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How Did Christianity Start?

I wish we knew how many people “started” Christianity.   Before I reflect on this issue, let me say some things about definitions and terms, specifically the terms “Christianity” and “Christian.”

A lot of scholars object to using the term “Christianity” for the first followers of Jesus who came to believe that he got raised from the dead.   Once they believed this, these scholars say, these people didn’t actually become “Christian.”  They were still fully Jews, Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah.  “Christianity,” in this opinion, is a later development, when these believers in Jesus developed their own religion that was distinct from Judaism.  Christianity doesn’t exist, in this view, until you have some kind of set of distinctive Christian beliefs and practices (such as baptism, eucharist, weekly meetings, and so on).  And so often scholars will talk about the “Jesus Movement” during the early years and decades after Jesus’ death.

I see the force of this view, but I have to admit that for my part, I’ve never had qualms about calling the first believers in Jesus’ death and resurrection “Christians.”   I completely, absolutely agree that these people did not have a separate and distinct religion (from other Jews) with established doctrines and rituals.   But in my opinion – and it’s nothing more than an opinion, since there is no “evidence” either to refute or confirm it – a “Christian” is someone who believes that Jesus’ is the messiah of God whose death and resurrection brought about salvation.

Yes, of course these earliest believers were completely Jews and nothing else.  And of course they did not have developed doctrines, or distinct Scriptures, or unique rituals and so on – the things that make the trappings of an established “religion.”  But they were …

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The Resurrection and the Beginning of the Church
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  1. Avatar
    Daryl  May 26, 2016

    At the outset, was it that Jesus’ death and resurrection that was understood to have brought salvation, or was it his life and teachings? If the latter, can you provide a definitive reference for that distinction?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2016

      It’s hard to know. But Paul in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 suggests it was the latter

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 28, 2016

      His life and teachings were Jewish and Jews did not believe the messiah had anything to do with salvation as Paul and Christians have come to understand it. First of all, they didn’t believe the story of Adam and Eve in Eden was a story of the Fall of Humankind or the serpent was Satan (as Jews do not even today). Although some Jews believed Jesus was the messiah and was still the messiah after his death, that did not, in itself, mean they believed his suffering and death were sacrificial and that belief in them could bring redemption. I suspect that it wasn’t until they (or someone) sought answers in scripture for how it is the messiah could have been crucified and why he was resurrected. It was in that process, I think, that they (he?) came up with the idea of salvation through the risen Christ.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 26, 2016

    This sounds like another *very* interesting topic!

    Semi-related: When I was young, I thought what we were supposed to believe was that Jesus was (of course) God, the second person of the Trinity. He’d allowed himself to be born as a human because people weren’t leading good lives, the lives God wanted them to live. So he’d *told* us, through his teachings, what God wanted. Then he’d died and risen from the dead – a once-in-all-of-history miracle – to *prove* he *was* God, and that was why everyone should accept his teachings! (He’d let himself be crucified because that was the most public of all ways to die; he’d *indisputably* been dead.)

    If some of the earliest “believers in Jesus” held *that* belief, would you count them as “Christians” by your definition?

  3. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  May 26, 2016

    I have puzzled over Christianity for most of my life. I began as a mainstream Christian. I was even ordained a deacon, priest and bishop in an independent Catholic Church with, what the Vatican would call, valid, but illicit, orders. But in my older years, I became convinced to believe, essentially, your scholarly view. I founded an institution this year for like-minded people who consider themselves Christian because they accept Jesus as their Lord, but in a factually-based way that looks to scholarly work for facts. We believe that factual truth must be the foundation of faith (trustworthiness). We are non-trinitarian; believe that Jesus was a fully human man and not God; believe in cognitive continuation after death based on coherent and sentient energy configurations that is the source of the self (soul), and that the appearances of Jesus after the crucifixion were visions and not flesh and blood appearances; believe that the Apostles and first followers of Jesus viewed him as the Messiah who was their salvation, but not God, and their salvation lay in Jesus’ intent to reform Judaism and bring about an egalitarian society; we do not believe in the supernatural, but see God as working within the natural context of his own creation; and believe that the church brought about the Christianity today through propaganda and force, resulting in the bishops selfish desire for power and wealth. That propaganda was so effective over time that the church clergy came to believe it as truth; and so we have the mainline church of today, which does not believe that we are Christian, though we may be more like Jesus than they know.

    • Avatar
      sstein02  May 30, 2016

      Hi Bart, were the writers of the Gospels Jewish or Christian? I say Christian.

      Also, nothing happened that Jews believed would happen when the Messiah came. How did the early Jewish
      Christians deal with that?

      Wouldn’t the Jewish Messiah bring about an egalitarian society without Jesus? That is for David Beaman.

      • Bart
        Bart  May 30, 2016

        Definitely Christian!

        • Avatar
          DavidBeaman  May 30, 2016

          Would it be more accurate to say that they were a Jewish sect? The NT says that the Apostles worshiped in the temple daily after Jesus’ crucifixion. Wasn’t that true? Would the temple priests have allowed that, if it’s true, if they were not considered Jewish? Anyway, isn’t true that the word “Christian” wasn’t even in use until later on?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 1, 2016

            Yes, early on I would say they were a Jewish sect. I doubt if they were in the temple right away though — my guess is that they were up in Galilee.

      • Avatar
        DavidBeaman  May 30, 2016

        As I understand it, but Dr. Ehrman may correct me if I’m incorrect, if Jesus was the Messiah, the Jewish people got it wrong as to what the Messiah would be like and do. Since I am a person to whom Jesus is very important from a spiritual perspective, which for me has to have factual truth as its base, Dr. Ehrman is very kind and does not comment on someone’s spirituality. He is a scholar who deals in fact. And there aren’t many who are trying to base spirituality on historical and archaeological fact. Most, from my experience, who fully accept scholarly findings aren’t all that interested in being anything that could be considered religious. I read a lot and have a doctoral level education, but not in history or archaeology, so I look for scholars to help me find truth as I quest for a spirituality based on truth. Forgive me if I have not been very very eloquent in expressing myself here.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 31, 2016

      I find it very difficult to understand some of your beliefs. For example, you and your church claim to not believe in the supernatural but belief in God is belief in the supernatural. You might believe he works “within the natural context of his own creation,” but if he created it, then he existed before it and that makes him other than natural. If he works in it, he remains nevertheless, God, a supernatural being.

      Regarding your belief about Jesus’ “intent to reform Judaism,” there were at least three different forms of Judaism in the 1st century and one of them rejected the status quo at the Temple even more strongly than Jesus did. Except, rather than reform it, they moved out to Qumran by the Dead Sea.

      “Reform Judaism” or make reforms within Judaism? People have attacked Catholic Church for allowing the licentious behavior of some of its priests. That was a form of corruption within the Church and the demands for change were for making reforms within the church, not reforming Catholicism. Same goes for Jesus’ criticisms of practices in Jerusalem. He was not about changing the essence of Judaism itself. In addition, most Jews were rural: only a small minority of Jews was Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Their total might have barely exceeded 10,000 while the population of Jews in the Mediterranean area exceeded 2 million. So we need to keep a more Howard Zinn sort of perspective on first century Judaism: religious history and scriptures too come mostly from the victors.

      It puzzles me, if you believe Jesus was fully human, why you would view him as your Lord? (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the LORD is one!”) If you’re right that “Jesus’ intent [was] to reform Judaism and bring about an egalitarian society,” then he was a Jewish prophet, not Lord. And Jews would not have considered that salvation. Jews viewed their salvation to have been their release from bondage and the gift of the Torah. When ideas of a messiah arose in times leading up to Jesus, the salvation they connected with the messiah had nothing to do with salvation as Christians understand it. Nor did Jesus’ teachings. So, I’m really curious: why do you call yourselves Christians and not Jews? Then again, if you take someone as Lord, that would probably too idolatrous for most Jews. You say, “the mainline church of today, which does not believe that we are Christian, though we may be more like Jesus than they know.” I know Bart believes that anyone who calls himself Christian should be considered one. But it is so clear to me: being like the Jew Jesus with his variations of some Jewish teachings is not enough to make one a Christian.

      • Avatar
        DavidBeaman  June 1, 2016

        Thank you for your reply. I’ll try to explain.
        First of all, in reality, we are not a church. I use that word because it has legal usage in applying for a non-profit designation from the Federal government that does not take our difference into account. We are a group of like-minded people who gather around the historical Jesus. That is closer to the meaning of the Greek Ekklesia that is translated as church in the NT. We disagree with that translation, but that is another issue.
        We do not consider the concept of God as supernatural anymore than we consider subatomic particles to be supernatural. In our opinion, God is the first-cause, one of the philosophical proofs of the existence of God. And, yes, I am aware of the counter arguments to that proof.
        Yes, I understand that there were various sects other than the Jesus kind. Nevertheless, it is the Jesus kind that attracts us.
        You say, “Reform Judaism or make reforms within Judaism?” I am not talking about a something like the Protestant Reformation, which even Martin Luther didn’t have in mind when posted his suggestions on that church door. I am talking about reform within Judaism.
        As for our usage of the word, “Lord,” we use it in the meaning of someone or something having power, authority, or influence; a master or ruler. We do not use it as another word for God. We think the Jews got it wrong in their thinking about the Messiah. In our minds, If Jesus was the Messiah, the salvation he brought about came from advocating egalitarianism and freedom from too strict an observance of the law.
        As for being Christian, we are Christian because we follow the teaching of Jesus as best as we can determine from scholarship what they were. We do not become Jews mainly because the Judaism of today is very different than the Judaism of Jesus’ day and we would not be welcomed in the synagogues thinking and believing as we do. We could not talk freely about Jesus and express ourselves.
        You say that our beliefs are not enough to make us Christians. Of course, we would disagree with you. I do not know what your definition of a Christian would be, but for us, it is anyone who has chosen to live their lives according to the teaching of Jesus as best as can be determined by scholars like Dr. Ehrman.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  June 2, 2016

          Had egalitarianism and freedom from too strict an observance of the law been achieved by the Jews whom Jesus taught and by their progeny in the first century, what would have been created would have been a Jewish society brought about by Jews that took Jesus’ message of egalitarianism and less legalism to heart. Following Jesus in such a way would not have made them Christians. It is because of what became Christianity and its focus on Jesus as at least semi-divine and bringer of salvation to sinners that that Jesus is not talked about in synagogues today. But if those first century Jews had reformed Judaism according to Jesus’ teachings, they would have had their synagogues where, no doubt, if you had been a first century non-Jew, you would have been welcomed at least as a righteous gentile.

          • Avatar
            DavidBeaman  June 4, 2016

            It is obvious that your definition of “Christian” and mine are different. Let’s just leave it go at that and move on.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 26, 2016

    Slightly off-topic: I was thinking again about widespread “persecution” of Christians not having begun till – was it the beginning of the third century? I began wondering: how early was there evidence of people believing Christian meetings involved incest and eating of babies?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2016

      The first reference is in Justin Martyr, around 150 CE; the most graphic references are in Minucius Felix toward the end of the century.

  5. Avatar
    madmargie  May 26, 2016

    I have a real problem believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. That’s not possible after complete death. I think those first ones you speak of simply had an experience in which they “thought” Jesus was raised from the dead. It may even have been a dream they ascribed to reality.

    I definitely don’t accept “salvation theology”. I believe that was a later belief system.

    • Avatar
      DavidBeaman  May 30, 2016

      I think the reported appearances of Jesus after death were in the category of visions. As for salvation, I ask, salvation from what? To me it is salvation from a societal class system based on wealth and power and putting forth and advocating for an egalitarian society.

  6. Avatar
    clairemcdougall  May 26, 2016

    I wish I knew how the concepts of shame and redemption became such central tenets of the new “Christianity.” GIven that these early Christians were Jews, where did they make the jump from a more life-affirming religion (Le Chaim! Is, after all, the Jewish toast) into a religious perspective that is essentially life-denying?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2016

      You should read George Bernard Shaw’s essay, The Monstrous Imposition on Jesus. Fantastic. And deals with just this question.

      • Avatar
        chrispope  May 27, 2016

        As I understand it, the concept of ‘Original Sin’ – thus requiring redemption – is central to all varieties of Christianity, but is not common to all varieties of Judaism.
        Is this correct, and is it possible to identify when the ‘Original Sin’ idea surfaced or became identified with Christianity?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 27, 2016

          No, I’d say there are lots of Christians who do not hold to original sin. It is a later concept, and not held by all.

          • Avatar
            chrispope  May 27, 2016

            Thanks. That’s the theology I was taught as a child blown out of the window then!
            (Adam committed the original sin, God sat on it for 2,000 years then decided to send Jesus as atonement).
            Nope, it didn’t make sense to me then, either!

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  May 28, 2016

            The sects of Christianity that do not believe in original sin–do they still look to Christ for salvation and, if so, from what? Can you name a few of them?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 29, 2016

            You can have committed sins without there being something called “original sin.” That doctrine was the idea that your sin nature was passed on to you physically from your parents because of their act of conception.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  May 28, 2016

        Do you have a link to that essay? I find references to it, but not the full essay itself.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2016

          It may be available online, I don’t know. It can be found in the collection of Paul’s writings and essays about them edited by Wayne Meeks and John Fitzgerald, The Writings of St. Paul.

      • Avatar
        gabilaranjeira  May 28, 2016

        I googled this article but I couldn’t find the article itself, only references to it. Do you know of another way to access it? Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 29, 2016

          It’s in Wayne Meeks and John Fitzgerald, eds., The Writings of St. Paul.

  7. Avatar
    Todd  May 26, 2016

    “Christianity” is an English word that distinguishes those who follow the teachings and actions of Jesus (another English word). It is derived from the Greek word “cristos” (or is it Latin?). I’m not even sure what term is used in other contemporary languages for “Christian.” I don’t recall seeing it used in the New Testament.

    I’m of the opinion that the transition came with the teachings of Paul, which, to me are quite different from the core teachings of Jesus (the imminent coming of God’s Kingdom and the “kingdom” ethics he taught) compared to what Paul presents as a view of a “Risen Christ” based on his visions leading to an other worldly cosmic christ. Paul uses Christ, Jesus Christ and Christ Jesus (as translated) quite heavily. Rsrely uses Jesus along and never mentions Jesus’ ethical teachings. But that just my opinion.

    Question: Do you know where the term Christian is used first in writings outside the New Testament and if there are any references to Christian or Christians in the New Testament documents?” I can’t recall seeing that term used to refer to his followers.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2016

      Yes, “Christian” is used twice in the NT: Acts 11:26 (indicating that the followers of Jesus were first called this in Antioch) and in 1 Peter.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 27, 2016

      I disagree that “Christians” can be defined as “those who follow the teachings and actions of Jesus.” Were some of his followers during his lifetime trying to follow his teachings and actions? They weren’t Christians. Before he suffered, was crucified, and allegedly resurrected, could there have been Christians? What if Jesus had grown to a ripe old age so that more and more Jews were trying to follow his teachings and actions? They would have been thought of (perhaps even today) as Jews who considered Jesus a prophet. I still find it odd today when some people say they’re Christians merely because they try to live moral lives influenced by Jesus’ moral teachings. But I guess fans of Jesus are free to call themselves Christians if they want to. I doubt that most religious Christians would agree with them.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  May 26, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I have no issue with calling the first Christians “Christians”, though I usually refer to them as Jewish Christians for the sake of clarity — that is, to disguished the Jewish church of Jerusalem from the gentile churches established by missionaries such as Paul. However, my hunch is that the very first followers of Jesus — quite possibly Jesus himself, as well as John the Baptist and his followers — called themselves Na’azrim — נאזרים — i.e. “The Girded” (cf. Acts 24:5) — girded meaning in this sense that they were spiritually and physically prepared for the coming Kingdom of God — that is, girded both in the sense of a priest who has his holy attire fully belted around his waist and a holy warrior who has his weapon belted to his hip, along with the symbolism of gathering together all the righteous prepared for salvation (cf. Jer. 13). It was later, likely as a mocking pun, that non-Christian Jews would refer to the Na’azrim as Na’atzrim — נעצרים — i.e. “The Reined-in”, possibly as a reference to how their “savior” was stopped by being killed, or maybe in reference to how the early Christians were always getting arrested for their rousing of Messianic fervor. (It’s like if you were to form an apocalyptic cult called the Ever-readies, and I mocked you by calling you the Ever-deadies.) Till today the Jewish (i.e. Hebrew) word for “Christian” is Notzrim, which comes from that original mocking pun Na’atzrim.

    As for what distinguished a 1st century Christian from a 1st century Jew, I agree with your definition with the exception of one phrase: “whose death and resurrection brought about salvation”. The saving aspect of the death and resurrection sounds extremely Pauline to me. I simply can’t imagine that the early disciples and first followers of Jesus saw his death and resurrection has somehow necessary for salvation. I think they believed, just as any self-respecting 1st century Jew would have, that salvation came from צדק — that is, righteousness. And righteousness, in the Jewish sense, came via several avenues, namely: keeping the Law, being charitable and keeping pure, both sexually (i.e. in the flesh — בשר) and spiritually (נפש). It was only upon their attempts to proselytize gentiles that the first Christians probably began to describe Jesus’ death as a sacrifice that a believer needed to have faith in, that is, in lieu of the more Jewish acts of “righteousness”, such as circumcision, kashrut laws, etc. That is to say, gentile converts merely had to accept the sacrifice of Jesus to attain righteousness and, thus, avoid condemnation.

    What the very first Christians (that is, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem ca. 30CE) probably believed about Jesus death and resurrection was two things. First, they saw his death as God punishing the disloyal Jews for not accepting their Messiah, by only giving them a teasing glimpse of him before snatching him away, and not just that but God would make the Messiah suffer before death, just to make the Jews feel ashamed and guilty for their lack of faith (cf. Isaiah 53), as if to toy with the Jews (which would make God a bit of prick). Second, they saw Jesus’ resurrection as God giving the faithful a taste and sign of the coming resurrection of the dead. For the first Christians, Jesus being resurrected and coming to them via the Holy Spirit was a sign of the “first fruits” of the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23). His resurrection was to give them hope that the resurrection and, therefore, the Kingdom were coming soon.

    Of course, the Kingdom — and the resurrection — never came, so that’s why the Pauline doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ alone developed. In the Pauline doctrine Jesus became something of advocate for the faithful, so that when the end times culling of the wicked from the righteous occured, Jesus would set apart his own people (i.e. “those who belong to him” 1 Cor. 15:23) for special favor and salvation from the conflagration of the wicked and unrighteous. In other words, salvation no longer comes from all that Jewish stuff, but instead merely from an appeal to Jesus Christ alone.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 27, 2016

      It’s a bit of a wonder to me–if you do not believe (as I do not believe) that the first Jewish followers of Jesus saw his suffering, death, and resurrection as a means to salvation–why you nevertheless call them “Christians.” No one became a Christian just in virtue of thinking Jesus was the messiah–not even if you continued to believe after his death. Then you’d just be a crazy Jew.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 28, 2016

        “Christ” just means Messiah in Greek, that is, The Anointed One. So if some Jews thought that the Messiah had already come (and died and resurrected), then I supposed it’s fair to distinguish those Jews from the Jews who didn’t think the Messiah had already come. And calling those Jews Christians as a way to distinguish them seems reasonable.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  May 29, 2016

          “Christ” in Greek might mean “messiah” but “Christ” in Christianity means a lot more than just “anointed one.” It has its connotations of messiah as savior and having to do with redemption of sins. We would not call the followers of Judas the Galilean (who was crucified in the year 6 or so) “Christians” because they were Jews who thought the messiah had come. Nor the Jewish followers of any other would-be messiah. Certainly Jesus’ Jewish followers before his death had no reason to think he would suffer and die or have a redemptive death that brought salvation. So why would we call them Christians? In all probability, all they expected from him is that he would somehow get rid of the Jews’ enemies, re-establish the nation Israel, and help usher in the kingdom of God. They would have been just Jews believing in a messiah, not Christians. Another group, in my view, would be some of those followers who continued to believe even after his death, believing he had been resurrected and would return to finish the same job. Such Jews would have acquired a certain otherness within their Jewish communities and been viewed probably as nuts to still believe but there still would have been no reason to call them Christians. Finally, as I see it, there’s a third group–those who continued to believe, believed that he’d risen, AND believed that his suffering, death, and resurrection had redemptive power. Now that would have been new territory, pressing the boundaries of all the variations of first century Judaisms and reason enough for more and more Jews to reject them as beyond the pale of Judaism and deserving of a new name.

  9. Avatar
    Blindjoedeath  May 26, 2016

    I understand how the earliest Christians can be considered yet another Jewish sect, but when they started proselytizing to and converting Gentiles, I think they may have ceased being Jewish. I think the evangelizing aspect of this new religion is a big part of its “essence”.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 26, 2016

    I would like to suggest that readers of this website click on the youtube icon above and watch the two (2008 and 2009) Licona-Ehrman debates. They are excellent, especially the 2009 one in which Dr. Licona is not hoarse.

    The central issue is how do we understand reports of ancient people (both individually and in groups) seeing Jesus after His death? Dr. Licona contends that the best explanation is that Jesus was Resurrected. Dr. Ehrman, in contrast, contends that the best explanation is that these people had visions or hallucinations of Jesus. i wonder if a still more likely explanation might be that these reports were legendary in origin created and expanded by decades of oral transmission before they were written in the Gospels. Why does it seem “probable” that these Gospel reports are not legendary, especially the one in the 15th chapter pf First Corinthians about Jesus appearing to 500 people? Shouldn’t the Gospel authors have mentioned such an astounding event if it were historical or even visionary? Hence. it was probably legendary.

    I also wonder if either Dr. Licona or Dr. Ehmran changed his view about anything as a result of the debates. If so, what?

    With regard to Dr. Licona, I was surprised that he did not change his view through two debates that the disciples felt strongly enough about the Resurrection that they died for their beliefs despite Dr. Ehrman’s repeated rebuttal that we know nothing about the deaths of these disciples.

    With regard to Dr. Ehrman, it is still not clear to me how “theological” truth can be split off from “historical” truth as if the two are “non-overlapping magisteria.” For me, something is either probably true or it is probably not true or we just do not know whether it is true or not true. One cannot separate surgery from anatomy, one is based on the other, the same with theology and history.

    Thanks as always. .


    • Avatar
      chrispope  May 27, 2016

      ” Dr. Ehrman, in contrast, contends that the best explanation is that these people had visions or hallucinations of Jesus.”

      I have read (and accept) the evidence on mass hallucinations, and as a retired police officer have quite some experience of flawed memories of witnesses.
      Some years ago, on holiday in France, I visited Lourdes with a French middle-aged couple. They were nominal but irregular Catholics. It was a sobering experience, especially the mass parade of the disabled and afflicted hoping for miracles.
      My friends were, and remain, absolutely convinced that miracle healings occurred and that these were due to the visions that Bernadette(?) saw in the grotto. Brief conversation revealed that this was not a matter for discussion. As far as they were concerned, these things happened and that was that.
      It was a bit of an eye-opener for me. In all other aspects of their life these people were fairly cynical. In this religious aspect they were totally believing and unquestioning. I have no difficulty in seeing how reports of Jesus appearing after his death could have been accepted, expanded, and gained currency.

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  May 29, 2016

        This is very, very interesting. Thanks for sharing it.

      • Avatar
        DavidBeaman  May 30, 2016

        Hope springs eternal.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  May 27, 2016

      About those debates: If I remember correctly, I was surprised that Bart never mentioned something he had discussed in the blog – vivid *dreams* that people take to be veridical. I assumed he hadn’t read about that phenomenon until after the debates.

      I was especially interested in it because I myself had a vivid dream of my mother – months after her death – in which she assured me that she was, in some sense, “still alive.” In the dream, she let me hold a baby. And my understanding was that she was about to reincarnate in that baby.

      Whether or not dreams of this nature – implying some kind of “survival” – are *really* veridical, it seems they’re experienced frequently. And they may convince people who’d be merely *frightened* by waking “visions.”

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  May 29, 2016

        I have known several people who claimed that they have been visited by a deceased person when what really happened is that they had a dream. So ,the possibility that the disciples had dreams that they thought were real visits seems possible to me.

        • Avatar
          RonaldTaska  May 29, 2016

          Thanks for your clarification. I think I was reacting to people telling me stuff that I know is not true and then using as evidence that it is a matter of “faith” or “theology” as if theology is just another form of evidence.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  May 29, 2016

          “what really happened is that they had a dream”? How do you know that is what “really” happened? Is that what the people themselves concluded after some reflection? Is that a conclusion you’ve drawn because you don’t accept as evidence anything but empirical evidence? I’m curious.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  May 30, 2016

        I had 3 vivid dreams of my parents after they died. They weren’t ordinary dreams…hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it. The first one was of my mother. She spoke to me like it was an ordinary day. When she turned to leave, I reached out and took hold of her arm. This was the first time I ever reached out to touch someone in a dream, and her arm felt as real as if I were awake and she was alive. I said to her, “You know you’re dead don’t you?” She said, “Yes. I was sick for a very long time.” This was true. She had copd for 8 years. Then I said, “Are you okay?” She shrugged and answered yes, but it was like she wasn’t happy or sad…kind of melancholy. I then asked her if she’d seen dad. He died exactly 10 weeks before her. And she said, “No, I haven’t seen him.” I woke up and was worried that the other side was not all roses and sunshine.
        I had another vivid dream of my dad where I touched his arm; it also seemed very real. But then the last vivid dream I had was at least 2 years after their passing. I prayed to know their fates because I was worried about my mother’s almost depressive-like mental state in other dreams I had of her.
        I dreamed that both my parents were standing at the foot of a mountain together. This wind of some kind was blowing, and it was extremely bright as if the sun was enveloping it and *standing* in front of them simultaneously. I asked my mother if she was all right. This time she said, “Oh, it’s wonderful here! You wouldn’t believe it!” She walked up to me and whispered a secret in my ear. A secret about the universe. Then, I woke up. I took it as a sign that she and my dad found each other and had finally *made it*. This was after other strange dreams I had of their journey getting there. It was like they went through a learning experience, and they did reach paradise, but I noticed they were at the foot of the mountain and not at the top. As if they were on yet another journey, except this time, I’m not a part of it. No more *vivid* dreams. I’m excluded from those.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  June 1, 2016

          Wonderful dreams. Lao Tzu wrote that we should keep to the valley so maybe they are where they should be, but it’s all symbolic. Also, the Berkeley psychiatrist, Leo Zeff, in the 60’s, might have retorted to your last line, “Those ARE you!”

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          Wilusa  June 2, 2016

          Oh yes, these experiences of yours are amazing. Here’s a link to an essay of mine, in which I say a little more about experiences of mine than I have on the blog:


          Another interesting phenomenon is “visions” people have when they’re close to death. *Not* the “near death experiences” when they’re unconscious, but experiences when they’re fully conscious, awake and talking.

          I visited a cousin of mine in a nursing home at a time like that. (She was a first cousin, but 24 years my senior.) She was in bed, seeming to carry on a conversation with someone who wasn’t there. Judging from her part of the conversation, the person was male, an old friend, but no more than that. Then she gestured toward the head of the bed – as if people were standing there – and told her friend, “This is my Aunt Helen and her husband Joe.” My parents! It gave me goosebumps. And one of the professionals there said patients have experiences like that so frequently that it’s hard to believe *some* aspect of it isn’t “real.”

          I tend to believe both my parents had reincarnated before then. But even so, I think my cousin was able to see them – and I will too, hopefully many years from now – because a *part* of everyone’s psyche exists in another realm, “outside of time,” until all yearned-for reunions have taken place.

      • Avatar
        ftbond  March 29, 2017

        When people start talking about dreams and visions, then, inherently they’re talking about something that is NOT REAL.

        I kind of figured most people know this. I mean, it’s a totally common thing for, say, a grieving person to think they “feel the presence” of a lost loved one. Or, to think that they heard the deceased persons voice. Dreams and visions are pretty much in the same category.

        Since when did anybody get convinced that somebody else’s dream or vision of a deceased person was somehow valid?

        I’m guessing that people back in the first century knew full well that grieving people sometimes see, hear, or “experience” certain things that the grieving person attributes to the deceased person.

        And – that brings up the point: If such things are attributed to DECEASED persons, then, it’s clear that person is DEAD.

        Does anybody get the sense that the NT books (speaking in broad terms) are talking about a DEAD Jesus? If that’s the case, then, heck, we might as well start making up stories about how we’ve seen Abraham and Moses alive. And JFK. Whatever.

        I dunno… I’m not sure if I can buy into these “dreams and visions” theories. Everybody knows a ghost story when they hear it…

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  March 29, 2017

          “inherently they’re talking about something that is NOT REAL”?
          What is inherent here, I think, is in you: the believe that nothing is real unless it can be measured or perceived by the senses. Are dreams not real because they are not real in the same sense that our waking life is real? They exist, so what is their nature? Is something you can neither prove or disprove automatically not real?

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  March 29, 2017

          Dreams and visions are ‘real’ in the sense that people have them. Lacking the testability mindset of science, the ancients believed that they were a source of information, and especially a source of communications from the gods. The person in a tribe who was believed by the tribe to be good at receiving these communications was called a shaman. Not only is the dream itself untestable, so also is the content of the dream, or that he even had a dream. All you have is the word of the shaman.

          Christianity is a belief system about a person (Jesus), namely that his death provided a universal sacrifice. Paul didn’t care about anything Jesus said or did during his lifetime, only his sacrificial death. The synoptic diarists go to great length to show why the ideas of Christianity were unknown during the lifetime of Jesus.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  May 28, 2016

      RonaldTaska — ‘With regard to Dr. Ehrman, it is still not clear to me how “theological” truth can be split off from “historical” truth as if the two are “non-overlapping magisteria.” For me, something is either probably true or it is probably not true or we just do not know whether it is true or not true. One cannot separate surgery from anatomy, one is based on the other, the same with theology and history.’

      I don’t see that he answered this, but he explained it clearly at the beginning of some of his courses. The two do need to be separated. The historian can try to tell you whether or not Jesus was executed by Pilate. The theologian would talk about whether that death had any spiritual significance, such as bringing about salvation. The historian can tell you, from ancient texts, what people at that time believed. He is not qualified by his discipline to tell you whether or not those beliefs were true.

      The work of the historian is important. The theologian may base his claims on the writings of Paul. The historian can help discover which writings actually (or likely) were by Paul. The theologian may base his beliefs on the resurrection of Jesus. The historian addresses the question of whether there is any credible historical record of that event ever happening.

  11. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 26, 2016

    I look forward to following this thread! Other than Mary Magdalen and Peter, are there any other likely suspects as the first to conclude that Jesus had been raised?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2016

      Not *as* likely.

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        chrispope  May 27, 2016

        In one of your memorable addresses you refer to the original ending of Mark’s gospel – to the effect that Mary said nothing to anyone, for she was afraid.
        Do we have any evidence anywhere of what she did or said subsequently to tell of what she’d seen (or hadn’t seen?).

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2016

          I was talking purely about what Mark’s Gospel was saying — not what really happened. In Mark’s Gospel she doesn’t ever say anything to anyone.

  12. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  May 26, 2016

    I tend to think of these earliest Christians-but-only-sort of as proto-Christians, perhaps inspired by the term “proto-orthodox” which some obscure writer or other favours…

    But if you really want to see bickering and haggling over these things, go find some taxonomists; preferably, get one staunch cladist and one defender of traditional taxonomies, one lumper, and one splitter. The wonderful thing about evolution being a series of infinitesmal and gradual steps is that there is an infinitude of transitional forms—really, every form is transitional—to haggle over, yet only a discrete set of taxa to fit them into. (Is this a Homo fossil, or an Australipithecus?)

    I think it’s no coincidence that a biologist, Richard Dawkins, wrote an essay called The Tyranny of the Discontinuous mind [https://richarddawkins.net/2013/01/the-tyranny-of-the-discontinuous-mind-christmas-2011/].

  13. Avatar
    jonfoulkes  May 26, 2016

    Hi Bart, you may well have touched on this anyway but could you share your thoughts on the fact that Paul doesn’t mention Mary Magdalene when he lists the resurrection appearances in Corinthians? Does this suggest that stories about appearances to the Magdalene weren’t in circulation till later and thus add doubt as to their historicity? Many thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2016

      Yup, I hope to say something about that in a future post. (It wouldn’t show that hte traditions were necessarily *later*, just that they weren’t probalby known to Paul)

  14. Avatar
    spiker  May 26, 2016

    The idea of a sacrifice for us seems fairly common; particularly with such a violent gruesome death. Survivors guilt?
    One could also see how the suffering servant theme could easily make sense to those trying to make sense of Jesus death. Add in the idea that people believed they saw him alive afterwords makes a potent brew.

    BTW any plans to attend the 2016 “Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity” conference in London?

  15. Avatar
    James Chalmers  May 26, 2016

    Fascinating and cogent as always. But is this quite right?
    Obviously there was *someone* who first came to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In other words, someone had to be first. I very much doubt if 20 people all came to think that at the same moment. I think someone started it. Was it the disciple Peter? Mary Magdalene? Someone else?

    Suppose two (or three or four) grief struck follower of Jesus are talking it over during the days after his death. Why couldn’t they find that they have shared similar experiences? Why couldn’t the discussion (over coffee, let’s say) lead the two (or maybe three or four) of them to together develop the thought that a proper understanding of their experience leads to the conclusion “he is risen”? Why couldn’t the two of them go into the coffee shop not “believing in the resurrection” and walk out together both of them believing in it?

    I agree that discovery is usually a competitive one-guy-first sort of thing. (As David Wootton elaborates on in his Invention of Science). But in this case, whether it’s of course disputable whether there was in fact anything out there to be discovered. The fact is, so to speak, all in the heads of those who purport to have discovered it. And maybe in this instance, two heads are better than one–talking it over leads to the emergence of a belief about what really happened, a belief that emerges more or less simultaneously in the minds and hearts of two or possibly even more individuals sharing their grief.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2016

      Yup, it’s possible that several thought this simultaneously. I’m inclined to think that one person first comes up with the thought and hten convinces another.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  May 27, 2016

        It only took one person to suggest that Obama was not really an American citizen and the belief grew as fast, perhaps, as Christianity did.

  16. Avatar
    Stephen  May 26, 2016

    If your baseline for being a Christian is belief in salvation through Jesus’ resurrection how would you characterize the Galilean community who shared Jesus’ apocalyptic expectations and even accepted him as the Messiah before his ill-fated trip to Jerusalem? People who were perhaps not able or willing to pack up and head for Jerusalem? Who may or may not have come to a later belief in the resurrection?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2016

      Yes, I wouldn’t call them Christian. But maybe others would!

      • Avatar
        GregAnderson  May 29, 2016

        Steven wrote “how would you characterize the Galilean community who shared Jesus’ apocalyptic expectations and even accepted him as the Messiah before his ill-fated trip to Jerusalem?”

        Bart replied: “Yes, I wouldn’t call them Christian. But maybe others would!”

        How about we call them the *last* Christians? The last people to live on this earth who actually knew what Jesus said and did, and followed him. The 100 people whom they converted, after the death of Jesus, had to believe as much in *them*, those original followers, as in Christ. The 1000 people whom they converted had to believe in even more people (and their stories).

        And on and on, ’till we come to today. How many people, dead and alive, must we believe in, to imagine we understand Jesus and his teachings?

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  May 29, 2016

          In my view, there is no reason to use the word “Christian” to describe the Jews “who actually knew what Jesus said and did, and followed him.” Jews who believe a man to be wise and maybe inspired and maybe the messiah and teacher are just Jews, not Christians. During his life there was no belief about his suffering, death or resurrection.

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    cammy5  May 26, 2016

    I look forward to your coming posts. I plan on facilitating a class at my church on how this specific NT canon came to be, what was left out, what might have made it. Any suggestions of other readings would be welcome. I have all of your books! Thanks for the blog. So informative.

  18. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  May 26, 2016

    One of my questions is, was the death and resurrection of Jesus always the central message? If the emphasis on the correct belief about the death and resurrection of Jesus was something that came later with Paul’s theology, then during these first initial days and months and perhaps even years prior to the work of Paul, perhaps there was a different emphasis or message that was the criteria for being a follower of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2016

      Other followers of Jesus discussed other things as central to salvation (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas). But Paul didn’t invent the idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection, as I’ll discuss in a later post.

  19. Avatar
    Adam0685  May 26, 2016

    When did Christianity become Christianity, since it originally was a Jewish sect, not a distinct religion from Judaism? At what time does the term Christianity become not anachronistic? Is the Christianity that triumphed different from the Jewish sect of Jesus?

  20. Avatar
    FocusMyView  May 26, 2016

    I literally was interrupted while reading this blog as your book “How Jesus Became God” arrived. I bought this book hoping to get to the root of this very issue.
    I would think you would want to keep it distinct. Is there a Mormon before Joseph Smith? Was there, according to historians, a Muslim before Mohamed? Was there a Jew before Ezra?
    Those men could be considered founders of a religion, setting down doctrine and rules for a religion.
    But Jesus did not seem interested in founding a new religion, so his early followers should be labelled separately from the ones who worshipped Jesus when he became deified.
    I like “Jesusists”, “early followers”, even “proto-Christians” would do, though it lends a bit of inevitability to the founding of Christianity.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 27, 2016

      How about “Jesusarians”? I don’t think Ezra was the turning point into Judaism. Jews look to Moses mostly as their founder. Just as I was a child, then an adolescent, and then a man, there were first the Hebrews and their religion who became the Israelites who became the Jews (although Jacob Neusner says “Israelite” is still the proper term for at least religious Jews and “Jew” is a more secular or ethnic/cultural term). There are Old Testament figures who certainly were neither Israelite nor Jew–e.g. Abraham and Job.

      • Avatar
        FocusMyView  June 4, 2016

        I sometimes wonder if Israelite was simply a cult that lived among the many cities of the Levant. In some ways this interpretation of the use of the word Israel makes more sense than a northern kingdom based in Samaria.
        So then, Israelite makes even more sense today than Jew, which was tied to one central city and one central temple.
        As far as early Hebrew people looking to the Mosaic Law before Ezra, I am not sure if that is scripture based or not. I do not examples of the earliest written books being aware of Mosaic law.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  June 5, 2016

          The earliest books–the first so-called “Five Books of Moses,” the Torah–includes the Mosaic laws. “Teachings” is sometimes said to be a better translation of “Torah.”

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