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How the Crucifixion Destroyed Jesus’ Vision of the Future

I have been arguing that during his lifetime Jesus had come to think that he was the messiah of God, the one who would be king when God intervened in history to overthrow the forces of evil and establish a good kingdom here on earth.   A number of readers have asked how or why he would come to that view about himself.  I’m afraid the answer is that I don’t know, and either does anyone else.

There are, of course, lots of theories, some of which are no doubt held by different people on this blog, for example, Christians often say that it was because he really is the coming messiah and that God had told him this.  Others might say that he had some kind of visionary experience that led him to think this (at his baptism?  During his 40 days in the wilderness?  Some other time?).  Others might think that this is a rather exalted view to have of oneself as a lower class peasant in the remote backwaters of Galilee – that you would be the king of Israel, or even of the entire earth – and might suggest, then, that he had a megalomaniacal streak.    I myself really don’t know.

What I am pretty sure about is that Jesus had a highly exalted view about what was going to happen in the imminent future – within his own generation – and that both he and his disciples were going to play a significant role in it.  When they soon-to-arrive kingdom appeared with the advent of the Son of Man, they would be made the rulers of this kingdom.  He himself would be appointed to be king.   This would happen very soon.  His disciples bought into this vision of the future.  The thirteen of them would be exalted in the very near future.

When thinking about the early Jesus movement, nothing can be more important than realizing just how radically and thoroughly these fervent expectations and hopes were shattered by the events that happened at the end of Jesus’ life.   The followers of Jesus were…

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The Reversal of the Disciples’ Decisive Disconfirmation
Readers’ Mailbag December 4, 2015



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  December 7, 2015

    I’ve often wondered about the mindset of the disciples. Were they ALL true koolaid drinkers of Jesus’ Jim Jones? Were they willing participants in his vision a la Manson or David Koresh? Or, were only some of them that deeply invested? Perhaps not all of the disciples witnessed a Resurrected Jesus and this is the reason we only hear of a handful of the disciples post-Resurrection. That is to say, maybe the others just faded away and rather than having their absence addressed by Luke or Paul or even any of the later books of the NT it’s just allowed to happen off stage to not draw attention.

    • Rick
      Rick  December 8, 2015

      I have long wondered about the Jim Jones/David Koresh analogies. I really have trouble imagining a 1st Century Palestine where the self view attributed above was in any way reasonable. There is another analogy that does make sense however (even to include the disciples). From literature although many are surely available in real life, was he the original Elmer Gantry?

      • Bart
        Bart  December 9, 2015

        I’d say no. I don’t think he was dishonest or leading people astray for purposes of his own (power, prestige, wealth, etc.)

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 7, 2015

    “What I am pretty sure about is that Jesus had a highly exalted view about what was going to happen in the imminent future – within his own generation – and that both he and his disciples were going to play a significant role in it.”

    Of this there can be little doubt.

    “When they soon-to-arrive kingdom appeared with the advent of the Son of Man, they would be made the rulers of this kingdom. He himself would be appointed to be king.”

    Of this, significant doubt remains. His behavior in his final days suggests someone who is basically daring the system of that time to execute him. He’d already seen what had happened to his former master, John the Baptist (who was considered by some to be the true Messiah long after his death). The thoughts and aspirations of a man in that frame of mind are not so easily interpreted.

    His teachings, I would say, were the most important thing. Without them, and without the force of his charisma behind them, the resurrection–whatever it was, however it came to be believed in–would not have happened. They simply would not let the story end that way–they couldn’t–he’d inspired them with something far greater than a mere lust for power.

    And neither, as we know, did John’s disciples let go of his memory after his (perhaps even more humiliating if less public) execution, but John’s teachings were, I would suggest, less compelling, less universal, less easily communicated to new converts, so that cult gradually died away. It didn’t attract talented people like Paul and the gospel authors to adapt it. John’s charisma was probably no less powerful than that of Jesus, but he didn’t have enough behind it to create a foundation for others to build upon.

    Jesus was neither the first nor the last cult leader to inspire stories like the ones that began to circulate after his death, promising that he would return in glory. But no one else–ever–inspired such a massive cumulative wave of historical change. It can’t have just been happenstance. It had to be something about him, and about what he said.

  3. Avatar
    Hank_Z  December 7, 2015

    Imagine how utterly shocked the dying Jesus would have been to know that 2,000 years later a religion ABOUT HIM would have two billion followers!

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 8, 2015

      It would mainly be the 2,000 years later thing that shocked him. I really doubt anybody back then could get his or her mind around the notion of billions of people.

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    maryhelena  December 7, 2015

    ‘’Some of the followers of Jesus started to say that he had been raised from the dead. And very soon the religion of Jesus (the one he preached) became the religion about him (the one that preached *him*). It was the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, not the preaching of Jesus himself, that started Christianity’’.
    Christianity stems from the imagination of some Jews who believed that dead human bodies can live again in a heavenly/spiritual world? And such a belief had the wherewithal to survive these past nearly 2 thousand years! What does that say for human imagination on the one hand and human credulity on the other…

    Storytellers the gospel writers may well be – and we can give them some credit for that – but let’s not inflict upon them the dubious idea that they were basing their whole theology/philosophy upon nothing more than pure speculation about the fate of dead human bodies.

    The jump from expectations about an earthly kingdom to speculation about a spiritual kingdom – the jump from reality to spirituality or philosophy – does not require any miraculous overturning of natural laws dealing with dead human bodies. The gospel writers needed no speculation about dead human bodies in order to create their vision of a spiritual/intellectual world. Like them, we live in both the real world of reality and the unseen world of our intellect. That’s our very human reality that we are constantly developing…..

    As for history and the Roman execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews – an end to the Hasmonean Dynasty could well have been the event that triggered a forwarding looking movement towards a spiritual as opposed to an earthly kingdom. The execution/crucifixion of the last King of the Jews – that death – that watershed in Jewish history – could open up a road towards a spiritual kingdom without end. Out of the ashes of the Hasmonean Kingdom an intellectual rebirth, a new perspective, could make possible a spiritual/intellectual kingdom without end. A kingdom that the might of Rome could never touch.

  5. Avatar
    spiker  December 7, 2015

    Interesting as always. I had been thinking about just this question for awhile now. I happen to think there’s something to Dunn’s claim that Jesus was a man who could inspire faith in others. As to meglomania, wouldn’t that be detectable in other areas besides direct claims of greatness? Would we get the early exaltation christology of Philiians 2, “… he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[of a servant,”

  6. Avatar
    DanHelton  December 7, 2015

    The rise of “the religion that preached him” is perhaps the greatest all time example of the thesis put forth by Leon Festinger and Henry Riecken in their 1956 study, “When Prophecy Fails.”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2015

      Yeah, great book. Cognitive dissonance was applied to the rise of Xty by John Gager in his book Kingdom and Community. Interesting stuff.

  7. Avatar
    toejam  December 7, 2015

    I think this reconstruction is very plausible. But I’m also very open to the possibility that Jesus and his followers were more deluded (for lack of a better word) than we might think. I don’t write off the idea that the Apocalyptic Jesus did indeed think he needed to have himself sacrificed in order to atone for sins of the people, and that his sacrifice would release him from his somatic body and allow him to put on the body of the angelic ‘Son of Man’ figure, whom he believed was his true self. In other words, Jesus intended to be a martyr of source. It wouldn’t surprise me if the prediction of his return (in a imminent apocalyptic judgement) that he was preaching is what encouraged some of the disciples to “see” Jesus. Sometimes I think there might be some deceit going on also – that if Jesus had gathered a devout following who expected him to return any moment, and this didn’t happen, it might be forgivable for someone like Peter or James or John (Jesus’ right-hand men, the “pillars”) to tell a white lie – that he “saw” Jesus – thus relieving the fears of the devout. And the next thing you know everyone is “seeing” Jesus.

  8. Avatar
    James Chalmers  December 7, 2015

    The obvious question is, what about the various prophecies attributed to Jesus where he foretells his death? Why didn’t they cushion the shock?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2015

      Historically it’s probably because he never made them. They are legends produced after the fact of his death.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 8, 2015

        That’s a rather easy out, Bart. He deliberately provoked the Jewish and Roman authorities. Many historians have independently come to the conclusion that he was intentionally creating the circumstances that led to his death, and since he’d seen what happened to John the Baptist, you can’t think the notion never crossed his mind that he might be next.

        I agree the prophecies we have have probably been jiggered around with to match up better with what happened–then again, they don’t entirely match it. The whole ‘three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’ thing does not match the chronology–yes, that’s the Son of Man, but if the Son of Man was in heaven, he wouldn’t be in the heart of the earth. He’s the Son of Man because he was born of a mortal man and woman, and then elevated to an angelic being–which is what the early Christians, including Paul, believed had been true of Jesus.

        I find it impossible to believe he thought God would just show up and make him king. It doesn’t work on any level, and we don’t even have him saying that. Whether he thought he’d be Messiah would depend on what role he thought the Messiah would play. But the more I think about it, the less I believe he thought he’d be any kind of earthly king, even in the transformed earth after the coming of the Kingdom.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 9, 2015

          It’s really a very simple question. What would any Jewish person in the first century mean by calling another person the messiah?

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  December 9, 2015

            “It’s really a very simple question. What would any Jewish person in the first century mean by calling another person the messiah?”

            You’ve acknowledged that some expected the messiah to be a warrior-king, others a High Priest, still others a supernatural Being who’d descend from the clouds. Given that many *known* concepts, I don’t think you can rule out people having had still more different ideas about what he would be, say, or do.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 11, 2015

            I don’t know of anyone who thought that a currently living human being would be a supernatural Being. And Jesus couldn’t be a priest because he wasn’t from Aaron’s line.

          • Avatar
            godspell  December 9, 2015

            Jesus wasn’t any Jewish person–that was his problem, and his followers’ problem for a long time after his death.

            It’s circular reasoning:

            1)Jesus told his followers they would be kings (possible but unproven, since we know many false sayings were attributed to him, and some would be in the Q source from which this presumably came).

            2)This means he thought he would be king over them (it does not logically follow–Jesus clearly saw himself as following in the tradition of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha–none of whom ever became kings, and Moses never saw the promised land).

            3)Since Jesus thought he would be king, and the Messiah would be seen as a king by the average Jewish person, that means Jesus thought he was Messiah, even though we have no record of his ever saying he was Messiah (except to Pilate, in a setting where none of his followers could hear him), and even in the gospels he never once will agree to the notion that he will be King of the Jews (“You say so”–which could be interpreted as him saying “Someone like you can’t possibly comprehend what I am.”) Only Mark has him agreeing to be Messiah, and Mark ends, in its original form, with an empty tomb, and no resurrection.

            It’s really the ones who survived him who made him Messiah, and in so doing, changed the meaning of the word to match what had happened. I think his own conception of himself was much harder to pin down, but if he thought he was Messiah, to him that may have meant someone who would transform the material world by leaving it behind.

            And he did achieve that. Not the way he intended.

          • Avatar
            tomfranklin  December 11, 2015

            My understanding is that they would understand it to mean “anointed ones”, right? Hezekiah was one such messiah? Someone that would defeat Israel’s enemies and save the people. Everything was physical/temporal not spiritual/eternal.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 11, 2015


  9. Avatar
    Adam Beaven  December 7, 2015

    Doctor Ehrman

    “Some of the followers of Jesus started to say that he had been raised from the dead.”

    paul says

    It comes from Galatians 1:6-9

    6 I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him, that called you into the grace of Christ, for another gospel.
    7 For this is not another; but there are some who trouble you and would pervert the Gospel of Christ.
    8 But should we, or an angel from Heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed.
    9 As we said before, so say I now again: If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that which ye have received, let him be accursed!

    And 2 Corinthians 11:3-4

    3 But I fear lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
    4 For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit which ye have not received, or another gospel which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.


    1. pauls has the crucified jesus. what other jesus’ were people preaching ? “the jesus who got away from crucifixion” ?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2015

      The other jesuses are the ones that say you have to follow the law.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 8, 2015

        Or is it possible that the Jesus that Paul is arguing against is the Jesus who was saved from the cross last minute, as some of the early gnostics were suggesting?

  10. Avatar
    Jim  December 7, 2015

    How likely (or unlikely) is it that Paul and/or a Pauline community might have been the origin of the resurrection story? 1 Cor 15:4-8 is Paul’s version of the resurrection witnesses’ testimonies. Can this section along with Phil 2:6-10 be considered to be totally free from any influence of Paul’s personal rhetoric? It would have been great if one of disciples had written something about the first few weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion, but then again the mystery of it all is somewhat fun too.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2015

      Paul says he inherited the tradition from others. He is generally loathe to admit any such thing, so in this case he is almost always believed.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 13, 2015

        You brought some questions about more grandiose and spiritual meanings for “messiah” back down to earth, to the simple question, “What would any Jewish person in the first century mean by calling another person the messiah?” You then pointed out that none of them living at the time would have thought of the messiah as a supernatural being. So, then, what could it have been that Paul received from those before him? At most, it would seem, that Jesus was resurrected. But not that he was even semi-divine or had divine attributes, much less that one could be save, redeemed from personal sin by believing in him. All that, it would seem, must have come from the more urbane, Hellenized Paul. No?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 14, 2015

          By the time of Paul, the followers of Jesus were already saying that the messiah was a cosmic, supernatural being (the exalted Jesus); that’s what it meant for them to believe in the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus.

  11. Avatar
    doug  December 7, 2015

    The belief by Jesus’ early followers that they (or someone) had seen Jesus alive after he died reminds me of how after Elvis Presley died, some of his fans thought they had seen him still alive. In both cases, they just *couldn’t* believe that their idol had died.

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 7, 2015

    I find it hard to understand why anyone who learned this – and *believed* it – would continue being a Christian. Is it just because they find something important to them in being part of a Christian “community”?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2015

      There is much much more to Christianity than musings of an ancient historian!!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  December 9, 2015

        Actually, when I was growing up (raised Catholic), I’m sure we were taught that if the *Resurrection* wasn’t true, the entire religion would be worthless – collapse like a house of cards.

        I myself believe, as I’ve said before, that all that’s ever really mattered to most people are the afterlife promises/threats. But I’d expect anyone living *today* to be appalled at learning Jesus thought he’d be pleasing his disciples by promising them lofty positions. *That* was what he thought they wanted, the reason they were following him?

        Quite aside from the unlikelihood of that future for a bunch of illiterate peasants, the story casts doubt on the motivation of all concerned…*especially* Jesus himself. But I’m not convinced it’s true.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  December 13, 2015

          Paralleling that, one might say: if we are not fallen, then there no need for the salvation Christianity offers. Now, some people look around them and conclude that humankind is fallen. But, in first century, the idea of the Gospel was portrayed as a solution to the gulf that had opened up between God and humans when Satan tempted the first humans into sin, that humans fell from grace and lost their immortality–all this as portrayed in Genesis 2-3. Problem is, there is no such story in Genesis 2-3–not if one reads it literally….no immortality, no Satan, no intimacy between God and Adam and Eve that was lost. They weren’t even expelled for what they had done but for what they might go on to do: eat from the Tree of Life.

  13. Avatar
    asjsdpjk  December 7, 2015

    To me it appears more likely that jesus was well known and had a large following and gave hope to many than that he would be an obscure preacher with just 12 followers. Why? Because it would make it possible for the message of his redurection to spread and be received as good news.

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    Samuel Riad  December 8, 2015

    Bart, Just a question: The Romans crucified Jesus because he claimed to be king. And Judas testified against him and betrayed the messianic secret. But who alarmed the Romans in the first place? The Sadducees? Unlike the Pharisees, they were influential, although they both hated him equally the same. But why did they hate Jesus? Was it because of the cleansing of the temple (did that even really happen?) or was it because Jesus disrespected the Temple? (The destroy-build in 3 days thing) ? Jesus, at least according to the bible, seems to have been a very poor man who thoroughly envied the rich. Was the Temple a symbol of the wealth that Jesus hated (and possibly aspired to)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2015

      I don’t know! In the Gospels, it’s the Jewish authorities who want Jesus taken out of the way, presumably out of fear of an uprising.

  15. talmoore
    talmoore  December 8, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, when I was ploughing through JD Crossan’s “The Historical Jesus” (indeed, it was tough going, because Crossan isn’t the most accessible of writers), Crossan had some well-argued ideas on how Christianity went from a movement about a message to a movement about a man (although I can’t say I was thoroughly convinced by Crossan’s argument). It seems that while Jesus was alive, the movement really was just about the message: the apocalypse was coming any day now, and if you want to be on the right side of it you better turn to God ASAP. What scholars appear to being debating about is how much the initial movement concerned the message versus the man.

    The fact of the matter is once Jesus was executed, it sowed the seed of a new movement. From that point on the movement began to grow, organically, more around the man than the message. Indeed, the message could have been completely lost if bits and pieces of it weren’t preserved within the Gospel accounts, even when they themselves display more of a fixation on the man than the message. And it is here where I think most NT scholars have lost their way. It’s as if they can’t bring themselves to fully admit that Jesus was, in all probability, just another failed prophet. It is as if were they to admit this much then their entire life’s work is in the pursuit of an ultimately trivial historical figure (which it clearly isn’t). You can see this especially in the fellows of the Jesus Seminar, who are so reticent to admit that Jesus was primarily a doomsday prophet and preacher. For them Jesus must also have been a social reformer, a warrior for justice. But, alas, I get the sense that Jesus didn’t much care for the injustice and inequality of his time and place, for he was convinced that God was going to make things right presently. Of course, God didn’t, and the only change for the better human societies have experienced have occurred not because of Jesus and his movement, but, for the most part, in spite of it.

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    Stephen  December 8, 2015

    I think this view of Jesus has some definite implications and over in the Forum I’ve submitted a post discussing what I think some of those implications are if anyone is interested, under the title “Is Jesus Irrelevant?”


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    michael  December 8, 2015

    Are you sure they expected grandeur and power? Did Jesus not preach a kingdom of humility and neighborly love including the role reversals from the sermon on the mount? Would there have been room for power and grandeur in such a kingdom?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2015

      Well, if they were going to be ruling over God’s kingdom, that’s a lot of power and grandeur! But possibly you couldn’t get it except by being humble. Christianity has always been filled with paradoxes!

  18. Avatar
    Jim  December 8, 2015

    Excellent summation.
    This makes sense in light of the limited objective data available.
    Wouldn’t a time machine be great?

  19. Avatar
    greenbuttonuplift  December 8, 2015

    Is it possible Jesus followers took his teaching about the ‘son of man’ ushering in gods kingdom and conflate this with Jesus own return to restore justice to the world?

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    RonaldTaska  December 8, 2015

    The central question for me is what is legend and what is history about Jesus. I know you have spent your life studying this issue and have made huge contributions in this area. I also know that you have recently been explaining on this blog the evidence that Jesus thought he was He was the Messiah. Is it possible that this idea that Jesus thought he was the Messiah is also legendary material? I know that such history is a matter of probability so I guess the better question is what is more likely: that Jesus thought He was the Messiah or that a legend developed that Jesus thought He was the Messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2015

      Yes, it’s possible! But it’s the possibility that I’m trying to argue again…. 🙂

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