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How Do We Know What Jesus Said About Himself?

Yesterday I started my two-prong argument for why Jesus probably considered himself the messiah.  The first prong is that Jesus must have been called the messiah during his lifetime, or it makes no sense that he would be called messiah after his death – since even if there were Jews who believed that Jesus was raised from the dead after he was crucified (as indeed there were!  Otherwise we wouldn’t have Christianity), the resurrection of a dead person would never lead anyone to say “Ah, he’s the messiah!” – since no one expected the messiah to be a resurrected person.

So Jesus was being called the messiah before his death.  Otherwise we can’t make sense of the fact that he was called the messiah after his (believed-on) resurrection.

Several readers have pointed out that this does not mean that Jesus *himself* thought of himself as the messiah.  It simply means that some of his followers did.  That is absolutely right.  I couldn’t agree more.  And that’s why I’m presenting this as a two-prong argument.  You need both prongs.  (Think of a slingshot; if the frame has only one arm instead of two, well, it doesn’t work so well.  In fact, it doesn’t work.)

So, the second prong involves not what the followers of Jesus were saying after his death, but what he appears to have been saying during his life.

To make sense of my comments you have to bear in mind the fundamental assumptions of a critical approach to establishing what Jesus said and did during his life.  To reconstruct the life of Jesus, you can’t simply quote a verse here or there that suits your fancy or says what you want it to say.  A critical approach to determining Jesus’ words and actions recognizes that the Gospel sources we have are highly problematic – not as religious documents of faith that tell Christians what to believe and how to act, but as historical documents that record what actually happened in the past.

That is to say, even though the Gospel of John, for example, regularly portrays Jesus as making claims about himself – that he is the Messiah (ch. 4), that he is the Son of God, that he is “one” with the Father (ch. 10), that he existed before the Jewish ancestor Abraham (ch. 8), that he is the one who comes from heaven who provides eternal life to all who believe in him  (ch. 3) – etc. etc – even though Jesus does indeed say all these things in the Gospel of John does not mean that the historical Jesus actually did say these things.

On the contrary, there are compelling reasons for thinking that he did *not* say such things, including (but not restricted to) the fact that he does *not* say these things in the other Gospels.  If the historical Jesus was going around Galilee claiming that he was a divine being who was pre-existent and equal with God, then how can we explain that (a) he wasn’t executed on the spot and (b) that the other Gospels failed to say anything about it.  They just decided to skip that part?

So how do you know what Jesus *did* say, if you can’t simply quote verses from the Gospels to prove it?  You have to …

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Readers’ Mailbag November 13, 2015
Jesus, the Messiah, and the Resurrection



  1. Avatar
    godspell  November 12, 2015

    My point, which I made some time back, was that we have instances of people being acclaimed Messiah without ever having come out and said they were. As happened with Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavetcher Rabbi, during his lifetime. That sect has its own rather unique conception of the Messiah, and many followers believed he fit the bill, even though he repeatedly denied it. However, he did seem at times to be teasing them with the possibility, suggesting ‘Mosiach’ might come at any moment, and they must be ready. It must be said that he probably enjoyed the attention he got from the rumors. He died some years ago, and some people still think he was Messiah. They believe there can be more than one, so it’s not as much of a problem as Jesus’ death was for his followers.

    I have no question at all in my mind that people were calling Jesus Messiah in his lifetime, and I would agree that he didn’t go out of his way to discourage them. But I still think he was reluctant to openly accept that mantle, and the expectations that came with it. It’s pretty clear he didn’t openly tell people that’s who he was, but then the question is did he tell a few trusted followers. And for that we have to rely on things people wrote about him well after his death, and I look forward to your explanation of why we should believe he did say those things, and why his having said them proves he thought he was Messiah.

    However, when all is said and done, there will always be room for doubt. I think it’s been pretty clearly established he didn’t think he was God. Messiah is a tougher nut to crack.

  2. Avatar
    Boltonian  November 12, 2015

    Fascinating stuff! Do we have any idea as to who might have written John’s gospel and why does it differ so much from the synoptics? I realise it was composed at a later date and, possibly, within a different culture from the others but who wrote it and what was the motivation? Is there a primary source for this gospel, as there is for the others (Mark and the missing Q)?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2015

      I’m afraid it’s authorship is different. It differs from the others in no small measure because it had access to completely different sources (none of which survive independently)

  3. Avatar
    willow  November 12, 2015

    I believe Jesus believed he was the messiah. I don’t believe he thought of himself as: conceived of the Holy Spirit; born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, dead, buried and risen again for the sole purpose of taking away the sins of the world, or as John the Baptist put it, if in fact he said it, “Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.” I don’t believe he said that, certainly not in those exact words and especially not now that I’m 146 pages into Forgery and Counterforgery – what an informative, eye opening and amazing book, Bart!

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 13, 2015

      He clearly did not see himself as the Messiah in the sense that most Jewish people of that time envisioned the Messiah.

      1)He did not intend to overthrow Roman rule (he thought God would come to transform the world, and make that question irrelevant).

      2)He saw himself as a servant, not a ruler.

      3)Although he originally seems to have thought his mission was only for the Jews, it’s clear that he did begin to extend the circle to include Non-Jews who had faith–faith, to him, was the only thing that mattered.

      4)We’re told he said no one born of woman was greater than John the Baptist–wouldn’t the Messiah be the greatest of all humans? Was John the Messiah before him? Did he think there might be more than one? This was a problem his followers had to try and solve after his death, particularly given that John’s disciples were also probably making claims that John was Messiah, not Jesus. Meaning that Jesus was not unique in such claims being made about him after his execution. Arguably, even if Jesus had never been born, there might have been another figure taking that place in the Messianic tradition. Because, of course, it would have been quite impossible for a Messiah in the more accepted sense to arise–the Roman state was far too powerful to be overthrown by military force at that time. And yet, as many have pointed out, it was in a sense overthrown by Christianity. And in another sense, it absorbed Christianity. History can be pretty mind-blowing.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  November 12, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I think I can see where you’re going with this, and I’m not sure I’m buying it. But I’m hesitant to get into why until I read your next post. In the mean time, however, I do have a question concerning the nature of other messianic claimants during that time and how diametrically different they were from Jesus. One of the best examples is Simeon bar Giora, who was so confident that he was the prophesized Messiah, that he had the hubris to emerge from the smoldering debris of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem wearing royal purple, like a kingly procession into his newly conquered kingdom. That’s the kind of delusional thinking we would expect from phoney-baloney messianic claimant, and, I’m guessing, that’s the argument your leading to with Jesus. That is to say, Jesus might have been just as delusional. But here’s the problem. Simeon bar Giora actually made a worthy effort to be that conquering Messiah during the Jewish War, leading thousands of men into battle against the (wicked) established authorities! Jesus never even came close to doing that. Indeed, everything Jesus did would have been typical of a prophet and wiseman of his time. Not a royal claimant. And, to top it all off, he was arrested and executed before he could even begin to rouse any momentum against the establishment.

    I’m sorry, but to me, all signs point to Jesus actually thinking that the real Messiah (not himself, but the actual Son of Man coming from the clouds) was going to arrive not only during his own lifetime, but probably even within that very same year of 30CE! And he–Jesus–and his Twelve would be gaining some kind of exalted position within the Messiah’s kingdom because they demonstrated the requisite tzaddaqah (i.e. righteous) for such an elevated position. The way it looks to me, Jesus only played along with his followers messianic pretenses because he liked the glory, but he secretly knew that the real Messiah was coming within months if not weeks of their arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover. That’s why so many of Jesus’ purported words appear so purposely vague (the Son of Man??), because he was hiding behind ambiguous, sagacious-sounding language, just as charlatans are wont to do.

    Of course, a wrench was thrown into the works when Jesus was executed and the Messiah never did return (because, let’s be honest, the Messiah is a fiction anyway), so the Disciples were left with the awkward task of trying to make sense of why their leader was now dead instead of elevated to kingship. They’re solution: Jesus must have been resurrected as the firstfruits of the coming resurrection of the saints, and he was only now exalted to the position of the Messiah and was presently going to return in his full glory. In other words, the Disciples weren’t delusional enough to think that Jesus could conquer all the civilized world with only a few dozen followers while he was alive, but now that we was dead and exalted to leader of the Heavenly Host, now he can fulfill his destiny as the conquering Messiah.

    At least, that’s what the trail of bread crumbs tells me.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2015

      Yes, it’s a viable view. I’ll be mapping out mine over future posts: basically, I think Jesus differentiated between the Son of Man (a cosmic judge who would destroy the forces of evil) and the messiah (himself, the future ruler.)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 13, 2015

        That’s certainly possible. The question, of course, revolves around the title “Son of Man”. Some scholars, such as Crossan and Vermas, seem convinced that it was most likely circumlocutional; i.e. ‘son of man’ was just an Aramaic way of say “I”. For my part, I think Jesus intentionally used enigmatic language because he actually thought the ambiguity made him sound oracular. Many people are genuinely impressed by complex language. And it looks like Jesus was effective, because 2,000 years later, the best scholars in the field are still arguing about wtf he meant.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 15, 2015

          Yes, I think he was certainly referring to the one like a son of man in Daniel 7:13-14.

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 13, 2015

        Where does ‘The Suffering Servant’ mentioned in Isaiah fit into all this?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 15, 2015

          I think those passages were applied to Jesus after he was executed by his followers who wanted to explain why he had to die.

          • Avatar
            godspell  November 15, 2015

            But if they did so, it was because he placed such an emphasis on himself as a servant–that nobody would be fit to rule unless he wanted to serve. That only those who degraded themselves could be exalted.

      • Avatar
        Robert Wahler  November 13, 2015

        Now you have it! The Son is he Spirit, *not the man*. The proto-orthodoxy split the two (the ‘Trinity’) — which cannot be done — to give the world their “Church”. Read the tense in John 3:16 and 19. Yes — Past tense. If Jesus was “given” at crucifixion as the proto-orthodoxy would have it, it should be future tense, not given at birth but at death, since his sacrifice is what supposedly saves. This was a real quote by a real Master, probably James, ABOUT JOHN and preceding Masters. Look at the last lines of John 3, written by John as only a Master would or could. It is JOHN speaking there, talking about “he who is from heaven”. How would John know, if not from heaven HIMSELF? Newer translations correctly have the last lines of John 3 in quotation marks, but not the others — even the RSV.

  5. Avatar
    raypianoplayer  November 12, 2015

    The Tenach says that the Messiah will be a man, and he will have ancestors and will live a long life. This is why the apostles rebuked him when he said he must die. They knew the Messiah is to live a long life. The Jesus movement collapsed because he never returned in that generation like he said he would. Mean while Paul was bringing the pagans into the Christian fold and that is where Jesus started to become a God around 200 AD. The Christian movement was being adapted to fit the needs of the pagans and their desire for a trinity God.

  6. Avatar
    Robert Wahler  November 12, 2015

    Can we know for sure that Jesus said any such thing? In my opinion, no

    I can: No. Masters don’t talk about themselves. They never have. We have dozens of examples, Bart, from writings of Eastern Mystics. You scholars in the West are seemingly totally ignorant of them: Science of the Soul.org with at least 40 titles by or about mystic Masters will address that lack in anyone’s education.

    This is one reason ‘Jesus’ is not an historical figure. Masters are never concerned for their own welfare. I have seen it personally. This is also one way to recognize that the Gospel of Judas is about Judas as master, and not Jesus. Jesus tells Judas on page 56 that *the disciples* will be tormented as a result of his baptism, not himself tormented! “The one who bears me” is the disciple!!! His Baptism “destroys the entire generation of the earthy man Adam [lower self]”, so that “no hand of any mortal will sin against me” meaning against him *WITHIN THEM*. Please reread it now. Please!

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 13, 2015

    Reviewing how history is done is very helpful. Thanks.

  8. Avatar
    Hon Wai  November 13, 2015

    “Jesus must have been called the messiah during his lifetime, or it makes no sense that he would be called messiah after his death”: By this line of reasoning, then surely one would conclude that Jesus was considered divine during his lifetime, else it makes no sense he would be considered divine after his death?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2015

      Ah — I see your logic, but my point is that it makes *sense* to call him divine if you think he was raised from the dead. But not to call him messiah. Maybe I’ll post on this.

  9. Avatar
    Jana  November 13, 2015

    I’m confused as to the definition of Messiah … An in the midst of reading your book Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet (again), if Jesus saw himself as you described, does he then fit the definition of Messiah and then he would have viewed himself as such?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2015

      Ah — that’s what I’ll be explaining in my next posts. (But as to the definition– that’s what I’ve been trying to discuss [last week])

      • Avatar
        Jana  November 15, 2015

        Yes I understand albeit at times admittedly bleakly … what I’m learning goes against so many years of indoctrination (I think this is the best word) that I have trouble wrapping my head around it and then due to internet problems my blog contact is erratic as well … there seems to me to be two lines of thought regarding “messiah” … one within the defined historical context (your book) and then a second that developed decades afterwards which was theological, religious leading to belief in Christ, his resurrection and ever lasting life in Heaven. This is a question. Am I assessing this correctly?

  10. Avatar
    Jana  November 15, 2015

    From what I’m reading in your book, because the Apocalypse did not occur as Jesus DURING his time portended, the later writers changed their interpretation of the purpose of Jesus’s life and therefore also the definition of the word “messiah” … ??? However, his immediate disciples believed he was the Apocalyptic Messiah during his life and afterwards because they also still believed the Apocalypse to come. These are also questions. Am I understanding this correctly? I see a change in the definition of the word Messiah as the decades passed.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      Yes, I think this is the trend of the tradition among Jesus’ followers.

      • Avatar
        Jana  November 17, 2015

        Then I perceive another layer of difficulty not only in translation but also interpretation of the translation. And to go far a field from my layman studies of Maya hieroglyphs … for decades ALL professionals in the field translated a specific hieroglyph as “blood (sacrifice)” and based upon that interpretation, an interpretation developed. Only recently has it been thought that before 400ad, this glyph did NOT mean this but something very different. Now to the word “Messiah” (one word among others as you’ve elucidated at times), it appears then that contemporary Christians (although centuries before) have similarly misinterpreted the word Messiah and then proceeding interpretations are also skewed?? This too is a question. 🙂 btw: It’s just awful here … chikungunya does not leave its victims … months afterwards. I have friends in physical therapy and in pain (I’ve added peraceptamol to the list) … as the administrative wheels turn too slow. We’re still waiting.

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