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Life After Death in Rome, and other Questions. Readers’ Mailbag May 6, 2016

In this week’s Readers Mailbag I address three rather divergent questions, one on ancient tombstone inscriptions that indicate that many people in the ancient world did not believe in an afterlife, one on the Temptation narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and one on the process of having a book edited in preparation for publication.  If you have a question you would like me to address, just ask – and I’ll add it to the list!



I’m curious…what sort of “inscriptional evidence” on ancient tombstones would seem to rule out belief in an afterlife?


This question was asked in response to something I said, that even though in ancient Greek and Roman mythology there are discussions of the afterlife (e.g., in the Odyssey, book 11; Plato’s Myth of Er in book 10 of the Republic; and so on), there are reasons for thinking that most (or at least many?) people in antiquity believed that life was the end of the story.  And I indicated that this is because of inscriptions that we find on ancient tombstones.  This person is wondering: what kind of evidence could that be?

Here is the most interesting.   Today we are accustomed to the for-the-deceased abbreviation R.I.P. – Rest in Peace.  One of the common abbreviations on ancient Roman tombstones was, in a sense, comparable, but with a very different meaning.  It was n.f. f. n.s. n.c.   That seven-letter abbreviation stood for the words “non fui, fui, non sum, non curo.”

That’s witty and rather funny.  What the words mean is:

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My Progress on the Book
The Conversion of Constantine and Beyond



  1. Avatar
    darren  May 6, 2016

    You mention the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil, who at one point offers him control over all the kingdoms. Exactly who, in the time the gospels were written, was the devil? Was he a lone counterpoint to the divine god? Was he a dominant force among many in the demonic realm? And are there any indications that the last temptation (to rule the earth) gave fodder to the emergence of gnosticism, since the devil here come across as a sort of evil earthly ruler in conflict with seemingly passive god.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2016

      It appears many people thought of the devil as the head/chief of the demons. Some have thought that the evil demiurge of Gnostic thinking is a kind of development of the idea of a devil.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 20, 2016

        I believe the demi-urge and the very idea that the God of the Jewish Bible is a lesser god guilty of a flawed creation was a fairly transparent attempt to separate Jesus and thus Christianity from the Jews. In some ways, Gnosticism is a gussied up anti-Semitism. What do you think?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 21, 2016

          I don’t think there was such a thing as anti-semitism before the creation of race theories by 19th century anthropologists. And I would say Gnosticism is a lot more complex than simply anti-Judaism. I’d suggest you read up on it, maybe starting with David Brakke’s book The Gnostics.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  May 6, 2016

    That inscription may be relatively common among tombstones that have survived, but who got tombstones with inscriptions in that time? Tombstones that would still be around millennia later? Not many poor people, I would think–and poor people were most people.

    It sounds a bit Epicurean. I’m not expert enough to know. There were many schools of philosophy back then, which for many educated men of property took the place of religion–that’s still true today. But those men could afford to say they cared not–because they’d gotten to lead comfortable lives, full of material comforts, not to mention the pleasures of culture, literacy, intellectual stimulation.

    We live in a less believing time, we of the west, because we get to lead long lives, with many distractions from impending mortality. But for those who struggle every day to survive, to whom life itself is often a sort of hell–how about them? Can they be so philosophical? Can we look down our noses at them, pitying their credulity?

    Mind you, there have been attempts at this from the 99%–Joe Hill, balladeer to the Wobblies, wrote “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die–that’s a lie!” But of course, that’s not what Jesus or most prophets have ever preached. That’s the dumbed down version.

    And one more thing–we know that going very far back–even to the Sumerians, and no doubt before–there was a belief that no matter what God you prayed to, no matter how you lived your life, you would not go to heaven when you died–nor would you be released from the burden of consciousness. You would no longer have the pleasures of life, nor would you be tortured by demons, but you would still be forced to endure an eternity alone in the dark. And others taught that you had to work hard, and live well, across many lifetimes, to achieve the bliss of nonexistence, the privilege of oblivion.

    So admirable as that inscription may be–are you quite sure it’s not just another way of whistling in the dark?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2016

      Yes, only the wealthy could afford tombstones. Unfortunately, we have no access to what the majority of people thought, since they did not have resources necessary to leave us any literary or documentary records.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  May 6, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, do you think Jesus actually spent time out in the wilderness finding himself like, say, Josephus claims to have done with the desert ascetic Bannus?

  4. Avatar
    Jim  May 6, 2016

    Have you been able to go through Larry Hurtado’s, “Destroyer of the gods; Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World”, yet? Although the subject theme/focus looks to be different, I was wondering if there are a few points of overlap with your upcoming Triumph of Christianity book, and if so, would you be willing to discuss some of this in a future blog post (if your confidentiality agreement allows for it)?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2016

      Actually this is the first I believe I’ve heard of it. But I see it is not due to be published until later this year.

  5. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  May 6, 2016

    Would you like me to send you the few minor typos I came across in your most recent book? (I was an English teacher, so these things catch my eye.)

    Best, Tracy

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2016

      Sure! Others have done so. There seem to be more in this book than usual….

  6. Avatar
    kentvw  May 6, 2016

    An entire life spent.. When the facts are laid out, a kid who is 8 could get.. Do you ever think you have wasted a precious life?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2016

      To paraphrase Groucho Marx: “Quick, get me an 8-year-old. I can’t make heads or tails of it!!”

      • Avatar
        kentvw  May 8, 2016

        My Point? Although you have given a life to trashing a hoax? What are you getting out of it? When your days come to a close will you be happy in saying: I certainly showed them! What is it that makes you not just let it go? Good grief man. All in all “Christianity” give folks a bit of hope even if it is a hoax.. So what…..

        • Avatar
          kentvw  May 8, 2016

          I have read your writing Bart…(Bought a Great Courses series of yours and your hysterics are kind of funny.) You may have stuck your whole life into what you are doing.. But? to be honest? Many are brighter than you. Hope you don’t let it go to your head.. A suggestion. Refocus your life on being human and helping others….. That’s the key to life.. No “Mysticism” involved. Forget the Jesus hoax and move on… Bet you will sleep better.

          • Avatar
            Eric  May 10, 2016

            I doubt Bart will be comfortable responding to this, so allow me to do so, third person.

            I don’t believe Bart has devoted his life to “debunking a hoax”. He has devoted it to advancing a field of study, and many of his colleagues in that field

            1) are believers, and
            2) appreciate his contributions to the field

            And then I would point out that this blog — and all of Bart’s considerable time and effort in producing its content — is 100% focused on “being human and helping others.” You do know where all the money it raises goes, don’t you?

          • Avatar
            JakSiemasz  May 12, 2016

            Bart’s writings have helped me a lot!

          • Avatar
            teresa  May 20, 2016

            I am a christian, believe absolutely in Gods unconquerable love and also believe that everyone is a recipient of that love and if not aware of it now will be aware at some future point. I certainly don’t see the writings of Mr Ehrman as being contradictory to the beliefs I hold. I want the many myths around christianity to be debunked, too may people are bowed down and cowed by the demands that churches place upon them so keep up the good work Mr Ehrman . . .

          • Bart
            Bart  May 21, 2016

            I will! Thanks!

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  May 19, 2016

        Irrelevant but still my favorite Groucho quote: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  May 7, 2016

    Apparently, publishing is a labor intensive process! It makes me wonder how the whole idea of bible inerrancy got started. Didn’t some of the early church fathers complain about spelling errors and other mistakes contained in biblical manuscripts? How did we go from knowing full well there were errors and discrepancies to the bible being completely flawless?

    I suppose I shouldn’t worry about dying since I wasn’t fretting over anything before coming into this world.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2016

      No, I don’t know of any complaints about spelling. But yes, church fathers do talk about discrepancies and (occasionally) manuscript errors. The modern views of inerrancy began to develop near the end of the 19th century in America.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  May 19, 2016

        Wow, really? We find no such claims about its inerrancy until then?
        While so many fundamentalists make a big deal about God’s Wisdom over man’s wisdom, the ideas that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is inerrant, and that it is supposed to be read or understood literally are all part of human “wisdom,” not God’s (as far as we know). The Bible never claims these things for itself and it would only be a circular argument to cite them if they were in the Bible.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 7, 2016

    Love that “inscriptional evidence”! (I’m the person who asked the question.)

    But…I’m not sure it is strong evidence.

    My main point: I doubt whether most ordinary people in that day had tombstones of any kind, let alone inscribed ones. In my own family, the graves of “ancestors” as recent as my paternal grandparents weren’t marked at all! Romans who used the abbreviation you cited would have had to be well off…literate…and “in on the joke” (assuming you’re understanding it correctly). The best-educated, most “sophisticated” class.

    That wouldn’t go a long way toward demonstrating that a majority, or anywhere near it, believed there was no afterlife. The common people may still have held older, folkloric beliefs.

    But here’s a minor point: Perhaps you aren’t interpreting the passage correctly.

    Latin, of course, doesn’t use personal pronouns (“I,” “he”) the way English does. In passages like this, the identity of someone who’s speaking or thinking has to be indicated through the form of the verb. But that doesn’t mean the identity isn’t important.

    Suppose the abbreviation stood for words translated as: “He was not, he was, he is not, he cares not.”

    Or in more colloquial English, “He didn’t exist…then he did exist… now he doesn’t exist…and ‘he’ doesn’t care.”

    The meaning of that would be obvious. “He” doesn’t care because there’s no longer a “he” *to* care! Latin wouldn’t have a way to duplicate those quotes around the personal pronoun; but the meaning of “He was not, he was, he is not, he cares not” would still be clear.

    But you’re presumably sure the translation was meant to be: “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.”


    “I didn’t exist…then I did exist… now I don’t exist…and I don’t care.”

    Is it possible that we aren’t meant to interpret it as meaning “there’s no longer an ‘I’ to care”…*because in that case, “I” couldn’t be expressing the entire thought*? Could first-person have been used for the *purpose* of indicating that?

    If so, the meaning may have been something like this:

    “I didn’t exist (understood to be, let’s say, in this ‘realm’)…then I did exist (here)… now I don’t exist (here)…and I don’t care (because I still exist somewhere else).”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2016

      The abbreviations can’t mean that. The third person of “to be” is est, not sum, so it would be n.e. not n.s.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 10, 2016

        I wasn’t saying the abbreviations *could* be third-person! I was saying that their *not* being third-person could mean first-person was used for a *reason*: that there had to be a still-existing “I,” because it was “I” who was *expressing the entire thought*, all four phrases.

        If the “author” of this type of inscription *didn’t* mean to indicate that some part of the deceased still existed, he could simply have used third-person.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 10, 2016

          I think you’re supposed to be reading the inscription as a message from the deceased. Yes, it’s ironic (if he doesn’t exist, how can he be talking to you?). But that’s more or less the point.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  May 11, 2016

            I know you *think* the inscription is supposed to be read that way – but can you be *sure*? Are there surviving writings from the era that actually *say* it was understood that way? I suppose there are writings in which it was mentioned, or modern scholars wouldn’t have been able to figure out what the initials stood for.

            But it isn’t really important, since only the affluent could have had tombstones. Their beliefs weren’t necessarily those of the common people.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 12, 2016

            Yes, this is not a disputed point. There is scholarship on it, of course. You might start with Ramsay MacMullan’s book Paganism in the Roman Empire.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 10, 2016

        Or, another way of putting it: *If* the abbreviations used are always the same (as you imply), an original “author” must have coined the saying. If he intended it to mean what you take it to mean, he could have made his intent much clearer – unambiguous! – by using third-person. His not having done so suggests that he may have meant something else.

  9. cheito
    cheito  May 7, 2016

    DR Ehrman:


    In other words, the person is indicating that before he was born, he did not exist; then he did exist; now once again he does not exist; but he is not bothered by it (any more than he was bothered about it before he existed). So there is nothing to worry about. Brilliant!


    Not brilliant at all!
    If this person doesn’t exist anymore how could he or she be ‘bothered’; This person doesn’t exist!
    How could this person know what happens after you die.
    How could he or she know if they would not be bothered by death?

    It’s true at one point in time this person didn’t exist.
    Then by a miracle… or by chance?… this person existed.
    Then he or she doesn’t exist anymore!

    is it true that this person will not exist anymore after dying?
    How does this person know that he or she will not exist anymore after dying?

    This person does not really know, but he or she will certainly find out.

    Then after this person dies, he or she will know, but it will be too late to tell anyone.

  10. Avatar
    Omar6741  May 7, 2016

    Is the story of the temptation in the wilderness historical, at least to some degree?
    To this day, Sufi mystics engage in 40-day spiritual retreats; that sort of thing might be a historical basis for this tradition.

  11. Avatar
    Iris Lohrengel  May 8, 2016

    I would like to see a book about how the belief in inerrancy came about. Maybe it is liked to preachers discovering that if you pick and choose certain verses they can be used for their own (personal) agendas? In that case one needs to convince people that this is the ‘Word of God’ to stop them from questioning.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2016

      You might be interested in reading the work of George Marsden, an American church historian who talks about this.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  May 17, 2016

        Which Marsden book, in particular? It appears that he has several, any of which might address it, but none of which appear to expressly.

        Btw, I too would love to see you address this question at length. To me, most of the themes you discuss really come down to the question of inerrancy. If one doesn’t hold to strict inerrancy, then most of the points you raise can ultimately be shrugged off. If one does hold to strict inerrancy, though, then the seemingly small discrepancies become huge.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 18, 2016

          I’m not sure where he develops it at length — maybe in Fundamentalism and American Culture? Or you could ask my college Yaakov Ariel, who is an expert on this question.

  12. Avatar
    plparker  May 8, 2016

    It looks like Larry Hurtado just came out with another book that seems relevant. It’s called “Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?” (The Pere Marquette Lecture in Theology 2016). It was published April 5, 2016

  13. Avatar
    VistanTN  May 12, 2016

    Just to add to your comments on publishing. Both my father and grandfather were published authors of textbooks for the same publisher. A new edition got read, carefully, in at least three versions (manuscript, galley proof, and page proof) by four teams of at least three people each. That’s 36 critical and competent readings and it was still fairly common for one or two (purely typographical) errors to sneak through. Of course this was LONG before electronic publishing, but the point is the same. Good editing/proofing prevents nearly all errors, but seldom every last one!

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