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Readers’ Mailbag December 4, 2015


It is time for my weekly Readers’ Mailbag.   I can’t answer these questions by devoting long threads to them – even though they each deserve a thread; but I can give quick responses, and hope that will be enough for now.  If you have a question you would like me to address in the future, please attach it as a comment to this post.



QUESTION: It is not surprising that Jesus was an apocalyptic end-of-times messiah figure, because we have such people at least once each generation (often leading their people to disappointment if not disaster). Any thoughts on why this is such a persistent theme, even though every previous apocalypticist has been wrong?


RESPONSE:  Yes,  a lot of my students think that the end of the world will happen sometime in their own lifetimes, that we are living at the end of time, that things taking place in our world are happening in fulfillment of Scripture, that these are the last days proclaimed by the prophets.  And why wouldn’t they think that?  That’s what they read in Christian books and hear from Christian preachers.

I have to point out to them that every generation has thought so – this was the view right after 9/11, and the view in the mid-90s, and in the early 80s, and ….   When I was in college in the mid-70s, we all were convinced (thanks to Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth) that Jesus would return no later than 1988.   People thought the end was imminent in the early 20th century; in the 19th century; in the 12th century; in the 2nd century; in the 1st century.   And you’re right, everyone who has ever thought so has proved to be incontrovertibly wrong.

But why do people constantly think this?  I don’t have a definitive answer but I do have an educated guess.  I don’t know about other religious traditions, but …

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How the Crucifixion Destroyed Jesus’ Vision of the Future
Jesus Death as King of the Jews



  1. Avatar
    Robert  December 4, 2015

    You have pointed out that Jesus was rejected by his family, and by his listeners in Nazareth and other towns & villages of Galilee. What do you think is the main reason for this widespread rejection? Is it because of his apocalyptic message? And would this mean that apocalypticism was not very common among these people?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      When I’ve talked about Jesus being rejected I have been referring to the narratives found in the Gospels of the NT — I haven’t been talking historically. Whether the historical Jesus was actively rejected or not is hard to say. I’m not sure what it would quite mean. His preaching was of the coming kingdom, it wasn’t about his self identity. Possibly his family and townsfolk didn’t buy his message, but it would not have been a particularly outrageous or unusual one — since apocalyptic thinking was widespread.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 4, 2015

    I’ve never entirely understood the reasoning behind the Apocalypticist viewpoint. They seem to have a problem with the notion that God gave us free will, and that it is up to us to make what we will of the world we’re born into. If he’s out there watching us (and how many other worlds?), maybe he feels sorry for us, angry with us–maybe he just rolls his metaphorical eyes from time to time. But we can’t have freedom of choice and a perfectly well-ordered world.

    This is Jesus’ problem–he wants the Kingdom to come, but he knows most people aren’t ready for it. This is why he responds so favorably when he meets some non-Jew who shows faith. He wants to believe there’s enough good people out there for the transformation to occur. People who are greedy, violent, full of hate, controlled by desires, hungry for power, will not make the grade. If he has doubts about his vision (and he must have had), that’s where they come from–maybe there’s not enough people who are prepared for the coming of God’s kingdom. In which case, it won’t come. But maybe if he forced the issue, by sacrificing himself? Would that compensate sufficiently to bring about the change? A world where people will only want to choose good, so everyone will be free, but nobody will be oppressed, or hungry, or afraid.

    It was a nice dream.

  3. Avatar
    mcritzman  December 4, 2015

    I’ve been recently wondering if 1st century people from Judea would have a tomb picked out prior to their deaths or would the tomb be acquired after the fact?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      If they were very rich, they would have a tomb in advance. Most people didn’t have tombs, but were just stuck in the ground or dumped in a common burial site.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 4, 2015

    What I’ve been thinking, sort of “outside the box”…

    Suppose the adult Jesus went to Jerusalem one year – probably with friends, maybe his brothers – for what they may have thought of as a once-in-a-lifetime “Passover experience.” While there, they heard about John the Baptist, and Jesus and possibly his companions were baptized. They spent enough time around John’s disciples – if not with him personally – to learn the basics of the apocalyptic view; and Jesus became a real enthusiast.

    John’s disciples thought he was the messiah, and Jesus came to think so too.

    When Jesus went back to Galilee (perhaps after having stayed in Judea a week or so longer than planned), he began preaching, spreading the “good news.” That was when he attracted disciples. Really, they all thought John the Baptist was the messiah until he was executed. Then either Jesus himself or, initially, his disciples, jumped to the conclusion that *he* must be the messiah!

    Does that seem plausible? Obviously, neither Jesus nor his disciples would have wanted to let new followers know, later, that they hadn’t believed he was the messiah all along.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Yup, it’s possible. The question is whether John’s followers thought he was the nmessiah or whether Jesus thought John was. Seems unlikely to me, but it’s possible!

    • Avatar
      toejam  December 4, 2015

      Sounds like the portrait of Jesus in Bruce Chilton’s “Rabbi Jesus”…

  5. Avatar
    Robert Wahler  December 4, 2015

    the creation is filled with pain, misery, and suffering. How can that be?

    Maybe because the world was not meant to be a home for anyone? Who lives here forever? Why can’t you see the Apocalypticism as an individual event at the end of one’s life? That’s after all what it is.

  6. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  December 4, 2015

    Hello Bart

    I have seen you in many lectures and debates stating that there is contradiction on jesus death . John’s account says that Jesus died before the Passover meal while Mark’s account places Jesus’ death after the Passover meal. recently I came cross blog claiming that there is no contradiction when we compare Numbers 28 with Exodus 12. are you aware of this argument and how will you refute it


  7. Avatar
    mrdavidkeller  December 4, 2015

    The recent archaeological finds at Sepphoris seem to suggest Jesus may have had exposure to more diverse cosmopolitan and theological ideas then your average wandering illiterate preacher of the day which might help explain why someone unable to read or write could teach at a level that would require some education

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2015

      My personal view is that Jesus never spent any time in Sepphoris. If he did, there is no record of it. (As you know, it is not mentioned in the NT; and Jesus never goes to any large city in the NT, until his last week in Jerusalem).

  8. Avatar
    jhague  December 4, 2015

    If most Jewish priests were illiterate, was the Jewish scriptures passed down orally by those who could read? And then those who could not read, just tried to recall as best they could?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2015

      Unlike modern priests in, say, the Catholic tradition, ancient Jewish priests had no role in preserving the sacred written traditions. There job involved serving in the temple cult (sacrifices and the like).

    • Avatar
      Michael Sommers  December 17, 2015

      In the Middle Ages, many Christian priests were illiterate, at least in England. Apparently, the job of parish priest was not attractive enough to attract enough qualified applicants.

  9. Avatar
    Omar6741  December 4, 2015

    In I Corinthians, Paul writes ““For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread…”
    Do you think that perhaps Paul’s revelation here is the only source for the Last Supper, and that is why it is in the Gospels? If it was already being celebrated by Jesus’ followers, wouldn’t paul know about it without any revelation at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2015

      Yes, it’s an intriguing passage. The question is what he means that he received this “from the Lord”. If he means “direct revelation in a vision” then it would be very strange that this is the same thing found in the Gospels, which otherwise show no reliance on Paul. Could it mean that the Lord “confirmed” in his heart what Paul heard from others?

      • Avatar
        Morphinius  December 10, 2015

        I am also struck at how odd the sentence sounds as it is translated in my Bible. My initial thought was that Paul’s interpretation of the bread and wine being the body and blood of Jesus came from a vision of his, although the bread and wine were already part of the Christian’s community meal. The Gospel of John does not mention the bread and wine in this context at all, and the Didache makes no such association with the body and blood of Jesus.

  10. Avatar
    living42day  December 5, 2015

    Do you agree with the basic assessment offered by Chris Keith in his book Jesus’ Literacy?

  11. Avatar
    pimari77  December 5, 2015

    What sources or facts are used by historians to establish the approximate time frame when the gospels were written?! Some conservative groups try to date them as close as possible to the death of Jesus.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 5, 2015

    Th “Mailbag” Is going very well and I look forward to it each week. Indeed, the “mailbag” would make an excellent weekly newspaper column. With regard to today’s first question, I think we humans tend to see whatever we want or wish to see to help us deal with life’s difficulties and ultimate questions. There is no better example, in the here and now, than the spinning of the nightly news by Fox News every night. People have been “spinning the evidence”, in a similar way, forever and ever,,,,

  13. John4
    John4  December 5, 2015

    *Tuneful* apocalyptic hope, lol:


  14. Avatar
    toejam  December 6, 2015

    I was just watching your debate with Justin Bass and in that debate you stated that Bass was bordering on committing the “heresy” of Patripassianism by saying that Jesus *is* “Yahweh” – the divine name of the God of Israel. Bass’s response was to say he wasn’t committing Patripassianism, and he tried to clarify that in his view Jesus is not ‘The Father’, but that both ‘Jesus’ and ‘The Father’ can hold the title of ‘Yahweh’. Now, in my opinion the Trinity is an illogical construct coming from the result of early Christians trying to square contradictory NT verses. I think the NT authors have different opinions on the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God / The Father. But that’s not my question. I’m not asking whether Patripassianism is true or false. My question is about what constitutes Patripassianism. If Patripassianism is about confusing Jesus and ‘The Father’ as the same being, then how is Bass a Patripassianist by saying that Jesus is “Yahweh”? My understanding of Trinitarianism (or at least the illogicality of it) is that: Jesus is God, ‘The Father’ is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but there is only one God. How is this not the same as saying: Jesus is Yahweh, ‘The Father’ is Yahweh, and the Holy Spirit is Yahweh, but there is only one Yahweh?

    Hope my question makes sense!!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2015

      Yeah, it’s confusing. Traditionally, as I understand it, Yahweh is understood to be the personal God of the Jews, the Creator of the world, or in Christian parlance, the Father.

  15. Avatar
    uziteaches  December 6, 2015

    Bart, I am surprised to hear you say that in biblical literature chiasms are rare. I am not an expert in NT, but in OT (which I do know something about) it is not that rare.
    In addition to the kind of chiasmus you mention (abcba), there is also chiasm from text to text, in which texts refer to earlier texts by reversing the order of words. See, for example, how Jeremiah (7:9) references the Ten Commandments by reversing the order. And see how Leviticus (beginning of ch. 19) introduces its version of the Ten Commandments by reversing the order of the first five.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2015

      Ah, yes, they are *much* more common in the Hebrew Bible. But that is largely because the HB is so extensively poetry, unlike the NT. And that poetic shaping of the language (Hebrew) affects those writing in it.

  16. Avatar
    ComputersHateAndrewLivingston  December 6, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, who was the disciple Jesus loved? I’d very much like to know your take on this.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2015

      I’m afraid we simply don’t know, though there are lots of theories. My sense is that he is an unknown person!

      • Avatar
        BobHicksHP  December 7, 2015

        This confuses me, somewhat. Perhaps my memory fails me, but I don’t remember any of your books, etc., ever suggesting the contextual uses of this phrase in John to be ambiguous. I thought I recalled you explaining the “What if this guy lives forever…” story in the final chapter as an explanation for the “some standing here that won’t taste death…” proclamation. Have I conflated this from elsewhere?

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