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The Jesus Seminar and John the Baptist

QUESTION: Does the Jesus Seminar also reject the claim that the Baptist was an apocalypticist? Bart Ehrman Jesus Seminar and John the Baptist RESPONSE: This is a great question, and I’m afraid I don’t know the definitive answer – in part because the Jesus Seminar did not have one and only one view on many topics. The Seminar was made up of a group of scholars who got together twice a year to discuss which aspects of the traditions found in the Gospels (mainly the canonical Gospels along with the Gospel of Thomas) were more likely to be authentic, and which, as a corollary, were likely to have been later creations of the early church as they told their stories about Jesus. The members of the seminar would then vote on each tradition – after extensive, learned discussion, and publish the results of their votes. I should say that on many of the very broad and most important issues about the historical Jesus I was/am in complete agreement with the seminar. We all agree that: [...]

2022-06-07T16:27:13-04:00January 21st, 2014|Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Jesus’ Crucifixion as King of the Jews

It is often said that one of the best pieces of evidence that Jesus is to be understood as a political insurgent who favored the overthrow of the Roman empire by means of (human) force is that he was crucified on charges of political insurgency. If he was charged with insurgency, he was probably an insurgent. There is, of course, a powerful logic to this view, but it has its flaws, and an alternative explanation actually works better. In terms of flaws, it needs to be noted and emphasized that in our sources the other two people crucified with Jesus were called lestai (sometimes translate “robbers” – but Josephus uses it to refer to someone engaged in guerrilla warfare against the ruling authorities, an armed insurgent). So too in the Gospel of John, Barabbas – the one the crowds preferred to Jesus – is also called a lestes. But – here’s the *big* point: Jesus is NOT called a lestes in these accounts. Ever. And he is not condemned to death –as are these others [...]

2020-04-03T17:36:30-04:00January 6th, 2014|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus|

Jesus and the Temple

Back to Aslan’s Zealot. I will not be going on forever, but I do want to make a few final posts. So far I have shown that the book is filled with mistakes, some of them important, about the ancient world, about the New Testament, and about early Christianity. These are simply errors, things (I tried to show) that Aslan just got wrong. After that I tried to show why the thesis itself was highly problematic by taking on his lead chapter and showing just why the claims he makes don’t “work” historically. And then, most recently, I’ve shown why scholars have widely opted for a solution that differs from Aslan’s view that Jesus is best seen as one totally zealous for the law and the land of Israel to the extent that he favored a military overthrow of the Roman empire as foreign occupiers. The alternative is that Jesus instead was a preacher of apocalyptic doom. It was not by military force that the enemy would be defeated, but by an act of God, [...]

2020-04-03T17:36:41-04:00January 3rd, 2014|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus|

More Evidence that Jesus was an Apocalypticist

I am not going to belabor the point much longer, that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist who anticipated that God was soon to enter into history to destroy the forces of evil and bring in his good kingdom; he was not a lestes, one who supported a military uprising against the Roman forces.  Rather than subscribing to the idea of military violence, Jesus believed that the Son of Man was coming in judgment and that he would destroy all that was aligned against God.   I’ll be giving more evidence for why Jesus was not a lestes later.  For now, it is enough to stress that an alternative understanding accounts much better for the evidence that survives. I have already given fairly compelling reasons for thinking that Jesus was an apocalypticist.  In this post I’ll give another kind of argument, which to me has always seemed like a slam dunk. In a nutshell, the argument is that we know beyond any reasonable doubt what happened at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry [...]

2020-04-03T17:36:52-04:00December 31st, 2013|Historical Jesus|

The Later De-apocalypticizing of Jesus

Yesterday I started mounting the case that rather than being a zealot interested in a military overthrow of the Romans to reclaim the land for God, Jesus was an apocalypticist who believed that God himself would intervene in history to destroy the forces of evil (presumably including the Romans; and certainly including the Jews who were not “on the right side”) to set up his kingdom. It is worth re-emphasizing that all over the map in our early sources Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God. He does not speak about the Kingdom of Israel, or about the use of military force (I’ll get to the scattered exceptions eventually), or about “retaking the land.” This is a key point because Aslan thinks that for Jesus it was all about getting rid of the Romans and taking the land back; but Jesus doesn’t talk about that in our earliest sources – even the ones that Aslan cites (as I showed in earlier posts: unlike zealots, Jesus told his followers that they *should* pay taxes to Rome!). [...]

2020-04-03T17:37:02-04:00December 29th, 2013|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

2009 Debate With Mike Licona: Can Historians Prove the Resurrection of Jesus?

I've decided to take a day or so off from my discussions of Reza Aslan's Zealot, both for my sanity and yours.  Here, for a bit of variety, is a video of a debate that I had a few years ago with Mike Licona on the topic or whether historians can *prove* that Jesus was raised from the dead.  Mike thinks the answer is "yes"; I think the answer is "no way."  It's important to note: the debate was *not* about whether Jesus was raised from the dead.  The debate was about whether historians can *prove* that he did (if he did). Mike Licona has burst onto the scene as a conservative Christian apologist.   He did a master's degree at Liberty University (that's Jerry Falwell's place) and then a PhD in New Testament at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.  Someone may be able to correct me on this, but I *think* that is the kind of degree where instead of taking PhD seminars and so on, as at an American university, it [...]

2021-02-13T01:10:41-05:00December 26th, 2013|Bart's Debates, Historical Jesus, Public Forum, Video Media|

Fundamental Problems with Aslan’s Thesis

In my post of yesterday I moved beyond the simple errors of Aslan’s Zealot to discuss more substantive issues, taking his chapter “Zeal for your House” as both central to his argument (as he himself maintains) and highly problematic. Within the seven pages of this key chapter, I indicated that there are, by my count, six major problems, two of which I dealt with yesterday and the other four I will deal with here. Not only are some of the “historical” events that Aslan describes in this chapter almost certainly not historical, at least as they are narrated, both in the NT Gospels and in Aslan’s summary (e.g., the Triumphal Entry and Jesus’ success in shutting down the entire Temple complex; this is my first problem); and not only does Aslan fill in the gaps of our knowledge with fictional narratives that he himself has made up (this is my second), there are the following four problems, that here I deal with seriatim:   His reconstruction of events is riddled with internal inconsistencies that show [...]

2020-04-03T17:37:26-04:00December 23rd, 2013|Historical Jesus|

Aslan’s Key Chapter

After his 70-page introduction to the history of first-century Palestine, which I enjoyed, even if it was skewed to set up his thesis of Jesus as another-one-of-those-zealots, Aslan sets the stage for his entire discussion of the historical Jesus, in Part II, with his Prologue, “Zeal for your House.” Aslan sees the set of stories relates in this chapter as paradigmatic for understanding Jesus’ message and mission. As he says, this story, “more than any other word or deed, helps reveal who Jesus was and what Jesus meant…. So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’s brief life that it alone can be used to clarify his mission, his theology, his politics, his relationship to the Jewish authorities, his relationship to Judaism in general, and his attitude toward the Roman occupation” (p. 73). Wow. That’s a lot. The story he chooses is actually a collection of stories having to do with Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem: these stories include (a) The Triumphal Entry; (b) The Cleansing of the Temple; and (c) the Question about Paying [...]

2020-04-03T17:37:35-04:00December 22nd, 2013|Historical Jesus|

Aslan Zealot: A Deeper Evaluation of the Thesis Itself

  I have not completed my evaluation of Reza Aslan’s popular, interesting, and well-written account of Jesus, Zealot.   To this point I have merely tried to show that despite his claims (e.g. in the Fox News interview) of being an expert who is qualified to write such a book, he is not an expert – in the ancient world, in the New Testament, in the Gospels, or in the historical Jesus.   When I began this discussion I understand that a lot of readers thought that I was just being snooty and dismissive by pointing this out;  but in my subsequent posts I’ve tried to show why being an expert really does matter.  Someone who is not an expert makes mistakes – lots of mistakes, and often serious mistakes.  And the problem is that the person doesn’t even know it.  I don’t think Aslan knowingly wrote anything he didn’t think.  The problem is that he doesn’t know the field well enough to know where there are gaps in his knowledge, or where he has accepted incorrect [...]

2013-12-21T17:18:45-05:00December 21st, 2013|Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

Mistakes about the New Testament in Aslan’s Zealot

In my previous two posts I detailed some of the historical errors in Aslan’s interesting and readable book Zealot. In this post I’ll say some things about mistakes he makes about the New Testament. I’m not sure which kind of mistake is more troubling – the book is dealing both with ancient history and with the accounts of Jesus in the NT, so both history and the Gospels are of central importance. In any event, here is a sampling of the latter. ************************************************************************* Aslan indicates that Mark is uninterested in both Jesus’ birth and “surprisingly, in Jesus’s resurrection as he writes nothing at all about either event” (p. 29). Of course it is true that Mark begins with Jesus’ adult life and says nothing about his birth. But it’s absolutely wrong to say that he says nothing about the resurrection. Quite the contrary, one need only read Mark 16:1-8 and it becomes clear that Mark both knows about the resurrection and considers it to be of utmost importance. In the narrative, Jesus is dead and [...]

2020-04-03T17:38:37-04:00December 19th, 2013|Historical Jesus|

More Historical Mistakes in Aslan’s Zealot

In this post I would like to continue with some of the historical mistakes in Aslan’s Zealot. When reading these, do bear in mind that I also had positive things to say about the book. As in the previous post, I would like this one to focus on historical errors, or historical claims that have no basis in either our ancient sources or modern scholarship. I will not be discussing, in this post, the mistakes Aslan has made about the New Testament. That will be my next post. ************************************************************************ Aslan wants to argue that John the Baptist may have been an Essene ( I think there’s no way that’s true, but the idea has been floated ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; still, John’s baptism for remission of sins is completely different from what was going on among the Essenes, who believed in lengthy periods of ritual purification, not a one-time baptism in view of “repentance.” But thinking he was an Essene is not a flat-out mistake; it’s just a historical hypothesis. [...]

2020-04-03T17:38:46-04:00December 17th, 2013|Historical Jesus|

Aslan’s Zealot: Historical Mistakes

Yesterday I pointed out some of the features of Reza Aslan’s Zealot that I found to be commendable. In the next series of posts, starting with today’s, I’ll be pointing out the problems. There are lots of them. Some readers of the blog have objected to my (repeatedly, I’ll grant) pointing out that Aslan is not an expert. Now I’ll try to show why that is both obvious and unfortunate. There are mistakes scattered throughout the book. I’d say 1/3 to 1/2 of the pages in my copy have bright yellow large question marks on them, where (when highlighting) I found factual errors, misstatements, dubious claims, inconsistencies of logic, and so on. I obviously am not going to provide a full list here. In today’s post I’ll begin by mentioning some of the raw, factual mistakes. These are only from his Part I; I’ll probably provide some more in a subsequent post, from other Parts of the book in order to round out the picture a bit (There are other kinds of problems I’ll note [...]

2020-04-03T17:38:54-04:00December 15th, 2013|Historical Jesus|

Aslan’s Zealot: Some Positive Comments

I begin my assessment of Reza Aslan’s Zealot by saying a few things about what I appreciate about the book. In subsequent posts I will talk about the mistakes that pervade it, and about my view of the overarching thesis that Jesus was principally a zealot in favor of a violent insurrection against the Romans. But first, the positives. As everyone has said, over and over again, the book is extremely well written. It reads more like a novel than a historical reconstruction – it flows very well on the sentence level, it tells a gripping narrative in a gripping fashion, and I appreciate very much the narrative structure of the book. Aslan is an expert in creative writing – it’s his day job – and unlike others who teach a subject (such as writing) but cannot do it, he himself has the gift. I appreciate very much the historical focus of the book. This is its outstanding quality. More than most non-experts who try to write a book about Jesus, Aslan is intent and [...]

2020-04-03T17:39:04-04:00December 14th, 2013|Historical Jesus|

About the Blog and Two Clarifications about Reza Aslan’s Zealot

  Yesterday I resumed my posts on Reza Aslan’s best-selling hit Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and plan to have several more posts on it, as I explain what I like about the book and about what problems I see in it.  But I need to take care of a couple of other concerns first, before launching into a direct discussion. The first has to do with this blog.   A number of people on my facebook page have expressed frustration that the only way to get my comments is to join the blog, which costs money.   I completely understand the complaint, but need to explain why I am doing things this way (apologies for old-timers for whom this is old-news). I do this blog for a lot of reasons, but by far and away the most important and pressing is to raise money for charity.  That is the raison-d’être of the entire enterprise.  If this endeavor was not making significant money to help the hungry and the homelessness, I simply wouldn’t [...]

2013-12-13T21:44:07-05:00December 13th, 2013|Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

Aslan’s Zealot: To Start With…

I have promised for some time to make some comments on Reza Aslan’s bestselling reconstruction of the historical Jesus: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. And now the time is come. As I’ve indicated in my earlier posts, I had my first-year students in my seminar “Jesus in Scholarship and Film” read the book and make an evaluation of it. Most of the students thought very highly of it. In particular they thought it was unusually well written and that it made an interesting case for its thesis that Jesus was a politically motivated zealot who believed in the violent overthrow of the Roman empire, or at least believed that the Romans should be driven out of the Promised Land, as did so many others in his time and place. (Aslan does not argue that Jesus was a member of the Zealot party; he realizes that this party did not arise until after Jesus’ death.) I have already made a couple of comments about the book that I felt safe in saying [...]

2020-06-04T16:23:12-04:00December 13th, 2013|Historical Jesus|

Video: Ehrman & Evans 2012 Debate – Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I posted a debate that I had with Craig Evans, an evangelical Christian New Testament scholar.   That debate was held at Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia.   The next night we had a second debate -- on the same topic (!) but in a different location, at Acadia University, where Craig currently teaches in the Acadia Divinity College.   The topic, again, was "Does the New Testament Present a Historically Reliable Portrait of Jesus." I was hesitant to post this debate on the blog, since it's on the same topic as the other one.   But I watched it and saw that I actually make my case differently this time, as does he.   So, what the heck -- you can start watching it and if it sounds like old hat, you can stop!  But in a way it's interesting how we changed our presentations, in no small measure because we had heard the night before what they other guy was going to argue.... Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition: See first video [...]

2017-09-16T22:16:57-04:00December 5th, 2013|Bart's Debates, Historical Jesus, Public Forum, Video Media|

Is History Possible?

One other section that I attended at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Baltimore was devoted to the field of social memory and the historical Jesus. This was a very interesting panel, of four papers, devoted to what we can say about the recollections of Jesus found in the Gospels, based on what psychologists now tell us about memory, and what historians familiar with this psychological work are saying about how the past can be remembered. I found one paper in particular to be especially interesting, because the author, a very smart scholar named Zeba Crook, used developments in the psychology of memory to argue that we can NOT know anything about the historical Jesus. Crook’s paper (I’m reconstructing this from my mind, based on what I heard two days ago; I may get some of this wrong. But if Crook’s point is correct, then I can’t reconstruct the event at all, as you’ll see!) was based on the phenomenon of memory distortion. Psychologists have determined several things about memory and how it gets [...]

2020-04-03T17:41:13-04:00November 27th, 2013|Historical Jesus, Memory Studies|

Errant Texts and Historians

QUESTION: In your debates with James White and Dan Wallace, you argued that we cannot know what the original autographs of the NT said because we don't have the originals. In your debate with James White, you even commented that the 2nd or 3rd copier of the text of Mark could have radically altered the text so that the way it came down to us is radically different than the autographs. You've argued that this is the case even for classical writings or any textual document from antiquity. Now, if you believe we cannot know what the originals said because we don't have the autographs, then how could you know that Paul met with James and Cephas, and use that as an argument proving that we know Jesus existed? Is it not possible (according to your view) that Galatians has been radically altered? In other words, it seems that you either have to sacrifice your skepticism regarding textual criticism or sacrifice your certainty for the historicity of Jesus. RESPONSE: This is a great question! So, [...]

Jesus and Brian!!!

I am pleased to be able to announce that a conference will be held this summer that looks to be outrageously fun and interesting.   It will be at King’s College, London.   And it will be on the Life of Brian and the Historical Jesus.   I have been asked to give one of the papers, and how could I refuse!   I’m going to have to cut short a family vacation in France, but there’s no way I’m missing this.  Here’s the publicity for it. Jesus and Brian Or: What have the Pythons done for Us? A Biblical Studies Conference King’s College London, The Strand, London WC1 Safra Lecture Theatre Friday June 20th to Sunday June 22nd, 2014 Monty Python’s Life of Brian provoked a furious response in some quarters when it first appeared in 1979, even leading to cries of ‘blasphemy’. However, many students and teachers of biblical literature were quietly, and often loudly, both amused and intrigued. Life of Brian in fact contains numerous references to what was then the cutting edge of biblical scholarship [...]

2017-09-16T22:57:38-04:00November 20th, 2013|Jesus and Film, Public Forum|

Is The NT Portrayal of Jesus Accurate? Debate With Craig Evans

This video is of a debate that I participated in nearly two years ago in Nova Scotia with Dr. Craig Evans, a very well-known and widely published scholar of the New Testament who is also a conservative  evangelical Christian (not “ultra-conservative,” and nowhere near a fundamentalist – but still conservative).  He is the author of Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence and Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. This was the first of two debates that took place, in two different locations,on subsequent evenings.   The topic of the debate was: “Does the New Testament Present a Reliable Portrait of the Historical Jesus.”   As you might imagine, Craig Evans argues that Yes, it does.  I argue that No, it does not.   Both of us, naturally enough, focus our attention on the four Gospels of the New Testament.   We each gave an opening speech of 30 minutes; and then we had a chance for a rebuttal, followed by some Q & A. I have to say, this was one of  the favorite debates that I [...]

2020-04-29T17:09:05-04:00November 17th, 2013|Bart's Debates, Historical Jesus, Public Forum, Video Media|
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