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The Historical Jesus

Did the Disciples See Jesus Raised from the Dead?

On this Easter Sunday I would like to explain what I think led to the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead.  A lot of readers over the years have not liked my answer (readers on wide ends of the spectrum):  I think some (a few) of the disciples had visions of Jesus.  That is, they saw him, or thought they saw him -- which for them would have been the same thing. I dealt with the matter in my book God's Problem, and responded to a question on the blog about it a long time ago.  Here it is.   QUESTION: I am reading How Jesus Became God and would like to comment on some of the content of Chapter 5. To that point in the book, it seems to me you have been very careful to avoid speculation, but it seems to me that the application of your usual standards may have lapsed somewhat in regard to the visions of Jesus after the crucifixion. Specifically, what evidence do we have, apart from [...]

2021-03-24T17:25:15-04:00April 4th, 2021|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus|

How The Afterlife Changed After Jesus’ Life

Easter celebrates the greatest irony of the Christian religion:  those who worship Jesus do not believe what he taught but what his followers taught about him after his death.  That is especially true about one key question the Christian faith addresses: what does it mean to be saved after we die?  Around the world today, billions of Christians believe that Jesus died and then on Easter, was raised from the dead and taken up to heaven to live with God.  As a corollary, they believe that when they die, they too will go to live with God.  That is not at all what Jesus thought. Jesus did not believe a person’s soul would live on after death, either to experience bliss in the presence of God above, or to be tormented for sins in the fires of hell below.  Jesus did not believe the soul would go anywhere after death.  As a Jew of the first century he did not think the soul could exist outside the body. Christians two thousand years later do not [...]

2021-03-24T17:21:03-04:00April 3rd, 2021|Early Christian Doctrine, Historical Jesus|

Fantastic Story. But History? Some Doubts about the Triumphal Entry

In my previous post I provided an excerpt from Jesus Before the Gospels where I summarized the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry.”  Here is the second part of that two-part post, another excerpt, where I call this tradition into question, arguing that it cannot be right historically and that it must, therefore, represent a distorted memory. "Memory,” of course, is not simply a recollection of what we ourselves experienced (what you had for dinner last night; the name of your first-grade teacher; etc.).  Memory involves anything that you “call back to mind” (the literal meaning of “remembering”).  It can be factual information (what is the capital of France?), even of something you haven’t experienced (e.g., if you have never been to Paris); it can be a shared understanding of a person from the past (Einstein; Karl Marx), even if you never met them.  And it can be a recollection of a past event even if you were not involved, such as the Triumphal Entry, to pick one example out of countless trillions. Christians [...]

2021-03-24T17:03:27-04:00March 28th, 2021|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies|

Did Jesus Really Have a “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem?

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the day on which Christians commemorate Jesus' "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem.  It is a terrific holiday in the Christian calendar, a celebration of victory and joy, prior to the dark events to occur at the end of the week on Good Friday. The historian would want to know: did it really happen?  Did Jesus really ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the acclamation of the crowds proclaiming him to be the coming messiah, laying down their cloaks and palm branches before him in full celebration?  It's a *terrific* story; a climax of Jesus' ministry, in a sense.  Is it historical? I deal the question in my book Jesus Before the Gospels and will excerpt the discussion here.  This will take two posts.  This one sets the stage and the next one asks how we can figure out if it really happened. ****************************** The Triumphal Entry There seems to be no reason to doubt that Jesus spent the last week of his life in Jerusalem looking ahead to the [...]

2021-03-24T17:03:59-04:00March 27th, 2021|Canonical Gospels, Early Judaism, Historical Jesus|

The Doctrine of the Trinity: Where We Are So Far

I am in the middle of a very long thread dealing with the question of where the doctrine of the Trinity came from.  I started the thread on January 7, here: , and so have been at it for nearly two months, on and off (with a other things thrown in en route, obviously).  And I have gotten nowhere near, yet, to answering the question. So it goes in the world of complicated historical questions.  (It is obviously a theological question, but I’m answering it historically rather than theologically).  We are at a point where it would be a good time to explain where we are, why we have come this way, and where we are going.   I need to begin by explaining why I have spent SO much time on the question of what it meant for early Christians to call Jesus God. It’s very simple really.  Christians over time developed more and more exalted views of Jesus, from being a human messiah, to being a human sacrificed for the sins of others, [...]

2021-03-01T08:15:47-05:00March 7th, 2021|Early Christian Doctrine, Historical Jesus|

How Old Was Jesus ???

I received a very interesting question from a blog reader, and it has led to an unexpected answer.   QUESTION Is there any significance to the age of Jesus and its relation to the start of his ministry?   RESPONSE: I don’t know what the questioner actually means about the “significance” of Jesus’ age, and so I’ve decided to answer a related question.  What, in fact, was his age?  Well, the matter is … like so much else in our universe … unexpectedly complicated. It turns out I dealt with this years ago on the blog.   I know because I just checked.  I had forgotten about that post, and even more interesting, I had forgotten my answer, which contains some information that I ALSO FORGOT.  In fact, some really interesting information.  I bet you didn’t know (as I apparently used to know) that there is a discussion of Jesus’ age in the writings of one of the most important early church fathers, which  indicates that Jesus grew to be a relatively old man before he [...]

2021-02-17T16:46:36-05:00February 17th, 2021|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Very Early Understandings of Christ in A Later Book of the NT

I have been trying to show that one of the oldest understandings of Christ in the early Christian movement -- in fact, *the* earliest in my view (and many other scholars), even though later it came to be declared a "heresy" --  is that Jesus started out as a human, nothing more, but came to be exalted by God to become his Son, the Lord. I have long called this particular understanding of Christ an "exaltation" Christology: God exalted Christ to become a divine being.  It stands in contrast with a view that I have not dealt with yet, the one that became the dominant one eventually (but which arose later), and "incarnation" Christology, which stated that Christ was a divine being who became human (not a human who became divine), a view best known, in the NT, from the Gospel of John.  (Exaltation Christologies are often understood to be "low" because they locate Christ originally here on earth among us mortals; incarnation christologies are correspondingly "high" because in them Christ originally came from heaven [...]

Jesus, Mary Magadalene, and … Sexual Innuendos?

I was browsing through old posts and ran across this one from almost exactly seven years ago, a question about whether one of the non-canonical Gospels (the Gospel of Philip) really could be right that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship. I get asked about this still on occasion, and it's on one of the more titillating topics of early Christian studies, so I thought I would repost it today. QUESTION: I know that the “Gospel of Philip does not have much if any real historical veracity to it about Jesus’ life, but do the references about Jesus and Mary Magdalene being lovers and the holes in the papyrus ‘kissing’ verse (verses 32 and 55 in your “Lost Scriptures” book), help support the view that this most likely Gnostic Christian sect truly believed and taught that Jesus and Mary M were married? RESPONSE: Yes, this is one of those questions I get asked about on occasion. I have a reasonably full discussion of the relevant issues in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary [...]

2021-01-21T00:48:14-05:00January 31st, 2021|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

The Earliest Understandings of Christ

Just about everyone agrees that the understanding of who Christ was developed significantly over the years (and if they don't, they should!).  The views Jesus' own disciples had right after his death around 30 CE were not the same as those that had been developed by very sophisticated thinkers around the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 CE; and two centuries later these Nicean views had been refined and deepened.  Views of Christ developed over time. But how, and why?   I used to think that the changes were fairly "linear," that is, that followers of Jesus at one time thought "A" and then later came to realize that instead it was "B" and eventually came to think "C" etc, -- one view leading to another, as everyone changed their minds.  This scenario, I now realize, is far too simplistic: different people believe different things at the same time, some people hold on to older views when others move to newer ones, and some people who come to believe newer views later change their [...]

2021-01-18T09:48:15-05:00January 27th, 2021|Early Christian Doctrine, Historical Jesus|

Could a Human Become a God in the Ancient World?

If early Christians were monotheists, how could  they claim that someone other than the One God was also God and yet still say there was in fact only one God?  That will be the first issue to figure out if we want to understand how the doctrine of the trinity developed.  With respect to Christ, if he was a human, how was he divine?  In other words, how could ancient people get their minds around that?  Not just whether he was divinely handsome or divinely wise – but actually Divine?  In some sense a God?  (I will, over this thread, emphasize the terms “in some sense,” as you will see). A couple of weeks ago I talked on the blog about some special individuals in the Greco-Roman world who were understood to be both human and divine because they had one of each kind as a parent.  Typically this involved a mortal woman who was attractive to one of the gods (Zeus / Jupiter wasn’t the only one, but he was the most notorious), who [...]

2021-01-05T10:20:48-05:00January 14th, 2021|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Historical Jesus|

Responses to my Newsweek Article on Jesus

Just as happened the first time I made a couple of posts on the article I wrote about Christmas for Newsweek, this time too, in my reposts, I've been asked about the kinds of reactions I received.  Back then I gave two follow up posts, and here is the first. It's a pretty funny one, from my perspective.  I start out being completely defensive (not that I have a thin skin or anything) and cap it all off by emphatically insisting that I was not being defensive.   As I get older, I find I have a better sense of humor about myself...  Here's the first of the two posts.   ******************************************************** My Newsweek article this week has generated a lot of response.  I have no idea what kind of comments they typically get for their stories, but so far, as of now, there have been 559 on mine; and most of them are negative – to no one’s surprise – written by people (conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists for the most part, from what I can [...]

2020-12-21T19:08:38-05:00December 30th, 2020|Bart's Critics, Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. Platinum Post by Marie Wiley

Here is a post submitted by Platinum member Marie Wiley, for the enjoyment of all you other shining Platinums.  It will go only to Platinum members of the blog (so Steven tells me!) and any comments you make will go only to Platinums as well.   Thank you Marie, and enjoy all you others! ******************************* Love your neighbor as yourself. I like to imagine that Jesus had a more mystical meaning in this saying than the typical interpretation. I like to imagine the true meaning to be love your neighbor because your neighbor is yourself. This is because it fits neatly into my personal worldview, which isn’t a Christian one, nor one of materialism. I, like many Christians, think Jesus and I hold the same worldview, of course. It is in this biased way that I interpret scripture. He’s saying love God. He’s saying love others. And he’s saying love yourself. If you are to love your neighbor as yourself, you are thereby loving yourself as you love your neighbor so self-love is part of this. [...]

2020-12-29T15:34:40-05:00December 29th, 2020|Historical Jesus|

Does the Gospel of Mark Deny a Virgin Birth?

I want to continue my discussion of the virgin birth in the NT, with a set of reflections that is pretty unusual: the views of the Virgin Birth in Mark and John (who do not narrate it!).  I've talked about this on the blog before, but it's been a few years, and is worth thinking of again. It is interesting that Mark, our first Gospel to be written, does not have the story of the Virgin birth and in fact shows no clue that it is familiar with the stories of the Virgin birth.  On the contrary, there are passages in Mark that appear to work *against* the idea that Jesus’ mother knew anything about his having had an extraordinary birth. There is a complicated little passage in Mark 3:20-21 about Jesus’ family coming to take him out of the public eye because they thought he was crazy.  It is a difficult passage to translate from the Greek, and a number of translations go out of their way to make it say something that it [...]

2020-12-21T19:21:43-05:00December 27th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem? Luke’s Version.

Yesterday I discussed Matthew’s account of how it is that Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem, if in fact he “came” from Nazareth.  It may well be that Matthew has placed Jesus' birth there to fulfill Micah's prophecy (5:2) that a great ruler (the supposed messiah) would come from Bethlehem. Matthew explains it all by indicating that Joseph and Mary were originally from Bethlehem.  That was their home town.  And the place of Jesus’ birth.  Two or more years after his birth, they relocated to Nazareth in Galilee, over a hundred miles to the north, to get away from the rulers of Judea who were thought to be out to kill the child.  (That in itself, I hardly need to say, seems completely implausible, that a local king is eager to kill a peasant child out of fear that he will wrest the kingdom away from him….) Luke has a completely different account of how it happened.  In Luke, Bethlehem is decidedly not Joseph and Mary’s home town.  The whole point of the story [...]

2020-12-21T19:30:19-05:00December 24th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Was The Messiah Supposed to Be Born of a Virgin?

Here in the lead-up to December 25, I am discussing some issues related to Jesus' birth.  As I mentioned in my previous post, in the entire New Testament, the story of the virgin birth is found only in Matthew and Luke.  Luke has a pretty straightforward explanation of why Jesus had to be born of a virgin: it's because he was (literally) the "Son of God."  That is, God is the one who got Mary pregnant, as the angel tells her at the Annunciation:  read Luke 1:31-35, and notice the angels' explanation: the Spirit of God will "come upon her ... SO THAT" the child born of her will be called "The Son of God." Matthew, though, has a different explanation.  For Matthew Jesus had to be born of a virgin because that is what was predicted in the Old Testament. This view fits in very well with Matthew's entire birth narrative of chapters 1-2.  Everything happens "to fulfill Scripture." Why was Jesus’ mother a virgin? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Isaiah [...]

Do Christians Have to Believe in the Virgin Birth?

The last time I went to visit my mom in Kansas during the holiday season  was six years ago (she is now in a retirement home in Ohio; 93 and still walkin' around!).  I talked about it on the blog soon thereafter.  I was not a church going person then (still not) but I did the sonly thing and took her to her church.  This was a conservative evangelical Free Methodist Church – one that my mom has attended for many years.  It was not really my style – I rather prefer centuries-honored liturgy to electric guitars and drums, myself – but I wasn’t there to satisfy my own aesthetic preferences.   (She doesn’t like the guitars and drums either, but we missed the earlier service with the choir). The sermon in that kind of church is very different from what one hears in an Episcopal church and is also very different from the kind of sermon I learned to preach when I was in my Masters of Divinity program at the Presbyterian Princeton Theological Seminary.  [...]

2020-12-07T19:18:59-05:00December 20th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

My Article on Christmas in Newsweek

I mentioned in my previous post that in 2012 I was asked to write an article on Newsweek about the Christmas story.  Before it appeared I posted it on the blog; here it is in full (at least as I sent it in to the magazine), in two parts. Here is the first half: ******************************************************************* This past September, Harvard University professor Karen King unveiled a newly discovered Gospel fragment that she entitled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”  This wisp of a papyrus has stirred up a hornet’s nest and raised anew questions about what we can know about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and about whether there are other Gospels outside the New Testament that can contribute valuable information. Few questions could be more timely, here in the season that celebrates Jesus’ birth. The fragment is just a scrap – the size of a credit card – written in Coptic, the language of ancient Egypt. It contains only eight broken lines of writing, but in one of these Jesus speaks of “my wife.” Conspiracy theorists [...]

2020-12-07T19:03:32-05:00December 17th, 2020|Historical Jesus|

Christmas from a Historical Point of View

We are barreling down on Christmas!   For the blog this year, that means: seasonal Posts!  I thought it would be a good idea to talk about what we know about the birth of Jesus, and don't know, based on the Gospels and our knowledge of the history of the period.  It's amazing what we don't know.  In fact, we know almost nothing, apart from the fact that Jesus was born to a poor Jewish couple who were probably named Joseph and Mary around, what?, 4 or 5 BCE? I'll try to explain what we do know and probably don't know in various posts.  As it turns out, that was the topic of the first Christmas post on the blog, done almost exactly eight years ago.   Here it is slightly edited!  So, from 2012: *********************** Right now I have the Christmas on my mind -- as makes sense this time of year. But I have some other reasons.  First, I have agreed to write a brief (2000-word) article for Newsweek this week, to be published in [...]

2021-01-06T17:56:44-05:00December 16th, 2020|Historical Jesus|

What Really Happened at Jesus’ Trial Before Pilate?

An important question I’ve received from another scholar who is interested in New Testament studies but is an expert in a different field.   QUESTION: Have you ever encountered the argument that the Gospels’ portrayal of Pilate giving in to the crowd’s call for Jesus’ death could be possible in as much as Pilate would have wanted to avoid a riot and so acquiesced for that reason?  I am wondering whether this is an old apologist argument of some sort?   RESPONSE: It is a great question and it has an easy answer.  Yes I have indeed.  This is a standard argument made by people, including scholars, who think that the Gospel accounts are entirely reasonable and probably accurate.  It’s the view I myself had for years.  The idea behind it is pretty simple, and works in easily delineated stages: Jesus was exceedingly controversial among the crowds in Jerusalem. His trial was a major public event. The Jewish leaders were intent on having him executed, and they stirred up the crowd by having them shout [...]

2020-11-13T08:36:07-05:00November 23rd, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Luke and Matthew at Odds: The Genealogies

I have devoted several posts to Matthew's genealogy, and I realized it's only fair for me to say something about Luke's as well.  As you may know, these are the only two Gospels -- in fact the only two books of the New Testament -- that provide an account of Jesus' birth and very young life, the "infancy narratives."  In Mark Jesus shows up as an adult, and so too in John.  They say nothing about the circumstances of his birth, nothing, for example, of his mother being a virgin, of him being born in Bethlehem, of .. of any of the stories celebrated every Christmas.  Either do any of the other books of the NT.  That in itself is a striking fact.   An "essential doctrine" of Christianity such as the Virgin Birth -- said by many Christians to be a decisive doctrine: anyone who denies it (lots of Christians say), cannot be Christian.  Yet 25 of the 27 books in the NT say nothing about it.  Did they know about it?  How could we [...]

2020-11-10T07:45:39-05:00November 9th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|
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