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Readers’ Weekly Mailbag: January 2, 2016

It is weekly Readers’ Mailbag time again.  If you have a question you would like me to address in a future post, just comment here, or send me a private email.  Today there are three questions, on three very different topics: the goddess Sophia, the rise of non-apocalyptic Christianity, and the evidence for John the Baptist.

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QUESTION:  In your debate with Justin Bass, you mention the divinity of Sophia.  I googled “Sophia” and can’t quite figure this out. Could you educate us about Sophia?

RESPONSE:   Ah, this will be tough to do in a short answer!  Sophia” is the Greek word for “wisdom” (we get a number of English words from it, for example “sophisticated” and “sophistry”).  In ancient religious circles, both pagan and Jewish, “Sophia” came to be thought of as not simply a divine attribute (God is “wise”) but as a kind of divine emanation (“wisdom” actually “comes from” or “derives from” God) and then as an actual divine hypostasis.  The term “hypostasis” does not have an easy English equivalent.  It refers to a divine attribute that is seen to belong to God and yet at the same time somehow to be distinct from God and itself to be a divine being.  So let me try to unpack that, with respect to Sophia.   God has wisdom (so it is a divine attribute).  But since wisdom is something that God has, then it necessarily is something that is distinct from God.  At the same time, since it is God’s wisdom, it is itself divine.  And so wisdom

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  January 2, 2016

    Apocalypticism in the classic sense is a minority view (though it has millions of adherents). The idea of the Apocalypse is alive and well. You don’t have to be religious in any conventional theistic sense to have that concept–people flock to see movies about apocalyptic events, the Apocalypse is regularly featured in TV shows and comic books. This is not uniquely Christian, obviously–most religions have had some kind of apocalyptic myths (the Norse were particularly good at them), because cultures tend to break down, civilizations fall, bad winters hit, crops fail, barbarians attack, people feel like everything has ended.

    Disasters are always happening, and people just extrapolate–how much worse can it get? Christianity was perhaps unique in looking forward to the end–making it a hopeful event. Fear not, Jesus will save those who are worthy of being saved. When the Roman Empire fell, Christianity was what held what remained together, preserved much knowledge of the ancient world, and created universities to promulgate that knowledge.

    Now we’re facing what could quite possibly be a global Apocalypse, created by our own technology. But we were also facing that in the 1950’s, with nuclear weapons.

    Someday somebody’s going to predict the End, and be right about it, if only because they happened to be born at the right time–for them–wrong for everybody else.

    • Avatar
      Dipsao  January 3, 2016

      Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 2, 2016

    The information about a “temporal eschatology” being transformed to a “spatial eschatology” is quite helpful. Thanks.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  January 2, 2016

    In Jewish Kabbalah the second emanation from God (after the Keter or Crown) is a split entity of Wisdom (chakhmah) and Understanding (binah), both of which are female. Some kabbalists add Understanding (da’at) as a unifier between them. From there the emanations progress through Grace, Might, Glory and Compassion down to the Foundation of the world and, ultimately, God’s Kingdom (malkhut). Most of this Kabbalah stuff post-dates Jesus by centuries, but the core of it comes from the very Neo-Platonic ideas that were common amongst thinkers in Jesus’ time (cf. Philo of Alexandria), so it’s not surprising that Judaism, Christianity and pagan philosophies have the Wisdom emanation entity in common.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 2, 2016

    “…Christianity had to change.

    “That’s not a bad thing. In my view it’s a good thing. The message had to be transformed. But transforming the message is not the same as rejecting it. …

    “The ‘end’ of things is not the destruction of the world but the destruction of our bodies; the Kingdom of God is not a real political entity here on earth but heaven above; entering the kingdom does not mean surviving the coming apocalypse but surviving death by going to heaven.”

    But…what’s “good” about replacing one set of mistaken beliefs with *another* set of mistaken beliefs…and while they were at it, misleading most believers into thinking the new beliefs were what Jesus had taught all along? I don’t see any real “progress” here.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2016

      My view is that *all* of our beliefs (and we all have hundreds — thousands? — of them) are products of their time, and that very few of them are “objectively” “true” in any sense. (We as Americans in the 21st century believe all sorts of things about government, politics, social ills, religion, democracy, economics, and everything else; most of these beliefs are unchallenged in our environment and we don’t even think about them, they are so obvious to us. But they are not obviously true, nonetheless. It’s impossible to exist without unquestioned beliefs, and there’s no reason to think ours are any more true than anyone else’s!)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  January 3, 2016

        I maintain – and I don’t think anyone can dispute this – that some “beliefs” are better than others. If only in their causing less human suffering!

        And in that sense, if no other, we should be striving for progress. Inventing the concept of “Hell” – and using it to terrorize people into doing things that often have nothing to do with morality – was hardly a step in the right direction.

  5. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  January 2, 2016

    Hello Dr. Ehrman
    is god the son growing in his sophia in luke 2:52?
    god the son is growing in his female hypostasis?
    thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2016

      I’m not saying that Sophia *always* refers to a hypostasis. Sometimes it just means “wisdom.”

      • Avatar
        Kazibwe Edris  January 3, 2016

        yes, i understood wisdom just like you did, but christians say that the logos/word became man. you said that wisdom is something that god HAS. so what did the incarnate logos have? human wisdom? divine wisdom? did god, in his person, start thinking like a baby?

      • Avatar
        Kazibwe Edris  January 25, 2016

        doctor ehrman

        when luke says that jesus “grew in wisdom”
        some christian apologists say that

        ” Both verses are literary devices used to separate the time from being a baby, to being a boy, to being a man. ”

        so they want the growth of the baby separated from the “growth of knowledge”
        but does luke support such an idea? is the baby really growing in it’s wisdom when it ages?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 25, 2016

          It’s true, the verse is saying that Jesus “grew up.” But specifically he grew up by acquiring knowledge and wisdom, like everyone else. Some Christians are afraid to admit that Jesus really was, in every way, human.

          • Avatar
            Kazibwe Edris  January 25, 2016

            thank you sir.

  6. Avatar
    smackemyackem  January 2, 2016

    Excellent questions!

  7. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 2, 2016

    Thank you. I wonder, though, if the apocalyptic vision is really marginal. After all, the Nicene Creed is still recited weekly by Catholics, including “He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom shall have no end.” I was hoping you could tell me of an ancient sect that did not look for a Parousia. Maybe I’m dreaming.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2016

      Paul’s Christian opponents in Corinth did not hold to a future resurrection of the dead; John’s Gospel appears not to either.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  January 3, 2016

      Things may have changed since I was young, but when I was raised Catholic, I never even heard of the Nicene Creed. The Apostles’ Creed, yes; that does include “he shall come to judge the living and the dead,” and state as an article to be believed in, “the resurrection of the body.”

      But Catholics didn’t recite the Apostles’ Creed weekly. It was something you were supposed to say (mentally, in most cases) when you began the Rosary, while you were holding the cross that was its starting point. And I think the majority even of Catholics who did those things went through the prayers by rote, paying no attention to those odd passages.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  January 6, 2016

        I was a post Vatican II Catholic convert. With the Mass being in the vernacular, the (Nicene) Creed made a greater impression.

  8. Avatar
    smitch2010  January 3, 2016

    Regarding Sophia/Wisdom, it is beyond our comprehension as to how that works with the essence of GOD being a spirit. Makes me wonder about his other attributes of Love, Power and Justice whether they follow the same substance as Wisdom???

    Dr. Ehrman, do you know where it came from in history to assign as some religions do – Jesus in the place of wisdom? that he was with GOD at the beginning when he said “Let us” make…??? One argument to the cause is where in Proverbs 8:31 “my delights were with the sons of men” AKJV. This makes it sound like a personage.
    Any thoughts please?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2016

      We find the first reference to “Let us make” as referring to the Father and Son, I believe, in the writings of Justin Martyr. But that Christ was in the beginning with God at the creation is in John 1:1-3.

  9. Avatar
    Dipsao  January 3, 2016

    For a non-apocalyptic postmodern view of “end times”, I suggest reading Ted Peters’ “God-The World’s Future: Systematic Theology For A New Era.” He bases his idea of proleptic eschatology on the work of Wolfgang Pannenberg.

  10. Avatar
    Jim  January 3, 2016

    You do not accept Shimon Gibson’s claim about the John-the-Baptizer cave where later (putative) followers of John worshipped according to his teachings? (By the way, Shimon says there are up to 5 churches claiming to have John’s severed head!) This obviously is not a written reference to John but if accurate it might be serve as some non-biblical reference to John.

    Also, doesn’t one group of converts in Acts allude to John’s baptism, making a second reference to John in Acts?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2016

      I was referring to ancient references from near the time (e.g., the first century). I’m agnostic on the idea that we have physical evidence of the continuing existence of the followers of John the Baptist (Gibson’s claims; we do, of course, have the Mandaeans)

      • Avatar
        jhague  January 6, 2016

        From your other writings I assume that you believe that John the Baptist actually existed?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 6, 2016

          Absolutely! I don’t think there’s much doubt about it (given both the NT and Josephus)

  11. Avatar
    uziteaches  January 3, 2016

    Bart, I am surprised at your comment about Sophia being considered Divine in the Hebrew Scriptures. The section you are referencing in Proverbs 8 begins with the statement: “God created me in the beginning of His way” (Proverbs 8:22). That is, the first act of creation was the creation of Wisdom. Proverbs 8 continues with a number of verses about how Sophia preceded the creation of all other things, but the verses emphasize repeatedly that Sophia is created (‘before this was created I was created, before that was created I was created’), and stands in relationship to God (“playing before Him at all times”, v. 30). It is never considered God. I don’t understand where you see in Proverbs 8 that Sophia is Divine.
    Perhaps an early understanding of Jesus (in the community that produced the Gospel of John) was that Jesus was the personification of Wisdom (logos, in Greek), as you point out. That would account for his statements of ‘before Moses I was… before Abraham I was’. But from a Jewish standpoint, that would never merge Jesus with God. When the line is crossed from being God’s first creation, which God used to create all else–which is how Proverbs 8 portrays Wisdom–to being part of God, which is what happens in New Testament, one arrives at something that cannot be Jewish. Unless, of course, one claims that God is all things and all things are God. I don’t rule out that notion, but it is not the simple biblical faith.
    Uzi Weingarten

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2016

      I’m not saying that I think Sophia is a divine being in Proverbs 8, but that this is how the passage came to function in later Jewish reflection. There are indeed numerous Jewish texts that understand there to be other divine beings along with God I deal with all this in my book How Jesus Became God.

  12. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 3, 2016

    Bart, I know you’re a new testament kind of guy, but I have an old testament question. How confident are we that there actually were twelve tribes? Are we even sure that samaria and judea ever were part of the one kingdom?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2016

      I doubt if there really was a time when there was a single entity known as Israel that was divided into twelve administrative units, but it’s a debated point. I don’t think there’s as much debate that at one time the areas that later came to be known as Samaria and Judea were united together under a single kingdom.

      • Avatar
        Jim  January 3, 2016

        Any opinion about the recent claim — I believe this came from Seth Sanders — that the evidence of 9th to 7th century Israelite Hebrew (v Moabite and etc) follows the boundaries of a combined “map” of Israel indicating some basis for unity between the “northern kingdom” and the “southern kingdom”?

    • Avatar
      shunter  January 4, 2016

      Perhaps we can look at Bible gematria to make sense of the number 12 (as we can for many symbols in the NT) http://seekingtruth.co.uk/bible_numbers.htm
      “Number 12 – Governmental perfection
      Solomon, a divinely appointed ruler, appointed TWELVE officers over Israel (1 Kings 4.7). Jesus chose TWELVE apostles to initiate His kingdom on earth, and He said to them:
      ” … you also shall sit upon TWELVE thrones, judging the TWELVE tribes of Israel.” (Mat 19.28).
      There are TWELVE signs of the zodiac (in the AV Job 38.32 refers to ‘Mazzaroth’ meaning twelve signs). The stars are seasonal signs to help man govern his life (Gen 1.14). So we have TWELVE months of the year. The new Jerusalem (God’s perfect kingdom) has TWELVE gates and TWELVE foundation stones (Rev 21. 12,14).
      TWELVE (perfect government) = THREE (unity) + NINE (divine blessings)
      TWELVE (perfect government) = FIVE (God’s goodness) + SEVEN (completeness and spiritual perfection).”

  13. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  January 3, 2016

    quote:
    “Sophia” came to be thought of as not simply a divine attribute (God is “wise”) but as a kind of divine emanation (“wisdom” actually “comes from” or “derives from” God) and then as an actual divine hypostasis. The term “hypostasis” does not have an easy English equivalent.

    question:
    if i were a pagan greek back then and you told me about this, i would think that within the trinity consist male and female hypostasis?

  14. Robert
    Robert  January 3, 2016

    ‘Hypostasis’ is a Greek term. How would this be expressed, if at all, in Aramaic or Hebrew? Os it merely a foreign philosophical attempt to express what in the Jewish milieu may only have been a literary device? Or something else?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2016

      Yes, it comes from later Greek philosophical reflections; I don’t think you could express it in ancient semitic languages.

  15. Avatar
    rivercrowman  January 3, 2016

    Please consider adding to the mailbag. Bart, my favorite book of yours is “Misquoting Jesus,” the first one I acquired. Recently, I likely encountered a case of misquoting Bart! On an audio CD that’s part of “From Creation to Catholicism,” I listened as apologist Trent Horn of radio show “Catholic Answers Live” say “I think when we look at the New Testament evidence, the best evidence of all the minimal data we have, even data that secular scholars like Bart Erhman would agree with … ah … points towards a resurrection.” That’s not consistent with your words in “How Jesus Became God” which are, in part, “as an agnostic, I personally do not believe Jesus was raised from the dead and so I do not believe he ‘appeared’ to anyone.” As a fan of yours, can I “call them on the carpet?” I can get past the screener! … Thanks for your blog and books.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2016

      Yes, I think if he read my book How Jesus Became God he would see that I don’t support the idea that the “evidence” points toward resurrection.

      • Avatar
        rivercrowman  January 28, 2016

        And this (just FYI) was Trent Horn’s Facebook reply today : “Hi Steve, I did read Ehrman’s book and certainly recognize that he does not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. What I meant was that there are certain minimal facts related to the resurrection, like the crucifixion, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus the disciples claim to have seen, the conversion of the apostle Paul, that when taken together support the resurrection. All I was saying was that these facts (Jesus death, the claim of appearances, etc.) are attested by scholars like Ehrman so secular critics can’t just dismiss them as legends. Ehrman and I disagree on how these facts ought to be interpreted.”

        • Bart
          Bart  January 30, 2016

          I simply don’t understand the arguments that people make sometimes. How does the fact of the crucifixion constitute a piece of evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead??? Were crucified people more likely to rise than those who died by other means? And does Paul’s conversion give evidence that Jesus was raised? Does anyone’s conversion to Islam show that Muslim claims are more likely true?

          1
          • Avatar
            rivercrowman  February 7, 2016

            Bart, I couldn’t resist sharing Trent’s (January 30) final reply. You may have another debate in your future! … “Steve, I’m not going to get into a debate with Ehrman via you posting on his blog. Death by crucifixion refutes the swoon theory or myth theory. Paul’s conversion is of a different kind than modern Muslim converts. I will be writing a book on Jesus this year and after it is done someone wants to sponsor a debate between Ehrman and I and he accepts then we can see some fair interaction. Until then, I reccomend Brant pitre’s new book The Case for Jesus. It does a good job critiquing Ehrman’s arguments.”

  16. Avatar
    shunter  January 4, 2016

    Bart, as I read above what you say about Sophia, I get the image that she is (forgive me everyone) God’s wife and together they created everything (wouldn’t the Ancient Alien folks salivate over this one!). This brings up many images, such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

    I have found that Sophia is also big in esoteric teachings. Look at the word theosophy (theo + sophia), just to name one (BTW, their nat’l HQ is in Wheaton, IL, on North Main Street up by St Charles Rd, a couple miles from Wheaton College, LOL – the duality again, satan and God, black and white, heaven and hell, all in one suburb….anyway….). The Sophia tradition is deep and wide.

    My question is this – could Sophia be Holy Spirit?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2016

      I’m not sure what you mean by your question. Do you mean “actually” or “in the opinion of early Christian authors”? I have no way of judging the first option; on the second, I don’t know of any authors who think so.

  17. Avatar
    Kemp  January 4, 2016

    In Romans 1:3, Paul writes that Jesus was a physical descendant of David. Since he wouldn’t have had access to the genealogies of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke, was he simply referencing what was already being said about Jesus’s messianic origin through David? Would Paul’s acceptance of Jesus as the messiah predispose him to believe these stories, or do you think he was basing this claim on something more tangible?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2016

      Yes, I think he simply means that Jesus is the messiah (and since he’s the messiah, for Paul, he must have been descended from David)

  18. Avatar
    BobHicksHP  January 7, 2016

    Here’s a Mailbag question. What’s the worst thing an editor has ever done to you (well, to your work)?

    I came to this curiosity from the recent calamity that befell Dr. Susan Douglas of the University of Michigan. An editor re-titled her column bemoaning the growing political intransigence in our society from “We Can’t All Just Get Along” to “It’s Okay to Hate Republicans.” Ouch!

    http://publicaffairs.vpcomm.umich.edu/key-issues/susan-douglas-column/

    http://www.michigancapitolconfidential.com/20840

  19. Avatar
    JSTMaria  January 12, 2016

    Regarding Jesus and his followers being apocalyptic Jews… I read an interesting analysis by a Catholic scholar who was unpacking the Book of Revelation. He argued that the *end times* Jesus referred to in Matthew had to do (more temporally anyway) with the fall of the temple in AD 70 because to the Jews, the temple literally was their *world,* so to speak. Interestingly, in Revelation when the Temple does actually fall, (if you believe the symbolic imagery has to do with the Roman Empire at the time), there is a passage, Rev 11:19, that states that “God’s temple in heaven was now opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple.” So it sounds like Revelation itself is claiming that once the Earthly temple fell, the heavenly one opened up thus ushering in the new age. In the final chapters, there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, perhaps a reason why many Christians today remain apocalyptic in their views? Any thoughts on this being the reason the early Christians were so apocalyptic? That they believed they were living in times where the temple would be destroyed? It doesn’t seem unreasonable given all that was going on. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2016

      That view began to be floated as soon as it was clear that the predictions simply didn’t happen. I’ve always found the interpretation problematic, just for that reason (i.e., the words actually don’t mean what they say)

      • Avatar
        JSTMaria  January 13, 2016

        Real quick on this last point: Somewhere Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is not “something you can observe” because it is “within” and tells his followers not to go looking for it in any external kind of way. With the destruction of the temple (end of the world; part 1), it would seem that seeking within would now be the only choice since the external/Earthly temple was now replaced by the heavenly one. Do you think this argument holds any water just based purely on the Scriptures alone?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 15, 2016

          Yes, as time goes on, the kingdom becomes more internalized (e.g., in Luke to some extent, and in the Gospel of Thomas a whole lot). But when Luke (ch. 17) says that the kingdom is “among” you, it is a mistranslation (found in some translations) to say that it is “within” you. He is talking to his enemies the Pharisees, and he certainly doesn’t think *they* have the kingdom inside of them. The Greek word here means “in your midst” (meaning in his own life and ministry)

  20. Avatar
    JSTMaria  January 12, 2016

    Forgot something! Was the Book of Revelation written before the Gospel of John? Or is that the general consensus?

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