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Brian and the Apocalyptic Jesus Parts 1

I have decided to give, in three installments, the paper that I read for the  Life of Brian conference.   It was written for a general audience, even though scholars were in the crowd as well.   It includes some short clips from the movie, which I showed by way of Power point, and which my computer assistant on the Blog, Steve Ray, managed to load up here for us.  What I have to say makes better sense with the clips (there is one in this installment and two in the third), so I recommend looking at them at the proper time in the paper.   The rest is self-explanatory: so here is the opening bit of the paper.


When the Life of Brian came out in 1979, I was an earnest and devout 23-year old student at Princeton Theological Seminary, studying for ministry.   Even though Princeton Seminary at the time was not, on the whole, strongly conservative in its theological orientation, I was.   I had come to the school from Wheaton, an evangelical Christian liberal arts college; and before that I had studied at Moody Bible Institute, a bastion of fundamentalism in Chicago.   By the time I was at Princeton Seminary, I was moving away from my evangelicalism, but I was still a sincere and committed conservative Christian, and even though I knew very little about the Life of Brian before seeing it – apart from the ghastly rumors that had been floating around in evangelical circles – I was certain that I would find it offensive to my religious sensibilities.

And sure enough, I was right.   As a result, I felt deeply guilty at laughing when I knew that as a committed Christian I was supposed to be scowling.  But afterward I combatted this moral failing by telling everyone I knew the theological shortcomings of the film.

The one scene that I found particularly offensive at the time is not one that would immediately occur to most viewers as particularly troubling to conservative Christian sensibilities.   It is the scene where we find a group of apocalyptic preachers of doom in the midst of Jerusalem.

Please watch video segment in the page as to remain in context with outline.


The reason I found the scene offensive was that I knew full well that Jesus himself was reputed to have delivered some rather graphic apocalyptic discourses (as in Mark 13); moreover, at this transitional stage of my theological thinking, I had already begun to see that the majority of biblical scholars outside the ranks of the conservative evangelicals had good reason to think that Jesus’ overarching message was in fact one of coming apocalyptic doom.   By suggesting that a Jewish apocalyptic preacher from Galilee was simply regurgitating the kind of fluff and nonsense that could be found on any street corner in Jerusalem, the film – I thought – was completely undercutting the powerful and distinctive message of Jesus himself.   The scene was not as obviously offensive as, say, Always look on the Bright Side of Life, but in many ways for me it was the most dangerous scene of them all.  In a far more subtle way it undercut the very core of Jesus’ message and mission.   And it made him, by implication, a complete crazy like these other apocalyptic wackos.

And so I assured everyone I knew – including my three seminary friends who went with me to see it, while we were still in the parking lot – that it wasn’t like that at all.  Jesus’ message was distinct, a revelation from God.  He was not simply mouthing typical visionary mumbo-jumbo.

A few years after that I had calmed down a bit; my views of Jesus had begun to alter significantly, and my knowledge of first century Palestinian Judaism had developed significantly.  It’s not that I came to think that Jesus too was a loony set loose on the curious crowds of Jerusalem.   But I had come to see that Jesus’ message really was thoroughly apocalyptic, and that it was not entirely unique.   It participated much more broadly in the apocalyptic stream of tradition of his day and time.

In Jesus’ day this apocalyptic stream of tradition was not usually propagated by the likes of those crazies of the film clip we have just seen.   The scene is a parody.   But as with all good parody, it embodies a kind of historical truth, and by providing a caricature of historical reality it highlights a certain aspect of that reality, allowing us to look beyond the incidentals – in this case the spoofed preachers themselves – to the heart of the matter, the apocalyptic fervor of the time.  The parody, in other words, has a solid historical basis that is exploited through manipulation of the peripheral matters in order to emphasize a central point.

With the exception of the fourth figure in the scene, who really is an idiot, the reason these apocalyptic preachers seem so funny in the film is not only because of their gloom and doom predictions and physical appearance, but also because of their absurd context.    Brian joins them, after all, after taking a Star Wars inspired trip through space, and crash landing in the heart of Jerusalem, only to emerge unscathed.  One could argue that this is a particularly appropriate context to introduce our eschatological doomsayers, as what is apocalyptic eschatology if not a kind of ancient science fiction involving greater heavenly powers, bizarre supra-human creatures from space, cosmic battles beyond the ken of mere mortals, fantastic flights of fancy concerning ultimate reality that cannot be experienced, sensed, or even comprehended by the normal person walking down the dusty streets of first century Jerusalem?

But if you would remove these street preachers from their absurd context in the film and place them instead in known contexts of antiquity, would their preaching really seem all that disjunctive with what we know of that world otherwise?      To answer the question, simply imagine someone from the Monty Python crew mouthing the words of John the Baptist:  “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree that does not produce fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”

Or the words of Jesus the son of Ananias, from Josephus  (Jewish War 6.5.3):  “Woe, woe to Jerusalem….  A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house, a voice against the bridegrooms and the brides, and a voice against this whole people!.”   We should not forget that Josephus tells us that the Jewish rulers thought that this Jesus spoke “with a kind of divine fury”, and that Jesus “did no leave off his melancholy ditty,” until finally the Roman procurator Alvinus “took him to be a mad man.”

Or imagine one of Monty Python’s cast intoning the words from the Qumran War Scroll: “During the remaining 33 years of the war the men of renown, those called of the Congregation, and all the heads of the congregation’s clans shall choose for themselves men of war for all the lands of the nations (col. 2).… The first division shall heave into the enemy battle line seven battle darts. On the blade of the first dart they shall write, “Flash of a spear for the strength of God.”  On the second weapon they shall write, “Missiles of blood to fell the slain by the wrath of God.”  and so on. (col 6) …

Any of these apocalyptic preachings from roughly the time of Jesus could easily be parodied.  To parody them is not necessarily to mock them.  It is to concentrate on a key topic by caricaturing the peripherals.  The key topic of all these declarations – those of Monty Python’s street preachers, of John the Baptist, of Jesus son of Ananias, of the War Scroll, and of Jesus of Nazareth – the key topic is that the end of the current order of things is imminent, disaster is soon to strike, God is soon to intervene, and people need to repent in order to be ready.


I will pick up at this point of my paper in the next point, as I move on to talk about how the film caricatures the “biblical epics”  (especially the sermon on the mount), and about what this parody should alert us to as those interested in the narratives of the Bible — especially the Gospels.

Brian and the Apocalyptic Jesus Part 2
Day Two of Jesus and Brian



  1. Avatar
    fishician  June 27, 2014

    Any comments on how conservative scholars skirt the passages in the Gospels and later epistles suggesting that the earliest believers expected Jesus to return within their lifetime to establish the kingdom of God on earth and set everything right? I realize they can’t accept that Jesus was wrong about this, but how do they rationalize this?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2014

      Each passage would be dealt with differently. E.g., Mark 9:1 would be understood as a reference not to the end of the age, but to the transfiguration (the story of which begins in 9:2). Etc.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 27, 2014

    The concept that there were many street preachers preaching messages similar to what Jesus preached seems quite important since many, including Thomas Jefferson, have contended that Jesus presented a very “unique” set of ethics.

  3. Avatar
    gavriel  June 27, 2014

    I have a question that has haunted me for quite some time: Is it possible that Jesus and his followers in reality was a rather crazy apocalyptic group, but accidentally became transformed and shaped into something more civilized by learned followers like Paul and the gospel writers, drawing on Jewish religious wisdom traditions and folklore?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2014

      It depends on what you mean by “crazy” — and what criteria you are using to establish “craziness.” But if you’d like to see how Jesus’ message was transformed into the message of later Christians, that’s something I deal with at length in How Jesus Became God.

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  June 30, 2014

        I like gavriel’s question. Albert Schweitzer discusses this at length but I’m not sure if I’ve heard of early Christianity discussed in terms of the move from uneducated Galileans to the more educated believers. There are discussions of rural to urban and people like to emphasize that the apostles were uneducated but are there discussions of what would be involved in oral tradition moving from the uneducated to the educated? Would it be similar to the idea that the earliest period of texts was the most uncontrolled?

        I also noticed in Mark Smith’s “Memoirs of God”, part of the bibliography is a page with a bibliography of collective memory and amnesia. He also thanks Gregory Sterling for bibliographic aid in NT studies pertaining to memory.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 30, 2014

          Yes, there is probalby some connection. In the earliest period of copying, few copyists would have been well-trained.

  4. Avatar
    maxhirez  June 28, 2014

    “A few years after that I had calmed down a bit; my views of Jesus had begun to alter significantly, and my knowledge of first century Palestinian Judaism had developed significantly. ”

    This gets to the heart of an interesting point about your journey from evangelical to atheist: can you really manage to get a PhD in divinity/religious studies, etc. and not have the basic exposure to general apocalyptic contextual historical materials that make the point of the clip evident?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2014

      All PhD’s would be *exposed* to such views. But that doesn’t mean they would have to accept them!

  5. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  June 29, 2014

    Brilliant comedians, those guys were/are. You’ve made me want to watch it again. Thanks for sharing that. Are all of your colleagues and friends jealous that you presented at this venue, and met Jones and Cleese?

  6. Avatar
    danielkurtenbach  June 29, 2014

    Much of Jesus’s teaching could, perhaps, be considered a ‘A Guide for Surviving the Apocalypse.’ The Essenes had their own approach to this question, and Paul had some practical advice for the members of his churches on how to conduct themselves until the Son of Man returned. Did other apocalyptic preachers of the era offer much guidance or provide instructions beyond just “repent”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 29, 2014

      Yes indeed. Think about John the Baptist, for example. Repenting usually meant turning to some *other* form of life, and one needs to know what that is before one can sensibly repent….

      • TracyCramer
        TracyCramer  June 29, 2014

        I read that “repent” means to “turn around” or “turn to”. Can a historian say what a person specifically “turned to”, for the people of that era?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 30, 2014

          Depends on who was urging the person to repent!

          • TracyCramer
            TracyCramer  July 1, 2014

            Dear Bart,
            For John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, can historians say *what* these prophets would have been asking the audience to turn around to? And would their audience have understood what that meant for them to do? thank you, tracy

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 2, 2014

            For Jesus, yes; with John it’s harder. You might want to look at my book on Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet where I discuss Jesus’ teachings (and a bit about John’s)

  7. Avatar
    lifeiznuts  July 18, 2014

    Bart, this is off topic a bit, but I remember you using a ridiculously long word that included “apocalypticist” in it. You used it in a seminar I attended. Would you have any idea what that word was? Maybe it was two words. I can’t remember. Obviously.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 18, 2014

      Sometimes I talk about the de-apocalpyticizing of the tradition. (i.e. that later Christians got rid of the apocalyptic character of Jesus’ preaching) Maybe that was it?

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