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The Death Knell for the Study of the Historical Jesus

Once Wrede convincingly showed that the Gospel of Mark was not a literal, factual description of what Jesus said and did, in his 1901 book The Messianic Secret (but that it, like the other Gospels, had incorporated its own literary and theological concerns into its account), the cottage industry of Historical Jesus books pretty much collapsed.  Its entire foundation had for decades been built on the assumption that even if the other Gospels were not completely historical, but theologically biased, Mark was not.  Wrong.  It was.

Contributing significantly to the collapse of this academic venture was the first full account of its history, Albert Schweitzer’s classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, produced five years later, and still very much worth reading.   As I have mentioned, Schweitzer discussed virtually all of his predecessors, starting with the first critical/historical attempt to figure out what Jesus really said and did (i.e., an account that didn’t simply think the Gospels were inspired and flawless in their reporting, but needed to be examined critically to establish the historical reality behind them) – Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples, in the 1770s.

Schweitzer goes scholar by scholar, summarizing their accounts, down to Wrede himself, and more or less eviscerating their views with a perspicacity, critical insight, and rapier-like wit that had almost never been seen before.  Among other things, Schweitzer showed that …

To see what Schweitzer showed, and to realize its stunning importance, you will need to belong to the blog.  Unless you want to read the entire Quest of the Historical Jesus yourself.  You should do that too.  But why not join the blog in the meantime?  It won’t cost much and all proceeds go to charity.  You gain tons and no one loses!

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If the Quest for the Historical Jesus Failed… What Then?
Wrede’s Revolutionary Claim about the “Messianic Secret”



  1. Avatar
    jwesenbe  February 20, 2019


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    ddecker54  February 20, 2019

    ” The reason it may seem like new news is simply that (a) most people familiar with the history of biblical scholarship and (b) the biblical scholars who are intimately familiar with it, for one reason or another, have chosen not to tell the populace at large.” is the key point. Go to any library or bookstore and on the Religion shelves you will find that 95% of the books are of the Evangelical/Inspirational pablum that reinforces the smugness of not having to think for oneself. To my knowledge, you are the only scholar who produces reliable analysis on these topics and I for one am extremely grateful.

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    Matt2239  February 20, 2019

    Isn’t it a non-sequitur to say that written accounts flowed from un-written accounts? We know the earliest churches were in Greece. We know that Paul was writing letters even before the gospels appeared. We know that some versions of Jesus’s life didn’t make the cut into the canon due to problems in their content and/or structure. And yet, scholars demand that the gospels flowed from stories people were telling each other but not writing down. If speculation can take you from a complete gospel to an oral tradition, then why can’t it take you to the more obvious destination — that the gospels, while entirely Greek, were originally scattered and fragmentary.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      I’m not following your argument about why it’s a non-sequitur, I’m sorry to say! (In part because i don’t know what you mean that the Gospels were scattered and fragmentary. They certainly were. But the were also base don oral traditions)

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        Matt2239  February 22, 2019

        Well it seems people want to believe that the four gospels were the written form of oral traditions that did not trace back to anyone with a first-person view of Jesus’s life. But they don’t read like oral traditions. The Epic Of Gilgamesh is an oral tradition converted to print. Its construction as a written-down campfire story is very obvious. Not so with the gospels.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 24, 2019

          How are you deciding what an oral tradition reads like? There is, as you probalby know, a ton of scholarship on this, well after form criticism bit the dust. It’s the topic of my book Jesus Before the Gospels (where I cite a good number of earlier studies, but since it was a popular book, not a vast multitude of them)

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    Judith  February 20, 2019

    “…when expertise is discounted…”
    Tom Nichols’ book The Death of Expertise affirms this!

  5. Telling
    Telling  February 20, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    Christian scholars and historians still operate on Newtonian science, where what we see — a hard solid world — is what we get. But the new science of quantum physics is proving this to be wrong: The observer changes the actions of the observed, and such a thing as instant communication between objects great distances away is observable by science, whereas nothing was supposed to travel faster than light.

    The new science is pointing toward consciousness as the underlying foundation and nature of everything. The world is a construct of the mind, and we are all interconnected. What we see is what we individually and as a group imagine in our minds at some level of consciousness. the truth is whatever it is we imagine. “There are no permanent structures”. This satisfies all the major world religions except traditional institutionalized Christianity.

    What did Jesus teach? there are gems scattered about in the traditional canon, and in those gems the truth can be found.

  6. JMJ
    JMJ  February 20, 2019

    I’m a newbie on your blog but have been reading it, and your books, over the last few years. Thank you, Dr. Ehrman. I have wondered why these findings about scripture and the historical Jesus have not been made common knowledge as well. It would clear up a lot of things for a lot of people. Unfortunately, it would reveal all the untruths we’ve been taught by religion over the years. Churches would have to scramble to do damage control. How would they explain to people who have been taught all their lives that the Word (scripture) IS God and infallible? How could they explain to people who have been taught all their lives that the Church IS God and infallible, and how would they explain apostolic hierarchy (with a straight face) if the truth be made completely public? It would turn religion as we know it upside down. What a mess! So they defend the status quo and keep the ‘faithful’ anesthetized with their words.

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    AstaKask  February 20, 2019

    Is there any chance of you reviewing the “Paul, Apostle of Christ” movie? Do you have a favorite Biblical movie?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      Probably not! But, yes, absolutely: Jesus of Montreal! (Well, OK, it’s not a biblical movie per se; but it’s far more insightful into the Gospels and Jesus than any other Jesus movie ever made, imo)

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        James  February 22, 2019

        I first saw Jesus of Montreal in a decrepit art house theater in 1990, and to this day it remains the single most enchanting, startling, and edifying film in my experience. The transfer to DVD was somewhat unfortunate, but it retains much of its power even so.

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    Hon Wai  February 20, 2019

    Why is it difficult to reconstruct the original texts of Shakespeare works? By his day, the printing press was already invented hence allowed verbatim reproduction of texts. His plays were acted out in public during his lifetime, and he had patronage of Queen Elizabeth hence allowing easy dissemination of his works.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      Ha! You should read some Shakespeare scholarship! We don’t have the written form of the text as originally performed, only later versions, which differ in signficant ways from each other. (Each performance was different! And we don’t have the words of the “original” — i.e. first performance)

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        Hon Wai  February 22, 2019

        oh yes, Shakespeare may have have issued later editions of his plays, maybe he changed the endings in response to audience feedback. An issue just came to mind: is there is suggestion or evidence that any of the gospels and epistles went through multiple editions at the hands of the author, and some extant textual variants are not the results of copyists and scribes but of the authors disseminating later editions? I suppose it is very unlikely for the epistles – after all, who would ever send out second editions of the same letters. But it seems more plausible for the gospels.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 24, 2019

          Yes, that has been often floated about, especially for John and often, as well, for Luke especially.

      • Avatar
        Brandman0485  February 23, 2019

        So if you provided this evidence to fundamentalists do you think they would believe it was the inerrant inspired word of Shakespeare despite?

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      godspell  February 24, 2019

      To fill in Bart’s explanation, plays were not considered serious literature in that era. They were merely entertainments, and the people who wrote them (often actors, as Shakespeare was himself) had little stature in society, though they could be prosperous (and still only leave their wives the second-best bed).

      Nobody was buying editions of plays in shops. That didn’t exist. Yes, the printing press existed, but printers didn’t work for free, and there was no market for contemporary plays in book form.

      It was only after Shakespeare’s death that some of his friends and admirers pooled their resources to publish the First Folio. But they were essentially recreating the plays from existing hand copies of working scripts, probably calling on their own memories of past productions as well. It was a revolutionary idea, and I suppose you could call them his disciples–they resurrected him!

      As Bart mentions, improvisation was commonplace (often the actor would forget his lines and make it up–if Shakespeare liked the improv better than the original line, it might stay in the play).

      However, I think most scholars would agree that Shakepeare’s personal stamp is on all of them. That nobody else writing plays in that era sounds like him, approaches storytelling or characterization in quite the same way.

      And computer analysis of the plays strongly indicates they were all written by the same person. (And not by Bacon, Marlowe, or the Earl of Frickin’ Oxford–that’s all snobbery, as I see it. People not wanting to believe some poorly educated bumpkin could be immortal, when they’re not).

      And to bring us back to topic, it’s pretty clear that under all the additions and embellishments of the gospels, you can still see a very distinct personality at the back of it all, and until we can come up with a better explanation, might as well call him Jesus. Shakespeare would.

      And yet, scholars keep trying variously to make him a secret Catholic, an ardent Anti-Papist, or an early atheist. The historical Jesus is not the only figure of the past we use as a looking glass.

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    kqn  February 20, 2019

    Interesting stuff. Once astronomers discovered that the universe was expanding, they were able to postulate the Big Bang by rewinding the universe then looking for evidence that supported the theory, and to great success. Oddly, you have the more difficult job of rewinding the ever-expanding narratives about Jesus, generated over centuries, prone to subjective opinions and theological bias. I don’t know what to say other than, Good luck? May the force be with you? I hope, when all is discovered, there will be more to the Gospels than, “Jesus of Nazareth, might have been a carpenter. The End.” How sad would that be?

    • Avatar
      hankgillette  March 29, 2019

      “Jesus of Nazareth, might have been a carpenter. The End.”

      Or, a stone mason.

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    XanderKastan  February 20, 2019

    Just mentioning that I sent you a question by email about James Crossley’s early dating of Mark, in case you didn’t notice it.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      If you want me to respond on the blog, you’ll need to repost it here — I simply can’t respond to all the email I get (not enough hours in the day!); and also, that way other people get the benefit of your question!

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    RonaldTaska  February 20, 2019

    Great series of posts. Thanks

    For those new to the blog, all of this is discussed in more detail and in readable form in Ehrman’s “Jesus Before the Gospels.” Get it and read it. You will be glad you did.

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    drumbeg  February 20, 2019

    “I often get maligned and attacked by conservative Christians who think I’m off my rocker and a malicious dreamer coming up with wild theories to attack the faith….What they almost never realize is that I’m not making any of this up. These are not ideas that I myself have concocted…. The reason it may seem like new news is simply that (a) most people familiar with the history of biblical scholarship and (b) the biblical scholars who are intimately familiar with it, for one reason or another, have chosen not to tell the populace at large.” This is a very important point that I have always been confused by. Why not air this to the parishioners? They (your critiques) still try to control your input even after you speak at an event, *that they invited you to,* by giving commentary to the audience after you have left. It is just bizarre the level of control and willful ignorance here. They are plugging their ears from fear of what?

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    fishician  February 20, 2019

    “I think people have a right to know what experts have to say…” Amen, brother, preach on! I think one of the tragic ironies of Christianity is that the leaders who are supposed to be imparting knowledge of the Bible to their followers deliberately (in my opinion) avoid and even suppress what scholarship can show us about the Bible. As you often point out, many scholars still believe as a matter of faith – but at least they have the knowledge to make their own choices. Church leaders deprive their congregations of this knowledge, out of fear, and thereby limit their rational choices, whether for faith or against it.

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    AlanK  February 20, 2019

    Dr Erhman,
    I am very interested to hear more on your point ‘Jesus was deeply rooted in an apocalyptic point of view, and cannot be understood apart from it’. Do you think apostle Paul’s writings very much reflect this view as well? I am thinking specifically 1 Thess 4 where Paul launches into Jewish apocalyptic eschatology in spite of knowing that his readers are mostly gentiles and won’t have a clue what he is talking about. As you know 1 Thess is one of his earliest epistles.

    Perhaps Paul, given that his letters predate the gospel of Mark, created the Jesus you described here, and subsequently his writings have influenced evangelists and scribes for generations to come.

    Do you think there is any merit in this line of thinking (that Paul’s christology is what the gospel writers have echoed)?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      Yes, I think Paul was definitely an apocalypticist. If you want more background on this — both Jesus and Paul — you might look at my book on the New Testament, or on Paul, my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. The one Gospel that I think was possibly influenced directly by Paul’s Christology is Mark. The others, not so much.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  February 22, 2019

        Could you devote a post to the possibility of a Pauline influence on the Gospel of Mark? Their Christologies seem divergent to me. (If Mark was written in Rome it is interesting to speculate that he was one of the readers of Paul’s letter.)


        • Bart
          Bart  February 24, 2019

          I think I’ve done that, but I’ll have to look. Either way, I can address it (again).

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    dennislk1  February 20, 2019

    There are two qualities that make the ideal Christian Dr. Ehrman: love of one’s fellow man such that one uses one’s resources to help alleviate their suffering and love of the truth. As Jesus said to the one who questioned him, “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven”. But as with a work of art, analysing the paint, or the marble or the notes or the words without standing back and seeing the complete work and asking what does it all mean, or what is the purpose of it all; misses the point. The book of Peter wasn’t written by Peter, and yet “To God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day” is so important that it should have been said by someone as important as Peter. And this begs the question, how did something so important end up in a book attributed to Peter if fate is all there is. I don’t believe in Gods because Gods don’t exist. And much that is written at the beginning of the Bible is not true. But there is more to Christianity than fate, and if one stands far enough back, one can see the dots in the Bible and maybe even connect them. Anyway, I’m writing a book …

    I do appreciate your desire to find the truth regardless of where it leads you. And I apologize if this comment is completely off topic.

    Dennis Keister

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    Stefan  February 21, 2019

    When did scholars begin to realise that the gospels were not written by apostles (Matthew and John) or their companions (mark and Luke)?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      It started being realized in a BIG way in the nineteenth century, and became even more common in the twentieth.

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    jbskq5  February 21, 2019

    I have been debating an apologetics enthusiast recently, and he turned to the resurrection and so-called evidence for it. One point he brought up was that the fact that the disciples are portrayed in such a dullish light throughout the gospels and especially in the resurrection appearances shows that the accounts are likely authentic, since a Christian writer would have no motive to write the apostles this way as a literary device. I don’t know about that logic, but is there any special significance to the way the disciples are portrayed throughout the canonical Gospels? What is the consensus of critical scholarship, if any, on this feature of the narratives?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      He seriously can’t think of a reason for a Christian to think / say/ write that? He needs a better imagination!! The portrayal of the disciples as failing to understand is a subject of considerable scholarship on Mark, mainly by scholars who *don’t* think that it’s simply a historical report! But you can think of lots of reasons someone would want to take that line. Maybe the author knew that (historically) some of Jesus’ own followers never *did* get it (i.e., even after his death they didn’t come to believe in his resurrection), and he wants to explain it. Maybe the author wanted to show that his own view that the messiah had to suffer was so incredibly unlike what anyone had thought before that even the disciples originally couldn’t get their heads around it, even though it was true. Maybe the author wanted to show his readers that it was OK to doubt, as long as you stuck with it long enough, you too could come to see the truth, as odd as it might seem at first blush. Maybe … you can think of dozens of reasons!

      • Avatar
        jbskq5  February 22, 2019

        Thanks! I certainly could think of some of those reasons. It was just an odd apologetic that I had never heard before and so I wondered what critical scholarship’s take on it was.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 24, 2019

          It’s amazing how many people who want to give an “intellectual” defense of Christianity refuse simply to use their intellects….

          • Avatar
            godspell  February 24, 2019

            Any less amazing than all the secular rationalists who refuse to be rational when it comes to something they hate–like people believing Jesus was a real person?

            It’s the same exact thing. And it’s part and parcel of our human heritage. Let me share a snatch of Dashiell Hammett with you–this is from The Dain Curse. (We are, after all, plumbing mysteries here.)

            //“I’ve not ever been able to think clearly, as other people do, even the simplest thoughts. Everything is always so confused in my mind. No matter what I try to think about, there’s a fog that gets between me and it, and other thoughts get between us, so I barely catch a glimpse of the thought I want before I lose it again, and have to hunt through the fog, and at last find it, only to have the same thing happen again and again and again. Can you understand how horrible that can become: going through life like that—year after year—knowing you will always be like that—or worse?”

            “I can’t,” I said. “It sounds normal as hell to me. Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.”//

            Sound familiar?


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    HenriettePeterson  February 21, 2019

    Tell us more about this – “historians know full well that the learned people before the Enlightenment did not at all think the world was flat”!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      The myth that ancient people thought the world was flat was invented by scientists in the 19th century in order to show how superior science was to religion. In fact ancient people knew the earth was round. Aristotle actually calculated the size of the circumference. As did others.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  February 22, 2019

        But wouldn’t the Temptation of Jesus when Satan shows him all the Kingdoms of the world from a high place, and the Ascension of Jesus, and Paul’s reference to the “Third Heaven” indicate that at least some of the NT writers held on to the older view of a flat, tiered cosmos?


        • Bart
          Bart  February 24, 2019

          No, don’t think so. The heavens were arranged in concentric spheres around the earth. And the kingdoms could be seen from a high mountain because the world was not inhabited (or probably even inhabitable) all around.

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        Loring  February 25, 2019

        Bart, I have to ask for clarification. I understand that Eratosthenes calculated quite closely the circumference of Earth. So, the Greeks had not only postulated a round earth centuries before, but eventually measured it c. 240 BCE. But are you saying it it is a myth that other cultures in the ancient world held to a flat earth cosmology? I thought it was commonplace for scholars to say that the Hebrew Bible’s cosmology is a flat earth. It appears that some of the early church fathers did not accept the round earth view–perhaps even Augustine himself. It would clearly be a myth to say that everyone believed in a flat earth, but are you saying they all saw the Earth as round?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 26, 2019

          I was actually referring to the views of Europeans from antiquity up until the Enlightenment.

  19. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  February 21, 2019

    On page 22 of the translation of his 1906 “Quest”, Schweitzer states “Inasmuch as the non-fulfillment of its eschatology is not admitted, our Christianity rests upon a fraud”. Two paragraphs later he states “Such is Reimarus’ reconstruction of the history”. My question: Do you think the first statement is Schweitzer’s assertion or rather his recounting of Reimarus’ position? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      I think it’s his own assertion — but I’d have to read the context.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  February 22, 2019

        That was my impression as well. The combination of a translation with philosophical terminology and essentially 19th century diction requires unwavering concentration.

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    JohnKesler  February 21, 2019

    Off-topic question: In Hebrews 3:2, is it correct to translate ποιέω as “created” or “made” rather than “appointed”? I’m looking at https://studybible.info/strongs/G4160. If so, the implications are interesting.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      I suppose since the parallel is “Moses in his own house” it must mean appointed rather than created.

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