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My Next Project

I’ve had several people ask what I’m working on, now that How Jesus Became God has come and gone from.   The answer is: the very next thing!   And it’s something that I’ve gotten really excited about, as excited as I was about How Jesus Became God.  For some reason, when I was doing that book over the past couple of years, I thought that it was going to be the climax of my trade book publishing career, and that everything would be downhill from there.   I was completely wrong about that.  I’m now just as passionate about the next project.

I mentioned the book earlier on the blog, before I decided for sure that it was going to be next.  But it definitely is.   It will be about the oral traditions of Jesus in circulation in the years before the Gospels were written.

So, just to give a bit of background — a review for some of you and new information for probably some others.    Scholars have long held that Mark was the first of our Gospels to be written, and that it probably appeared sometime around the year 70 CE.  Some scholars think it might have been a bit before that (I used to think that); more scholars think that it might have been a bit after.  But almost everyone agrees that Mark dates to around the end of the Jewish War (66-70 CE).  The only ones who consistently have argued otherwise are fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals, who very much want Mark, our earliest Gospel, to be closer to the time of Jesus.

Maybe some time on the blog I’ll explain why 70 CE seems like a plausible date.   For now, let’s just say that this is the virtually consensus view among critical scholars.   The last Gospel has traditionally been thought to be John, and it is normally dated to 90 or 95 CE.   Matthew and Luke then were probably somewhere between these two (since they used Mark and must date after 70 CE, but seem to be older than John and so must be earlier than 90 CE) – so say 80 or 85 CE.

What is striking, and what I have long emphasized in my writings, is that time gap between the death of Jesus in 30 CE and the first accounts of his life in 70-95 CE.   It’s a gap (for those who are mathematically challenged) of 40-65 years.

And so the question is, what was happening during all those years to the stories being told about Jesus?   The Gospel writers themselves do not claim to have been disciples of Jesus, and do not claim to be eyewitnesses of the events they narrate, and do not claim (contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, largely by not reading the texts  in question carefully enough) to have derived their stories directly from eyewitnesses.   The Gospels were written anonymously, in different parts of the world from where Jesus lived, in a different language from the one Jesus used, four and more decades after Jesus died.  So where did they get their stories?

They got them from oral traditions about Jesus that had been in circulation over all that time, in different languages (at least Aramaic and Greek) in different places in different contexts.

All that is well known, and I’ve written about it before.

But what I’m interested in now is…

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My Future Books
ANT: Methods of Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    prestonp  September 21, 2014

    As a pretty awful, underemployed, mistake prone, christian biased troublemaker/scribe, let me change 2 words from Dr. Bart’s original text: “Those of us who do believe in the Bible can still learn from it. It is a book that deserves to be read and studied, not just as a document of faith but also as a historical record of the thoughts, beliefs, experiences, activities, loves, hates, prejudices and opinions of people who stand at the very foundation of our civilization and culture. It can help us think about the big issues of life—why we are here, what we should be doing, what will become of this world. It can inspire us—and warn us—by its examples. It can urge us to pursue truth, to fight oppression, to work for justice, to insist on peace. It can motivate us to live life more fully while yet we can. It can encourage us to live more for others and not only for ourselves. There will never be a time in the history of the human race when such lessons will have become passe, when the thoughts of important religious thinkers of the past will be irrelevant for those of us living, and thinking in the present.”

  2. Avatar
    JRH  September 24, 2014

    Dear Bart, I think a book about the oral stories regarding Jesus is a great idea. I read your book “How Jesus Became God” but it left me with a lot of questions. For example you speculate that Peter, Paul, and Mary had hallucinations in which they believed they saw the resurrected Jesus. (Really only two people because Paul had his vision later.) And one of the remaining two was a woman (Mary Magdalene.) In a pre Feminist era it would have been easy to dismiss Mary Magdalene as hysterical. That leaves only Peter. And Peter was rather hot headed himself. So how did Peter convince others that he wasn’t crazy in claiming to see the resurrected Jesus? IMO there was a lot of wishful thinking going on. Jesus’ followers wanted to believe Peter so they chose to do so. But how did they convince ordinary Jews and Gentiles? I think a big factor in the growth of Christianity was just how superstitious ancient Palestine was. I believe Josephus implies there were lots of prophets and crackpots wandering around. One of them he mentions was the “Egyptian.” This would be a good topic to write about in your book on oral traditions.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2014

      It’s amazing what people will believe if someone tells them what they saw, with absolute conviction! (Still today)

    • Avatar
      prestonp  October 21, 2014

      “IMO there was a lot of wishful thinking going on. Jesus’ followers wanted to believe Peter so they chose to do so.” JRH
      Perhaps it is wishful thinking to believe as you do; that they sacrificed their lives based on a desire to believe. If Pete hallucinated Christ, he would have had a sick mind. No indications of that historically. About 500 had the same hallucination and many were alive to discuss it when Luke wrote his accounts.

      It requires more faith to believe the new testament doesn’t describe Christ than to believe it does. One has to work extremely hard to try to do away with its claims.

  3. Avatar
    JRH  September 24, 2014

    A couple more questions: I have heard that the gospel of Matthew was aimed at the Jews in an attempt to convert some of them. If this is true why was Matthew written in Greek instead of Hebrew?

    Also I read a book once called “Dating Acts.” The author argued for a date in the early 2d century for Acts. He basically argued that Christians and Jews are clearly distinguished in Acts and that an earlier date for Acts did not allow enough time for the two religions to separate. What do you think of this idea?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2014

      I don’t think any of the Gospels were written for outsiders. These are “insider” books — written for Christians. They were written in Greek because Hebrew was not an active language at the time, and the authors were not living in Palestine in any event.

      I think you’re referring to the book by Richard Pervo. He’s very smart and has read everything on the topic. But I disagree on his dating of Acts. I think it is probably first century.

  4. Avatar
    JRH  September 24, 2014

    Bart, another idea for your oral history book. Apollonius of Tyana. You mention him in “How Jesus Became God” and note the similarities with the story of Jesus. Given that Apollonius seems to have been born only 20 years after Jesus and lived only a few hundred miles away in Turkey, it would be interesting to know who plagiarized whom. Did the followers of Apollonius steal the myths that grew up around Jesus? Or did the followers of Jesus steal from Apollonius? Or is it possible some of these myths predated both these men? Given that Apollonius lived to around 100 AD, he was around and teaching when the gospels and the letters of Paul were written. In fact Paul probably passed through Tyana on occasion. Why is Paul silent regarding Apollonius and his followers when he manages to write letters to all the other religious groups in the Mediterranean?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2014

      My sense is that the followers of both were influenced not one by the other but by the legends and myths in wide circulation in their environment.

  5. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  September 26, 2014

    “Hebrew was not an active language at the time.” — 75-80% of the Dead Sea Scrolls were in Hebrew. I can’t test the claims, but I keep seeing more indications that the use of Hebrew (at least for Jewish religious dialog) was being revived earlier than most people thought. Bivin and Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, started me looking down that path. How do you reach your conclusion?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2014

      I rely on experts for this kind of information. There’s a different between having a *written* language (Hebrew) and an active spoken language. The spoken language in Palestine was certainly Aramaic.

  6. Avatar
    JRH  September 26, 2014

    Bart, You mention in “How Jesus Became God” that most scholars view the first 20 years after Jesus’ death as more important to the development of Christianity than the following two centuries. IMO the first 20 days or 20 weeks were even more important. Somehow we go from a crucified body hanging on the cross to Peter’s hallucination of the risen Jesus. Certainly Jesus could not have still been hanging on the cross when Peter had this vision. Even if the Romans left Jesus hanging there as an example to others, (maybe for three days?) at some point some slave would be tasked with disposing of the bodies for reasons of public sanitation. There is also the problem of all the phenomena mentioned in Matthew that accompany the death of Jesus: an earthquake, the sky darkening for three hours, the torn cloth in the temple, etc. And then there are the sightings of Jesus after his resurrection. Especially noteworthy is the crowd of 500 “most of whom are still alive” that Paul claims saw the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15.6.) Obviously none of this really happened. If it did other historians would have recorded such momentous events. And yet in the first few months or so I assume some of these myths originated. Luke has no problem viewing this stuff as legitimate history when he wrote Acts. And yet Luke was an intelligent, highly literate Greek. All of this would be a good topic to discuss in your upcoming book on how oral stories became the gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2014

      Interesting points!

      • Avatar
        JRH  October 17, 2014

        This is a follow up to my previous post wondering about the first days and weeks after the death of Jesus. As others have noted, the stories that grew up around Jesus could have gotten started like the gossip game “Telephone.” I would like to add that the Eastern Mediterranean in ancient times was fertile ground for mythology. Just a few hundred miles from ancient Israel was Greece. Educated Jews must have been familiar with the Greek myths. In fact one could argue that Greek paganism with their quarreling family of less than omnipotent gods offered a better explanation for the chaos in the world than the omnipotent, benevolent God of the early Christians. The Hebrews had their myths too. The creation story in Genesis is a pretty good guestimate for an ancient people ignorant of cosmology and evolution. And to the east there was Babylon with the Epic of Gilgamesh. So when early Christians starting embellishing (or even inventing) stories about Jesus, they had a rich tradition of mythology to imitate.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  October 21, 2014

      “Obviously none of this really happened. If it did other historians would have recorded such momentous events.”

      That cannot be stated as fact.

      • Avatar
        JRH  October 23, 2014

        Well how about this one then: “And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” Matthew 27:52.

        So nobody noticed all these zombies wandering around Jerusalem? Somehow it just didn’t get recorded outside of the Bible? I think it’s safe to say this never really happened and that can be stated as a fact.

  7. Avatar
    Tom  October 8, 2014

    I sent to you an email this weekend outlining how I’m doing my best to counter the mythicist argument that Jesus never existed. I’m seeing this mindset rapidly spread particularly in my area, but a few are dis-crediting your works and asking for ‘references.’
    The email is long-winded and even if you don’t have time to respond, I at least want you to know I’m doing my part to battle the mythicist mindset.
    Many thanks for all your work!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 9, 2014

      I wish I had the hours in the day to answer all my email! So, sorry if I haven’t replied.

      • Avatar
        Tom  October 15, 2014

        I’m sure you receive an enormous influx of emails between fellow scholars, students, and independent researchers (as myself). -Thank you for going back and responding to my needs. Much appreciated!
        I see you will be in Roanoke VA November 6th and will do my best to be at this venue (autographs, etc.).

        -Tom

    • Avatar
      spiker  February 17, 2015

      Tom:

      I don’t think DJE (or any of the rest of Bart Ehrman’s work) can be discredited. There’s a difference between claims
      of discrediting something and actually doing it. Mythicism is catchy because it’s an amateur’s ideology. They seem to use their lack of expertise as a justification for inventting things. IF the question is about a historical Jesus then one needs to apply the standards historians apply (The key for you is to make sure you understand them very well and call mythicists out when they drop them in favor of whatever nonsense they are peddling: The one’s used in DJE. One doesn’t get to introduce opinion polls etc in their place.
      If you carefully follow their arguments, you’ll see they lead no where.

      I tend to think insinuation is the mythicists tactic of choice

    • Avatar
      spiker  February 17, 2015

      @ Tom

      Your best bet is to ask them to make the case from primary sources. The typical mythicist is not likely to know what a primary source is nor is he willing to actually do any legwork. That’s boring!

      This approach has several advantages. First it should be very easy to see why primary sources
      are the best sort of evidence. Two it will probably shut the mythicist up for a few minutes
      as he tries to think of a way to change the subject ( or waits for someone else to comme along) from primary sources to some variation of the wake up and smell the coffee argument.

      Another advantage is this will help you see right away whether your “opponent” is serious or not. Most of them will probably tell you to go look it up. It’s their argument, if they haven’t done the leg work, they don’t know wth they are talking about. How can you not know the evidence for your own argument?

      The typical mythicist likes to paddle on about how there were (whatever number they want to toss out) God’s in the Med that were born on Christmas; yet the bible (If it can be considered a primary source) says nothing about Jesus being born on Christmas. So right at the opening Salvo, you sank their battleship!

      Its also instructive that Paul has such a hard time convincing people of the very idea of ressurection in an area of the world where ressurection, if you believe mythicists, was
      the order of the day because, apparently people once thought vegetaion was a dying and
      rising god and thus became carnivores lest the Saviour be made into a salad.

  8. Avatar
    ElazarusWills  October 16, 2014

    The new book idea sounds facinating. My guess would be that while Mark was based mostly on oral storytelling traditions there were probably also written sources being passed around as well at the same time. Possibly mostly sayings. Someone had to be writing something about Jesus and the movement during those 40 years. But how can we even guess about something like that?

  9. Avatar
    Jacobus  February 11, 2015

    Prof. Ehrman, what do you make of the late prof. Maurice Casey’s work? He was non-religious and yet he dated the Gospel of Mark to the Caligula “threat” of erecting a statue of Zeus in the Jerusalem temple. (If I remember correctly about 45 CE). It seems to me, though I didn’t find it clearly stated in the two books I have read, that he used a strong literary paradigm, which is obviously necessary if you want to trace certain gospels back to Aramaic sources. Some of his Aramaic reconstructions are quite convincing, it is at least on par with the reconstructions and reverting of the Gospel of Thomas back to Greek and the International Q-Project. Yet, it seems some of his views did not gain wide acceptance. Do you think that there is any value in the process of conjecturing because it seems to cross a line at some point to become speculation? How is your current research on the oral tradition going? I think it is a fascinating topic, but it seems to me that a hybrid approach to literary and an oral transmission process is just as viable and indeed possible as to just accept that transmission of the gospel tradition was reverted to writing from 70 CE. What do you make of Q for instance in relation to Mark? Is Mark a good oral text but a bad literary text? These are just some of the questions that comes to my mind. The water from 35 (or what ever date Jesus was crucified) to 65/70 CE seems quite murky. It seems for instance Rudolf Bultmann and the Form Critics are out, but what is in? The way we understand the oral/literature tradition of the “lost” years of the church (though we have at least Acts as a seemingly legendary account and Paul’s epistles to Galatians and 1 Corinthians) seems to affect the whole way in which we reconstruct the historical figure of Jesus. It affects some of the tools of the trade, such as the criteria of authenticity we use. Should one become like prof. Luke Timothy Johnson and only through your hands in the air and say that you can’t trace the historical Jesus? How would you respond for instance to Hall Tausig’s book “In the beginning was the Meal” where he argues that at love feasts or at least meals during the symposium early Christians performed the euangellion (good news) or something like it? Surely it is a bold project you are taking on, I wonder how to you conceptualise it. Good luck!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2015

      He was a brilliant if somewhat idiosyncratic scholar.

      I’d be happy to deal with your questions, but I can really only handle one at a time. If you want to raise one in particular with me, I’d be happy to address it if I can.

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