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Me and Jesus

Yesterday I explained why, in my own opinion, I can no longer consider myself a Christian, and I received a lot of responses:  some sympathetic, others not so sympathetic; some seeing the point and others disagreeing.

One particular disagreement gets to the heart of what I was trying to say.  Several people (OK, lots of people) have commented that if I follow the ethical teachings of Jesus that in that sense I really am a Christian and might as well admit it.   Part of me agrees with that – it’s what I’ve long thought – but what I came to realize yesterday during my class lecture is that there is a strong sense in which that is also not true.  Here I’ll try to explain.

I do indeed try to …

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Does the Afterlife Matter for Other Things?
Why I Am Not A Christian



  1. Avatar
    kjadamsfreo  March 7, 2017

    Therefore dear fellow. …you have dropped off 🙁

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    dscotth  March 7, 2017

    Some Christians like to honor some non-Christians by saying that the non-Christians really are Christians in their hearts/souls/minds. For someone who is an Atheist, a Jew, a Muslim, etc., this is meaningless at best and insulting and demeaning at worst. I consider myself a Christian Agnostic, but I know many Christians would not consider me to be a Christian, and I am hesitant to say “I am a Christian” even though I attend church weekly. On the other hand, I think that many people, especially Americans, who call themselves Christians really are not, as they distort and disregard the primary teachings of Jesus as we have them from the New Testament. This is true of Republican legislators who pretend to be Christian as they tear down the safety net for the poor, as well as cult-like Bibliolators who pretend they read the Bible literally while they preach hatred.

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      John1003  March 11, 2017

      I believe there are passages where Jesus suggest that I should eagerly share my stuff with other people. Is there a place where Jesus suggest that I should make other people share their stuff. Does Jesus suggest I should work to help create a society where people are forced by law to share their resources (which is time if you work for those resources) with each other. I do believe a social safety net is good for society. As I read the words of Jesus though, it it appears to be calling me to a personal commitment.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 12, 2017

        I don’t think Jesus suggested that you do anything. He was speaking to first century Jews who were the reason for his mission. As far as sharing resources goes, I am motivated to participate in it not because of Jesus but because the United States was (and is) an experiment in brotherhood in which individual rights are respected but also in which there is an intention to take care of one another.

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        HistoricalChristianity  March 13, 2017

        As a sage of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus represented a society which had such laws for centuries. Gleaning laws were an unfunded mandate. They required landowners to allow the poor to glean on their properties. The most common rants of the prophets were against those who oppressed the poor, denied them justice, and procrastinated on paying them their wages. Organized, systematic altruism is nothing new.

        In that same demographic, the ‘poor’ also represented the common man, distinguished from the ruling elite. This was the demographic of the Pharisees. The Sadducees associated with the priestly and ruling classes. The Essenes didn’t associate with anyone but themselves.

        Modern society is possible only because we practice division of labor. That requires morality, and morality codified into law. We can choose to systematically (therefore efficiently) care for the poor (by modern definition). That’s primarily those incapable of caring for themselves. Most of those result from physical and mental disabilities. Some from poor choices. Some from lack of community.

        Then there’s the ‘poor’ (by the first-century Jewish definition). These are not disabled people. But they lack the power of wealth and political influence. The prophets complained when the rich/powerful took advantage of them. After separating out the disabled, today that’s the bottom 20% (or more) on the economic scale. Those without the balance of power of unions or a suitable minimum wage. Those willing and able to work but who have no work. Not because ‘jobs’ are sent offshore. But because modern society no longer requires that kind of work on a large scale. Our current social contract does not address this growing demographic at all. Only something like a UBI (Universal Basic Income) begins to address it.

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    Lms728  March 7, 2017

    Following the ethical principles of Jesus does not make one a Christian because his teachings were not his alone. The Golden Rule appears in many faith traditions. Kant grounds it in a set of metaphysical and epistemological assumptions. The utilitarians ground it in different (entirely secular) assumptions. Jesus taught some pretty neat stuff, but he wasn’t the ultimate source.

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    Boltonian  March 7, 2017

    Excellent post. I would assert, however, that our present day ethics are directly the result of Christianity as a world religion: Jesus, of course, wasn’t a Christian. We could have gone a different way: without the triumph of Christianity would victorious Greek, Roman or Islamic cultures got us to the same place? Who can say but I doubt we would have seen the abolition of slavery, for example, in quite the same way without the passionate intervention of that Christian Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce (and others) who used the Bible to advocate their stance. The Geneva Convention and our present day rules of war can be traced back to the Medieval Church and the influence it had over powerful rulers.

    One aspect of the tension in today’s world (tiny compared with those of earlier centuries) is that not everybody buys into those morals, which are manifest in our belief in the superiority of the open society (liberal, democratic, free-trading, and forgiving). Fundamentalism of any stripe (Christian, Islamic, Communist) stands in direct opposition to these ideals. Does my preference for living in an open society (I have experienced no other) then make me a Christian? Of course not, Christianity, whatever else it might be, is a doctrinaire religion (unlike, say, Buddhism) and I do not accept its doctrines (virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, son of god, trinity, and all the rest of it). So, although I don’t accept its historical justification, I have much to be thankful to Christianity for.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 13, 2017

      Christian culture began as Greek/Roman culture. It still is. Paul rejected Torah as a moral arbiter, but offered no replacement. He simply adopted the common morality of his culture. Greek/Roman culture dominated the thought of the region long before Christianity got a foothold in the fourth century. Thank empire, not Christianity. Empire prevented war, allowing people to focus their time and efforts on more productive ventures.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  June 18, 2017

        It’s interesting you think Paul rejected Torah.For whom?
        It’s also interesting that you think that the Roman empire provided his culture, his ethics. Why then is Paul’s enemy the Roman Empire? You might consider reading “The Real Paul” by Bernard Brandon Scott. it would give you a totally different perspective on Paul’s thinking. Books have been written about Jesus, referring to him as the misunderstood Jew. There is another misunderstood Jew: Paul. Do you think he “coverted” to “Christianity?’ Wrong again.

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    GTGeek88  March 7, 2017

    It’s ridiculous for people to say to Bart “if you follow the ethical teachings of Jesus in that sense you are really a Christian and might as well admit it.”

    Folks, ethics doesn’t have to derive from God and if you don’t believe in God, you can’t be a Christian. The ethics that Jesus espoused are also logical. Love is constructive and hate is destructive. That can easily be seen without the need for scripture. If you want love in your life, love others and it will be returned to you (not from everybody, but generally). None of this requires God. None of it is an argument that God exists, nor is it an argument that God doesn’t exist. I appreciate Bart’s statements when he talks about being agnostic, since we really can’t know if God exists. When he says he’s atheist, I respect that, but disagree (not with his statement relating to his personal belief, but just with the “God doesn’t exist” part). You can’t make someone into something they aren’t. They must decide for themselves, so for people to just claim he’s a Christian and label him such is really, really silly.

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    flshrP  March 7, 2017

    The chief message Jesus preached was “Prepare. The end is near, very near”. Ever since the world received this (fake?) news two millennia ago, Christian theologians have been tying themselves in knots in an effort to rationalize the failure of this message. This failure of Jesus’ prophetic ability is sufficient in itself to invalidate any serious belief in the Christian message. Yet there continue to be Christians who insist on repeating this prophetic nonsense about an impending apocalypse (e.g. the “Left Behind” phenomenon). And these latter day prophets are, indeed, “Christ-like” in this regard.

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    mbetanzos  March 7, 2017

    Thanks for sharing your personal thoughts – very beneficial for personal reflection…

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  March 7, 2017

    Again, Dr. Ehrman, I have to admit that the more and more I read — read scripture, read scholarly books, read history books — the more and more I innundate myself with research, the more and more clear it has become to me that Jesus did not “teach” the ethics he purportedly taught in the NT (i.e. anything separate from his apocalyptic preaching itself, which I think was his main concern). This isn’t to say that Jesus never instructed his followers in any ethics. He probably offered up maxims and ethical pronouncements, just as any religious figure is wont to do. But I have a hard time believing that the Gospels represent an accurate account of his ethical “teachings”.

    Here, I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about to illustrate my concern. In order not to write an entire monograph in your blog’s comments section, I will spare you the actual textual deconstruction and keep it simple. Let’s look at the eucharist. According to the Gospel accounts (and even Paul himself), at Jesus’ last Passover seder, while he was performing the elder’s duty of blessing the bread and wine, he purportedly says that the bread is his “body,” broken like his physical body will soon be broken, and the wine is his “blood,” poured just like his real blood will soon be spilled, and that his followers should continue to perform this ritual, with the aforementioned symbolism attached, after his death, “in remembrance of me”.

    Now, I know you know all this. But here’s the thing. I’m not a religion scholar. I’m a scientist. I’m parsimonious by nature. As Occam’s Razor dictates, the simplest answer is probably the correct one. So I have to ask, what’s the simplest explanation? Did Jesus REALLY say this? Well, let’s reverse engineer this account. Let’s break it down, first, into its most easily acceptable parts. Could Jesus have blessed and broken the bread? Could he have blessed and poured the wine? Certainly. That’s standard practice. Nothing at all contraversial about that. Could Jesus have actually known he was about to die, and, therefore, talked about the need to memorialize him in the symbolism of the ceremony? Now we’re getting into highly suspicious territory. Because such language sounds more like an etiological legend meant to explain and rationalize an already common practice amongst Christians, not a practice that a sane person would personally institutionalize *about himself*.

    So, to cut to the chase, this is what I think actually happened. Jesus performed his duty — blessing and breaking the bread, blessing and pouring the wine — just as recounted. But he didn’t say anything about his body or blood or remembrance. Then Jesus was *unexpectedly* arrested and executed. But his still Jewish followers, who continued to believe in him, continued to perform that same bread and wine ritual, every Shabbat, every festival feast, every Passover, every sacred meal. They did not stop being Jews! But every time they did it, they were, naturally, reminded of their last meal with Jesus. So they quite literally “remembered” Jesus every time they performed this ritual. Eventually, they quite literally performed it “in remembrance” of Jesus. So what did they remember? They remembered that Jesus was brutally killed. His body was broken, just like the bread is broke, and his blood was spilt, just like the wine is poured (and possibly spilt, as Jews have a tradition of letting the wine cup run over). So the first Jewish Christians invented the eucharistic tradition, not Jesus! They would probably say something to the effect of: “We break this bread in remembrance of Christ Jesus, whose body was broken for our salvation; we pour this wine in remembrance of Christ Jesus, whose blood was poured out for our salvation.” In other words, the ritual came first, and only later was the ritual attributed to Jesus himself. Why? Because, being the exalted “son of God” that he was, Jesus must have known he was going to die, and so Jesus must have been the one who originated the ritual. So when it came to writing the account in the Gospels, naturally, the words of the eucharist that had such an enigmatic origin were literally put into the mouth of Jesus, as if he himself was the originator of the ritual.

    I think that most, if not all of the ethical teachings of Jesus in the NT followed similar paths. They started out simply as rituals and precepts formulated by the early Jewish Christians, and only later were they attributed to Jesus himself as founder. This is something we see in just about every other religion, from Buddhism to Hinduism, from Confucianism to Taoism, from Judaism to Islam. It’s really more the rule than the exception.

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    Adam0685  March 7, 2017

    My sense has been that the historical Jesus, as an apocalyptist, was not that unique in his views, since there were many apocalyptists during Jesus’ time and before him (e.g., John the Baptist). Also the idea of loving God and neighbor seems not that unique to Jesus but something he inherited/adapted from Judaism/Hebrew Scriptures.

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    Todd  March 7, 2017

    I practice many Buddhist principles, but I am also not a Buddhist. I used to attend church, and have a Masters Degree in Divinity, but I no longer call myself a Christian. I see no reason to affiliate with any formal religious organizations … I am just an average person with the same limitations and flaws as every other person, but I do think it is best, for me, to try to be a loving and caring person, the best I can, rather than a hedonist who tries to get the most I can for myself at the expense of others. I do not know if there is a god or a force in the universe that governs all things and, at 75, I am suddenly more aware of my mortality than before. I simply think trying (emphasize *trying*) to be a compassionate person is the best choice I can make in life.

    I appreciate this discussion you started in your previous post. I hope we can continue it a bit further. It helps me to think through issues of what it means to be human, here and now, because that is where we all are…here and now. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  March 10, 2017

      I am under 55, and I feel as you do, especially since I recently lost the only person who loved me unconditionally — my mother. If there is an after life, I believe my mother would have let me know in some way. But nada. I also never seen a ghost in my life, and frankly I would welcome it since seeing ghosts increases the likelihood of an after life.

  11. Avatar
    godspell  March 7, 2017

    We don’t know Jesus’ ethics were entirely predicated on his beliefs about the coming of The Kingdom.

    It could quite easily have been the other way around. He believed in The Kingdom, because he needed to believe that there would come a time when people would treat each other decently, live up to the ideals he’d inherited and expanded upon. There was obviously no way for him to achieve this, and he knew that. So like the Plains Indian Ghost Dancers, trying to wish away the evil that had come upon them (namely us), he dreamed of a divine solution to the problem–but what’s important, what matters, what’s lasted, is his insight that God would not intervene to help us unless we were ready to help ourselves. That God was inside each of us, waiting to be set free.

    If we stop believing in that, we really might as well all give up. Maybe we never reach The Kingdom, but that’s no excuse for not trying. Nobody is a true Christian–probably not even Jesus (who probably never even heard the word pronounced). But in admitting that to ourselves, we can be better. Not only those who aspire to be Christians, but those who simply aspire to be human–or rather, to make the word human mean something better than it currently does.

    I respect the process you’re going through, and many have been through it before you. But it doesn’t end here, or shouldn’t.

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    cjeanne  March 7, 2017

    First….I entirely agree, although it took me some 60 years and the death of a spouse to get here.
    I have a question, though, do any other religions have this view that their God will ultimately destroy evil and then we will all live in peace and harmony with no suffering, hunger….etc. Could this belief actually have been the cause of the spread of Christianity. That was 2 questions, actually.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2017

      The view may have come into Judaism from Zoroastrianism; and yes, the Christians’ eschatology may well have made their views more attractive. I deal with this a bit in my book The Triumph of Christianity.

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    Gary  March 7, 2017

    Some conservative Christians are under the impression that we secular humanists “stole” our humanistic principles from Christianity; that without Christianity, secular humanism would never have developed. But as you say, Jesus was not the first person to teach the Golden Rule. After thousands of years of bloody trial and error, we humans have learned that looking out for the well being of everyone in the “herd” is in the individual’s best interest. Let’s keep the Golden Rule, but abandon the silly (and dangerous) supernatural superstitions.

    • Avatar
      jwesenbe  March 8, 2017

      I’ve always contended the only problem with religion is god.

      • Avatar
        Steve  March 27, 2017

        And I have the view: the only problem with god….is religion!

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    rblouch  March 7, 2017

    Ahh. Very good. You do meditate.

    Very few teachers teach meditation as a transcendent practice. None of the Rock Stars do.

    There is fashion in spirituality as much as anything else and the “hopeless” school currently holds powerful sway in the meditation community. There is no hope. Get over yourself. Hopeless is a viewpoint worth considering but is not truth in any real sense. It’s just one more viewpoint that is most often presented as truth. It is strongest in those schools of practice that call themselves Mindfulness.

    A transcendent experience throws a real wrench in the hopeless pantheon of belief so almost every modern teacher I know of aims students away from techniques that facilitate them. There are exceptions but for the most part they are rare. Transcendental Mediation is a notable one.

    I wrote a response to a Quora question the other day that offers a simple shift in perspective that can lead someone who is already meditating into the transcendent.


  15. Avatar
    ngraham  March 7, 2017

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    I reached the same conclusion as you did independently about 35-40 years ago; about the same time in my life as you did though I am about ten years older. I first heard your interview on NPR driving home from work and was struck how similar if not the same my conclusions were about religion as a onetime serious bible student and former believing Christian (Jehovah’s Witness). I attended your lecture in Philly a few years ago. I simply cannot come to worship and reconcile a Supreme Being that permits/allows so much human suffering to make a point about his sovereignty and god ship. If he/she does exist, I could not worship such a uncaring deity. I continue to follow your blog to learn about the formative years of Christianity. The phenomena of Christianity continues to hold my interest as a humanist into my early 70s, though like yourself I no longer consider my self a Christian.
    I admire your ability to express yourself so clearly and look forward to following your blog.

  16. tompicard
    tompicard  March 7, 2017

    one view
    “But Jesus’ entire ethics were completely predicated on the coming kingdom of God.”

    another view
    “But the coming kingdom of God was completely predicated on Jesus’ entire ethics. “

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 8, 2017

      The idea of the kingdom of God predates Jesus, and even John the Baptist, who also preached it.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  March 10, 2017

        i read Dr Ehrman statement assuming his use of ‘predicated’ was in causal not not temporal sense

  17. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  March 7, 2017

    There are many philosophies across many religions that I do admire yet I do not agree with everything that they teach and preach. I do certainly pick and choose what I agree with and believe. I have been criticized for doing that yet I have observed that all people do pick and choose what they believe. I do label myself a Buddhist because there is much of that philosophy that I tend to practice but in the end I really abhor labels because they pigeon hole me and might not portray an accurate picture to others. For once you label yourself I find it opens yourself up to people making many assumptions about you based on how they perceive that label. I think you’re a good example how a person can be an agnostic/atheist and still be very spiritual.

  18. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 7, 2017

    It has never seemed to me that following and admiring “some of the principles of Jesus” in themselves give cause to call oneself a Christian–not if Christianity truly is a religion not of Jesus but about him. Whether Jesus was teaching his hard morals in view of the coming Kingdom or whether he was teaching an ethical code for the long term, he was teaching these as a Jew, not as a Christian–even allowing for their new universality. (Wiping out other tribes, I think, was more a practice more typical of more primitive Israelite behavior or lore but not typical of it by Jesus’ time.)

  19. Avatar
    wrengles  March 7, 2017

    Your practical concern is one I’ve thought about quite a bit: essentially every one of us, no matter how generous with our time or money, is selfish to some degree. I do not live in the smallest house, spend the least amount on food and amenities, etc. that I theoretically could. In short, I do not maximize the amount I give to others.

    But I don’t think that means one does not follow the principals of love and compassion taught by Jesus (even if, like me, you don’t do it *because* of Jesus’s teachings). It’s all a matter of degree. Bill and Melinda Gates have probably done more to help their fellow humans than anyone else on earth, but they live well at the same time. Virtually no one could be considered to follow Jesus’s teachings if you literally have to give *all* you can.

    • Avatar
      jwesenbe  March 8, 2017

      Exactly. Jesus called on all to do the hard thing and in reality, almost no one does (Mother Theresa comes to mind as one who may have). That is why the entire faith is bogus. No one is following Jesus’ teachings, they are following the invented teachings that have developed over the last 2000 years.

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    FreiDenker  March 7, 2017

    Someday I would like to see an Ehrman book on John’s gospel. I have wondered if parts of John’s gospel are post facto justifications for emerging sacramental theology, rather than sources for the eucharist, ordination,confirmation,
    and other practices of the Catholic beliefs.

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