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Jesus and the Temple

Back to Aslan’s Zealot. I will not be going on forever, but I do want to make a few final posts. So far I have shown that the book is filled with mistakes, some of them important, about the ancient world, about the New Testament, and about early Christianity. These are simply errors, things (I tried to show) that Aslan just got wrong. After that I tried to show why the thesis itself was highly problematic by taking on his lead chapter and showing just why the claims he makes don’t “work” historically. And then, most recently, I’ve shown why scholars have widely opted for a solution that differs from Aslan’s view that Jesus is best seen as one totally zealous for the law and the land of Israel to the extent that he favored a military overthrow of the Roman empire as foreign occupiers. The alternative is that Jesus instead was a preacher of apocalyptic doom. It was not by military force that the enemy would be defeated, but by an act of God, when he sent his Son of Man in judgment over the earth to destroy the forces of evil – not just the Romans but including the Jewish leadership of the temple – and set up a utopian kingdom on earth where there would be no more oppression, injustice, hatred, misery, or suffering.

I have given some of the reasons that scholars have accepted this view. Now I want to show how two data that are crucial for the “zealot hypothesis” actually make better sense with this apocalyptic understanding of Jesus. The two data involve the temple cleansing and the crucifixion itself.

If one wants to establish – as Aslan very much does want to do – that Jesus favored violence, there is no better scene to focus on than the disruption he caused in the Temple upon arriving in Jerusalem in the last week of his life. According to the earliest accounts, Jesus enters the temple, overturns the tables of those exchanging money, and driving out those who were selling sacrificial animals. In our first account, Mark’s, Jesus actually shuts down the entire operation of the entire temple.

I have already shown why Aslan’s reconstruction of that event as a historical incident can’t work. Mark’s Gospel simply can’t be taken as historically reliable at this point. If Jesus really shut down the Temple cult, how could he not have been arrested on the spot by soldiers stationed there (both Jewish temple police and Roman soldiers, brought in for the occasion) precisely to quell any possible violence?

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Jesus’ Crucifixion as King of the Jews
More Evidence that Jesus was an Apocalypticist

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    judaswasjames  January 4, 2014

    Bart,

    The arrival “on the clouds of heaven” should tell you what you perceive incorrectly. This is set IN heaven, not earth! How much does it take to awaken you? This is mysticism. The “destruction” of worldly things is euphemism, for the devotee is GONE from HERE.

    • Christopher Sanders
      Christopher Sanders  January 4, 2014

      wow.. Such depth and insight…..

    • Avatar
      ardiess  January 4, 2014

      Where does one begin. You could abandon the idea that heaven is a separate physical locality. More often than not it was the polite way to say God. You might try reading some scholars that are not on your particular church’s approved reading list. You might start with The Quest for the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer. Also, N.T. Wright can give you alternative conservative evangelical views, esp. After You Believe. If you are feeling dangerous, you might read Speaking Christian by Marcus Borg.
      Guy, I’ve been there. For more years than you’ve probably been alive. However, if we are to believe that the Bible is inspired of God, it follows that it can stand up to all the systematic, scholastic investigation we can throw at it. I’m really sorry, but the brief insights you give to your belief system are unsustainable to scrutiny, Dallas Theological Seminary notwithstanding.
      I am an evangelical Christian. I do not necessarily agree with everything that Bart says. I have bought his books and followed his blogs because he studies his subjects with intensity and integrity. The very differences he proposes allows me to examine my own beliefs with a fresh light and has led to a deepening of my faith.
      It’s one thing to have a disagreement. Quite another to flame someone on their own blog.

      • Avatar
        RecoveringCalvinist  January 7, 2014

        Well said

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  January 7, 2014

        I’m really sorry, but the brief insights you give to your belief system are unsustainable to scrutiny
        _______

        For instance?

    • Avatar
      shakespeare66  January 5, 2014

      What is set in heaven? Armageddon? How can that take place in heaven if everything is good there? The forces of evil reside on earth, right? So what point are you making?

  2. Avatar
    hwl  January 4, 2014

    Given that Jesus was not against the Temple (because God mandated this institution) but against the temple cult as it was practised, then why did he think that God via the Son of Man would destroy both the Temple and the temple cult? Presumably the Son of Man as envisaged by Jesus shared a common mindset as Jesus, the former would simply destroy the temple authorities leaving the building itself unscathed?
    As history revealed, not surprisingly, no supernatural army destroyed the temple but the Roman army did. Do you think Jesus could have anticipated the possibility that the Romans would destroy the Temple – just as Israel’s enemies, the Babylonians, destroyed the first temple? Later gospel authorities presumably redacted this historicised prophecy onto lips of Jesus. Yet it doesn’t seem implausible Jesus thought the second temple would suffer the same fate as the first one.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      I think as with other apocalyptic prophets, Jesus believed the place had become so corrupt (it was a magnificently glorious structure: maybe he found *that* offensive) that God would wipe it out and start all over. No, I don’t think he imagined the Romans would do it but that God would….

  3. Avatar
    ben.holman  January 4, 2014

    Bart,

    I know you identify the Son of Man as someone different from Jesus based (among other things) on him referring to him as someone else. But, given that Paul already identifies Jesus as the one who’s going to be “coming with the clouds” decades before Mark; and given that Mark understands Jesus to BE the Son of Man in certain passages (Mark 8:31, etc.); and given that Mark is really into secrecy… isn’t it just as likely Mark has Jesus referring to “the Son of Man” in 3rd person sometimes to keep up this theme? That in fact, within the gospel, Jesus is just secretly referring to himself as the Son of Man?

    Ben

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      Yes, for Mark Jesus is definitely referring to himself as the Son of Man. But my view is that this is not what Jesus himself thought.

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  January 10, 2014

      For one thing John has Jesus use past tense in John 3:16, where Jesus is not talking about himself, but other saviors before him. He was not ‘given’ at birth but at death.. “Son of man” is Holy Spirit.

  4. Avatar
    judaswasjames  January 4, 2014

    It is difficult to know what Jesus found problematic about the Temple and its cult.

    _____

    Masters are vegetarian (see Epiphanius, Clement, Josephus on John and Peter). They are kind to animals! Who says he was into sacrifice? Hosea 6:6 says the Lord desires mercy not sacrifice.

  5. Avatar
    dewdds  January 4, 2014

    Is there any record of a ruckus caused in the temple by other groups in that general era? I’m thinking maybe a conflation of events, as the later Gospel authors wrote their accounts.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      There are predictions of its destruction, e.g., by another man named Jesus 30 years later, who was arrested and punished (but then let free) for it.

  6. Avatar
    J.J.  January 4, 2014

    Hi Bart,
    Curious why you say Jesus’ later followers were “exaggerating it [=the temple incident] into the stories we now find in the Gospels.” With the Synoptics, of course, Mark is the earliest and as you mention, in Mark, Jesus shuts down the temple, not just stopping the sellers and money-changers, but even those buying (i.e., the very worshippers themselves) and carrying vessels through the Temple. Matthew’s description is similar, except he omits mention of those carrying vessels and adds a statement about Jesus healing the blind and lame in the Temple (Matt 21:14-15) which certainly softens the violent scene. Luke’s description even omits reference to Jesus forbidding the buyers, so it sounds like the protest is merely against excessive profiteering. It looks like in the Synoptics, the scene is getting softer, not more violent. Of course, John independently mentions the whip of cords, but of course, the relationship of John to the Synoptics is much debated (as Moody Smith shows). So just curious why you think the incident grew into a bigger story than it actually was when in the Synoptics it looks like it’s trending towards a softer picture.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      It’s because if it really happened as described, Jesus would have been arrested on the spot.

      • Avatar
        J.J.  January 6, 2014

        Ok… but if that’s so, why would the story be exaggerated to a peak with Mark, only to decline in exaggeration in the later Synoptics?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

          I don’t think the tradition was consistently moving in any one direction over time. But it doesn’t peak with Mark. John is much more extreme.

  7. Avatar
    ardiess  January 4, 2014

    I think that you (and Sanders) have got it as right as can be established this late after the fact. Just a coupla quibbles. The overturning of the money tables could have been much larger than proposed, the priests restraining themselves because of Jesus’ popularity with ‘the multitude,’ who might have very well participated in the demonstration. Jesus could easily have escaped in the confusion.
    It’s fair to say the priests were not popular because of their perceived collaboration.
    Most of the scholars I’m reading place Mark as being written during or immediately after the revolt. However the temple incident actually happened, it was definitely parabolic, because of its framing by the fig tree event.
    “den of robbers” (Mark 11.17) is probably better translated as “rebels.”
    (Always interesting and informative. It’s curious how much this old evangelical agrees with you-Bob)

  8. Avatar
    DanielBastian  January 4, 2014

    Bart,

    I enjoy reading all of your work and the attention to detail your bring to your scholarship. That said, I still have difficulty reconciling your views with your continued interest in the historical study of Jesus and the New Testament.

    In book after book, debate after debate, you lay emphasis on the unreliability of the gospel accounts. The surviving witnesses we have today are largely theological treatises, not historically focused retellings. Comparison with other contemporary works demonstrates that the canonical gospels of the New Testament fall more in line with Jewish fictional literature than with the genre of Greco-Roman biography. (Anyone with a strong Classics background can immediately see the flaws of comparing the gospels with Philostratus’ work on Apollonius, for example.)

    On top of this, you mention the several decades of intermission separating the events the gospels supposedly narrate and when they were laid to script. This expanse of time was connected by oral tradition, which allots for plenty of euhemerization and mythos accretion to occur. In your debate with Mike Licona, you cite several sources from the field of anthropology showing that it was common practice in ancient cultures for oral traditions to be changed over time. That in fact this was largely the *rule* rather than the exception. This is just the way things were done in the ancient world. So not only is oral transmission inherently less reliable than written transmission, we also have anthropological (read: empirical) evidence pressing against the idea that the gospels entail reliable history.

    Now to me this would collapse any residual hope of excavating any historical reality from these texts. I guess I just don’t see how you can continue to advance theories and ideas about the historical Jesus if the only texts we have about him are comprehensively unreliable. I understand that all of historical study has to contend with these sorts of issues, but is there a certain threshold beyond which you throw up your hands and concede that a text or set of texts is too unreliable to warrant serious historical attention?

    Best,

    – Daniel

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      My view is that teh fact that the Gospels are problematic historically simply shows that one needs to use rigorous historical methods in learning from them events that actually happened. I explain how that works in several of my books — for example, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  9. Avatar
    gavriel  January 4, 2014

    Could it be that Jesus just thought that trading with sacrificial animals and money-changing should take place outside the temple area?

    If he thought that the temple was to be rebuilt soon in an apocalyptic and supernatural event, and performed an “enacted parable”, why not overturn some more substantial objects in the inner area that would truly be symbols of the temple. An “enacted parable” cannot have been prompted by some impulsive reaction to crowds in the outer temple area, crowds he would have been acquainted with in his foregoing life.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      Not sure. The Court of the Gentiles was not nearly as “holy” a place as further in; and Jesus would not have had access to the court of the priests.

  10. Avatar
    willow  January 4, 2014

    How was what went on at the temple any different than what occurs in many of our churches today? Not all but many.

    Oftentimes, after a special event, such as a concert or important guest speaker, the hallways are filled with goods for sale. CDs, DVDs, books, posters, t-shirts, all up for sale for profit. It has troubled me greatly, over the years, to see the financially struggling dig deep into their pockets for their last two cents, or to up the balance due on their credit cards, as well as to seek to borrow in order to purchase something. I’ve suffered the disappointment that shows on the faces of those who have to walk away with nothing, or who have to settle for less because the price was just too high – oftentimes jacked up a dollar or two, in fact.

    Two lowly birds instead of a lamb?

    I’ve heard the chatter. “We HAVE to buy something! We HAVE to support the ministry. We CAN’T be the only ones not to!”

    A hundred times over I’ve so well related to Jesus and his anger over the “marketplace”, and I have anguished over the fact that such profits made did little to help those such as the poor and struggling; rather, the profits made added yet another wing to the mansion or marble floors and other embellishments to the “temple”, and profited well the temple staff, while yet the suffering continue to suffer. This is key, in my opinion, to understanding Jesus, though I’m not at all convinced he, himself, was poor. He certainly cared deeply about the poor and suffering.

    It has not escaped my attention that in many churches the struggling and suffering are yet expected to give all that they have, or miss out on the blessing, while at the same time receiving little more than the leftover crumbs off the table or a prayer.

    It’s not escaped my attention that the biggest, most profitable commodity the church has for sale is Jesus himself, and I find that appalling. That “Jesus” has become big business, that he makes millionaires out of paupers, many of whom couldn’t care less about the poor, sickens me to no end! The poor are oftentimes exploited for profit! Perhaps it was so, back in the day as well, which would have added, I can imagine, well to his outburst.

    I’m sorry to have rambled on so. This is a sensitive subject for me, as I so well recall standing outside the “temple” (quite a popular church) in all of its reconstructed glory and wondering of the pastor (beloved and revered all over) “Who does he think he is? King David?” I know that some will argue, that the church does so much good! I agree. The thing is, though, the church, as a whole, could do so much MORE!

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 4, 2014

    So, Jesus may have actually said the temple was going to be destroyed. I always thought that this statement was not actually said by Jesus, but was attributed to Jesus by later authors after the temple was actually destroyed in 70 C.E. and that this gave us a clue about the dating of the Gospels, namely they had to be written after 70 C.E. because they include this statement. That Jesus meant that all, including the temple, was going to be destroyed makes sense. I also remain curious about why the Synoptic Gospels place this event as the first event in the ministry of Jesus and the Gospel of John places it as the last event in the ministry of Jesus. Please do not take the time to give me a personal response. Answer it in a future blog if it seems to be an appropriate part of such a blog. That is the way I always feel about my questions. And I think that is the way you should answer most questions.

    • Robertus
      Robertus  January 6, 2014

      Actually, it is the synoptic gospels that place the Temple event at the end of Jesus’ ministry and the gospel of ‘John’ that moves it to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

  12. Robertus
    Robertus  January 4, 2014

    Our oldest sources (Paul & Q) do not have anything about Jesus’ or early Christian opposition to or cleansing of the Temple. The closest Q comes is a general lament over Jerusalem and ‘your house’, which is to be left ‘desolate’ (so only Mt). Some (eg, Fledderman) would date Q as late as 75 CE. Certainly Mark, which is the first source to have anything specific about some kind of opposition to the Temple was obviously influenced by the contemporary destruction of the temple, either as an imminent or, moe likely, recently past event. The only supposedly independent attestation to the cleansing of the temple is thought by some to come from the gospel of John, but this is obviously much later and no one can claim that ‘John’ was certainly not at least indirectly dependent upon at least one of the synoptics. EP Sanders is obviously an excellent historian of 2nd Temple Judaisms and early Christianity but to achieve his level of certainty about the historical Jesus he has to gloss over modern source critical scholarly consensus. Enfin, we simply do not know as much as we think we do about the historical Jesus.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      That’s true, but Paul is not interested in indicating what happened during Jesus’ life. And Q is not a collection of narratives but almost exclusively sayings.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  January 6, 2014

        But there is also nothing in Paul indicating early Christian opposition to the the Temple. Circumcision, yes, Temple cult and tax, nothing. Best we can do is some ambiguity about meat sacrificed to idols. There is a saying in Q lamenting over Jerusalem and indicatng that the Temple is to be left, perhaps abandoned, but Q is rather late, not much earlier than Mark, when we cannot assume that the events of the Jewish War were not already coloring the treatment of Jesus’ traditional sayings. I have no trouble imagining some level of opposition on the part of Jesus to Temple practice and the priestly hierarchy, but this is not confirmed by rigorous historical method and truly independent attestation of early sources.

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 4, 2014

    I agree, of course, with everything you’ve said about what happened in the Temple. But I’m puzzled as to why you don’t think it possible that Jesus’s irreverent behavior there was what turned Judas against him.

    As I see it, it’s one thing to hear a person *talk* about disruption a divine agency (the “Son of Man”) is going to cause at a future date. It’s quite another to see him behave outrageously, even on a small scale, in a place you’ve been taught all your life to regard as sacred. If Jesus hadn’t told his disciples in advance what he meant to do, they might have been just as shocked as other onlookers. And Judas might have continued to brood about it later…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      I guess because none of our sources hints at anything like that.

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  January 6, 2014

      Wiousa,

      Judas didn’t exist. He was invented Read Robert Eisenman, and Hyam Maccoby, if not me. judaswasjames.com

  14. Avatar
    donmax  January 4, 2014

    You seem to think Aslan’s “Zealot Hypothesis” is wrong and that a better, more all-encompassing theory — one widely accepted by most scholars — identifies Jesus as a “Doomsday Prophet.” As you put it, “The alternative is that Jesus instead was a preacher of apocalyptic doom.”

    Although this consensus view helps to understand the incident in the temple and the crucifixion, it is much too one-dimensional to explain everything about our enigmatic protagonist as described in the New Testament. How do end-times prophesies account for his miracle-making and other feats of magic? How does predicting the temple’s destruction or “the coming of the Son of Man” explain his ethical teachings and innovative sermons? or his unusual parables and prayers? And how do predictions of *doom and gloom* square with communal meals and all the partying and feasting? not to mention the widespread celebratory adulation?

    As I see it, when we try to portray anyone, let alone someone so historically important as Jesus, with single-minded, black and white strokes of the pen, we lose the complexity and the color of the man himself and end up over-simplifying the greatest story ever told.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      I don’t think historians can say much about any miracles Jesus is alleged to have done, whatever their views of him otherwise. The ethical teachings are absolutely to be put in an apocalyptic context. So too the communal meals, as foretastes of what was yet to come.

      • Avatar
        donmax  January 6, 2014

        For my part, I think clarity is always better than agreement. You seem to think that one specific characteristic of Jesus as an “apocalyptic messenger” is somehow primary in explaining who and what he was, historically speaking. By contrast, I believe your single-minded overarching hypothesis, like all the other one-dimensional theories floating in the firmament, is inadequate to account for the complexities of the man, including what he said and did throughout his eventful life. After all, there were many doomsday prophets back then who never impacted the history of the world as he did. In fact, when John the Baptist sent out emissaries to inquire, “Are you the one,” meaning the messiah who would restore the nation to its former glory, this remarkable rabbi answered by listing all the wonders of nature he had performed. But by your own admission, magic and miracles are outside the purview of an historian. To me, however, and to scholars like Morton Smith, they are the most significant aspect of what accounts for his historic appeal, both during his lifetime and after his death.

        Respectfully, therefore, I most emphatically disagree! 🙂

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

          Yes, I’m a firm believer in emphatic disagreement! But I think you’re a bit misreading me. I don’t think Jesus was an apocalypticist and that that is *all* he was. Any more than I’m a rabid liberal democrat (which I am) but that’s all I am! (But I’m not, for example, a card-bearing member of the NRA, and that’s worth knowing if one thinks I’m a liberal democrat.)

          • Avatar
            donmax  January 8, 2014

            Thanks for the reply. Much appreciated. And for the record, I’m not a card-carrying anything. Just a former liberal democrat who wised up! 😉

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 9, 2014

            Ah, but there’s still hope that you’ll return from the dark side. 🙂

          • Avatar
            donmax  January 11, 2014

            Try it; you’ll like it! Also, if you are a “liberal democrat,” it’s pretty obvious you’re NOT a member of the NRA. 😉

  15. Avatar
    lbehrendt  January 4, 2014

    Bart, you are certainly right that Aslan’s description of the Temple incident makes no sense. But I don’t see how E. P. Sanders’ description makes a great deal more sense.

    First, why would later tellers have exaggerated what Jesus did in the Temple? The criterion of embarrassment should instead have caused Gospel authors to tone down what Jesus did in the Temple. Exaggerating the incident makes Jesus appear to have been a troublemaker who was justly executed by the State for having breached the peace in a way that could have precipitated a riot (at the Temple, during the Passover season, where tensions would already have been high). How could this have been consistent with the agenda of the Gospel writers?

    Second, Sanders’ logic is that SOMETHING happened, large enough to be memorable, but small enough to have escaped the immediate notice of the Temple authorities and Roman forces. However, it’s not clear that such a middle ground existed. Try to picture something like this taking place at a modern-day bank, where a prophet of economic doom enters the bank and overturns the tables of a few vice presidents. It’s possible (indeed likely) that no one would remember the act the next day, but nonetheless our latter-day prophet would be arrested on the spot. It’s hard to imagine an act Jesus might have taken to “cleanse” the Temple that would have been small enough to escape detection, that would have elicited a “ho-hum” reaction from the forces deployed at the Temple to maintain order.

    Finally, I have to object to the idea that Jesus “was offended that people were making a profit off the holy religion of Israel.” There’s simply no evidence for this. Yes, for certain, there was a long history of people criticizing the way the Temple was run, but no evidence that this critique focused on people being overcharged. As A. J. Levine has argued, Jesus called the Temple a “den of thieves”, but the “den” is where the thieves go AFTER they’ve robbed someone; it is not where the thieves do their robbing. Presumably, the folks who did business at the Temple may have made significant profits, but there’s no reason to think that the Jerusalem Temple was any worse in this regard than any other cultic site in the ancient world.

    So … I think the Temple cleansing incident is something of a mystery. Perhaps Jesus was able to do a little damage and then escape the Temple/Roman forces that sought to arrest him on the spot. That’s a possibility. Police make mistakes that are hard to explain in hindsight. For example, look at how Oswald evaded the Dallas police after killing JFK. Is it really impossible to imagine that Jesus overturned a few tables at the periphery of the Temple mount and then fled, eluding capture until Gethsemane?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      They exaggerated both because they wanted Jesus to seem more powerful than he was and because they wanted to heighten his attacks on Judaism.

      The Temple wasn’t like a bank. It was an ENORMOUS area.

      I’m open to other interpretations of what Jesus was offended by. But saying that it was where a bunch of thieves hung out did suggest that the problem was “highway robbery.”

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  January 6, 2014

        they wanted to heighten his attacks on Judaism.

        ______

        No real master, not the ones I have known, at least, would attack any religion. I can do it, because I am not a Master! The NT is a pack of lies. That’s what the first true Christians called Pauline teaching.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  January 6, 2014

        Think of the various contentious groups of ‘thieves’ who took over the temple during the Jewish War. It is easy to see ‘Mark’s historical context as the contributing to his placement of the quote from Isaiah about the Temple as a den of thieves on the lips of Jesus. Was this also the attitude of the historical Jesus some 40 years earlier? Hard to say for sure.

  16. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  January 4, 2014

    Hi,

    Is it fair then to say that Jewish apocalypticism and Jewish militarism were just two different responses to the same insult: the foreign control of Palestine?

    Thanks a lot!

  17. Avatar
    SJB  January 4, 2014

    Prof Ehrman

    It’s easy to see how later followers of Jesus would exaggerate his influence and effect. A related question. The gospels make is sound like the whole countryside turned out for Jesus’ teaching and healing. Paul says over 500 hundred people saw the resurrected Jesus at one time. So…in your opinion, at the time of his maximum influence (right before his arrest and crucifixion?) how many followers would it be reasonable to assume Jesus might have had? Any way to tell?

    thanks

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      My guess is dozens, not thousands. Maybe not many dozens….

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  January 7, 2014

      Paul says lots of silly things. Like “I saw Jesus”. He never saw Jesus. Paul is the “Spouter of Lying” (Habakkuk Pesher, DSS), and Spouters of Lies don’t see anything very well.

  18. Avatar
    David Chumney  January 5, 2014

    It is NOT almost “certain” that something happened in the temple [involving Jesus]. Sanders’ “best explanation” amounts to nothing more than an educated guess. It is no more “probable” than the suggestion that Christians after 70 CE invented this incident to show that Jesus anticipated the destruction of the temple, an event THEY [not he] viewed [after the fact] as divine judgment.

    In several of your books, you’ve hammered the idea that history deals not with what’s “possible” but with what’s “probable.” Sanders’ “explanation” is NOT what is most probable; it’s just a rather creative way for NT scholars to claim they know the provocation leading to Jesus’ arrest and execution. His “explanation” takes an event you [and many others] characterize as totally implausible and by sleight of hand “salvages” some supposed earlier version.

    As you’ve written, Mark’s depiction cannot be historically accurate. Of course, Mark’s scene doesn’t have to be historically accurate; it only needs to be theologically convincing. So, perhaps Mark has contrived this dramatic incident to show how not only Jesus’ death but also the events leading up to it occurred “in accordance with the scriptures.” In effect, Mark portrays Jesus as one who followed in the steps of Jeremiah by challenging the temple establishment. Mark’s source is not oral tradition that has been repeated [exaggerated] for forty years; his source is written tradition [e.g., Mal 3:1b; Isa 56:7b; Jer 7:11].

    What Mark offers his readers is a fictional account (the temple incident) composed to explain a historical fact (Jesus’ crucifixion). By using the language of scripture to tell his story, Mark can therefore claim that what happened at every step was the result of God’s purpose. You’ve rehashed Sanders’ explanation, please take a few minutes to help me see why this alternate explanation is any less probable [especially given the evidence that this sort of thing has been done throughout the gospel tradition].

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      I’m not sure if you’ve actually read Sanders, but his argument is based on very broad multiple attestation in independent sources, difficult to explain apart from some kind of historicity.

      • Avatar
        David Chumney  January 6, 2014

        Yes, I’ve read Sanders. His argument, as I read it, is based largely on a conflation of the temple incident described in Mark and various sayings attributed to Jesus that focus on Jesus’ opposition to the temple and/or his prediction of its destruction. Is the temple incident itself multiply attested? Although some have argued that John’s version of the incident is based on an independent tradition, that is by no means a unanimous view. Furthermore, even if the anti-temple sayings attributed to Jesus were considered to be authentic, that would not necessarily lend credibility to Sanders’ supposition of an “enacted parable.” Besides, given the fact that all such sayings can be seen as vaticinia ex eventu, their authenticity should be considered doubtful at best. As I noted in my original post, a plausible case can be made that Mark’s account of the temple incident has more basis in literary sources (scripture) than in oral tradition. So, contrary to your all-too-brief response, the data is really not difficult to explain apart from some kind of historicity. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not claiming that my view of the matter is correct. However, it does seem to me that you’ve credited Sanders’ argument with a probability it simply does not warrant.

        I apologize for asking for more than you have the time to deal with. After re-reading your “Looking Ahead” post, I realize that my question is probably not really appropriate for this forum.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

          John and Mark give different accounts, so probably they are from independent sources. The fact that the “event” makes such good sense in light of the “predictions” — even more broadly attested in independent traditions — is what makes the case so convincing to so many people who look into it. But we could all be wrong, of course!

          I’d be interested in knowing how you solve all these historical puzzles.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  January 8, 2014

            Why assume that different accounts mean different sources??? If we approach the author of the gospel of ‘John’ as a true author, and not merely a conservative, slavish editor, why can’t he have rewritten his post-Markan tradition or Markan source in accord with his own view?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 9, 2014

            He certainly *could* have. The question is what the evidence is that he did.

  19. Avatar
    ktn3654  January 5, 2014

    I have to wonder whether you’re painting things in a little too much of an either/or fashion. I.e., Jesus was EITHER a zealot OR a purely apocalyptic prophet. It seems to me that both strands could have been present in his thinking. Maybe he expected God to intervene directly, but he was also open to mere mortals taking up arms as part of God’s plan if the time was right. And I can easily see how the latter strand of thought could have been downplayed by Jesus’ early followers when they started trying to write down his teachings.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      The question I’m trying to address is a simple one: did Jesus advocate military action against the Romans? Was he a zealot who advocated violence to overthrow those in control of the promised land. I think the answer is no.

      • Avatar
        kidron  January 7, 2014

        I would suggest a qualified ‘no’. I don’t think he advocated for a general uprising of the Jewish population, but I do think he expected God to send avenging angels to fight the Romans and the quisling Jews who supported them. In this sense he did advocated violence … One thing that maybe confuses the question of whether he was a Zealot is that there were at least two kinds of Zealots. One group was indeed Zealous for a revolution and war. The others were Zealous for the Law. i.e. the meticulous adherence to keeping the law of Moses as say compared to Paul. I believe Jesus and his brother James were indeed zealots for the law.

      • Avatar
        pheeel17  January 31, 2014

        But was Aslan really saying that? I admit it’s been a few months since I finished Zealot, but I never got the impression that Aslan’s thesis included Jesus supporting a violent, military overthrow of the Romans. I think Aslan makes this clear on page 79: “To be clear, Jesus was not a member of the Zealot Party that launched the war with Rome, because no such party could be said to exist for another thirty years after his death. Nor was Jesus a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion, though his views on the use of violence were far more complex than it is often assumed.” Doesn’t this contradict what you are claiming is Aslan’s thesis?

        You’re right that Aslan said that the incident in the temple would have been enough for the authorities in Jerusalem to label Jesus a lestes. But a few paragraphs later, he makes it clear that Jesus was crucified for claiming to be King of the Jews, while the two men next to him were crucified for being lestai. Page 79 again: “Declared guilty, Jesus is sent to Golgotha to be crucifed alongside two other men who are specically called lestai, bandits (Matthew 27:38–44; Mark 15:27). As with every criminal who hangs on a cross, Jesus is given a plaque, or titulus, detailing the crime for which he is being crucifed. Jesus’s titulus reads KING OF THE JEWS. His crime: striving for kingly rule; sedition. And so, like every bandit and revolutionary, every rabble-rousing zealot and apocalyptic prophet who came before or after him—like Hezekiah and Judas,Theudas and Athronges, the Egyptian and the Samaritan, Simon son of Giora and Simonson of Kochba—Jesus of Nazareth is executed for daring to claim the mantle of king and messiah.”
        Like you, he says Jesus was crucified for claiming to be a king. The difference is that Aslan thinks Jesus stated this publicly while your theory is that Jesus said this privately to his disciples but Judas Iscariot spilled the beans. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see Aslan claiming Jesus supported a violent armed rebellion. As a matter of fact, he seems to say the exact opposite in the lines I quoted.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 31, 2014

          Yes, I tried to be accurate in my descriptions of his book; when he says he was not a member of the Zealot party, he is making a technical comment, that the group technically called the Zealots came into existence about 35-40 years after Jesus. But Aslan certainly believes Jesus wanted a political overthrow of the Romans: that’s why he calls his book Zealot.

  20. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 5, 2014

    Is it okay if I post this here? I was intrigued by someone’s suggesting John the Baptist may have died as late as 36 CE – which would probably be later than Jesus. I dipped into Wikipedia’s articles on John and Herod Antipas, to see what the controversy (if it can be called that) is. Here’s the gist of it:

    Josephus wrote that Herod Antipas fought a war with the neighboring kingdom of Nabatea; he suffered a crushing defeat; and many Jews believed God had caused it, to punish him for having killed John the Baptist. That military defeat is generally understood to have taken place in 36 CE.

    John was presumably arrested and executed because he’d condemned H.A.’s incestuous marriage to his niece Herodias. To be free to marry her, H.A. had divorced his first wife – the daughter of the king of Nabatea! His divorcing that rival king’s daughter was one of the issues that led to war.

    If historians were only considering the above (and not the Gospels), they’d be inclined to think H.A. and Herodias wed in about 34 CE.

    But…Josephus also wrote that Herodias divorced her first husband (H.A.’s half-brother). It’s unlikely she would have pressed for divorce if her lover wasn’t getting his divorce at the same time. And there’s some basis (I don’t know what) for believing her ex *died* in about 27 CE. If that death date is accurate, and she’d divorced him at a still earlier date, she and H.A. could have been married in the mid-20s. And John could have died before Jesus (assuming Jesus was executed circa 30 or 31 CE); John’s partisans could still have been fuming about his death several years later.

    Can we deduce anything from there not being (as far as I know) any record of adversaries’ having asked Jesus, point-blank, for his opinion on either H.A.’s marriage or the execution of John? I think not. He probably would have clammed up and walked away. The most sensible response, if not the most heroic!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      I”ve asked a John-the-Baptist-Josephus-expert about this, and he says that Josephus is claiming that the defeat of Antipas in 36 CE was a punishment for his treatment of John the Baptist — but Josephus doesn’t indicate that the punishment came on the heals of JB’s execution. (Just as later Christians said that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE was a punishment for the “Jews” killing Jesus in 30 CE)

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