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New Testament Gospels

Toe-to-Toe with Evangelical New Testament Scholar Peter Williams: Can We Trust the Gospels?

I recently reposted a debate I did with Peter Williams about the signficance of textual variants for the New Testament.   It reminded me of another debate we did some five years ago, on an even more pressing question, whether the Gospels can be seen as completely trustworthy.  This one was televised.  I thought it was particularly interesting because  Peter is not a simply a Christian apologist who uses other peoples' scholarship to promote his religious beliefs; he himself is a bona fide scholar with a PhD from Cambridge, and one of the leading experts on the ancient Syriac version of the New Testament. Peter has been a friend for a long time, and is also a committed evangelical Christian who does not believe there are mistakes in the Gospels.  I *so* disagree with that.  Our debate was on the Christian Radio program "Unbelievable" under their new series "The Big Conversation" Season 2-Episode 3, hosted by Justin Brierley. It was a long and interesting debate.  Peter has written Can We Trust the Gospels? and C S [...]

2024-06-08T16:17:45-04:00June 19th, 2024|Bart's Debates, Canonical Gospels|

How Can We Even IMAGINE an “Original” Text of the Gospels?

QUESTION: When it comes to the gospels, how do we define the ‘original text’? Do we define it as the original manuscript that was first penned by the author, or do we define it as the gospels in their most settled canonical form?   RESPONSE: As it turns out, this is a complicated and endlessly fascinating question that, so far as I have been able to work out over the past twenty years of thinking about it, has no clear and obvious answer! By way of very simple background for readers not completely on top of the textual situation we are confronting when it comes to the Gospels (or any of the other books of the New Testament) (or of any ancient Christian writings at all) (or, in fact, of any writings of any kind at all that come down to us from antiquity) we do not have the “originals” (however we define that term: see below!).  What we have are copies made from copies, which were themselves made from copies.  Most [...]

Making the Gospels Say What You WANT Them To Say

Here is the second post on the Very Reverend Robert Barron’s curious critiques of my book How Jesus Became God.  I will not be doing a point-by-point assessment of everything he says; I frankly found none of his criticisms very convincing, largely because, as I indicated in the previous post, he does not appear to have read my book very carefully, but at best skimmed it to find what he was expecting to find.   But I thought I would deal at least with his opening counter-argument, over whether Jesus saw himself or proclaimed himself to be God.   Here is what he says. Ehrman’s major argument for the thesis that Jesus did not consider himself divine is that explicit statements of Jesus’ divine identity can be found only in the later fourth Gospel of John, whereas the three Synoptic Gospels, earlier and thus presumably more historically reliable, do not feature such statements from Jesus himself or the Gospel writers. This is so much nonsense. It is indeed the case that the most direct affirmations [...]

2024-03-24T10:03:08-04:00March 30th, 2024|Bart's Critics, Canonical Gospels|

Dealing With Reviews of My Books By People Who (Apparently) Haven’t Read Them

As I am inching closer to writing my next book, on how the ethics of Jesus transformed the moral conscience of the West, I have started thinking, possibly not unnaturally, about how some of my earlier books were critiqued in published reviews.  I really don't mind if someone understands what I write and has reasoned disagreements with it; and I'm happy to make vigorous counter-arguments in response.  But unless the reviewer misrepresents what I say, I'm generally not irritated. I do get irritated, though, by reviewers who go for the jugular without seriously understanding (or caring) what I actually say.  Or possibly knowing what I say?  I sometimes genuinely do wonder if the reviewer actually bothered to read the book. In that context, I suddenly remembered that ten years ago I did a couple of blog posts after a reader alerted me to a published review of my book How Jesus Became God, by the Very Reverend Robert Barren.  When I read the review I was a bit, well, outraged.  I wrote two posts on [...]

2024-03-27T11:43:13-04:00March 28th, 2024|Bart's Critics, Book Discussions, Canonical Gospels|

How Much Fact, How Much Fiction? The Life of Peter

History or Legend?  Fact or Fiction?  A bit of both?  It’s hard to know how to understand stories about the apostle Peter found both inside and outside the New Testament.  I began with some examples yesterday, involving his allegedly raising people from the dead.  OK, probably fiction, but still – presented as fact!   I pick up there with this post, taken from my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University, 2006). *************************** The resuscitation of dead bodies may not seem all that remarkable to readers of the New Testament.  To be sure, we don’t see this kind of thing happen every day, but they do seem to happen in the Bible.  Other miraculous events, though, while no less “impossible” in a literal sense, may strike us as a bit more peculiar and subject to doubt.  Consider the episode of Peter and the smoked tuna fish.  Peter is back in Rome, trying to convince the crowds that his God is all powerful and deserves to be worshiped.  They ask him for a [...]

2024-02-26T14:25:18-05:00February 28th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha|

The Disciple Peter in History and Legend

Probably my best-named book is Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.  This is a book I wrote so I could use the title.  (A) In fact a publisher wanted to give me a contract for the book, but I turned it down because they wanted me to do other apostles too.  NO! I said.  It’s gotta be these three.  It’s perfect!  They disagreed.  Some people just don’t have a sense of humor.  So I went with a different publisher.  (!) The short thread I just did on Mary Magdalene gave me an occasion to look back at the book.  I recall writing it with some fondness, in part because it is such a great topic: three of the most important figures in the early years of Christianity: Jesus' closest disciple, his most important convert/missionary, and the one who is said to have found his empty tomb.  All three have great stories told about them in the New Testament, and from there the stories get, if anything, even more interesting.  Highly legendary, but just as highly intriguing. [...]

2024-02-26T14:26:04-05:00February 27th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha|

When Did Mary Magdalene Become a Prostitute?

Mary Magdalene has become one of the most talked about figures from the life of Jesus, even though she hardly ever shows up in the Gospel accounts about him (during his public ministry, just in one verse, total!, Luke 8:2).  (She shows up only at the crucifixion and, most important, the empty tomb). In my last post I began to explore the tradition -- not found in the New Testament -- that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  Here I pick up  the thread where I left it off. I had mentioned a number of passages that people read *AS IF* they were talking about Mary Magdalene, even though her name does not occur in them.  Here I'll show that none of these passages is about her. And then I'll explain why everyone today thinks she is a prostitute and where that idea came from.  Spoiler alert: a sixth-century Pope! Once again, this comes from my book on Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press, 2006) ****************************** None of these New Testament stories, however, deals [...]

Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?

It is "common knowledge" that Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute in the New Testament, but like so much "common knowledge" this view, while common, is not "knowledge."  In fact it's not true.  I get asked about this on occasion, and so I thought I should devote a couple of posts on it. I discuss most of what I think we can know in the final section of my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press, 2006) (A book I remember fondly, in part because I wrote it in a coffee shop in Wimbledon!).  In that book I devote six chapters to each of these important Christian figures, in each case explaining what we can know about them historically and then what we can know about the later legends that sprang up about them. In my introductory comments to my discussion of Mary Magdalene, I explain why she is widely thought of as a prostitute (in the popular imagination, not by scholars), even though she is not called that in [...]

Changing the Past in Light of the Present

Did people in oral cultures even care if stories were changed?  We do! We have an interest not just in story but in establishing with some kind of accuracy what actually happened in the past, whether it is about the Civil War, the assassination of JFK, or the last election.  Did people in oral cultures have a way to know the past with historical accuracy?  Did they care? Here I end this thread on what we know about how oral cultures passed along their traditions – not just their myths and customs but also the past events that affected their communities, in what Jan Vansina calls “testimonies” about the past, as shared by word of mouth in non-literate cultures.  Were they concerned to repeat the past "accurately"? Again this comes from my 2017 book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne).   ****************************** Traditions that are passed along by word of mouth in oral cultures experience massive changes not simply because people have bad memories.  That may be true as well, but even more important, as Vansina [...]

2024-02-19T18:20:56-05:00February 20th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

When is “The Same” Memory/Tradition/Story Not Actually “The Same”?

Do we mean the same thing by “the same” that people in oral cultures do? Here I pick up on my discussion of oral cultures; in the previous post I talked about how Milman Parry began to study one such culture, and his discoveries were starting.  Professional memorizers/reciters would claim that various performances of the “same” tradition/account/story/song was in fact the “same” as earlier performances.  But, well, apparently not.  At least by our standards. Again, this is excerpted from my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2017). ****************************** How different could “the same” song be in different versions?  Social anthropologist Jack Goody has noted that when Milman Parry first met a singer named Avdo, he took down by dictation a lengthy song that he performed called “The Wedding of Smailagić.”  It was 12,323 lines in length.  Some years later Albert Lord met up with Avdo again, and took down a performance of “the same” song.  This time it was 8,488 lines.[1]   Parry himself observed this phenomenon.   He at one time had Avdo sing [...]

2024-02-21T11:24:26-05:00February 17th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

How Do We Know About Oral Cultures? By Starting Where You’d Never Suspect!

How do oral cultures “work”?  How do they pass along their traditions?  How accurately?  And why did scholars first get interested in the question.  Not at ALL in the way that you might think! Here’s how I discuss the matter in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2017). The Beginning of Studies of Orality:  Singers in Yugoslavia The twentieth-century study of oral cultures can be traced back to the groundbreaking work of Milman Parry (1902-35), a scholar of classics and epic poetry at Harvard, and his student Albert Lord (1912-91).   As a classicist, Parry was especially interested in the Homeric Question, which is actually a set of questions about Homer, the alleged author of the great classics the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Was there a Homer?  Were these books actually written by him?  Were the two books even written by the same person?  Even more, is each book itself a single literary composition?   Is each of them instead a collection of earlier stories that have been patched together?  Is it possible [...]

2024-02-09T12:25:13-05:00February 15th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Do People in Oral Cultures Have Better Memories?

Do people in oral cultures “remember” things better, and work hard to memorize what they learn? The other night I was hanging out with a friend and she started talking (in a context unrelated to the New Testament) about how oral (non-literate) cultures always worked so hard to preserve their communal memories of the past, by passing along traditions that would not change since, of course, they had no way to preserve them in writing.  I simply nodded my head and let her get on with it. I was tempted to tell her that I had written a book about memory, how it works and sometimes doesn’t, how oral cultures preserve traditions, and sometimes not so well, etc..  I decided not to mention it to her; didn’t matter in the context. My book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2013) is, in my personal opinion, the best book I’ve written that (almost) no one has read.  I gave it a bad title.  Plus, my publisher wasn’t that interested in it and didn’t do much [...]

2024-02-09T12:29:55-05:00February 14th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Memory Studies|

How the Gospels Transformed the Apocalyptic Jesus

Contrary to the claims of the “Jesus Seminar,” Jesus is best understood as delivering an apocalyptic message – or so I began to argue in my previous post, where I explained that all the earliest Gospel sources independently record Jesus delivering apocalyptic teachings. Equally interesting, some of the most clearly apocalyptic traditions come to be “toned down” as we move further away from Jesus’ life in the 20s to Gospel materials produced near the end of the first century.  Sources closest to Jesus: apocalyptic; sources further removed in time (as the end doesn’t come) less apocalyptic.  And then non-apocalyptic.  Eventually anti-apocalyptic. I resume here with another extract from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999). ****************************** Let me give one example.  I’ve already pointed out that Mark was our earliest Gospel and was used as a source for the Gospel of Luke (along with Q and L).  It’s a relatively simple business, then, to see how the earlier traditions of Mark fared later in the hands of Luke.  Interestingly, some [...]

2024-02-07T15:22:17-05:00February 3rd, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

The Jesus Seminar and the Non-Apocalyptic Jesus. Hey, Why Not?

I have recently received several questions more or  less out of the blue about what I think about the “Jesus Seminar” and its views of Jesus.  I looked and it appears I’ve only had one brief posting on this issue, so I thought I should say a few things, first by explaining what the question means. The Seminar was made up of a group of about fifty New Testament scholars who, in the 1980s and 1990s, met twice a year to discuss the ancient Gospels (mainly the canonical Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas) to determine which traditions about Jesus were likely to be authentic, and which, as a corollary, were likely to have been later creations of the early church as they told stories about Jesus. The members of the seminar would then vote on each tradition – after extensive, learned discussion -- and publish the results of their votes. The voting procedure proved to be controversial. The Seminar’s original raison d’être was to establish what Jesus actually said, and so they [...]

How Jesus “Fills” Scripture “Full” in Matthew

In the last post I indicated one way that Matthew understood Jesus to have fulfilled Scripture – a prophet predicted something about the messiah (to be born of a virgin; to be born in Bethlehem, etc.) and Jesus did or experienced what was predicted.   There’s a second way as well, one with considerable implications for understanding Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus.  Here’s how I talk about it in my textbook on the New Testament.  ******************************  The second way in which Jesus "fulfills" Scripture is a little more complicated.  Matthew portrays certain key events in the Jewish Bible as foreshadowings of what would happen when the messiah came.  The meaning of these ancient events was not complete until that which was foreshadowed came into existence.  When it did, the event was "fullfilled," that is, "filled full of meaning." As an example from the birth narrative, Matthew indicates that Jesus' family flees to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod "in order to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, `Out of [...]

2024-01-04T13:51:50-05:00January 11th, 2024|Canonical Gospels|

What Does It Actually Mean to “Fulfill” Scripture?

I’ve begun a short thread dealing with how Matthew understood and interpreted and used Scripture.   Here is a fuller exposition, the first part of which comes straight from my textbook on the NT and the second part straight from my noggin to the keyboard.  ******************************  What is perhaps most striking about Matthew's account is that it all happens according to divine plan.  The Holy Spirit is responsible for Mary's pregnancy and an angel from heaven allays Joseph's fears.  All this happens to fulfill a prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures (1:23).  Indeed, so does everything else in the narrative: Jesus' birth in Bethlehem (5:2), the family's flight to Egypt (2:14) Herod's slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18) and the family's decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23).  These are stories that occur only in Matthew, and they are all said to be fulfillments of prophecy. Matthew's emphasis that Jesus fulfills the Scripture does not occur only in his birth narrative.  It pervades the entire book.  On eleven separate occasions (including those I have [...]

2024-01-11T21:30:06-05:00January 10th, 2024|Canonical Gospels|

Is Matthew Duplicitous in His Reading of Scripture?

In a month or so I'm going to be producing a new online course (not connected with the blog) on The Genius of Matthew: What Scholars Say about the First Gospel.  I'm not sure if that's the actual title we'll be giving it, but it's what's in my head just now. (If you're interested in my courses, go to http://www.bartehrman.com/courses/ . You won't find this one there just now because we haven't announced it yet.) It will be an eight-lecture course dealing with what I think are the most important aspects of Matthew's Gospel -- what it's all about, what its leading themes/ideas/views are, how the author changed Mark's account significantly to get his point across, how Matthew (in a striking way) insists Jesus fulfilled Scripture, whether Matthew urges his followers to keep the Jewish law strictly (instead of abandoning it), whether, even so, the Gospel can be seen as anti-Jewish.  I'll be looking at some depth at the Sermon on the Mount (widely misunderstood) and a number of the key parables.  And I'll be [...]

2024-01-08T10:54:43-05:00January 9th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Interpreting a Text to Make It Seem Orthodox: Luke and Its View of Jesus

In my previous post in this thread I tried to show how one way to show that a text that embraced a “problematic” view (e.g., a potentially heretical understanding of Jesus as an *adopted* son of God instead of, say, the *eternal* son of God) was by interpreting it in light of *other* texts that held more acceptable views.  I named an example in my previous post.  I end the thread here with this one. ****************************** A similar emphasis might be detected behind the entertaining stories of other infancy Gospels, including the one that is arguably the earliest, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  It’s true that later authors like Irenaeus found this set of tales distasteful and even heretical; according to Ireneaus (assuming that he was referring to our Infancy Thomas, which I think he was; Adv. Haer 1:20) this was a gnostic text that inappropriately emphasized Jesus’ gnosis at a young age, when confronting his teachers with supernatural knowledge.  But there’s little in the text itself actually to suggest a Gnostic origin.  In fact, [...]

2023-12-18T11:04:06-05:00December 20th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

How Did Early Christians Make Unorthodox Texts Seem Orthodox?

I’ve been arguing that Luke’s Gospel originally may not have had the story of Jesus’ virgin birth but portrayed Jesus as being adopted by God to be his son at the baptism.  In the previous post I explained one strategy that could be used to “tame” an otherwise important and beloved text when it held a view that could be seen as problematic.  You could edit it.  But there are other ways as I explain here (taken from a paper I delivered orally to a group of scholars) ****************************** A second strategy that could be used and was used by proto-orthodox Christians to constrain the reading of the text was by putting it in a canon of writings, a collection of texts with varying perspectives which, once placed together, affected how each one would be read. I’ll not spend much time discussing this strategy, as it is familiar enough to all of us here.  It was familiar enough to early Christians as well, as early as Irenaeus, who points out in a famous passage in [...]

Why Would an Editor ADD the Virgin Birth to Luke?

Is it possible that Luke's Gospel originally lacked the story of the Virgin Birth, but that it was added later in order to make the book more "orthodox"?  That's the question I'm pursing in this thread, based on a paper I delivered to a group of NT scholars 20 years ago. ****************************** It appears that in the earliest form of Luke’s Gospel, what we have is an account that locates Jesus’ adoption/appointment to sonship, and its accompanying empowerment, at the baptism, when God declared “Today I have begotten you.”   It is true that throughout the work of Luke - Acts there are other kinds of christological traditions preserved as well – especially in the speeches of Acts.  But many of these are also adoptionistic, even though they appear to embody an even earlier adoptionistic notion that it was at the resurrection, not the baptism, that God conferred a special status upon Jesus and invested him with a special power. At this point I should stress that I am not trying to give an [...]

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