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Does Luke Flat Out Contradict Himself?

Sometimes readers ask questions that have answers they probably would not suspect in a million years.  My guess is that this is true of the following interesting query about a contradiction between the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts (written by the same author) about the ascension of Jesus.

 

QUESTION:

Talking of authors who contradict themselves any idea why Luke has Jesus ascending on the day of his resurrection but Acts places it 40 days later!? This seems like quite an obvious mistake for the same writer to make.

 

RESPONSE:

I explain the problem and try to come up with a solution in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.  Here is what I say there (edited to get rid of some of the technical discussion that is not directly germane to the question):

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How did the proto-orthodox doctrines of Jesus’ bodily ascension and return in judgment affect the text of Scripture? I begin by considering a problem that proves particularly difficult to adjudicate. The final verses of Luke’s Gospel record Jesus’ departure from his disciples: “And it happened that while he was blessing them, he was removed from them and was taken up into heaven. And they, worshipping him, returned into Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:51–52). Two of the key phrases of this climactic scene, however, are lacking in significant textual witnesses: “and he was taken up into heaven” (v. 51) from manuscripts D a b d e ff  along with (interestingly enough) codex Sinaiticus, and “worshipping him” (v. 52) from D a b d e.  Without these disputed phrases we have a very different conclusion to Luke’s Gospel. Now Jesus simply leaves his disciples (without ascending into heaven) and they do not worship him when he does.

The textual problem is complicated by the circumstance that…

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Sources for the Hebrew Bible: A Blast from the Past
Does the Book of Acts Portray the *Teachings* of Paul Accurately?

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Comments

  1. godspell  June 22, 2018

    Maybe it was an encore?

    “Back by popular demand.”

    No, I think your explanation is correct.

    It just reads better without that ending. As Mark’s gospel reads better in its earlier form.

    Always leave them wanting more.

    One thing all four gospel authors had in common was that they were good writers. That’s one reason why all four gospels survived–and if people rewrote Shakespeare (and they did), why wouldn’t they rewrite Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John?

    But when you add bad writing to good, to try and ‘fix’ a perceived problem, it always sticks out like a sore thumb. (Which is bad writing, sorry, I should avoid cliches like the plague.)

    Question: Do you think there were other gospels from this period that were lost? I don’t mean the gnostics. I mean from the same time period the three synoptics and John were written. I know there was one, that we have some references to. Hebrews, right?




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      No, no explicit mention of a Gospel in the book of Hebrews. But Luke indicates he had “many” predecessors, so presumably there were others (besides Mark and Q)




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      • godspell  June 24, 2018

        Sorry, I was in a hurry when I posted that. I meant this.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_the_Hebrews

        The interesting thing about lost gospels is why they were lost. Did people not like them? Were they not as compellingly written? Were there ideas in them that ended up not catching on? Or was it just happenstance? Not enough copies made, too many destroyed for one reason or another.

        My own feeling is that there are reasons other than happenstance for why some literary works live on, and others are forgotten. But that hardly proves that no great book (or poem, or play) was ever lost.




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        • Bart
          Bart  June 25, 2018

          Ah yes, the Gospel of the Hebrews. I give a fresh English translation of all the surviving fragments in my book The Other Gospels. It’s another one we wish hadn’t been lost!




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        • SidDhartha1953  July 3, 2018

          Has anyone you know of published a book for nonscholars about Queen Jezebel? The only serious attempt I can find is by Lesley Hazleton, but the reviews and her bio suggest she’s a journalist with some knowledge of Hebrew and the middle East, not a trained historian. Help?




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  2. kadmiral
    kadmiral  June 22, 2018

    Is it a possibility that the scribe adding on to Luke had no knowledge of Acts? What does this say then, if anything, about the time between the writing of Luke and Acts? Is there any consensus on how much time Luke took to write Acts after finishing Luke?




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      Certainly possible. They may have circulated independently of one another.




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  3. Robert
    Robert  June 22, 2018

    I like the fact that here and in the last supper pericope you twice prefer an uncharacteristically shorter reading of the Western text. Brooke and Fenton would be proud!




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      Yes, in my book that’s the argument, that this, like the other Western non-interpolations, is in fact original, that W & H got it right. What they didn’t realize is that each of the interpolations functions as anti-docetic polemic.




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  4. Tricia  June 22, 2018

    Nothing to disagree with here. Easy to accept that the text was adjusted (why I read your books). And even easier to agree that the forces of the docetist “spiritual” ascension and the proto’s “physical” ascension were likely to have prompted it. I’d even go further and say it wasn’t the decision of some lowly scribe… But again, isn’t this just adjusting the “scaffolding” without really changing the event itself?




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  5. JSTMaria  June 22, 2018

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,
    Please forgive this totally unrelated question! Recently, I was reading Robert Alter’s comments on Deuteronomy. He explained that with respect to to Moses’ warnings about false prophets being “put to death,” that it actually referred to being killed without a trial. The Gospels put a heavy emphasis on the trial of Jesus that for all intents and purposes seemed like a ridiculous one of trial by mob mentality, but a trial nevertheless. Do you think the repeated emphasis comes from the necessity of relieving the accusation of being put to death without trial? So as not to have been handled in the same way as a false prophet?




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      I’m not sure what he means. I don’t believe they *had* “trials” (in anything like the modern sense) back in the days of Deuteronomy. In any event, the trial narratives in the Gospels appear to be designed in large part to show that it was not the Romans who actually killed Jesus but his Jewish opponents who were responsible for his death.




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  6. Pattylt  June 22, 2018

    I know that some (most?) conservative fundamentalist scholars do accept the interpolations of the ending of Mark and the adulteress pericope in John but do they accept others such as this one? I tend to think they will if it resolves a blatant contradiction like this but not if it removes a favored saying or point. Thoughts?




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      Sure, they evaluate the evidence and then make a decision, though if htere is a problem with one or the other variants in respect to their faith position, that obviously can affect the decision they reach.




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  7. flyboydh1  June 22, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When was the book of Acts written and how are we so sure the writer of Luke also wrote acts? Thanks, Danny.




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      I date it to the mid 80s or so. If you read the first four verses of Luke and then the first two of Luke, you’ll see why it appears to be the same author. Moreover, the writing style, the themes, the theological points of view, and clever similarities between the actions found in one and in the other all point in the same direction: one author for both.




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      • AnotherBart  June 24, 2018

        If Acts was written in the 80’s, then shouldn’t he have mentioned Nero by name as he did the other dead Caesars, Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius?

        IMO Acts was a legal document submitted for Paul’s trial, c. 62. Luke knew that Emperors didn’t change on a schedule. Their demise / accession was unpredictable. If Acts, as a written legal document, had included Nero Caesar by name, it would have become null and void if, by the time of the trial, Nero had been assassinated & replaced.

        Therefore, Acts lack of naming Caesar Nero indicated that it was written during Nero’s lifetime.

        What think ye?




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        • Bart
          Bart  June 25, 2018

          No, because he is narrating events that took place *before* Nero. (Just as when I’m writing about the NT, I have never mentioned the emperor Justinian, even though he lived before my time; he was *after* the time I’m writing about)




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          • AnotherBart  June 25, 2018

            The events of Acts chapter 20 – 28 took place *before* Nero? Sure about that?




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          • Bart
            Bart  June 26, 2018

            Not completely. But there doesn’t seem any reason for him to mention Nero by name in particular there (any more than Luke mentioned Tiberius by name in teh passion narrative of the Gospel)




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          • AnotherBart  June 26, 2018

            Dear Sir:
            Does my point come across in the following?
            A) Nero ascended 54 AD
            B) 51 AD Gallio appointed proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17)
            C) 51-54 AD Paul spends three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31)
            D) And about the time that Nero becomes Emperor, Paul makes up his mind to go to Rome (Acts 19:21)
            https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=gallio&qs_version=NIV

            E) Augustus & Tiberius are each mentioned once by Luke
            https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A1%2C+3%3A1&version=NIV

            F) Claudius twice:
            “This happened during the reign of Claudius” Acts 11:28
            “because Claudius had ordered” the 49 AD expulsion of Jews: Acts 18:2
            https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+11%3A28%2C+18%3A2&version=NIV

            BUT
            G) Then the current (Nero) Caesar is referred to simply as Caesar SEVEN times from Acts 25:8- 27:24, all in context of Paul’s upcoming trial.

            If Acts had been a post 68AD work of historical fiction, there were plenty of opportunities to use the name “Nero”, e.g. during Festus’ conversation with Agrippa (Acts 25:13-22) “But when Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar”




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          • Bart
            Bart  June 27, 2018

            I’m not saying there was no *opportunity* to mention Nero, any more than there were no opportunities in the Gospels to mention of Tiberius. Plenty of opportunities.




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          • AnotherBart  June 27, 2018

            I guess my question(s) are as follows:

            Does Luke’s failure to mention (or choice not to mention) Nero by name lend any support to the following hypothesis:
            My hypothesis is that …
            1) If Luke was the traveling companion of Paul, &
            2) If Luke wrote Acts …
            …. a) prior to the trial (or acquittal) of Paul in Rome 62, &
            …. b) partly to legally defend Paul (& Christianity) for that trial
            …. c) during the Reign (54-68) of Nero …

            then … wouldn’t it have been unnatural, even unwise for Luke to have used the actual name of the living Caesar at the time?

            If you, dwelling in 1st Century Rome, were the lawyer,
            and if you were spending two years compiling written information in legal defense of a religious sect, using expensive papyrus & ink, (no computers, printers, or easy edits),
            and
            nearly a third of the client’s / sect’s history (Acts 20-28 / 54 – 62 AD) took place on the current Emperor’s watch,
            and
            you knew that some Emperors last (Tiberius: 23 years, Claudius: 13 years)
            but some don’t (Caligula: 5)
            and
            you knew (as did the general public at Paul’s port of entry) that Nero had murdered his mother in 59
            and
            like everybody else,
            you knew that ‘what goes around comes around”,
            thus
            you *didn’t* know when the next Emperor assassination might take place.

            would *you* have referred to Nero by name in your legal document? What if, during your trial preparation, the emperor was assassinated?




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          • Bart
            Bart  June 29, 2018

            The only reason to mention Nero is if there was some literary reason to do so. I hardly ever have named either Obama or Trump on the blog, during the past six years. Even though in this case I certainly had plenty of opportunity to do so! My not doing so says more about my purposes and aims than about the years in which I was writing.




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          • AnotherBart  June 29, 2018

            The literary reason is that Paul’s appeal to Caesar was clearly during the reign of Nero. Regardless of when Acts was written, the story cuts off about halfway into Nero’s reign. Do you not agree?




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          • Bart
            Bart  July 1, 2018

            Yes, the story appears to end in the mid 60s. (BTW, it doesn’t mention Tiberius or Caligula by name either)




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  8. RonaldTaska  June 22, 2018

    I continue to be struck by how often Bible authors, since there were no copyright laws, seem to edit two or more different versions of an event together as seen in the Documentary Hypothesis. Is it likely that Luke and Acts had such an editor editing two or more manuscripts together thus producing contradictions? I would also like to know if this kind of editing together of two or more manuscripts was a common way of writing ancient books.




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      Yes, I think that certainly happened with Luke Acts. That’s why there are different theological views found thorughout the work. Maybe I’ll post on this!




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  9. JohnKesler  June 22, 2018

    What is your interpretation of Luke 9:51? Does this passage make it any more likely that Luke intended to end his gospel with the Ascension? What about Acts 13:31? If the 40-day tradition were known, why does “Paul” use the non-specific “many days” that Jesus appeared after his resurrection? (Cf. vv.18, 20, which give more precise numbers.)




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      Good quesiton — but it depends on what “taken up” means. If it does mean “ascension” then all the verse indicates is that the author knows about the tradition, not that he is planning to narrate it in his Gospel. “Many days” doesn’t seem to contradict “40 days”




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  10. clongbine  June 22, 2018

    James Tabor argues that very early Christianity taught a “spiritual” resurrection rather than a physical resurrection of Jesus. Is this something you might agree with?




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      No, it’s a point on which we strongly disagree.




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      • Alemin
        Alemin  June 25, 2018

        Considering the short ending of Mark, and that it sounds like initially no one saw (or claimed to see) a resurrected Jesus, is it possible that the initial accounts were that Jesus had risen and ascended spiritually, but those accounts were later expounded on and conflated until they were mostly saying it was a truly physical resurrection, etc?




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        • Bart
          Bart  June 25, 2018

          No, I’d say the entire point of the brief account is that the body is *gone*.




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          • Antonio40  June 25, 2018

            The body is gone and that is all?

            -Mark is the earliest gospel.
            -It was intented to convert people to the faith, or to strengthen the faith of the believers of the sect.
            -Even in ancient times, I supose there were more pedestrian and alternative explanations for a gone body. That is not exactly IMHO the kind of spectacular event that would convert people. It may be subtle and mysterious, but open to interpretation. And the ancients were definitely not more stupid than we are.

            And when I read the Octavius:

            “Why should I refer to those old wives’ fables, that men were changed from men into birds and beasts, and from men into trees and flowers?–which things, if they had happened at all, would happen again; and because they cannot happen now, therefore never happened at all”

            As you say, historians qua historians are not able not say that miracles do not happen, but that they are the least probable occurrence, by definition. For some christian apologist this earthly miracles did and could not happen. Period (because they contradict how nature works, and because did not happen in their present times, which are quite sensible reasons, by the way). So, were they hypocritical in the extreme, Minutius Felix was not a real christian, or it makes perhaps more sense to think in some kind of spiritual resurrection (dreams, visions, whatever) made more “material” late for doctrinal or sectarian in-fighting purposes?. You have said that the disciples did not invent the story, they had visions. Visions are compatible with spiritual resurrection, and in the Old Testaments there are stories of mediums and spirits. I am rather confused.




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          • Bart
            Bart  June 26, 2018

            Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re asking.




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      • tompicard
        tompicard  July 7, 2018

        What leads you to believe majority of Christians prior to irenaeus believed in physical resurrection of Jesus as opposed to a spiritual?

        Pagels thinks gnostics universally(?) reject physical resurrection of Jesus, but irenaeus touted the physical resurrection mostly to promote legitimacy of Roman church and discredit his opponents.

        Is it similar to Tabor’s view?




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 8, 2018

          He emphasizes that it was a resurrection of the *flesh*, in distinction to the views of Gnostics, who thought it was not. He discusses the matter at some length in Adversus Haereses, especially book 5.




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    • tompicard
      tompicard  June 24, 2018

      where does Tarbor explain that?

      It seems to me Jesus own authentic teachings can be more simple and better understood as implying spiritual resurrection rather than physical. even Paul’s




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  11. ZeroSheFlies  June 22, 2018

    Explanation makes sense.




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  12. DavidNeale  June 22, 2018

    I have another Luke question. You mentioned a while ago that you were going to post on Luke 23:43. I’d read, on an evangelical blog, some discussion about whether (as a matter of Greek grammar) it should be read as “Amen I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” or as “Amen I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise”.

    And the difference is presumably of some importance as to what Luke thought about the afterlife. If the first reading is correct (you will be with me in Paradise *today*) then presumably Luke thought, like most of today’s Christians, that the dead experience consciousness in between their death and their future bodily resurrection. (So the minority of today’s Christians who believe in “soul sleep” would obviously have to adopt the second reading.) If so, how does this compare to what we know of the views of the afterlife among apocalyptic Jews of Jesus’ time? And do you think that Luke believed in mind-body dualism / a “soul” in the sense that we understand it today? (I’m guessing all of this will be in your new book on the afterlife!)

    I’m also assuming that there is zero chance that this saying goes back to the historical Jesus – given that it’s not multiply attested, and I see no way that the author of Luke could have known what Jesus did or didn’t say on the cross. It looks more like a theologically motivated Lukan embellishment. Am I right about that?




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      Well, for one thing it doesn’t make sense for Jesus to say “this is what I’m telling you today.” What would that mean? If he’s talking to him at that moment, what other day would it be? And since he won’t be talking at *all* about it tomorrow, and probably never laid eyes on the guy up to this moment … I think the repunctuation suggestion is really being driven not by a question of the grammar but by the theological question of what it might mean that they will be together in paradise later that day. That’s not a question of grammar, though, but of meaning.




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      • JohnKesler  June 24, 2018

        David Neale,
        To buttress Dr. Ehrman’s point, just read the gospels and you will see *numerous* times that Jesus precedes his pronouncements with “Verily I say unto…” In no passage does Jesus ever say, “Verily I say unto you today…” This is the case for the entire New Testament, not just the Lukan corpus. In fact, other than the verse in question, I found no other place where the word translated “today” even appears in the same sentence, save for Mark 14:30, which reads as follows in the NRSV: “Jesus said to him, ‘Truly [or “verily”] I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’” Obviously, Jesus wasn’t saying that that very day is when he was predicting Peter’s denial, but that the time when Peter would deny him was that same day.

        In investigating this, I did come across an anomaly for which I have no explanation: in John’s gospel, the word for “verily” is always doubled (I found *no* exceptions). The NRSV translates this double occurence as “very truly,” while the KJV consistently translates both Greek words as “verily.” Perhaps Dr. Ehrman has some thoughts on this?




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        • Bart
          Bart  June 25, 2018

          Yes, the Greek literally says “Amen I say to you.” So in John, it is “Amen, Amen, I say to you.” That is a frequent way to begin a saying in John, which never has the single “Amen,”; the double Amen occurs in no other Gospel.




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          • JohnKesler  June 25, 2018

            Do you have any idea(s) about why John does this?




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          • Bart
            Bart  June 26, 2018

            It appears to be meant to say “What I’m telling you now is the absolute truth — believe it!”




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      • DavidNeale  June 25, 2018

        Fair enough. When you have time, I’d be really interested to read more about what this saying implies for Luke’s beliefs about the afterlife (and how those beliefs might differ from other NT authors and/or from apocalyptic Jewish beliefs of Jesus’ time). But presumably that’s the sort of thing that will be covered in your new book on the afterlife, so maybe I’m jumping the gun! At any rate I imagine it’s too broad a question to answer in a comment.




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        • DavidNeale  June 25, 2018

          (And by the way, thank you for the helpful and swift response! It is much appreciated.)




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        • Bart
          Bart  June 26, 2018

          Yup, I’m definitely dealing with it in my book. Basically the verse shows (along with the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16) that Luke believed in postmortem rewards and punishments, prior to the resurrection, unlike anything we find in the teachings of the historical Jesus himself.




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  13. rburos  June 22, 2018

    You’re right. Didn’t see that one coming, and I’ll not soon forget the lesson either.




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  14. Prizm  June 22, 2018

    “And if that’s the case, there is in fact no contradiction between the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts.”

    lol I don’t think it’s Bart’s intention, but this sentence reads like a dogmatic apologist who concludes every convoluted argument with: “So you see? There are no contradictions in the Bible.” XD




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      I believe in calling them as I see them, not in the way I’m *expected* to see them!!




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  15. Morphinius  June 22, 2018

    Oh, bugger. I was one of those who thought the author had contradicted himself. My assumption was that there was a gap in time between the two works and he forgot what he had written in his first book since had given it away.




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  16. ask21771  June 22, 2018

    How much money did the ancient world make of the city of rome




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  17. ftbond  June 23, 2018

    Dr Ehrman –

    Do you think it might be possible that a scribe added the ascension verses to the Gospel because, perhaps, he might simply not have had a copy of (what we call) the Book of Acts?

    I’m thinking, perhaps quite early on, there might have been this situation, and, much like with the Gospel of Mark, a scribe added on an ending to Luke. And, somehow, that addition “stuck”.

    Do you think this might be a plausible explanation?




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  18. John Uzoigwe  June 23, 2018

    Dr Bart, in John 19:11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin. If Jesus of Nazareth thought he was to die for the remission of sin of the world why then would he say such…
    I think his answer would have been something like…”this I must do to redeem the world”
    Besides the whole story of Judas betraying Jesus won’t be necessary.




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  19. John Uzoigwe  June 23, 2018

    If Paul thought those without the law but live according to the law are right with God then why did he focus on preaching Jesus rather than his teaching?
    I mean if all the people need to be saved is to live good Whether they be pagan or monotheists then what sense is in preaching Jesus as the messiah that must be believed in to get saved?




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      Yup, I’ve often wondered that as well!




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      • Duke12  June 25, 2018

        Maybe because Paul meant to imply that a truly pious Gentile would realize his “law” was as impossible to follow as the Jewish Law? Just a wild uneducated guess.




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    • godspell  June 24, 2018

      It’s not logical, no. But faith isn’t about logic. Paul had a vision of Jesus. Through this vision, he found what he believed to be his true vocation in life. Of course he’d make Jesus central to everything. He wants people to listen to him. How better than to tell them this amazing story? That he ended up being a part of?

      I mean, Rock and Roll would have existed without Elvis, or The Beatles (it was around well before either). Some people even think it would have been better without them (more racially integrated, put it that way).

      But it’s always compelling to put charismatic figures at the center of a movement. A movement without compelling central figures tends not to take hold, even if the ideas are good.

      Humans have the capacity for rational thought, and that is why we’ve achieved a level of material success no other species has–but a life lived entirely according to rational thought tends not to be very rewarding. And material success can feel pretty hollow sometimes. Assuming you even have that.

      And that’s my third post of the day. Bye. 🙂




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  20. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 23, 2018

    “Conclusion: the verse was probably added to the end of Luke. It wasn’t original. And if that’s the case, there is in fact no contradiction between the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts.”

    I have no problem accepting this, but surely you realize that by saying this, you are proposing that the New Testament can’t be the perfect, inerrant word of God, for if the NT is inerrant, then there can be no room for latter-day scribes who inserted spurious text into the evangelist’s text in the name of the evangelist.

    Which of course is possible to make with many such problems in the NT.




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    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2018

      Of course. That’s one of the main points of many of my books. You may want to read Misquoting Jesus for a start.




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    • Alemin
      Alemin  June 25, 2018

      Actually, many Christian scholars (and lay) are fine with this. They say that only the *original* autographs (itself a problematic concept) were inerrant. They acknowledge that changes were made, words dropped out or were added, etc. In essence it sets up an unfalsifiable theory of inerrant originals.




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      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  June 26, 2018

        It’s very illogical. Not you, but the argument.

        The Christians’ claim is that the original autographs are inerrant, but readily concede that subsequent errors were introduced into the texts by later copyists.

        I have a question for them: If God, having gone to the trouble in the first place of inspiring the actual original writers, to make their texts inerrant, then why would not the same God extend the same attention and care to the subsequent copyists and editors?

        In other words, if the original autographs were inerrant, then so should all the subsequent copies too.




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        • godspell  June 26, 2018

          Well, the problem with that argument (the way it can be defeated) is free will. We are free to disobey God, so we are presumably free to rewrite Him as well.

          Which in no way resolves the problems with the different gospels contradicting each other, and no reason to think the autographs didn’t as well.




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