In this week’s Mailbag I’ll be addressing two questions, one about me personally – my preparations for the upcoming debate with Robert Price on the question of whether Jesus even existed as a human being – and the other about the book of Revelation. If you have a question you would like me to address on the Mailbag, simply ask it in a comment on this post or any other.
It seems the debate between yourself and Robert Price will be going ahead next month, right? I follow Price on Facebook and he has evidently been re-reading all your books in preparation. How much of his books do you intend on reading prior to the debate? How will you prepare for the debate? I’m really looking forward to it!
Right! Yes indeed! On October 21 I will be having a three-hour debate in Milwaukee with Robert Price, who has two PhDs from Drew University, one in New Testament Studies and the other in Theology, and who is an atheist who supports the view of “mythicism,” that is, that Jesus never actually existed as a human being. To my knowledge, Bob is the only published New Testament scholar in the country who holds to this position. He is an intelligent fellow and seems – based on our email exchanges over the years (I don’t think we’ve actually ever met in the flesh) – to be a good guy. So this should be fun. If you would like more information about it, you can find it all here: http://www.mythicistmilwaukee.com/mythinformation-conference-2/ As you will see, it is part of a conference being put on my the Mythicist Milwaukee organization. The event, wittily enough, is called the Mythinformation Conference. Couldn’t have put it better myself. 🙂
And so what have I been doing in preparation for the debate? Uh, well, er, um … actually nothing yet. Well, that’s only kind-of true. On one level I have prepared for a debate like this since I was fifteen years old (45, count them, 45 years ago now!). I have studied the historical Jesus for all this time. I have, to the best of my knowledge, read every surviving ancient source of the first four Christian centuries repeatedly, usually in their original language. I have read hundreds, literally many hundreds, of books and articles on the topic. And I have, for more than twenty years, written books and articles about the historical Jesus — including one that will be at the focus of the debate, my book Did Jesus Exist? So I have indeed done the core of my preparation.
Bob knows perfectly well what I will be arguing in the debate, and I’m sure he’ll be prepared with counter-thrusts at every point. I have a *sense* of what he’ll be saying as well, since I have read his two major books on the topic, and have read virtually everything else written by the leading mythicists of today (none of whom is a bona fide scholar of the New Testament or ancient Christianity) (a number of them are hacks, but that doesn’t much matter since I won’t be debating *them*).
Still, I haven’t yet done any special preparations for the debate, and that’s for rather pressing personal reasons. I’ve just been too crazy busy with equally important and pressing obligations, and have not had a spare moment for a very long time. Just over the course of the past seven days I have given four public lectures at a conference in Chapel Hill (based on my book Jesus Before the Gospels) and two public lectures in Denmark, one at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense (on the rise of the Roman imperial cult in relationship to the rise of Christianity) and one in Copenhagen (on the manuscript tradition of the New Testament). Next week I have a lecture (that I have yet to write!) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (on the early Christian understandings of Jesus and the Jewish Law) and the next week a lecture at Alma College in Michigan. And so it goes.
On top of all that, I have also been going over the final version of my book The Triumph of Christianity with a fine-tooth comb before sending it to the publisher at the end of this week. I have also started doing background reading for the next book I’m proposing to write about the Invention of the Afterlife. Plus I have class preparation to do for both my three-hour PhD seminar tomorrow on the Christianization of the Empire (we’re dealing with the nature of Roman religion) and for my three-hour undergraduate course on Tuesday (dealing with the Gospel of John). So, as usual, I’ve been busy. And have I mentioned that football season has started?
I will, though, of course prepare for the debate. How will I do so? I will reread Bob Price’s two books and the other Mythicist books that have come out since I did my book on whether Jesus really existed and figure out how to respond to their specific arguments. And I’ll plot out my opening statement about why I think there really can be no doubt that whatever else you say about Jesus, he certainly existed. And I”ll try to figure out how Bob will ask me questions that I may have trouble answering! And see if there’s anything I thought of that he hasn’t (I doubt it). So I think it will be a good and interesting debate. But I won’t be able to start cramming for it until … next week!
Dr. Ehrman, if I’m not mistaken, you claim that the apocalyptic messages in the New Testament were toned down as the books progressed. But what about the book of Revelation? Since it is dated to c. 95 it is a “late” book, yet it is filled with apocalypticism. Was it an exception? Was it based on earlier material? Something else?
Ah, great question! What I have said (and now that I think about it, I’m not sure I have said it very clearly) is that when you line up the Gospels chronologically, they become less and less apocalyptic in their message. Mark, followed by Matthew, portrays Jesus as thoroughly apocalyptic, expecting the end of history as we know it to occur in the lifetime of his disciples. Luke, written later, softens the apocalyptic teaching of Jesus, so he still predicts that the end will come, but not while the disciples are still alive: other things must happen first. John, written later still, virtually eliminates Jesus’ apocalyptic message altogether; now what matters is not the coming kingdom of God in a show of power, but eternal life that is available in the here and now. The Gospel of Thomas, written later still, actually has Jesus argue *against* the idea that there is a future apocalypse coming, to be followed by the appearance of the kingdom of God.
Why is the tradition de-apocaylpticized? For what seems to me a pretty obvious reason. The expected apocalypse never came. And so Jesus’ followers could scarcely continue to portray Jesus as predicting that it was going to come “soon,” in just a few years.
That does NOT mean, however, that all Christians gave up on the idea of the coming apocalypse. (This is the part that I think I possibly didn’t explain very well.) On the contrary, apart from Luke, John, and Thomas there were certainly Christians who continued to think, and many still do continue to think, that the end was /is coming soon, within their lifetimes. That was true of the author of Revelation, in a very big way indeed, at the end of the first century. It was true of the followers of the Christian prophet Montanus at the end of the second century. It was true of some Christians in the fourth century, and the eighth century, and the twelfth century, and the sixteenth century. It was true of the Christians I ran around with in the twentieth century. We were sure it was going to happen by 1988. Literally.
(This, by the way, is one very important reason for thinking that whoever wrote the book of Revelation was not the author of the Gospel of John. Their eschatologies [i.e., their understandings of the “end times”] do not gel, at *all*. John is anti-apocalyptic. Revelation is massively apocalyptic. They had radically different views on the matter.)
My sense is that there will always be Christians who think that the end is near. At some point in history, they will be right. I hope it’s a long way off…..
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