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Mythicists and the Crucified Messiah

In my previous post I explained what ancient Jews who were expecting the messiah were expecting.  I do not want to give the impression (one widely held today) that most Jews *were* expecting a messiah.  My sense is that most ancient Jews didn’t spend much time thinking about the matter, any more than most Jews today do.  But for those who did expect a messiah, there were certain expectations.   In this post I want to explain why those expectations relate to the question about whether Jesus existed.

Recall: whatever the specifics of what this, that, or the other Jewish group thought, everyone thought the messiah would be a figure of grandeur and power, one who would be a mighty figure who would rule Israel, the people of God, as a sovereign people under no foreign oppression.  The most popular view was that he would be a mighty military leader and political ruler who would overpower the enemy and set up a kingdom for Israel like that of his ancestor David of old.  Another popular view is that he would not be a mere mortal but a divine cosmic judge of some kind who destroyed all God’s enemies before bringing in the kingdom.  Some thought he would be a powerful priest who led his people through his forceful implementation of divine law based on his interpretations of the Torah.

What does this have to do with Jesus?   The earliest followers of Jesus…

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Does Paul Know that Judas Betrayed Jesus?
Mythicists, Jesus, and the Messiah



  1. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  November 10, 2016

    off topic question
    if they were being persecuted ,is it possible they had is 53 in mind and saw benefit in murder of jesus?
    could IS 53 be used even if they had no details about the crucifixion?

  2. Avatar
    Jim  November 10, 2016

    “Christians spent considerable time and effort trying to convince fellow Jews that Jesus was the messiah despite the fact that he had been crucified.”

    Would this even be conceivable for a “Jerusalem church” to mention something like a crucified messiah within the first 2-4 year’s post crucifixion? I would speculate (I have a low speculation success rate) that some religious (Sanhedrin) policeman would relay any such activity (i.e. we’ve found some Jesus supporters in Jerusalem) to Roman authorities if Jesus had been crucified because of suspected promotion of anti-Roman state views (even in an underground environment).

    I suppose that what I’m wondering about is, whether the idea of Jesus as crucified messiah was initially promoted outside of Judea, say among some early Jewish Jesus followers living outside of Judea like in Damascus?

    I suppose though, that it would have been nice if any writings from the Jerusalem church, if there were any, would have survived.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      It may seem weird, but it appears historically certain that people in Jerusalem *were* claiming this. One thing to emphasize is that Jesus’ crucifixion was not known or talked about among non-believers. It was simply one of three crucifixions that morning. Probably more the next day and the day after. No one took much note of it at all. So a year later (even a month later) probably no one even rememberd it, let alone remembered it well enough to contradict what others were saying about it.

  3. Avatar
    greenbuttonuplift  November 10, 2016

    Hi Bart, could you sketch a background/timeline/evidence we have – as to when you think early christians began to conflate Jesus with the ‘Son of Man’ cosmic figure. Maybe this is where some mythicists get their wires crossed? Looking forward to your new book. Dave

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      I think they came to see Jesus as Son of Man just as soon as they thought he was exalted ot heaven at his resurrection. He’s coming back! He himself is the Son of Man!

      • Avatar
        dankoh  December 1, 2016

        There are lots of places where Jesus refers to himself (or is quoted as referring to himself) as the Son of Man, and others where he says or seems to say that he is not the Son of Man himself, but his job is to herald the coming of the Son of Man. Which is it? (Or, better, which is it more likely to be?)

  4. Avatar
    Michael  November 10, 2016

    Hey Bart, when are we going to read your commentary on the election? Are you thrilled with President-elect Trump? LOL!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      Ha! I’ve obviously been avoiding the subject, even though it is constantly on my mind. But I don’t want the Blog to cater only to those with my particular political views….

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  November 12, 2016

        I am dying to know what you think of the election as well.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  November 12, 2016

          I completely understand that you may not want to post anything political, so if you don’t want to post my comment, I get it; it’s a highly sensitive issue right now. I voted for Hillary, but I can’t say that I really felt all that good about it. I understand why some people voted for Trump, especially living here in Appalachia.

          I haven’t been confident in either candidate for a while now, so even though Trump winning was certainly a surprise, it doesn’t send me into a tizzy or anything. My hope is that our new President will find a way to bring our nation together. I like what Hillary Clinton said in her speech about keeping an open mind and giving him a chance to lead. That’s what I’m trying to do.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 12, 2016

        I won’t get into actual politics, either. But here’s something I found really strange. On *the day before the election* – when I and many other people had already voted, by absentee ballot – my local NBC-affiliate news station told viewers that if we wanted to cast *write-in votes* for President, and have them *counted*, we’d have to choose from a list of names that we could find on the station’s website! We were told the names were of people we’d almost certainly never heard of. We *could*, of course, cast a write-in vote for *anyone*; but the votes would all be lumped together as “Scattered.”

        For something *even more* strange: Back in the Sixties, I wanted to cast a write-in vote for the Presidential candidate of a fringe party that had tried and failed to get on the ballot in my state. We had voting machines then, and I had to ask how I could cast a write-in vote. Would you believe…they handed me a very small piece of paper, and told me I had to write in the names of *all the electors pledged to the candidate*! I made a “scene,” and they finally did, grudgingly, let me write in my one intended name. Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver!

        • Avatar
          dankoh  December 1, 2016

          I was a precinct election official in the last election (in San Francisco), so here is a semi-official perspective: Each state has its own rules about who can be entered as a write-in. In California, we had a list of specific names that could be counted if written in. I’m not sure where the list came from, but almost certainly these people had registered their intent to run in some way. Any other name would not be counted.

          In all states, you are actually voting for a slate of electors. But it almost all cases, it is sufficient to cast a vote for a candidate, with the understanding you are actually voting for electors pledged to support that candidate. (Whether they are bound by that pledge is a different and complex issue, but one which no one has paid much attention to until this election.) Write-in candidates almost certainly do not have a slate of electors, but since there is no chance one of them will win a state, most states don’t bother pointing that out. But technically, that’s what you were doing when you wrote in Cleaver.

      • Avatar
        Judith  November 12, 2016

        You are right! You wrote once about how astounding it is that others’ opinions can be so contrary to the way you think. It’s that situation here. Maybe there are three friends who think as I do. (I live in a very small southern town.) 🙂

        • Avatar
          Judith  November 13, 2016

          See Ramblings on Charity & Religion for April 11, 2015 (10th paragraph)

  5. Avatar
    Tony  November 10, 2016

    The mythicist narrative is obviously much different. The earliest Christian writings come from Paul and he never identifies his Jesus as having been killed by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. That idea only shows up in the decades later, anonymously written, Gospels.

    One powerful argument against the historical Jesus version is precisely that the notion of a crucified criminal being promoted to Messiah would have been considered complete nonsense. The mythicist view is that that is unlikely to ever have happened. The Mythicist alternate hypothesis is that the Gospels are fabricated and that likely there was no historical Jesus.

    The Gospel writers did not invent Jesus – Paul, and his predecessors, had already done that. The initial Gospel author(s) re-interpreted Paul’s heavenly Jesus and placed him on earth between the known historical figures of the Baptist and Pilate.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      I think Paul does refer to Jesus’ death by the civil authorities. That’s what 1 Corinthians 2:8 means. (Paul uses the word “authority” – ARCHON) elsewhere to mean precisely the civil authorities.)

      • Avatar
        Tony  November 12, 2016

        Of course you know the Mythicist argument that the word “archon” used in “the rulers of this age who are about to perish” does not refer to civil authorities, but to Satan and his Demons. In Romans 13 Paul sees the civil authorities as agents of God and certainly not about to perish.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 13, 2016

          My sense is that Romans 13, the only other time Paul uses the word, is certainly about Roman officials.

    • Avatar
      dankoh  December 1, 2016

      If I may step in…. Of course the idea of a crucified messiah was nonsense. And every Jew knew it, including Paul. That is why he and the other Jesus followers would never have invented Jesus, as no Jew (their original audience) would have believed them.

      So they come up with the idea that Jesus was supposed to die and be resurrected, as a way of explaining an event – the crucifixion – that wasn’t supposed to happen, but did. In Paul’s letters, it is clear that he is writing to communities that have already accepted this concept, another sign that Paul did not make it up.

  6. Avatar
    mjt  November 10, 2016

    What confuses me is there really isn’t much talk of ‘The Messiah’ in the Old Testament. Was there a general expectation that passages like Daniel 9 and Isaiah 53 were talking about THE Messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      No, quite the opposite. These passages were not used ot refer to the messiah.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 12, 2016

        Of course, what believers would say now was that those references always *were* about the Messiah, and the Jews didn’t realize it!

        I’m amused by the fact that the two best arguments for the existence of Jesus would *shock* devout Catholics. Jesus had a *brother*? No way! (Though they would, of course, accept James as a “cousin.”) And his followers must have thought of him as the Messiah before he was crucified because the Messiah *wasn’t supposed to be crucified*? They’d *never* accept that!

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  November 10, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, in my Jesus novel I have a character saying, “It’s easier to turn a nobody into a somebody than a somebody into a somebody else.” Do you agree that the fact that Jesus was for the most part a nobody made it easy for the early church to elevate him after death into something more, simply because he wasn’t well-known enough for people to dispute such claims about him?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      Yeah, probably so.

    • Avatar
      nassergayed  November 13, 2016

      If You don’t believe in God, then you obviously don’t believe in Jesus being God or the Son of God. You would be forced to come to the conclusion that he was just the most brilliant religious leader of all time who changed the world and inspired generations, No more, no less. No need to go further.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 15, 2016

        Um, I think many of us would say “less”! I certainly don’t think Jesus was a “brilliant religious leader.” Just a misguided preacher. And while some people in all generations have found Christianity “inspiring,” that had little if anything to do with the actual man.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  December 1, 2016

        I’d go with “less.” If it hadn’t been for Paul. the Jesus movement would probably have died when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem.

  8. Avatar
    living42day  November 10, 2016

    Once the followers of Jesus discovered that he had died “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3; Mark 14:49b) because he had in fact been crucified, how much more of the story did they invent by rewriting OT passages of Scripture? What I have in mind are stories like the baptism–that Jesus was baptized by John is likely a fact but the subsequent theophany is almost certainly a midrashic creation based on a conflation of Isaiah 64:1; Psalm 2:7; Genesis 22:2; and Isaiah 42:1. A similar example is the darkness during the crucifixion–that Jesus was crucified by the Romans is the most widely accepted historical fact that we have concerning Jesus, but the darkness at noon is almost certainly a midrashic creation based on Amos 8:9-10.

    In my view, when one notices how many of the scenes in the gospel accounts appear to be midrashic creations based on OT texts, the data base of probable facts concerning the life of Jesus is greatly diminished. Would you agree or disagree?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      I would say that they shaped and even invented numerous stories about Jesus based on passages from the OT, yes indeed. (and based on other things as well, not just the OT)

  9. Avatar
    blairmcian  November 11, 2016

    Mr. Ehrman, you argue that a made-up messiah would not have been given the experiences that Jesus was said to have had, being killed by Roman authorities rather than having overthrown them. But obviously the alternative, traditional narrative was out of the question since everyone in the Roman Empire (at least) knew that there had been no overthrow. So if a story of a contemporary messiah was to have any credibility it would HAVE to have ended with temporal, physical defeat but some sort of victory in the divine realm, no? If that’s true then I don’t think we can safely assume that there was really a crucified Jesus. And that’s besides the question of whether it’s true that it had never occurred to any Jews that their messiah might be a suffering one.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      The point is that you would not call the one crucified specifically the “messiah.” You might call him something else — the “sacrifice for sins,” the “savior,” or something else — but not “messiah.”

  10. Avatar
    VincitOmniaVeritas  November 11, 2016

    It isn’t just that Jesus being crucified would not be of any benefit to a mythicist invention of him, but also other historical details mentioned by Paul, and thus clearly known by him and other followers between 35 and 50 AD. In 1 Corinthians 11:23, Paul clearly states that Jesus was betrayed on the night he gave the Last Supper. Do you agree that there would be no benefit in spreading the Christian message by stating that some of Jesus’ own followers betrayed him ? Potential converts would have a hard time believing Paul about Jesus when Jesus’ own followers sold him out, let alone Paul himself persecuting them. This is why I find these historical details to be accurate about the historical Jesus. This also matches up with descriptions of radical preachers, “magicians”, prophets or “impostors” (as Josephus describes them) in the area mentioned in Antiquities of the Jews and Jewish War to have been in the area between 30-45 AD, with followers stated to have abandoned some of them.

    Furthermore, just as James, Simon and John were extremely common names in the circles of those anonymous prohpets/”impostors”, and some of the named ones, so was the name of “Jesus” as evidenced by the many Jesuses named by Josephus. Based on sheer probability alone, one of those anonymous prophets/”impostors” between 30 and 45 AD mentioned by Josephus to have “filled in the countryside” and “deluded the multitude” almost certainly had to have been named Jesus. This is the Jesus whom Simon Peter, John and James followed.

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  November 11, 2016

    No further questions, your honour.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 11, 2016

    Very convincing argument! Did Price have a response?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      I’m sure he does have one — I’ve never met a mythicist yet without a response! But he didn’t offer one in the debate.

  13. Avatar
    Stephen  November 11, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    You say that Jews by and large would reject a crucified Messiah. Accepted, but even if Jesus had not been crucified wouldn’t there have been other reasons to deny him? There were Messianic criteria, right? Could just any pious first century Palestinian peasant up and declare himself Messiah and be taken seriously? (Isn’t this why his family thought he was crazy in Mark?) I can see why some sort of resurrection experience might have convinced Jesus’ followers that he was the Messiah but what would have made them accept him as the Messiah before he died? For example wouldn’t the fact that he was from Nazareth been a disqualifier in and of itself?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      Sure, anyone could claim to be the future king. But if they didn’t do things kings did, then probably they wouldn’t have a huge following.

  14. Avatar
    doug  November 11, 2016

    If someone had made up Jesus, one might think they would have written that he lived on to spread his message in other places. Or if he had to die, at least have him die as a hero saving people’s lives, not as a humiliated criminal.

  15. Avatar
    llamensdor  November 12, 2016

    I do think you’re right that the Jews didn’t believe Jesus could possibly be the messiah because he was crucified. However some commentators I have heard and/or spoken to also believe that the Jews felt nothing but revulsion for Jesus BECAUSE he was crucified. When I have suggested to these folks that Jews would have felt sympathy for a fellow Jew who was tortured and crucified, they have responded rather angrily, insisting that the Jews of that era would have felt nothing but contempt for this criminal. These commentators seem to have a vital stake in this assertion, I suppose because it buffers their argument that the Jews rejected Jesus. When I have mentioned that large numbers of Jews were crucified by the Romans, at times because they had actually rebelled against Roman rule, and some times because, although the Romans were certain that some individual Jews were rebels, it wa a good idea to slaughter a few to keep the rest in check. In some cases the crucified ones might have occupied a murky area between mere brigands and true patriots, it is not conceivable to me that the Jewish people of that era despised and rejected any Jew who was crucified. Many were their friends, family, associates, and in my understanding of Jewish ethical standards, and plain, natural human sympathy, they would have felt sorrow and compassion for these poor wretches,
    Prior to the execution by Nazis of some Jews by stuffing them in ovens, Jewish law generally was opposed to cremation, but since such deaths had become commonplace and Jews could not believe God would reject these tormented and exterminated people, the ban on cremation has been lifted by Jews of most persuasions. There is not a perfect equivalence between Roman crucifixion and latter day slaughter in gas chambers, but in both cases some of those subjected to this brutality were innocents — not necessarily, kings, or priests or otherwise heroes, but victimized ordinary human beings. It’ may seen appropriate that people rejected any claim to messiahhood for a crucified Jew, but to revile this person because of his horrible death is to compound a felony. Your thoughts please?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2016

      Interesting comments. But I’m not sure what you’re asking me!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  November 13, 2016

        Do you believe that many (maybe most) 1st century Jews didn’t only conclude that Jesus couldn’t have been the messiah because he was crucified, but actually despised him as a crucified criminal, rather than sympathizing with him as as human being who had been tortured and murdered? This seems to be a very important issue to some scholars who are members or otherwise affiliated with the Jesus Seminar.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 13, 2016


          • Avatar
            llamensdor  November 14, 2016

            I can’t tell if you’re saying “yup” the Jews despised him, or “Yup” this seems vital to the Jesus Seminar folks or both. Please clarify.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 14, 2016

            I was saying Yup! to your question.

  16. Avatar
    unique  November 12, 2016

    i heard all the comment about jesus but there is one thing that bother me all that you have said where is the
    evidence where is the proof that jesus ever walk this earth it have been said jesus done this he done that but where the proof there is nothing on record that you can put your hand on that point to him every thing that i found
    every thing that i read point to the egypt horus it seem to my that jesus was a copy of horus you can find evidence
    of horus and places where he have been but when it come to jesus and the people in the bible show me some proof
    where they exist show me one piece of evidence that any person in the bible exist and i will show you where it point back to someone in egypt

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2016

      I’ve devoted a number of my books to these questions. You might start with Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • Avatar
        unique  November 16, 2016

        ok thank you i just want to get some truth where do i find the books

  17. Avatar
    bradseggie  November 15, 2016

    You wouldn’t invent a messiah who everybody knows was a bastard (“Son of Mary”), and then create conflicting genealogies to try and connect him to David.

    You wouldn’t invent a messiah who everybody knew was from Nazareth (“Jesus of Nazareth”) but needed to be from Bethlehem, and then try to shoehorn him into Bethlehem with conflicting stories.

    You wouldn’t invent a messiah who everybody knew was baptized by John the Baptist into a new offshoot religion, and then employ damage control by having John say that somebody much greater is coming after him and he’s not even worthy to buckle his shoes.

    Seems obvious to me.

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