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The Criterion of Dissimilarity

The criterion of dissimilarity. Over the past couple of class periods, I have introduced my undergraduate students to the problems that confront critical scholars who try to reconstruct what Jesus really said and did.  These problems are created by the nature of our materials especially the New Testament Gospels.  This is why I begin my course, which focuses on the historical approach to the New Testament, in something other than the chronological order of events or writings.  Irony! But an irony with pretty compelling logic.  If we began with a chronological order of writings, of course, we would begin the course with the writings of Paul, since these are the first surviving writings from any early Christian. Earlier by 15-30 years than the Gospels.  But it doesn’t make sense to start with Paul (in my opinion) if you don’t know something about Jesus.  And you can’t begin with Jesus unless you know something about our sources for Jesus, our Gospels.  And so for a historical approach to the New Testament, we go out of chronological [...]

2022-05-29T16:47:53-04:00April 8th, 2022|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Did Judas Really Betray Jesus? Readers’ Mailbag

My post a few days ago about whether Paul knew that Jesus had been betrayed by Judas Iscariot -- in which I concluded there really was no solid evidence one way or the other -- generated several follow-up questions.  Many of them simply asked: well, did it really happen?   Here is an example, and my response. QUESTION: I may be showing my ignorance here but could it be that Paul doesn’t know/write about Judas’ betrayal because it never happened? Yes, it is in all four gospels but as you’ve pointed out the four gospels do not agree on who showed up at the empty tomb, what they saw, and what they did next so…. If they get that wrong could it be that the Judas betrayal is also a fabrication/legend?   RESPONSE: It's a great question, and I'm completely sympathetic to it.   But I have to say that I think Jesus really was betrayed by one of his own, Judas Iscariot.   In my judgment, that's just where the evidence points. As many of you know [...]

The Sheep and the Goats

Jesus’ teaching about the “separation of the sheep and the goats” is found in only one place in the New Testament, Matthew 25:31-46.  It is easily one of my favorite passages of the entire Bible, and as I have pointed out, in my view, it is a teaching of Jesus himself (not something put on his lips by Matthew or by Matthew’s source, M, or by an early Christian story-teller).  I think in fact, it well encapsulates Jesus’ entire proclamation.  There is a judgment day coming and those who have lived in an upright way, loving others, showing compassion on those in need, helping those in dire straits, will be given an eternal reward; those who fail to live in this way will be severely punished. The passage is sometimes called a “parable,” but I don’t see any strong indication that it is meant to be taken metaphorically.  As far as I can tell, it was meant as a literal description of what would happen at the end of this age when the judge of [...]

2020-04-03T01:54:02-04:00October 25th, 2017|Afterlife, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

Jesus, the Sheep, and the Goats

I have been talking about the criterion of dissimilarity for one ultimate reason: wanted to show why, in my opinion, a particular passage in Matthew’s Gospel goes back to the historical Jesus, the man himself.  I.e., it does not involve words put on his lips by later followers, but is something he himself actually said.  If you’re a little fuzzy on how the criterion of dissimilarity works, please read the preceding two posts. The following has been taken from my undergraduate textboo on the NT.  In it I give two examples of how this particular criterion can be applied to the teachings of Jesus.  It is the *second* example that I will be most interested in, but the first can help get you into the swing of things about how the criterion works. ********************************************************** In some respects, there isn’t a whole lot that we can say about the various apocalyptic teachings ascribed to Jesus in our Gospels from the standpoint of the trickiest of our criteria to use, the criterion of dissimilarity. Most of his [...]

2020-04-03T01:55:22-04:00October 18th, 2017|Afterlife, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

How Do We Know What Jesus Said or Did? The Criterion of Dissimilarity in Practice

The reason I’m explaining the criterion of dissimilarity is because I want to *use* it to talk about a passage in Matthew of relevance to the broader themes of this thread.  But before I use it I need to make sure everyone understands it.  In this post I show how it can be applied usefully; I being by restating the caveat about the criterion that I ended with yesterday (if you haven’t read that post, I’d suggest doing so before reading this one). ********************************************** I want to be perfectly clear about the limitations of this criterion.  Just because a saying or deed of Jesus happens to conform to what Christians were saying about him does not mean that it cannot be accurate.  Obviously, the earliest disciples followed Jesus precisely because they appreciated the things that he said and did.  They certainly would have told stories about him that included such things.  Thus, on the one hand, the criterion may do no more than cast a shadow of doubt on certain traditions.  For example, when in [...]

2021-01-10T00:34:11-05:00October 17th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

How Old Was Jesus at His Baptism, Start of His Ministry & Death?

How old was Jesus at his baptism, when he started his ministry, or when he died? You've probably seen the popular inspirational quote that goes something like this, "Jesus didn't start his ministry until he was 30 years old, and yet he changed the world." I guess this is supposed to encourage people in their teens and twenties that haven't accomplished much in their life.  (As if comparing their potential future to the accomplishments of the supposed "son of God" is supposed to make them feel better!  Ha!) It also illustrates a common assumption (or perhaps misconception), that Jesus was 30 years old when he began his ministry. Is that a fact?  If so, where does the Bible say so? How Old Was Jesus When He Died? This is not a slam dunk answer. In fact, I ask all my students at Chapel Hill this question (many of whom answer incorrectly) on their first-day quiz. Almost everyone who thinks about the matter thinks that Jesus was 33 years old when he died.  But the New [...]

2022-06-19T00:08:29-04:00October 11th, 2017|Historical Jesus, Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

Explaining Jesus’ Apocalyptic Assumptions

One other aspect of Jesus’ teaching is important to emphasize before continuing on to consider his understanding of the afterlife.  That is the thoroughly apocalyptic character of his views. I have discussed Jewish apocalypticism a number of times on the blog—including some months ago on the current thread.  I don’t want to repeat all that here in the same form, but I do want to summarize what the view is and discuss its underlying assumptions. In a small nutshell, apocalypticists believed that this world was being controlled by evil forces responsible for this terrible mess of things (corrupt governments; natural disasters; persecution of the righteous), but that God, who was ultimately sovereign, was soon to intervene in the course of human affairs, overthrow the forces of evil, and establish a utopian kingdom here on earth. To Read the rest of this post you need to belong to the blog.  Belonging is easy and relatively cheap -- less than 50 cents a week!  And every cent goes to help those in need.  You get tons for [...]

2020-04-03T01:57:06-04:00October 10th, 2017|Afterlife, Early Judaism, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

The Preaching of Jesus in a Nutshell

I am trying to set up what I want to say about Jesus' view of the afterlife, and am finding that it requires a good bit of background information.  I have already done two things: shown what he taught about the coming kingdom and explained that his teaching (about the kingdom and everything else) is very different in John from the Synoptics.  Scholars are almost unanimous that given these differences, the older sources (the Synoptics and the accounts they built on, e.g., Q, M, and L) are more likely to be accurate about Jesus' words than the later and heavily theologized John.  Now I need to explain more broadly, if in very brief form, the major elements in Jesus' preaching/teaching.   For that I have borrowed from a post a few years ago, as follows: ************************************************************** We could obviously have a year-long thread on the topic of what it was Jesus taught during his itinerant preaching ministry.  Many people have written very long books on the subject – and the books just keep comin’ out.   If [...]

2020-04-03T01:58:54-04:00October 9th, 2017|Early Judaism, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

Jesus’ Teaching About the Kingdom of God

I have explained how the idea of resurrection arose within early Judaism, and now I want to talk about the idea of afterlife in the teachings of Jesus.  To begin with, I need to stress that when Jesus talked about the coming kingdom of God – the core of his apocalyptic message – he was *not* referring to what happens to a person’s soul after she or he dies. Here is how I explain Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in my first-ever trade book for a popular audience, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium ***************************************************** The very first thing that Jesus is recorded to have said in our very earliest surviving source involves an apocalyptic pronouncement of the coming Kingdom of God.  In Mark’s Gospel, after being baptized by John and tempted by Satan in the wilderness, in neither of which is he recorded as having said anything, Jesus comes into Galilee with an urgent message: The time is filled up and the Kingdom of God is almost here; repent and believe in the [...]

2020-04-03T01:59:31-04:00September 27th, 2017|Afterlife, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

Was Jesus Made Up? A Blast from the Past.

In browsing through some old posts, I came across this one from five years ago, in which I deal with two questions I still today get asked about the "evidence" that Jesus did, or did not, exist.  The post deals with pointed issues raised by my colleague in the field, Ben Witherington.  The answers still seem germane to me today, as the question of Jesus' existence has simply ratcheted up, all these years later. Some of Ben Witherington’s most popular books are The Jesus Quest, and The Problem with Evangelical Theology, among others. *********************************************************************************** Ben Witherington, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, has asked me to respond to a number of questions about my book Did Jesus Exist, especially in light of criticism I have received for it (not, for the most part, from committed Christians!). His blog is widely read by conservative evangelicals, and he has agreed to post the questions and my answers without editing, to give his readers a sense of why I wrote the book, what I hoped to accomplish [...]

Video of How Jesus Became God: Part 2 (of 3)

On January 29-31, 2016, I gave three talks at Coral Gables Congregational Church in (surprise) Coral Gables, Florida, all on my book, "How Jesus Became God."   I posted the first of the talks last week.  Here now is the second. Please adjust gear icon for 1080p High-Definition. How Jesus Became God -UCC Part 2 of 3:   If you don’t belong yet to the blog, JOIN!  You will get lots of posts (5-6 a week), videos, and comments.  Tons of stuff, for very little money.  And all proceeds go to fight hunger and homelessness.

2017-10-23T22:52:56-04:00August 19th, 2016|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Public Forum, Video Media|

Video of How Jesus Became God, Part 1 (of 3)

On January 29-31, 2016, I gave three talks at Coral Gables Congregational Church in (surprise) Coral Gables, Florida, on my book, "How Jesus Became God."  I will post all three talks periodically here on teh blog.  Here's the first!  Rev. Megan Smith opened each session for me. Please adjust gear icon for 1080p High-Definition. How Jesus Became God -UCC Part 1 of 3: If you’re not a member of the blog, JOIN!  It doesn’t cost much and you get lots of stuff!  And all the money goes to good causes, other than to line my pockets!

2017-10-23T22:54:50-04:00August 12th, 2016|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Public Forum, Video Media|

My Debate with Michael Bird Feb. 12 , 2016

As many of you know, this past weekend (February 12-13, 2016) I met with Australian New Testament scholar Michael F. Bird at the 2016 Greer-Heard Point Counter Point Forum on for a two part debate. The event was held at the Leavell College Chapel at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. A question and answer session followed the debate. The subject of the debate was focused on my book. How Jesus Became God. Michael was the editor of the "response" book, produced by a group of evangelical scholars, called How God Became Jesus. Michael F. Bird, BMin, BA (Hons), PhD taught New Testament at the Highland Theological College in Scotland (2005-9) before joining Crossway College in Brisbane as lecturer in Theology (2010-12). He joined the faculty at Ridley as lecturer in Theology in 2013. As an industrious researcher, Michael has written and edited over twenty books in the fields of Septuagint, Historical Jesus, Gospels, St. Paul, Biblical Theology, and Systematic Theology. Michael Bird’s most popular books are The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, [...]

2020-04-06T12:50:33-04:00February 20th, 2016|Bart's Debates, Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Video Media|

My Debate This Past Weekend

I just returned yesterday from a two-day event in New Orleans involving a public debate with an Australian New Testament scholar named Michael Bird, who is the author of The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians, and Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message.  To explain the situation, I need to give some background.   As most readers on the blog know, a couple of years ago I published my book How Jesus Became God.  This was my attempt to show how it is that the man Jesus, an apocalyptic preacher from a remote area of rural Galilee, came to be considered the second member of the Trinity, God the creator, who had always existed, who was fully equal with the God of the universe, who was in fact of the same “essence” as him.  How’d that happen exactly? Also as many of you know, a group of evangelical scholars learned I was writing the book, and decided, even before they had seen it [...]

2020-06-03T15:55:04-04:00February 15th, 2016|Bart's Debates, Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

Weekly Readers Mailbag: February 13, 2016

  Time for the weekly mailbag.  This week I’m dealing with only one question; I want to give a more elaborate answer than usual since it relates so closely to my forthcoming book Jesus Before the Gospels.   Here’s the question:   QUESTION:  Dr. Ehrman, as you mention we tend to remember events that carry a large emotional impact (e.g. 9/11, Kennedy assassination, etc.) but, in turn, we tend to easily forget the more banal and mundane events in life (e.g. what we ate for breakfast three days ago, the name of our waiter from last night, etc.). In fact, when researchers give test subjects stress-reducing drugs, such as betablockers, they find that the subjects are much less likely to remember an event.  So I'm wondering whether you support or dismiss various gospel events based on this human inclination to remember. For example, the disciples would have been far more likely to remember how Jesus was arrested (highly emotional) versus how they met Jesus (rather less emotional).   RESPONSE: I would like to deal with just [...]

2020-04-03T03:52:03-04:00February 13th, 2016|Book Discussions, Memory Studies, Reader’s Questions|

Are “Group Hallucinations” Possible? The Case of Mary.

Several people have asked me about my claim that “group hallucinations” are possible. That is, a “vision” can be seen by many people at once.  It seems counter-intuitive: aren’t hallucinations by definition the inner workings of a person’s mind?  How can more than one person have the same hallucination at the same time? Well, I’m not sure how that works, psychologically.  My guess is that there is a strong sociological component as well. For example, if something weird is seen by a number of people, one of the persons in the group interprets it, and the rest agree that yes, that is indeed what they saw.  But that’s just my guess.  Maybe some of the trained psychologists on the blog can tell us. But in any event, it is a well-documented phenomenon.  Here is the query from one of the people who asked the question, specifically with respect to the modern-day appearances of Jesus’ mother, Mary, followed by a brief discussion of the phenomenon taken from my book How Jesus Became God. Group Hallucinations - [...]

2022-06-28T23:52:32-04:00February 9th, 2016|Historical Jesus, Public Forum, Reader’s Questions|

Upcoming Debate!

This coming weekend, Feb. 12-13, I will be holding a debate at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary on the topic "How Did Jesus Become God?"   They are calling it a "Dialogue," but that's just because they're being nice.  It's actually a great group of people, even though, as you might imagine, we agree on very little when it comes to matters of faith.   My worthy opponent is Michael Bird. You may have heard of him. He is the author of The New Testament in Its World, and Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message, among other books.  Back when I published How Jesus Became God, he was the one who edited the response book that came out the same day, How God Became Jesus.  He wrote one of the articles in the book.  We will both be staking out our claims on Friday night.  The next day are papers delivered by scholars we have hand-chosen for the event, two each: mine are my good friends Jennifer Knust (Boston University) and Dale Martin [...]

Jesus Books

QUESTION/REQUEST: You did mention one thing above that I think would be good to expand on: What are good books to read about the life of Jesus (and related issues) based on scholarship but intended to the general, but intelligent, reader. I would like you to consider someday to publish here a list of solid books (from various points of view), other than what you have written since most of us are likely familiar with your work, about the life of Jesus, the growth of Christianity, solid theology from various perspectives, the history and description of first century life in the Roman world and other issues that are written based on valid historical and textual research that are intended for readers like me…well educated but not a scholar.   RESPONSE: What follows is a bibliography just on the historical Jesus that I published once, over ten years ago now, supplemented with a few of the most significant works to appear since. The list is highly selective – mainly books that I think are either good [...]

2021-04-24T23:50:18-04:00October 14th, 2013|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

More Conspiracy Nonsense

Poor Hercules, trying to fight the Hydra. Once he lops off *one* head…. So I’ve received several emails over the past couple of days about the breathtaking new announcement to be made on October 19 (assuming the world still is functioning after October 17!) in London by “American Biblical scholar” Joseph Atwill (whom – I have to admit – I have never even heard of, to my recollection) In this announcement Mr. (so far as I can tell, from his blog, he is not a “Dr.”; in what sense is he a “scholar”? Is it because he’s read a bunch of book? Hmm….) Atwill will “prove” that “the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ.” In other words – brace yourself – Jesus is in fact a myth. Has anyone heard this before? For the full story, go to http://uk.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11201273.htm Atwill is a different breed from most mythicists. That’s probably good and bad. Good because, well, you wouldn’t like to be like the others. [...]

Colbert on his Hero O’Reilly

OK, this really is my last post on O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus.   It’s not much of one!   But today is the day I normally take “off” from the blog.  Monday’s are my day from hell:  a three-hour undergraduate seminar (“Jesus in Scholarship and Film”) in the morning (today: students compared all the accounts of Jesus’ Passion in the four Gospels, seeing if there were any differences they thought were irreconcilable; we discussed it all; and then we watched four movie clips – Passion scenes from the 1925 silent Ben Hur; the 1959 Ben Hur; the Greatest Story Ever Told; and the 1977 Zephirelli Jesus of Nazareth – in order to see how directors chose what to include, what to exclude, what to do when different Gospels relate different stories, that sometimes really can’t be easily reconciled, etc.   Great stuff) and then a three hour seminar (“Early Christian Apocrypha”) in the afternoon (today: The Coptic Gospel of Thomas - -when was it written? Where? In what language?  Is it dependent on the NT Gospels?  Is it Gnostic?  [...]

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