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The Protestant Obsession with Origins

It was especially in the nineteenth century that scholars of religion, theology, and biblical studies became deeply obsessed with the question of “origins.”   In many ways, the roots for this interest – in these fields in particular – lay in the Protestant Reformation, and it is no accident that the major research on the question was done in predominantly Protestant countries (especially Germany; somewhat in England and, even less, in America) and by Protestant professors in these fields, scholars who had themselves received theological training before themselves giving instruction in universities.

Roughly speaking, it was possible to think about “origins” in two very different ways, one we might label “Catholic” and the other “Protestant.”   In the Catholic way of thinking, the “origins” of something was the starting point, from which important developments began to transpire, as religion, theology, and even “the truth” evolved into higher forms over the centuries.

This evolutionary model, of course, owed a good deal to other intellectual currents of the day, for example in the understanding of languages: they become more sophisticated and gratifyingly nuanced over the centuries, leading to the brilliance of, say, modern German and English.  And the history of culture:  who can deny that life is much better in the 19th century than in the 9th, or in the 9th BCE?, or the 29th BCE?  And, of course, the sciences — not just biological evolution, where humans have evolved, frankly, to be superior beings to amoebas, but the evolution of science itself, as we know far more about cosmology (the world was not created in six calendar days!), astronomy (there is actually a universe out there, and it is all not circulating around *us*!), chemistry, anatomy, and on and on.  And, relatedly, technology: railways, steam engines, the telegraph, etc. etc.

From this point of view, the origins of something are important because …

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My Doubts about the Son of God: A Blast from the Past
Who Cares How It All Started?



  1. Lev
    Lev  March 13, 2019

    “The idea that a human could be divine: pagan; the idea that a God could become human for a time: pagan; the idea that a human could ascend to heaven after death: pagan”

    Ah – but you argue in How Jesus became God* that these ideas also existed in Judaism; King David divinised, The Angel of the Lord appearing in human form, the assumption of Moses, etc.

    *Cracking good book, by the way! I’m just over half way through and I’m absolutely loving it!!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2019

      Yup! Jews had the idea too. But ancient Israel, of course, emerged out of non-Israel!

      • Lev
        Lev  March 16, 2019

        Do you have a sense how much ancient Egyptian religious practices and thought were borrowed and adapted by the early Israelites?

        I’ve read some analysis that they were particularly influenced by Akhenaten’s henotheism.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 17, 2019

          I think it was very little indeed. They seem to have very different beliefs (not to mention gods), practices, emphases, and assumptions.

          • Lev
            Lev  March 17, 2019

            You suggest that the early Jewish ideas over human divinization, God taking human form and humans entering heaven after death were borrowed and adapted from existing cultures, but seem to be ruling out Egypt as a source. Have you been able to detect where ancient Israelite religious practices were borrowed from?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 18, 2019

            The most ancient ones were borrowed from their own environment, principally Canaan, but also other Ancient Near Eastern cultures.

          • Avatar
            mkahn1977  March 22, 2019

            Dr. Bart- where do you stand, if anywhere, on Akhenaten being the basis for Moses?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 24, 2019

            I think historians are too easily inclined to think that if you know the names of two particular people in the ancient world who have similiar views, one of them must have gotten it from the other. There were lots of people in antiquity with similar views of things, and we don’t even know then names of 99.99% of them!

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    AstaKask  March 13, 2019

    You say in God’s Problem that the apocalyptic view was a result of things going badly for Israel even when they tried to live according to God’s law – the prophetic view that suffering was divine punishment was no longer tenable and something new was needed. To what extent do you think they were influenced by Zoroastrianism, which as far as I know was the first religion to talk about eschatology?
    Also, if the Protestants were so obsessed with origins, how come they didn’t pick up the didache? Didn’t they realize how early it was?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2019

      I long entertained the possibility, but in doing my research for my current book on the Afterlife, I came to think it’s probably not true. As to the Didache, they were focused almost exclusively on Scripture.

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    flshrP  March 13, 2019

    Really good stuff. Succinct and to the point. Should fit nicely into your new book.

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    Seeker1952  March 13, 2019

    The Catholic Church: never wrong but often slow to be right. (I think I came up with that myself.)

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    fishician  March 13, 2019

    Of course, there are those who would say that all those pagan concepts were themselves corruptions of the ideas that God had originally given early man! I used to belong to a Restoration Movement church, based on the idea of “restoring” the original doctrines of the early church as expressed in the New Testament. I find it curious that while they rejected traditions about baptism, church hierarchy, etc., they retained the traditional concept of hell, even though I don’t see it in a careful reading of the NT. People just love that idea of hell for some reason.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 17, 2019

      Since life isn’t fair, people would like to believe what comes AFTER life is.

      Just not for them, personally.


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    rar4433  March 13, 2019

    Excellent perspective on a topic omitted by most Biblical scholars.


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    rburos  March 13, 2019

    Posts like this show that your gift is not simply having more data than the average person. You also have a way of thinking about that data that sets you above us too, and that is the real value of this blog. Are you “inspired”, or are you “inspiring”? Clearly both.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2019

      Ha! Neither. But I have enjoyed thinking about the “big picture” a bit….

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    Apocryphile  March 13, 2019

    Maybe you plan to explain this further in a future post(?) I guess I’m a little confused about your apparent confusion over the reason for scholars’ focus on trying to understand the origins of Christian concepts of the afterlife. Unless we can take a round-trip journey to the afterlife ourselves, what else is there for scholars of early Christianity to study about it except for its origins in earlier beliefs and practices? Unless you know where you came from, you can’t know where you’re going.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2019

      Yes, that’s the common sense today. My point is that five hundred years ago, and before that, NO ONE (or almost no one) thought of it like this. So what has happened to human thought to make this so important, and the common sense?

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    dennislk1  March 13, 2019

    Replace futuristic view with science-fiction view, although the words science-fiction do carry a lot of baggage as to what one interprets them to mean. When the Bible talks about a new earth I ask the question how can a prophet know about other planets when they don’t understand that stars are suns or what a solar system is? And therefore I conclude that the one providing the prophecy does understand these things. And since I believe there are no gods, the one providing the prophecy must be some other knowledgeable person or being.

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    sotteson  March 13, 2019

    This reminds me of the Restorationist or Christian primitivist movement, where people were trying to get back to the original church that Jesus set up (even though it doesn’t look like Jesus ever set up a church).


    I used to be a member of one of those churches, and there was always a lot of talk about how our church had been restored into what Jesus originally intended.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2019

      Yup, it’s Luther on steroids.

    • Avatar
      fishician  March 16, 2019

      I also come from a Restoration background. However, looking back, I think they were restoring second generation concepts, as embodied in the pseudepigraphic Pastoral epistles, and to a lesser degree Paul’s authentic writings. Jesus’ actual teachings about living by the spirit of the Law to be part of God’s kingdom was neglected, ironically (they didn’t restore that!).

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    darren  March 13, 2019

    I must admit, despite all the reading and listening I’ve been doing on Christianity in recent years, I’ve never heard of the heresy Pelagianism — or why the Pope is speaking about it, along with Gnosticism, in modern times. Have you ever discussed Pelagianism on the blog?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2019

      No, I haven’t; it became a major issue up in the early fifth century, just after the period I focus on in the blog (where fourth century is pushing the limits a bit). But it was a huge deal, and affected Christian theology for all time….

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    Jacurr  March 14, 2019

    No wonder Quelle is desperately sought!! This helps me understand why Catholic biblicalcommentary has a different slant to most others. Origins versus evolution. Catholics see Scripture and tradition as a sort of dialectic, one feeding off the other, where neither has preeminence over the other. However there’s a catch there…the Church codified the canon, sort of making Scripture into Tradition as well. That can be a sticking point in Catholic-protestant dialogue on the subject.

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    godspell  March 14, 2019

    Really fascinating, Bart. Interesting how the Catholic view is evolutionary–maybe that’s why the Vatican formally accepted Natural Selection as not being in conflict with religion in 1950, and a large number of Protestants are still trying to teach creationism in schools? 😉

    There is value, of course, in knowing the original views of the people who founded Christianity (to the extent this is possible). I was familiar, from Elaine Pagels’ writings, how people falsely assumed that the further back they went, the more unity of belief there would be–and the opposite turned out to be true.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 14, 2019

      Question–if the Catholic interest in origins is evolutionary, and the Protestant approach is (in a sense) fundamentalist, then what about atheists? Or more specifically, the ones who believe Jesus is pure myth?

      Their position, in many (not all) cases is that the Jesus ‘myth’ is derived from earlier pagan stories. That is to say, that the origin of Christianity can be found in Egyptian mythology, the Mithras cult, stories about Krishna, etc.

      Obviously they don’t see it the way the Catholics do–that Christianity was an improvement on these supposed models.

      I suppose you could argue they prefer pagans to Christians, so they think the pagan stories are better, or at least less annoying (since nobody is still worshiping those gods, except Krishna, obviously)

      I think the point is to say “Nothing Christians said or did was original, therefore nothing they said or did was valid.” But nothing ANYBODY said or did (that we have a record of) is 100% original. Nothing anybody says or does in science and math is 100% original. Everything in human culture is built on the foundations laid by previous untold generations. Everything is derivative. Christianity certainly is to some extent. But not in the sense they want to believe.

      Everybody is fascinated with origins. What was the fight between Christians and Darwinists over, except the origin of life on earth? Still a fight in some quarters, mainly involving Protestants–because they believe origins are important, and that knowing how things began is a source of authority, that science is trying to take away from them.

      It’s a really interesting line of discussion. Apologies for muddling it. 😉

      • Bart
        Bart  March 16, 2019

        My labels “Catholic” and “Protestant” are meant for the scholarship in religious studies, but they can be metaphors as well for views that see development as progress or, instead, as degeneration. Some atheists think we are making the world much better and some think we are destroying it. And some think a bit of both!

        • Avatar
          godspell  March 16, 2019

          The differences within each group are, in many ways, more profound than the differences between each group. Because you get most of the same personality types in each, and each personality type will find what he or she needs in whatever system he or she is presented with.

          The only difference that matters is sheep or goat. The rest is commentary. 😉

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    Scorpiored48  March 15, 2019

    If Christian theology evolved with Catholicism to include beliefs such as the Trinity, and Luther and others want to go back to what Christians originally believed, why is there such a strong adherence to that belief still today amongst Christian apologists?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2019

      Because they think the doctrine is taught in the Bible (not because later church fathers said so).

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    AlbertHodges  March 15, 2019

    Well said and finely explained!

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    Tmatthewedwards  March 15, 2019

    Prof Ehrman, thanks for another interesting exposition. I’m reminded of similar arguments that are popular in the conservative legal/jurist communities about constitutional issues being decided on an “originalist” platform. It’s been a very active discussion in the wake of Justice Scalia’s passing; he would probably roll over in his grave at this but he played the role of a modern Fr Martin Luther to the liberal, dominant legal community… largely working to remake legal thought into an originalist, uncorrupted, icon-cleared framework. “What did the Constitutional framers mean/intend?” was a popular refrain of Justice Scalia’s; going back to original documents, original debates, original principles and leaving behind precedents of other courts, denying the liberal proposition that the Constitution is a living, evolving system of beliefs and values. The problem with all this is that even Justice Scalia applied his originalist preferences sometimes in a highly political, momentarily convenient fashion –arguing against the majority when it advanced his argument(s), ignoring originalism when it did not. Fr. Luther and his Reformation peers also picked and chose what to keep and what to discard based on their interpretation of what was original –and many fundamentalists today will argue against any pagan sourcing of their divine practices. I thoroughly enjoy your posts; thank you.

  17. Avatar
    EvidencePlusLogicBasedThinker  March 16, 2019

    Speaking of origins, Mr Ehrman, as someone who joined your blog yesterday, I’d love to see you comment on the theological position that a 4 year old child suffering great pain from cancer, which then ends her life before age 5, results from God’s form of “justice”, which caused God to originally afflict humans with diseases, in the 1st place, as HIS divine punishment to all of mankind, for Adam & Eve’s original sin of following the suggestion of a talking snake, thousands of years ago. I’m guessing that about any scientist whose life is devoted to studying diseases, would laugh at that fundamentalist belief, while quickly pointing out that animals, such as my 2 dogs, also suffer from diseases such as cancer and diabetes, while sin isn’t something that those creatures have any awareness of, nor any ability to choose, as they live by sheer instinct, unless carefully trained to automatically go along with their master’s wishes. I’ve thought for a long time that if a God had really wanted humans to be aware that sickness and disease are HIS divine punishment for sin, then there could be no better way for people to witness the truth of that doctrine, than for them to see the dogs and cats, that they love, being totally free of illness & disease, while living much longer lives than their owners, and still acting like spry young pups, or kittens, after having already lived here for over 90 years. And Mr Ehrman, my last comment wasn’t intended to be a silly one, but is offered as a serious and respectful statement. I’d read, or heard you say, in one of your You Tube talks, that it was the idea of a supposedly good God allowing the weak and helpless to go through needless suffering, which was the main cause for your abandoning the belief that the bible is the word, or product, of a good God, or actually had an
    intelligence behind it, which was at all superior to the thinking of today’s most civilized and compassionate humans. I hope that in coming days, or weeks, you may find some minutes for a response to a highly interested, new member of your endeavor. BTW, I’d thought your title is Dr., but Wikipedia doesn’t state that so my use of Mr, if wrong, denotes no disrespect. Now I can start reading my hardcover copy of Jesus, Interrupted.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2019

      You can call me Bart, no problem. This is a very deep, difficult, and disturbing question, that I’ve wrestled with for decades. If you want my views on it all, it is the subject of my book God’s Problem.

    • Avatar
      Rthompsonmdog  March 17, 2019

      Welcome to the blog. I second Dr. Ehrman’s recommendation for God’s Problem for addressing your question. Here is a YouTube video of one a talk on How the Bible Explains Suffering, but the book offers more detail.


  18. Avatar
    ftbond  March 28, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    re: “Christianity also had a lot in common with other, older, pagan religions…. The idea that a human could be divine: pagan; the idea that a God could become human for a time: pagan; the idea that a human could ascend to heaven after death: pagan; the idea that humans could be mystically united with a divine being to obtain divinity and eternal life: pagan; the idea of sacred initiation rites: pagan; the idea of communal meals in which the worshipper could participate with the divine: pagan.”

    There were probably hundreds of stories and books written about space travel in the 150 years (or more?) before 1969, when Armstrong first set foot on the moon. But when the “real thing” (the 1969 moon landing) happened, that “real thing” was not brought into question simply because “space fantasies” had been written before, unless perhaps by someone who was something of a “conspiracy theorist”.

    It is certainly true that there were pagan stories about all kinds of “mystical” stuff. “gods” died and came back to life all the time. I’m sure every culture has it’s ghost tales, and tales of the supernatural.

    But, saying that the existence of the “old tales”, by any necessity, has anything to do with whether Jesus was, in fact, resurrected seems to be making the same kind of leap that we’d be making if we said the existence of older “space fantasies” should be grounds for calling into question the reality of the 1969 moon landing.

    Clearly, if one has already determined that Jesus’ resurrection simply did not happen, then it’s fun to connect all the dots with old mythologies.

    But, if one has concluded that Jesus’ resurrection did, in fact, happen as an historical event, then, do you think it’s relevant whether mythological beings such as Osiris or Ganesha died and came back to life on occasion? Or, *should* it be relevant?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2019

      I have a long discussion about this in my book how Jesus became God, where I argue there are certainly connections with Greek and Roman (and other, I suppose) views of divinities and divine men being taken up to heaven after death, but also the Christian view is very different in key ways (the corpse itself returns to life here on earth). Still, yes, I think these views are highly relevant for understanding the Christian version, which comes in its own Jewish package.

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