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The Historian’s Wish List

While writing the posts in my thread on the contradictions in the New Testament, I had the impression that some readers thought I considered it virtually impossible to use the New Testament for historical purposes.   That’s actually not the case at all.   I’m going to discuss this issue over a number of posts, focusing on the Gospels.  Oddly enough, it appears I’ve never devoted a sustained thread to this precise end, of explaining how historians go about their business of reconstructing the past when all they have are highly problematic sources.

My general view is that when trying to determine what actually happened in Jesus’ life – to figure out what he said, did, and experienced – it is important to avoid two extremes.  On one hand, it simply won’t work to claim that if something is narrated in the Gospels, it is necessarily historical.  There are lots and lots of things that can’t be historical in the Gospels.  Just on the most basic level, if one Gospel really does appear to contradict another about, say, something Jesus did, they both can’t be right at the same time.   And so the historian has to figure out if one of them is probably right or if both are wrong.

The other extreme is to throw up our hands in despair and claim that we can’t know *anything*, since our sources are simply too problematic (late, contradictory, biased, and so on).  That too is going way too far.  The Gospels may not have been written as objective, disinterested accounts of what really happened in the life of Jesus, but they clearly do contain historical information.  The trick is figuring out what is historical and what is legendary.

But how does one do that?  Is it a matter of simply affirming as historical those passages one personally rather likes?  Or claiming that it *must* be this way or that way because that’s what we’ve always thought about Jesus or is simply “common sense?”  No, approaching our sources in these ways is not doing history but is simply adopting personal preferences and *calling* it history.

The historian has to have and follow reasoned and strict procedures to determine what actually happened in the past.  But which procedures?  In this post I will start the discussion by laying out what historians would very much like to have available to them by way of sources of information about the past.  I have taken the discussion from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

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The historian’s sources are like the auto mechanic’s tools: it’s one thing to have them, but another thing to know how to use them.  At this stage we need to …

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Rules of Thumb for Reconstructing the History behind the Gospels
A Key Contradiction in the Birth Narratives

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Comments

  1. jmmarine1  July 16, 2018

    ‘…the author of Mark didn’t know Q, John probably hadn’t read the Synoptics, Paul, who was writing before any of the Gospels had been written, obviously didn’t know what they were going to say, just as they show no evidence of having read Paul, and so on.’

    I realize that the quote above is from your book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, which was published in 1999. Have you revised this statement in light of the research that has been on-going on the potential influence of Paul on Mark, at least on Markan theology?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2018

      I think the argument is that Mark knew Paul’s preaching/message — not that he knew and used the seven letters from Paul that we happen to have. Paul of course would have written lots and lots, and people who never read what he wrote could know what he said. There is no good evidence that Mark was basing his account on any of Paul’s actual letters.

  2. saavoss  July 16, 2018

    I ordered the book you refer to: Jesus, the Apocalyptic Prophet. It should arrive in a week or so. Looking forward to the read.

  3. SonOfZeusTruly
    SonOfZeusTruly  July 16, 2018

    Goodmorning Dr. Ehrman! May your blog be a successful year! Thank you for all that you do. Have a blessed day! God works in mysterious ways!

  4. Tony  July 16, 2018

    Bart, I consider the notion that the gospels are a source of information about the life of Jesus of Nazareth a wild overstatement.

    For example, I noticed that, in your previous posting on the birth narratives, you confirmed that Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth. That surprised me, because the evidence indicates that both the Galilee and Nazareth locations were the results of scripture prophesy fulfillment and are not historical facts.

    Matthew 4:12-16 quotes Isaiah 9:1-7 where the Messiah is prophesied to come from Galilee. Matthew then creates stories, cf. Matthew 2:22, indicating prophesy fulfillment. But, a prophesy fulfillment tale does not make an historical fact!

    The same with Matthew 2:23. Matthew refers to a lost scriptural prophesy stating that the Messiah will be called a “Nazorean”. Matthew’s fulfillment story misses the mark because there is no grammatical connection between a town called Nazareth and the unrelated title of Nazorean. Acts 24:5 identifies that Christians were originally called Nazoreans, yet the sect had no connection with Nazareth whatsoever. What likely happened was that Matthew, having created the Galilee prophesy connection, decided to place the Nazorean Jesus in a similar sounding Galilean town called Nazareth.

    Perhaps you have another explanation?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2018

      The reason for thinking that his derivation from Nazareth was not made up to fulfill a prophecy is that there is no prophecy that says anything about the messiah coming from Nazareth. Even though they look similar in English, the words Nazareth and Nazarene are not etymologically related, so his coming from Nazareth would not have been invented to fulfill a non-existing prophecy dealing with a word not related to the town’s name.

      • SidDhartha1953  July 17, 2018

        What is the meaning of Nazarene? Is it related to Nazirite?.None of the sources I know of indicate that Jesus was a Nazirite.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 19, 2018

          A Nazarene would be someone from Nazareth; no connection to being a nazarite, though the words obviously look similar in English.

          • SidDhartha1953  July 19, 2018

            Then I’m really confused. If a Nazarene is someone from Nazareth, why do you say the two are not etymologically related?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 20, 2018

            Sorry, my bad. There are two Greek words in the NT that get translated into English as Nazarene. One of them (NAZARENOS; Mark 1:24, e.g.) means “coming from Nazareth); the other (Matthew 2:23 NAZORAIOS does not). It’s etymology is much disputed.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  July 17, 2018

        “Even though they look similar in English, the words Nazareth and Nazarene are not etymologically related, so his coming from Nazareth would not have been invented to fulfill a non-existing prophecy dealing with a word not related to the town’s name.”

        From my knowledge of Hebrew (and other semitic languages such as Aramaic — I’m currently dipping my toes into Akkadian and Ugaritic, as well), that’s pretty much correct. The name Nazareth sounds like Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic), in which it would probably be pronounced “natsreet” — which means something like “little branch,” possibly refering to it being an offshoot village of a neighboring town(?). Anyway, someone who comes from a place called Natsrit would be called either a “natsreeti” or “natsreeteen”. But Jesus is called a “nazareenos” and — more importantly — he is also called a “nazoraios”, which both noticably differ from each other as well as from the expected demonyms.

        To me, this strongly suggests that the title Nazorean is NOT a demonym for someone from Nazareth. Instead, I hypothesized that Nazorean is a sectarian epithet of some sort, possibly related to John the Baptist, which I much more fully developed in previous comments throughout the years. I develop it even further in my Jesus novel.

      • Tony  July 17, 2018

        We are in agreement on the disconnect between Nazorean and Nazareth. However, I believe an apocryphal prophesy referred by Matthew did exist – but has been lost. Unlike his creative fulfillment tales, Matthew never makes up his prophesies, and often uses a prophesy fulfillment as a literary tool. Fulfillment connection is either obvious, such as the Bethlehem birth, or directly referenced as in the virgin birth, Galilee origin etc.

        The original, lost, Nazorean prophesy had nothing to do with the town of Nazareth. It referred to the original Christian, Torah observing sect – the Nazoreans. Besides Acts, the Nazoreans are also referenced by Epiphanius and Jerome, as believers in Christ Jesus being the Son of God.

        That still leaves the question whether the real Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee. Fact or fiction? You know my opinion.

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  5. flcombs  July 16, 2018

    Having a time machine could be fun to find out things. 🙂 If a time machine is ever invented, a LOT of stories we know would turn out very different! Imagine getting to really know someone in history that has a “good” or idealized image only to find out the were a product of their times and have biases and traits we don’t like. I always try to look at people in history in context of their times. But you see a lot of effort today to go back and judge people by today’s standards. Well by that standard, Moses and the Jews as described in the OT would be rounded up and tried as war criminals for genocide, yet many Christians don’t have a problem with it.

  6. forthfading  July 16, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You stated that the Gospels are not disinterested accounts by impartial observers…..and that is true enough, but to your knowledge, how much of ancient history was ever written by disinterested and impartial observers. I know today we write for the purposes of preserving historical data, but was that an important issue in the 1st century? With limited literacy and limited ability to write affordably, it seems all historical writings would have been by very interested and partial observers. I know this does not impact the point you are making, I am just curious.

    Thanks

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2018

      I don’t think there’s such a thing as someone who is completely disinterested and impartial.

      • James Chalmers  July 17, 2018

        I don’t think there’s such a thing as someone who is completely disinterested and impartial.

        But you also think, (I think) that (a) some folks are more disinterested and impartial than others, and (b) Bart Ehrman is more disinterested and impartial than most.
        I think you’re correct about both a and b.
        I’d note that your response to Ballard just below tends to confirm the validity of my assertions about folks and you–you seem to share my acceptance of their validity.
        Disinterested impartiality is an ideal to be striven toward. It’s not fully attainable. But there are starkly clear instances, few would dispute, of falling far short. And I would maintain that it’s no less clear that some get a lot closer than others, and I can, at least at times, do a decent job of judging how close they’ve gotten.

  7. WillBallard  July 16, 2018

    How often do NT researchers adhere to the historical methods you’ve articulated? Are there Christian apologists who distinguish between their personal beliefs and what can be established historically?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2018

      THey are pretty standard, I think. And yes, apologists often do claim to be doing disinterested history, but often the claim appears to mask an agenda.

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  8. jonfoulkes  July 16, 2018

    Hi Bart, quick question if I may? Discounting the highly unlikely scenario of a hitherto unknown manuscript turning up containing historical detail, do you find it frustrating that on the evidence available to us, we now know all we can ever know about the historical Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2018

      Sure, a bit. But it’s not the kind of frustration that we can do anything about!

  9. fishician  July 16, 2018

    Is it fair to say that the specific theology of each NT document has to be considered when deciding on historical probability? For example, if Matthew is portraying Jesus as the new Moses, then his story about fleeing to Egypt or the slaughter of the innocents must be more suspect than other stories in the gospel which are not trying to prove such a point. (On the other hand, apologists might argue that those stories are what led Matthew to think of Jesus as the new Moses!)

  10. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  July 16, 2018

    I believe my question is related. Often when their are discrepancies in the text I’ve seen many Fundamentalist Christians will try to harmonize the discrepancies. I have been critical of that practice because I believed the need to prove Biblical inerrancy was the motive to harmonize discrepancies. However, I’ve noticed that Biblical Historians also will at times attempt to harmonize discrepancies. My question is what is the criteria for when to Harmonizie a discrepancy in the text and when to simply accept that there are discrepancies that cannot be harmonized?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2018

      I suppose one should first see whether a harmonization is possible or plausible, and then make a decision. It’s obvoiulsy fine to give the sources the benefit of the doubt, but if they appear to contradict each other, so be it1

  11. Ehteshaam7  July 16, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, James White has some kind of unhealthy obsession with you, it’s really creepy: https://youtu.be/iCpGaT7F7tc

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  12. godspell  July 16, 2018

    I know you’ve got more points to make, but it’s important to point out–truly objective sources in ancient history are hard to find.

    To name one example out of many, Herodotus presents an account of the Battle of Thermopylae (he was a toddler when it was fought) that can’t possibly be accurate. And it’s the only historical account anywhere near the time of the battle that survives.

    And of course, the most salient fact of that battle, as related to us, was the near-total lack of survivors on the Greek side.

    The Persians didn’t leave any account at all of the entire war (which I suppose they might have wanted to forget, but just as likely they just didn’t produce histories about anything then, and heroic epics would be written about wars you’d won).

    Herodotus’ account seems to have been published about forty years after the war ended. That’s roughly equivalent to the gap between the crucifixion and Mark’s gospel. Paul’s epistles are relatively contemporary, and he got to talk to many people who’d known Jesus.

    So what we have is not at all first-hand, understandably biased, already heavily mythologized and romanticized (veneration of Spartan warrior prowess was something of a cult among educated Greece by then), little in the way of archaeological evidence exists, and investigations of the famed pass show that the battle could not have happend just the way Herodotus describes it.

    But without his account, a somewhat more contemporary poem extolling the valiant dead, and a play by Aeschylus (which must be categorized as fiction), we’d have no reason to assume the battle happened at all.

    (Today, most people just watch a movie that says the Hoplites went into battle bare-chested, to show off their washboard abs.)

    The study of history was not a lot better established by Roman times, and was mainly the pursuit of gentlemen of leisure, like Tacitus. It is significant that at least people writing formal histories had the ideal of preserving the past for the sake of doing so.

    The ideal of true objectivity (no matter who it hurts) was still a long way off. Histories were generally patriotic in nature, and it could be argued that they were sacred works themselves in a sense, only devoted to the cult of the state.

    I do not envy the task of those who study ancient history.

  13. tompicard
    tompicard  July 16, 2018

    [just a thought regarding the equating the use of “eternal life” in the synoptics to “eternal life on earth”, for anyone curious; not necessarily Bart][ and this has nothing to do with the current post]

    suppose i said
    “I will not drink a beer till I get to the Corner Bar”
    wouldn’t the NORMAL assumption be that I will drink a beer after I get to the bar?

    ok what about Mark 9:1
    Then Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God arrive with power.”
    likewise wouldn’t the NORMAL assumption be that “some standing here” WILL “taste death after they see the Kingdom arriving”?

    therefore, if we accept the NORMAL way people speak then I guess (according to Jesus) that people still taste death even after the arrival of God’s kingdom.

    • godspell  July 19, 2018

      The implication being that the Kingdom is not the afterlife, but simply a better-run version of earthly existence, where the goats no longer are allowed to harass the sheep, where people still live out a mortal existence, work at jobs, get married, have children. There’s a difference between Paradise and Utopia, and Jesus does at times seem to be thinking more along the lines of the latter.

      Jesus likes people. More than many who came after him, I think. There’s a warmth to his personality, a vitality, that could go a long way towards explaining why his death would bring about visions of his resurrection.

      But to like people is also to despair of them. We have so much potential, and we throw most of it away. And there are always those among us who create, and others who only know how to destroy. Suppose the latter were permanently severed from the former? But how do you know which is which?

      You let them grow up together, like the wheat and the chaff, and then the farmer pulls up the chaff.

      Did Jesus think past that point? Good parents often have bad offspring. Logically, if the Son of Man did come to institute the Kingdom, goats would continue to be born, chaff would continue to grow. Bad personalities will occur in any society. Did he hope that a whole generation raised by only good people would be free of such personalities? Or did he imagine the Son of Man watching each crop carefully, and tearing up the chaff, over and over?

      We get so caught up in Jesus the preacher, Jesus the theologian–we forget Jesus the philosopher.

      His ideas are not all that different from Plato’s, in some respects. Except he knows there are no mortal men capable of such a task. Plato imagines Philosopher Kings, Guardians–he suggests the only way to improve humankind is to take an entire generation of children from their parents and have them reared by strangers.

      Jesus’ basic idea–wait for a supernatural agency to deliver you, and in the meantime live as if the Kingdom was already here, to prove yourself worthy of it–say what you will, it’s not the stuff totalitarian governments are made of.

      Plato inspired a lot more evil. And a lot less good.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  July 20, 2018

        well i dont buy nor do i ascribe to Jesus any supernatural mumbo-jumbo type beliefs
        such as
        babies being born without intervention of a physical father
        physical human bodies never growing old and expiring
        physical bodies rising from the graves (Jesus himself nor others)
        magical beings standing on clouds solving sin and other human created problems, etc

        well but thats just me. ( I mean a difference between what i think Jesus believed and what Dr Erhman thinks Jesus believed)

      • tompicard
        tompicard  July 20, 2018

        clarification:
        agree with Ehrman’s view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet,
        but don’t see convincing evidence that his apocalyptic teachings incorporated supernatural stuff

    • mannix  July 19, 2018

      Also see Mt 1:25 referring to Joseph/Mary: “He [Joseph] had no relations with her until she bore a son…”
      The commentary in the NAB states ” The Greek word translated ‘until’ does not imply normal marital conduct after Jesus’ birth, nor does it exclude it.” The verse could be used to challenge the “perpetual virginity” of Mary.

      • godspell  July 20, 2018

        I don’t see why we would need to challenge that. Jesus had siblings. If they were Joseph’s by a previous marriage, why don’t they need to travel to Bethlehem to be registered, or flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s paranoid wrath? Matthew mentions them–later. After the family has returned from Egypt. Luke makes John the Baptist Jesus’ cousin, but ignores his brothers and sisters–certainly doesn’t mention Joseph having any other children, and you’d think that would be an issue. “Dad, why are you marrying that faithless strumpet? She was visited by WHAT now?”

        Jesus was clearly an only child when he was born–even the early stories of his childhood depict him as such. Growing up a Catholic, I never read stories about his having brothers and sisters (Catholics are kind of big on the virgin thing, and would rather just airbrush the sibs out of the picture entirely). It sort of dawned on me gradually that they existed. Being the first of four children born to my mother, it seemed obvious to me he was the eldest. That greater sense of responsibility. But also he was the first to go out into the world to make a place for himself.

        But in what sense were she and Joseph married if the marriage was never consummated? Why is Joseph needed at all? God could have protected Mary and Jesus, sent angels to guard them.

        Mark and Matthew are probably the first two gospels. And the only ones that mention Mary’s other children. We know Jesus’ brother James became an active Christian leader. There is reason to think his family did assert some authority in the early church. But ultimately, they were pushed aside, became irrelevant. And part of that may have been because they were a living contradiction of what Christians increasingly wanted to believe. That Jesus was not a normal human being, leaving aside his gifts. And so his mother could not be a normal mother. And so his father was just an old man content to look after the Son of God and his virgin mother, and never enjoy any of the normal pleasures and prerogatives of marriage.

        Baloney.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  July 21, 2018

        yeah i have noticed that in the “New American Bible ‘For Catholics'” it’s interesting they felt called upon to give explanatory definition of word ‘until’ ,
        i suppose then that NAB editors would object to my conjecture that Jesus is implying deaths may still occur after establishment of God’s Kingdom

  14. Stephen  July 16, 2018

    1) Given what you know about Philo’s point of view, his interests and concerns, are you surprised at all that he doesn’t mention Jesus in his writings?
    2) Does Philo mention John the Baptist or the Qumran community?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2018

      No, he was living too early probably to have heard anything about Jesus in Alexandria Egypt.

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    • talmoore
      talmoore  July 17, 2018

      Philo mentions the Essenes but not the Qumran community specifically.

    • Steefen  July 17, 2018

      It seems Philo was born 25 BC and died 50 AD.

  15. prestonp  July 16, 2018

    these reports are not, as we have seen, disinterested accounts by impartial observers, written near the time of the events they narrate. They are all — with minor exceptions like the accounts of Josephus and Tacitus — provided by Jesus’ own followers, who had a vested interest in what they had to say about him. Bart

    What was their vested interest?
    What did they expect would happen to them or hope to gain for spreading the Resurrection Story?
    Can you prove their “vested interest” caused or influenced them to distort or exaggerate what they wrote?
    What does “near” mean? Is there an implication that their accuracy is less likely due to the length of time that passed before they were written?
    Can you prove no records were kept during His lifetime and ministry that included what He said and did?
    Can you prove that such “hypothetical” records were not used as sources for the N.T.?
    Is there a reason we restrict the historian’s investigative tools and role merely to the 4 gospels? First John describes the author’s involvement with Christ as “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with … ”
    BTW, Johns gospel’s author refers to his eyewitness experience: “we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.'”)
    “Precisely because these documents were of such importance to people who believed in Jesus as the Son of God, their concerns… were less historical than religious. They were not interested in providing the brute facts of history for impartial observers, but in proclaiming their faith in Jesus as the Son of God.” That is an assumption. How do you know? More likely, if they were deeply dedicated to promoting their faith in Christ in a convincing manner, they had to have their facts straight. Otherwise, they would forfeit their cherished opportunity to proclaim Christ effectively.
    “This was “Good News” for the believer.” Bart Let’s poll believers: “Would you prefer the N.T. be based on one’s wishes or facts?”
    Historians bring their biases to the investigation of every topic they study.

    • Jmkeele  August 19, 2018

      Bart, I have shifted the burden of proof onto you to prove all these negatives. If you don’t, I clearly win. Also, you’re the one who’s biased, not me!

      • Bart
        Bart  August 19, 2018

        I didn’t know it was a contest! And anyone who genuinely thinks he/she is not biased… well….

  16. crucker  July 16, 2018

    Off topic, but I thought you might find this humorous. I recently encountered an article titled, “A growing number of scholars are questioning the historical existence of Jesus”. The names they reference as denying an historical Jesus: Reza Aslan, Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, and you. They even quote “How Jesus Became God” for their support.

    https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/a-growing-number-of-scholars-are-questioning-the-existence-of-jesus.amp

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2018

      good god….

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  July 17, 2018

      Wow, I didn’t know Big Think has almost 3M followers. Fortunately, that article was refuted by several bloggers.

    • godspell  July 19, 2018

      A useful reminder that people will believe what they want to believe. They will, through ignorance or intention, distort what others have said, to mirror their own ideas. And many will believe them, even if they easily have the means at their disposal to know better. (As early Christians mainly did not).

      The same patterns, recurring over and over again. The goats never sleep. And getting rid of Christianity, getting rid of all religion, doesn’t change the basic underpinnings of humanity. We are what we were before any religion was conceived–and religion was conceived precisely to try and restrain the worst in our nature, and foster the best. Unfortunately, the goats infect each new faith–and have already infected atheism.

      People don’t change. But we could at least learn from our mistakes.

  17. prestonp  July 17, 2018

    “at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that you ‘believe the right things.’ I’m a biblical scholar, and for me one of the things that matters a lot is how you interpret the books of the New Testament.'”

    and, “I should think that ‘the right things’ normally are understood to be “’the truth’”

    Yes, but you suggest that believing “the right things” is only for Christians of a certain ilk, conservative, , etc.

    “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.”

    That is not a neutral point of view by any means.

    Bart, I’m not given 3 opportunities a day to make comments. 2 at the most.

    I’m faithful and do not think I have all the answers, by any means or have it all figured out. I want to know everything the N.T. has to say and I believe it is in full agreement with itself. John says Jesus said He was one with God. Other writers proved Who He was through citing the miracles He performed. They were all telling the truth. That you separate them is profound error. He both said He was God and proved it. The writers individually described a God/man from a spectrum of His qualities that harmonize perfectly.

    Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled;

    I don’t believe scholars have all the answers. They make grave errors. There is more to know than how an ancient verb is conjugated, important as it may be. There was a lot of love poured into making the sacrifice that changed the hearts of mankind.

    It may not mean much to you now, but you did appreciate at one time the profound and beautiful experience of the Holy Spirit who came into you many years ago.

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    • 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. Taking a book to be true as stated isn’t unique or a proof to anyone else. 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.

      You like quotes, so see that even early Christian Fathers, often quoted in Christianity, recognized how many things in Christianity could be found elsewhere in other gods (of course all the gods were unique to each other in some way: pick the god with the traits you like best). Not room for all of it so go read it totally, but he goes through specific gods of interest. Justin is claimed to be a martyr for his faith, so I’m sure you know he is right since he died for his beliefs:

      “And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.”
      Justin Martyr (to Antoninus Pius, his sons, and the Roman Senate), The First Apology, Chapter 21

      “But if any one objects that He was crucified, in this also He is on a par with those reputed sons of Jupiter of yours, who suffered as we have now enumerated.” Chapter 22

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    • 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. Their beliefs are just as sacred to them. Yes, even the beliefs of atheists who insist Jesus never lived at all, in the face of massive scholarly evidence to the contrary. The fact is, most people on earth have never believed Jesus was God, or the Son of God. And they are not worse people, on average, than those who do.

      It’s not faith if you need to prove it for a fact–or to make everyone else believe it.

      And real faith isn’t about what you believe happened in the past, anyway. It’s about what your faith compels you to do in the present. And if you believe Jesus was God, shouldn’t that be to respect and help all men and women of good will?

      If Jesus could say to a polytheist Canaanite, “Woman, great is your faith!” why can’t you? Dogma varies. Faith is one.

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    • DavidNeale  July 18, 2018

      Preston:

      “I want to know everything the N.T. has to say and I believe it is in full agreement with itself. John says Jesus said He was one with God. Other writers proved Who He was through citing the miracles He performed. They were all telling the truth. That you separate them is profound error. He both said He was God and proved it. The writers individually described a God/man from a spectrum of His qualities that harmonize perfectly.”

      But Jesus as portrayed in the Synoptics is a totally different character from Jesus as portrayed in John, as Bart has painstakingly illustrated in previous posts. Jesus in the Synoptics makes none of the extravagant claims about himself that Jesus in John does. If Jesus had really said “Before Abraham was, I am” and other such extraordinary claims, one would think that Mark would have thought it important enough to mention. Not to mention the concrete factual contradictions between John and the Synoptics – such as the day on which Jesus was crucified. The more parsimonious explanation is that John is a late text full of secondary material, which reflects the theological concerns of its author (and of the authors of its constituent sources) rather than anything the historical Jesus did or said.

      If Jesus were really the Son of God, and if it were important to him that people believe this, he could have arranged for some more convincing evidence to be passed down to us. Four anonymous biographies, which radically contradict one another and which contain demonstrable inaccuracies, don’t cut it for me.

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      • prestonp  July 19, 2018

        “If Jesus were really the Son of God, and if it were important to him that people believe this, he could have arranged for some more convincing evidence to be passed down to us. Four anonymous biographies, which radically contradict one another and which contain demonstrable inaccuracies, don’t cut it for me.”
        He left plenty of evidence. Bart knew Who He was and worshiped Him with every ounce of himself well into his twenties.
        Please list the ways in which they radically contradict one another. I’ve asked for this before without being presented such a list. (Look in the forum Bart does not moderate.) The top 10 will suffice. If you’d rather not do the work involved, then making the claim isn’t productive.
        How do we know they’re anonymous and what difference does it make? Even though Bart doesn’t know who they were, he knows they had an agenda, a vested interest in writing what they did. How does he know when he can’t identify them?
        I think they told the truth. What would they hope to achieve, personally, for lying? Does anyone have an idea? (A lie is when someone makes up a story to deceive others he knows isn’t true.) They seem like dedicated honest cats who were in awe of what had happened to them and others.
        “But Jesus as portrayed in the Synoptics is a totally different character from Jesus as portrayed in John, as Bart has painstakingly illustrated in previous posts.”
        I realize that’s what he’s tried so hard to do. He’s wrong. Christ is exactly the same throughout the N.T. No contradictions among the various perspectives. He was a complex human being. He said and did more than what was recorded,too, by a long shot. He was/is a multi-faceted diamond to be sure and much more. We’re given a nibble in the N.T. When you meet Him personally, He blows you away with all that He is. Words are inadequate to describe Him.
        “Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are innocent? But I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. If only you had known the meaning of ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.…For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Matt.

        • DavidNeale  July 20, 2018

          “Please list the ways in which they radically contradict one another.”

          Bart’s already done that at enormous length, over many posts and several books, so you know the answer – or ought to. There are massive contradictions in Matthew’s and Luke’s respective birth narratives, as Bart outlined in this post: https://ehrmanblog.org/the-infancy-narratives-compared-for-members/ John contradicts the Synoptics on numerous factual points, most importantly the day on which Jesus was crucified. The chronologies of events often don’t match up, such as when in Jesus’ ministry the Cleansing of the Temple took place. And so on. I can only assume that you haven’t bothered to read Bart’s books or any of the archived posts on this blog.

          The Gospels also contradict the historical record, as with Luke’s claims about the Census of Quirinius. Not to mention the contradictions *within* the Gospels, such as the many internal contradictions in John which Bart recently identified in a detailed post.

          “How do we know they’re anonymous and what difference does it make? Even though Bart doesn’t know who they were, he knows they had an agenda, a vested interest in writing what they did.”

          Everyone who has ever written anything has “an agenda”. We all have our own political and religious views. The Gospel authors are the same as anyone else in that respect. That emphatically doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable historical sources. But it means that, as with all other historical sources, they can’t simply be taken at face value – they have to be read critically.

          And they’re anonymous in the sense that they do not identify their authors. As Bart has explained on the blog, the earliest attribution of them to “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” comes from Irenaeus in the late second century, decades after they were written.

          “Christ is exactly the same throughout the N.T.”

          Jesus in John frequently and explicitly proclaims himself to be divine. If that was something he really said, then it was of tremendous importance – and so the Synoptic authors, writing much earlier than John, might have been expected to mention it. In the Synoptics he does no such thing. Conversely, Jesus in the Synoptics preaches an apocalyptic message, which doesn’t appear in the same form in John.

          “When you meet Him personally, He blows you away with all that He is.”

          Believe me, if it were possible to travel back in time and meet Jesus of Nazareth (with the aid of an Aramaic interpreter, hopefully!) I would volunteer in a heartbeat. But we are stuck in the present, with only an incomplete and not-always-reliable set of literary sources to go on.

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          • prestonp  July 22, 2018

            In no particular order: They did cite Christ’s divinity in the Synoptics. They are everywhere, everywhere. “Believe me, if it were possible to travel back in time and meet Jesus of Nazareth (with the aid of an Aramaic interpreter, hopefully!) I would volunteer in a heartbeat.” Why would you have to go back in time? He’s alive and present right here and right now. Bart was born-again in the 70s. The Gospel message is: He rose from the dead. You can absolutely meet Him this very moment. That’s what this is all about. Bart can renew his friendship with Jesus this instant, the same way he came to know Christ in his teenage years that continued through his twenties. The differences in the times referenced in the N.T. regarding His death are due to two different methods of keeping the calendar, Roman and Jewish. There are no contradictions.
            Jesus’ message was apocalyptic in all the gospels and in ACTS and the letters and Revelation.
            “the Cleansing of the Temple took place…” Makes no difference when He cleansed the Temple or how many times He whipped the boobs hustling a buck there. He wasn’t happy about it.

            “Everyone who has ever written anything has “an agenda”.” Not a “Christian agenda” and what is a “Christian agenda”, BTW? I’ve asked for clarification without any luck.

            “as with all other historical sources, they can’t simply be taken at face value – they have to be read critically.” You bet. Bart’s reading and his conclusions are simply way, way off, in part because he rejects the miraculous off-hand. The miracles cannot be separated from the rest of the gospel accounts without destroying the intent of the writers.

            I already showed how the birth narratives do not contradict each other. “Luke indicates in his account of Jesus’s birth that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem (and performed the rites of purification; Luke 2:39), whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:19-22)” Bart Misquoted

            It does not say that. It does not say Jesus and the gang returned to Nazareth just over a month after they got to Bethlehem.

          • DavidNeale  July 24, 2018

            “They did cite Christ’s divinity in the Synoptics. They are everywhere, everywhere.”

            You’re strawmanning what I said here. I didn’t actually say that the authors of the Synoptics did not consider Jesus to be divine – that’s a complicated question, and one about which Bart says some interesting things in How Jesus Became God.

            What I am talking about is what Jesus *said about himself*. In John, Jesus makes dramatic and explicit claims to divinity, like “I and the Father are one”, “I am the resurrection and the life”, “Before Abraham was, I am”, and so on. In the Synoptics, by contrast, he is much more reticent about discussing himself and his identity. If Jesus really made the kinds of grand claims about himself that John attributes to him, then the authors of the Synoptics – writing earlier than John – would presumably have thought it important enough to mention.

            “Why would you have to go back in time? He’s alive and present right here and right now.”

            I was raised Christian. I am familiar with this belief. But I would like to see some actual evidence for it.

            “The differences in the times referenced in the N.T. regarding His death are due to two different methods of keeping the calendar, Roman and Jewish. There are no contradictions.”

            Can you explain this further? The day of Passover and the day before Passover are, by definition, two different days. That doesn’t depend on which calendar you’re using.

            “and what is a “Christian agenda”, BTW?”

            To say that the authors of the Gospels had “a Christian agenda” is not an insult. It simply means that they were Christians writing about Christianity for a Christian audience, with an essentially religious purpose. That’s not an attack on them. It just means that they have their own biases, just as you and I and everyone else have our own biases. That is why we don’t generally take historical sources at face value – we analyse them critically, to look at how they fit with our other historical evidence.

  18. SidDhartha1953  July 17, 2018

    Acts 23:12-35 tells the story of a plot to assassinate Paul and an enormous Roman response to foil the plot. I can understand that Roman officials would have some duty to protect Roman citizens from mob violence — even if Paul was not a citizen, Luke claims he was — but would they send an escort of 470 soldiers? Is there an obvious point to such a blatant exaggeration?
    One more. Does Paul mention having a sister in any of his surviving letters?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2018

      Yup, an exaggeration to stress teh importance of Paul. Nope, no mention of a sister. But doesn’t mention his father either, even though he obviously had one!

  19. RonaldTaska  July 17, 2018

    Excellent post about one of the questions of ultimate concern: What is legendary and what is historical about Jesus and how do we know this? Thanks

  20. prestonp  July 17, 2018

    “…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

    That statement says a great deal about you Bart. How much you disdain us. It contradicts your oft repeated claims of your unbiased position as you write about variants and forgery and Jesus being misquoted. No one is perfect and no one should live above criticism. How do we find truth without true diligence which must include the help of others who can see our errors when we can’t?

    “Preconceived notions about their religion” is lumping Christians into a group of non-thinking boobs not interested in truth. No wonder you disassociate from Christians in general. And you were once one of them/us. But that doesn’t describe you. You longed to go deeper with this God of yours and it didn’t matter where He led you. You were in love, you were absolutely totally committed to Him.

    I didn’t know what Christianity was when I was born-again yet, I experienced the same things you did, so have multiple millions of others. You had no idea you would find what you found, either. It doesn’t matter what you were told about what to expect. What you received was not something you could have imagined beforehand. Why? Because you met GOD. Meeting God is altogether the most unique and special and profound experience one can have. “Oh, just wait till you have kids. Then you’ll understand how awesome being a parent is.” With God it is like that but completely different at the same time.

    I walked around inside a spiritual world I never knew existed. I was blind and then could see. Was prancin around like I was king of the palace Alice, when I had absolutely no idea there was a GOD following me, preceding me, above and below, to each side, and His enemies engaged in literally a stinking conflagration of battles being fought so close by and all over the universe. Like waking up from the longest dream and there He is. He is real and alive and knows me and loves me inside and out. And you too, Bart. You must know that He loves you, too.

    • Pattylt  July 19, 2018

      You should read Bart’s statement a little closer. He is not condemning all Christians, just those that are so theologically dogmatic that they can not look at the material historically. A big difference! That you have faith in Christianity is fine with me and Bart (I assume) but Bart is an historian which means he has to deal with the evidence we have and how we came to have it.
      All of your emotional appeals to faith are expressed by many Muslims about their experiences, Hindus with theirs, etc. your subjective experiences are not shared by everyone. If they were, we’d all be Christians. Many people have had opposite or completely different experiences and we all need to try to understand this, accept this and respect this. Bart is giving historical (evidence based) reasoning for Christianity, not the theology and meaning of it required by all. You seem to want him to come to your theological understanding and I think most of us here either reject it or nuance it differently from you. It makes you seem rather preachy rather than trying to understand an alternate point of view. Sorry, maybe just me?

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    • flcombs  July 20, 2018

      Prestinp: “is lumping Christians into a group of non-thinking boobs not interested in truth. ”

      Often posts and arguments speak for themselves. But it is a perfect demontration that you don’t really pay attention to Dr Ehrman’s views. Are you just reading from a book from church? He has many Christian friends, praises relief efforts, and I think his wife may be, etc. He just apparently obeyed the Bible and “tested all things” and found fundamentalist claims unfounded. The Bible says to not “bear false witness” so why should anyone lie when the evidence isn’t convincing? So far you haven’t offered any evidence that the god you chose has any power in modern times and apparently he only does in the ancient world.

      Your post is a great sermon demonstrating the power and influence of emontions. The problem for your chosen religion is that apparently God gave people in other religions the same spirit, emotions and power. How are your arguments any better than the same made in other religions or is your lack of response proof you have none?

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