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Did They Crucify the Wrong Guy? Jesus’ Identity Switch.

Yesterday I posted about the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, which clearly differentiated between the man Jesus and the spiritual being, the Christ, who inhabited him temporarily – leaving him at his suffering and death since the divine cannot suffer and die.  That understanding of Jesus Christ is not, strictly speaking, “docetic.”  The term docetic comes from the Greek word DOKEO which means “to seem” or “to appear.”  It refers to Christologies in which Jesus was not a real flesh-and-blood human but only “seemed” to be. In reality, what they saw, heard, and touched was a phantasm.

That is not what is going on in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter.  Here there really is a man Jesus – flesh and blood like the rest of us.  But he is indwelt by a divine being who leaves him at his death, abandoneding him to die alone on the cross.  That is similar to a docetic view, but also strikingly different.  I call it a “separationist” Christology because it separates Jesus from the Christ (who himself separates from Jesus at his death).

A separationist Christology is what you find in various ways among different groups of Gnostics.  Many of them thought that Jesus was born as a human, but at his baptism the Christ entered into him (remember in the Gospels, the “Spirit” comes upon him: that’s when he came to be filled with the divine being).  That enabled Jesus to begin to do miracles and to deliver such amazing teachings.  Then at the end, when he began to suffer, the Christ left him.  And that is why on the cross he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me [i.e., left me behind]?”  He died alone.

Both the docetic and separationist Christologies wanted to ensure that no one think that the divine Christ could actually suffer.

There was a third, and far less popular view of what happened at Jesus crucifixion that confused people into thinking that the Christ suffered when in fact he did not.  It was the view, only occasionally, attested, that at his crucifixion Jesus pulled …

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The Virgin Birth and the Gospel of John: A Blast from the Past
Did Jesus’ Death Matter? The Intriguing View of the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter



  1. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  December 27, 2017

    Is that last paragraph you speaking or is it Irenaeus?

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 27, 2017

    One of the things I am slowly and reluctantly learning these days, by following what I can of the political news, is that humans have a HUGE capacity to just make things up and to then get people to believe what they have made up. It sounds like that happened during early Christianity as well. So, the problem, now, as then, is how in the world do we figure out what is made up and what is not made up?????

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      Among other things I suppose it is always timely, especially, to consider the source!

    • Telling
      Telling  December 28, 2017

      As in law, the simpler explanation is most likely to be the correct one. Regarding the Jesus birth, you can most surely bet he was born of a woman, perfect in every way, a divine being, and has his dad’s nose, much like every child coming into the world. Take that to the bank.

    • Avatar
      Abongile Mafevuka  February 8, 2018

      The only way is to test it against known scientific knowledge. Any book purported to be the word of God and having so many manuscripts and all of them different tries the reason of men and not their faith. Reason is something which can be broken down and tested against factual standards but faith clouds sunshine of reason.

  3. Avatar
    Eskil  December 27, 2017

    Apparently Mandaeans hold that Thomas the Apostle was the twin brother of Jesus and was crucified in Jesus’s place. That would also explain Jesus’ resurrection without a need for mass hallucination theories etc. Have you heard about this?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      I have not! At least to my recollection. Do you mean modern Mandaeans or ancient ones or both? And do you have any references?

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  December 27, 2017

    This sounds very similiar to the Muslim view of Jesus. I wonder if this is where Muhammad got this idea from. Muhammad lived among Christian Arabs and Jews, as well as pagan Arabs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Muhammad adopted this belief as a way of finding a middle ground between these disparate beliefs.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      I’m afraid I don’t know!

    • Avatar
      Abongile Mafevuka  December 29, 2017

      Any god who purports to be a merciful god who claims to be all powerful but he cannot save his own son from the jews. This make more sense seen against the milieu of the time and the believes held. If people believe in faith healers such a those giving them Rat poison to drink to cure their sicknesses or eat rats or snakes or grass than one can ask what level of superstition did not prevail. But as Dr Bart points out we sit with a copy of a copy of a copy etc.

    • Avatar
      Abongile Mafevuka  December 29, 2017

      ” I wonder if this is where Muhammad got this idea from.” Please clarify your statement is here a suggestion that he heard this from other sources at that time? Is this only surmising for lack of clear evidence or if seen against the milieu what creates that impression. The question is where did this idea originate from in the first place, was there other witnesses who saw what happened or is this an author trying to give credence to his own theories surrounding the death of a father who cannot save his own son.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 30, 2017

        It’s difficult to adequately answer this question without a detailed description of the socio-political milieu of that time and place. I’ll give a rough outline and provide some links for further information. At the time Muhammad began prophesying in Mecca the Christian Byzantine Empire was at war with the Persian Sasanian Empire (probably Zoroastrian). When the war began Palestine was a province of the Romans (Byzantines), but the Persians managed to enlist a small army of Jews who saw this conflict as something of an endtimes war, heralding the Messiah. The Persians also formed alliances with some Arab tribes, particularly the Ghassanid Arabs, who were, at that point, Christian. Some of these Arab Christians also got swept up in this Messianic fervor. (Keep in mind that every party in this conflict had a similar eschatology; even the Zoroastrian Persians believe in an endtimes Final Judgment.) Eventually, with the aid of the Persians, these Jewish rebels did manage to capture and occupy Jerusalem and Palestine. They saw their leader as the Messiah — a Jew named Nehemiah ben Hushiel — and they declared a new Israel, and even made preparations to rebuild the Temple. This was all happening right at the exact time that Muhammad was preaching the Qur’an in Mecca, and we even see passages in the Qur’an that may reflect these events. But the Jewish rebels were only able to hold onto Palestine for a short time. The Christians of Jerusalem began to rebel. When the Romans retook Jerusalem they massacred all the Jews. Again, this was all happening while Muhammad was active (The Jews’ capture of Jerusalem was probably in the year 614, while Muhammad purportedly started receiving revelations in the year 610). Muhammad was probably hearing news about this back and forth between Jews and Christians in the Holy City (al-Quds). Also, many of the Christian Arabs with whom Muhammad was familiar were Monophysite Christians, meaning that they probably had a Separationist Christology (to use Dr. Ehrman’s term), and so Muhammad may have gotten his concept of Jesus and the foiling of the Crucifixion by a Jesus double from these Monophysitic Arab Christians. Anyway, as you can see this all gets really fascinating when you dig down into it, but it also becomes terribly complicated as well.

        Here are a few Wikipedia articles that should fill in the details.

        • Avatar
          godspell  December 31, 2017

          A neglected episode of history.

          Jerusalem has too damn much history, you ask me.

          Still ongoing.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  January 1, 2018


        • Avatar
          Duke12  January 3, 2018

          Fascinating history, Talmoore! Monophysite Christology, at least in its current Coptic form, is extremely subtle in its contrast to Chalcedonian Christology. So I doubt Muhammad got his “Jesus double” concept from “orthodox” Monophysites. Although I do wonder if the violent arguments over what to him probably seemed like minutiae soured Muhammad to any affinity towards Christianity early on. Islamic monotheism is much more practical and explainable than the Trinity.

          • Avatar
            Abongile Mafevuka  February 8, 2018

            I was in the Anglican , St Marks Church recently and even the priest there joked about the trinity being a mystery. It was even a mystery to Jesus because it is something he never knew about. This is a concept coming many years after Jesus, it is a known pagan ideology.

    • Avatar
      dynamis878  January 2, 2018

      This is the theory stated by Robert Spencer in “Did Muhammed Exist.” He suggests that the various heterodox christian groups were driven to arabia by the orthodox church leaders, and their beliefs were manipulated by the Abbasid dynasty for political reasons to form a new religion. (I think I am summarizing it correctly, it’s been a few years)

      • Avatar
        Eric  January 3, 2018

        I think it was an Ebionite form of Christianity he proffers as the original Islam.This would suggest a non-Divine Jesus, or at least one not himself god.

    • Avatar
      isal_m_a  April 30, 2018

      Muhammad speak in Arab, this Nag Hammadi document was burried at least 4th century, i dont think the were written in Arab, the only Christianity that have connection with Muhammad is Christianity in Kingdom of Axum.

      Moslem reject crucifixion happen to Jesus simply for theological reason. Jesus is True Messiah, he can not die on the cross, G-d of Abraham save him. Jesus will return in End of times to fulfill his messianic age.

  5. Avatar
    MadcatBiser  December 27, 2017

    I was wondering, since the gnostic view seems to be that the death of Jesus isn’t the key to salvation, but the true knowlage he offered, then what was their view of the resurrection? How did that figure into gnostic teaching? Was it even considered an important event?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      For some Gnostics, the divine Christ raised the divine human Jesus from the dead, and from that point inspired him to deliver his *really* important teachings privately to his disciples over a long period of time.

  6. Avatar
    Abdullah Ahmad  December 27, 2017

    God said in the Holy Quran Chapter 4, Verse 157:

    And because of their saying (in boast): “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of God!” In fact, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but another was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no real knowledge about it other than conjecture. They did not kill him, for certain. Rather God raised him up toward Himself. God is All-Mighty, All-Wise.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  December 29, 2017

      Thank you. Do any other sources suggest it was Judas Iscariot they mistook for Jesus?

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 29, 2017

      I said the same thing below! Jinx, buy me a Coke! 😉

    • tompicard
      tompicard  December 29, 2017

      Is this necessarily to be taken literally (religious folk often refer to life as something beyond the physical)?

      does the Quran occasionally use ‘life’ and ‘death’ to mean more than merely life or death of the body?

      for example
      Do not say that those who are killed in God’s cause are dead; they are alive, though you do not realize it. (2:154)

      can you say for sure this verse DOES NOT apply to Jesus???


    • Avatar
      Abongile Mafevuka  February 8, 2018

      It is amazing that the word “doubt” is used as even those who are staunch diehard believers in this concept reveals their own discrepancies of thought regarding this issue.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  December 27, 2017

    Clearly the Gnostics believed the goal was to escape this world and our fleshly bodies. Jesus seemed to teach that God was going to set the world right, though, and people (in the flesh?) would live on in this new kingdom. Did the Gnostics read those passages differently, or maybe just didn’t accept them? (Of course, even today a lot of Christians think they’re going to a spiritual place (heaven) rather than living in God’s kingdom on earth.)

    • Telling
      Telling  December 29, 2017

      Hermetic Sufism better explains gnosis, I think, as such:

      The man of light begins his descent into the black entrapping matter, and becomes a prisoner of that matter which is the world. Slowly he wrestles control from the entrapping matter and ascends triumphantly out of it, free now.

      The Crucifixion story might be thought a symbolic example of this process, the entrapment taking control of Jesus and seemingly destroying him, whereupon he rises from the entrapment and ascends triumphantly out of it..

      It should be viewed no more than symbolically, not actually, because the Master could not be here demonstrating his godlike powers, he would be teaching the flock what they are capable of. Jesus sayings like “your faith has made you well”, or “if you truly believe”, “Ask and you will receive”, things like that. These are confidence builders, we ourselves having this power.

      The message shows up in all great religions. It is basic principle. You have the power to move mountains. You do this by controlling your thoughts. Ultimately the “entrapping matter” will harken gladly to your voice, knowing you are looking out for its own interests.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 29, 2017

      Most do. I think most of us have come to the conclusion that perfection is impossible on earth.

      Making things better isn’t. We can definitely make ourselves better, and if enough of us did that…..

  8. Avatar
    Pattylt  December 27, 2017

    Isn’t the Muslim view along these lines. Jesus escaped and someone else was crucified in his stead? Were the early Muslims using this text? ie: Basilides?

  9. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  December 27, 2017

    Hello Bart

    This is very strange because in koran jesus was neither killed nor crucified it just seem or appear to them that they did . here is the verse

    4: 157 That they ( jews ) said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-

    any comment on this ?

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      I’m not sure where Muslims got their ideas from! But yes, they seem closely related.

    • Avatar
      Abongile Mafevuka  December 29, 2017

      If looking at the evidence in the bible than it is clear that there could not have been any credible eyewitness to this event. How did this idea get to Mohammed if he copied directly the biblical sources as suggested by some.

  10. Avatar
    ardeare  December 27, 2017

    It just dawned on me that “parallel universe” theory is a plausible answer to the riddle of the Trinity.

  11. Avatar
    jan.kriso  December 27, 2017

    Basilides account sounds almost exactly like one scene in “Life of Brian”…

  12. Lev
    Lev  December 27, 2017

    Off topic question: I understand you’re spending Christmas in my homeland – England, land of Kings and Queens, bishops, knights, castles and us humble pawns in the great chess-board of life.

    I also understand you’ve given lectures at our Sceptred Isle before – have you any plans to do so again in the near future?

    I hope you’ve had a fab Christmas and have had the opportunity to find a decent pub. I recommend the ale here – I prefer dark and malty, but if you have the thirst for something harder you should be able to find some excellent single malts on offer, thanks to our Scottish kin.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      No, no lectures planned just now. And single malt — yes, I have to admit, it’s my drink of choice. I go for the peatier iterations.

  13. Avatar
    godspell  December 27, 2017

    Is this where Muhammad got his idea of the Crucifixion from? He was obviously doing a lot of reading of Christian texts. Geographically, it makes sense he’d have access to Coptic writings.

    Wouldn’t explain why he found that account so convincing–I think Muhammad disliked the notion that a great prophet like Jesus could have been killed by infidel pagans. Allah would never allow it, therefore it did not happen.

    And in fact, in the Old Testament, while prophets may die, and may in fact come into conflict with secular powers, you don’t see them murdered.

    It became this meme in early Christianity, the murdered prophets. Which ones? John the Baptist was the first I can think of offhand, and that would have made a huge impression on Jesus. Muhammad had no comparable experience to call upon.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      I’m not sure where Muslims/Mohammad got their ideas from!

    • Avatar
      Abongile Mafevuka  February 8, 2018

      Are you serious in saying “obviously” . Although Muhammad was born in a time of history where recording of events took place more readily and has become established as a practise it is well-known in the light of recorded history that he could’nt read but even if he could why make such a assertion that he did and that it is obvious, on what basis is this assertion made?

  14. Avatar
    JoeWallack  December 27, 2017

    Regarding the Title “Did They Crucify the Wrong Guy?” I can’t help thinking of that office manager from The Office movie who would say: “Can you move back about three words? That’d be great.”


  15. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  December 27, 2017

    Hello Dr. Ehrman. I hope you have a great new years. Also, I hope the new year brings even more joy and success than 2017.

  16. Telling
    Telling  December 28, 2017

    Hi Bart,

    I’ve ordered books from your two mentioned authors (regarding Paul timeline). “Framing Paul” is quite expensive, 33 bucks for Kindle version. I managed to find a used book for $24. The other book I picked up used for $5.

    Regarding the Crucifixion, I came to a serious Bible reading as a young adult because of a serious handicap: introversion. I wasn’t indoctrinated by the church. I found the Bible to be my only hope, and I didn’t care a whit about the Crucifixion. It meant nothing at all, except that I (then) believed it had happened. But the Bible offered only hope where it mattered, not quick results, so I searched and filled in the blanks from books in the metaphysics section of any large bookstore. One book, Jane Roberts/Seth Material, was comprehensive. Resolution comes when we come to see the world as a mental construct. Then everything falls into place, with exception of the enormity of life itself.

    The Seth Material is unrelated to Gnostic texts (it is a contemporary metaphysical collection through author Jane Roberts) with exception of the name “Seth” which is probably no accident, or is perhaps “Seth’s” marketing ploy but could actually happen to be the name he uses. There is no religion in these books, they read as psychology or even quantum science, with exception that the Crucifixion is briefly mentioned in the first two books of the collection.

    The logic of the Crucifixion, as Seth explains, is flawless, not anything of the nonsense of orthodoxy or heretical texts. Quite believably, a Master comes on scene and “miracles” are somewhat common in his presence; because our thoughts create our reality, and the Master’s energy is closer to the the creative source and so trumps the “beliefs” of the world at that time in our recorded history. Crucifixions are commonplace at that time, and Jesus is a common name. Seth seems to indicate that Judas turned in a self-styled doomsday prophet, of which there were a number of, who was misidentified as the actual Master and was crucified. This is completely plausible and would explain why the “Messiah” was crucified. The Crucifixion indeed took place, but there was no resurrection, and yet many people saw him postmortem, because he was not crucified. Paul, being from a distant region outside of Israel, would not be aware of this. According to Seth, the idea of a crucified Messiah was good (even though it makes no logical sense intellectually) and it happened in peoples imaginations. This can explain how the myths develop from familiar stories and myths from the past. Ultimately Jesus “willed himself away” just as he does in the Bible stories. It would be interpreted by the mind as an ascension. And, per Seth, Peter denied Jesus three times because the man was not Jesus. Then the term “Son of Man” is added to the circulating texts, to keep the story alive, Seth suggesting it was added to confuse the Romans if the texts were confiscated which was likely.

    The Master is not a miracle man at all, he is an advanced entity with a stronger aura. Miracles are merely things that we don’t believe are possible, but our outer reality being a mental construct, there are no miracles, for anything is possible, and miracles are merely what we deem to be not possible, our reality carefully reflecting our beliefs.

  17. Telling
    Telling  December 28, 2017

    Hi Bart,

    I’ve ordered books from your two mentioned authors (regarding Paul timeline). “Framing Paul” is quite expensive, 33 bucks for kindle version. I managed to find a used book for $24. The other book I picked up used for $5.

    Regarding the Crucifixion, I studied the Bible as a young adult because of a serious mental handicap: introversion. I was never indoctrinated by the church. The Bible became my only hope, and I didn’t care a whit about the Crucifixion (I guess I ignored Paul). But the Bible offered only hope, not quick results, so I searched and filled in the blanks from books in the metaphysics section of any large bookstore. The Jane Roberts/Seth Material provided all my answers. Resolution comes when we comprehend the world as a mental construct. Then everything falls into place, with exception of the enormity of life itself.

    The Seth Material is unrelated to Gnostic texts (it is a contemporary metaphysical collection through author Jane Roberts) with exception of the name “Seth” which is perhaps “Seth’s” marketing ploy but could actually be the name he uses. There is no religion in these books, they read more as psychology, with exception that the Crucifixion is briefly mentioned in the first two books of the collection.

    The logic of the Crucifixion, as Seth explains, is flawless, not anything of the nonsense of orthodoxy or heretical texts. Quite believably (for me), a Master comes on scene and “miracles” are somewhat common in his presence; because our thoughts create our reality, and the Master’s energy is closer to the creative source and so trumps the common “beliefs”. Seth indicates that, to protect Jesus, Judas turned in a self-styled doomsday prophet who intended to fulfill the supposed ancient prophesies, and this man was crucified, but no resurrection (of course).

    The idea of the Messiah dying like an ordinary man was good (though nonsense logically) and became a powerful imagined “psychic” event, though it didn’t actually happen in that way. This explains the recurring historical religious themes. The blueprint is there already.

    Per Seth, Jesus eventually leaves the world (his presence was becoming an embarrassment) merely willing himself away, the mind translating the event as an ascension. According to Seth, things of the five senses are symbolic (as in dreams). When an event from outside our reality intrudes into our world, the mind will translate it using the person’s beliefs. If you believe in angels you will see angels; if you believe in space aliens you will see space aliens, though it is the same event. Essentially, we’re dreaming, and this is the “good news”, for all things are possible if we truly believe (that).

    Our purpose for living is to learn we create our reality with our thoughts, per Seth.

  18. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 28, 2017

    This reminds me of the “swoon theory”‘ i.e. that Jesus survived the crucifiction. Details include he was given a sedative to drink and the spear piercing wouldn’t have damaged any vital tissues. Are there any ancient accounts of that story to your knowledge?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      Nope. The version you’re citing sounds very similar to the view set forth by Hugh Schonfield in The Passover Plot.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  December 29, 2017

        As ridiculous as it seems now, that book was the main impetus for my becoming agnostic at age 14. It was quite traumatic.

        • Avatar
          anthonygale  December 30, 2017

          I briefly considered the theory plausible, but I think in my case it was due to rebelliousness. My deconversion was starting and I liked any idea that challenged traditional views, like the swoon theory and the notion that Jesus went to India (for emotional rather than rational reasons).

  19. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  December 28, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, any live events coming up soon, or live streams?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      Next one is end of January in Naples Fl.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 28, 2017

        Ooh, is that open to everyone or only congregants?

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  December 29, 2017

        Can you post details? FL in January sounds to inviting to pass up!

  20. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  December 28, 2017

    On the separationist view, I have heard some fundamentalist preachers explain Jesus’ cry of dereliction as the Father turning his back on Jesus because he couldn’t look on all that sin he was carrying. Would that qualify as separationist, as the Father and he could not have been one in that moment?
    Also, I have heard that some Muslim tradition (I don’t know if it comes from the Qur’an or hadith) holds that Jesus traded appearances with Judas Iscariot, so that Judas was crucified for betraying him. Do you know of any Christian sources for that account?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2017

      No, that’s a different view. In that account Jesus is not a separate being from the Christ: they are one and the same. There are no early Christian accounts of Judas being crucified instead of Jesus.

    • Telling
      Telling  December 28, 2017


      That Idea (your second paragraph) comes from the Gospel of Barnabas, a known forgery from about the 12th century or thereabouts. It is used and believed by some Somalis today.


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