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Jesus, the Messiah, and the Resurrection

I have been talking about the early Christian understandings of Jesus as the messiah – not just the messiah, but the “crucified messiah,” a concept that would have seemed not just unusual or bizarre to most Jewish ears in the first century, but absolutely mind-boggling and self-contradictory.  I’ve been arguing that it was precisely the contradictory nature of the claim that led almost all Jews to reject the Christian claims about Jesus.

Several readers have asked me whether I think Jesus understood himself to be the messiah.  Probably those who know a *little* bit about my work and my general views of things would think that my answer would be Absolutely Not.   But those who know a *lot* about my views will know that the answer is Yes Indeed.

I think Jesus did consider himself the messiah.  But not the to-be-crucified-messiah.   The key to understanding Jesus’ view of himself is to recognize what he *meant* by considering himself the messiah.  I will get to that in a later post.  For now I want to give the evidence that Jesus thought that in *some* sense (a sense distinctive to Jesus) he thought he was the messiah.  There are two highly compelling lines of argument.  These arguments are *so* compelling that I wish I had thought of them myself.  But alas, as with most good arguments, they are the work of others.

These two arguments are interlocking – the need to go together, in tandem.  But I can only give one at a time.   The first involves what happened after Jesus’ life and the second involves what happened leading up to his death.

In terms of Jesus’ afterlife, here we have to consider…

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How Do We Know What Jesus Said About Himself?
Another Problem with Calling Jesus the Messiah



  1. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  November 11, 2015

    As always, Ehrman found the simple explanatory pathway through a very complicated thought. My compliments once again on the clarity of this explanation. It has the Ehrman stamp.

  2. Robert
    Robert  November 11, 2015

    “I want to give the evidence that Jesus thought that in *some* sense (a sense distinctive to Jesus) he thought he was the messiah. There are two highly compelling lines of argument.”

    Thanks for the attribution to Nils Dahl. What a great scholar.

    What about those who do not accept these arguments, ie, those who do not think that Jesus (or his followers during his lifetime) considered him to be the Messiah prior to his death? Do they have good arguments on their side? I think this is the view of John Dominic Crossan and other denizens of the Jesus Seminar.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2015

      Yes, I’m trying to argue the case made by Dahl and others. I’d be happy to provide the counterarguments to other views if anyone wants to summarize them. (My sense is that it is widely believed that Jesus *did* call himself the messiah; I’m just showing why that is a compelling view)

      • Avatar
        willow  November 12, 2015

        Jesus, I believe, did refer to himself as the messiah – but that messiah would be he (and his followers) who would be witnesses to the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth upon which they would reign. Jesus on the throne (argue this point if you will) as rightful heir through his father Joseph, and the disciples as his court. He assured them that not all of them would die prior to seeing/witnessing, first hand and in the “there” and “then”, these end times events. It’s all that makes sense, to me, anyway. Everything else, ie, the resurrection and ascension seems but to be – whatever shall I call it – interpolated commentary.

      • Robert
        Robert  November 12, 2015

        I actually don’t think they have very good arguments for a non-messianic Jesus of history! I recall William Wrede explained the Messianic secrecy motif as something invented in the tradition prior to Mark’s gospel to explain why a non-messianic Jesus prior to his death was then being proclaimed post resurrection. People might ask, ‘How come we did not know he was was proclaiming himself as the Messiah?’ ‘Well, it was a secret at that time; only his disciples knew and the demons whom he silenced.’ Wrede thought that ‘Mark’ then expanded upon this mofif. It sometimes seems to me that many, if not most, 20th century forrm and redaction critics accepted this explanation. Eventually some later redaction critics did not even read Wrede any more and came to think that he attributed the creation of the Messianic secrecy motif to Mark himself and this became a dominant theme of Markan critical scholarship. If that caricature has any truth to it, it seems pretty ironic that these critical scholars accepted Wrede rather uncritically. Is there any truth to that caricature? Or are there good arguments for a non-messianic Jesus of history? Hence my question. At least some members of the Jesus Seminar seem to presuppose a non-apocalyptic, non-messianic Jesus of history, and considerd the non-apocalyptic gospel of Thomas to be early and independent of the synoptic gospels and Q, but surely some of them must have somewhere amassed credible arguments for a non-messianic Jesus of history. Right?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 13, 2015

          Yes, that’s pretty much right I think. They saw Jesus as a teacher of wisdom who challenged the social and cultural status quo with his alternative vision of how things ought to be, rather than as an apocalyptic prophet. But even those who think he was an apocalypticist necessarily think that he saw himself as a messiah.

  3. Avatar
    Robert Wahler  November 11, 2015

    There are many ways you can arrive at the truth that Jesus was not the Messiah. Occam’s Razor says maybe it started at the tip of Mark’s pen. Why don’t you think HE thought Jesus was Messiah — not ‘Jesus’, who doesn’t register in history. You know someone who met Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2015

      Well, no more than you know someone who met Mark!!

      • Avatar
        Robert Wahler  November 12, 2015

        ‘Jesus’ wasn’t a power-hungry money-grubber. Look what the proto-orthodoxy led to: the Catholic Church — the richest, most successful money machine in all history, and still going strong! The early church fathers used fear of God to scam the illiterates, and semi-literates, and it worked beyond their wildest imagination. Mark was one of them, likely under their commission to create the Gospel story, is my guess. We don’t know who wrote it, or the others! Why do people take them seriously? God uses anonymous authors to give his salvation plans for the world? And plans not available to those who lived and died before Jesus lived? Why were those even people BORN then? We are to believe this? No wonder the world is a mess.

  4. Avatar
    Jana  November 11, 2015

    Perhaps a tangent, then the concept of Belief in the Resurrection of a Crucified Christ leading to Eternal Life in Heaven (if I recall my youthful catechism) originated with Paul and obviously NOT from Jesus? I’m probably stating the obvious from your blogs? Jesus’s emphasis was different. Is there then a schism in understanding his teaching?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2015

      I’d say neither. It was *after* Jesus but *before* Paul arrived on the scene.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 11, 2015

    I don’t doubt that he was being called the messiah, and believed it himself, while he was alive. But it still seems to me that if people in that time and place believed in the *concept* of a messiah, they would have tried to convince *any preacher they thought worth following* that he was it.

    How strong is the evidence that he’d believed it before his disciples did? (Since I don’t believe he really was “special” from birth, I could respect him more if he didn’t have delusions of grandeur…if he needed to be convinced.)

  6. Avatar
    john76  November 11, 2015

    I am beginning to wonder if the crucifixion pericope was just completely invented. It almost seems to be too much of a coincidence that the crucifixion pericope is modelled on Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, AND Psalm 22 discusses the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Psalm 22:16b).

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2015

      The problem is that there is so much in the crucifixion narrative that is *not* derived from passages of the Hebrew Bible.

      • Avatar
        Robert Wahler  November 12, 2015

        What, they couldn’t just make it up out of whole-cloth?

    • Avatar
      Robert Wahler  November 12, 2015

      Since his “ransom” has no relation to his death, the necessity of crucifixion is invented. The quote in Mark 10:45 belies this problem. His “LIfe” was given “for many” — not “for all”, as a death ransom would have been, accepted OR NOT. The Master gives his Life (the Greek word “Psuchen” means “breath” or “soul”) — not his death! This is all a misunderstanding based on quotes from a real, unknown Master, probably James the Just, or John the Baptist. (John 1:12, for example, was about John, not Jesus). These Masters were both martyred as ‘Jesus’ supposedly was, but it had nothing to do with their power to save. I know this because I have a modern Master who can explain the ancient texts perfectly: http://www.scienceofthesoul.org/product_p/en-053-0.htm

  7. Avatar
    Jana  November 11, 2015

    Hummm. Then as an Apocalyptic Messiah, he would NOT have foreseen or expected a humbled bloody death but within the Jewish context and within his historical period, a more exalted future literally?

  8. Avatar
    Jana  November 11, 2015

    What?? do you mean that “Christ” was not his last name? (I’m joking)

  9. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  November 12, 2015

    Excellent post. This makes so much sense. The fact that Christ is the most frequent title used for Jesus has always got me thinking.

    I have a question though: Christ is a greek word so obviously people among the gentiles knew what it meant. But as a title, as an attribute or as a concept did it make sense for pagans as well? Would it be appealing? Or did the pagans just embrace this designation as part of the package of the new religion?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2015

      Apparently the Xns had to explain to gentiles that Christ in their tradition referred to the future anointed king of Israel (since “anointed” to most Greeks would refer to someone who was getting a rub down after exercise, or some such thing!)

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  November 12, 2015

    Prof Ehrman

    I can understand why a Jewish believer would think of Jesus as the Messiah. But what did gentiles who had no such tradition mean when they called Jesus the “Christ”?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2015

      They almost certainly had to *learn* what Jewish believers meant by it, as a reference to the future king, since for them it would have no royal connotatoins.

  11. David
    David  November 12, 2015

    Bart, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul states “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” What scriptures was he referring to? And did the Corinthians he was writing to know what he was referring to?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2015

      We don’t know! He had passages from the Hebrew Bible in mind, obvioulsy. And my sense is that the Corinthians knew what he was referring to since he says he was “reminding” them of these things — so they are passages he preached about when he was with them.

  12. talmoore
    talmoore  November 12, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,
    The one flaw in this argument is that it conflates the belief of Jesus with the beliefs of his disciples. Indeed, it’s not even necessary for Jesus to have thought he was the Messiah, as long as his disciples believed he was the Messiah. In fact, during his own like, Jesus could have actually doubted that he was the Messiah, but that he simply didn’t deny the label for whatever reason. For example, if Jesus was actually a charlatan (a crazy thought, I know!) it’s totally possible that he knew he wasn’t the Messiah, but when his disciples projected messianic hopes onto him, Jesus simply went with it, because, hey, that’s that a charlatan would do.

    As to why his disciples would come to believe in something as far-fetched as a dying and rising Messiah, that reminds me of a traditional saying by the Hassidim regarding the founder of their sect, Baal Shem Tov, which I think is apropos: “Someone who believes in all the stories of the Baal Shem Tov and the other mystics and holy men is a fool; someone who doesn’t believe them is a heretic.” Jews have historically made a virtue of holding contradictory beliefs, on the one hand welcoming doubt and skepticism as healthy to mind and soul, and on the other hand treating unwavering faith as beyond question.

    This is also reminds me of Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum, “I believe it because it is so absurd.” Indeed, the full quote by Tertullian is illustrative of the rationalizing early Christians must have done to justify the anti-climactic career of Jesus the supposed Messiah:

    Crucifixus est Dei Filius, non pudet, quia pudendum est; et mortuus est Dei Filius, prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est; et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile.
    “The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.”

    There’s that notion of the crucifixion being “shameful” again, which was touched upon in your previous posts.

    So I guess my question to you, Dr. Ehrman, is is there reason to conclude Jesus himself would be so arrogant as to believe that the Messiah, God’s anointed, who prophets talk about as a great conquering king, who would come from the east on a path “made straight” through the desert (or coming down from the clouds), with the heavenly host at his side–that that Messiah would actually come from some podunk village in the Galilee? Or is it more likely that Jesus knew better, that he knew his scripture well enough to know that he wasn’t actually the Messiah, but that he simply preached the imminent coming of the Messiah, and his followers, who weren’t as versed in scripture, simply placed their messianic hopes onto Jesus, and Jesus didn’t deny the label because he might have just been full of himself?

  13. Avatar
    Adam Beaven  November 12, 2015

    doctor ehrman

    if someone dies for x, then x did not do something to cause x to die, right?

    if they say “jesus died FOR you” then jesus died and nothing caused him to die

    on the other hand there are evangelists who say ” jesus died because of our sins”

    this means sins hurt their god in physical and emotional ways and sins CAUSES god to get killed

    doesn’t this then mean that “jesus died FOR you” is incorrect because jesus death was CAUSED?

  14. Avatar
    jhague  November 12, 2015

    I know we are dealing with people from the first century who are mostly uneducated, but what would cause these early followers of Jesus to believe that something as impossible as Jesus being raised from the dead actually happened? It seems that after the crucifixion that they went back to their home towns and started fishing, etc again. Since they obviously were not seeing other people be raised from the dead and they witnessed Jesus being crucified, how did they come to the conclusion that he was living again?
    (I assume one person claims a vision, tells a group, that group claims a vision and so on. People want Jesus to be back so bad that they all start claiming visions and then all of a sudden, a lot of people are believing that Jesus was raised from the dead.)

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