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Who Can Still Be A Christian?

QUESTION:
If historical Jesus scholars believes that Jesus’ main message was the imminent apocalypse, and that didn’t happen, how can anyone who believe that remain a Christian, given that Jesus was wrong on the main focus of his life?

RESPONSE:
This is a great question, and one I get asked a lot. Let me say at the outset that I think it is exactly right in its evaluation of who Jesus was. As I’ve explained in a lot of places, for over the past century – since Albert Schweitzer’s classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), the majority of NT scholars in Europe and the United States have been convinced that Jesus was indeed an apocalyptic preacher, like others of his day. Apocalypticism appears to have been widespread throughout Palestinian Judaism at the time. In rough form (with lots of variations) it was held by the Pharisees (who believed in the “resurrection” at the end of the age, an apocalyptic idea; they therefore probably held to other apocalyptic notions), by the Essenes who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, by apocalyptic prophets like John the Baptist, and probably by a whole lot of the unnamed and unknown Jews who populated the land.

The basic idea of apocalyptic thinkers was that this world was controlled by forces of evil. That was hard to deny. Just look at this place: earthquakes, droughts, famines, epidemics, wars, injustice and and and (and in our world today: hurricanes, tsunamis, nuclear threats, climate change, and and and). Even though apocalypticists believed that this world was created by God, they knew that it was an awful place for most people, and they didn’t want to blame God for that. Whom to blame then? The enemies of God. God had supernatural powers who were opposed to him and his people, who had control, for the present, of this world (seen in natural disasters, violent and oppressive governments, and so on).

But God was soon to intervene in history, to overthrow the forces of evil, and bring in a good kingdom on earth where there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering – no more natural disasters, no more hatred, oppression, injustice, and war, no more wicked kingdoms. It would be a kingdom run by God. Here on earth. In the near future.

How near? Very soon. “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” The words of Jesus (Mark 9:1). Jesus was not referring to a kingdom that would come to individuals when they died and went to heaven. It was a real kingdom, here on earth, with a real king. And peace, tranquility, harmony, and justice would prevail. This would come while some of the disciples were still living to see it. Or as he says elsewhere, “Truly I tell you , this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (Mark 13:30).

And so, the questioner’s question is: since it didn’t happen, how can anyone really still be a Christian? At the very core of Jesus’ message was his claim that the kingdom was to arrive very soon indeed. It didn’t arrive. He was wrong. So … why would someone follow him?

I can’t answer for every Christian, of course. Especially since most Christians don’t realize this was the central point of his proclamation. But there are a lot of (mainly highly educated) Christians today who do know that is what Jesus preached, and yet they remain Christian. How is that possible?

Again, I can only explain from my vantage point – since for many years I myself was one of them, a liberal Christian who knew that this is what Jesus preached and knew as well that it didn’t happen. So why was I still a Christian?

For me, at the time, it was because I thought that Jesus, whatever else he was, was a full flesh-and-blood human being with all the limitations of being human (even if in some sense he was divine), and with that came some pieces of ignorance. Jesus was a man of his time (this was my reasoning as a Christian) and he couldn’t very well have not been a man of his time. A Jewish preacher in first-century Palestine was necessarily a product of first-century Palestine. What Jesus got wrong, in my (former) opinion, was the calendar.

But what he got right was the essential message.

That apocalyptic message was the message that despite the horrible state of things here on earth, despite all the misery, pain, and suffering, ultimately, God was in control. God was finally sovereign. And God would eventually set right all that was wrong. It may not be next Thursday. It may not be in my lifetime. But eventually, God would assert himself.

In this view, suffering is not the end of the story and death does not have the last word. God has the last word. Evil will eventually be overcome by good. There still is hope for this planet. There is a loving God who will intervene – either (I thought at the time) in some kind of cataclysmic act or, far more probably, in our individual lives when we die and are rewarded if we fight against the forces of evil and are punished if we cave into them and go along with them, and become rich, prosperous, and powerful as a result.
For me, even as a liberal Christian, I was powerfully struck by the old hymn, “This is My Father’s World,” especially the lines:

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

I remember singing, and thinking, these lines with real conviction and hope.

I no longer feel or think that way. But I still think it was a powerful message and one that made “sense” to me as a Christian. But no more, I’m afraid. I simply don’t think, any longer, that good will necessarily triumph. I don’t think God will have the last word. I think pain and suffering are indeed with us for the long haul, that “the poor you will always have with you,” and that death is the end of the story.

At the same time, this agnostic view of the world is not an occasion for despair. At *all*. Instead, this view that there will be no supernatural intervention to destroy the forces of evil means I have transferred my hope from some transcendent good to be brought by the ultimate Sovereign, to us, here on earth. We can indeed make meaning for ourselves in the midst of the meanlessness of the world; we can make sense of all the senselessness; we can lead happy, fulfilling, and productive lives. And part of doing so means helping those who can’t do so. We need to live our lives to the fullest, and we need to help others to do so as well. Jesus was wrong, I think, in both the calendar and in his essentially apocalyptic message. But he was right (I still think) that we should fight the forces of evil (which are not supernatural and demonic but natural and human) and work for the good.


Multiple Attestation for Jesus
Carrier, Bayes Theorem, and Jesus’ Existence

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Comments

  1. cheito
    cheito  November 10, 2013

    YOUR COMMENT:

    I can’t answer for every Christian, of course. Especially since most Christians don’t realize this was the central point of his proclamation. But there are a lot of (mainly highly educated) Christians today who do know that is what Jesus preached, and yet they remain Christian. How is that possible?

    MY COMMENT:

    The problem with this type of reasoning is that quoting Jesus from sources that are not reliable and asserting that this is what Jesus taught is disingenuous on your part DR Ehrman. I don’t have time to point out what you already know. I’ll say that if you don’t believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, which in my opinion, is the central message of the ‘eye-witnesses’ then ‘eat and drink for tomorrow you’ll die’.

  2. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  November 10, 2013

    DR Ehrman:

    Its very simple to me that TAX FREE MONEY is the reason for these money grubbing ministers…The sheering of the sheep…People like the Crouch’s put on a good show on TBN (Praise the lord); they live high on the hog while little old grand mothers send in they’re last $5 to these organizations and wind up eating dog food. They simply have no conscience. Paul Crouch says he will stay on the air until Jesus returns. Thats the price we have to pay for freedom of religion. I believe they know the truth; but lets face it, they will not have to pay for anything in the end. We need more people like you.

  3. Avatar
    stokerslodge  November 10, 2013

    That’s a very interesting and informative answer, but it doesn’t answer the question – how can anyone who believes that remain a Christian etc. I presume there are lots of people who would agree with your assessment who would also –in some sense – regard themselves as believing Christians.

  4. Avatar
    toddfrederick  November 10, 2013

    Bart…You have changed the blog format a bit…hope to be able to find your current articles easily. Not sure what to click on.

    I appreciate this statement very much. I have been going through these steps for many years, as I have mentioned before, and am at the point where “I know that I don’t know,” but that I do believe that there is something much greater than myself. I just don’t know how to conceive of it with my finite mind. I’m not giving up.

    I am saving your article to my notes. It is a good resume. Thank you.

    • Avatar
      toddfrederick  November 11, 2013

      I am adding on to my comment above with some thoughts that came to me after reading your article regarding the failure of Jesus’ claim that God’s Kingdom is coming soon.

      I mentioned before that you do spend a great deal of time on the Gospels but not as much time on Paul’s message and theology.

      I am more and more seeing the full Gospel as a two part message…the message of Jesus (with all of the human limitations) and the message that Paul gives that he says he received from the risen Christ.

      I know that you are not a theologian but one who studies the history and the textual content of the documents, and this I think is a theological interpretation but I would like to state it as best I can and will try to keep it short.

      If Jesus was raised from death in a “spiritual body” as Paul states, based on his visions of the Christ, then that changes the ball game that Jesus proclaimed in human form. If Jesus became divine at the resurrection, then he could pass on to Paul the full Gospel that God’s Kingdom will come, or has come, in Jesus, and that through faith we are united with God through the Jesus event now.

      I read this today on a Jesuit website, Sacred Space, that spoke to me in a new way:

      “The Lamb of God ‘takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29); Jesus dies ‘to gather into one the dispersed children of God’ (John 11:52). We can hope that against all the odds, God will win a total victory over evil, and that the Body of Christ will lack none of its members.

      The Church has long faltered regarding the salvation of all humankind. But Vatican Two, and the Catholic Catechism, 1994, now tell us that we must indeed dare to hope that God, to whom nothing is impossible, will achieve his purposes. We work, pray and endure all things for this.”

      The Jesus Event was for all mankind…the whole cosmos….”for God so loved the whole world (the whole cosmos … kasman) that the promise of Jesus did not end with his death. Death ended with his death, We have died already with Jesus and the Kingdom is evolving, though we can not always see it, into the Kingdom Jesus promised, in a spiritual (not material way).

      The promise of God’s kingdom was not a lie, but has come, within us, and we can hope that the lamb of God has taken always the sins of the whole world (all humanity, the whole cosmos) and has reconciled all that is in the whole cosmos and all that will become, to the infinite spirit that is God.

      I think that this message is hidden within Paul, and over the centuries it has been lost or ignored…I am referring the the universality of salvation.

      Again I ask that you spend some time and perhaps a book or two dealing with Paul and what Paul calls “My Gospel.” … How he received that gospel and what it means to Paul.

      Most appreciated.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2013

        OK, thanks. I do deal with Paul in several of my publications (e.g., Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene); but right now it’s true, I am more intrigued wiht the Gospels….

      • Avatar
        Steefen  November 15, 2013

        Before a theology can go universal/cosmic, it needs to at least be successful at an ethnic level, then a national level. Jesus’ theology failed at the Jewish people level. They rejected him leaving him wanting to put his arms around them like a chicken does its chicks. Second, Jesus’ theology failed the nation of Israel. In less than 75 years, Jesus’ message brought a nation to ruin. It wasn’t able to take off the yoke of Rome peacefully and it wasn’t able to succeed against Rome during the Revolt. Jesus’ message did not create a Son of Man empire ruled from Jerusalem. The jump from local Jesus to cosmic Jesus is flawed.

      • Avatar
        Chingwaiwon  December 1, 2013

        Theology is the art of making bullshit looks appetizing. I tried very hard to understand some of that, in the end the competition is clear, what remains is just FAITH. Cut that carp, and go look at the real sufferings millions and millions of real people are enduring everyday. Don’t you real the newspapers ?

        I become an atheist at the age of 14 , and now enjoy the works of Richard Dawkins , Christopher Hitchens , Bertrand Russell, etc. And another great person like Karen Armstrong who cross that intellectual barrier and stays with reality.

        I am now 63, and I still read the bible , history, and everything else i could come across like Bart great writings, and have bought every one of his book from Amazon.

        WW

        • Avatar
          webattorney  December 28, 2013

          I do agree in some sense that theology is a word to describe respectfully something we don’t understand. It’s funny, but as I get older, I believe more in the scientific way of looking at things. Theology is a word to describe everything that lies outside of what we think we know through the science.

    • Avatar
      donmax  November 14, 2013

      I actually prefer the new format and look forward to more (and better) changes. 🙂

  5. Avatar
    RJKinNYC  November 10, 2013

    Bart’s analysis is spot on with regard to what the historical Jesus’s apocalyptic understanding and preaching before his death. But it omits what happened after Jesus’s death, the resurrection experience. That experience almost immediately transformed the early disciples’ understanding of who Jesus was and what his apocalyptic preaching meant. In light of the resurrection experience, the early followers came to understand that the end times had indeed begun just as Jesus had taught. He wasn’t mistaken about the timing but the immediate extent and effects. Paul is our first written witness and and a very good one since he testifies to his own experience of the resurrected Jesus and reports about the experiences of others whom he knew personally. Gradually, during the ensuing years, Paul and others worked out some of the implications of the resurrection experience, and how the end times would unfold gradually. But that the end times had begun with the resurrection of Jesus seems to have been at the heart of the earliest kerygma. What Christians then and now believe is not simply what the historical Jesus taught but what his earliest followers came to believe about Jesus and the end times in light of the resurrection experience.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 12, 2013

      Yup, my next book (out in March) will deal with this (the resurrection and its effect).

      • Avatar
        donmax  November 13, 2013

        I like some of the things you say here except for “what happened after Jesus’s death,” and, “that the experience almost immediately transformed the early disciples’ understanding of who Jesus was and what his apocalyptic preaching meant.” By in large, his earliest disciples continued in the Jewish faith as practiced and promoted by their Master teacher, Yeshua bar Netzer, the Nazarene rabbi. His brothers, his family and clan, all carried on under the leadership of James the Just, until he was murdered some forty years later, long after *the crucifixion*. Paul was never part of “the early followers.” He was a foreign Jew raised in Turkey whose visions were more in keeping with Hellenized Jews (and pagans) and who served the religious proclivities of *Gentiles* rather than Jews before the first Roman/Jewish War and the great *Diaspora*. That’s when Gentile Christianity (mostly Pauline) took root and took over. 🙂

        • Avatar
          willow  November 19, 2013

          I agree, Donmax, having studied this stuff long and hard, and still, in giving up Jesus for Jesus’ God. In essence, I believe that Jesus wasn’t a whole lot different than modern day Christians – even centuries back Christians, who believed the end of the world and the Kingdom of God was at the door and knocking. He even said it, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!” Then, there, not here, now, or at some point in the future. He was clear. Paul, and perhaps John, along with hundreds of years of Hellenistic incorporation gave us the Christianity that we have.

      • Avatar
        donmax  November 13, 2013

        Bart,
        I hope your new book will do justice to the Jesus Movement as a Jewish religious phenomenon, rather than the Gentile mutation it evolved into. 🙂

  6. Avatar
    judaswasjames  November 10, 2013

    With that attitude, I can understand your agnosticism. What I can’t understand is why you believe the orthodox view of the New Testament. It is a polemic, not a handbook for salvation. We know that because of the Scrolls Pesherim. There is no “end of the world”. The end of the world is the end of the world for YOU when you die, usually to be reborn. (Yes, Jesus taught reincarnation, whoever he was.) So, you’re right on the one point that the world will pretty much always be the home of bummers. That doesn’t mean you can’t ascend above it and leave it forever to dwell in the Pleroma. For that to happen one needs to find a living Master, not a bygone dead one. Three billions of Christians have been misled (one dead, two living). There is no Jesus Christian salvation, only living Master salvation. Judas was the coverup character for the successor the church was hell-bent on hiding, James the Just.

    • Avatar
      donmax  November 13, 2013

      Interesting,…especially the part about covering up James the Just. 🙂

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  November 20, 2013

        Go to my website: judaswasjames.com. You can click on one of the hyperlinks to see the full chapter excerpt I wrote showing James is Judas in all four gospels and the Gospel of Judas. I don’t advertise it for sale here, as this is Bart’s site. I give the book away free to anyone asking on a site like this. Email me at AOL for the entire pdf.

    • Avatar
      willow  November 19, 2013

      I’m reading Eisenman’s James the Brother of Jesus. Eisneman’s convinced that the similarities between James and Stephen make them one in the same. Might it not be?

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  November 20, 2013

        Yes, they are. Eisenman’s examination of the Acts 1 segment about the death of Judas and the ‘election’ of his successor is what inspired my exploration of James in “the Betrayal”. The details astounded me. Judas WAS James, inverted tendentiously to hide him. You can read the full chapter excerpt I mentioned above to donmax. I hope Bart will engage me on this (so far he is avoiding this) rather than deleting my posts. These are on point, and I am not proselytizing or advertizing. I GIVE my book away. “Judas” WAS James. There was no other purpose in writing about him. Where is Judas is Paul’s letters? He wasn’t INVENTED yet.

  7. Avatar
    dennis  November 10, 2013

    Bart , one of the reasons that I flatly refuse to engage in any sort of religious argument with anyone ( to include atheists ) , anytime is that I have come to believe that ” the truth ” concerning Ultimate Reality ( whatever that might be ) must always be beyond the reach of our very limited intelligence . Therefore both parties to the battle will be shouting concerning a subject they can quite literally know nothing about . What I have found to be personally beneficial is to fashion an approach to the only life I have any knowledge of ( the here and now ) based on what ” works ” for me in giving meaning , purpose , and deep and lasting satisfaction on a daily basis . This is probably an example of that rank American Pragmatism that European intellectuals despise , but so what ? I have found that the ethical teachings of Jesus are the best ” fit ” for me . For you- I dunno . Did Jesus rise from the tomb ? I dunno . Second Person of Blessed Trinity ? I have no real idea of what those words mean and I suspect most folks who claim belief in them don’t either . I am I a ” Christian ” ? I dunno and why should that matter ? Deeds instead of creeds . The issue is whether I am acting to be of benefit to my ” fellow passengers on our voyage to the grave ” as Dickens put it . I suspect their isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the lives we are actually living my ” atheist/agnostic ” friend .

    • Avatar
      donmax  November 13, 2013

      Outstanding summation of a way of life and personal values that work for you. Well said! 🙂

    • Avatar
      willow  November 19, 2013

      Deeds instead of creeds. I like that. ” Faith without works is dead.” The Teacher of Righteousness did as well – which would be James, as I understand it.

      The more I come to know the more I realize that I know next to absolutely nothing.

      • Avatar
        webattorney  December 28, 2013

        Yes, I was reading James, and the Book of James definitely seemed to emphasize the deeds or works, which was refreshing.

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  November 20, 2013

      I think there are some things we can show for the New Testament, that are provable and of value to showing it isn’t a handbook for salvation. I wrote about it (judaswasjames.com). There is a concerted effort in the NT to hide the presence of an endless coming of saviors to this world…

    • Avatar
      webattorney  December 28, 2013

      Good Benjamin Franklin type of pragmatism. I am an agnostic and agree with you wholeheartedly. I think two people can experience almost the same thing, but their different DNAs will make them arrive at different conclusions on what works best for them.

  8. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  November 10, 2013

    Dr Ehrman:

    Just a reminder to everyone: The Bible starts tonight, November 11 at 8:00 pm on the History Channel. You are in these episodes. Let us hope they do a good job and tell the truth…

    • Avatar
      donmax  November 13, 2013

      I hope you don’t mean The Bible movie. Even the Walking Dead was superior to that. 🙁

  9. Avatar
    toejam  November 10, 2013

    I’m with you on this Bart. I can’t rule out the possibility that there is some “purpose” or “God” behind the universe, but my inner-Occam’s Razor keeps shaving it off whenever I consider the notion. It’s an unnecessary and non-evident thought. I do wonder though how much longer Christianity will survive. Outside of America, Christian fundamentalism continues to dwindle. And I suspect as more and more people take on the “liberal” version, it’s only a matter of time until, like yourself, the wave starts to shift towards agnosticism. Non-belief seems to be on the rise in most developed countries. We’re up to 22.3% here in Australia now!

    • Avatar
      donmax  November 13, 2013

      Like everything else, Christianity will evolve. Let’s hope for the better. 🙂

  10. Avatar
    SelfAwarePatterns  November 11, 2013

    After reading your books, I’ve wondered how Paul would have reacted if he could have seen the state of Christianity at various periods of history. It sounds like he would have been surprised that Jesus hadn’t returned by 100 CE, seriously disappointed by 200 CE, and probably in despair after seeing what happened in the 4th century. Or maybe not, since many modern day members of apocalyptic cults seem very able to rationalize their way through any missed predictions.

  11. Avatar
    Elisabeth Strout  November 11, 2013

    Is it possible that this apocalyptic belief that the end was imminent was never held by Jesus himself, but actually developed in Christian communities in the decades following Jesus’ departure, (perhaps partially due to Paul’s influence?), and the apocalyptic statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were actually made up, falsely attributed to him, and passed down through oral tradition until their inclusion in the Gospels many years later? (The passages still present a problem for Christians of course, but we don’t know for a fact that Jesus said/believed any/all of the things attributed to him in the Gospels, right?)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2013

      Certainly possible — but very unlikely, I’d say. For lots of reasons, one of which is that the apocalyptic sayings are found on all layers of the tradition (mark, Q, M, L) — hard to imagine how that could be if they originated decades later. Moreover, the tradition is secure that Jesus started by associating with John the Baptist; he too was an apocalypticist. If Jesus started as an apocalypticist (why else would he associate with John unless he agreed with him — at least with the core of his message) and the communities that sprang up in his wake (e.g., those started by Paul) were apocalypticist, then he too almost certainly must have been — since he provides the continuity between these two.

  12. Avatar
    hwl  November 11, 2013

    Do many historical-critical scholars share N.T. Wright’s view that the form of apocalypticism Jesus (and Paul) believed in wasn’t about literally end of the world – more like a new era?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2013

      I don’t know! He’s the only one that I ever hear advancing the view, but it may be shared more widely than that. maybe much more widely?

    • Avatar
      donmax  November 13, 2013

      Like everyone else, Paul and Jesus were part and parcel of the culture in which they lived. Though unique in many ways, they were steeped in the *end times* mindset of the ancient world. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Steefen  November 15, 2013

      Matthew 28:20 – I will be with you until the end of the age/era.

      If you need more info on what an age/era is, think Mundane Astrology and even if you want a non-Astrological perspective, think Axial Age (Karl Jaspers).

  13. Avatar
    donmax  November 11, 2013

    What I glean from your comments is the fact, or rather the possibility, that you are still a latent Christian, someone who chooses to live by SOME of the teachings of Jesus, rather than his (or later) theological beliefs. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Many people seem to be those sorts of Christians, but I wonder whether you consider that to be true (and if so, to what extent) and whether or not you’ve ever been in such dire straights (the foxhole argument!) to cause you, at least momentarily, to reach out to what amounts to “your heavenly father.” Perhaps to cope with what feels too overwhelming or burdensome to face at the time? something like the approach of death or a tragic loss of someone you love? (BTW, I’m not looking for a one word answer here.) 😉

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2013

      No, I haven’t had that experience. But I won’t be completely shocked if I do! There *are* times when I consider my self a Christian atheist….

      • Avatar
        donmax  November 13, 2013

        THANK YOU! 🙂

        BTW, even though at this point it may only be a work in progress, the new format and interactive format of your blog is TERRIFIC! I get the feel of good things coming, because of your willingness to try new options and different approaches. Keep up the good work! 😉 🙂 <3

  14. Avatar
    Christian  November 11, 2013

    Of course, attributing all errors of Jesus to his human nature, and all goodness to his divine nature is a perfect way to avoid any criticism. You argued in you doctoral thesis that the paradoxical nature of the proto-orthodox doctrine (including the trinity) may very well be a consequence of the polemology with rivaling sects. Do you think that the kind of counter-argument (although irrefutable) developed in your post is a modern continuation of this tradition?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2013

      I wasn’t affirming this view in my post, simply saying what I used to think. And yes, it may be a modern manifestation of the same phenomenon. (Orthodox Corruption, btw, wasn’t my PhD thesis; *that* was on the Gospel Text of Didymus the Blind!)

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 11, 2013

    Obviously, all individuals are different. And you express yourself beautifully, in describing both what you believed in the past and what you believe now.

    But I can’t help thinking, “If Jesus’s ‘timetable’ was so wrong – even, if one acknowledges that he wasn’t an incarnate deity – *why* regard *him*, or any other long-dead person, as a hero and role model?” It’s not as if humans needed him, or any other *one specific person*, to point out that we should be striving to help one another, to empathize with and respect one another. I’m sure many were aware of that, long before Jesus’s time. (Of course, actually *doing it* is and always has been the hard part.)

    Have you ever asked yourself whether you would *like* the real Jesus, if you met him? I know it’s hard to imagine meeting him, having there be no language barrier, but otherwise, having oneself and Jesus be the exact persons we are/were. But I’m fairly sure I *wouldn’t* like him – woud see him as, at best, a creepy fanatic.

    Realistically, no one can be sure even that he didn’t perform fake miracles. And going beyond that…you say it’s impossible to “psychoanalyze” people who lived two thousand years ago. But it seems to me that while there may have been hundreds of men in the Palestine of that time who fantasized at some point about being the Messiah, they weren’t all going around claiming they *were*, destined from birth, the Messiah! And promising to make “kings” out of illiterate fishermen! Unless one believes Jesus really *was* “special” from birth, it seems like a case of unhealthy “delusions of grandeur.” (And if he’d been “special” from birth, he *wouldn’t* have made wrong predictions about “God’s Kingdom.”)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2013

      Yup, I’ve asked myself that a lot. And on the question of “needing” someone: I think the reality is that we all live within one tradition or another, and part of life is making sense of life in light of the intellectual context within which we live, move, and have our being….

      • Avatar
        donmax  November 13, 2013

        So true!!!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 13, 2013

        I’ve realized that in what I said above, I seem to be embracing the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” concept, which I’ve always rejected! Embracing it if “Lord” is taken to mean merely “the Messiah,” not “God.”

        In rejecting it, I’ve reasoned that a person could be deluded on the single subject of his own divinity, and still, otherwise, be an important religious teacher. But on reflection, I think believers should *know* the person – in this case, Jesus – was deluded on that one subject. I hate to think of people who *do* know deliberately concealing the truth. (Also, I don’t think Jesus was saying anything original enough to qualify him as “an important religious teacher.”)

        But I can see what you mean about “tradition,” and “intellectual context.” Some people (like you) have had positive experiences with Christianity, and are inclined to want to cling to it, whether or not you ultimately do. Others (like me) have had negative experiences, and are glad to learn we don’t have to accept it.

        A big issue, maybe the biggest: Many people aren’t as willing as you are to accept that “death is the end of the story.”

        I’m not willing to accept it. So I’ve developed my own hypotheses about the nature of reality – including, but not limited to, the concept of reincarnation – which give me cause to hope for a type of eternal survival. Hypotheses, not “beliefs” held with religious fervor.

        But it horrifies me to think of all those Christians whose trust – not “hope,” *trust*! – in an afterlife depends on *false beliefs* about *real people* who once existed. (I say “people,” plural, because Catholics come dangerously close to worshipping not only Jesus, but also his mother.)

        If I’m wrong about survival, it will just be a case of my having made bad guesses about reality. To me, it seems much more *demeaning* to be wrong because one had been misled into believing a pack of untruths about long-dead people. Sure, in either case, we will have been annihilated and will never know we were wrong. But I still prefer not having been made a fool of!

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          webattorney  December 28, 2013

          The way I intellectualize this is by telling myself that I tried to follow my conscience honestly, which is all that man can do. I distrust anything that says otherwise.

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      Steefen  November 15, 2013

      “If Jesus’s ‘timetable’ was so wrong – even, if one acknowledges that he wasn’t an incarnate deity – *why* regard *him*, or any other long-dead person, as a hero and role model?”

      Given the 30 to 40 years it took to come up with the Gospels, that was plenty enough time for everybody to agree on how, not the history, but the truth of Jesus would be constructed. What constructs a fame well? An epic death creates celebrity well. In Western civilization, we have three figures who had an epic/classic death: Socrates, Julius Caesar, and Jesus.

      Given the similar biographies of Paul and Josephus, they knew each other or they were each other. Josephus, writing religious works as a break from writing historical works, preserved the works of Paul. Paul and Josephus shared a publisher. Josephus saved a freedom fighter from Roman crucifixion. Paul saved a freedom fighter crucified by Rome from being forgotten. Josephus took the man he had revived from crucifixion and put him in his autobiography.

      These two first century writers give us the same morale of the story: Jewish freedom fighters are heroes with Rome underfoot.

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        Steefen  November 19, 2013

        These two first century writers give us the same moral of the story: Jewish freedom fighters are heroes with Rome underfoot.

        Correction: These two first century writers give us the same ending of the story: Jewish freedom fighters a Jewish zealot/purist does not die by the victor’s crucifixion.

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    SJB  November 11, 2013

    Prof Ehrman

    It seems to me there’s a strange paradox here. Isn’t it true the more we understand the historical Jesus, the closer we place him in his own time and understand him in the context of his own culture, the less relevant he becomes to us? After all if someone preaches today that we should “drop out” of society and abandon our social and familial obligations to join together and await the “end of the world” we tend to think of him not as a sage or a prophet but as a nut!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2013

      Yes, as Albert Schweitzer (the great man) himself said, the historical Jesus is a stranger to us.

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      donmax  November 13, 2013

      Yes, and WELL SAID! Don’t think many of us, even most Christians, could stomach the *Real Jesus* even if they could understand Aramaic. 😉

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    bobnaumann  November 11, 2013

    Amen, Brother Bart! I could not have said it better myself but i still consider myself a Christian because I do try to live according to the principles espoused by Jesus.

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      donmax  November 13, 2013

      Some of the principles and values, I suspect. 😉

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    RonaldTaska  November 11, 2013

    Good question and good answer. Not having been there, I don’t know why the early Christians remained. I do think that today many Christians attend church every time the doors open, read scripture only in a devotional way, make their best friends within their church congregation, and really are not exposed to anything else. Hence, they don’t know what is being discussed on this blog and the viewpoint of their church seems very true to them because they have been saturated with this viewpoint over and over again. This saturation keeps them from critically evaluating any outside evidence and enables them to “spin” any evidence they hear.

    • Avatar
      donmax  November 13, 2013

      Very true. Truer still is the downsizing of churches and the rise of younger nonbelievers called “nones.”

  19. Avatar
    David Chumney  November 12, 2013

    Realizing that you have a number of other projects already in mind, I think that this topic would be excellent for one of your non-scholarly books. It would be particularly interesting if you invited some of your academic friends and colleagues to contribute–both progressive Christians and non-believers. You have shared a great deal of your own journey in previous volumes, but summarizing it all in one narrative would be useful. With that as the starting point, others who have taken different paths could share their stories as well. Then, maybe one of those who has “kept the faith” in some fashion could write the concluding chapter. A good working title would be the title of today’s blog.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2013

      Interesting idea. I’m trying to talk my friend Dale Martin at Yale to write a popular book on this, how he can still be a Christian when he knows everything I know about the NT and the historical Jesus and thinks Jesus was an apocalypticist who was wrong about the calendar…..

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    Pofarmer  November 12, 2013

    Thanks for that last paragraph. There is a deep feeling in Catholicism, and in much of christianity, that people are basically horrible, flawed, detestible creatures, who need the intervention of God, and especially Jesus, to do anything good. Without Jesus, what purpose could there be in life? The whole thing is toxic, IMHO.

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      pdahl  November 13, 2013

      Having recently waded through *Bondage of the Will*, written by Martin Luther in the early 1520’s, I’m wondering if he is the original source of such negativistic thinking about human nature, or if maybe it goes back a millennium earlier, to St Augustine. Does anyone on the blog have a response on this point? Luther was also highly influenced in this regard by St. Paul, of course, who wrote 3-4 centuries before Augustine.

      However, the 30-year-old *New Perspectives on Paul* movement — e.g., some of the writings of N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, J.G.E. Dunn, and J. Gager, etc. — asserts that what Paul actually meant about human nature (including his own) is not always what Luther later inferred when he formulated his own reformed theology. For example, this new movement challenges the age-old Christian assertion — which it claims has misrepresented Paul by having failed, for example, to appreciate his first-century use of rhetorical devices — that the Hebrew Law existed merely to convict humans of their moral/ethical shortcomings, and that humans were incapable of living up to it.

      From a purely scientific perspective, it seems evident from a wealth of recent studies that we humans evolved quite naturally — from the ground up — as BOTH sinner AND saint. Indeed, the very pillars of what we call morality — empathy and reciprocity — are present for all to see in our very own mammalian relatives. Likewise, our instinctual predilection toward self-centered — i.e., self-preservational — behavior is also well-understood in purely evolutionary terms, thereby removing the need for any external demonic forces such as Luther assumed were at work in us. So, if we today perceive ourselves as occupying some relatively low rung on the moral ladder, it’s not because we previously fell from that proverbial higher rung (as Luther saw it), or were pulled there by some cosmic fallen angel, but more likely because we’ve gradually emerged from a lower one (as Darwin saw it) — over the course of thousands of millennia.

      Combining theology and science for the moment, maybe the evolutionary scenario is simply the very natural way that a Creator God (of the god of theism) chose to do things in creating the best world and beings that “He” could. If so, then Christianity might need to revisit some of its core doctrines concerning the origins and consequences of human nature.

      Thanks, Bart, for yet another intriguing post!

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