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My Testier Days: A Response to a Critique of How Jesus Became God

I often look back over all the posts I’ve made on the blog over the past six years, and one of the things that constantly strikes me, these days, is how testy I frequently was, in those days!   Four years ago I expressed some dismay at a review of my book How Jesus Became God.

A  bit thin-skinned, would you say?  Either I’m getting a better sense of humor, or am taking myself less seriously, or am becoming more laid back, or, well, just getting older.   Anyway, here is the post.

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The responses to How Jesus Became God are starting to appear, and I must say, I find the harshest ones bordering on the incredible.   Do people think that it is acceptable to attack a book that they haven’t read – or at least haven’t had the courtesy to try to understand?

Some of the reviewers are known entities, such as the Very Rev. Robert Barron, a Roman Catholic evangelist and commentator who has a wide following.   His full response is available at http://wordonfire.org/Written-Word/articles-commentaries/April-2014/Why-Jesus-is-God–A-Response-to-Bart-Ehrman.aspx   I find it very disappointing.  Here is his opening gambit:

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“In this most recent tome, Ehrman lays out what is actually a very old thesis, going back at least to the 18th century and repeated ad nauseam in skeptical circles ever since, namely, that Jesus was a simple itinerant preacher who never claimed to be divine and whose “resurrection” was in fact an invention of his disciples who experienced hallucinations of their master after his death. Of course Ehrman, like so many of his skeptical colleagues across the centuries, breathlessly presents this thesis as though he has made a brilliant discovery. But basically, it’s the same old story. When I was a teenager, I read British Biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield’s Passover Plot, which lays out the same narrative, and just a few months ago, I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot, which pursues a very similar line, and I’m sure next Christmas or Easter I will read still another iteration of the theory.”

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So I have to ask in all seriousness:  has the Very Reverend Robert Barron actually read my book?

Where to start?   How about with …

To see the rest of what I have to say, you need to belong to the blog.  If you don’t belong, now’s your big chance?  What’s to stop you?  It doesn’t cost much, every nickel goes to charity, and you get amazing returns on your investment.  So Join!

the “invention” of the resurrection of Jesus’ disciples based on their hallucinations?   Maybe Barron was so caught up in the idea that I am (in his view) a reincarnation of 18th century skeptics that he didn’t bother to look very closely.  I took great care in my book precisely not to say what he accuses me of saying.  Nowhere do I say that Jesus’ resurrection was invented by his hallucinating disciples.  In fact I spent considerable length arguing that the visions of Jesus would be seen by his modern-day followers as appearances of Jesus – that is, as veridical visions – and by non-believers as non-veridical hallucinations.  But I pointedly did not take a stand on the issue in the book.  My view is that the disciples saw visions, and each of us can decide whether they really saw Jesus or simply thought they did.   In other words, Barron is attacking a straw man.  (I also do not take a stand on the central theological question of whether Jesus really was God or not.)

Moreover, it is offensive to say that I “breathlessly present this thesis” as though I “had made a brilliant discovery.”    This is mockery, not a serious evaluation.   I have tried to present a sober historical analysis.  It is based on many years of research.   If I’m breathless, it’s only because of the hard work and many long hours I put into doing the work.   If he imagines that I’m pretending that everything in my book is my new, spectacular, first-time ever made discovery – why doesn’t he cite some passages where I say that or even suggest it?  If he had read my book he would see that I cite and mention previous scholars at virtually all the key points.  But, of course, it is easier to disparage someone for their “breathless” presentation than it is to engage with them.

OK, so I’m a bit testy.   But what really has sent me over the edge is his claim that my view is simply a re-hashing of Hugh Schonfield’s Passover Plot.   Is he SERIOUS?  Maybe he forgot what the thesis of the Passover Plot is.  Or maybe he doesn’t care, but simply wants to tarnish me by association with an absurd thesis that someone else advanced, which in fact has nothing to do with mine.

For those of you who don’t know, The Passover Plot maintained that Jesus believed he was to be the messiah, and he “knew” that to be the messiah he had to die and be raised again.  And so he planned for that to happen.  He arranged to have himself drugged on the cross so that his vital signs would slow down and he would go into a coma, appearing to be dead.  He worked it out with a couple of his followers then to retrieve him from the tomb so that he could revive, appear to others, and convince them then that he had been resurrected.  Unfortunately he was not counting on a Roman soldier piercing his heart with a spear, and it was this injury that unfortunately killed him.   He did revive, but only long enough to escape the tomb, which his disciples later found empty and came to argue then that he had left as the lord of heaven.  Jesus himself died very soon after his failed plot.

What does this reconstruction of events have to do with the historical sketch that I give in How Jesus Became God?   Almost precisely NOTHING.  (And if he thinks I’m regurgitating anything like the thesis of Reza Aslan, he might do well to consider the sustained critique of Zealot found in multiple posts devoted to the subject here on this blog.)

I really don’t mind having serious criticism leveled against my book, or serious academic engagement over scholarly reconstructions of what happened in the life of Jesus or in its aftermath in the birth of Christianity.   But I simply cannot stand cheap shots condescendingly delivered, by people – popular authors or not – who do not want to interact with historical data and serious interpretations, but instead want to take potshots to make the “faithful” think that all is well with the world and that their preconceived notions about religion cannot be shaken by historical inquiry.  My view is that my book should have ZERO impact on intelligent, informed, Christian belief.  (And I have evidence: I have intelligent Christian friends who are scholars of early Christianity who agree with almost all of my analysis.)  If The Very Reverend Robert Barron does find my book threatening, it is either because he has not read it closely enough or because he holds to fundamentalist views that have somehow or other managed to work their way into the hearts and minds of the Catholic clergy.   Or both.

 


A Privileged View of Suffering

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Comments

  1. tonysolgard  April 17, 2018

    I would think believers would be happy to say belief in the resurrection was based on appearances of Jesus to his followers. It seems much more compelling than an empty tomb.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  April 17, 2018

    “Do people think that it is acceptable to attack a book that they haven’t read?”

    Were you knew to the Internet?

    • Antonio40  May 5, 2018

      For all his intelligence, doctor Ehrman is deliciously naive sometimes.

      • Bart
        Bart  May 6, 2018

        My view is that if you’re going to be naive, you should be deliciously naive.

  3. fishician  April 17, 2018

    One of the things that disillusioned me in the church was that they claimed to be the real defenders of truth, but were more than willing to throw truth under the bus when it suited their purposes. Like inaccurate or misleading reviews, where the goal is to score points with believers rather than have an earnest discussion of the information presented. (You’re not the only one who can be testy!)

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    • thinkingwoody  April 30, 2018

      I am with you on your reply. I agree.

  4. RonaldTaska  April 17, 2018

    Well, my friend and historical guide, sometimes you are way too hard on yourself. I guess you can be a little “testy” at times, but, overall, I have been impressed with how tolerant and respectful you are of such discussants and I wish and try to be the same, but am no where near as good at it as you. I know there is an academic world out there, but the real world I live in allows for almost no discussion of anything with regard to politics or religion.

    • Jeff
      Jeff  April 20, 2018

      Bravo, Ronald!

      I too believe that Dr. Ehrman shows, and has shown, a great deal of restraint. As a Prometheus, He has stoically endured the calumny and vilification of the elitists who believe he has improperly revealed wisdom to the masses.

  5. llamensdor  April 17, 2018

    It seems to me that it is Baron’s tone and style which are offensive, more than his actual undelying thesis. Of course you don’t present your ideas in “breathtaking” fashion, or claim originality for them. However, I had to look up veridical, and one definition is a deathbed hallucination. Of course, here we’re not dealing with a deathbed vision — the disciples weren’t dying when they envisioned Jesus–but the word “hallucination” is plausible. As for The Passover Plot, while the idea of Jesus being drugged is possible, I don’t believe for one second that Jesus would knowingly participate in such a plot. I don’t think he ever lied to anyone, let alone actively conspire as Schofield proposed.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2018

      Yes, his tone was off-putting. But what he says about my book — even in dispassionate terms — simply wasn’t true.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 18, 2018

      The main problem with the Passover Plot is that its underlying premise is, at best, questionable. Before Christians started saying that the Messiah was supposed to die, no Jew would have presumed that the Messiah needed to die. So the idea that Jesus would have to fake his death and resurrection in order to prove that he was the Messiah, that’s already bordering on the absurd. The whole scheme itself only makes it more so.

  6. RayC  April 17, 2018

    I don’t think you were testy or thin-skinned at all in your response. In fact, it’s a great response. I’ve read your book, and the now Bishop Robert Barron’s response (guess he was promoted from Very Reverend since 2014!), and have to admit he was not only off-base in his criticism, he did take cheap shots, as you stated. Even the few actual, non-personal, arguments he cites are weak. Would I be considered God-like if I approached Jerusalem from the east? And he certainly doesn’t come across as very Christian-like considering his condescending and dismissive attitude.

    One question: Did he ever have any follow up communication with you regarding his view of the book? A good starting point for him would have been an apology for such a weak review and sloppy thought!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2018

      No, I don’t know the man and I very much doubt he would have seen/heard of my reaction

  7. Ehteshaam7  April 17, 2018

    Hi Dr.Ehrman,

    Sorry to bother you again but I sent a email to your publicist Cat and never got a response for an interview schedule. I was wondering if she got it or I can send you another email.

    Thanks
    Ehteshaam Gulam

  8. Tobit  April 18, 2018

    You’re not wrong, you were very testy! But it’s understandable wanting to defending a book you put a lot of effort into from spurious criticisms. I’m continually surprised by Robert Barron, for such an educated man he comes out with some simplistic views and strawmen. For example, in a talk on euthanasia, he said that people who want it legalised just want to kill off old people!

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    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2018

      I don’t know much about him, but he seems like a piece of (arrogant) work.

  9. godspell  April 18, 2018

    I may have mentioned I work at a Jesuit university.

    Rev. Barron is a Benedictine.

    Jesuits love to make jokes about Benedictines. I’m sure they’re mostly kidding, but seriously, it’s their equivalent of Polish jokes.

    I remember seeing The Passover Plot as a kid, but didn’t know its precise thesis–I did not have the impression it was a serious scholarly work. I assume he chose that because a lot of Catholics of his generation would remember it, and it would attach that same sensationalistic aura to your book to connect them.

    Suspicious though I am of the term “Catholic evangelist”, he’s working in a defined tradition of Catholic apologetics, which sometimes involve some pretty strained arguments, and tend to throw shade upon opposing camps. I doubt he’s all that familiar with your work. It’s more important to him that others be familiar with his.

    And remember, his primary influence is Aquinas. That can do things to your rational processes. (More of a Scotus Eriugena man myself.)

    I do sometimes think Jesus engineered his own crucifixion, believing it was necessary for the Kingdom to come. The notion that he’d think he could feign death–understanding how cruxifixion worked–doesn’t really pass the smell test. It also ignores the fact that it makes no sense for him to do this unless he believes God, via the Son of Man, will intervene, in which case why would he need the drugs? I think we’re all agreed he believed in the imminence of the Kingdom, so we can’t expect his behavior to be that of an ordinary person trying not to get crucified.

    A prominent gay activist here in New York (a person of some substance, who helped make the legalization of gay marriage possible) just burned himself to death with gasoline to protest our use of fossil fuels. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do this out of religious fervor–there’s no mention of his belonging to any church. There’s really no telling what someone might be capable of–for good or ill–when that person believes the fate of the world rests upon his or her shoulders.

    And such people have been known to do great good. And its opposite.

    As to Rev. Barron, I suspect he was just using your high profile to sell more of his own books.

  10. forthfading  April 18, 2018

    I agree wholeheartedly with you! It is a very unfair critique. I have read the book several times plus listened to it on audiobook, and I get the feeling you specifically choose your words very carefully.

    I have a clarification question. Why is Reza Aslan not considered a scholar in the field? Aslan holds a B.A. in religious studies from Santa Clara University, and a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) from Harvard Divinity School. I ask this question to simply understand what makes someone qualified within the academy to write or teach on a subject. I know I am not a scholar having only a BA in Biblical Studies, but an MTS from Harvard seems like an impressive credential. Thanks

    Best

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2018

      Because he hasn’t done any serious graduate work in the fields of biblical studies, ancient Judaism, Roman history, or any of the other fields relevant to the inquiry. Getting an MTS at Harvard is probably not as big of a deal as it seems. The reason all that matters is that amateur historians make lots of mistakes. You might want to look up my posts on Zealot to see what I mean.

      • godspell  April 19, 2018

        I agree with you about Azlan (who is probably a very brilliant man in other areas), but one thing I learned during my graduate studies is that basically all historians–even very distinguished ones–make lots of mistakes. Which their peers are not slow to inform them of.

        Difference is–and it matters–an amateur historian, and particularly one who has established a name elsewhere, has no peers to do him/her this useful service. Meaning the mistakes go largely uncorrected.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 18, 2018

      When I read Aslan’s Zealot, I did get the sense that he was well-read on the topic of the historical Jesus. About 90% of it seemed pretty solid. However, Aslan’s political agenda (he is a policy wonk, after all, not really a historian) is rather blatant in the central premise of the book. Aslan is basically propounding the old theory that Jesus was a revolutionary, not unlike the Zealots who would later precipitate the war with Rome.

      And why would Aslan find this theory so attractive? Probably because Aslan is a (politically motivated) Muslim, and he’s trying to surreptitiously equate Jesus the Jewish revolutionary with Muhammad the Muslim revolutionary, and, therefore, equating criticism of Muhammad (and by extension, criticism of Muslims) with criticism of Jesus (and by extension, criticism of Christians). In other words, Aslan is indirectly trying to make Christians look like hypocrites.

      That’s the impression I got from reading Zealot and from listening to Aslan speak.

      • Chad Earl  April 23, 2018

        Aslan’s reading of the historical Jesus is very much AGAINST the traditional Muslim understanding of Jesus, his birth, his life and mission, and the events surrounding his (in the Islamic tradition “supposed”) death and resurrection. If his motivation is Islam, he’s completely missed the mark!

        • talmoore
          talmoore  April 24, 2018

          Aslan’s motivation is not necessarily to prove or promote the views of Islam. Rather, his movitation, I would suggest, is to essentially make Christians and Jews look like hypocrites. Aslan is saying — in a roundabout way — “See? Look. Your beloved peacemaker Jesus was, by today’s standards, a religious terrorist, just like those Muslims who you vilify.” He’s making a political policy argument, not a doctrinal one. And if you ever listen to Aslan talk Middle East policy — because, after all, that’s his real day job — then the roman a clef-esqueness of Zealot becomes more apparent. That is, America equals the Roman Empire; the State of Israel equals the corrupt Jerusalem aristocracy and priesthood in cahoots with Rome; the Palestinian Arabs equal the zealous holy warriors who seek to regain their nation from an oppressive occupier. As the expression goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedomfighter. Aslan, in my view, is trying to implant this idea into the reader’s head.

  11. JoeRoark  April 18, 2018

    I research feats of weightlifting. 60 years ago it was claimed that Paul Anderson performed a back lift (crouch under a platform and using the back and legs and braced hands elevate the weight perhaps an inch). I researched this for years and wrote about it to conclude it never happened with the claimed 6,270 lbs.
    My conclusion was met with criticism by those who saw Paul only as a Christian who ran a Boy’s Home and was a good man. I never denied this and it had nothing to do with how much he could lift.
    Fortunately, there were some objective readers, and eventually even Guinness removed the feat from their records book for lack of evidence.
    I know how you feel.

  12. JGonzalezGUS  April 18, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Do you read or follow current critics on Facebook (NT Textual Criticism group) or YouTube? Some critics even create a Dr. Ehrman cartoon character!
    “https://youtu.be/ci6kYFkZCYM” , this one titled “The Defacto Debate Between Dr Bart Ehrman & Jonathan The Autodidact on The Pericope Adulterae”.
    Regards,
    Jose

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2018

      Yeah, someone else pointed that out to me. That person has too much itme on his hands! (But not, I don’t follow what’s happening on the NT Textual Criticism group)

  13. nbraith1975  April 18, 2018

    For your readers (and your) enjoyment – here is a sample from a review of the same book by Michael J. Kruger, President and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC.

    What’s really fun is that Kruger wrote a two-part review. And don’t forget to read the comments on his review. Careful Bart – they may lead to excessive testiness.

    https://www.michaeljkruger.com/bart-ehrmans-worldview-problem/

    “In the end, Ehrman’s worldview is a philosophical mess. He chides others for inserting value-laden statements and then offers his own. He claims to believe in the real existence of good and evil, but never explains where such moral norms come from. He makes sweeping claims about how there is no God who will judge the world while all the while claiming to be agnostic. He says Christians are wrong for being anti-semitic, but never offers a reason for why anti-semitism is wrong in the first place.

    A genuine agnostic would have acknowledged he doesn’t really have anything to offer regarding discussions of God and morality, and good and evil. Indeed, a genuine agnostic would have acknowledged that Christianity might even be right. After all, according to an agnostic, who knows?”

    This site should amuse you Bart:

    http://christianapologeticsalliance.com/2016/08/18/a-beginners-guide-to-understand-and-answer-dr-bart-ehrman/

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2018

      I think that snippet is amusement enough. (E.g. He seems to think that there can’t be an argument against Anti-semitism unless you’re a Christian — even if you’re opposing Christian anti-semitism!. I wonder, at the end of the day, what he’s so afraid of….

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 18, 2018

      “He makes sweeping claims about how there is no God who will judge the world”

      As opposed to making sweeping claims about how there IS a God, I suppose.

  14. ddorner  April 18, 2018

    I’ve never read The Passover Plot, but that theory sounds ridiculous.

    • llamensdor  April 29, 2018

      Hugh Schonfield, author of “The Passover Plot,” was indeed a scholar. His book contains valuable insights, but claiming that Jesus conspired in his own resurrection is ludicrous.

  15. ardeare  April 18, 2018

    Originally, I was going to forego commenting on this thread but as life would have it, I became involved in a back-and-forth with another gentleman yesterday evening.The thrust of his argument was that people like you and N.T. Wright simply got lucky with your popularity and those seeking true and independent scholarship should consult higher authorities, such as Richard Carrier. Here is my final comment to him and will remain so. I hope I did an accurate job of representing your record.

    “Isaac, APRIL 17, 2018 AT 10:18 PM
    I would encourage anyone who reads my comment to google a bit and discover for themselves who the top NT scholars are. Dr. Ehrman has many, many NT scholars who belong to his blog and I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many of them. He chairs the Religious Studies Dept. at North Carolina, which consistently ranks as one of the top programs in the country. His college textbooks are used at Yale University and a gazillion other schools around the nation. He is widely recognized as one of the top authorities of NT history in America. True scholars such as Daniel Wallace (mentioned above) has called him, “one of North America’s leading textual critics” and “one of the most brilliant and creative textual critics I have ever known.” N.T. Wright is a genius. Oft times, his peers have referred to him as the #1 NT scholar in the world. The two of them probably agree on about 85% of NT issues but it’s that other 15% (major issues) that has led each of them to vastly different conclusions. Independently, they are responsible for translating volumes of ancient Greek texts into modern English.

    Richard Carrier is a common Mythicist. He is *not* an NT scholar. His degrees are in ancient history, not NT history. I know of no reputable publication ever asking him to review the works of someone like Ehrman or Wright, although he consistently self-reviews their works and posts them on his blog. Of the thousands of NT scholars in America and Western Europe, he has exactly one supporter, fellow Mythicist, Robert Price.”

    A quick tidbit; I don’t consider N.T.Wright superior to you. I was just offering an honest conveyance of what I have heard and read in British scholarly circles. The real question is…………..do you think I was testy?

  16. jhague  April 18, 2018

    Were you able to respond to Robert Barron with the comments you have on this blog regarding his critique?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2018

      Nah, it wouldn’t have done any good. He does not seem to be a person who listens so much as one who speaks.

  17. royerd  April 18, 2018

    I like this post. I really admire your ability to self reflect on these matters. I find myself getting testy when I think of my former evangelical friends because they always seemed so cock sure of everything and now that i’m not 22 years old, some 35-year later, I still find myself wanting to correct them. I wish I had the ability, like you Bart, to not care what others believe with regard to faith. And I don’t care about most of the world: but these folks seem somehow to need correction. I need to let it go! 🙂

  18. rburos  April 18, 2018

    Yeah his review was rather douchey, but your response was a bit angry. It reads like something one would say over drinks, or what I say about most of the people you debate. It seems out of character from your regular writings, so I question if there was something else that set you off at the time. Even as a Catholic myself, his review was something out of high school.

  19. Iskander Robertson  April 19, 2018

    Dr Ehrman

    “that you may know that the son of man has authority to forgive sins”

    i don’t get this line. he said earlier “why do you RAISE such questions….”

    Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?

    Questions.
    1. is the “authority to forgive sins” LINKED back to how they are forgiven ?
    they are forgiven because the only authority jesus has is to make declaration in the passive “…are forgiven”

    2. why does mark say, “which is easier…” ? is doing the miracle much greater than saying “you are forgiven” ? since the listeners could not say “stand up and walk” then the listeners should say “you are forgiven” is something everyone should do because it is easier?

    3. but if it is easier to say “you are forgiven…” then why is authority to forgive sins required, forgiving is the EASIEst THING one could do?

    4.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2018

      1. the idea may be that the priests in the temple have this authority, and now Jesus is claiming that he does 2. yes, it is possible to see if the miracle was worked but not if the sins were forgiven 3. it’s easy to *say* sins are forgiven but not so easy to say that they really *are* forgiven

      • Iskander Robertson  April 20, 2018

        in mark, is there any place where jesus experiences fatigue while doing miracles? i guess then that “which is easier…” makes sense
        it is more difficult to do the miracle and easier to say “you are forgiven”
        since marks readers could not say to paralysed “take up your pallet and walk” does that mean that mark is saying that christians should tell one another “your sins are forgiven” ?

        if yes, then they don’t need authority, right?

        • Iskander Robertson  April 20, 2018

          sorry, that means that they would think god already authorised them(marks readers ) ?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 22, 2018

          No, no fatigue motif. And no, I don’t think Mark takes a stand on whether Jesus’ followers could pronounce forgiveness or not.

  20. SidDhartha1953  April 24, 2018

    Without having read anything of Fr. Barron’s, other than what you here cited, I’ll venture that he reminds me of a parish priest who said in one of his sermons that the Catholic Church gets to say what the Bible means because they wrote it! Which makes about as much sense to me as saying only people named Homer can understand the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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