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Secret Followers of Jesus?


Tangential to the discussion here but what do you think of the idea symbolized by the Joseph of Arimathea character that there may have been closeted sympathizers or even fellow travelers of the Jesus movement among members of the Sanhedrin?


It’s a good question.  My sense is that it is virtually inconceivable that there were followers of Jesus, closeted or otherwise, in the Sanhedrin.  For a lot of reasons.  The main one is that according to our earliest accounts, Jesus’ entire public ministry was spent teaching in Galilee.  He was unknown in Jerusalem (I know that John puts him there earlier on several occasions, but that’s a later conceit).  I think the first time anyone in Jerusalem had ever even heard of Jesus was when he caused the ruckus in the Temple the last week of his life.  So he almost certainly had no followers among the aristocratic elite there.

In addition to that, I think the later Christians who told stories about Jesus wanted their hearers/readers to “know” that Jesus had a wide and deep influence.   And there developed an entire tendency to show that even among his enemies (both Jewish leaders and Romans) there were closeted or not-so-closeted believers among them, either ones who believed in secret or who came to believe once they had an experience of his presence.   Off the top of my head, there is the following:

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Lincoln’s Watch and Eyewitnesses
Pilate and Barabbas



  1. Robertus
    Robertus  October 24, 2012

    Some would say Judas night be an invented character symbolizing Jewish opposition to Jesus. Paul makes no mention of Judas and speaks of Jesus appearing to the twelve. I don’t think Q mentions Judas. Who’s to say Mark didn’t create this character as well?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2012

      Yes, some have argued that. For my money, Judas passes all the criteria (including dissimilarity) and so was almost certainly historical. I give further evidence in my book on the Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, where I attempt a historical reconstruction.

      • Avatar
        tcc  October 26, 2012

        Even if Judas was a historical person, why do the gospel authors portray him as increasingly evil as time goes on? The guy feels like a narrative device to smear the Jews and beef up the ministry to the gentiles in a post Jewish Revolt environment.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

          I think it’s the same thing with Pilate: historical figure, increasingly portrayed in a certain way (completely innocent) over time. Anyway, I deal with all that at length about Judas in my book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  October 26, 2012

        Oops, this was intended for your post on Barabbas.

        Thanks, I will take a look at your discussion.

  2. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  October 24, 2012

    I heard from Mark Goodacre’s NT podcast (I think?) that some scholars think what the centurion said (Mark 15:39) was to mock Jesus? Do other scholars think this? I don’t, but I haven’t heard their evidence.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2012

      Scholars think lots of things! But I would say this is very much a minority opinion. Off hand I don’t know who actually supports this, and judging from the literary context in Mark, I’d say it’s highly unlikely as an explanation.

  3. Avatar
    jimmo  October 24, 2012

    I’ve always thought of these being examples of “look who also converted”, which seems to have been a core argument from apologists from the beginning.

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    Jdavis3927  October 24, 2012

    The two voices (and the ripping) come at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the end

    Dr. Ehrman,

    This may seem like a dumb question, but..

    The statement above , some people would look at as some type of revelation from God. I know you are agnostic now, but before your beliefs changed, how would you have responded to someone understanding this to be a “great” revelation from God, or better yet, how would you respond now. Thanks for your blog

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2012

      Even if it is a “revelation” given to Mark, to understand this revelation, one has to interpret Mark, and the interpretation works, whether it the passages are inspired or not, I think. (I held to this interpretation when I was still a believer)

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    JamesFouassier  October 24, 2012

    Someone had to arrange for the colt of an ass (or a colt and an ass) to be tied up at the gate waiting for Jesus to arrive, for the sign of a man (not a woman) carrying the water jug at the well, and for the Upper Room to be set up for the Last Supper.

  6. Avatar
    lbehrendt  October 25, 2012

    Bart, I’d like to hear your take on a question I’ve been debating with others. As you’ve argued many times, the most reliable accounts we have for the historical Jesus come from the four Gospels. Yet most historians approach the Gospels with considerable suspicion, with the attitude that a Gospel story or saying of Jesus should be regarded as inauthentic until proven authentic. To this end, scholars have developed the so-called “criteria of authenticity” in an effort to separate fact from fiction. And it strikes me that most serious historians relegate most of the Gospel material into the category of fiction.

    My question is this: do historians treat Jesus (and the Gospels) differently from other like figures of antiquity (and the historical sources we have for those figures)? For the sake of comparison, let’s consider the Buddha. I’ll admit that I’m no expert on the Buddha, but in the histories I’ve read and heard, I don’t recollect there being a “Quest for the Historical Buddha” or criteria of authenticity used to get to the “real” Buddha. Take for example the statement that the Buddha was born into a royal Hindu family. I’ve never heard of anyone questioning this statement, or approaching this statement from the stance that it is invalid unless historians can prove its validity, or debating whether early Buddhists might have invented this statement to enhance the prestige of their movement. Contrast this with the treatment given statements in the Gospels concerning Jesus’ ancestry going back to King David.

    If Jesus IS treated differently from other figures of antiquity … why should this be the case?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

      Yes, biblical scholars may be a bit more upfront about the criteria that they use to establish historically reliable information, but hte basic procedures are the same for anyone dealing with the past, whether talking about Jesus, Moses, Caesar Tibrerius, Leonardo, or Abraham Lincoln.

      • Avatar
        donmax  October 27, 2012


        I’m more than a bit surprised at what you are saying here. In fact, I’m stunned. Writing a biography about Lincoln is much different than biblically patching-working your way to a person called Jesus or Moses. In the first place there are many good bios of Honest Abe (not the Jewish one), and none that I have yet to read about any of the other more memorable characters who may have resided, once upon a time, among the ancients. There’s lots of historical speculation, of course, but very little I would call “reliable history.”

        Too many bible scholars are like thoroughbreds who run better with blinders on. Others drift wide afield as they wander into areas of religious and/or theological speculation. They parse their words, quoting chapter and verse, while describing the nuances of dead, one-dimensional people and only slightly less dead languages.

        If, like Jefferson, we remove all the miraculous events and all interpolations, and the obviously plagiarized dialogue and speeches, what’s left? Certainly not anything approximating the Civil War or the Gettysburg Address. And no one like Carl Sandburg, either!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 27, 2012

          I’m just saying that historians tend to use the same methods whatever they are studying; there are not special methods for studying Jesus that differ from methods for studying Romulus, e.g.

          • Avatar
            donmax  October 28, 2012

            Romulus!? You can’t be referring to the twin brother of Remus, so it must be Little Augustus, the last Roman emperor in the West. Either way, I’m just saying there is a big difference, especially when compared to Jesus. The comparison becomes even more extreme when stacked up against the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, or any other famous person who lived out his or her life in more recent history.

            You must mean historians of today do their research in similar ways, using available resources, gathering and weighing the evidence, reading every available document and considering most, if not all the other opinions or judgments ever penned or printed out on a computer about the object of their study, and then laying out what was found as a basis for retelling the story as such a person might have lived in bygone days.

            The methodology, however, for approaching legendary figures like Romulus leaves much to be desired. The chasm of time and the leaps of scholarly faith is just too great, even with advancements in modern technology.

            When it comes to Jesus, scholars confront a unique challenge, both in the cultural perceptions of the object of study, and in the available documentation. For the most part, what they think they know is tied to very few “reliable” sources (or set of sources) that suggests a sense of fair-minded, fact-based history, one which too often cuts the readers adrift in a sea of literary make believe. What we end up with is an inordinate dependency on translations of foreign languages, and the pronouncements of primitive, though literate, writers from the past (one might just as well say “twilight zone”), all of which require specialized and never-ending explanations.

            In the end, whatever has been written about Jesus becomes a matter of conjecture and commentary saying more about what didn’t happen than what actually occurred. (I’m thinking here of historical negatives like the fact that he wasn’t “begotten” by a god (any more than Romulus was sired by Mars).

            I know you are a secular scholar, and an extremely good one at that, but none of your provocative books offer a clear, comprehensive biography of the rabbi nobody can remember, historically speaking. Which one does that?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 28, 2012

            Yes, I mean Romulus, the alleged founder of Rome! When we say that he is “legendary,” it is not because we were born with that knowledge. It is because serious historians looked at the surviving ancient sources (e.g., Livy, Plutarch) and evaluated them using rigorous historical criteria. All I’m saying is that the same criteria that one uses with Livy and Plutarch with respect to Romulus are more or less the same criteria that one uses with, say, Matthew and John with respect to Jesus (yes, there is a larger time gap; but the criteria include, among other things, looking at the time gap. And so on)

          • Avatar
            donmax  October 29, 2012

            Sorry, Bart, but researching and writing about someone like Romulus is not the same as doing so about Jesus. The subject itself and the methodology is vastly different.

            I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about that.

            D. C. S.

  7. Avatar
    stanmac77  October 25, 2012

    Does Isa 53.9 inform this story?

  8. Avatar
    Margret  October 26, 2012

    Hello Professor Ehrman,
    I recently sent you an email. I had issues with my computer and wonder if you received it.
    If not, I can resend.
    Thank you, margret

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

      I’m sorry that I’m not able to answer all my email — just not enough hours in the day! (Esp. with all the time this blog takes) But feel free to try again if I didn’t respond the first time.

  9. Avatar
    Rosekeister  September 4, 2013

    “I think the later Christians who told stories about Jesus wanted their hearers/readers to “know” that Jesus had a wide and deep influence.”

    This reminds of the crowds of thousands that made it so difficult for Jesus to move from place to place. How well-known do you think Jesus actually was? Was he known somewhat in the area of the Sea of Galilee but the crowds were dozens maybe 75-100 that grew to thousands in the telling? Is there any way to answer such a question or can there only be speculation? The more I read, the more I wonder if the reality was more like any number of evangelists teaching today to use a modern analogy. Some of them are little known, some are regionally known, and others nationally known due to TV and nowdays the internet. Was Jesus a regionally known apocalyptic teacher whose followers found confirmation in the Hebrew scriptures that they felt showed he could still be the Messiah despite his crucifixtion and it grew from there as it spread from the Jewish religion and Galilee to the gentiles in Syria and Asia Minor?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 4, 2013

      My guess is that he wasn’t all that well known. Galilee was sparsely populated, and he never goes to the main cities in any of our traditions. So he’s basically going to some hamlets and villages and staying in rural parts. I doubt if there were many following him around.

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