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The Mayan Calendar, Y2K, and the Letter of Barnabas

You may have noticed that the world didn’t end two weeks ago, despite widespread anticipation. Sometimes things just don’t go as planned. It’s a strange phenomenon this expectation that the world is soon going to end; and if Christian fundamentalists and Mayan enthusiasts can’t get it right, who can?

When I was a fundamentalist back in the mid 70s, I – and all my friends – were sure that the end was going to come, with the reappearance of Jesus, before the end of the 1980s. We had sure-fire biblical proof of it. I’ll give you the logic in some other post, down the line. For now all I want to say is that we were not alone in our views. Every generation of Christians from the beginning of the Christian religion until now has known fervent believers who maintained that there’s was the final generation on earth, that the end would come in their own day. As I have frequently noted, all of these die-hard prognosticators have had two things in common: every one of them has based their views on their (certainly correct) interpretations of Scripture (especially the book of Revelation) and every single one of them has been incontrovertibly and dead wrong.

You may wonder what this has to do with my current thread on the letter of Barnabas. A good deal, as it turns out.

You will remember well that the GREATEST moment of recent apocalyptic expectation hit in the year 2000, with Y2K fever. 2000 was when the world was supposed to end. But why 2000? Why not 3000? Or 1955? There actually is a biblical reason that 2000 was supposed to be significant.

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Paul’s “Gospel” and Marcion
How to Date Documents, including Barnabas



  1. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  January 3, 2013

    Has it occurred to anyone that using numbers as a measure of time to predict a future event – any kind of event- is senseless and irrational ? Numbers are but an arbitrary way in which humans measure quantities and time is but an arbitrary way in which humans measure intervals. The “numbers” themselves are meaningless; they only derive “meaning” because humans have developed agreement (or at least consensus) that the relationship of one number to another – in the present – always is the same.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 5, 2013

      Yes, actually, that has occurred to most of us who are rational. As to the rest of us….

  2. Avatar
    markchubik  January 4, 2013

    We’ll figure it out after we figure out theodicy. lol

  3. Avatar
    maxhirez  January 4, 2013

    Funny looking back at y2k through that lens now, as though there was a Biblical prediction of Microsoft’s failure to use more than 6 placeholder dates! I bet if someone looked hard enough they could tease it out of the scriptures though (or out of the “Harry Potter” books for that matter.)

  4. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  January 4, 2013

    “When I was a fundamentalist back in the mid 70s, I – and all my friends – were sure that the end was going to come, with the reappearance of Jesus, before the end of the 1980s. We had sure-fire biblical proof of it. I’ll give you the logic in some other post, down the line.”

    The phenomena hit so hard here that I refer to this area as “burned over” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burned-over_district

    People are still dealing with the consequences.

    Most of us were young mothers with children under 5, coming out of the Viet Nam War era and the rapid cultural changes that had come with that; the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll that expressed the angst of a generation who saw our president assissinated on black and white TV, and the birth of the Beatles on black and white TV; race riots, a man on the moon and the Watergate scandal – the world was more black and white back then.

    In short, we were suffering from “Future Shock” and scared to death for future of our children.

    Most were raised Catholic or Methodist, or (like me) unchurched, and intellectually unprepared for the new theology that was making converts so rapidly. (I am so grateful now that I was raised unchurched, though at the time I felt sooo ignorant.)

    It hit like a wave, multitudes saved, multiudes slain in the spirit and filled with the holy ghost. Our car’s engine light came on on the way to church camp to see Jim and Tammy and John Wesley Fletcher. One of the girls laid hands on it and healed the car! I saw my sister-in-law call a sprinkling of rain out of a cloud during a drought, just by naming it and claiming it. (It really is one of the more uncanny things I’ve witnessed!) And we scanned the clouds daily for His appearance.

    Conversations were filled with whether were you pre-, mid, or post-tribulation rapture. I was “post” and learned many valuable survival skills through newsletters that told you what sign was going to happen next, and what to have stored away for when you would no longer be able to buy or sell. Whether it be bar codes, or credit cards, or a magnetic chip, the mark of the beast was about to be put into effect and we were living in the last days for sure.

    It all started with some of my friends seeing a movie….I’m pretty sure I’ve heard you mention this somewhere before, Bart, whether in print or in speech. That’s how it happened to us, too, and I am the only one to come out of the Babylon that has sucked souls (and critical thinking) into it like a black hole. I credit that to being unchurched as a child, but then again, I’ve always had that feeling that people were just “funnin'” me.

  5. Avatar
    proveit  January 4, 2013

    All the Christians I hear from around here say, “But we don’t know the hour and the day!” I don’t know if he is suppose to appear to everybody at once or if they will hear about it in the news. Those who believe in the rapture would be disappointed if they heard about it in the news. When I was a Fundy, I don’t remember being clear on this even though I tried.

    Very interesting history lesson!

  6. Avatar
    Jim  January 4, 2013

    Since someone in the Jan 03 comments asked a question on the gospel of John, I’m hoping that a second question on this gospel is not too far off topic. I’ve noticed in an NIV Harmony of the gospels (and also NRSV) that there are two sections in John 3 (vs 10-20 and 27-36) that have the footnote “some interpreters end the quotation after verse 15 and 30 [respectively]”. Does this imply there are no red letters for verses 16-20 and 30-36 (i.e. purely the gospel writers insert) AND is there strong evidence supporting this footnote.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 5, 2013

      What the footnote is trying to say is that it is hard to know where the speech of Jesus actually ends: does it end in v. 15 or v. 30? In other words, is the Gospel of John indicating that *Jesus* spoke vv. 16-36, or is the Gospel to be interpreted as saying that its own author (as opposed to Jesus) said these things (including the famous John 3:16!). Unfortunately, the ancient manuscripts did not include quotation marks, so that it is necessarily a matter of interpretation.

  7. Avatar
    tcc  January 4, 2013

    It’s been 2,000 years of “any day now”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 5, 2013

      And will be for another 2000 years, unless we blow ourselves off the planet, or destroy the planet itself….

  8. Avatar
    wolffml  January 5, 2013

    I’ve wondered before: “How long should believers wait, before rejecting Christianity?” Surely, any rational person can come up with a future date after which continued belief in the basic tenets of Christianity should be rejected.

    Should it be 100 years? No, surely there will still be believers. How about 1,000 year from now? 10,000? How about in 100,000,000,000? If Christ has not returned by then, we can all agree that the belief should be rejected.

    This causes me to wonder whether or not the early Christians including Peter and Paul would have rejected their own Christian beliefs had they known that Christ would not return in the proceeding 2000 years.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2013

      I doubt it. They probably would have reinterpreted their views, as Christians after them did…..

      • Avatar
        Mikail78  January 6, 2013

        Bart, you said, “I doubt it. They probably would have reinterpreted their views, as Christians after them did…..”

        To this I would add that even today Christians are reinterpreting their views.

        It can be amusing to confront evangelical/fundamentalist Christian believers with verses from the New Testament that CLEARLY indicate that the second coming of Jesus/end of the world was supposed to have happened in the first century. The desperate excuses and explanations these people will come up with! Everything from “This generation really doesn’t mean this generation. It means that generation in the future that will see Jesus come back.” or “Generation really doesn’t mean generation. Generation in this context means race.” These are only two of these desperate attempts to rescue the new testament from its failed apocalyptic prophecies. There are many more.

        Bart, in your debate with Michael Brown, I seem to remember you confronting him with the reality that the time limit for the second coming of Jesus has clearly expired. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember him responding to your claim. Did he even attempt to respond? Do you remember?

      • Avatar
        tcc  January 6, 2013

        Man, I wonder how you took your faith seriously after learning that the early Christians were the ancient version of a UFO cult. I know you said you just became a more liberal Christian after studying the history of these beliefs, but how did you jibe that with acknowledging that Paul and Jesus were the Harold Campings of their day?

        The overtly failed apocalyptic prophecies in the NT were a big part of losing my faith. CS Lewis must have skipped all the parts where Jesus makes lots of demonstrably false proclamations when he made up that “Lunatic, Liar or Lord” argument, because all those passages make the character of Jesus a lot closer to Lunatic than anything else.

    • Avatar
      Jim  January 6, 2013

      I guess one practical limit is that the sun will burn out someday. 🙂

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