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My Favorite Anecdote about Jesus and the Afterlife: Teeth Will Be Provided!

I was thinking (I’m always thinking) about Jesus and the afterlife, and suddenly my favorite rather humorous anecdote occurred, which involves a real moment in (relatively) modern scholarship.  I tried to find where I had written about it in one of my books: I was sure I *had* done so, but I couldn’t find anyplace where I had.  If I haven’t, I may include it in the next one.  But I did find that I made a post of it on the blog four years ago.  Here it is!


I think it’s time for a break from the hard-hitting discussions for something a bit different and humorous.  And so I have an anecdote to tell about a passage that I quoted in one of my earlier posts from Matthew, where Jesus says:

“Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.  I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:8-10).

One of my teachers at Princeton Theological Seminary in the later 1970s and early 1980s was the great New Testament scholar, Bruce Metzger.   One of Metzger’s teachers at Princeton University (where he received two degrees in classics), in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was the classics scholar Coleman Norton.   Norton, a Greek scholar, was …

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  1. Avatar
    gwayersdds  September 15, 2017

    I love that story. It goes to show that just because a person is recognized as an “authority” not everything they say can be taken at face value. I have occasionally as a Sunday school teacher (an “authority”) quoted scripture from the book of Hezekiah to prove a point. The class accepts this because I represent the “learned” one until I ask them to look it up in their bibles. So few people really know the books of the Bible that they assume that it must be one of the books of the minor prophets probably stuck somewhere in between Obadiah and Malachi. It’s amusing to see the reactions when they realize that they have been fooled. It is reported that T.S. Eliot, the poet known for deep and obscure meanings in his poetry got amused at some of the interpretations of his works and wrote something nonsensical and pure drivel just to see what the “experts” would read into it. Consequently, I humbly request that you, Dr. Ehrman be totally upfront with the poor, uneducated folk like me because I know that if you chose to do so, you could lead me down the garden path to total theological destruction.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  September 15, 2017

    You know, it was stuff like that got Salman Rushdie in a whole world of trouble, though he got through it okay.

    Jesus had a sense of humor (as Bernard Shaw pointed out, when he says “Thou art Peter and on this rock I shall build my church” he’s making a pun). But he didn’t make jokes like that, and his disciples understood perfectly well that their master often spoke in metaphors. It’s very funny, all the same. I’m going to try it out on my friends at the earliest opportunity. I know at least one proud gay Jewish atheist who is going to love it. 🙂

    I’ve had a weakness for Jesus-related humor, ever since I was a a teenager, going to see Monty Python’s Life of Brian at a local theater. My father was slightly scandalized, even though he was the one who invited me to watch their TV show with him in his and my mother’s bedroom (since my other siblings were too young). I never really understood how it was blasphemous to show an alternate Jesus, just as misunderstood and put-upon as the real one.

    I figured a guy who got himself nailed to a cross could take a joke just fine. Better than the Pilate they showed in that movie. Seriously, dude, you have an impediment. See a speech thewapist.

    In all seriousness, you must always look in the bright side of life. (walks away whistling)

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 15, 2017

      Hmmm, perhaps missing the obvious point that if Jesus did not believe in heaven or hell, than the original quote from Matthew is either a misquotation or an outright fabrication. There is no outer darkness, and no teeth shall be required.

      But explaining where Jesus may have thought those unworthy of the Kingdom would be–if anywhere–that I look forward to reading about.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  September 15, 2017

    “the heirs of the kingdom” i.e. the Jews

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 15, 2017

    I am impressed with how much stuff we humans make up or elaborate on, often seriously, and not as humor.

  5. Avatar
    caseyjunior  September 15, 2017

    This is obviously behind the curve, but I have to say I enjoyed the posts about the Odyssey. I don’t send in many comments because I’m just not very knowledgeable !

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 15, 2017

    I know I’ve encountered the “teeth will be provided” joke before – so you’d probably mentioned it in the blog, even though I didn’t remember all the details.

  7. Avatar
    ardeare  September 15, 2017

    Somewhere out there is a marketing consultant who is reading this and trying to figure out how to sell the concept to a dental office.

  8. Avatar
    Hume  September 15, 2017

    Just bought a couple of your books Bart, take your wife out to an above-average dinner on me!

  9. webo112
    webo112  September 15, 2017

    I am quite certain you reference this in your ‘The Historical Jesus’ course.
    I do not recall If its in your writing – but you might want to see if its in your “Jesus Apocalyptic Prophet of the new Millennium” (My favorite book of yours btw)

  10. Avatar
    dragonfly  September 15, 2017


  11. Avatar
    mmns  September 15, 2017

    Witty and hilarious. 😂For faithful ilk, everything is indubitable.

  12. Avatar
    Franz Liszt  September 15, 2017

    I’ve never understood why in the world someone would lie about something like that. Surely there’s enough out there from early Christianity which is humorous and also authentic. To throw away academic and scholarly integrity in order to make a funny joke at dinner parties is ludicrous.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2017

      I suppose as a big joke (on other scholars) and to see if he could get away with it. He nearly did.

  13. Avatar
    Silver  September 16, 2017

    Please may I ask a question drawing on your critical text expertise?
    Regarding the Filioque controversy, I having recently read that for the creed of 381 ‘The Council chose to restrict itself to the Johannine language, slightly altering the Gospel text (changing “to pneuma…ho para tou Patros ekporeuetai” to: “to pneuma to hagion… to ek tou Patros ekporeuomenon”)’
    Have you written in any of your books about this corruption so that I may follow it up further?
    It seems to be a fairly crucial alteration if it led to the Great Schism.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2017

      No, I’m afraid I’ve never dealt with that variant – in part because my focus in Orthodox Corruption was specfically on Christological variants and was interested only in what was happening in the second and third centuries. But I’d love to see a discussion of it.

      • Avatar
        Silver  September 17, 2017

        Re the Filioque Controversy, I’m afraid the paper by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops which I cited says very little more than I quoted in my previous comment/question. I, too, would like to see a discussion of it if anybody else on the blog has a source that pursues it.

  14. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 16, 2017

    I’ve searched “stoic” and “stoicism” on the blog and have not found any posts that are actually about Stoicism or the Stoics. Have you posted on the influences of Stoicism on early Christianity, particularly Paul? I have read that Paul writes like a Stoic at times and, by some accounts, may have been a Stoic himself. Do you think that’s true and, if so, what does that mean for our understanding of Christianity in the first century?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2017

      No, I haven’t. It turns out that it’s a very specialized and recondite field of inquiry. If you’re interested, you might consider, for example, the book on teh topic by Troels Endberg Peterson.

  15. Avatar
    RVBlake  September 16, 2017

    I am not a humorless drudge, and it’s a hilarious story. But…Was Norton not concerned about his credibility upon discovery of the story’s falsity? It would be a great classroom joke, but to be presented in a journal?

  16. Avatar
    Lawyerskeptic  September 16, 2017

    I have never understood how people supposedly devoted to the truth can concoct such stories. As of late, I’ve been researching the common apologetic theme of atheists who try to refute the resurrection, but end up being converted to Christianity. I can prove that some of the stories are false, such as Gilbert West, George Littleton, and Simon Greenleaf. However, even if I am successful in locating the first published versions of the stories, I can never find any information on why people invented them.

    • Avatar
      Silver  September 17, 2017

      Is there anywhere I can access your research, please? It sounds very worthwhile.

  17. Avatar
    HawksJ  September 17, 2017

    I think this story raises an important point and question: if he could make up a story like that and essentially invent a ‘textural variant’, how do you know others – such as your recent post about ‘Jewish Christian Gospels’ – aren’t just made up too?

    Suppose Bruce M. had never – for whatever reason (and one can imagine several possibilities) – conveyed that it was a ‘joke’, is it possible that the ‘teeth’ variant would now be considered legitimate?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2017

      In his case, there is no manuscript evidence to support his view — literally none exists. For other stories there actually is evidence, one way or the other. Even if Metzger hadn’t exposed it, no one would have treated it as a serious variant without an actual manuscript in hand to attest it.

  18. NidalRabadi
    NidalRabadi  October 1, 2017

    Good day Dr. Ehrman,

    How do know that when Jesus spoke of “eating” at the kingdom of God, he was not speaking metaphorically (as when he tells that one should pluck out his eye if it makes him sin)?

    Thank you,

    • Bart
      Bart  October 1, 2017

      I’m not sure he was talking metaphorically about plucking out the eye, actually!

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