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Is Theological “Truth” More Important than Historical Accuracy?

In the previous post I began to explain how there could be an account in the Gospels that is not historically accurate because an author is more interested in conveying what, to him, is a theological “truth” than in giving a history lesson about what actually happened in the life of Jesus.  In my view, the early Christian story tellers and Gospel writers (often?) changed historical data in order to make theological points.  What mattered more than historical accuracy was the ultimate point of the story.

In this post I give a concrete example of how it works.  To make sense of what I have to say about this story you need to remember what I said yesterday about how the Passover feast worked in the days of Jesus.  This particular example involves only a small detail in the Gospel of John – a tiny detail, in some ways.  But it is illustrative of a larger point.  Sometimes Christian authors changed a historical fact in order to express what, for them, was a theological “truth.”

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So, back to the Gospels.  According to all four accounts, Jesus died sometime during the feast.  But when?  The earliest account we have – that is, the first Gospel to have been written — is Mark’s.  Here the chronology of events is quite clear.  In Mark 14:12 …

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Another “True” Story that Didn’t Happen? Jesus’ Birth in Luke
An Example of a True Story that Didn’t Happen: Part 1

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    llamensdor  May 31, 2017

    I realize that John’s gospel is the source of much Christian theology and thus very important to Christians. In my opinion, the entire gospel should be discarded. In it, Jesus speaks, not like a Galilean rabbi, but as if he were a Greek philosopher. The speeches are long, convoluted, and unlike anything in the other gospels. Also, Jesus speaks to the people as if he, himself, were not Jewish. He is an anti-Semite par excellance. Between John’s virulent hatred for the Jews and Matthew’s gratuitous claim that the Jews, clamoring for Jesus to be crucified, cried, “His blood be upon us and our children,” we have twin pillars of hatred of the Jews that hasn’t ended yet. In fact it’s having a remarkable resurgence. I know you make a distinction between antipathy towards Jews and antipathy towards Judaism, but the results are always the same.

  2. Avatar
    James Cotter  May 31, 2017

    in the gospel of john, john the baptist says , “this is the lamb of god who takes away sins”
    how would one go about disproving this?
    it makes sense for a christian to say this, but how could a jew who dunked people in water for the forgiveness of sins see another jew as a levitical sacrifice?
    i thought johns activities at the water were already taking away sins and no violent act was required.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  June 6, 2017

      The baptism of John was not to take away sins. It was a baptism of repentance. If John persuades a sinner (a non-practicing Jew) to repent and thus resume obedience to Torah, then that person would receive the baptism of John to demonstrate his repentance.

      The synoptic authors take great pains to explain why the ideas of Christianity were unknown during the lifetime of Jesus. The author of John makes no such pretense.

      Yes, the idea of a universal sacrifice was a Greek idea, not a Jewish one. But only some of those Greek religious philosophers thought the sacrificial animal had to be a god.

  3. Avatar
    Robby  May 31, 2017

    Can you comment or post on different explanations evangelicals/fundamentalists use to spin that these differing accounts are not discrepancies?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      Some argue that different Jewish groups followed different festival calendars so the Passover fell on different days for different Jews. It’s a very weak argument. In Jerusalem there was only one calendar that was followed, and all these thigns happened i njerusalem.

  4. Avatar
    flshrP  May 31, 2017

    Hmmm. “Theological truth” surely should be added to the growing list of oxymorons. Better this phrase be replaced by “theological conjecture”, “theological hunch”, or, perhaps “theological wild ass guess”. This opinion of mine was formed nearly 60 years ago as I slogged through four mandatory theology courses at a major Jesuit university in order to get my B.S. in physics. I learned how slippery truth is in the theological context. Trying to find “theological truth” is an excellent way to develop a healthy skepticism.

  5. Avatar
    Kemp  May 31, 2017

    Given John’s theological motives in this sequence of events, and the general agreement among the synoptics for a different timeline, are there any serious scholars who continue to believe that John’s version is the more accurate?

  6. Avatar
    Eskil  May 31, 2017

    But isn’t it obvious that Mark is historically incorrect as well?

    You wrote “Jesus is immediately taken off to be crucified.  And we’re told exactly when it was: “nine o’clock in the morning” (15:12) — the morning after the Passover meal was eaten.”

    But later in Mark it sais that the day was also Friday.

    “It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath)” (Mark 15:42)

    Jewish Sabbath being Saturday.

    My understanding, is that passover can never fall on Friday in Jewish calendar because it has such rules (lo ido rosh, lo badu pesahh) and hence “Pesach can never be on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.”

    Source: http://www.smontagu.org/blog/?p=259

    In addition, “the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin” (Mark 15:1) are breaking sabbath laws in Mark because “Work is not permitted on […] the first day […] of Passover”

    Source: http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday0.htm#Extra

    John doesn’t have these problem in its passion narrative. Wouldn’t it make it rather more historical than Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      No, I’m afraid that’s not right. Passover could land on any day of the week, including Friday, just as Christmas can for Christians.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  June 1, 2017

        First of all, there is no Christmas in Jewish calendar, is there? Christians follow sun calendar and Jews combination moon and sun calendar. The christian year 2017 is Hebrew Year 5777.

        Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_calendar

        Secondly, I can find several sources from many centuries back, from 1500 to today that says “Pesach can never be on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.” It is easy to verify that this rule is true with the below site that shows where Pesach I (First day of Passover) lands in the Jewish calendar until year Christian year4000. It never ever lands on Friday!

        Source: https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/israel/pesach-i

        Hence, it is obvious that it is not true that “Passover could land on any day of the week” in Judaism.

      • Avatar
        jdh5879  June 1, 2017

        I believe John 19:31 says “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath” The “special” meaning Passover and the Sabbath are on the same day. (NIV)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 1, 2017

      Passover last year, 2016, started Friday night, April 22nd — right on the Sabbath.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  June 2, 2017

        And that is the order of days in the gospel of John: “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath.” (John 19:31)

        In other words, Jesus died on the preparation day of the Sabbath (Friday) that was a day before the passover (14th Nisan) at the same time as paschal lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. The next day being a special Sabbath where passover lands on the Sabbath (that is Saturday not Friday).

        As you know, in Judaism, a day changes at the sun down when the first stars can bee seen in the sky i.e. Sabbath and passover always start on preceding evening (like Bart has said). Anyhow, passover seems to never start the preceding day of Sabbath like in the gospel of Mark (according to Bart).

        • talmoore
          talmoore  June 4, 2017

          Eskil, you’re needlessly tying yourself into knots over this.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  June 5, 2017

        And I thought I was unlocking some knots 😉
        These are not my own ideas but ideas that can be found all around. I just want to know what the historical critical view is on such ideas. For example here’s one but not an only example…

        “Yeshua is brought before the chief priests, where the scribes and elders are assembled. Additionally, there are false witnesses that testify against him, other onlookers, and officers and servant girls, who are apparently on duty. If it is, in fact, the case that all these people are observing Passover this night, they would instead be home with their families; and the Jewish officers and servant girls would certainly not be on duty. […] It is also not possible that the Sadducees and Pharisees would conduct a trial on this day in violation of Shabbat.”

        http://www.shma-israel.org/articles/date_last_passover_shma_2007_12_13.html

    • Avatar
      godspell  June 1, 2017

      Though the continuity of Jewish tradition across the centuries is one of the marvels of world culture, I think we need to recognize that Jews today, Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, etc, are very very very VERY different from Jews at the time of Jesus, in their beliefs and practices. Nobody is practicing 1st century Judaism today. Just like nobody is practicing 1st century Christianity, nor would Christians today recognize the Christians of that time, who sure as hell wouldn’t recognize them.

      Religions tend to all say “This thing we do and/or believe now is what we have always done and/or believed.”

      And that is almost never true.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  June 2, 2017

        The rationale that I have read from books why Jews avoided having sabbatical days before Sabbath is practical: food for Sabbath needed to be prepared on the day before. In ancient times food couldn’t be preserved for two days in a row. Hence, Jews had rules that in case a other sabbatical day (like passover) was going to preceded a Sabbath it was moved.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  June 2, 2017

        I could almost buy your arguments that Jews in modern and Jesus’ times had different religious calendar and practices that cannot be compared in our times – if there weren’t the gospel of John.

        What are the odds that after a couple of decades from Mark, John fixes all the issues of having preparation day and passover on the same day preceding Sabbath and “the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin” and Jewish mob NOT following the passover traditions i.e. NOT following any sabbatical rule and NOT spending the passover with their loved ones but instead they hunted, capture, persecuted, agitated and killing Jesus in a sabbatical day, Pesach I (First day of Passover).

        It would be quite a coincidence that after a thousand year or so later modern Jews by accident created new religious calendar and practices that match exactly the sequence of days and events in John’s narrative of the passion.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  June 6, 2017

          I doubt the gospel diarists (especially the author of John) knew that much detail about Judaism, or cared. Torah doesn’t call for moving a feast like Passover based on the day of the week on which it falls. I would be surprised if that change had happened by the first century.

  7. Avatar
    andersg89  June 1, 2017

    Hi Dr Ehrman
    I have an unrelated question that has baffled me for some time now. Do you know why most Christians ignore the ban on eating “life blood” from the Noahite covenant? Did the early Christians ignore it or is it a more recent development?
    I have asked the local priests and some theology students but they seem confused and can’t give a single relevant argument why it should be ignored.
    Acts clearly state that the ban stands even for non Jews and as far as I know Paul never takes about the Noahite covenant only the covenant with Moses and his argument doesn’t apply in any case…

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      It’s a great question. I assume they ignore it because it’s never been part of their tradition and it never has occurred to them that it should be.

    • Avatar
      jdh5879  June 1, 2017

      I am not sure if you are talking about something like eating blood sausage or symbolically drinking blood during the Eucharist, or both. If you are talking about the Eucharist, that is a very interesting theological issue. Maybe some famous biblical scholar will do some research.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 1, 2017

    This morning, just before dawn, I finished reading your book entitled “Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.” I have now read 14 of your trade books, two of your textbooks, and all of your blogs. I have also completed all of your Teaching Company Great Courses and watched all of your youtube videos. This has taken a lot of work on my part, but this pales in contrast to the huge amount of work this all took on your part. I remain convinced that you must have a hidden group of Ehrman doppelgangers churning out stuff in your basement.

    Anyway, before I encountered your work, I was, like a snail, inching along toward the basic conclusions that you have reached about the Bible and the Biblical God. Your work, however, accelerated my study because it summarized the main issues so clearly and logically always with a overwhelming pile of evidence. This has meant the world to me and has literally changed my life in many ways.

    Moreover, since you have received a lot of criticism from both fundamentalists and mythicists, your work has also taken a lot of courage on your part. I still think the recent posts about your ending lecture each year could form the foundation of a good autobiography about your intellectual journey in Biblical scholarship.

    The theological truth versus historical accuracy discussion reminds me that many contend that Trump’s stories are “true” even if they are not historically accurate. Interesting argument, I guess….

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      Wow. You’ve read more of me than *I’ve* read of me…. But yes, when this approach to “truth” gets used in modern times, it can lead to all sorts of mischief.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 1, 2017

      Yeah, well, I’ve read all five volumes of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew. So the gauntlet has been throw down.

  9. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  June 1, 2017

    From your knowledge/translation of the ancient texts, what is your opinion regarding “transubstantiation”?
    Did the original authors, as best as can be determined, say this “is” or this “represents”?
    This was a significant issue in my childhood church.
    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      It’s a much later doctrine. My guess is that the earliest Christians would have been pretty surprised by it.

    • Avatar
      catguy  June 1, 2017

      My understanding is that in liturgical churches such as Lutheran the body and blood are in and under the host and wine but appear on their own. The pastor has no power to make them appear. As opposed to Roman Catholic in which the priest does something to make the literal body and blood come into the host and wine. The Lutherans do not believe any human can make this happen. So it is a point of disagreement between Catholic and Lutheran and possibly other liturgical churches. When these beliefs came into being I have no idea.

  10. Avatar
    m307706x  June 3, 2017

    A modern example of this tension between myth and history is Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln. This biography has been widely derided for its shoddy scholarship. Sandburg used doubtful sources to incorporate what amounts to legends and myths about Lincoln into his biography. But I think Sandburg was trying to write an American Aeneid. He wanted to build an aspirational American identity based on the story of Lincoln – a kind of civic religion. He might have succeeded better if he had followed the example of John and embraced a more purely literary and mythical form.

  11. Avatar
    probablynot  June 3, 2017

    Bart, if Mark were internally consistent I think a stronger case could be made for either author (Mark or John) having an agenda, or truth, they were trying to convey. But Mark isn’t internally consistent. As another reader has pointed out, Mark 15:42 says that Jesus died on the day of preparation, which is inconsistent with Mark’s prior narrative, but consistent with John’s chronology.

    So was Mark 15:42 added by a later (different) author?

  12. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  June 4, 2017

    Historical accuracy is always more important than theological “truth”

    The early writings of early “Christians” who lived closer to the time of the apostles were closer to the “truth” than later “Christians” and these writings that were not included in the Bible have much important historical information that is not included in the Bible.

    Even though the writings of early “Christian” writings such as Clements “epistle” do provide much insight into the views of “Christians” who lived closer to the days of the apostles sometimes you have to consider that these writings might not be authentic nor sometimes they contain myths like the writings of “Clement” that mentions the mythological Phoenix bird of Arabia so you sometimes have to take them with a grain of salt.

    But the writings of “Clement” does include the important fact of early “Christian” view about that the “false Christians” viewed Jesus Christ as God Almighty and other early “Christian” thinking that the early “Christians” mentioned that God has a government and some today believe that God’s Kingdom is a theocratic government.

  13. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  June 4, 2017

    The Roman Catholic Church had held to this “consubstantial” view for many centuries and some other mainstream Protestant churches claim that the transubstantial view, namely that the bread and wine of Christ’s Passover is like the “body” and “blood” of Jesus or represents them as a comparison.

    The Catholic Church still argues that the “body” and “blood” are literally in the “bread” and wine or miraculously “transforms” into the “body” and “blood” of Christ.

    Also for many centuries the Roman Catholic Church claimed to possess the “original cross” or Stavros that Jesus Christ was executed on.

    They allegedly even fought a war to recover this “cross” from the Muslims many centuries ago.

    They Catholic Church at one time even claimed to possess the “original chair” that the apostle Peter sat in. Some writings from centuries ago had mentioned that some people discovered “Peter’s chair” and allegedly it had engravings on it of a manmade god.

  14. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  June 5, 2017

    Seems like John and the church that puts forth this theology has forgotten Hosea 6:6, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” This seems to me to negate God wanting Jesus to be a sacrifice.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  June 6, 2017

      That Hosea text could simply hyperbole. We have no texts saying that the sacrifices should stop. Or, this might be an indication that at least part of this text was written during Diaspora, when sacrifices were impossible since the temple had been destroyed.

      There is no text in all of Tanakh saying that a human should be sacrificed as a universal offering or sacrifice. Torah shows that Israel had practiced human sacrifice earlier in its history, but no longer practiced it.

  15. Avatar
    jogon  February 14, 2018

    The way I’ve seen a lot of fundamentalists try and reconcile this discrepancy is say that the phrase “Preparation day for the passover” could mean any day of the Passover week. This seems quite desperate but does it have any merit at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      That’s weird. It’s the first day, the day on which the passover meal was prepared. The meal itself was eaten that evening (i.e., the “next” day in Jewish reckoning).

      • Avatar
        jogon  February 15, 2018

        Ah yes here’s a quote of the other common one I’ve seen. “Therefore, when John mentions in John 18:28 that the Jewish leaders did not want to defile themselves because they wanted to eat the Passover, he was referring to their desire to participate in the seven days of feasting which would begin that evening. When John writes in John 19:14 that it was the day of preparation, he was referring to the preparations conducted on the fourteenth in order to remove all traces of leaven from the homes of the Jews. And when Mark mentions in Mark 14:12 that the Last Supper was on the first day of unleavened bread, the day when the Passover was killed, he was referring to the evening of the fourteenth of Nisan”

        Preparation for the passover means removing all the leaven in preparation for the feast of passover, does this seem plausible?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 16, 2018

          Now *that* is a brilliant bit of obfuscation!! (NOTE: in Mark, the disciples are told how to conduct the preparation for passover; that night they eat the meal; the next morning Jesus is executed; in John the disciples are not told how to prepare the passover and the meal has no connection with the passover; when Jesus is killed the next day, it is said to be the day on which the passover was being *prepared*. It’s actually not complicated.

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