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Rules of Thumb for Reconstructing the History behind the Gospels

In yesterday’s post I laid out the “wish list” historians have when it comes to sources of information about persons and events of the past, and evaluated how well the Gospels stack up against the list.  Now I want to move into the kinds of criteria biblical scholars use when trying to extract historical information from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, criteria made necessary by the fact that the Gospel writers were not trying to write objective historical narratives of what really happened, so much as trying to “proclaim the good news” of the salvation brought by Jesus.  These Gospels were not meant to be providing history lessons per se.  But nonetheless, they do contain historical information.  If we want to learn that information, how do we proceed?

Here is how I explain the beginning point in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet.




Using Our Sources: Some of the Basic Rules of Thumb

Before elaborating on some specific criteria that scholars have devised, let me say something about a few very basic methodological principles that most historians would agree should be applied to our sources.


The Earlier the Better

In general, historical sources closest to an event have a greater likelihood of being accurate than those at a further remove.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course – sometimes …

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An Important Criterion for Establishing What Actually Happened
The Historian’s Wish List



  1. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  July 17, 2018

    Speaking of theological biases, isn’t there a clear “socialist” bias in both Luke and Acts? In accounts from Acts Jerusalem communities are presented as ideal and utopian – people share everything, etc.; Ananias and Sapphire are exceptionally punished (killed!!) for not giving all the money (and lying about it). In Luke the young rich man is expected to give all his money away to the poor – still the same pattern over and over again. Isn’t it quite obvious that Luke had this agenda and projected it into the stories he inherited?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      Yes indeed — although, of course, it was before modern theories of socialism had developed. But it’s important for Luke to stress that hte early communities were closely and tightly knit and shared all things in common with very little controversy (and what contoversy developed was nipped in the bud). That surely is not actually how it all happened.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  July 20, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman, what do you think of American Evangelicals who ignore all of the proto-socialist elements of early Christianity and essentially make laissez faire free market capitalism another pillar of the faith? And it seems not just Evangelicals, but some mainline American Christians have adopted this attitude.

        I had an argument with a friend who is a Lutheran pastor, in which I insisted that cupidity and capitalism are supposed to be thoroughly anathema to Christianity. I cited all the passages in the NT, such as most of Luke and James 5:1-6. And like most Christians I know, he just threw back the parable of the talents, in which Jesus appears to endorse making money off of interest. At that point, I just throw up my hands, because it appears the melding of American Christianity and supply-side economics is pretty much complete. So much for getting into the Kingdom of God by selling everything you own and giving the money to the poor.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 22, 2018

          I find it rather amazing, actually. One of my best friends, a top scholar of the NT in the country, is a hard-core Marxist.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  July 17, 2018

    For example, in considering Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, we have to allow for the fact that he is an Athenian who admires Sparta, like many educated Athenians of that time. He is skeptical about Democracy, and to some extent blames it for the misfortunes of his state. He has a sneaking regard for treacherous rascals like Alcibiades, if for no other reason than that they liven up his narrative. And when he portrays a conversation between two leading figures in this narrative, he’s almost certainly writing it himself, perhaps based on what he’s heard or read, but they are his words, not theirs. Shakespeare’s dialogue in Coriolanus or Julius Caesar is about as likely to be fully accurate.

    There are undoubted themes, theological or otherwise, in most great historical works–and not just ancient history. To be purely objective, to simply analyze the known facts dispassionately, will lead to a very boring book nobody reads–and a distrust of patterns, real or perceived, will make it hard for the historian to do any more than recount a dreary laundry list of statistics that never gets to the point.

    Historians with no belief in any divine being can still believe (and frequently have) that history could not have gone any other way than how it did. Because there is something in us that prefers to believe that, that is repelled by the randomness of unpredictable events. And of course, some events are predictable, patterns do recur, over and over, no matter how hard historians try to warn us, because (as one of my history professors wearily uttered) people don’t change.

    The gospels are not good history writing, or meant to be–but they are well-written, their themes can illuminate as well as obscure, and they do give us a sense of the people involved. We know these were vital passionate people, caught up in a developing system of belief, a new conception of ethics–and we know how such people are, because people don’t change, even if their ideas do.

    Josephus really didn’t care enough about Jesus or Christianity (a troublesome minor cult in his time) to write more than a few scattered paragraphs about either. Same for Tacitus. The historians failed to see history happening right in front of them.

    Happens more often than you’d think.

  3. Avatar
    Hebe  July 17, 2018

    Hi Bart.
    I studied Theology at King’s College, London in the early 80s and most of the ideas you so eloquently present (here and in your speeches and books) are very familiar to me.There is one idea, however, that I don’t remember at all from my times at King’s; this is that Jesus probably didn’t get a proper burial because it was common practice for the Romans to leave the bodies of crucifixion victims to rot on the cross. I wonder, is this something NT scholars didn’t talk about at the time or is it just something I missed?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      Yes, that is a view that is *not* widely shared among scholars of the NT. The vast majority of these, of course, find the view repugnant to their personal religious beliefs and would never be able to entertain it seriously. But those who do have raised the issue before, most famously John Dominic Crossan.

      • Avatar
        ardeare  July 19, 2018

        I’ll try to relay this story as accurately as I can remember it. Dr. Dale Martin gave an Easter lecture a few years back and I remember him saying something to the effect that the Greek word, “soma” as used in Paul’s writings could possibly refer to a resurrected body that need not be Jesus’ original earthly body. That would explain why his closest followers failed to initially recognize him. Would that be a widely recognized argument?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 20, 2018

          It’s an interesting idea. But it’s important to remember that Paul never says anything about his followers not recognizing him. That’s in the Gospels, which do not talk about there being a differnet soma.

  4. Avatar
    stevenpounders  July 17, 2018

    Lately I’ve been enjoying Richard Elliott Friedman’s “The Bible with Sources Revealed”, in which he gives an excellent explanation of the documentary hypothesis and then lays out his own translations of the five books of the Torah color and font coded to show which sources they come from.

    Is there is an equivalent text describing the sources of the gospels (Q, M, Mark, Matthew, etc.) with color/font coded text to show which texts scholars associate with which source?

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 17, 2018

    For those new to the blog, I strongly recommend Ehrman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet ….” It is a really helpful book.

  6. Avatar
    JoeWallack  July 17, 2018

    “Of our four New Testament Gospels, John is the latest, written, probably, about 60 or 70 years after the events it narrates. On the whole, it is less likely to be accurate than Mark, written some 30 years earlier.”

    Professor Ehrman, for me the multiple anachronisms in GMark date it to long after 70 and I’m not aware of any quality evidence that would date it to close to 70. What do you think is the one best piece of evidence that GMark was written close to 70 (FCM look out!)?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      My view is that it does not take long for an anachronism to be made. Often happens all the time (think of the things attributed to *one* president that were actually performed/done/occurred during the presidency of another president –in recent history!) But Mark must have been not too long after 70 if it was used by Matthew and Luke a decade or so after that.

  7. SonOfZeusTruly
    SonOfZeusTruly  July 17, 2018

    1 Corinthians 15:51-53
    Dr. Erhman, can you explain what this means if you have time. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      I’ll be dealing with it at some length in my new book on the Afterlife. Basic story: Paul thought that when Jesus returned the dead would be raised in immortal bodies and humans alive at the time would also be transformed into immortal bodies that would never again grow sick, age, or die.

      • SonOfZeusTruly
        SonOfZeusTruly  July 19, 2018

        Well they got the idea from somewhere. Just as the saying , either Zeus came down to show his face or the sculpture went to heaven and seen his majestic face.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 19, 2018

        Did Paul believe that throughout his lifetime? Or did he, like others, abandon that idea when a number of years – a decade or more – had passed without its happening?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 20, 2018

          As far as we know he believed it until the end — certainly to the end of his writing career.

  8. Avatar
    forthfading  July 17, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Are these criteria accepted as standard among historians? Can you have a scholarly discussion with another scholar with completely different world view and agenda for being a NT scholar, but find common ground in using these criteria?


    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      Yup, these are some of the basics that historians generally follow.

  9. Avatar
    fishician  July 17, 2018

    Since Paul is our earliest Christian author, and Mark the earliest gospel, they should be the closest in theology, I would think. Do you think this is true?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      One might *think* so, but the problem is that Paul himself in his letters mentions other Christains (well, attacks them) who have views quite different from his own. That suggests that sometimes extreme theological variations came about very early.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 17, 2018

    You know what would make a great first year graduate school or seminary course? A course where the class read each of your dozen or so trade books in the order that you wrote them. It would amount to about a book every two weeks for a year. Required reading before the course started would be your New Testament textbook and your Bible textbook. The course could be titled “A Historical View of the Bible and Early Christianity.”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      Ha! Interesting idea. The thing is that I could never get away with doing a class all about ME!!! (And would not feel comfortably trying)

  11. Avatar
    doug  July 17, 2018

    Challenging one’s cherished beliefs with reason can be a hard thing to do. I admire those who do it.

  12. Avatar
    Tony  July 17, 2018

    “These Gospels were not meant to be providing history lessons per se. But nonetheless, they do contain historical information. If we want to learn that information, how do we proceed?”
    And here we have the moment where the line is crossed from assumption to a statement of fact. The first question that should be asked is: do the gospels contain ANY factual verifiable information proofing the historicity of the Jesus of Nazareth character? If the answer is no, or we’re not sure, we must not proceed because that would be an embarrassing waste of intellectual resources.

    But that ship has sailed. Obviously, because a straightforward analysis is impossible when the subject is central to the world’s largest religion. Surely, 2.7 billion Christians can’t all be wrong!

    Our earliest source is Paul, and he says about Jesus of Nazareth…… absolutely nothing! Not only does Paul never use the gospel name, but the very gospel character, time, places and activities, as described in the gospels are completely absent in Paul’s letters. The reason NT scholars object to that last statement is because they persistently read the gospels back into Paul’s letters.

    The best hypothetical fit is that Paul describes a celestial Jesus, who has never been on earth, but whose heavenly existence became known through scripture and revelations. The celestial Jesus had assumed human form, was killed by Satan in the lower heavens, hanged from a tree and resurrected by God three days later. Paul expected his heavenly Lord Jesus to arrive (for the first time!) at any moment.

    Paul’s letters alone should put enough doubt into the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Many scholars have identified the gospels as myth, fiction and non-historical. Combined, that should be sufficient cause for serious doubt.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  July 19, 2018

      “The reason NT scholars object to that last statement is because they persistently read the gospels back into Paul’s letters.”

      Can you provide an example where NT critical scholars are reading the gospels back into Paul?

      “The celestial Jesus had assumed human form, was killed by Satan in the lower heavens…”

      Paul never says in any of his letters that Jesus was killed by Satan in the lower heavens. That’s reading The Ascension of Isaiah back into Paul. You’ve pointed out that it’s not appropriate to take another author’s work and place it back into Paul so how are you rationalizing this?

      • Avatar
        Tony  July 20, 2018

        “Can you provide an example where NT critical scholars are reading the gospels back into Paul?”
        – Thinking that Paul’s Lord Jesus is the same as the gospel Jesus of Nazareth, for one….
        – Stating that “the twelve” are the twelve disciples from the gospels. 1 Cor 15:5
        – Assuming that the pagan “The Lord Supper”, refers to the Jerusalem Last Supper from the gospels. 1 Cor. 11:23-26. And much more….
        The last two are examples of where the gospel writers used Paul to create: 1) the twelve disciples and 2) the Jerusalem Last Supper.

        “That’s reading The Ascension of Isaiah back into Paul.”
        – No, all my comments are directly based on Paul’s letters.

      • Avatar
        Tony  July 21, 2018

        “the Jews had many ritualistic eating and drinking practices. I don’t think it can be said that the Last Supper came from the pagans. ”
        You’re misinterpreting. Symbolically eating and drinking the flesh and blood of a god would have been anathema to Jews! However, the eucharist was part of some pagan mystery religions. Paul simply borrowed and incorporated the practice into his own mystery religion. His pagan audience appreciated and understood.

    • Avatar
      Jim Cherry  July 20, 2018

      An interesting thought, but fails Occam’s Razor. A “celestial Jesus” is less likely than a 1st century itinerant apocalyptic preacher. And Strawman argument of “where the line is crossed from assumption to a statement of fact.” Probabilities of what really happened are not statements of fact.

      • Avatar
        Tony  July 21, 2018

        You’re talking about an itinerant apocalyptic preacher who, for some mysterious reason, was promoted to the Son of God post mortem. Also, Paul does not say a word about an itinerant apocalyptic preacher! Based on that alone Occam’s razor fails historicity.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  July 21, 2018

      E.P. Sanders explains in his book, Judaism: Practice and Belief: 63BCE – 66CE, that the Jews had many ritualistic eating and drinking practices. I don’t think it can be said that the Last Supper came from the pagans.

      “That’s reading The Ascension of Isaiah back into Paul.”
      – No, all my comments are directly based on Paul’s letters.”

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one!

  13. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  July 18, 2018

    Although we only have the New Testament, and other writings that were not included in the canon, as our source on the life of the historical Jesus and since there are no contemporary secular sources that mention any event of the life of Jesus, does the silence of contemporary secular sources aid in calling into question the authenticity of some events recorded in the New Testament?

    For example. Matthew 27:52-53 New King James Version (NKJV)
    52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

    Certainly an event this miraculous would have spurred contemporary writers to mention it! Therefore, can we garner historical evidence or theory through the silence of contemporary sources?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      Yes, good point. One could also say that if someone were really doing massive miracles in front of many, sometimes thousands, of people at the time (feeding the multitudes; raising the dead, etc) there would be *some* record of it among his contemporaries.

      • Avatar
        flcombs  July 19, 2018

        Regarding the Matthew 27:52-53 story: what does the greek that was translated “many” actually mean? I’ve heard it said it means many like thousands or others say can just be a few.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 20, 2018

          It doesn’t specify. It just says “many”. It could be ten or ten million.

  14. Avatar
    prestonp  July 18, 2018

    “Whenever you can isolate an author’s biases, you can take them into account when considering his report. That is to say, statements supporting his bias should then be taken with a pound of salt (not necessarily discarded, but scrutinized carefully).” Bart

    “I simply cannot stand cheap shots condescendingly delivered, by people – popular authors or not – who do not want to interact with historical data and serious interpretations, but instead want to take potshots to make the ‘faithful’ think that all is well with the world and that their preconceived notions about religion cannot be shaken by historical inquiry.” Bart

    Do you want genuine, sincere, thoughtful criticism? Can you read your statement above and not see your own bitterness and bias? Does it matter to you? Reminds me of a line from a song, “I’ll judge you all and make damn sure That no-one judges me”

    Is the “Gospel of Peter” a canonical gospel?

    The Historian, if he wants to play by certain rules, necessarily refuses to consider what could be historical information if it is considered miraculous. Here’s the problem with that kind of restraint. Miracles may have occurred in the past. If they did, they cannot be considered by the historian. If they did occur and they are dismissed automatically, history is not explored fully or presented thoroughly. As I’ve said, logic gives the historian the tools to calculate whether or not miracles have taken place.

    BTW, That band of clueless boobs wasn’t capable of pulling off a scheme like His resurrection.

    “It reminds us that miracles, if they occur, must, like all events, be revelations of that total harmony of all that exists. Nothing arbitrary, nothing simply “stuck on” and left unreconciled with the texture of total reality, can be admitted. By definition, miracles must of course interrupt the usual course of Nature; but if they are real they must, in the very act of so doing, assert all the more the unity and self-consistency of total reality at some deeper level. … In calling them miracles we do not mean that they are contradictions or outrages; we mean that, left to her [Nature] own resources, she could never produce them.” Lewis

    • Avatar
      DavidNeale  July 19, 2018

      “Do you want genuine, sincere, thoughtful criticism? Can you read your statement above and not see your own bitterness and bias? Does it matter to you? Reminds me of a line from a song, “I’ll judge you all and make damn sure That no-one judges me””

      I don’t know why you feel the need to be so rude and condescending.

      “Is the “Gospel of Peter” a canonical gospel?”

      What’s the point of this question? As I understand it, most scholars regard the Gospel of Peter as a second-century text containing a lot of legendary material and with a particular anti-Jewish bias (although Crossan has a different view). No one’s arguing that it should be taken at face value. Nor should the canonical gospels be taken at face value.

      “BTW, That band of clueless boobs wasn’t capable of pulling off a scheme like His resurrection.”

      I don’t see anyone here saying that the resurrection was a “scheme”. IMO, the most likely explanation is that some individuals (certainly Peter and maybe others) experienced visions which led them to believe that Jesus had been resurrected – which fit with their prior belief in the resurrection of the dead, as apocalyptic Jews – and that they shared this belief with others. That doesn’t imply that they intentionally deceived anyone. People often experience vivid hallucinations which feel very real to them. (And even if Paul is right that Jesus appeared to five hundred people at once, there are documented examples of mass hallucinations on that scale in modern times – I believe Bart mentions some in his books.)

    • Avatar
      Iskander Robertson  July 20, 2018

      Bart, why is it that all gospels say that jesus’ apostles and the women completely forgot that jesus would come back to life? if we were there and we asked these people “where is jesus”
      they reply ” he has gone to heaven, but we can convince you he is alive because we completely forgot that he said that he was going to come back to life, god put mass amnesia over us”

      “he is alive, we even forgot, when the women came to us we thought it idle tales”

      • Bart
        Bart  July 22, 2018

        My sense is that when the followers of Jesus came to believe in the resurrection, they couldn’t *imagine* that it had come as a surprise to Jesus himself, and so they made up predictions by him that it was going to happen; but then they had the problem of explaining why it had come as a surprise to *them*. And so they invented stories of their own forgetfulness. It’s hard to see how Jesus could really have told them about it in advance and they just forgot that part….

    • Avatar
      Iskander Robertson  July 20, 2018

      “(And even if Paul is right that Jesus appeared to five hundred people at once, there are documented examples of mass hallucinations on that scale in modern times – I believe Bart mentions some in his books.)”

      something doesn’t sound right here. what are group of 500 people doing together? they are somewhere on a mountain expecting something ? if gospel of matthew had known about the 500 witnesses it would be similiar to the raising of the dead saints and appearing to many . 500 would go in the city and tell people, but then why is matthew saying this :

      So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

      this is written by “eyewitness” matthew . 500 “testimony” not strong enough to crush lies? did the 500 doubt? did they remain believers? what happened to the WIDELY COUNTER narrative? not worth preserving?

  15. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 18, 2018

    About the comments, is it possible for Steven to renew our 3 comments after midnight each night? When posting comments, say at 10PM, 11PM &11:30, we can’t make another comment the next day until 10PM, then we have to wait another hour to make a 2nd comment, then half an hour for the 3rd. The following day, it happens all over again. Or if we post 1 comment at 7PM, the next day it only allows 2 comments until 7PM, but then gives back just 1 so that we have to wait until the next 2 renew. It’s like every comment is set up on a 24 hour cycle rather than renewing all at once the same time every day. It would be a lot easier if we could post 3 comments any time in a 24 hour period (like after midnight). I don’t always post comments in one sitting.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      I don’t think it can work that way: it’s three comments within any 24 hour period, not within a calendrical day. Otherwise it would cuase *other* problems. There’s not a perfect solution, I think.

  16. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 18, 2018

    We know of Q only from the two narrative gospels that used it as a sayings source. Are there any examples of narrative gospels that relied on Thomas in the same way? If not, why not, since Christians were evidently still reading and copying Thomas after several narrative gospels were in circulation? I guess I’m presuming that a gospel with both sayings and narrative would be considered a more complete picture of Jesus’ message.

  17. Avatar
    garytheman  July 18, 2018

    In the past I was critical of your comments but what you said above in this blog I 100% agree with you. Thank you.

  18. Avatar
    prestonp  July 19, 2018

    To godspell,

    2 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.

    25 Then came she and worshiped him, saying, Lord, help me.

    You were partly correct. She had faith and she was from Canaan. That she worshiped Jesus is a clue what her faith was centered in.

    “godspell July 17, 2018
    Preston, no one is saying you can’t believe whatever you like. Just as people of every other religion and no religion do.” I know.

    Before I posted my first comment today, I was informed I had 3 comments available to make today. I posted that comment and then it said my 3 comments for the day were used up. I found this opportunity by going back to previous pages.

    “flcombs July 17, 2018
    Have you traveled or discussed your claims with people in other religions much? Stating your beliefs as beliefs are fine: if you believe them they are true to you, but that isn’t evidence to anyone else.” My believing something doesn’t make it true.
    “You don’t appear to realize that your “evidence” is the same as for people of other religions and their confidence in theirs, the certainty of their miracles and feeling the spirit within them.” For example?

    How could He be Lord of the Sabbath and not be God? How could He be greater than the temple and not be God, both of these statements are found in the gospel that doesn’t say Jesus said He was God? How radically contradictory is that from what He says about Himself in John?

    Of all of the gods out there, quote the top 5 who spoke most like Christ.

    If the guys wanted to make sure others would believe what they wrote, why describe a bunch of miracles somebody performed? Why expect people to believe that? Why push His virgin birth? Why advance the idea of His resurrection?

    As an apocalyptic preacher who was mistaken, why make Him into something He wasn’t 70 years later as Bart contends? So He was way, way off. Big deal. They killed Him. Boom! It’s over. Move on. You don’t get rewarded for making Him God decades later, do you? If that’s what they were shooting for, they were screwy.

    • Avatar
      Iskander Robertson  July 20, 2018

      “You were partly correct. She had faith and she was from Canaan. That she worshiped Jesus is a clue what her faith was centered in.”

      Glenna Jackson :

      The story of the cannanite woman, therefore, is not merely a description of the rewards of faith, as it is been viewed in tradition history, but it is a REINFORCEMENT OF JEWISH LAW FOR THE PURPOSE OF ATTAINING MEMBERSHIP IN THE MATTHEAN COMMUNITY.

      Jackson ‘ have mercy on me’ p 141

      so the “little dog” has to become slave of israel (isaiah 14.1-2) , she had to admit her status in the world as slave of israel and then she has to take on jewish identity.

      How could He be Lord of the Sabbath and not be God?”

      quote :

      Finally, it is crucial to highlight that Mark 2:27-28 may suggest that the Sabbath was created as a gift for humankind, rather than the reverse, and that humans are the rightful masters of the Sabbath. Casey views this as equivalent to other Jewish texts that speak about humans as ruling over all created things (4 Ezra 6:54; 2 Baruch 14:18). Of course, whatever Aramaic traditions underlie the text of Mark, Mark 2:28 seems to treat “the Son of Man” as a title distinctly in reference to Jesus. However, the logic could still follow that since the Sabbath was given to humankind, Jesus as the Human One par excellence can rightfully interpret how the Sabbath is best to be observed. By omitting Mark 2:27, Matthew and Luke may cut out some important aspects of the original argument and heighten Jesus’ personal authority over the Sabbath institution.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  July 22, 2018

      Prestinp: Oh please. For example Islam. Especially salafist Muslims claim the Quran is perfect, all prophecies true, miracles etc. It is a perfect book which of itself is proof it came from God. You can run down other religions too (well someone interested in truth could). You keep proving you have absolutely no knowledge of any religion other than what you have been programmed to believe. The question was have you been anywhere or discussed with other religions and your answer is a resounding NO. Spending time in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places where Christianity isn’t dominant drives home how similar the fundamentalist approach is.

      Many religions and Christian denominations started with a failed prophet and it didn’t stop them! They don’t think themselves foolish any more than you do. They are great examples to see how people could have continued or believed in ancient times.

  19. Avatar
    Kawfmin  July 20, 2018

    It’s often pointed out that Paul’s letters say very little about the Jesus of the Gospels. Having read the NT for the first time recently, my sense is also that none of the other letters, not the pseudo-Pauls or any of the other letters, really reflect much of the events and ideas of the Gospels. It’s all really just focused on the implications of a generically-described resurrected Messiah. Or did I miss something? Quite possible.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2018

      Yes, there is very little Gospel material in the otehr 23 books of the New Testament! These authors were all writing about other things. Whether they *could* have put together a coherent account of Jesus’ life is impossible to say.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  July 22, 2018

      “Having read the NT for the first time recently, my sense is also that none of the other letters, not the pseudo-Pauls or any of the other letters, really reflect much of the events and ideas of the Gospels. It’s all really just focused on the implications of a generically-described resurrected Messiah.”

      “Generic”? “He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” “Who are You, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”…He had just observed the disciple Steve murdered in cold blood as hurled rocks smashed in his skull. He was deeply involved persecuting Christians. Seems he knew Who and What this Jesus character was and believed he encountered the true, glorious “Son of God” not a no frills version.

      What was the gospel message? “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” “He who believes in me, as the scripture hath said, out of his inner most being shall flows rivers of living water.” “I AM THE WAY, THE LIFE, THE TRUTH”. “But whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

      “the Spirit of truth. The world cannot receive Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you do know Him, for He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. In a little while, the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you are in Me, and I am in you…The one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and reveal Myself to him.”…Judas (not Iscariot) asked Him, “Lord, why are You going to reveal Yourself to us and not to the world?” Jesus replied, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make Our home with him.”

      That is the gospel

      • Avatar
        Kawfmin  July 29, 2018

        That is the gospel, yes. My point is simply that the Jesus of the Gospel, as defined by specific words and actions, is barely to be found in the rest of the NT. Almost none of the particular things he says and does are mentioned.

        • Avatar
          Kawfmin  July 29, 2018

          Well I believe your first passage is from Acts. Acts is a partial exception to my point since Jesus says a few things before Ascension. My point really refers to all the letters. One would expect the sayings of Jesus to be a topic of discussion elsewhere in the NT. They are not. Even in Acts, after Ascension, Jesus’ specific teachings go largely undiscussed. Interestingly, one notable time a teaching of Jesus is mentioned in Acts, it is the famous “it is better to give than to receive”. The weird thing is, Jesus never says that in the Gospels.

  20. Avatar
    bensonian  July 20, 2018

    You mentioned detecting bias within the authors writing. As researchers, how do we identify, admit, measure and control for our own biases (or reverse biases) while interpreting the ancient writings? For example, people who are pro-choice may interpret Exodus 21:22-225 as allowing for abortion as unequivocal to murder, however, pro-life folks would interpret the exact same passage as being equivalent to murder based on the interpretation of the word “mischief” or something like that. Here’s the passage: “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,”(Exodus 21:22-25, KJV). This is one of many examples. I picked this one because there are enormous moral and political implications on both sides. So here we have the same passage, and two very different positions clearly driven by ones own bias. How do we control for that?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2018

      It’s very difficult indeed. If a researcher is oblivious to her or his own biases, then just about all is lost!

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