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Readers’ Mailbag November 20, 2015

It is time for my weekly Readers’ Mailbag.  I will be dealing with two questions this time.  If you have questions, about anything at all related to the historical Jesus, the New Testament, the history of early Christianity, or anything else that I may have a remote chance of knowing something about, please ask!  You can either respond with a comment/question to this post, or send me an email, or comment on any other post!


QUESTION:   An off-topic request: what are the five most puzzling questions about the historical Jesus you would love to see resolved in your lifetime?

RESPONSE:   Ah, this is a tough one.  It is made particularly difficult by two competing phenomena.  The first is that most scholars of the historical Jesus are pretty convinced that their views about what he said and did are on the money.   So in that sense, what is there that can be answered that hasn’t been?  The other is the unpleasant reality that in fact we know very few things for certain about Jesus – or about most any other figure from the distant past.  So in that other sense, what is there that we don’t want to know about?

Like most Jesus scholars, I feel confident in my basic reconstruction of the historical Jesus.  As I have been indicating in my previous posts, I am pretty sure he was an apocalyptic prophet and that we can say some things with confidence about what he said and did (e.g., that he was baptized by John; that he had lower class followers; that he was an itinerant preacher; that he went to Jerusalem the last week of his life to celebrate Passover, and there was arrested, tried, and crucified for calling himself the king of the Jews.)   But there are scores, millions, most things about his life that we simply don’t know, in many instances because we can’t know them.  There simply isn’t any evidence.  I could list thousands of things I’d like to know.  Here, in direct response to the question, are five.  (Please note: to make sense of these reflections you have to recall that critical scholars do not think you can answer questions such as this simply by quoting a verse or two in the Gospels; it is widely recognized that the Gospels are filled with non-historical information.  My reflections are predicated on the fact that we have to argue for historical facts based on a critical examination of our surviving sources.)

  1. What was Jesus doing before being baptized? I assume …THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY.  If you don’t belong yet, JOIN!!!  You and the rest of the inhabited world will be glad you did!! 
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    Fifty Ways to Forge a Gospel
    The Beginning and End as Keys to the Middle



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  November 20, 2015

    Can you tell me the name of the article Joel Marcus wrote that you mention? His commentary on Mark for the Anchor Bible series is by far my favorite of any commentary on any NT work (among the ones I own at any rate!). His bio on the back of that book doesn’t say he was at Duke so I wasn’t aware that there are now 3 scholars down the road from me whose work I enjoy tremendously (Mark Goodacre being the other).

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2015

      Not sure! Can’t remember. I’ll try to find out!

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  November 22, 2015

        I found his CV on the web so I think I figured out which one it was.

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    Xyloplax  November 20, 2015

    Well, there’s one part where Jesus is said to write in some fashion: John 8:6-11. Of course, we neither know what he wrote (could have been his name, the alphabet, random characters, a memorized quote, numerical tallies, or even a picture) nor do we know what language he read in, though the only real choices are Aramaic and Hebrew, nor do we have any idea if the event even happened. I’m about to read Hezser’s The Social Structure of the Rabbinic Movement in Roman Palestine, which seems like it would help answer that, since it tackles the question of Jesus being referred to as a Rabbi head on. From what I can tell from my brief glance, the term was EXTREMELY loosely applied before the fall of the Temple, and the idea of a Rabbi being in a formal apprenticeship with reading and writing involved is something that developed after 300CE.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2015

      Yes, that passage was not originally in the NT

      • Avatar
        Xyloplax  November 23, 2015

        Hah! Nice. I have several of your books, did I totally miss this in one of them? If so, which one?

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    godspell  November 20, 2015

    My opinions on the five questions (for what they are worth, which isn’t much).

    1)What you said, but I think he was probably very interested in religion from an early age.

    2)He’s familiar enough with scripture for me to think he was literate. Some people learn to read without ever learning how to write. Quite a few, in fact, and there would have been more back in that time. Maybe part of what he was doing before his baptism was acquiring a knowledge of scripture–he seems to have had a particular interest in the Book of Jonah. But of course he could have heard someone reading holy texts out loud. There would have been an oral tradition in Judaism. He just seems like a reader to me. But, for whatever reason, not a writer. Actually, did any of the Jewish prophets write anything down? Our records of them all seem to have been written by others.


    • Avatar
      godspell  November 20, 2015

      Hit the wrong key, continuing–

      3)He must have had some kind of following besides just 12 guys, because otherwise why would they have bothered to crucify him? He had to have drawn enough attention to himself somehow to make him a problem for the Jewish and Roman authorities.

      4)I think he did faith healings. Some of them might have been very impressive, and the stories kept getting bigger. We have people like this today, and there would have been more back then. Somebody with a great deal of charisma and moral power could have actually done a great deal of good for people afflicted by various physical and mental disorders.

      5)I personally like the notion of his being eaten by dogs. I’m a major dog lover, and I just find that charming (okay, I’m weird), plus it ties in nicely with the story about the Woman of Canaan, and the later Muslim story about him seeing the dead dog and praising the whiteness of its teeth. It makes sense, and I don’t find it at all disrespectful. Why is being eaten by fellow vertebrates above the ground any worse than being consumed by micro-organisms in a tomb?

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    RonaldTaska  November 20, 2015

    Aha! This partially answers one of my recent puzzlements. The Gospels are usually thought to have been written after the death of Paul or surely Paul would have mentioned them. One, however, could argue the reverse, namely that the Gospels were probably written before Paul’s letters or the Gospels would surely have mentioned Paul, at least his conversion. Now, here is a possible answer: Paul’s letters were just not as widely important during the first century as they are today and may have had a very limited distribution during the first century much as any personal correspondence to a small group might have had limited distribution during the first century. Hence, the Gospel authors may not have been aware of Paul’s letters or even of Paul for that matter. Thus, Paul writing letters would be sort of like my emailing my neighbors on Facebook some vacation photos: not of much widespread interest. So, in essence, Paul did not know that he was writing scripture since there was not yet any New Testament being formed and, as a result, his letters were not widely distributed and certainly were not seen, during the first century, as being the inerrant Word of God. Thought provoking. I wonder if first century Christians viewed Paul’s letters as being helpful suggestions or as being the inspired Word of God?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2015

      I think they came to think of the letters as inspired only later, probalby in the second century.

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    Omar6741  November 20, 2015

    With regard to the first question, about the life of Jesus before growing up, it is apparent that Jesus was a very religious man, or otherwise he would never have had the impact on others he in fact did (that his movement was subject to persecution at all means it had some significant impact). And it is apparent that his brother, James was not known as “the Just” because of any sinful lifestyle of drinking and partying. If two brothers from the same family can acquire such a reputation in an already religious society, then presumably their upbringing was *extremely* religious; it would make sense that their household followed very strict rules in religious matters.
    Is that a good argument? Any more detailed answer would require more sources, obviously.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2015

      Well, it’s certainly possible for two very religious people to come out of a non-religious family. Happens a lot.

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  November 23, 2015

        True; still, people tend to be heavily influenced by their upbringing, more often than not.

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        Omar6741  November 23, 2015

        Let me see if I can restate my argument to make it stronger. Jesus and his brother James the Just were not just very religious people; they were at the very high end of religious excellence, that high end we call “saintliness”. Now, that two *saintly* people came from the same family is best explained by their coming from a very religious family
        (though the opposite remains possible).

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2015

          I don’t think we know much about James and his life before becoming the leader of the church in Jerusalem.

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    jlparris  November 20, 2015

    Re the ability of Jesus to write: John 8: 6 and 8 make references to Jesus writing on the ground.
    In that era of low literacy, more people could read than could write.
    Are these verses viewed as a later addition to the Fourth Gospel and disregarded in evaluating whether or not Jesus was literate?

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    rivercrowman  November 20, 2015

    Thank you for responding to my question!

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    follow-j  November 20, 2015

    I’ve recently read your Introduction to the N.T. I especially liked your comments on the gospel of “John”, that more than one author was involved. I was surprised that you believed the stories about Polycarp and Ignatius were true. It seems that the Romans wouldn’t have paraded him around the empire before killing him. The point in the one is to OBEY the leaders of the church. Perhaps you might discuss this some time.

  9. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  November 20, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, I find it most curious that you don’t already know the answers to these five rather elementa questions…as I have read “The Purpose Driven Life,” allow me to illuminate.

    1. Creating the cosmos, demonstrating God’s patience and carving caricatures local Roman magistrates out of recently-smitten olive wood.
    2. Jesus had a PhD. in everything. He made it all, for goodness sake. The water into wine was the only tough one. It took him four Gospels to get it right. In the first three Gospels, his Cab/Merlot blend was a bit fruity.
    3. Enormous, colossal…John the Baptist and Rack, Shack and Benny were only the opening act.
    4. “IN THE NAME OF JEEEEEZUSSSS” yes. As for Oral Roberts, a healing hack…he couldn’t even predict his own demise with any acuity.
    5. He let Thomas play “Operation” with his resurrection body. ‘Nuff said.

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    XanderKastan  November 20, 2015

    Very interesting! I would suggest some questions that did not show up in your top five, but seem related to your question #1: How long was Jesus a follower of John the Baptist before setting out on his own? And why did Jesus start his own ministry? — simply because John the Baptist died or because of a parting based on philosophical differences? Was the split amicable? Did Jesus take other followers of John the Baptist with him or did he find followers independently? I would guess that all these are also things we can never know, but seem quite fascinating to think about.

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    obrienma  November 21, 2015


    I had wondered for many years how the resurrection narrative came to be; your explanation in HJBG resonated with me. So I was surprised to see that that was not one of your top five questions: was it in fact visions that led to the narrative, or was it later authors who developed the story?

    Are you that confident in the visions explanation, or would that be number six on your list? 🙂



    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2015

      Yeah, I feel pretty confident about that one. Plus, I was giving a list of things related to the historical Jesus — that is, to the things that happened to Jesus between the time he was born and the time he died.

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    James Chalmers  November 21, 2015

    Was he really known to be an exorcist and healer? In the Gospels the main activities he engages in are healing the sick and casting out demons. I don’t believe he really could touch a blind man and make him see, or really cast a superhuman demon out of a body – any more than I believe that Oral Roberts could. But did this reputation of Jesus start already during his lifetime? Or was it invented by later story tellers?
    Every synoptic reports many or several exorcisms and healings by Jesus. Other scholars contend that Jesus drew crowds in large part on the strength of his reputation for miracles involving his mastery of evil demons. In a credulous pre-scientific age few doubted demons or the like existed, the issue was whether Jesus cast out demons by demons.
    How much doubt should attach to Jesus being a healer and exorcism? Is the historicity of these reports at least more likely than not?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2015

      I’ll be dealing with this in my new book, due out in March, where I do question if Jesus was known this way in his lifetime.

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    James Chalmers  November 21, 2015

    About the content of the proceedings at the trial or trials of Jesus: isn’t its or their historicity to be doubted because no follower of Jesus would have dared be present, even assuming an audience was permitted?
    And can we be sure there was a trial at all, rather than a peremptory administrative proceeding where possibly the prisoner was not even granted a hearing?
    I guess our best evidence is what we, or scholars, know of proceedings before crucifixion in the provinces generally??

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2015

      No, I’m not sure htere was any kind of official trial.

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    James Chalmers  November 21, 2015

    Have you much to quarrel about In Sanders’ list of what we know and don’t know about Jesus’ life?
    Sorry to have overresponded to a fascinating column.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2015

      No, I pretty much agree with his list. Except the exorcisms and healings.

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    ComputersHateAndrewLivingston  November 21, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, what is the connection between the parable of Dives and Lazarus in Luke and the raising of Lazarus in John?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2015

      It is often thought that the parable was retold so much that it changed drastically into the narrative.

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    RonaldTaska  November 21, 2015

    I mean, of course, the Gospels other than Luke since the author of Luke wrote Acts and, hence, obviously knows about Paul.

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    Lawyerskeptic  November 21, 2015

    I appreciate your comment that we know so very few facts about Jesus. This seems to me to be an important point when responding to Christian apologists. I have watched several debates on the historicity of the resurrection between apologists (William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, etc.) versus critical scholars or skeptics (you, Richard Carrier, John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, etc.). In these debates, critical scholars normally discuss some possible, but unprovable, theory such as the hallucination theory.
    My backseat-driving critique is that whoever opposes an apologist in a debate would be better off emphasizing that we don’t know and will never know exactly what happened the Sunday following Jesus’ crucifixion. We will never know exactly happened immediately after the death of Apollonius of Tyana either.

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    Wilusa  November 21, 2015

    Very interesting, as always! I’m guessing many of us did what I did – before reading your (excellent) answer to the first question, thought of things *we’d* like to learn more about.

    My idea: it would be wonderful if hitherto unknown, detailed records kept by the Sanhedrin were to come to light. Not only might they tell us all the details of his trial (*when* it took place, how if at all he tried to defend himself, whether the whole Sanhedrin was really there – presumably late at night); their records might even mention followups, such as when his followers started claiming he’d risen from the dead, and what if any basis they had for it (what *had* been done with his body?).

    Equally desirable, but even less likely to exist somewhere: an official record of his trial before Pilate. Also, some kind of *proof* of whether he’d ever been married, or was thought within his lifetime to have been born of a virgin.

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    Wilusa  November 21, 2015

    And here’s a question I have. Is there *any* evidence, one way or the other, as to whether Constantine really believed in Christianity, or merely saw it as a tool he could use? I find it hard to imagine a Roman Emperor genuinely accepting it as “truth.” And if he saw the “ONE God, with ONE Son” notion as an aid in unifying the Empire, it might have been worth demoting himself from “divine” status.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2015

      There’s no evidence except for what hte sources report and what appears to be the case based on other surviving evidence. It is debated, but I agree with those scholars that constantine was certainly a committed CVhristian after 312 CE.

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    XanderKastan  November 21, 2015

    I’m wondering if you could comment on the state of our manuscripts written by one of the most famous and influential philosophers: Plato. What kind of a time gap from original to the first complete manuscript(s) of say The Allegory of The Cave? And any indications of changes made by scribes? Or can you recommend anything readable by and of interest to the general public that is analogous to Misquoting Jesus, but talking about textual criticism as it relates to the works of Plato?

    • Avatar
      XanderKastan  November 21, 2015

      Oh, and also anything about how we can distinguish Plato’s words and ideas from those of Socrates, since we only know about Socrates’ words from works written by Plato.

      • Bart
        Bart  November 23, 2015

        Yes, that is very difficult indeed. As I understand it, most experts think that when we read the words of Socrates, we are really reading the words of Plato

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2015

      I’m afraid I don’t know.

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