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A Reflection on Easter. My Most-Commented Blog Post: #2

April 30, 2022

This post appeared on Easter day, four years ago, and received the second-most comments of any that I have done (218 of them).  It is, in fact, a reflection on the significance of that holiday and how Christianity itself actually began.



An Easter Reflection 2018

April 1, 2018

It is highly ironic, but relatively easy, for a historian to argue that Jesus himself did not start Christianity.  Christianity, at its heart, is the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about salvation, and that believing in his death and resurrection will make a person right with God, both now and in the afterlife.  Historical scholarship since the nineteenth century has marshaled massive evidence that this is not at all what Jesus himself preached.

Yes, it is true that in the Gospels themselves Jesus talks about his coming death and resurrection.  And in the last of the Gospels written, John, his message is all about how faith in him can bring eternal life (a message oddly missing in the three earlier Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

These canonical accounts of Jesus’ words were written four, five, or six decades after his death by people who did not know him who were living in different countries, and who were not even speaking his own language.  They themselves acquired their accounts of Jesus’ words from earlier Christian storytellers, who had been passing along his sayings by word of mouth, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.  The task of scholarship is to determine, if possible, what Jesus really said given the nature of our sources.

Fundamentalist scholars have no trouble with the question.  Since they are convinced that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God, then anything Jesus is said to have said in the Gospels is something that he really said.  Viola!  Jesus preached the Christian faith that his death and resurrection brought salvation.

Critical scholars, on the other hand, whether they are Christian or not, realize that it is not that simple.   As Christian story tellers over the decades reported Jesus’ teachings, they naturally modified them in light of the contexts within which they were telling them (to convert others for example) and in light of their own beliefs and views.   The task is to figure out which of the sayings (or even which parts of which sayings) may have been what Jesus really said.

Different scholars have different views of that matter, but one thing virtually all critical scholars agree on is that the doctrines of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection were not topics Jesus addressed.  These words of Jesus were placed on his lips by later Christian story-tellers who *themselves* believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead to bring about the salvation of the world, and who wanted to convince others that this had been Jesus’ plan and intention all along.

My own view is one I’ve sketched on the blog many a time before.  Jesus himself – the historical figure in his own place and time – preached an apocalyptic message that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the powers of evil and destroy all who sided with them; he would then bring a perfect utopian kingdom to earth in which Israel would be established as a sovereign state ruling the nations and there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering.  Jesus expected this end to come soon, within his own generation.  His disciples would see it happen – and in fact would be rulers of this coming earthly kingdom, with him himself at their head as the ruling monarch.

It didn’t happen of course.  Instead, Jesus was arrested for being a troublemaker, charged with crimes against the state (proclaiming himself to be the king, when only Rome could rule), publicly humiliated, and ignominiously tortured to death.

This was not at all what the disciples expected.  It was the opposite of what they expected.  It was a radical disconfirmation of everything they had heard from Jesus during all their time with him.  They were in shock and disbelief, their world shattered.  They had left everything to follow him, creating hardship not only for themselves but for the families near and dear to them – leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves and doubtless to suffer want and hunger with the only bread-winner away from home to accompany an itinerant preacher who thought the end of history was to arrive any day now.

This reversal of the disciples’ hopes and dreams then unexpectedly experienced its own reversal.  Some of them started saying that they had seen Jesus alive again.   In the Gospels themselves, of course, all the disciples see Jesus alive and are convinced that he has been raised from the dead.   It is not at all clear it actually happened that way.  The accounts of the Gospels are hopelessly at odds with each other about what happened, to whom, when, and where.  So what can we say historically?

One thing we can say with relative certainty (even though most people – including lots of scholars!) have never thought about this or realized it, is that no one came to think Jesus was raised from the dead because three days later they went to the tomb and found it was empty.  It is striking that Paul, our first author who talks about Jesus’ resurrection, never mentions the discovery of the empty tomb and does not use an empty tomb as some kind of “proof” that the body of Jesus had been raised.

Moreover, whenever the Gospels tell their later stories about the tomb, it never, ever leads anyone came to believe in the resurrection.  The reason is pretty obvious.  If you buried a friend who had recently died, and three days later you went back and found the body was no longer there, would your reaction be “Oh, he’s been exalted to heaven to sit at the right hand of God”?  Of course not.  Your reaction would be: “Grave robbers!”   Or, “Hey, I’m at the wrong tomb!”

The empty tomb only creates doubts and consternation in the stories in the Gospels, never faith.  Faith is generated by stories that Jesus has been seen alive again.  Some of Jesus’ followers said they saw him.  Some others believed them.  They told still others — who believed them.  More stories began to be told.  Pretty soon there were stories that all of them had seen him alive again.  The followers of Jesus who heard these stories became convinced he had been raised from the dead.

Jesus himself did not start Christianity.  His preaching is not what Christianity is about, in the end.  If his followers had not come to believe he had been raised from the dead, they would have seen him as a great Jewish prophet who had a specific Jewish message and a particular way of interpreting the Jewish scripture and tradition.  Christianity would have remained a sect of Judaism.  It would have had the historical significance of the Sadducees or Essenes – highly significant for scholars of ancient religion, but not a religion that would take over the world.

It is also not the death of Jesus that started Christianity.  If he had died and no one believed in his resurrection, his followers would have talked about his crucifixion as a gross miscarriage of justice; he would have been another Jewish prophet killed by God’s enemies.

Even the resurrection did not start Christianity.  If Jesus had been raised but no one found out about it or came to believe in it, there would not have been a new religion founded on God’s great act of salvation.

What started Christianity was the Belief in the ResurrectionIt was nothing else.  Followers of Jesus came to believe he had been raised.  They did not believe it because of “proof” such as the empty tomb.  They believed it because some of them said they saw Jesus alive afterward.  Others who believed these stories told others who also came to believe them.  These others told others who told others – for days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, and now millennia.  Christianity is all about believing what others have said.  It has always been that way and always will be.

Easter is the celebration of the first proclamation that Jesus did not remain dead.  It is not that his body was resuscitated after a Near Death Experience.   God had exalted Jesus to heaven never to die again; he will (soon) return from heaven to rule the earth.  This is a statement of faith, not a matter of empirical proof.  Christians themselves believe it.  Non-Christians recognize it as the very heart of the Christian message.  It is a message based on faith in what other people claimed and testified based on what others claimed and testified based on what others claimed and testified – all the way back to the first followers of Jesus who said they saw Jesus alive afterward.

2022-04-17T20:27:23-04:00April 30th, 2022|Public Forum|

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  1. TomTerrific April 30, 2022 at 9:02 am

    My wife and I have been viewing your output on YouTube and she has become quite a fan. We started with your debate with Licona. Keep up the good work!

    You mention in one of the sessions (not with Licona) that some “really smart” theologians are starting to have doubts about atonement. Would you care to elaborate on this? It seems to me central to Xty.

    • BDEhrman April 30, 2022 at 1:51 pm

      It’s central to tradiaional Christianity, but sophisticated thinkers (e.g., Stanley Hauerwas) are forthright in saying that it is a real problem.

      • Tomaha May 2, 2022 at 4:25 pm

        A real problem I would think, because as adults we accept that science has proven we are evolved apes (well, most of us accept it anyway) and that there was no “Adam and Eve/Garden of Eden”. Plus, multiple NT witnesses (1Peter1:20-21, Ephesians1:4-6 for instance) state that Christ was planned *before* the world was even created, so it would stand to make sense that we may be flawed, but our “omniscient” Creator obviously planned/created us that way so that Christ would be “glorified”. Not sure where the original sin concept became “orthodox” but there shouldn’t be need for *atonement* or a *Saviour* otherwise. Sacrifices for “sin” and “scapegoats” were a big part of Hebrew mythology as I understand it, and how they tried to make sense of the world. They just didn’t know about evolution. (Doubt they would be very receptive to the concept that their great, great, etc. grandpappy was a monkey, either! Ha!)

        • timcfix May 3, 2022 at 5:07 pm

          If we are evolved from apes why are there still apes? David Berlinski wrote THE DEVIL’S DELUSION and THE DENIABLE DARWIN both argue against your point, as he once said “Darwin explains the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest”. Yes the story of Jesus’ resurrection does get in the way of understanding God.

          • BDEhrman May 5, 2022 at 3:52 pm

            We didn’t descend from the apes that are now apes. Both apes and we descended from other forms of primates. As you might imagine, the evolutionary science is very complex and not the kind of simple formula that can be dismissed easily.

          • bradseggie May 8, 2022 at 12:56 am

            As to “why are there still apes,” Bart’s common ancestor reply is the standard reply. My preferred response:

            “If dogs evolved from wolves then why are there still wolves?”

            We all accept that dogs evolved from wolves. If people truly believed that a species cannot remain in existence while spinning off a new species, they would raise it against wolves and dogs. Yet they never do.

            Members of a species can continue to be fit while living in one location, but members who travel to another location (e.g., a remote island) may need to change to be fit for the new location. So the original species remains intact in one location while the new species emerges elsewhere.

          • BDEhrman May 9, 2022 at 6:05 pm

            Yup, I agree, it’s a simple answer. Evolution doesn’t work that way. The evolution of a new species does not entail the destruction of another.

  2. RM April 30, 2022 at 9:13 am

    This has to be the single most eloquent post on your blog ever. Basically art how its written. Beautiful.

  3. petfield April 30, 2022 at 9:54 am

    “Christianity is all about believing what others have said”.
    This is the best concise encapsulation of Christianity I have ever read. You write with so much clarity, passion and beautiful simplicity.

  4. Ruby April 30, 2022 at 10:29 am

    “Christianity is all about believing what others have said. It has always been that way and always will be.”

    I can understand why this is one of your highest commented blog post. Thank you for yet again, giving me another brick in my new foundation.

    But… I don’t think we can even process our existence without believing in something someone has told us. Whether that be religious belief, scientific belief, relational belief or natural belief. Either we believe someone else, or we come to some conclusion ourselves… and then we believe that. Belief is still a part of our existence. So the question isn’t… “Do I believe?” It becomes “What do I believe?” Thank you Bart. You helped me understand that I can still be agnostic about most things, yet not lose out on believing something. I don’t have to know “it”. I just call it imagination now.

  5. Seeker1952 April 30, 2022 at 11:12 am

    In your last sentence you describe how even today’s Christian faith goes back to those who first came to believe Jesus rose from the dead.

    Would it be fair to say that our own contemporary faith is not “directly” in God or Jesus? Rather that our direct or immediate faith is in those we have personally heard claim and testify to the resurrection? More broadly might we say that our faith, in the immediate and direct sense, is in the Christian Church?

    This gives a clear understanding of what or whom we actually have faith in and where faith comes from. But I can’t help but think that it sounds seriously deflating to what we unreflectingly mean by faith in God and Jesus. Faith seems “flimsy,” especially when we consider analogies with the game of “telephone” applied to transmission of the testimony.

    Of course we could say that God/Jesus protects the integrity of the transmission of the testimony, eg, papal infallibility. But that seems like begging the question.

    One other thing that might bolster faith in the transmission is the experience of the Holy Spirit even today confirming its truth in our hearts.

    • BDEhrman May 2, 2022 at 12:16 pm

      I’d agree that no one believes directly based on a pure revelation, but on testimonies he/she has heard, both oral and written, backed up by experience in many cases.

  6. mini1071 April 30, 2022 at 11:30 am

    Professor, have you ever focused on James the Brother and what he may have believed/preached? Was James with his family for the Mark 3:21 incident when they thought Jesus was “beside himself”? If so he seems to have changed his tune by the time Paul visited. So, here is this Galilean born into poverty and his brother goes off to preach a version of the standard apocalyptic text of the day but; then, oh by the way he’s the messiah?

    • BDEhrman May 2, 2022 at 12:17 pm

      I’ve never written about it but I’ve read and thought about it. Yes, he appears to have been one of the brothers in Mark 3 and John 7; Paul claims he had a vision of Jesus after the resurrection, so that presumably is what changed his mind. I wish we had a lot more information on him!

  7. Seeker1952 April 30, 2022 at 11:39 am

    In your judgment, based on your understanding of the experience of the first Christians, has Christianity, historically, tended to place way too much emphasis on the Crucifixion and not nearly enough on the Resurrection? I’ve read “progressive” Christian theologians who say that.

    I think the idea is that, without the Resurrection, the Crucifixion is meaningless. And that the first Christians didn’t develop their understanding of the Crucifixion until after they came to believe the Resurrection. The Resurrection is also a much more positive focus. That we shouldn’t talk about the Crucifixion without also talking about the Resurrection (and probably vice-versa).

    But I suppose traditional Christianity needs a strong emphasis on both. Is there a short formula or phrase that expresses, say, the importance of the Crucifixion within the framework of the primary importance of the Resurrection? Perhaps something along the lines of “the central idea of Christianity is the triumphant Resurrection of the one sacrificed on the Cross for our sins”? Or “the Resurrection shows God’s victory over sin, suffering, and death”?

    • BDEhrman May 2, 2022 at 12:20 pm

      My sense is that most Christians put far more emphasis on the resurrection than the crucifixion. Think: Easter celebration vs. Good Friday.

      • frankmelliott3rd May 2, 2022 at 5:31 pm

        “…Christians put more emphasis on the resurrection….” Mostly, yes. Catholics emphasize the crucifixion. Hence, crosses in their churches include the figure of Jesus on the cross, and the churches have the Stations of the Cross that invite the faithful to dwell on his suffering. Catholics are not about grace as the protestants understand it — hence their whole doctrine about purgatory.
        Protestants are all about the resurrection, so they favor empty crosses in their churches and proclaim salvation through belief.
        At least, this is my perspective having been raised Catholic, only to become a Presbyterian for a while, but now a happy agnostic.

      • Seeker1952 May 4, 2022 at 8:36 am

        But isn’t the crucifixion in atonement for sin normally thought of as the most important event by the majority of Christians?

        I’m suggesting the idea that sin was not fully overcome until the resurrection. The resurrection could be thought of not simply as “proof” that the crucifixion “worked” but also as the definitive reconciliation of humans with God.

        • BDEhrman May 6, 2022 at 2:15 am

          Yes, I was referring mainly to the celebratory aspects of the faith, not the theological — Christians worship Christ because he was raised; but it’s true, the atonement is the central feature. (It’s just that without the resurrection, there would never have been a doctrine of atonement, if you see what I mean). I’m not sure what most Christians would say is *the* most important; usually they think of death and resurrection as a kind of single event.

          • Seeker1952 May 6, 2022 at 9:32 am

            I’ve been trying to imagine (or remember) an artistic (sculpture or painting) rendering of Jesus that combines the crucifixion and resurrection. The best I can think of is a crucifix with Jesus shown as he often is in renderings of the resurrection, eg, clothed in white, arms and head raised up—but maybe the arms-semi-raised, semi-hanging on the cross.

            I know I’ve seen a large crucifix over the altar with a mosaic of the risen Jesus right behind it. At least in that context the mosaic kind of spiritualizes Jesus. I was impressed by that at the time but now wonder it has docetic overtones.

            Do you know of any artistic representations that effectively integrate resurrection and crucifixion?

          • BDEhrman May 8, 2022 at 5:36 pm


  8. Chopin May 1, 2022 at 12:41 pm

    The curse of English language spell-checkers!
    Viola = stringed instrument slightly larger than a violin (recognised by English language spell-checkers)
    Voila (or better still, voilà) = French word meaning “here you go” or equivalent

  9. financlaw May 2, 2022 at 7:58 am

    Logical, excellent post. Follow-up question…
    Do you place the accounts of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion miraculous acts in the exact same category as the post-crucifixion accounts of his resurrection?

    • BDEhrman May 3, 2022 at 1:24 pm

      In terms of whether historians can show they “probably happened”? Yes all violations of the laws of nature would fall in the same category.

  10. BDEhrman May 2, 2022 at 12:24 pm

    I’d say quite the contrary. The entire point of 1 Corinthians 15 is thta Christ was resurrected in an immortal, glorified *body* and that therefore the Corinthians who deny a future resurrection (of the body) are completely off-base.

  11. KeitaTakahata May 9, 2022 at 1:38 pm

    I’ve never really gotten a proper answer to all these discussion online but are Christmas and Easter pagan holidays? I’ve seen people say it’s pagan and Christian’s adopted and changed it, and others say Christian’s just used the same day.

    • BDEhrman May 10, 2022 at 4:39 pm

      They are definitely Christian holidays. But they may have been celebrated when they were because of teh close temporal connections to holidays people had been celebrating prior to becoming Christian. It’s rather hard to demonstrate, though, definitively.

  12. cbalexander May 10, 2022 at 9:49 am

    Prof. Ehrman,

    Have you read the book After Jesus, Before Christianity by Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott, Hal Taussig of the Westar Institute?

    If so, I’d love to hear your response to their primary assertions, especially that when we critique Christianity through the beliefs/eyes of people today, that we miss the many varied narratives that developed along the way. They call this reading history backward (from what we know today), rather than forward (what was most discussed, in evidence, then).

    I think they make a very good case for this, indicating that rather than being on a trajectory of “winning,” what we know as Christianity today, certainly in the early centuries after Jesus’ death, was not debated in the terms that it is today. For instance, they write, “ Most second-century writings by those belonging to communities of the Anointed do not mention Paul.”

    Your reflections on these points or others? Thanks.

    • BDEhrman May 10, 2022 at 5:19 pm

      I haven’t read it. Generally I think the scholars at Westar are very smart and almost always I think they are very wrong. It’s true in this case that most second century writings don’t mention Paul. They don’t mention Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John either. So, well…. If you do want to pursue this issue, my former student Benjamin White wrote a book showing that early Christians were deeply influenced by Paul, contrary to the older view (which these fellows seem to be accepting) that Paul was the “apostle of the heretics” and hterefore shunned by the proto-orthodox. His book is called Remembering Paul.

  13. cbalexander May 11, 2022 at 5:02 pm

    Thanks. I’ll check out Remembering Paul. One clarification: they do not posit that Paul was the “apostle of the heretics,” as I read it, but rather that there was much more variety in beliefs and communities than one would be led to believe from the focus on Paul’s writings throughout the centuries and, of course, his representation in the NT.

    • BDEhrman May 12, 2022 at 12:47 pm

      Yes, they wouldn’t use the term “heresies,” but the varieties they are referring to were called, in teh ancient sources themselves, “heresies.” This, as you many know, has been one of my dominant interests over the years — the varieties of Early Christianity.

  14. cbalexander May 13, 2022 at 4:37 pm

    I think their work aligns somewhat with yours in the varieties of early beliefs, orientations They do address heresies and the creation of orthodoxy, which they identify as a Christian invention, juxtaposed with Judaism’s relative acceptance of a variety of beliefs. They don’t believe that Paul had the influence during his time and the first few centuries that you appear to, although clearly Pauline writings were elevated in the canon and came to have great influence in later centuries.

  15. altruitypublicationsllc May 13, 2022 at 8:15 pm

    Today’s basic Christian theory that Jesus suffered and died for the forgiveness of our sins is Paul’s flawed theory, not Jesus’. The Reformation, rather than considering the sale of indulgences a corrupted practice, rather than works, essentially abolished the need for works for salvation, in favor of the vacuous theory of justification by faith alone.
    Jesus’ ministry on behalf of God was the performance of works such as for the poor, the imprisoned, the afflicted, etc. Jesus carried out God’s will and ministry, believing God had abandoned him at the very end. If Jesus was resurrected, it was because of his exemplary life and devotion to God, not because Adam ate forbidden fruit, as Paul would have us believe.
    Jesus provides today’s example for resurrection not Paul. Paul already believed in the resurrection of the body as a Pharisee, Acts 23:6-10, not because of Jesus. Further, long before Jesus, righteous persons found favor with God and were saved. I have to keep this short, so I’ll stop here.

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