8047045b0d254a38e5127b15}disabledupes

  8. R_Gerl September 27, 2022 at 7:35 pm

    Hard questions. For the lecture one questions, I’d say too much background information is missing to understand the gospels completely. Why, in Mark 15:33-35, does the author translate “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” to “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me”? Could it be that it was common knowledge that Jesus did cry out to Elijah for help and Mark is trying to deny that as a kind of damage control? Or was Mark being theological here in quoting from the Psalms? There’s no way to know without having access to the now lost common knowledge of Mark’s time. For lecture four, I’d say the gospel authors weren’t eyewitnesses because, in the arrest of Jesus (for example), the synoptic authors don’t know which disciple cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. John Mark would know that from Peter, Matthew would know that because he witnessed it, etc.. If Matthew wrote Matthew then, as an eyewitness, he wouldn’t have needed to use Mark and Q as sources; Luke is anti-Pauline in its theology so it couldn’t have been written by Luke (who did accept Paul’s theology). Still wrestling with the rest.

    • BDEhrman September 29, 2022 at 6:41 pm

      Have you seen the lectures? They provide some of teh information that is useful to answering them.

      • R_Gerl September 30, 2022 at 11:35 pm

        Not yet, although I assumed the lectures would provide answers based on scholarship and cover much of the material that is in your books and blog posts. Was the purpose of the questions you asked blog readers about meant to generate thinking about these issues prior to taking the course? Or the other way around?

        • BDEhrman October 2, 2022 at 12:01 pm

          THe other way around. My sense is that most of the questions would be difficult to answer without hearing the lectures that they were based on.

  9. Beemerman2k September 28, 2022 at 8:44 am

    I love questions! Especially big ones.

    Is there a reliable glossary that defines terms I can consult? Son of God. Good news. Kingdom of God. Impure spirit. Ransom, as Jesus means it. Without a clear understanding of terms, I don’t have any confidence i understand the case being made.

    Mark constantly argues how Jesus was so often misunderstood. I question how much Marks book clears up misunderstandings.

    • BDEhrman September 29, 2022 at 6:46 pm

      The difficulty is that each of htese terms can mean a range of things, so the key is to knonw how *Mark* is using them. One place to start is by getting a good study Bible with notes; I like both the HarperCollins Study Bible and the Oxford Reference Bible.

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