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Does Jesus Claim to Be God in Mark? And My Former Converts. Mailbag March 19, 2017

Two questions in this week’s Mailbag, one about whether Jesus was claiming to be God in the Gospel of Mark, and the other about my personal life: whether today, as an agnostic, I ever meet people I once converted when I was a gung-ho conservative evangelical Christian.  If you have a question you would like me to address, ask away!

 

QUESTION:

Dr. Ehrman, the other day I was discussing with an Evangelical pastor that the sayings of Jesus in which he claimed to be God were only found in the Gospel of John. He had me read Mark 2:5-7. This is the verse where Jesus heals a paralytic and says to him “Son, your sins are forgiven”. The religious leaders say “Who can forgive sins but God alone”. The pastor said that this shows that even in the earliest Gospel Mark, Jesus claimed to be God. I wasn’t sure how to respond but told him that there was still a big difference in the comparison. Do you have any thoughts or comments in which I could have responded to this pastor?

 

RESPONSE:

              Yes this is a very interesting passage, and one that, in my opinion, regularly gets misread.  First some background: in the Gospel of *John* Jesus does, repeatedly, claim a divine status for himself:  “I and the Father are One,” “Before Abraham was, I AM,” “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” and so on.  These sayings are found only in John, not in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  That seems very odd if the historical Jesus really went around making such claims about himselfHow could the three earliest Gospels (and their sources: Q, M, and L!) not say anything about Jesus making such radical claims if they knew he made them.  Wouldn’t that be the most significant thing to say about Jesus, that he called himself God?  Did all of them simply decide not to *mention* that part?

That seems unlikely.   It is far more likely that they had never heard of such a thing, and so didn’t report it.

But what about Mark 2, where Jesus heals the paralytic?  He first pronounces that man’s sins forgiven, the opponents claim that only God can forgive sins, and Jesus responds by asking whether it is easier to pronounce a person forgiven or to tell a paralytic to be healed, take up his pallet, and walk.  Obviously the former is easier, since there is no way of seeing if the words had their stated effect.  Then Jesus says “But so that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” … and he orders the man to take up his pallet and walk.  And he does so.

Doesn’t this show that Jesus is claiming to be God?

Not necessarily….

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Touring Hell: The Apocalypse of Peter
A Final Word (I Think!) on Group Visions

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Comments

  1. John Uzoigwe  March 19, 2017

    Dr. Bart Ehrman, I would appreciate it alot if you could write something about the violent history of christanity. Thank you




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      I’m afraid I’m not an expert on all of Christian history. Would that I were! It’s a very important topic.




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  2. talmoore
    talmoore  March 19, 2017

    If Jesus were actually God in the flesh, that would be the single most important, most memorable thing about him, and yet the best we get from the Gospels — even the fourth Gospel — are possible implications, allusions and vague notions. That’s simply not good enough. I’m not buying it for a second. The men who wrote the four canonical Gospels simply did not, could not have actually believed Jesus was God Himself in the flesh.

    Incidentally, even the possible suggestions in John are extremely suspect, because everything written there could be taken as idiom or hyperbole or some other form of exaggeration for effect. For instance, when Jesus says in John, “I and the Father are one,” that doesn’t necessarily mean he is saying they are literally one and the same person. He could be talking idiomatically: e.g. Jesus and God are of like mind; Jesus and God are on the same side; Jesus is speaking for God through the Holy Spirit (in which case, Jesus and God are “one” because a literal piece of God, the Holy Spirit, is using Jesus as a mouthpiece), and so on and so forth. Automatically jumping to the conclusion that Jesus is calling himself God is a theological conclusion brought INTO the text, not something that one necessarily gets FROM the text.




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      I don’t see why the Gospel writers couldn’t think this, when Christians not long after them did.




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      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 20, 2017

        The men who wrote the Gospels were a bridge between the Jewish Christian church of Jerusalem — who, as Jews, almost certainty did NOT believe Jesus was one and the same as God Himself — and the Gentile Christians — who, as former pagans, would not have had the same reservations about believing Jesus was one and the same as God Himself. The Gospel writers were building off of previous documents and oral histories coming from the former group (the Jewish Christians) and tailoring it for the Gentile Christians. Hence, why the Gospel writers, even John, never come straight out and say, hey, Jesus and God are the same person. It wasn’t until the Jewish Christian church effectively disappeared from history (why do we know more about Barnabas than we do about the Disciple Bartholomew?), that the Gentile Christians effectively took over the movement, and only then did the concept of Jesus being himself God in the flesh become tenable. That’s probably why we don’t start seeing the concept seriously expressed until the 2nd century, decades after the Gospels were written.




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      • Steefen  April 2, 2017

        In your original post you write that Mark gives us no verses that Jesus claimed to be God. That is one reason one Gospel writer could not have thought Jesus was God. Even so, Jesus does have god status.

        Jesus had to be God because the God of Moses did not maintain his strength, given the Babylonian Exile and the Destruction of the Temple. God left the Holy of Holies. The Father and the Son are one: Jesus died (left Earth physically) at the hands of Romans; and, God, in His Temple, left Earth physically (died) at the hands of Romans.

        If God could not be strong in victory and life, he had to be strong in defeat and death. While the God of Moses gave the Hebrew people salvation-by-exodus from an overbearing super power (Egypt), the God, Jesus, gave the Hebrew people salvation-by-no defense, by victimization, by acceptance–the God, Jesus, gave the Hebrew people freedom by death from an overbearing super power (Rome),

        The God of Moses was nation building, nation-birthing.
        The God, Jesus, was nation ending, nation-dying.

        In a monotheistic notion of God over humans, we need a Creator, a Sustainer, and an Ender/Destroyer/Regenerator. Hinduism has this: Trimurti: Brahma (Life), Vishnu (Preserver), and Shiva (Ender/Destroyer/Regenerator). Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome had Osiris-Serapis. The God of Moses as Deliverer was Vishnu (to Deliver is to Preserve). When the God of Moses failed to deliver the Hebrew people, we have Jesus as Shiva Ender/Destroyer/Regenerator. How did Jesus destroy? He destroyed the God of Moses with Holy Communion knowing that the eating of a human body is admittance of defeat (Deut. 28: 53-57, Jer. 19: 9, Lamentations 4:10) and the drinking of human blood turns the face of the God of Moses away (Lev. 17: 10).

        As Osiris-Serapis and Shiva are gods, Jesus certainly is god on par.




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  3. webattorney  March 19, 2017

    It’s hard for me to imagine that once you tried to convert others to become a Christian. lol




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  4. J--B  March 19, 2017

    “loving one another is far more important than agreeing and disagreeing on personal religious views”

    Amen!




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  5. caseyjunior  March 19, 2017

    Early yesterday (3/18) morning while I was sleeping I heard a voice call my name. It was like when I was a child and my mother would wake me up, and I woke up immediately. However, the voice I “heard” wasn’t my mother’s voice. It wasn’t anyone’s voice I could recognize. Maybe it was at the end of a dream the rest of which I can’t remember, or maybe it was my unconscious processing what I’ve been reading on this blog for the last couple of weeks. Whatever the cause (and whatever a psychologist would call it) , it was strikingly realistic. I can easily see how a person with the right mind-set could call it the “call of Jesus”. Had to share it with you all!




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  6. Lev
    Lev  March 19, 2017

    Hey Bart,

    Many thanks for inviting us to ask questions – I’ve always wanted to ask you the following:

    During your evangelical years, was your faith based solely upon the bible, or did you also draw upon personal spiritual experiences with God?

    When Paul was arguing with the Galatians (3:2-4) he appealed to their “experience” of God over the competing religious instructions they heard, in an attempt to win them over to his brand of Christianity. He makes similar remarks throughout his letters, often citing miraculous works and the power of the Spirit that accompanied his gospel.

    From what I’ve heard about the time you turned away from your faith, it seems you lost faith in the credibility of the biblical texts and this led you to losing your faith in God. As a liberal Christian who is sceptical of several parts of the NT (for many of the reasons you argue), I find this curious because I maintained my faith and communion with God through the personal experiences I have. You could say I never found it necessary to chuck the divine baby out with the scriptural bathwater. I am curious if these spiritual experiences were lacking in your time as an evangelical, as most seem to have experienced them.

    PS: If this question is a little too personal, I won’t be offended if you choose not to publish or answer it.




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      I’ll add this to the mailbag, but yes, my faith was based *mainly* on my personal spiritual experiences. Knowledge about and belief in the Bible came later, and was secondary.




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  7. twiskus  March 19, 2017

    1. I know I have read in your books (or listened to in a debate of yours) that in John, Jesus does miracles to prove who he is, but that he does not in Mark (all the Synoptics?) and specifically says that is of the devil. However, in this Mark passage, it seems he is saying that he is doing the miracle for proof. Maybe you never said never in the Synoptics.

    2. This may be too personal, but you have mentioned your wife is still a Christian. Anyway to share how you “came out” to her as agnostic?




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      Good point. But he wasn’t proving who he was but what authority he had — a bit different.

      I was an agnostic when we met. She’s not a conservative evangelical — far (VERY far) from it. More like an exceedingly liberal Episcopalian.




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  8. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  March 19, 2017

    One question I have is that you reported having had a conversion experience when you were young, correct me if I am wrong about that, and so I wonder how you view and interpret that experience in light of the agnosticism/atheism you hold today?




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      I think being born again filled a psychological need I had to be loved, to feel like I belonged, to have peace about my future/afterlife, and to have important insights into the nature of reality — all at once!




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  9. cheito
    cheito  March 19, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    I have a different interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. I don’t believe Paul was saying that Jesus was going to return in his generation. Below is my insight and my interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

    When Paul in 2 Corinth 5;16 says, ‘even though WE have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer.’, Obviously Paul is not including himself, nor the Corinthians he’s writing to, as the eyewitnesses who had seen Jesus when He was in his flesh. We know that Paul saw Jesus after the resurrection and not before. Paul is using the pronoun, ’WE’ generically to refer to THOSE believers that did in fact see Jesus in the flesh, as Peter, John and James did.

    In the same manner, the pronoun ‘WE’ used by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, is also generic, referring to the generation of believers who will remain alive until the day the Lord descends from heaven.

    In Thessalonians in 4:15, Paul is informing them of a word that Jesus Himself revealed to him; i.e., that believers who will remain alive until Jesus’ coming will not be glorified before those who have fallen asleep. Paul is not necessarily including himself, nor the believers who were alive in his generation, he’s is referring to those believers who will be alive when Jesus returns. ‘WE’ is a generic term for those believers.

    To summarize, Paul is not including Himself, nor the believers of his generation, when he states in
    1 Thessalonians 4:15 , ‘We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord shall not precede those who have fallen asleep’. Just as he is not including himself, nor the Corinthians to whom he’s writing as those who knew Jesus in his flesh, when he states in 2 Corinthians 5:16, ‘even though ‘WE’ have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now ‘WE’ know Him in this way no longer. The ‘WE’ in both verses are generic and refer to ‘Believers’. In both instances Paul is not including himself nor the believers he’s writing to.

    What do you think DR Ehrman? Is my point valid?




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      2 Cor. 5:16 is usually taken to mean that we did not know Christ in merely a human way (KATA SARKA).




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      • cheito
        cheito  March 21, 2017

        I think that to understand V:16 correctly one has to first understand what Paul is stating in V:15.

        In V:15 Paul is saying that Jesus is the only one who died for all, (there is no other person that did what Jesus did while He was in the flesh.)

        Paul is also saying in V:15, that people should live for Him because He not only died for all, but He also was raised for all. (He’s no longer in the flesh because He rose from the dead, thus they don’t know him according to the flesh any longer)

        Then Paul leads into V;16 and says: Therefore we recognize no one according to the flesh, even though we have known CHRIST according to the flesh, yet now we know in this way no longer.

        Why does Paul say, ‘we recognize no one according to the flesh even though we have known CHRIST according to the flesh?

        I think Paul means that they recognize no one as ‘CHRIST’ according to the flesh.

        Because they already knew CHRIST according to the flesh and He died and rose from the dead on their behalf.

        Therefore they don’t know him any longer as a human Christ but as a glorified resurrected Christ.
        And that’s why they will not recognize any other CHRIST ACCORDING TO THE FLESH..

        ————————————————

        2 Corinthians 5:15-16

        15-and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.

        16-Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer.




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      • cheito
        cheito  March 21, 2017

        DR Ehrman:

        Your Comment:

        2 Cor. 5:16 is usually taken to mean that we did not know Christ in merely a human way (KATA SARKA).

        My Comment:

        Following this interpretation then the first part of 2 Cor. 5:16 would say: Therefore from now on we recognize NO ONE in merely a human way. This interpretation doesn’t wok for the first part of V:16

        —————————————–

        2 Cor. 5:16-Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer.




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        • Bart
          Bart  March 22, 2017

          It’s mainly just a question of what Paul means when he says KATA SARKA. To find out, one needs merely see how he uses it in other places.




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  10. rivercrowman  March 19, 2017

    When my sister and I were early teenagers, I encouraged her to also acquire a Bible. Today, I’m agnostic and she’s Mormon. And we do not discuss matters of faith.




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  11. Tony  March 19, 2017

    On the previous posts, on the nature of visions, Gary made the point that individuals within a subject group do not have identical visions. Paul confirms that in his letters.

    Paul identifies the Apostles’ visions as their source of knowledge about Christ in 1 Cor 15, but elsewhere in his letters he provides evidence that these visions were far from consistent.

    It appears that there were a number of Christ preaching apostles traveling from church to church and they had different, and competing, Christ Gospels. Attempts to influence other congregations were likely common place – resulting in angry written responses by an infuriated Paul. Galatians and perhaps 2 Corinthians appears to be written to address outsider threats to Paul’s vision based theology – and congregational control.

    Paul does not tell us whether he engaged in the same practice. He also does not tell us much about the content of the competing Gospels. A requirement for Gentiles to follow the Jewish Law could well have been one area of conflict.

    Of course, the visions component made the religion of Paul unsustainable. Anyone could come up with a new, improved, vision at any time. Paul claimed he received instructions and information directly from Christ on a number of subjects and practices which he passed on to his congregations. Others must have done the same, resulting in variations and inconsistent theologies and practices.

    The later Gospel writers used Cephas, (Peter), from Paul’s letters, to create apostolic succession and to provide their new religion with legitimacy and consistency.




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  12. gmdave449
    gmdave449  March 19, 2017

    Isn’t it intriguing that in John 20:23 Jesus grants the disicples power to forgive sins? And as far as I can tell, this only happens in John. Since this would diminish the claims to divinity in the other gospels, it would seem that the author didn’t think that the ability to forgive sins exclusively belongs to God and maybe wasn’t aware of those statements in the other gospels. What is your take on this?

    On an unrelated note, I’ve heard it argued that Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man, in particular in Mark 14:62 where he references “coming on the clouds of heaven,” was a claim to divinity. This is because the first century Jews, as the argument goes, understood the Son of Man to be a divine figure, perhaps based on the Book of Enoch or texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls. I wish I could be more specific but I don’t remember it that well. Can you give any input on this?




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      Very good point!




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      • Kevin Nelson  March 22, 2017

        I’m sort of wondering what you think of Mark 14:61. The high priest asks Jesus if he claims to be “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One.” Is it absolutely clear that “Blessed One” [eulogetos] here must refer to God Himself? It sounds a little strange to my ear to refer to God that way; you would think that God provides blessings, rather than receiving them. Or was the Blessed One maybe King David? There was certainly a tradition that the Messiah would be a descendant of David’s, metaphorically his son.




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        • Bart
          Bart  March 22, 2017

          Yes, the “Blessed One” is a euphemism for “God” himself.




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        • James Cotter  June 3, 2017

          that’s a theological thing. in semitic languages they have verbal nouns which don’t have time attached to them. so when god is praised or blessed then it seems it is timeless blessing and timeless praising. it is as if gods very being is blessed and praised.




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  13. dragonfly  March 20, 2017

    I heard some advice once. The author believes what he says, he believes what God says, he believes what Jesus says, but he doesn’t necessarily believe what other people say. So when the religious leaders say only God can forgive sins, we can’t automatically assume mark believes that. In fact that might be the point, that God *isn’t* the only one who can forgive sins- Jesus can too (although as you say, he doesn’t say he is the one who does the forgiving). So you shouldn’t assume what mark believes based on what the religious leaders say.




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  14. godspell  March 20, 2017

    It’s in Mark, of course, that we get the first account of Jesus being baptized by John. Mark treats this as the true beginning of the story, since there is where he has a seemingly personal revelation from God, and is moved to begin his own teaching mission, after having apparently been John’s disciple (though Mark doesn’t say that in so many words).

    In the two subsequent synoptics, this has to be explained away somehow. Obviously it was known to have happened, but early Christians would have much preferred that it hadn’t. Because John baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Nobody thought he was God. But if Jesus was God, or the divinely procreated Son of God, or even an angel (as Paul may have thought)–if he’d been any kind of divine being at all–he wouldn’t have needed to be baptized at all.

    Matthew has John saying it would be better for Jesus to baptize him, and who in their right mind could believe that ever happened? Jesus makes up some kind of flimsy legalistic excuse for asking him, and Matthew says everybody heard God talking to Jesus, telling Jesus he’s God’s beloved son, in which case why did anybody ever follow John afterwards?

    Luke went at it a different way, creating this entire backstory for Jesus and John, in which seemingly John was divinely conceived as well, and they are closely related, and I guess God likes to keep things in the family. It’s like John was only born in order to baptize Jesus. For sins he never committed. Okay.

    John’s (other John) gospel omits the baptism entirely, and has the Baptist just looking at Jesus and telling all his followers “This is The Lord!” in which case, again, why are they still following John afterwards?

    Point is, Jesus forgiving sins as a mortal man acting on God’s authority isn’t a new thing even in the Gospels.




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  15. mjt  March 20, 2017

    Does John 20:23 teach that the disciples have the power to forgive peoples’ sins? To avoid this problem, the church I attended reworded the verse to “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins have PREVIOUSLY been forgiven…”




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  16. madmargie  March 20, 2017

    I understand where you are coming from with your family. I do believe in God in a Process Theology sort of way, but my older son thinks I am lost and prays for me all the time. I, on the other hand, am happy he is going to church regularly even if it’s not my church. It makes his wife and him happy and they are doing well. I never discuss religion with them either. Whatever….




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  17. RonaldTaska  March 20, 2017

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this about your family and you. I think the thing that has most shocked me about the “search” is how rare it is for someone to be persuaded, to even a slightly different view, in politics and/or religion, even in the face of what seems to be overwhelming evidence. I guess we partially explain this by concepts like confirmation bias, the backfire effect, the Fox News repetition effect, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.. I like to read about people, like you, and C.S. Lewis, who changed their position and learn why they did this. I do, however, find it quite frustrating that many of the firmest believers have not really examined the Bible which they quote with such certainty and fervor and they always have a way to “spin” the evidence even in the “No Spin” zone of Fox News.

    The only screw loose with you is that you have made a tremendous effort to critically examine crucial questions and educate others about what you have learned. For this tremendous effort on your part, I have “huge” gratitude. Thanks and keep at it.




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  18. jimviv2@gmail.com  March 20, 2017

    Great post, as usual.
    Maybe sometime you could discuss the differences between “inerrancy” and “infallibility?”
    Most people, I think, see them as equivalent, but I see more wiggle room with infallibility.
    Thanks,
    Jim




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      I think you’re right, speaking roughly. Inerrant can mean “no mistakes of any kind whatsoever” and infallible can mean “no mistakes in what it affirms to be true with respect to doctrine and ethics” (leaving open possible mistakes in scientific explanation, geography, history, and so on)




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      • Wilusa  March 21, 2017

        And in Catholicism, the Pope is said to be infallible only when he’s making a proclamation about matters of faith and morals, *for the entire Church*.




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      • Wilusa  March 21, 2017

        After I posted my first Reply, I got to thinking, “Well, is there any possible situation where a Pope might want a proclamation about faith or morals to *not* apply to ‘the entire Chuch’?” And I think I came up with one.

        The Church now teaches that abortion is a grave sin. Suppose a Pope wanted to declare it acceptable for women *living in countries where it’s legal*? I think he might be able to announce that’s having become his personal opinion. But he wouldn’t be able to state it “infallibly,” with its only applying to women in certain countries.




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  19. ddecker54  March 20, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Just a general comment. If I have learned anything from your books and speeches it is that we can never know what Jesus said EXACTLY. Words written decades after the fact based upon oral histories will never be accurate. It seems to me then that parsing phrases Jesus supposedly spoke, e.g. And note: Jesus does not say “I forgive your sins” – he says “your sins have been forgiven”, is an exercise in total futility.
    Rebutting this pastor by pointing out that Mark’s message is completely different from John, i.e. showing that John’s Christology has completely morphed from Mark’s (and his contemporaries), rather than parse Jesus’ “quotes” would enhance the dialogue rather than debate what was actually said, as we can never know what that was. If there are some sayings of Jesus that we can absolutely state with certainty that they are authentic quotations, I would love to know that.

    Thanks!!




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  20. Silver  March 20, 2017

    I was staggered to learn that your fundamentalism ran so deep that you believed that creation was only 6000 years ago. How did you deal with such a paradigm shift in your thinking? Where did you find support for what must have been an extremely traumatic time, perhaps over a number of years, while you were coming to your present position? Presumably you could not find comfort in prayer.




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      It was a long, hard, slow process, and yes, early on I did indeed devote a lot of prayer to it.




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