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Did Humans Ever Become Divine in Judaism? (Seems unlikely, no?)

I have been discussing how human beings were sometimes thought to become gods in the ancient world.  All of this is backdrop to my assessment of why Christians thought that Jesus had become God.  Of course, most Christians say that Christ did not *become* God: he had always *been* God. That indeed is the traditional Christian teaching, but I will be arguing that it was not the original view.  The first followers of Jesus, after his resurrection, believed he had been made divine at that point.  Only later did that view develop into the notion that he had always been divine.   It will take a while for me to show that, but my premise will be that Jesus’ immediate followers were influenced by traditions that humans could indeed become divine beings. Still what relevance will that have for Christianity?  The earliest Christians were Jews.  The traditions I’ve been talking come out of *pagan* cultures..  No relevance for early Christians, right? Wrong.  As it turns out Jews also sometimes thought that a human could become divine.  [...]

2021-01-10T18:22:32-05:00January 20th, 2021|Early Judaism|

Where Did the Idea of a “Suffering Messiah” Come From?

This now is a seventh favorite post from years past.  As you know, I frequently simply write posts on questions readers have raised.  For understanding Christianity, here is one of the most important of all.  Christians maintain that the messiah had to suffer and die for the sins of the world.  Jews do not understand the messiah this way.  But Christians started off as Jews.  So where did their understanding of the messiah come from? QUESTION: Where did the idea of a Jewish messiah dying for the sins of mankind originate from? OT? Did Jews prior to Jesus’ existence believe this notion of the Messiah dying for other’s sins? RESPONSE: I deal with this issue in a couple of my books.  Here is one of my fuller discussions from Did Jesus Exist?, where I talk about the issue in connection with the question of why Paul originally opposed Christians before converting to the faith. ********************************* Why, as a highly religious Jew, did Paul originally persecute the Christians before he himself joined their ranks?   It appears [...]

2020-10-30T21:26:39-04:00October 30th, 2020|Early Judaism, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Do Matthew and Paul Agree on the Matter Most Important to them Both?

I was going through posts from many years ago and came across this one, on an issue I've always thought was unusually interesting: if the writer of the Gospel of Matthew (whoever that was) and the apostle Paul had been locked in a room and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus statement on how one attains eternal life, would they still be in there, possibly with their skeletons locked in a mutual death grip?  I didn't put it that way when I posted this so long ago, but I was younger and milder then I suppose. Here's how I expressed it then.  What do you think? ***************************************************************** One of my major goals as a professor of New Testament is to get my students to understand that the NT is not a single entity with a solid and consistent message.  There are numerous authors who were writing at different times, in different parts of the world, to different audiences, and with different – sometimes strikingly different – understandings about important issues.  [...]

2020-07-03T13:07:42-04:00July 3rd, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Early Judaism, Paul and His Letters|

How Accurate are our Copies of the Hebrew Bible?

After my recent posts on the Dead Sea Scrolls a number of readers have asked me about the surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible.  Is it true that Jewish scribes didn’t make copying errors and intentional alterations in the copies of the Hebrew Bible they produced, unlike the Christian scribes who made thousands?  How many manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible do we have?  How have the Dead Sea Scrolls affected our understanding of Jewish copying practices? All terrific questions – both interesting and important.  I give an explanation of the situation in the second edition of my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.  Here it is:   ************************************************************************* THE TEXT OF THE HEBREW BIBLE We have seen that the earliest writings of the Hebrew Bible were probably produced during the eighth century B.C.E. This is the date of the oldest prophets such as Amos and Isaiah of Jerusalem. When an ancient author produced a book, he obviously wrote it out by hand. And if anyone wanted a copy, he had to copy it [...]

2020-07-01T19:21:25-04:00July 1st, 2020|Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Was Jesus Connected with the Dead Sea Scrolls Community?

In my previous post I talked about the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding Jesus and the milieu out of which earliest Christianity grew.  My basic point is that if Jesus was a Jew, then to understand him, you have to understand Jews in his world.  And the Dead Sea Scrolls provide us valuable information to that end. I am not saying that the Dead Sea Scrolls are representative of what all or even most Jews thought at the time.  They clearly are not.  If the “Essene hypothesis” is right (that is, that the Scrolls were produced by members of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes) – and it is the view held by the vast majority of the experts (I am *not* an expert on the Scrolls) – then the Scrolls were produced by a Jewish sect that had very distinctive views of its own that were not, in many respects, shared by outsiders.  In particular, this was a group of Jews who insisted that the coming apocalyptic judgment, soon to [...]

2020-06-30T20:14:36-04:00June 30th, 2020|Early Judaism, Historical Jesus|

The Importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Understanding Jesus: Readers’ Mailbag

A few posts ago I discussed, very briefly, the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I received a number of questions about the post, one in particular with some frequency: how did the discovery of the Scrolls contribute to our understanding of Jesus and early Christianity?  For me as a NT scholar, it is obviously an unusually important question. Let me stress that the Scrolls are *mainly* important for understanding early Judaism, and only secondarily for understanding early Christianity.  But with that said, they are *really* important for Christianity as well, though not in ways you might suspect (especially if you acquire all your historical knowledge from random searches on the Internet!). As it turns out, I received virtually this same question seven years ago on the blog, and here is how I addressed it there.   Question: Can you write a post on how the Dead Sea Scrolls advance our understanding of the birth of Christianity?   Response: This is a question that can be answered in one sentence, or in a very long and dense book [...]

What Are The Dead Sea Scrolls?

Here's a topic I haven't discussed in a while!  Just about every thinking human being in our context has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even if they have no clue what the scrolls are, what they contain, and how they were found.  And it's no surprise they've heard of them.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are by virtual consensus the most significant manuscript discovery of the twentieth century, of major importance for understanding Judaism at the time of Jesus and, in some respects, the teachings of Jesus himself. Here is what I say about the scrolls in my New Testament textbook.  I begin by talking about the Jewish group widely thought to have been responsible for producing, using, and eventually hiding the scrolls -- which remained hidden from 70 CE until 1947!  The group is called the Essenes.   **************************************************   The Essenes are the one Jewish sect not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament.  Ironically, they are also the group about which we are best informed.  This is because ... THE REST OF THIS POST [...]

The Remarkable Story of Masada: Guest Post by Jodi Magness

Many of you know of my colleague Jodi Magness.  She is one of the world's leading authorities on the archaeology of ancient Israel, a real superstar in her field.  You can read about her here:  Since 2011 her annual dig at Huqoq in Galilee has is often discussed in the international press, particularly because of the synagogue they discovered that has some of the most amazing works of art ever to be found in Israel; the work is regularly featured, for example, in National Geographic.  (For the dig, see: But her first major archaeological work involved the army camps at Masada, one of the most historically and culturally significant sites of Israel antiquity, where rebel fighters made their last stand against the Roman armies in 73 CE.  Jodi has recently published a terrific book for a broader audience on Masada.  It's a fascinating story and a flat-out terrific book: Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth (Princeton University Press, 2019). I asked Jodi if she would be willing to do a guest post [...]

2020-05-27T10:33:33-04:00May 27th, 2020|Early Judaism, Religion in the News|

Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell: Getting into the Kernel

Here is the second and last part of my summary of the heart of my forthcoming book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.  It's not an outline of the chapters, but a summing up of the key issues, flow, and the ultimate "point" of the book.  As a tip, I've called this little essay (in my own mind): "There Is Nothing To Fear."   ************************************************************************************************ The idea of rewards and punishments eventually found its way into Judaism as well, but not until the very end of the Old Testament period.   The book of Daniel was the final writing of the Hebrew Bible.   This fictitious account of a pious Hebrew young man, Daniel, presents an alternative Jewish understanding of the world, the nature of reality, and of life beyond, quite unlike the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have called Daniel’s view “apocalypticism,” from the Greek word “apocalypsis” – which means a “revealing.”    Jewish apocalyptic thinkers began to believe that God had “revealed” to them the truth of ultimate reality hidden from all their predecessor, [...]

2020-04-02T14:33:09-04:00December 16th, 2019|Book Discussions, Early Judaism, Historical Jesus|

An Older Manuscript Controversy about the Dead Sea Scrolls

I've been thinking about controversies over ancient Christian and Jewish manuscripts lately, in connection with the (false) claim that a First Century copy of Mark had been discovered.  Browsing around on the blog I saw that I dealt with a completely different manuscript controversy on the blog many years ago, involving the Dead Sea Scrolls. I had forgotten all about it.  This one involved a court case and jail time!   Here's what I said:   ************************************************************** A few years ago I was asked to give a speech at a museum in Raleigh NC in connection with an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls that had been long in the works and had finally become a reality. I will be the first to admit, I'm not the first person you should think of to give a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s not my field of scholarship. But the lecture was to be one of a series of lectures, and the other lecturers actually were experts, including my colleague Jodi Magness, a world-class archaeologist who [...]

2020-04-02T14:34:37-04:00December 4th, 2019|Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

What About the Original *Old* Testament?

Recently several readers have asked me about the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible; I talk a lot about the New Testament on the blog, but what about the Old Testament?  Are there problems there too? Short answer, yes indeed.  I'd say!   Here's how I dealt with this in a post long ago, back in the days of my youth.  Only one thing is different.  I don't read from the Hebrew Bible every morning any more.  I've gotten obsessed with classical Latin!   Apart from that, everything here is still spot-on.  Or at least what I would continue to say, which admittedly is not the same thing....   QUESTION: Bart, these issues you've found in the New Testament, have you studied and found similar issues in the Old Testament?" RESPONSE: Yes indeed!   Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) was my secondary field in my PhD program, and I taught Introduction to Hebrew Bible at both Rutgers and UNC.   A few years ago when I decided to write my Introduction to the Bible I decided that to do [...]

2020-04-02T14:44:25-04:00September 10th, 2019|Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Reader’s Questions|

Does Your Soul Go To Heaven?

In my previous post I discussed the beginnings of the Jewish idea of the “resurrection of the dead.”  This view is a pretty much commonplace today: in every Christian church that recites a creed today, and in many conservative churches that do not use creeds, it is believed that at the end of time there will be some kind of judgment and people will be raised from the dead. At the same time, I have to be frank and say that it seems to me that most Christians – at least the ones I know (not just scholars, but most Christians) – don’t actually *believe* in a future resurrection.  They think they die and go to heaven in their souls.  Their souls may have some kind of physical attributes: they have all their sense of hearing, seeing, etc., and they can be recognized as who they were so you’ll be able to see your grandmother there.  It’s true, even this has always caused problems for people who hold the idea.  Which of my many bodies [...]

2020-04-02T14:46:28-04:00August 21st, 2019|Afterlife, Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

An Alternative View of Suffering and the Idea of Resurrection

In yesterday’s post I was explaining why I do not think we need to point to Zoroastrianism as the source or reason for the views of “the resurrection from the dead” emerged within Judaism.   This view could have arisen within Judaism itself, because of some internal dynamics.  Here in this post I explain how it may have happened. I begin where I ended yesterday: in ancient Israel, as up to today, there have been people who think that the reason they suffer is because they have sinned and God is punishing them for it.   Suffering comes from God, to penalize his people for not living as they should.   This is sometimes called the “prophetic” or the “classical” view of suffering, because it was the view wide advanced by the Hebrew prophets in the Bible. Most people today, of course, realize it is never that simple.   Do we really want to say that birth defects, the death of a child, Alzheimer’s, or any of the other mind-numbing forms of suffering in extremis are punishments from God [...]

2020-04-02T14:46:35-04:00August 20th, 2019|Afterlife, Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Resurrection from the Dead: Were Jews Influenced by Zoroastrianism?

I often get asked if ancient Judaism was influenced by Zoroastrianism or other kinds of Persian thought – especially when it comes to the specific doctrine of the “resurrection of the dead” and, more generally, the whole category of “apocalyptic thought.”  I used to think so!  Now I’m not so sure.  At all. I’ve talked about apocalypticism and resurrection on the blog before.  Here I’ll discuss where these ideas came from, before, explaining more fully what they ended up looking like.  This discussion is taken from an early draft of my forthcoming book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. ********************************************************* After the period of the classical prophets, Jewish thinkers came to imagine that in fact there would be life for the individual who had died.  For them, there was a possibility of life beyond the grave – real, full, and abundant life.  But in the original Jewish conception, unlike widespread Christian views today, the afterlife was not a glorious eternity lived in the soul in heaven or a tormented existence in hell, attained [...]

2020-04-02T14:46:42-04:00August 19th, 2019|Afterlife, Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Enoch’s Vision of the Realms of the Dead

In discussing the research I’m doing on (human) journeys to the realm(s) of the dead, I have so far mentioned two in particular that occur outside of Christian circles and much earlier: the famous account of Odysseus’s vision of the dead in Homer’s Odyssey book 11 and Aeneas’s journey to the underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid, book 6.   These are very similar to one another (since Virgil was basing his account on Homer’s) but also very different: in particular, whereas in Homer every spirit has the same uninteresting and boring forever in Hades, in Virgil the righteous are given fantastic rewards and the wicked graphic torment, with the possibility of reincarnation to have another go at it. .  Now I introduce a Jewish version of this kind of journey, found in the non-canonical book of 1 Enoch, which has many similarities to Virgil  (though not so much with Homer).  Here too the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished.  But there are (a couple of) gradations from one kind of sinner to the next.  And moreover, [...]

2020-04-02T23:59:26-04:00April 9th, 2019|Afterlife, Early Judaism|

Guest Post! Joel Marcus on His New Book on the John the Baptist

Many readers of the blog will already be familiar with my long-time friend and colleague from Duke, Joel Marcus, one of the top New Testament scholars in America (or anywhere else, for that matter).   Joel and I have known each other for over thirty years -- since he started teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, soon after I finished my PhD there.   He is especially well known for his massive and learned two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Mark for the Anchor Bible commentary series. Joel has now produced a full book on John the Baptist, both as he is portrayed in our Gospels (and Josephus) but also, of even more interest, as he can be reconstructed historically.  What can we actually know about him?  The book is the most authoritative account ever to appear, and will be the standard study for our generation.  It is called John the Baptist in History and Theology. Joel has kindly agreed to post a summary of the book and its key findings (some of them gratifyingly controversial) for us here [...]

2019-02-01T07:59:54-05:00February 1st, 2019|Book Discussions, Early Judaism, Historical Jesus|

Were First-Century Jewish Boys Taught to Read and Write?

In this post I continue to dig down into whether a poor Aramaic-speaking fisherman in rural Galilee could compose a highly sophisticated Greek treatise such as 1 Peter.  In my last post I dealt broadly with the question of how many people in antiquity could write.  In this post I turn my attention to Peter’s own historical context, Roman Palestine.  Is it true that boys were consistently taught literacy there and that it’s plausible that one of them could write rhetorically effective Greek compositions? I take the discussion, again, from my book Forged. *************************************************************** It is sometimes thought that Palestine was an exception, that in Palestine Jewish boys all learned to read so that they could study the Hebrew Scriptures, and that since they could read they could probably write.  Moreover, it is often argued that in Palestine most adults were bilingual, or even trilingual, able to read Hebrew, speak the local language Aramaic, and communicate well in the language of the broader empire, Greek.   Recent studies of literacy in Palestine , however, have shown [...]

2021-01-20T00:47:12-05:00November 28th, 2018|Early Judaism|

Pilate, Who Never “Learned His Lesson”

This is the second of my two posts  from over three years ago that try to show that Pilate almost certainly would not have removed Jesus' body from the cross on the afternoon of his death simply because not to do so would have been in violation of Jewish sensitivities.   (NOTE: Pilate is not said to have done so for the other two who were crucified with Jesus. Are we to think he made an exception in Jesus' case, since, after all, he was far more important?) To make the best sense of this post it is important to keep in mind what I said in the previous one. In his response to my views of in How Jesus Became God – that Jesus most likely was not given a decent burial on the day of his crucifixion by Joseph of Arimathea – Craig Evans has maintained, among other things, that Pilate was not the kind of governor who would ignore Jewish sensitivities.   For Craig, Pilate started his rule by making a big mistake of [...]

2020-04-03T01:37:15-04:00January 22nd, 2018|Early Judaism, Historical Jesus|

Pontius Pilate: A Sensitive Guy….

QUESTION: Could Pilate have conceded over burial rights also? Granted this may not extend to those accused of treason, but as Pilate did permit some local customs, does this not open up sufficient space for Josephus’ claim over burial rights to be taken seriously?   RESPONSE: This question arose a couple of weeks ago after I had returned briefly to an older conversation about whether Jesus would have been buried on the afternoon he was crucified.  I tried to show that if so, this would have been in clear violation of policy and precedent.  Part of the entire punishment for capital offenses -- especially crimes against the state (e.g., claiming to be a ruler of a people ruled instead by Rome) -- was to be left *on* the cross for days, as a public display, and a humiliation and denigration: bodies were left subject to the elements, the scavengers, and natural decay.  The Romans wanted everyone to know that THIS is what happens to those who cross the power of Rome. A number of readers [...]

2018-01-21T15:33:57-05:00January 21st, 2018|Early Judaism, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Did Romans Allow Jews to Bury Crucified Victims? Readers’ Mailbag January 1, 2018

Here on the first day of the new year, I was digging around on the blog and I found a post that I *meant* to make a couple of months ago that I never did.  Don't remember why!  But here it is.  It is from the Readers' Mailbag, and about a very interesting and controversial issue: would the Romans have allowed anyone to bury Jesus the afternoon on which he was crucified?  I think not, even though I'm in the decided minority on that one.  Here's the post: ****************************************************************************   QUESTION: In Josephus's Jewish Wars he states:: “Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.” It looks like (to me) that the Jews were allowed to bury the crucified before sunset – how do you interpret this passage? RESPONSE: I dealt at [...]

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