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Jesus, the Sheep, and the Goats

I have been talking about the criterion of dissimilarity for one ultimate reason: wanted to show why, in my opinion, a particular passage in Matthew’s Gospel goes back to the historical Jesus, the man himself.  I.e., it does not involve words put on his lips by later followers, but is something he himself actually said.  If you’re a little fuzzy on how the criterion of dissimilarity works, please read the preceding two posts.

The following has been taken from my undergraduate textboo on the NT.  In it I give two examples of how this particular criterion can be applied to the teachings of Jesus.  It is the *second* example that I will be most interested in, but the first can help get you into the swing of things about how the criterion works.


In some respects, there isn’t a whole lot that we can say about the various apocalyptic teachings ascribed to Jesus in our Gospels from the standpoint of the trickiest of our criteria to use, the criterion of dissimilarity. Most of his followers, as I’ve already pointed out, were his followers precisely because they agreed with him, and if the burden of his message was that the end of the world was coming soon through the appearance of the Son of Man, we might expect them to have said something fairly similar. But there are a couple of aspects of the apocalyptic traditions that make them look authentic, even given the difficulties of the case. That is to say, some of the ways Jesus talks about the coming end do not coincide with the way his followers later talked about it, suggesting that these particular sayings are not ones they would have invented.

As an example, consider …

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Decent Burials for Crucified Victims: A Blast From the Past
How Do We Know What Jesus Said or Did? The Criterion of Dissimilarity in Practice



  1. Avatar
    sladesg  October 18, 2017

    I’ve read something recently in a book by some of the scholars that worked with the Westar Institute and/or Jesus Seminar that provided evidence in Paul’s letters stating that Paul didn’t necessarily write that faith IN Jesus was what sanctified/justified you before God, but the faith OF Jesus (in God’s sovereignty and ultimate plan) did that for the believers of God. That believers should believe in the resurrection of Jesus as part of God’s plan, but that Paul may not necessarily have believed in Jesus’ pre-incarnate (or any other type) divinity. Are you familiar with any of the Scholar’s Version texts/books that have come out over the last couple of decades?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      Yes, that’s a common view among Pauline scholars today. It is based on the grammatical question of whether when Paul says that a person is justified by the “faith of Christ” he means the faithfulness Jesus manifested by his death or the faith that is placed in his death. It depends on whether it is a subjective genitive or objective genitive. Complex issue: maybe I’ll blog on it.

      • Rick
        Rick  October 20, 2017

        Oh, darn. Is this where not listening in Mrs. West’s hideously boring 7nth grade English Grammar class finally comes to judgement?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 22, 2017

          Nah, they didn’t teach subjective and objective genitives in school. I loved grammar, but it wasn’t something I learned till I took Greek.

  2. Avatar
    Colin P  October 18, 2017

    Hi Bart. Why didn’t the gospel writers simply amend the wording so it did better accord with their message? Were they worried that the words were already written down or widely known? They tweaked the words elsewhere so why not here?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      When they read the passage, they didn’t see it as standing at odds with their views, just as Christians over the centuries didn’t. (i.e. they didn’t see the discrepancy that appears to be there)

      • Robert
        Robert  October 24, 2017

        “When they read the passage, they didn’t see it as standing at odds with their views, just as Christians over the centuries didn’t. (i.e. they didn’t see the discrepancy that appears to be there).”

        The discrepancy only appears if we really attribute the following Fundamentalist caricature of Luther’s thought to Matthew:

        “What is striking about this story, when considered in view of the criterion of dissimilarity, is that there is nothing distinctively Christian about it. That is to say, the future judgment is not based on belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but on doing good things for those in need. Later Christians—including most notably Paul (see, for example, 1 Thess 4:14–18), but also the writers of the Gospels—maintained that it was belief in Jesus that would bring a person into the coming kingdom.”

  3. Avatar
    AlaskaRoy  October 18, 2017

    A good insight into what a potentially-historical Jesus may have taught. I’ve long been disappointed that Paul stripped the teachings of Jesus out of Christianity.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  October 18, 2017

    Beautifully argued, and many have figured this not terribly difficult riddle out across the ages.

    And many others have, sadly, flubbed it.

    My main quibble stems from the fact that I personally like goats more than sheep. More personality. Maybe Jesus got chased by a goat as a boy? 😉

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  October 18, 2017

    There are other clues that this passage is based on something either written or orally transmitted from a Semitic original, whether from Jesus himself or his direct Jewish followers, originating either from them or some other Jewish source. The way the passage is constructed reads a lot like the kind of prophetic verse we see in Hebrew scripture. For example, Matt. 25:32–
    ועוד בא הבן אדם
    בכבודו והמאלכיו
    ועוד ישב בכיסאו מכבוד
    ואסוף לפניו הגוים
    וחלקם אחד ואחד
    כרועה מחלק
    כבש מעז

    “And then comes the son of man/
    In his glory and his angels/
    And then sits on his glorious throne/
    And assembles before him the nations/
    And separates them, one from another/
    Like a shepherd divides/
    Sheep from goat”

    I can’t picture a Greek Christian coming up with that.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      Can you say something more about why this seems Semitic rather than Greek?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 21, 2017

        Well, for one thing, the Greek is in the future tense (the future passive indicative, if I’m reading the Greek correctly), and that kind of sticks out, because expressing this in the future tense in Hebrew (and presumably in the Aramaic) would sound awkward. In the Hebrew one would express it in the perfect (which is how I have back translated it) in order to give it the weight of an actual prophetic vision. You’ll notice that this is common in most apocalyptic literature — e.g. Daniel 7:13 וַאֲרוּ עִם-עֲנָנֵי שְׁמַיָּא, כְּבַר אֱנָשׁ אָתֵה הֲוָא in the Aramiac, literally: “Look! with the clouds of heaven, as like a son of man was come.” Now, that raises the obvious question of why the author would combine an imperative “Look!” with a perfect “was come”. Because that is how one would make it sound like a future event (and thus prophetic) in the Hebrew (or in this case Aramaic) while not using the awkward future tense (remember that in Hebrew and Aramaic the future and imperative are often only distinguishable via context). So you may be wondering why this isn’t evidence of a Greek original rather than a Semitic original. Well, that’s because the Greek is trying to *capture* the mood of the original by purposely putting it into the future tense. That clumsy attempt, to my eyes at least, is blatant. That’s one of the not-so-obvious clues.

        As for obvious clues, well, there are many. The use of particular words is telling. For instance, the repetition of “glory” and “glorious,” which is only a rough translation of the original Hebrew (or Aramaic) k’vod, which literally means “heavy,” and is meant to convey a sense of solemnity and grandeur. When a king comes with his massive procession, that is k’vod: grand, noble, heavy. Another telling word is “nations,” which in the Greek ethne means (from what I understand) something akin to tribes or nationalities. But in the Hebrew goyim means something more than just nationalities. It refers, specifically, to those peoples outside of the tribes of Israel. In fact, in some context it refers specifically to the other nations within a greater empire. I don’t believe ethne carries that same meaning. Hence, that line in the Greek loses a lot of the original meaning, which would have made much more sense in the Hebrew (or Aramaic). The Son of Man will assemble those peoples outside of Israel and judge them along with Israel itself.

    • Rick
      Rick  October 20, 2017

      Almost poetic, like a song/psalm?

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 18, 2017

    Very interesting analysis of the sheep and the goats. Thanks.

  7. Avatar
    ardeare  October 18, 2017

    Those are great examples and I completely agree. I am going to ask this question as coherently as possible. The first beatitude found in Matthew 5:3 “”Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” appears to meet the dissimilarity criterion because it does not necessarily rely on the belief of Jesus’ death and resurrection nor the impending judgement by Jesus himself. Then, in Luke 6:20 we read, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” which appears to be from the same source as Matthew 5:3. By my math, that gives us 2 attestations (M&L) from a single source (Q) that would be dissimilar from what was being dominantly preached and believed at the time.

    My first question is do you believe these two passages meet the dissimilarity criterion? Second, do you believe the dissimilarity criterion in discerning what Jesus probably said would be stronger if the *similar* passages would have occurred in only one of the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      I guess the problem in this case is that the saying is so brief and terse that it’s hard to say much about it — you could imagine Jesus saying it or his followers coming up with it. It does have two attestations, but that is not M and L. It is from *one* source only, Q, which either Luke or Matthew changed slightly.

  8. Avatar
    nbraith1975  October 18, 2017

    If you listen long enough to someone practicing the art of Christian apologetics they will soon defend the entirety of the New Testament by pointing out several passages that fall under the category of dissimilarity. (I did this for many years)

    Christian apologists point to these passages as proof that the NT writers were inspired by the holy spirit to write the ‘whole’ truth.

    They will say anyone trying to concoct a false story would only use positive and affirming information and not include hard to understand passages.

    Thus, because the NT includes passages that seem to be negative, illogical or even contradictory, it has to be true.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  October 20, 2017

      …and if there were no contradictions in the NT then apologists would say, “See, if it was only humans writing then there would be some contradictions. Because there are none this proves it was guided by the hand of God.” Apologists will assert the inerrancy of the Bible no matter what. They worship the Bible more than Jesus sometimes.

  9. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  October 18, 2017

    Great post, Bart. Makes a lot of sense to an inquiring mind!

  10. Avatar
    Carl  October 18, 2017

    Does Matt 24:29-35 pass the criterion, but in isolation from the verses on either side?

  11. Avatar
    fishician  October 18, 2017

    Why do you think the compilers of the Gospels didn’t “clean up” such passages? Clearly they modified some others.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      Like most readers, they didn’t see the discrepancy.

  12. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 18, 2017

    “The eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” sure sounds like the modern day view of hell.

  13. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  October 19, 2017

    Very helpful illustration.

  14. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 19, 2017

    If you can show that Matthew thought you could only enter the kingdom by believing in Jesus, but he includes a story that states you can only enter the kingdom by feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, tending the sick, etc, then you can be fairly sure Matthew didn’t invent the story. This means he got it from somewhere, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it goes back to Jesus. There must have been some early Christians who believed this, or it wouldn’t have been passed on. But that means they also could have invented the story. How do we decide how far back the story goes?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      Yes, the problem is that we are alwasy dealing with *probabilities* not certainties. And this is one reason why!

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 22, 2017

      People can believe contradictory things, and I’m not sure there’s ever been a human who didn’t. However, the Sheep and Goats thing feels a lot more like Jesus than the “Believe in me to be saved” thing. Because Jesus didn’t believe he was God. That’s obvious. He was there to deliver a message, and the message, over and over, is justification through faith–proven by deeds. If you believe, you will act as if you believe. If you profess one thing and do another, your faith is dead. To enter the Kingdom, you act as if the Kingdom is already here.

      But it’s so hard to act as if the Kingdom is here. And it’s so easy to say “I believe Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” Anyone can say that, and anyone does. Including some of the most twisted evil people who ever drew breath. And some of the best people profess no such faith, and yet act as if they have faith. And they are the ones Jesus would say were justified in the eyes of God. Otherwise, why did he keep reaching out to people who led what most Jews perceived to be sinful lives? Because he wasn’t concerned with appearances. He was concerned with what lay within each and every human soul. Faith is not what you say. Faith is what you do.

      And if that’s not the truth, there is no truth. And if there is no truth, there is no God.

  15. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  October 19, 2017

    Dr Bart am a bit confusing about Jesus saying the kingdom of God will soon come to overthrow the forces of darkness and establish itself on earth and his saying in Luke17-21 that the kingdom of God is within man. Can you shed light on that?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      Yes, that’s one of the reasons for thinking that the saying in Luke 17 does not go back to the historical Jesus. It embodies Luke’s own view, but not the view of Jesus.

      • Avatar
        Skepticalone  October 21, 2017

        But it does seem to me that the view of Jesus was exactly that …The Law and the prophets were until John but since that day the Kingdom of God is preached and every man presses into it ..an existing Kingdom of the heart wherein dwells righteousness. Did Jesus not predict that some there would not taste death until they saw that Kingdom come with power ? .the day after Pentecost where for joy many sold homes , lands , etc. and gave to anyone who had need ? The love of God was shed abroad in their hearts ..thus fulfilling Jeremiahs prophecy of the new covenant ? It overthrew the forces of darkness in their own hearts ? They beat their swords into plowshares ..is this not ehkingdom of God ?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 22, 2017

          Each saying of Jesus needs to be examined critically to see if it is something that actually goes back to him or not. E.g., “The law and the prophets…” does not appear (to me) (and to many other critical scholars) to be authentic but a Lukan saying derived from his community.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 22, 2017

        Jesus could have believed both in the literal and metaphorical Kingdoms. If he simply believed in the imposition of a new order by God and the Son of Man, why was he so concerned with how people behaved in this corrupt world that he lived in?

        Luke is trying to explain why the Kingdom hasn’t come, no question. That was a problem all Christians had to wrestle with–that Jesus had predicted something that had not come to pass. Believing in his divinity, as they increasingly came to do, they couldn’t admit he’d been mistaken. But they could and did see past the apocalyptic aspect of his teaching–which was not all there was to him.

  16. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  October 19, 2017

    How much historicity can we establish about the gospels since we don’t know how much the theological view of these anonymous writers influence the Gospels?

  17. Avatar
    Drmagana  October 19, 2017

    Hello Dr Ehrman…
    Iread with interest this criterion of dissimilarity applied to the examples you have already given to us.
    I have a question in my mind.
    What is your opinion about the application of this criteria on the divorce issue taking in to account the sayings portrayed about this theme on the synoptics when jesus is confronted with this question and the big difference on 1 corinthians by paul.
    Jesus brakes the jewish law about divorce explicitly and succint. Paul goes beyond and promotes celibacy.
    Matthew and only matthew includes the fornication exclusion which its not showed in mark and luke..
    Thankyou for your time. And sorry for my bad english..

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      Yes, it’s often thaought that Jesus himself took a very hard line (no divorce allowed under any circumstance), and the “exception” clauses you find already in the Gospels reflect later Christian views of the matter.

      • Avatar
        Drmagana  October 20, 2017

        Thank you for your answer and time

  18. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 19, 2017

    Isn’t Ezekiel 34:17-20 the original source of the Matthew 25 story that Jesus cleverly changes to fit his view?

  19. Avatar
    ask21771  October 19, 2017

    What was the real message of jesus

  20. Avatar
    caesar  October 19, 2017

    Is it possible that Jesus never taught ‘believe in me and receive eternal life’?

    It is not explicitly taught even once in the synoptic gospels. There are only a handful of passages consistent with ‘grace’ in the synoptic gospels–there’s forgiveness of sins, but that’s always contingent on whether we forgive other people for their sins. (Mt 6:14, Mt 18:21ff, Mk 11:26)

    There are quite a few passages that, like the Sheep and the Goats, I think clearly teach ‘works righteousness’
    Mt 5:44-45–Love enemies/pray for those that persecute you, so you may be children of God
    Mt 13:40-50–evildoers and those who cause sin thrown into lake of fire
    Mt 18:8–better to cut off your hand/eye (thus avoiding sin) than go to hell
    Mt 19:16ff–Rich young ruler to follow law and give away possessions to inherit eternal life
    Mk 2:15-18–I’m here to call sinners, not righteous people, to repent
    Lk 1:5-6–John’s parents righteous in God’s eyes, following Law impeccably
    Lk 10: 25ff–love God and neighbor (Good Samaritan story) to inherit eternal life
    Lk 15:7–more celebration in heaven for the one who repents, than 99 who have NO NEED of repentance.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      Yes, Jesus says “believe in me for eternal life” only in John, and I don’t think they are the words of teh historical Jesus.

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