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Paul, Jesus, and the Messiah

My current thread on the blog is less like a thread and more like a tapestry.  Ultimately it is all related to the book I’m now working on, The Triumph of Christianity, which is interested in the question of how the Christian movement that started with just a couple of dozen people after Jesus’ death (i.e., those who almost right away, soon thereafter, came to believe he had been raised from the dead) came to be a prominent religion by the early fourth century and the official religion of the Roman state by the end of the fourth century.  Good questions!  I just hope I can give some good answers!

Scholars have long worked on the problem, of course, and there are many parts to the overall picture.  Which is why this thread is a tapestry.  At present (on the blog) I am wrestling with the importance of the apostle Paul, and am ruminating on his significance for the early Christian movement.  And the first thing that I noted about him is that before he himself came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, he was an avid and violent persecutor of the church.   And so my two questions (which I think I asked maybe two weeks ago!): Why was he persecuting the church?  And how was he doing so?

I have long had a strong opinion about the first question and only some vague ideas about the second.  So, briefly, why was Paul so miffed about what the followers of Jesus were saying about him.

The first thing to stress is that it would not have been…

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  1. Avatar
    jhague  June 7, 2016

    This post made me think about your opinion on whether Saul and David were historical people or just made up for the Jewish writings?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      I think David was a real person, an actual king. But I think the legends about him and about Saul were not closely tied to who and what he really was. For that I don’t think we have any information.

      • TWood
        TWood  June 9, 2016

        I assume you think David’s son built a real temple. Some say it was mythical and that the second temple was actually the first actual temple. Is the general consensus among scholars that Solomon’s Temple really existed and was really destroyed by the Babylonians?

        • Avatar
          qaelith2112  June 9, 2016

          The first temple seems feasible to me. Look at the specified dimensions — it isn’t much bigger than a decent sized house of today!! Apart from the luxurious decorating, even a decent size tribe should be able to construct that.

  2. Avatar
    Lee Palo  June 7, 2016

    I’ve been enjoying this thread immensely, and am looking forward to hearing more in the future. It has got me thinking about a lot of the issues you have raised.

    I can believe the Christian movement began with a few and, as a movement, grew at a variable rate over time. I am wondering if it is plausible that a lot of early growth of the movement happened very quickly. Maybe not the way Acts indicates, but very quickly nonetheless. It strikes me that the most receptive audience for the very earliest growth would have been among those Jews who were followers of Jesus’ ministry, and, or, had heard him speak or heal. Given the diversity of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus followers, I would presume, came largely from those sympathetic to a more Pharisaic Judaism, so that within that smaller subset of Pharisaic Judaism there would be a lot of easy converts. Once that had been exhausted, however, I would presume that growth among Jews would become far and away more difficult (for reasons I am sure you will be addressing very shortly). I’m not sure how else to explain such rapid early growth that would make the early Christian movement significant enough in numbers to make it worthwhile for Paul to persecute them (otherwise, why waste time with a few on the fringes of Judaism).

    Unless perhaps the earliest Christians took their message very quickly to Gentiles in a way that the movement was forsaking “the works of the Law” (what made Jews uniquely Jewish). I could see Paul, being the zealously observant Jew that he was, being bothered about even a small movement exhorting its members not to observe some aspects of Torah. It might also explain why Paul had a complete reversal of opinion after his “encounter” with Jesus. If he was persecuting Christians for forsaking some aspects of Torah observance, then realized he was wrong, it would explain why he spoke so strongly later about Gentiles not needing to become Jews before joining the Christian movement.

    Or maybe the truth is a mix of the two. Did the earliest Christians open up to proselytizing Gentiles almost immediately, or did that come only after they had exhausted the minority of Jews who would have been sympathetic to the Christian movement due to their following of Jesus ministry? I’m guessing the early Christians might have been able to make some headway with other Jews, but that would be very difficult and slow going.

    I am excited to hear more of your thoughts on the matter.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      I think the growth rate at the very beginning was very high, for a variety of reasons. It’s clear from Paul’s letters that there were Christian churches in major urban areas of the eastern Mediterranean by the 50s. He personally knows 26 people in the Roman church alone, and that was a church he didn’t found and had never visited!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 10, 2016

      Not sure if you are not doing this but we need to keep in mind that people who followed Jesus and his “ministry” while he was alive were not Christians merely in virtue of that.

  3. Avatar
    Scott  June 7, 2016

    Great “tapestry” about a subject in which many on this blog are very much interested: just how did Christianity get to where it is today. This will be a nice extension to “How Jesus Became God”

  4. Avatar
    Scott  June 7, 2016

    The image I get when you talk about a prophet anointing the new king is very evocative. God has actually spoken to his chosen prophet and said,” That guy over there. I want HIM!”

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  June 7, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I realized a while ago that the Hebrew word for “Anointed” sounded very similar to the word for “Savior” — (מָשִׁיחַ) “Moshi’ach” vs (מוֹשִׁיעַ) “Moshi’a”, respectively. I’ve always wondered if that meant anything. Nobody I’ve ever read had made anything of it. Must just be a coincidence, I guess. Or is it? The same words in Greek don’t sound similar at all (Christ vs Soter), but very often Jesus is call both Christ and Savior. Yeshu’a Moshi’ach wa-Moshi’a…hmmm…

  6. Avatar
    john76  June 7, 2016

    Maybe what made Jesus the anointed one for the first Christians was not that he was going to overthrow Roman rule, but that he had atoned for the sin debt of mankind and hence it was the end of the world and he was the “first fruits” of the general resurrection. Maybe after Jesus died some of his followers had visions of him, and searched scripture for what that meant. Maybe they came upon Isaiah 53 about the suffering servant and that “by his stripes we are healed,” and so thought this is what Jesus’ death meant – that his death paid for our sins. We know the first Christians thought Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection was prefigured in scriptures, since Paul said “3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,… (1 Cor 15:3-4).” We know that it may have been prefigured in scripture (or the first Christian thought it was prefigured in scripture) that there would be some suffering to overcome Satan, because scripture says ” He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel (Genesis 3:15).” We know that for the first Christians Jesus atoning death signalled the beginning of the end and the advent of the general resurrection, since Matthew said after Jesus died that “…51At that moment the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked and the rocks were split. 52The tombs broke open, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After Jesus’ resurrection, when they had come out of the tombs, they entered the holy city and appeared to many people.… (Matthew 27:51-53).” Mark’s portrayal of the death of Jesus was one of reconciling humanity to God through atonement. Upon Jesus’ death, the tearing of the veil of the temple symbolized the removing of the barrier between people and God. The words of the Roman soldier that “Jesus was truly the son of God” symbolized the reconciling of the differences between Jews and Gentiles. The women being the witnesses to the empty tomb reflected the eroding of the inferior place of women and the unreliability of the testimony of women in the eyes of God. Hence, on this point, Paul also said “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).”

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 10, 2016

      Except that Jesus was never anointed by a prophet, was he? Jews believed there was one Savior–God Himself–who could decide whether they would make it into God’s Kingdom, Heaven or whatever. Nor did Jews believe (by then) in human sacrifice. Plus, most Jews didn’t mean by “salvation” what Christians at least came to mean by it: the idea of messiah had nothing to do with offering redemption from the wages of sin.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  June 7, 2016

    This begs an interesting question.

    The story of the woman in Bethany (unnamed in most accounts, sometimes believed to be Mary Magdalene) who poured expensive perfume on the head of Jesus is in all four gospels, though the story differs greatly from one to the next.

    The perfume in question is called nard, which is apparently an oil derived from a plant. Jesus was anointed with oil by this woman. She never explains why she did it. Could she have in fact believed he was the Messiah?

    The point of the story as presented is that people are angry this woman has wasted so much money on a pointless luxury, when she could have given that money to the poor. In three of the four versions, Jesus said she is anointing him for his burial (meaning that he believes he’s going to die soon).

    In Luke’s he launches into another parable about the forgiveness of sins, and those present are shocked he is claiming to be able to forgive this woman’s sins. Luke, as you’ve many times pointed out, took a very distinct view of the gospel story and the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. He did not think Jesus had to die to atone for our sins. Therefore, Jesus must have had the power to forgive sins while still alive.

    I find it hard to believe this story, so charming and real, didn’t happen in some form. It’s too odd, too out of left field, to be an invention. And if the point was that Jesus was Messiah, the anointed one–well, they’d have had a man anointing him. Not a woman.

    So a woman Jesus may or may not have known came into a house he was staying at, probably in Bethany, poured expensive perfumed oil on his head, while weeping. She may have been someone with a sinful past, seeking some kind of absolution. She may just have had a very strong feeling about Jesus, and had no other way of expressing her feelings, making her sincerity clear.

    I would assume the gospel writers were equally mystified by the encounter, having read or heard earlier versions of it, and felt a need to explain it, fit it into the narrative each is trying to put across. But that doesn’t mean Jesus couldn’t have said that she was preparing him for burial. There does seem to have been a custom of anointing dead bodies with perfume prior to burial (given the climate, that seems like a sensible custom to have). The analogy would have occurred to Jesus instantly. We don’t have to believe this means he knew he’d be crucified, though it certainly does suggest at least the possibility of imminent death was in his mind.

    But what I wonder about is what was in her mind.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      I think the story originated as a way of saying that someone — notably an unnamed woman, not a named male disciple! — realized that Jesus had to die (contrary to what everyone else thought). It’s a great story. But I don’t think it’s a historical recollection. Lots of great stories — some of the best — aren’t….

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 9, 2016

        I don’t think they’d have picked this story for that, Bart. And if that’s the case, why does Luke put an entirely different significance on it? Why have it in Luke’s gospel at all? They don’t all use the same stories–they all cherrypick to some extent. What makes this story so important? It doesn’t really make the point Luke is trying to make at all well.

        So the explanation could be that this was a story well known to have happened, something people had talked about, and so he had to try and find an interpretation of it that didn’t clash with his belief that Jesus’ death was not necessary for our redemption.

        Of course they all shaped the story (Mark probably the least) to make a point. But it’s in all four gospels. And it sticks out a bit in all of them. It’s a very human story. Never does Jesus seem less like a god and more like a man than here. And not a humble man, either. The spontaneous gesture simultaneously pleases and sobers him.

        Do you have any textual basis for saying it’s an invention? This is very far from being the most amazing story in the gospels, you must admit. There’s no miracle. The woman was probably no one important, or her name would be mentioned in all accounts (and if she was not rich, how could she afford such a gift? Perhaps she had led a sinful life).

        It’s hard to see how they’d pick a woman–and one of such eccentric behavior–to be the bearer of such a message. Unless something like this was known to have happened, and they all had to make sense of it.

        I’ll say it once more–Jesus would have to be an idiot not to think he could die soon, after what happened to John the Baptist. The fact that he shows some presentiment of death hardly discredits the story. If Jesus was a man, then he knew he was mortal.

  8. Avatar
    rburos  June 7, 2016

    I’ll be looking for your book with mixed emotions because for me it is THE question. How did this little Jesus movement eventually come to convince the emperor it was worth his time to be counted among them? I can’t wait, but once you’re through I’ll need to find a new research direction.

    I don’t see your gift as being simply your ability to research and present your findings in a coherent manner. Of course that is required, but it is your ability to take that data and tell a truly meaningful story that has made you so important. Some (like my priest) would say that is what makes you so dangerous. Either way, you continue to have all of our gratitude.

  9. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  June 7, 2016

    Maybe another reason for Jews to oppose and persecute people that proclaimed a crucified man was the messiah is that they (the Jews) probably thought it was better to stay out of trouble with the ones responsible for the crucifiction. :o)

  10. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  June 8, 2016

    What was the position or authority of a prophet that he could pour oil on someone’s head and pronounce him king and have that accepted? Or is it more likely the king came to power some other way (the usual intrigue and killing) and the anointing story was invented to justify his rule? I’m guessing the latter, but that doesn’t mean people didn’t believe there were prophets anointing kings and that was the pattern.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      Yes, the assumption is the prophet (by definition) was working under instructions from God himself.

  11. Avatar
    marcrm68  June 8, 2016

    Perhaps Paul was miffed because the earliest Christians were calling a mythological Jesus the Messiah, a Jesus that could only be seen in visions, and Paul thought that only a real man could fulfill that roll !… Until of course, he started having visions of his own…


  12. Avatar
    Juju_114  June 8, 2016

    Great post! Recently I have come across Dr. Micheal Heiser’s claim that jews of the first century believe in some sort of two powers in heaven. He gets this idea from Dr. Alan Segal’s book ‘Two powers in Heaven’, I believe you are familiar with it. On his website, Dr. Heiser’s says, “Segal argued that the two powers idea was not deemed heretical in Jewish theology until the second century C.E. He carefully traced the roots of the teaching back into the Second Temple era (ca. 200 B.C.E.).” The idea that the jews had a binitarian view of god is very new and confusing to me since I always thought they were unitarians. What evidence does Dr. Heiser and Dr. Segal base these claims on and how does this connect with the formation of the trinity? I ask this because if this is true, then it could be possible that Paul incorporated this idea with respects to Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      Segal’s book is a terrific work of serious scholarship. I deal with these issues a bit in my book How Jesus Became God.

      • Avatar
        Juju_114  June 9, 2016

        I currently have the book now and it seems like a well written book. However, because of it high scholarly content, it’s not really an easy read for me. It’s hard for me to pin point what he is basing his claims on. Is he reading ancient stories and finding parallels in them or are there eye witnesses that actually wrote about this? I was wondering if you had any insight on how widespread this belief was and what evidence does he base these claims on. I am really looking forward to reading your book after I finish Forged.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 8, 2016

    As always, very interesting. More cognitive dissonance with ancient people having to make creative modifications to sustain their views after the destruction of Jerusalem and then again after the Messiah was crucified. Keep going!

    One thing I really like about you is that you are certain about some things, but clearly and humbly admit when you have some uncertainty about an issue, in this case the issue of how Paul was persecuting Christians..

  14. Avatar
    Cracker  June 12, 2016

    Talmud refers to crucified Messiah: Sanhedrin 98b, Sanhedrin 93b, Sukkah 52a and b. How likely it would be that later Jews started saying about Messiah exactly what Christians were saying? I think that’s improbable.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 13, 2016

      The most striking thing to me is that you don’t have references to a crucified messiah *before* Christians were saying the messiah was crucified.

  15. Avatar
    rspielmann  July 1, 2016

    This is great. I just recently joined. Just one question: Are you familiar with Barrie Wilson’s HOW JESUS BECAME CHRISTIAN and, if so, how compelling do you find his argument that much of Acts is revisionist history? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2016

      I haven’t read it (I tend not to read trade books, just scholarship). But I certainly agree that Acts is not disinterested history but is “revisionist”

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  July 2, 2016

      Do you agree with Wilson that Jesus became Christian? To me, that would mean that Jesus believed himself to be a sinner and believed he could be saved by believing in his own death and resurrection. Makes no sense.

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