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The Inerrancy of the Bible? And Those Who Doubt. Readers’ Mailbag October 2, 2016

 

How did I deal with inconsistencies and discrepancies as a young Christian?  And why does the NT indicate that some of Jesus’ own followers doubted the resurrection?  Those are the two questions I deal with in this week’s readers’ mailbag.

QUESTION:

I assume that Bart Ehrman today when he reads the books of the New Testament sees large discrepancies between them.  My question is about the precocious sixteen-year-old Ehrman, Did he too see this variety (which opens up the possibility of inconsistency)? Or did it all as he read it cohere, seem of a piece, convey one doctrinally comprehensive and orthodox and uniform message? And if it did, how does today’s Ehrman think young Ehrman managed to overlook all those obvious discrepancies?

 

RESPONSE:

Ah, right, my former life!   When I was young and Christian – say, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two – I was already passionate about the Bible, but was absolutely convinced that it was, in every way, the Word of God.  I never doubted it.  And I never saw any reason to doubt it.  What it said was true and inspired.  If there were problems – for example, potential discrepancies or contradictions with the findings of science – they were problems with me and my inability to understand, not with the Bible itself.

When I went to Moody Bible Institute, we learned that there were non-believers and liberal Christians who found problems with the Bible.  But they were motivated by wicked impulses, or, more likely, were simply willful or ignorant.  We could reconcile most everything in the Bible, and to do so was not imposing an interpretation on the Bible that smoothed over all the differences; it was letting the Bible speak for itself and accepting that what the Bible said about itself was true, that it was the inspired Word of God.   If that’s what it truly was, then mere humans could not tear it apart.  Anyone who tried to do so simply couldn’t see the truth that the Bible itself conveyed.  It was one God-given, inspired, harmonious whole, and human interpreters could only try to understand its depth and intricacies.  They couldn’t show that it was flawed.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that this was a view I was *imposing* on the Bible, not one that was emerging *from* the Bible.  The way I later came to look at it was this:  there are two ways you can approach the Bible (or any other book).  On one hand, you could say that it is an inerrant book with no mistakes and no problems of any kind.  If that’s what you say before you even read it, and you are committed to that view, then you simply won’t find any mistakes or problems.  There can’t be any, because you have decided there aren’t.

On the other hand, you could hold the question in abeyance and be open to the view that the Bible has mistakes, while open as well to the view that it has no mistakes.  In that case, you read it and simply see if it *does* have any mistakes.   If it does, then you conclude it is not inerrant; if it is not, then you conclude it is inerrant.

That is the approach we take with every other book, or authority of any kind.  Should we approach the Bible differently?  If so, why?  Because someone else tells us to do so?  Because religious leaders say we should?  Because… why?   My view now is that whatever else we say about the Bible, it is a human book.  Humans wrote it.  And copied it.  And translated it.  And published it.  And read it.  If it is a human book, we should treat it the way we treat human books.  That does not compromise its greatness, at all, for me.  But it does mean that I am not imposing on the Bible a theological standard of my own that is going to make me twist and misconstrue parts of it so as to satisfy the requirements of my own standard.

 

 

QUESTION:

If the gospel writers believed in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, why did they portray so many as not recognizing him?

 

RESPONSE:

Ah, this is a great question that does not get asked frequently enough.  I deal with it in my book How Jesus Became God.  Here is what I say about it there.

 

*************************************************************

In considering the significance of the visions of Jesus, a key question immediately comes to the fore that in my judgment has not been given its full due by most scholars investigating the issue.   Why do we have such a strong and pervasive tradition that some of the disciples doubted the resurrection, even though Jesus appeared to them?  If Jesus came to them, alive, after his death, and held conversations with them  – what was there to doubt?

The reason this question is so pressing is because, as we will see later in this chapter, modern research on visions has shown that visions are almost always believed by the people who experience them.   When people have a vision – of a lost loved one, for example – -they really and deeply believe the person has been there.   So why were the visions of Jesus not always believed?  Or rather, why were they so consistently doubted?

Jesus, of course, does not appear to anyone in Mark’s Gospel.  But he does in Matthew, Luke, John, and the book of Acts.   Most readers have never noticed this, but in every one of these accounts we find indications –or rather direct statements — that the disciples doubted that Jesus was raised.

In Matthew 28:7 we are told that Jesus appeared to the eleven, but “some doubted.”   Why would they doubt if Jesus was right there, in front of them?   We have already seen that in Luke 24, when the women report that Jesus has been raised the disciples consider it an “idle tale” and do not believe it (Luke 24:10-11).   Then, even when Jesus appears to them, he has to “prove” that he is not a spirit by having them handle him.  Even that is not enough: he needs to eat a piece of broiled fish in order finally to convince them (Luke 24:37-42).   So too in John’ s Gospel, at first Peter and the Beloved Disciple do not believe Mary Magdalene that the tomb is empty; they have to see for themselves (John 20:1-10).  But what is more germane, the text clearly implies that even when the disciples see Jesus they don’t believe it is he: that is why he has to show them his hands and feet, to convince them (John 20:20).  So too with doubting Thomas – he sees Jesus but his doubts are overcome only when he is told to inspect the wounds physically (John 20:24-29).

And then comes one of the most puzzling verses in all of the New Testament.  In Acts 1:3 we are told that after his resurrection Jesus spent forty days with the disciples – forty days! – showing them that he was alive by “many proofs.”   Many proofs?   How many proofs were needed exactly?   And it took forty days to convince them?

Closely related to these doubt traditions are the scenes in the Gospels where Jesus appears to his disciples after the resurrection and they don’t recognize who he is.   This is the leitmotif of the famous story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-27.  These two do not realize they are talking to the person they have just been talking about, and they do not recognize Jesus until he literally breaks bread with them.   Similarly in John 20:14-16, Mary Magdalene is the first to see Jesus raised, but does not immediately recognize him.  She thinks she is talking with the gardener.  So too in John 21:4-8, the disciples are fishing after the resurrection and Jesus appears to them on the shore and speaks with them, but they don’t realize at first who it is until the Beloved Disciple does.

What is one to make of these stories?  Some readers have suggested that if the disciples had merely had “visions,” it would make sense that there was considerable doubt about what they had seen.   That is an interesting point, but as I have already pointed out, and as we will see more fully later, people who have visions tend not to doubt what they have seen.  The most impressive thing about people who report visionary experiences in numerous different contexts is that they consistently insist, sometimes with some vehemence, that the visions were real, not made up in their heads.  This applies across the board, to people who have seen loved ones after they have died (and sometimes talk to them, and hold them) to people who see great religious figures such as the Blessed Virgin Mary (whose sightings are reported and documented to an astonishing extent) to people who claim that they have been abducted by UFO’s.  People who have visions really seem to believe it.  But a number of the disciples are reported not to believe it, until they were given “proof.”

My tentative suggestion is that there were three or four people – though possibly more – who had visions of Jesus sometime after he died.  One of these was almost certainly Peter, since reports about him seeing Jesus are found everywhere in our sources, including our earliest record of Paul in 1 Cor. 15:5.  And it needs to be remembered that Paul actually knew Peter.   Paul too explicitly states that he had a vision of Jesus, and I think we can take him at his word that he believes Jesus appeared to him.  It is also significant that Mary Magdalene enjoys such prominence in all the Gospel resurrection narratives, even though she is virtually absent everywhere else in the Gospels.  She is mentioned in only one passage in the entire New Testament in connection with Jesus during his public ministry (Luke 8:1-3).  And yet she is always the first to announce that Jesus has been raised.  Why is that?  One plausible explanation is that she too had a vision of Jesus after he died.

These three people – Peter, Paul, and Mary, as it turns out – must have told others about their visions.  Possibly others had them as well – for example, James, Jesus’ brother — but I think it is difficult to say.  Most of their close associates believed them and came to think then that Jesus was raised from the dead.  But possibly some of the original disciples did not believe it.  That would explain why there is such a strong “doubt” tradition in the Gospels, and why there is such an emphasis (in Luke, John, and especially Acts) on the fact that Jesus had to “prove” that he was raised, even when he was allegedly standing in front of the disciples.  If historically only a few persons had the visions, and not everyone believed them, that would explain just about everything.   Mary didn’t doubt what she had seen; either did Peter or Paul.  But others did.  Still, as the stories of Jesus’ “appearances” were told and retold, of course, they were embellished, magnified, and even made up, so that soon, probably within a few years, it was said that all of the disciples had seen Jesus, along with other persons.

 

 

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How I Learned To Write for a General Audience
The Process of Publishing a Book

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Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  October 2, 2016

    “Should we approach the Bible differently? If so, why? Because someone else tells us to do so? Because religious leaders say we should? Because… why? My view now is that whatever else we say about the Bible, it is a human book. Humans wrote it. And copied it. And translated it. And published it. And read it.”

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve perused and sampled many, many sacred texts — the Bible, the Qur’an, the Talmud, the Hadith, the Avesta, the Confucian Canon (i.e. the Four Books and Five Classics), the Buddist Pali Canon, the Hindu Canon (Mahabharata, Upanishads, Purana, Vedas), etc. — and the one consistant feature of ALL of them, is that if you approach them all as a disinterested reader, if you set aside any preconceived notions when trying to apprehend and consider what they are saying, they ALL require the reader to bring something into the reading that, were it not brought in, would make the texts practically inscrutable. That is to say, the amount of intrepretion necessary to squeeze any nutritional value out of these texts makes them, by and large, interchangeable.

    There’s nothing in one text that makes it anymore of a valuable repository of wisdom and truth than any of the others. And this has mainly to do with the universals of human existence, which all these works have attempted to capture and explain. While the surface content of all these works seems wildly different — contradictory, even — there are universal symbols within them all that do tap into a common human condition. Of the many universals within these texts, the most prominent and operational are these: 1) the nature of the human social hierarchy (and how that hierarchy is a reflection of “heaven’s” divine hierarchy); 2) the relationship between the relatively powerful to the relatively powerless, namely, how the powerless offer sacrifice in exchange for the grace and favor of the powerful (what I term charis), and vice versa; and 3) that wisdom comes from the proper understanding and functioning of this relationship. Pretty much all of these texts are dealing with these fundamental concepts. And if one were to simply approach the Bible with this in mind, one would be able to see past the contradictory details into this common core of all sacred texts.

    • Jeff
      Jeff  October 5, 2016

      talmoore, YOU need to write a book, my man!

    • Avatar
      p.beccia@gmail.com  November 19, 2017

      I am an evangelical Christian who is doing a RETHINK on what I was taught as a Christ-one. I have changed my mind in many areas especially when it comes to the Bible. Many Christians will say the Originals are inerrant and what we have is reliably close to those originals to where we can say with confidence “The Bible is the inerrant word of God.”

      My question to these Christian friends is “Which translation is the inerrant word of God.” Is it the NIV, the NASB, the KJV etc? All the different translations in my mind can’t all be the Inerrant Word of God since they are all so different. Yet they all claim they are reading the word of God.

      Does this sound like a decent argument about the inerrancy of Scripture to anyone on this blog?

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  November 19, 2017

        I’m glad you posed this question to “anyone out there.” Otherwise my response would be more properly placed in the Forum. It is curious to me how often I’ve heard a conservative Christian point out the difference between the Wisdom of God and how puny wisdom of man is in comparison. It is curious because they are referring to the wisdom in the Bible, what they believe is the Word of God, and it is not the Bible but humans who claim that the Bible is the Word of God, that it should be read or understood literally, and that it is without inconsistency or contradiction.
        Even if we did have the original scrolls of the Tanakh or if a translation could be done which captures all that has so far escaped other translations, that would not mean we would know it is the inerrant Word of God because we simply don’t know that it is. On the contrary, we know that it does contain errors and contradictions–viz. we know it is not inerrant. It makes no sense to say, “what we have is reliably close to those originals to where we can say with confidence “The Bible is the inerrant word of God.” ” because “original” does not imply “God-breathed.” And, speaking of Timothy 3:16, to cite it as proof that the scriptures are the Word of God is circular: one must already believe it to be part of the Word of God if one is going to take the claim (3:16) as so authoritative.

  2. Avatar
    doug  October 2, 2016

    When I was 16, I came to believe the insistent conservative claim that the Bible was inerrant. So I began with my conclusion. Then I sought support for it and ignored evidence against it. When God called for a slaughter in the Bible, I suppressed my horror by thinking, “God must have had a good reason for that”. And then I just glossed over it. It was intellectual dishonesty on my part. At the time I was probably capable of no better.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 2, 2016

    But that still doesn’t explain *why the Gospel authors chose to mention* there having been so much doubt. Since they themselves presumably believed Jesus had been resurrected, one would expect them to try to *suppress* the fact that many people hadn’t been easily convinced.

    • Avatar
      tompaine  October 6, 2016

      But early on there needed to be an explanation for why some of the apostles perhaps said that they did not believe in Jesus’s physical resurrection. Well, they saw Jesus, too, but just didn’t recognize him, or the stubbornly refused to believe their own eyes. So the story went, anyway.

      Later, of course, the story became so embellished as to make their disbelief seem incredible, and stories were created that showed that these disciples, such as Thomas, had in the end been convinced.

      This seems like the most plausible explanation to me.

  4. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 2, 2016

    Great post (as usual)

    1. Most people, that are raised in Christian households, are taught that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God long before they even read the book and emotionally that bias is difficult for many to overcome. Christian Apologists are dedicated to keep people from “seeing the man behind the curtain” to quote the Wizard of Oz. Also, in my experience, that divinely inspired seems to be synonymous with divinely dictated as if God told people what words to write. My question is: where Paul’s writing and the various Gospels always seen as divinely inspired or did that concept evolve over time?

    2. I have heard some Fundamentalist friends rationalize things such as the doubting disciples must mean that the story is true because the writers would not portray people in a negative light if it were not true. In other words, if the writers of the new Testament really wanted to portray the people they wrote about as being false or untrue they would not include anything negative about them. In this case if the writers of the New Testament were to have lied or made up the stories of how the disciples responded to the resurrection of Jesus they would have written that all the disciples believed and did not doubt. But since we do read that the disciples did doubt the resurrection it would paint them as being non-believers and without faith, thus portraying them negatively. The belief is you don’t paint your heroes negatively in a story and if you do, they conclude that there must be truth to it. I think that is nonsense. What are your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      1. THe view evolved over time. 2. It’s not true that poeple do not make up stories that portray others or themselves in a negative light. Anyone who thinks so hasn’t read enough stories!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  October 5, 2016

        Do you think it’s possible that these doubts are alleged to establish that the apostles were serious people, not easily tricked or fooled and they came to believe in the resurrected Jesus after a time of research and reflection. They were not to be fooled by some febrile phantom. The fact that they took time to study and interact with the risen Christ establishes with greater certainty that they are actually dealing with the ;true Christ, risen.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 5, 2016

          I don’t think we should think of them as investigative reporters. They were lowerclass illiterate day-workers, most of them.

  5. VaulDogWarrior
    VaulDogWarrior  October 2, 2016

    You explained very well the mindset of a believing conservative Evangelical. Did I get it right from your last post that you are 60 years old? I just checked Wikipedia and sure enough, you will be 61 in 3 days. May I be the first then to say happy birthday and you are truly looking great for your age. Here’s to another 40 years of fruitful work.

  6. Avatar
    Hormiga  October 2, 2016

    > what the Bible said about itself was true, that it was the inspired Word of God

    I believe that it was Jacques Berlinerblau, writing of the Hebrew Bible/OT, who made the point that it *doesn’t* claim to be the inspired Word of Yahweh — it’s just there. The NT has, famously, 2 Timothy 3:16, but you’ve pointed out, as I understand it, that 2 Timothy appears to have been written in the name of Paul somewhat tendentiously by someone who had a point to reinforce.

    So, a question: what would you nominate as the biblical passages that most clearly claim the Bible to be the inspired WoG?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      2 Tim. 3:16 is absolutely the most direct claim. But my view is that the Bible does not make claims about itself. Different authors may make claims about other books, but that’s not hte same thing. (See also: John 10:35, e.g.)

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 5, 2016

      According to my studies, the Christian Bible (both testaments) nowhere claims it is the Word of God, that it is inerrant or that it should be understood literally. About 2 Timothy: (a) no matter who wrote it, there was no New Testament at the time it was written so it could not have been referring to the NT, (b) if you take 2 Timothy strictly literally and not culturally bound, you could understand it as referring to all the world’s scriptures, and (c) to cite 2 Timothy in arguing that the Bible is truly “God-breathed” would be to engage in a circular argument: why? because one wouldn’t take 2 Timothy as authoritative unless one already believed it was part of the Word of God, so the truth of the conclusion would have to be assumed in order for the argument to get off the ground.

  7. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 2, 2016

    Dr E what happened to Jesus’ body? Mark records a tomb burial.
    Mark 15:46-47 records
    And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.
    The stone must not have been very large as Joseph rolled it, so it’s possible it was moved . Any thoughts about what happened to the body and why they would hide it just to create a myth?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      I don’t think those are the only two options! I discuss this at length in my book How Jesus Became God. Short story: I think the whole narrative about the stone and Joseph of Arimathea and so on is legendary. My sense is that Jesus’ body was probably dumped into some kind of communal grave.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  October 5, 2016

        I don’t believe the Jews typically used common graves. If you are right it must have been the Romans dealing with executed criminals or insurgent in a crass, crude and denigrating manner. On the other hand, at times the Romans crucified large numbers of Jews after some uprising. Did the Jews have any right to collect their dead and give them decent burial, or were the Jews deliberately humiliated by having their fellows dumped indiscriminately in mass graves?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 5, 2016

          Yes, the Romans would have been the ones to dispose of the body.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  October 6, 2016

          In Judaism, touching a dead body is defiling (i.e. makes you “unclean”), requiring an arguous process to regain purity (Numbers 9:11-22), and since Jesus’ death occurred during an actual Jewish holy day (the Passover festival), no Jew in Jerusalem in his right mind would have handled Jesus’ corpse. His remains were probably taken down my gentiles and disposed of in an ignominious way (e.g. tossed in a mass grave).

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  October 9, 2016

            Or, just as Jews get gentiles to do some tasks for them on the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea could have rushed to have gentiles take Jesus’ body to his tomb before sundown and meet him later to transfer Jesus’ body to Jesus’ family’s tomb.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  October 4, 2016

      Tempo1936:
      Any thoughts about what happened to the body and why they would hide it just to create a myth?

      Steefen:
      The tomb was empty after the crucifixion because Jesus survived the crucifixion.

      The crucifixion is part Julius Caesar’s funeral when an effigy of Julius Caesar was raised on a cross and it was more than the mourners could bear after already having lamented over Marc Antony gave a eulogy expressing how ironic that sacrosanct Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by friends, with one womb being lethal (Jesus was stabbed on the cross to make the crucifixion lethal because one of his friends betrayed him.

      Those same senators would go unpunished–amnesty for the senators who liberated the Roman Republic from a dictator-emperor.

      Without Caesar’s effigy with 23 stab wombs raised like a tropaion, you probably would not see the crucified Jesus with one stab womb raised like a tropaion a Catholic church service.

      The Crucifixion was also part excerpt from Josephus’ biography where three people are crucified but Josephus begs Titus that they be taken down and revived. In the New Testament, Jesus survives the cross. In the historical account of Josephus’ autobiography, one–of the three crucified tableau–survives. Hence, the tomb is empty of the dead body of Jesus.

      I see Dr. E claims the probability that Jesus was dumped in a communal grave. That, for me, is a reference to Jesus of Galilee who died with his mariner followers in a battle against Rome around the time Josephus helped one of three men survive the cross.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 5, 2016

      Someone also has argued that Joseph hastily put the body there in his own family tomb because a Jew had to be buried by sundown and that, once the sun arose, he was moved later to his own family’s tomb. But Bart’s view is probably more likely.

  8. Avatar
    fishician  October 2, 2016

    I think the doubt stories and the rather striking differences in the resurrection stories are consistent with a few closest disciples claiming visions of Jesus after his death and over time more people being converted by gradually evolving stories about the resurrected Jesus. Keep in mind people of that day had been conditioned to believe all sorts of stories about gods having children, people dying and being brought back from the underworld, miracle stories, etc. Why not believe the Jesus stories, too?

    As for the fundamentalist belief about the inerrancy of the Bible: I have found most with this belief will never see the errors because as you say, they believe the error is within themselves for not seeing it straight. But some of us come to see the importance of seeking the truth of what you believe rather than imparting truth into what you believe.

  9. talmoore
    talmoore  October 2, 2016

    As for the tradition of the doubting disciples in the Gospels, this, as it appears obvious to me, is a clear example of what marketing professionals call a “testimonial”. (The fact that the term “testimonial” is strikingly similar to the “testimony” of evangelizing Christians is not a coincidence. Evangelizing is, in essence, a form of marketing or sales-pitching.) Simply think about how products are often pitched to a customer. In order to convince the customer of the product’s efficacy and reliability, the salesman will often cite people who have used the product and who have become convinced of the product’s quality. And, by far, the best testimonials are by people who were, at first, skeptical about the product, just as the customer you’re trying to sell to may be skeptical. For instance, notice in most of those late night informercials there’s often a skeptic who quite reasonably doubts that the product can do what the salesman says it can do. The skeptic (often played by an actress) might say something like: “So wait, are you telling me that this vacuum cleaner can actually clean up wet dirt AND a pile of nails? I find that very hard to believe!” And this skepticism will, of course, mirror the skepticism of the viewer at home watching the informercial, who is also probably thinking, yeah, I find that hard to believe. And then the salesperson might answer something like: “Believe it or not, Magic Vacuum can do all this and more. Just listen to these satisfied Magic Vacuum customers!” And then the infomercial will show several “customers” saying how they “couldn’t believe that Magic Vacuum could clean up just a mess”, but now that they’ve been using Magic Vacuum for themselves, they are convinced. This use of the (fake) skeptic is such a regular trope in sales pitches that there’s a word for him or her: a shill. The shill is a phoney skeptic who is a stand-in for the target customer. When the target customer sees the skeptical shill being convinced of the product’s quality, the customer’s own skepticism may suddenly seem unreasonable or rude. (If the shill is convinced then who am I to think I know better? If the disciples themselves had to be convinced then who am I to think I know better than them?) THIS, at its fundamental core, is the purpose behind the Doubting Tradition in the Gospels. It was a vestige of the post-Crucifixion period when the very first Christians would go around trying to convince others (first Jews then Gentiles) that they have a new, wonderful product (the “good news” of Christ Jesus), and, possibly through trial-and-error, these apostles tailored their message closer and closer to that of a top-notch salesman. And seeing how effective the testimonial of a once skeptic is on the “customer”, the tradition of the skeptical disciples who came to believe became a very, very powerful part of an effective sales pitch. To my sense as a social scientist, this is precisely what happened.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  October 4, 2016

      talmoore, you da man. I for one greatly enjoy your learned comments.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 5, 2016

      Ever see the film “The American President” with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening? In his speech at the end he says, “Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it!” I think of this line when I think about why the Gospel’s sales force had to turn to the gentiles to find buyers. But I would put it this way: “The problem isn’t that they couldn’t sell Christ as the solution; the problem for them was that they couldn’t sell the problem (that we are all fallen and need to be saved).” I know I am perhaps confusing (according to a note from Bart) more modern meanings of “the need for salvation” with early first century ones which had more to do with the need to guarantee oneself citizenship in the Kingdom of God. But certainly, over the long haul, in explaining why more Jews have never converted to Christianity, I think it’s right on the mark. Although the notion of a Fall (in Genesis 2-3) might have been introduced by a Jew (2 Esdras?) and a few like him, it never became normative in Judaism. We, on the whole, simply don’t see humankind as fallen. That and we wouldn’t believe anyway that the solution would be believing something (no matter how lofty a claim) rather than some form of repentance.

    • TWood
      TWood  October 5, 2016

      Speaking of vacuums… your argument assumes the disciples lived in one… the doubting tradition is based on what is known about Second Temple Judaism… every single Jew would doubt their Messiah would end up humiliated on a Roman cross only to be resurrected soon thereafter… the Jews who believed in a resurrection (not all did) believed in a final general one on the last day… the reason the historicity of the doubting tradition is valid is because it is in agreement with the historical record… notwithstanding late night vacuum commercials, there’s no evidence the disciples would do anything other than doubt.

      • gmdave449
        gmdave449  October 8, 2016

        Well according to the gosepls they were told he would rise again. In fact the gospels even say they had to be supernaturally blinded from understanding Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection. Intriguingly, Matrhew 27:63 actually says the Jewish leaders understood Jesus’ words and thought his followers were expecting him to rise again.

        • TWood
          TWood  October 10, 2016

          That’s true, if those passages are taken to be historically accurate, then that’d mean some of the disciples might have expected his resurrection (it still wouldn’t be certain because the gospels also say they thought Jesus was speaking figuratively). As far as I know, most critical scholars don’t take the “prediction passages” as being historically accurate (Bart, please correct me if I’m wrong).

          Whatever the case, the only primary source that we have of someone who claimed to have a post-crucifixion appearance of Jesus did not expect such an appearance (obv I speak of Paul).

          • gmdave449
            gmdave449  October 13, 2016

            Those are good points. I’m not a scholar but I do think that most secular scholars don’t accept the resurrection predictions as authentic. Furthermore, my understanding is that most scholars don’t think the Jews anticipated a dying-rising messiah. This actually creates a problem, though, becuase then you have to explain why the disciples came to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

            I’ve heard Christianity described as the thinking man’s religion and there are some very compelling arguments in favor of it. Two that come to mind are 1) the evidence for the resurrection and 2) the conversion of Paul. The first might seem like a surprise to the casual skeptic. It’s often seen a weak point in Christianity because it’s a supernatural event and because the gospel accounts if it contradict on several points. But when you step back and look at the big picture, the evidence for the resurrection is surprisingly strong and one of the big obstacles for skeptics is explaining why the disicples came to believe Jesus rose from the dead.

            Here’s some musings from someone who is not a scholar, It doesn’t seem so clear that the Jews did not expect a resurrecting messiah. It is often claimed that Isaiah 53 was never understood to refer to the messiah because other parts of the Servant Songs identify the suffering servant as Israel. I think Ehrman takes this view. Yet Sanhedrin 98b of the Talmud links Isaiah 53:4 with the Messiah. The Talmud was recorded after the life of Jesus and it seems the Jews would be motivated not to advertise a belief that Isaiah 53 refers to the messiah. The Jews might not have expected the messiah to be killed or killed in a manner such as crucifixion but that doesn’t mean they didn’t expect him to rise from the dead.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 15, 2016

            I agree that it’s not so easy to explain away Jesus’ appearances to the earliest disciples (e.g. Peter, James, John, Mary, et al.)—esp since the prediction passages are probably not real historical statements. I also find Paul’s conversion fairly hard to explain. Cognitive dissonance can only explain so much.

            I don’t think the evidence supports Second Temple Judaism as having seen Is 53 like that though, which makes the original disciples’ and Paul’s belief that much harder to explain (in their minds the Messiah would be a conquering King—the idea of the Messiah being crucified was not even subconsciously in their minds).

            From a naturalistic worldview, the resurrection couldn’t have happened, so however hard it is to explain, it must be explained without any kind of real resurrection. This is the David Hume view pretty much. If one holds to the possibility of a supernatural event (something that cannot be explained in material terms only [the initial quantum state of our observable universe seems like a candidate for that]), then there is some evidence to suggest Jesus perhaps really appeared in some sense (what even Paul calls a “spiritual body”).

            It’s the fundies that give Christians a bad name (I think it’s safe to say they’re not promoting a thinking man’s religion).

            Sounds like we might have similar worldviews (maybe!). Hit me up sometime to rap more at: tank@tankwoodard.com (I don’t want to hijack Bart’s blog post).

    • gmdave449
      gmdave449  October 5, 2016

      Great comment. I’ve also often suspected that the doubting narratives are actually intended to convince skeptical readers. They invite the reader to share in the apostles’ doubt but also to share in the transition of that doubt into belief. They intended to disarm the skeptical reader by making them feel they are not alone in their misgivings and show that the author is not blind to the fact that people would be dubious of the claim that a person came back from the dead. The ultimate goal, though, is not to reinforce skepticism but to overcome it.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 6, 2016

        Exactly. Moreover, unlike Dr. Ehrman, I don’t think the order of causation was that the disciples first saw “visions” of Jesus and then came to believe he was resurrected. I think the disciples came to believe that Jesus was resurrected (because they assumed ALL the saints were going to be resurrected any day now anyway, and Jesus, being the Messiah, must, therefore, be the first to be resurrected), and only then did they purposely try to receive visions of the resurrected Jesus (e.g. by seeing him in dreams, or engaging in activities that might induce hallucinations, such as dancing [cf. whirling dervishes], meditation and ingestion of mind altering substances). The visions were literally self-fulfilling prophecies.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 15, 2016

        Since there is no Reply link in your comment above from October 13, I’ll comment here. You were writing about r the resurrection and Paul’s conversion as arguments for viewing Christianity as the thinking man’s religion. Or maybe you meant the arguments support the notion that Jews anticipated a dying and resurrected messiah. In either case you then say, “when you step back and look at the big picture, the evidence for the resurrection is surprisingly strong and one of the big obstacles for skeptics is explaining why the disicples came to believe Jesus rose from the dead.” But all you then provide is a Talmudic reference to Isaiah 53. When I “step back and look at the big picture,” I see that there is no story of the Fall in Genesis 2-3 and no good reason to believe we are even in need of salvation. I see that Judaism stressed good behavior and had methods for dealing with sin and didn’t need a messiah for resolving that issue. I see that, in general, belief in God was presumed in Judaism and being saved was not simply a matter of believing in God or believing anything in particular and that the Christian stress on having to believe something in order to be saved, would be absurd in Jewish eyes ( as it is to many in the world today). It’s as though Christianity added an eleventh commandment: “Thou shall believe in the Lord Jesus or be condemned” when only the first commandment deals with belief in any way (In God!) and all the others with behavior. When I step back and look at the big picture,Christianity does not look at all to me like the thinking man’s religion. If I’m going to think about a religion at all, I’m not going to begin with the idea that we are Fallen–a proposition that Genesis 2-3 does not even contain.

  10. Avatar
    mjt  October 2, 2016

    I’ve had numerous conversations with Christians that go something like this:

    Me: This verse sounds like it’s saying X. (A verse that contradicts another verse, for example.)

    Christian: I know it sounds like it’s saying X, but it really means Y. (And this argument is usually supported by some assumption that is not in the text.)

    So, my question is, if a bible verse says something that sounds so clearly like it’s saying X, isn’t it likely that it really means X? Is that a legitimate hermeneutic approach…just assume the plain meaning of the text?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      My sense is that a lot of texts (most?) are hard to interpret. But some apologists go out of their way to make them say something that they don’t seem to be saying!

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 5, 2016

        Evangelical Christians used to give me notes with a list of verses they wanted me to read which they confidently felt would persuade me. When I went home and read them (yes, I did) they clearly had nothing to do with what we had been arguing about….nothing. There existed an entire invisible network of connections between the Christian’s beliefs and these verses. Like George Carlin said about art these days, “Ya nail together two things that have never been nailed together and some schmuck’ll buy it.”

    • gmdave449
      gmdave449  October 5, 2016

      This is a tough one. One the one hand, reading a passage in light of another passage can make you realize it’s not saying what you had previously thought or what it seems to be saying on the surface. If the two passages are by the same author, maybe you realize it’s part of a larger doctrinal discourse that you missed. Maybe you realize a passage is an allusion to another part of scripture or builds on ideas the author likely knew about. This can also happen when you read a passage in the Bible in light of a relevant passage outside the Bible (e.g. references to the book of Enoch in some parts of the NT).

      But if your only reason for interpreting a given passage a certain way is to keep it from contradicting another passage, that is a disingenuous way to interpret the Bible. The problem is that you can’t really know someone else’s intent in interpreting a passage. You may strongly suspect that they are being disingenuous or that their only reason for giving a certain interpretation of a passage is to avoid a contradiction, but you can’t really know. What you can do is give your own good faith interpretation of the disputed passages. If the best reading of the passages produces a contradiction, then there is a contradiction. You won’t necessarily be able to convince everyone, especially those who are comfortable finding ways to force the passages to be harmonious.

  11. Avatar
    ffg  October 2, 2016

    I read your book on How Jesus became God. I must say that your comments on the resurrection visions in this post was like a light switch being turned on for me. I thought of other religious sects such Mormonism with Joseph Smith and his visions of the angle Moroni and the golden tablets which is yet to be made public. It’s amazing to think that a religious faith tradition spanning two thousand years could have started just as you described with a few people’s visions. If millions of highly intelligent modern day believers take Joseph Smith seriously, it is entirely plausible that Christianity started in exactly the way you postulate in your post

  12. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 2, 2016

    Dr E what happened to Jesus’ body? Mark records a tomb burial.
    Mark 15:46-47 records
    And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.
    The stone must not have been very large as Joseph rolled it, so it’s possible it was moved . Any thoughts about what happened to the body and why they would hide it just to create a myth?

  13. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 2, 2016

    I read your earlier posts on Whether Jesus was buried. “Suppose I’m right that Jesus’ body was left on the cross for several days – as almost always happened when Romans crucified people – and that finally they took whatever was left of him and threw him into a common grave of some kind.”

    Well that may answer the question of what happened to Jesus’ body and why the tomb was empty because he was never there.

    So mark wrote his story about the decent burial 30-40 years later based on verbal accounts based on visions. It’s more dignified to tell of a resurrection from a decent burial.

    It makes sense to understand the historical brutal roman practices of the treatment of the corpses of convicted crucified criminals rather than an account written many years later by someone who was not even there and likely didn’t know about Roman practices.

    I never considered the possibility of Jesus body left on the cross for days. .

  14. Avatar
    seahawk41  October 2, 2016

    Very interesting. The documentation of people who have visions believing that such really occurred is massive, so perhaps my comment is irrelevant. I was in a serious accident in 1992. In the hospital after two surgeries to fix things up, I was on morphine and percocet! (Woo hoo!) During that time I had multiple hallucinations; in one my bed was in a very large room and I could move the bed all over the place! All of these were very real; I was totally convinced that these imaginary worlds were where I actually was. One in particular came to my mind when I read the above: I had a vision/hallucination that I had been to the location of my accident before, with my son, and had been injured such that I had to go to a clinic and had a brace (a weird one, but that is not germane) put on my back. [My back was actually broken in the real accident.]

    Here is the point: this vision/hallucination was so real that I later asked my son about it, whether we had been there before and I had some injury!

    As I said, the evidence is overwhelming such that we really don’t need anecdotes such as mine, but I thought it might make an interesting footnote to Dr. Ehrman’s post.

    Chuck

  15. Avatar
    HawksJ  October 2, 2016

    Two great questions, indeed. I had never really thought about the second one (not recognizing the risen Jesus)., and it certainly raises even more questions.

    My favorite topic, far and away, is inerrancy. I really wish you would write a book on it; looking at where the notion came from (it didn’t come from the Bible, at least not in reference to the NT) and developed (is it merely a product of the Reformation?) and then actually cataloging the major inconsistencies and contradictions as well as discussing how Apologists try to wiggle around them (and why they are wrong!).

  16. Avatar
    mjt  October 3, 2016

    Do you have any recommended reading that talks about visions that people have…that demonstrate how sure that the people having the visions are, of their visions?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      Yes, I cite some of the key studies in my book How Jesus Became God.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 5, 2016

        Was one of your sources Martin Buber’s Ecstatic Visions: The Heart of Mysticism”? I read parts of it once.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 6, 2016

          No, I stuck pretty much with recent and classic psychological studies

  17. Avatar
    madi22  October 3, 2016

    Bart as you are a qualified historian, i’m curious wether there were other spiritualities or faiths around at, or before, the time of judeo christianity that had a “savior” rise from the dead and have whitenesses claim they had “seen” him in visions? Similar to what Peter, paul and mary had experianced? Was this story recycled or do you think it really was legitimate.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      No, none that we know of. Though there were other people thought to have ascended to heaven and made divine.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 5, 2016

        You have expressed skepticism about any connections to Greek Mystery Cults. My memory is not clear here (it was so long ago) but didn’t Hans Jonas and other writers say that at least some of the cults involved Isis (?) or Dionysus (?)–a god descending to earth, being killed, and rising and that those who ritually identified with him could attain not salvation but immortality? How was it that these views about the cults were so baseless and wrong?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 6, 2016

          Yes, that used to be a common view. (STill is in some circles) If you want to read a refutation, see J. Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine.

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  October 3, 2016

    I may have asked you this before, but what do you make of Paul’s claim (I Cor. 15, I think) that the risen Jesus was seen by more than 500 people at one time? Was that claim actually made by Paul or was it a later scribal addition? It seems to me unlikely that, if such a story were current, none of the evangelists would have included it. I suppose Luke’s account of the Ascension in Acts 1 might refer to the same mass vision, but I don’t recall that he species a number.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      It is certainly Paul’s own claim. And I wish we knew what he was talking about!

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 5, 2016

        Curious that none of these alleged 500 saw fit to write about the experience. Seems doubtful that they were illiterate to the last man.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 6, 2016

          Not that curious I should think. How many Palestinian Jews of the first century wrote anything that we still have today? Josephus and … who?

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  October 6, 2016

            Given the traditional view about who experienced the risen Christ and who wrote the Gospels, a very high percentage. But then critical NT scholars don’t think that Palestinian Jews wrote them. Is it clear that the 500 was comprised only of Palestinian Jews? No foreign visitors who wrote Greek? But you’re probably right: my argument is probably weak. I was trying to add to the point you’ve made elsewhere–that, outside the NT, the only Jew who even mentioned Jesus’ name or title in writing was Josephus and that no gentile writing did within 100 years of his death.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 8, 2016

            Just read the passage yourself. Paul doesn’t say who they were.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 10, 2016

            SBrudney091941 I believe Suetonius (“12 Caesars” c. 120 CE) and Tacitus (“Annals” c. 117 CE) both mentioned Jesus in writing within 100 years of Jesus’ death (c. 30 CE).

  19. TWood
    TWood  October 3, 2016

    How do you deal with Paul’s claim that Jesus was seen by the twelve and more recently to his time, over 500 people at once? Paul indicates some witnesses are still alive when he wrote that… so ostensibly he was telling people he could produce some of the witnesses… if we can basically trust that Paul isn’t lying (even if you believe he was mistaken)… it doesn’t seem credible to assume Paul is lying about these other appearances… isn’t it right that Paul really believes that many more (about a 100x more) than five or so people believed that they saw Jesus after his crucifixion? And as you say Paul knew Peter (who also seems to have really believed he saw Jesus)… so it seems like what Paul was saying was consistent with whatever Peter’s testimony was… doesn’t it seem then that both Peter and Paul knew many people who believed that they had seen Jesus after he died?… and if we don’t doubt the sincerity of Peter and Paul, can we doubt the sincerity of those whom they knew? My point is that there seems to be more to it than many people saying “I know one of the few guys who saw Jesus”… there seems to be hundreds of people who said what Paul said… namely “I saw him.” Where am I falling off the train here?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      Paul had almost certainly heard such rumors!

      • TWood
        TWood  October 4, 2016

        So you don’t think he personally knew some of those 500 (making it beyond rumor?) I listed the six claims from 1 Cor 15 below and then below that a few quick clarifying questions.

        Claim 1) he appeared to Cephas (Peter)
        Claim 2) he appeared to the Twelve
        Claim 3) he appeared to more than five hundred
        Claim 4) he appeared to James (Jesus’ brother)
        Claim 5) he appeared to all the apostles
        Claim 6) he appeared to me

        Question 1: Paul knew Peter and James, so it seems Claim 1 and Claim 4 have to be based on personal knowledge rather than rumor, is that right?

        Question 2: Even if Paul didn’t know the twelve and the all of the other apostles, he did know Peter and James who could have vouched for them, which means Claim 2 and Claim 5 are also based on more than a rumor, is that right?

        Question 3: When he refers to the 500, he says most are still alive… doesn’t this indicate that he (and probably Peter and James) was in contact with at least some of these “500”, making Claim 3 more than just a rumor?

        Question 4: Paul claims to have seen the resurrected Jesus himself. This is clearly an eyewitness claim that cannot be considered a rumor, you would agree with that?

        Question 5: Aside from Peter and James, did Paul know any of the other apostles who we know about? (e.g. did he know John, Matthew, etc.?)

        • Bart
          Bart  October 5, 2016

          Sorry — too many questions! There’s only one of me!! I don’t know if Paul knew any of the 500. If he did, he never says so.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 5, 2016

            Sorry… I’ll keep them shorter! Doesn’t Paul imply he at least knows the identity of some of the 500 by writing that some are still alive (it seems that he’d need to be ready to back up such a claim).

          • Bart
            Bart  October 6, 2016

            No, I don’t see that as a necessary inference. (People today frequently say “Jesus appeared to more than 500 people!” — but they obviously don’t know any of them!)

          • TWood
            TWood  October 6, 2016

            True… but people who say it today cannot say “most of whom are still living” which is a big difference due to the ability to verify the claim… it might not be a *necessary* inference but would you concede it’s a *plausible* inference?

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  October 5, 2016

          That he knew certain people does not imply that what he claimed about what they experienced is true. With his ego, it always seems possible to me that he is just throwing names around and trying to impress readers with his connections to the original Apostles.

      • Rick
        Rick  October 4, 2016

        Were there not followers of Jesus beyond the “twelve”? If so, among the twelve, as well as other followers, is it not likely that there was a “me too” effect? Particularly as the movement got rolling particularly the twelve and other close followers would be sorely tempted to demonstrate their love for Jesus by saying they had also seen him.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 5, 2016

          Interesting idea!

          • TWood
            TWood  October 5, 2016

            Is there a reason to assume Paul is wrong in 1 Cor 15 about James claiming to have seen his resurrected brother?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 6, 2016

            Not that I know of.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 6, 2016

            Ok. I’m confused on your viewpoint a little. “You said These three people – Peter, Paul, and Mary, as it turns out – must have told others about their visions. Possibly others had them as well – for example, James, Jesus’ brother — but I think it is difficult to say.”

            You said “it’s difficult to say”… that’s why I asked if there’s a reason we should doubt that James claimed to see Jesus (like the other three) and you said “Not that I know of.” So why is it difficult to say James claimed to see his dead brother as the others did?

            Similarly, Paul says he knew John (the son of Zebedee I assume) in Galatians 2:8… Paul says Jesus appeared to the twelve in 1 Cor 15 (obv John included)… why isn’t John on your list of those who likely had a vision of Jesus? I can see how Paul maybe only had second hand knowledge of the rest of the twelve and of the 500… but with James the bro of Jesus and John the son of Zeb… other than Paul lying… I don’t see a reason to doubt they claimed to have seen Jesus too… where am I going wrong?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 8, 2016

            I’m saying I’m not as sure about James, since his vision is not mentioned in any of the Gospel accounts. You’re right, I shouldn’t have said “Not that I know of.” That’s the reason.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 8, 2016

            Got it. Thanks for clarifying!

          • TWood
            TWood  October 8, 2016

            Sorry… but what about John’s claimed vision?—Paul mentions it in 1 Cor 15, Paul mentions he knew John in Gal 2:8, and John’s visions are included in the gospels.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 9, 2016

            My sense is that you know these texts very well yourself, and can interpret them in ways that answer your own questions! I’m not sure that my agreeing or disagreeing will either strengthen or weaken your case!

          • TWood
            TWood  October 9, 2016

            Understood… thank you.

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 3, 2016

    As always, great answers to great questions. Thanks.

    With regard to the first question, I found that I could read lots of devotional material about the Bible and hear lots of sermons and not see any contradictions even though I was spending lots of time studying the Bible. I just didn’t see them. As you so capably explain elsewhere, if, one reads the Gospels completely one at a time, like most of us read, one misses all of these contradictions that are so obvious when one reads differently, reading the accounts of the same event, say the empty tomb event, in each Gospel and comparing the differences in the Gospels.

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