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How Do You Know If Jesus Said That?

In this thread I’m discussing whether Jesus ever used the term “Son of Man”‘ and if so, if he used it to refer to a future cosmic judge of the earth; and if so, whether he talked about *himself* as that one.  My answers are  yes, yes, and no.  I answered the first two questions in previous posts.  I will now begin to answer the third, i.e., to show why I don’t think Jesus called or thought of himself as the coming Son of Man who was to arrive from heaven on the day of judgment

To do this I need to reintroduce into the blog a historical criterion that scholars use to determine what Jesus actually said, given the fact that we certainly have records of him saying things that he certainly didn’t say.  Even if you think Jesus said everything recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, how would you know if he said the things found in *other* Gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas?  You would need to have some way of evaluating the sayings.  Those same criteria can be applied to the canonical works as well.

For some users of the blog this particular criterion will be an old friend (I’ve talked about it a number of times); for others it will be a new acquaintance.  It is called the Criterion of Dissimilarity.  Here is how I talk about it in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.




What An Odd Thing to Say!  The Criterion of Dissimilarity.

The most controversial criterion that historians use, and often misuse, to establish authentic tradition from the life of Jesus is sometimes called the “criterion of dissimilarity.”  The criterion is not so difficult to explain, given what we have already seen about the Gospels.

Any witness in a court of law will naturally tell things the way he or she sees them.  Thus, the perspective of the witness has to be taken into account when trying to evaluate the merits of a case.  Moreover, sometimes a witness has a vested interested in the outcome of the trial.  A question that perennially comes up, then, involves the testimony of interested parties: are they distorting, or even fabricating, testimony for reasons of their own?  The analogy does not completely work, of course, for ancient literary sources (or for modern ones either, for that matter).  Authors from the ancient world were not under oath to tell the historical facts, and nothing but the facts.  But when examining ancient sources, the historian must always be alert to the perspective of the witness.

We know that early Christians modified and invented stories about Jesus.  There is no one who disputes this: otherwise we would have to think that …

To see what I have to say, you will need to belong to the blog.  This post is of fundamental importance for anyone interested in the NT, the historical Jesus, or the history of Christianity.  Is that you?  Then join the blog!!  Every penny of your small membership fee goes to charity.

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Did Jesus Think He Would Be the Judge of the Earth?
A Bit of a Shocker: Jesus and the Son of Man



  1. Avatar
    thelad2  August 12, 2020

    Hello Bart. In his book, Constructing Jesus, Dale Allison posits that due to the limitations of our sources, it is very difficult to show what sayings/deeds go back to the historical Jesus. So much so that he has given up trying. Instead, his suggestion is to try and identify themes in the life of Jesus that are multiply attested throughout our earliest sources. For example, Jesus may or may not have cast out the demon named Legion, but exorcism stories like that abound in the synoptics, thus going a long way toward showing that no matter what Jesus may have actually said during his exorcisms, he was indeed known to be an exorcist. Thoughts and thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2020

      Yes, it’s excessively difficult, and you can never be certain. But you can still show some probabilities. Some sayings are more probably the kinds of things that Jesus said than others. (As Dale would agree)

  2. Avatar
    fishician  August 12, 2020

    Going back to the original question, it seems there are 2 related questions: 1) Did Jesus see himself as the Son of Man, and 2) Did “Matthew” alter the scene in Matthew 16 to make it appear that Jesus did equate himself with the Son of Man (as well as the Son of God)? Looking forward to your next post!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2020

      Yup, that’s right. I’ll be answering 1. No and 2. Yes.

  3. Avatar
    Shah  August 13, 2020

    In on of your lectures on “The Great Courses” you explain very well the three approaches to the Bible as
    1. Natural history
    2. Supernatural history
    3. Religious Story
    I completely agree with the third approach, because the narratives of the Bible / the Gospels are not historical.
    I always wonder why you go most of the time against this approach and take a narrative as if it was meant to be taken as a historical fact.
    The Criterion of Dissimilarity has no bearing, if the author did not meant to write history.
    There are many example in the Bible that can paas this criteria, but they cannot be true. Jews would not say God need rest after the creation of the world, but does that mean God needed to rest?
    In contrast, Crucifixion of Jesus pass this criterion, but it is certainly never happened. It is a misinterpretation of the Gospels due to a literally interpretation.
    This demonstrate the failure of the historical approach to the Bible when it takes the text as a source for historical information.

  4. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  August 13, 2020

    Dr Ehrman, sorry for going off-topic but these posts have got me thinking about Christology and I was wondering whether you had considered writing a sequel to How Jesus became God? I know your period is the first three Christian centuries and the next phase of Christology (Monophysitism etc) straddles the 4th and 5th centuries but no one else seems to be able to explain complex subjects as well as you do. Many thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2020

      I have to admit — this is just a personal predilection: the highly nuanced and detailed theological Christological controversies of the enf of the fourth and into the fifth century have never been very appealing to me. Again, just on the personal level. They can get unbelievably complex to the point of making a layperson simply shake her head….

  5. Avatar
    Truncated  August 13, 2020

    Bart, the other day you recommended the article THE APOSTLE PAUL AND THE INTROSPECTIVE CONSCIENCE OF THE WEST. I read it, and I believe I understood it somewhat. But I find I would be unable to explain it to someone else. Would you be willing to work your Ehrman magic and summarize the argument for us?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2020

      See today’s post! You’ll notice there is an entire podcast devoted to explaining it in simple terms! (Serendipity)

  6. Avatar
    Tempo1936  August 13, 2020

    Is the story of “The rich man and Lazarus” (Luke 16) was from Jesus? If so, is Jesus trying to tell us specifically about what happens in the afterlife after death or just making a point that those who live comfortably in this life will not be in the Kingdom and those who have suffered will be welcomed in the coming Kingdom? Fundamentalist sometimes use this parable to describe what happens to the soul after death and eternal torment for those not saved.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2020

      I argue in my book that it was not originally from Jesus. Search for it on the blog and you’ll see the argument.

  7. Avatar
    Brand3000  August 13, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    1 Corinthians 7 Is Paul quoting Jesus here?
    “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2020

      He appears to be referring to Jesus’ saying (thoght he doesn’t claim to give a direct quuotation of it).

      • acircharo
        acircharo  August 18, 2020

        How would Paul know it was a direct quote from Jesus if there were no gospels written then? Oral tradition? Seems early for that?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 19, 2020

          Yes, everyone was using oral traditions at the time. But in a largely illiterate world, that was rarely thought of as a problem.

  8. Telling
    Telling  August 14, 2020

    There’s another important criteria historians ignore.

    “Spiritual” information comes from the spirit into the world. and is always the same, told differently so that it is understood by the particular society, and is legitimate information for determining phrases that Jesus said.

    If information from other recognized ancient and contemporary Masters does not connect with sayings of Jesus then Jesus was probably the nutcase preaching end times, not a master at all (as some historians believe), or if it does then some weight should be added to those phrases similar in content.

    I’ve offered a few of these comparative phrases in my book “The Verbal Truth of Christianity”. Here’s a sampling:

    “For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost in Me.” -Bhagavad Gita (Hindu).

    “Eternal life is realized when the last trace of difference between ‘I’ and ‘Now’ has vanished — when there is just this ‘now’ and nothing else.” -Alan Watts.

    Jesus phrases can be found having similar content but different phrasing in canonical and non-canonical Gnostic material. These would be the “more likely” phrases said by the Master, representing the eternal truths that a master would teach.

  9. Avatar
    janmaru  August 14, 2020

    Since I can’t forget marginal things (an effect of my condition) I can recollect that you answered: “Fibonacci? What’s that?” on a question about a “Da Vinci Code” confutatio.
    So when “The Criterion of Dissimilarity” is brought about how do you measure what is probable or what is sound?
    Bayesian probability has been used to inquire into social and humanist science.
    Dissimilarity smells more like common sense, it doesn’t have any mathematical taste.
    Do you suggest your students take a short math course as a precondition for an NT showdown?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2020

      No, it’s not just common sense. It’s a matter of seeing what early Christians did and did not generally say about Jesus. But it can’t be done with statistical probability, no.

  10. Avatar
    Eskil  August 15, 2020

    Why don’t Pauline epistles refer to “the son of man”? “The son of man” seems to be only mentioned in the epistles to Hebrews (Hebrews 2:6) in a quotation from Psalms (Psalm 8:4-8) where it is clearly used as reference to Adam or to the entire mankind. Couldn’t Paul’s silence on “the son of man” as judge concept be interpret it being a later invention?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2020

      I think almost certainly because Paul was writing to gentiles for whom this Jewish apocalyptic category (Son of Man) would have been unnecessarily confusing.

  11. Avatar
    Whatever  August 16, 2020

    How do you respond to Catholics about the “real presence”?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2020

      I’d say it’s a much later doctrine. And they’re welcome to believe it!

  12. Avatar
    JeffreyFavot  August 18, 2020

    If someone used this criterion against your own work in 2,000 years. How do you think it would turn out? It won’t be good. This criterion doesn’t work. Based off major assumptions about the “person in court”.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Not sure what your logic is here. This is the kind of criterion that historians always use, in every field of historical study.

      • Avatar
        JeffreyFavot  August 19, 2020

        If Bart Ehrman was the man on trial in 2,000 years. How would you do if they used this criterion against your writings. This is exactly what you do to the NT writers. I am telling you that based on that method, they wouldn’t take your work very seriously. You have obvious bias issues and it would be pointed out in court. Your writings about Jesus probably wouldn’t be credible. Like a bad witness.

        That criterion is also based off major assumptions about what the NT would write and wouldn’t have wrote. It’s not an exact science.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 21, 2020

          I think you’re misunderstanding the criterion (many people do — including some scholars!). It is not used to show what a historical person did *not* say, but to demonstrate what she or he probably *did* say — to give you a collection of sayings that you can be pretty sure about.

          • Avatar
            JeffreyFavot  August 21, 2020

            Ok gotcha. I misunderstood it

  13. Avatar
    Billygambone1  August 21, 2020

    Hello professor Ehrman,
    I hope you are doing well I have been doing a lot of research and reading your books. I was hoping I could ask you a question about the New Testament. In one discussion you were having about the reliability of the gospels and the book of acts. You said that the books aren’t inerrant because they contradict each other and you use an example of Judas death as a contradiction. So I agree that we couldn’t say the Bible is inerrant but if we look at the gospels as generally reliable from a historical point of view would you agree with that ? Can we hold that the gospels and acts are Generally historically Reliable that we can’t say it is without error but like the story about Judas we can still know Judas died and betrayed Jesus and had something to do with a field. Can we still trust the gospels and acts generally when we are trying to figure out who Jesus was and what he did and what his apostles believed and did? I am curious to hear your point of view on this. look forward to hearing from you. Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  August 23, 2020

      I don’t think we can make a statement about “general reliability” before we explain what we mean by that and hten look carefully at the evidence pro and con (not just for the bible, ut for any book that refers to events that happened in the past). If, for example, your neighbor told you about something that happened yesterday, and, say, one out of five of his statements turned out to be wrong — would you say he was “generally reliable”? Some people might say yes, others no. My personal view is that I wouldn’t know if I could trust him when he said the *next* thing!

      • Avatar
        Billygambone1  August 23, 2020

        When I say generally reliable I guess I mean you get the gist of the story. Not for an inerrant religious text. But say if I wanted to find out about the life of Jesus and the apostles. I could look at the gospels and acts and say well I understand the gist of what happened in these stories. I can know the gist of the events that occurred in the life of Jesus and apostles even if not all of the details are correct. Would you agree?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 24, 2020

          I’d say that even that is a problem. What constitutes the “gist”? It differs from one person to the next. I think the Gospels were right that Jesus was a Jew from rural Galilee who left home as an adult to engage in an itinerant preaching campaign, proclaiming an apocalyptic message that, when he arrived in Jerusalem for a Passover celebration, got him in trouble with the authorities and led to his public crucifixion. Is that the gist? Even though I don’t believe most of the stories about him actually happened (e.g., birth stories, healing miracles, exorcisms, any miracles at all, confrontations with Pharisees, transfiguration, triumphal entry, trial before Sanhedrin, resurrection , and lots of the things he’s reputed to have said)? Some people would say yes, others no. Depends what you mean by “gist.”

          • Avatar
            Billygambone1  August 24, 2020

            Ok let me put it this way. If you had to make an estimate what would you say percentage wise of the gospels that you take as generally reliable and what percentage would you say probably didn’t happen?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 26, 2020

            Interesting question. I’ve never thought about it in terms of percentages. But it would certainly involve lots of the major stories.

          • Avatar
            Billygambone1  August 24, 2020

            Would you say about 70% happened and 30% is not historical ?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 26, 2020

            See my other answer.

  14. Avatar
    Billygambone1  August 29, 2020

    Ok would you agree that a large majority of what is being reported is true to the extent that readers get an accurate idea of what occurred. The account is “true enough even if not all of it is true.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 30, 2020

      Depends what you mean by “what occurred.” If you mean: “There really was a man named Jesus who was crucified on oders of Pontius Pilate” If you mean more than that, it depends what “more” matters to you. Virgin birth? baptism? temptation? healig miracles? exorcisms” transfiguration? controversies with Pharisees? triumphal entry? cleansing of the temple? betrayal by Judas? trial before Sanhedrin? etc. etc. each story has to be evaluated carefully using clear historical criteria.

  15. Avatar
    sgrussell  September 7, 2020

    Professor Ehrman, I am finding this discussion fascinating. As a new member, I realize there is a high probability that my question has been asked and answered before. Nevertheless, I look forward to your comments. The discussion re what was meant when Jesus said “upon this rock I will build my church” in describing Peter, is one that I always have questioned. To designate Peter as the leader, no problem. But I do not think Jesus could have envisioned churches. Is this just a matter of translation and teaching, or was the part about church inserted later? Thank you in advance for your response.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2020

      Your view is the one almost all critical scholars take. It does not make much sense to see the statement as historical — going back to jesus. As you probably know, the passaeg (Matthew 16) involves a word play with Peter’s name (Petros); before teh NT it is not attested as a name. I think Jesus actually did give it as Simon’s nickname. But only later, with matthew, does someone try to explain why But the explanation makes sense only in a post-crucifixion context.

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