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Readers’ Mailbag December 18, 2015


It is time for my weekly Readers’ Mailbag.   If you too have a question you would like me to address – on much of anything at all! – let me know, either by sending me an email or by commenting on this post.  I’ll be dealing with two questions today, one on dealing with where apocalyptic views came from, the other with my personal experience as a born-again Christian who had been raised Episcopalian.


QUESTION:  Was there something in the air roughly 2000 years ago that gave rise to apocalyptic beliefs? Was the world uniquely viewed as a ‘hell on earth’ requiring imminent Godly intervention, or are such views one of those ‘hardy perennials’ that exist all the time with deluded individuals perceiving themselves as possessing unique insight into the mind of God and so qualified to opinions on The Plan?


RESPONSE:  I suppose the answer is both Yes and Yes!  There certainly was a historical and cultural context from which apocalypticism emerged.  Scholars of ancient Judaism have traced the origins of the apocalyptic worldview back to the time of the Maccabean Revolt, which occurred about two centuries before the days of Jesus.  I won’t go into all the ins and outs of this major event in ancient Jewish history, except to say that at the time Judea was controlled by Syria, whose king, Antiochus Epiphanes, was determined to unify his realm by forcing Greek culture on all its inhabitants.  This meant, for Jews, that they were not allowed to keep their distinctive laws and customs, such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher diet, and so on.   The Jews revolted under a family of guerilla warriors known as the Maccabees, and they ended up driving Syria out of the Promised Land and establishing Israel as a sovereign state (which lasted for about a century, until the conquest by the Romans in 66 BCE).

Jewish thinkers during the time of Syrian domination were trying to understand …

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Christians, Muslims, and God: Wheaton College in the News
Readers’ Mailbag December 11, 2015



  1. Avatar
    godspell  December 18, 2015

    Infant baptism could stem from the writings of Augustine, who reasoned that if baptism was essential to salvation, anyone not baptized–at any age–must therefore be damned. He didn’t like this notion, but he felt it was logically inescapable.

    This is how ‘limbo’ came into being–a way to get around unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans burning in hell, while still reserving heaven for baptized observant Christians.

    Irving Stone’s biography of Clarence Darrow mentions an incident relating to the Scopes Trial, where an itinerant evangelist preacher was haranguing a weeping couple whose baby had just died, saying that because they’d failed to get him baptized, he was burning in hellfire right now. The man who reported this told the preacher this was just horrible superstition, to which the preacher replied “H’its our religion and we’re gonna stick with it.” No specific info about what denomination he was from–a backwoods preacher like that might very well not have any specific affiliation (just a bible he interpreted for himself).

    This is one area where I happen to agree more with the Baptists than with the Catholic Church I was raised in. Infant baptisms are lovely ceremonies, and there’s nothing wrong with them, but it is still a remnant of an era that believed in infant damnation (or at the very least, exclusion). The idea has never really been formally renounced by the church, though I guarantee you that no priest I ever met would have ever told grieving parents their dead baby was anywhere but heaven.

    I suppose though this could be one reason for Catholics being so strongly against abortion–no way to baptize the unborn.

    Sometimes I really get tired of the way people tie themselves in knots over things that don’t matter.

  2. Avatar
    chiribi  December 18, 2015

    I have wanted to know your take on what Jesus looked like. I have read about the issue, but value your opinions particularly (even though I am a Christian).

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2015

      Apart from him looking like other first century Palestinian Jews, I’d say we have no clue.

  3. Avatar
    Thracomac  December 18, 2015

    Wouldn’t the Jews in Babylon have come into contact with Zoroastrian apocalyptic thought?

  4. Avatar
    webattorney  December 18, 2015

    To the first questioner: If you view regular TV programs, you could very well think the world will end soon. Lol There are always people who believe this world will end, and they know what others don’t. Now, closest I came to believe in a supernatural being was when I saw how Einstein came up with his General and Special Theories. I was thinking “how the hell could a human being come up with such extraordinary theories from his observations? There must have been some God who helped him.” It’s literally mind blowing to see the process of how Einstein, based on just pure thought experiments, came up with Theories which changed the course of mankind.

  5. Avatar
    crucker  December 18, 2015

    Romans 1:26-27 has often been one of the “clobber verses” fundamentalists use against homosexuality. I’ve heard counter arguments reference the verses earlier in the chapter to argue that Paul was not condemning homosexuality in general, but was condemning idolatry, and the sexual acts described were part of this idolatry (whether it be temple prostitutes, ritualistic orgies, etc.).

    Does this argument carry historical merit? Can you describe particular first century cults/religions in the region that would fit the descriptions Paul gives in Romans 1 (i.e. the sexual acts, worshipping “the creature”, exchanging God for images of mortal man and birds and animals, etc.)? If these existed, would it be safe to assume the church in Rome would have been well aware what Paul was referencing here?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2015

      This is a complicated topic, but hte short response is that the ancient world had no concept of homosexuality, because it did not have a concept of sexual orientation. It did know about same-sex sex acts, but the basis for understanding such activity was *entirely* different from the modern basis.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  December 20, 2015

        That’s a topic I’d like to understand more. Jonathan and David’s relationship is interesting.

      • Avatar
        brandon284  December 21, 2015

        I’m sure this topic is quite complex but further extrapolation of Romans and homosexuality would be very interesting I think. Perhaps in a future mailbag? I sympathize with many readers that this response to queries is magnificent.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 18, 2015

    That’s a great explanation of the origin of apocalypticism…I’d never really understood the historical background, the extent of persecution by the Syrians. Glad someone asked the question!

  7. Avatar
    Eric  December 18, 2015

    Excellent! Your response to the first question fills an understanding gap I have been trying to address since before I joined your blog years back. I’ve tried to understand what were widespread jewish expectations that the jesus story did fulfill, versus what were “newly made” ideas.

    the relatively recent introduction of duality makes sense now that you tie it to the disconnect form prophetic norm (punishment for straying versus punishment for obedience). I always wondered why there was no devil in the Old testament and yet the New is lousy with the fellow. Where did that come from? Now I think I know.

    And the clarification that Jewish apocalypsists foresaw a general ressurection 9and the rationale for it) helps explain the openness to the idea of Jesus’ Resurrection — they were expecting resurrections, so he was just the first (fruits). Christians didn’t have to make that up out of whole cloth (and then try to sell it to completely flabbergasted Jewish audiences).

  8. Avatar
    Pegill7  December 18, 2015

    In his book, Secret Origins of the Bible, Tim Callahan says, “In his introduction to the first epistle of Peter, Bruce Metzger, New Testament editor of the Oxford Annotated Bible, supports the Petrine authorship of the epistle and points out that it was likely to have been written in Rome at the time of Nero’s persecutions in 64 CE.” Did Bruce actually say this, and if, so, did his position on this issue ever change?

  9. Jeff
    Jeff  December 18, 2015

    Bart, The mailbag is a sweet addition to the blog; a fruit salad of juicy interesting tidbits. I’m always looking forward to the next one. If you thought of it yourself, congratulations! If someone else suggested it, THANK HER AGAIN!

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  December 18, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, I have a question. In the NT one of Jesus’ disciples is given the epithet Simeon the Zealot. And, according to Josephus, Judas of Galilee, one of the putative founders of the Zealot movement, had a son named Simeon who so happened to be executed for sedition in 46 CE. What are the chances that these two Simeons are the same man?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2015

      It was a common name. But Zealots already by 46 CE? Probably not.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 19, 2015

        Yes, but Simeon the Zealot is called Simeon THE ZEALOT in the NT, so the implication is someone could, in fact, be called a zealot pre-30 CE. What are we to make of that? Must it be an anachronism?

        Also, what are the chances that the Jairus of the healing story (Mark 5:21–43, Matthew 9:18–26, Luke 8:40–56) is the same as the father of Eleazer ben Yair, leader of the Sicarii? I mean, Simeon and Yair were, indeed, common names back then, but this intricate web of apocalyptic Jewish rebels is kind of oddly coincidental, isn’t it?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 21, 2015

          The New Testament Gospels were all written after 70 CE.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  December 24, 2015

            The GREEK Gospels were written after 70 CE (although I disagree with most scholars in that I think Mark was composed in the early 60s, and that Luke-Acts was composed in the late 60s, probably right at the outset of the first Jewish rebellion). The original Aramaic document that all the synoptics are based on, however, could go back as far as the 40s. In fact, the nickname Simeon the Zealot rolls off the tongue MUCH better in Aramaic/Hebrew, שמעון קַנאָן — Shim’on Qan’on — “Zealous Simon”, which suggests that this was, in fact, Simeon the Zealot’s actual epithet. Jesus and the disciples actually called him Simeon the Zealot. Pre-30s!

          • Bart
            Bart  December 24, 2015

            The Gospels are not based on an Aramaic Gospel; they are almost certainly original Greek composition. There’s really not much debate about that among linguists steeped in both languages.

  11. Avatar
    Prizm  December 19, 2015

    I’m not convinced whether most protestant groups practice infant baptism..

    The Assemblies of God claims some 60 million attendees, and they don’t practice infant baptism. Neither do Foursquare, Church of Christ, UPC, or any other pentecostal groups. Apparently there are some 241 million pentecostals worldwide. Of course, the baptists don’t either as you mentioned, and one estimate puts them at over 100 million adherents. So that’s a hefty sum (400+ million) of protestants that don’t do infant baptism.

    I have a question for the mailbag though (as it happens, it’s somewhat related to baptism):
    What secular evidence is there of John the Baptist, and is there more non-biblical evidence of John than Jesus? Also can you provide some thoughts regarding the John the Baptist/Elijah connection. It’s a bit odd how the gospel authors (and Jesus) say John came in the spirit of Elijah (as per the last couple verses of Malachi), yet John himself explicitly denies this.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2015

      Ah, interesting, right! But I’m not arguing that most Protestants practice infant baptism. I’m arguing that most Protestant denominations do.

      I’ll add your question to the bag!

  12. Avatar
    Helmut  December 19, 2015

    Wheaton College was in the news this past week. Apparently one of the professors was suspended because she claimed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Also, she wore a hijab to show solidarity with Muslims. You can read more about it at http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/12/16/3732884/wheaton-suspends-professor-same-god/
    I have believed the same, that the Christian God and the Muslim God are one and the same. Could you comment on this in your next Readers’ Mailbag?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2015

      It’s not really a question, so I won’t deal with it on the mailbag. But yes, it’s remarkable that this has happened. But if you know evangelical Christians well enough, it’s not so remarkable. They can be extremely territorial. But this is clearly not the way to world peace and social harmony!

      • Avatar
        Judith  December 19, 2015

        George Bush stated Muslims and Christians worship the same god back in 2003.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 21, 2015

          Yeah, he wouldn’t have been admitted to Wheaton, let alone allowed on the faculty! 🙂

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 19, 2015

    The Friday mailbag continues to be my favorite part of this website. Keep it up!

  14. Avatar
    dragonfly  December 19, 2015

    So I’m assuming Daniel was written during the reign of Antiochus (the arrogant little bastard). The idea of a coming cosmic judge must have been in circulation before Daniel was written. My question is when does this cosmic judge first get the title “The Son of Man”? Was it later inspired by Daniel’s “one like a son of man” or did he choose that description to elude to what some people were already calling “the son of man”? Or is it all just a coincidence and the two are unrelated?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2015

      Yup, almost certainly inspired by Daniel 7. I’ll say more about it in later posts.

  15. Avatar
    Omar6741  December 19, 2015

    Professor Ehrman:
    I keep hearing people say that one of the decisive results of modern scholarship has been the realization that the Jewishness of Jesus is central to understanding him. My first question is: why was this ever in doubt?
    It seems there must be something in the portrayal of Jesus in the NT that goes beyond whatever was standard in the Judaism of the time; otherwise, how could anyone have failed, for so long, to see his Jewishness as a key to understanding his life?
    My second question is: what is it in the NT portrayal of Jesus that tends to obscure the centrality of his Jewishness?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2015

      The simple answer is that it was in doubt because Christians throughout history had such a deep hatred of Jews and all things Jewish! Second question: mainly the “anti-Jewish” comments of some passages, such as John 8. Maybe I’ll deal with these questions in the weekly mailbag.

  16. Avatar
    jrhislb  December 19, 2015

    Surely a few people may have been born to Christian parents during Paul’s lifetime? Or people who converted may have had infant children. Do you think they would have been baptized?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2015

      In any event, there’s no evidence to suggest they baptized their babies at that stage of history.

  17. Avatar
    Steefen  December 20, 2015

    Bart D. Ehrman rejects the claim of Caesar’s Messiah that the Flavian Emperors invented Jesus. I agree. They did not invent him, they and Josephus hijacked him. Josephus pulled the Star of Bethlehem from Jesus and attributed the Star Prophecy to Vespasian.

    However, Joseph Atwill has compared the outline of events in the gospels with the outline of events in the works of Josephus. His findings supports what Dr. Ehrman does put forth: the gospels were not written by Matthew and John, followers of Jesus, Mark, a friend of Peter and Luke, a friend of Paul.

    Here is Atwill’s podcast of appreciation of one of his readers exploring the comparisons further.

    The results of the comparison of outlines demolishes the resistance that remains after Dr. Ehrman has given his reasons for the gospels not being written by two followers, a friend of a follower, and a friend of Paul.

    So, no, Matthew and John did not write their gospels in their elder years.

    Dr. Ehrman, should the Society of Biblical Literature, yourself, and New Testament professors in seminaries, theological schools, and colleges explore the comparison?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2015

      I’m afraid Atwill has never been and never will be taken seriously by the experts in the Society of Biblical Literature, and for good reason. He simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about half the time.

  18. John4
    John4  December 20, 2015

    Wonderful Bart 🙂

    I have a question for your reader’s mailbag.

    In your New Testament textbook, you write the following:

    “Contrary to what Luke indicates, historians have long known from several ancient inscriptions, the Roman historian Tacitus, and the Jewish historian Josephus that Quirinius was not the governor of Syria until 6 C.E., fully ten years after Herod the Great died. If Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, then Quirinius was not the Syrian governor.”

    I’m curious, Bart, as to how our fundamentalist friends reconcile this apparent discrepancy between scripture and history.

    Many, many thanks! 🙂

    BTW, I was thrilled to find an electronic version of your textbook available for free downloading. I think this was the site: http://maximumbook.org/search/?query=The%20New%20Testament:%20A%20Historical%20Introduction%20to%20the%20Early%20Christian%20Writings

  19. Avatar
    mikehamm123  December 20, 2015

    Bart, I have a question about your thoughts on Jesus the philosopher.

    Based on what we know of his teachings, how radical was he? How original were his teachings?

    Did he represent a sudden shift from “Axial Age” thought, or was he merely part of an evolution of ideas?

    I don’t mean his teachings about our relationship with God, so much as ethics, our relationship with each other, the poor, etc.

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2015

      Most of his ethical ideas were found elsewhere; his stress on Love your neighbor as yourself, of course, is straight out of the Hebrew Bible; other teachings such as the Golden Rule are widely found (though in varying forms). What makes him stand out is his situating of these ethical teachings in an apocalyptic context.

      • Avatar
        mikehamm123  December 22, 2015

        Thank you for responding. I had thought he had come up with something new–or perhaps he distilled existing philosophies, and had charisma that was off the charts.

        I hope you have a great holiday!

  20. Avatar
    wje  December 21, 2015

    Good evening Bart. I have some items I would like to suggest for your weekly mailbag, or daily blog if you get burned out on Jesus topics. How do scholars know which letters of Paul were almost certainly written by him and which ones were not?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2015

      OK, thanks. I’ve dealt with that before (especially in connection with my book on the topic, Forged), but will add it to the mailbag.

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