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The Resurrection as a Key to Early Understandings of Jesus

A key part of my book on “How Jesus Became God” will involve a discussion of Jesus’ resurrection. One can make the case, rather easily, that apart from the Christian belief that God raised Jesus from the dead not only would no one ever have thought of him as God (since, as I will be arguing, no one thought of him as God while he was living – he himself almost certainly did not!) but that Christianity itself would not exist apart from the belief in the resurrection.

One can’t argue that Christianity started with the life and teachings of Jesus, per se, since what he taught (I’m speaking about the historical man Jesus, not the Jesus who is portrayed in the Gospels – especially the Gospel of John) is not what Christians teach. That sounds weird, but it’s true.

In a nut shell, Jesus taught that the end of the age was imminent, that God was soon to send from heaven the son of man in judgment to destroy the forces of evil and all who sided with them, but to save those who were obedient to God and who did his will; these would be given the kingdom of God, a utopian place where there would be no more sin, pain, misery, or suffering. The way to enter that kingdom was to keep the Torah of God as interpreted by Jesus, and as summed up in the Torah’s two greatest laws: love God with all your being (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Those who did so (better than the scribes and Pharisees) would enter into the kingdom. And who would these be? The outcasts and sinners rejected by the religious leadership (not the religious people).

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Gerd Lüdemann on the Resurrection of Jesus
The Next Project: How Jesus Became God



  1. Avatar
    ZachET  October 3, 2012

    Do you still have the P52 tie that James White gave you?

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    Jim  October 3, 2012

    Your planned book will be extremely pertinent to the primary rationale behind Christianity. Two considerations for me regarding the divinity of Jesus are miracles and the resurrection. Paul probably reflects the earliest Christian thoughts on the latter and he felt that if Jesus’s resurrection didn’t really happen, then believers were totally wasting their time.

    I also read somewhere that certain miracles were latent implications that the gospel authors felt Jesus = divinity. For example healing the leper in Mark 1.40-45 – first century Jews thought that leprosy was a curse from God thus only God could cure it. There may have been a Hebraic angle to resurrecting Lazarus on day four with the notion that only the Messiah could perform this trick later than day three. In the early centuries, Rabbi’s (some/many?) thought that resurrection from the dead was theoretically possible only within the first three days (Bar Kappara’s Mishnah, Genesis Rabbah 100:7 as quoted in the IVP commentary on John 11). This presupposes that the association messiah = divinity was common in the first century. Nevertheless Jesus was busted for blasphemy.

    On subjects like this one it seems to me that when the answer is “no” to most of the historical criteria, the situation naturally defaults to theology so I will definitely be interested in your book when it comes out.

    • Avatar
      donmax  October 7, 2012

      I don’t think Jesus was busted for blasphemy. That puts the onus on Jews. In the end it was the Romans, plus sedition, that proved his undoing.

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    dfandray  October 4, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You touch on something here that has long interested me – this notion of Jesus being THE son of man. As I understand it, throughout most of the Old Testament “son of man” was used to denote simply a person. And the “sons of God” were angels. It seems that everything got turned on its head in the Book of Daniel. Suddenly “son of man” came to denote something bigger than just a person. And as far as I can tell, the first use of “son of God” in the singular comes when a fourth figure joins the trio in the fiery furnace. I also find it interesting that Jesus himself is almost Bob Dole-like in his use of the term “son of man.” He mostly speaks of the “son of man” in the third person. I’m not sure what any of this means. And I’m certainly at a disadvantage because I’m only reading English translations and not the original Hebrew or Greek. I’d be interested in any thoughts that come to mind about use of these terms.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 5, 2012

      Yes, the Son of Man issue is very thorny and will be a key to my book. But the issues are too complex to deal with in a short reply here. Stay tuned!

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    Adam  October 4, 2012

    I bet this book will be a best seller.

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    lfasel  October 4, 2012

    I know you like to be up front and honest Bart, but this was not a good choice of words, ” I’m not a Christian believer, and so naturally I do not think that Jesus was physically raised from the dead.” Those that have followed you know what you believe, those that might just be getting into your blog to learn that are Christians will definitely be turned off by that, just my thoughts.

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    DavidJ32  October 4, 2012


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    Xeronimo74  October 4, 2012

    Very interesting stuff indeed!

    It seems like the earliest Christians (Paul included) did not believe in a physical resurrection in the sense of a corpse getting revived and leaving a tomb, yet the later Christians obviously did (Gospels of MT, LK and JN). So when did that ‘misunderstanding’ happen and why? Something lost in translation? Greeks interpreting a Jewish story?

    Looking forward to your answers (and your book!).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 5, 2012

      I think Paul did indeed believe in a physical resurrection of the body of Jesus, but for him it was a *transformed* body that had been made immortal, unlike our bodies. That’s his big argument in 1 Cor. 15, as I read it. His opponents were the ones saying that bodies could not be raised. For Paul, just as Jesus’ body was, so too will be his followers’.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  October 6, 2012

        So if, as you say, Paul believed in a ‘physical resurrection of the body ( = of the corpse, right?) of Jesus’ then why did he never refer to an empty tomb or to the discovery of such an empty tomb by the apostles in his letters although that would have fitted well at occasions?

        Also, and I know we have discussed these matters briefly here before, why did Paul describe the ‘risen Christ’ as a light etc in his visions? And not as a humanoid? And if that ‘transformed’ body was so different from the normal, natural body humans have then why assume the corpse was actually needed in the first place to get ‘resurrected’ in this new one (and if a corpse is needed then what about corpses that have been totally decomposed?)? Why is it Paul’s aim to get away from the physical body that he himself is currently living in (as he mentions in some of his letters)?

        Why does Paul then contrast the ‘natural’ body to the ‘spiritual’ body? Why does he call those people FOOLS who ask: “How are the dead raised? With what KIND OF BODY will they come?” (1 Cor 15) ? Why does he claim that FLESH and BLOOD cannot inherit the kingdom?

  8. Robertus
    Robertus  October 4, 2012

    If I understand your evolution, your transition to agnosticism/atheism was motivated by the problem of evil/suffering in the world. If you don’t mind my asking, how and when did your belief in Jesus’ resurrection evolve? Was it just a logical conclusion that if God did not exist, then of course he did not raise Jesus from the dead? Or was there a more nuanced evolution, eg, progressing from a more fundamentalist belief in an historical and bodily resurrection toward a more spritual interpretation?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 5, 2012

      I think I stopped believing in a physical resurrection before I stopped believing in God, if that’s what you mean.

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    andrew0410  October 4, 2012

    Bart, I am thrilled at the prospect not only of this book, but also that you will be sharing aspects of it on this blog over the next few months.

    One request (not meant to be impertinent): in some of your writing on miracles, you define miracles as ‘by definition, the least likely explanation of what happened’. Whilst I personally agree with this, I think this is not perhaps the most useful approach to take when seeking in part to encourage conservative evangelicals to reconsider their position. Many such might be turned off not because of your arguments, but because of your definition of miracles. They might think of miracles as ‘quite frequent explanations of what happened’.

    If you were willing to forego this line of argument, and to focus instead on why various people might have come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, perhaps including the fruits of modern research on how our contemporaries come to believe extraordinary things, especially in the religious realm, as analogous cases, then I think your presentation might have greater impact.

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    laz  October 4, 2012

    can’t wait for the book, one of my fav topics. I can see the trinitarians squirming now. Wow that’s a real hornets nest.

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    larafakhouri  October 4, 2012

    You have said that the event of resurrection can’t be proven historically and you are right; no eye witnesses nor there is a solid proof to support what the gospels proclaim. Yet, the possibility of the occurrence of the resurrection should be considered as one of the possibilities, even if it is not true, assumed to have happened to explain the rise of the Christian movement. I think no one can prove it didn’t happen, at least historically.

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    gonzalogandia  October 4, 2012

    “For my money, this is really interesting stuff.”

    I would say that, bar none, this is the most “interesting stuff” you can write about. Nothing hits to the heart of the matter like this topic. Without Jesus being God, there is no substance in Christianity. I’m looking forward to this book more than any of your other ones. The expectation will be so high that you’ll have a lot to live up to!!

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    DPeel  October 4, 2012

    I purchased How Jesus Became Christian by Barrie Wilson, PhD. Any comments? I plan to purchase the book discussed above on the day it is published. Do you have other authors on this topic that you recommend?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 5, 2012

      Yup, it’s an interesting book. On which topic, specifically are you interested?

    • Avatar
      donmax  October 7, 2012

      Barrie’s book is first-rate! He covers just about everything alluded to in this blog. The starting point, however, is the Gospel of Matthew, since it is the most Jewish of the four, and the one redacted by Ebionites and other Jewish disciples of Jesus.

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    RespectfulAtheist  October 5, 2012

    Bart, I just want to throw some general encouragement your way. I’ve been absolutely loving your blog. For a time, I resisted the idea of paying, for membership, but I’m extremely glad now that I changed my mind. For one, your posts lack rhetoric (or vitriol), which I find quite refreshing, and most go deeper into the sorts of issues you discuss in your “Barnes and Noble” books (which is precisely what I was wanting).

    “How Jesus Became God” is THE book that I have been waiting for and, for what it’s worth, I think you are also the right man to write it. As you say, this is indeed “interesting stuff”…keep up the excellent work, it is appreciated!

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    Joshua150  October 5, 2012

    Looking forward to it. Btw I like the change on the landing page.

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    JamesFouassier  October 5, 2012

    This IS the really interesting stuff !! I’m hoping also that your book will spend some time discussing (and documenting ?) just how scholars believe that in those days “Christianities” managed to spread so fast and so far. One obvious question – Paul writes to a “Christian” community already in Rome. How did it get there ?

    • Avatar
      Bill  October 6, 2012


      In preparation for Bart’s book, you might look at the work of Larry Hurtado and his take on Jesus>God.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2012

        Yup, he has two relevant books. A shorter one One God, One Lord; and a very long one Lord Jesus Christ.

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    bobnaumann  October 5, 2012

    Bart, I have been struggling with the concept that Jesus died for the sins of others. Are we talking about original sin, the sin of Adam? The past sins of mankind? The future sins of mankind? Does this mean my sins are forgiven before i commit them? Could God have forgiven sins before Jesus? In other words, what really changed with Jesus’s death and ressurection? Hope you will cover this in your book. Can’t wait to see it.

  18. Avatar
    toddfrederick  October 6, 2012

    I’m currently reading Barrie Wilson’s book, How Jesus Became Christian. I long had notions that Paul transformed the Jewish Jesus into something other than a Jew and Barrie Wilson puts it in perspective. I’ve also read a few of James Tabor’s books, and Scot McKnight’s books (McKnight got me interested in viewing Jesus in a different way…as a Jewish teacher… though he writes in a more Christian theological way than you or Barrie Wilson). That led me to finding retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong who speaks from an ecclesiastical perspective referring to “Christians in Exile,” early Christians and Jews formulating a god concept based on a totally different world view than what we have today, and the need to reformulate how we view God and Jesus within a contemporary world view. He also refers to God in the Bible as a tribal god and that view must be expanded as an all inclusive God.

    All of this is now coming together for me and I look forward to your new book.

    Any date for publication set as yet?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2012

      Probably early Spring 2014. (It takes a year to get a book published usually, and I’ll write it this winter/spring.)

  19. Avatar
    kidron  October 8, 2012

    In addition to the issue of an empty tomb are questions about the many quotes concerning the ‘Son of Man’. It seems that it is used in the gospels both as a circumlocution and as a reference to the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniels vision of the angelic armies. It is of interest that from non canonical sources there is the story of James being asked to address the crowds by the High Priest. The intent was that he would quieten the crowds who were speculating about the return of the Messiah. In his speech James disappoints the High Priests and instead speaks of Jesus as soon returning with angels from heaven a la Daniel vision. In this episode is seems that James has interpreted the resurrection to mean that Jesus was alive in heaven and was indeed the cosmic figure seen by Daniel. One has to wonder how James and his contemporaries viewed the corporeality of angels. Obviously they were tangible enough to wield swords and slaughter the Romans and Jewish quislings.

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    Xeronimo74  October 11, 2012

    Bart, how can we be sure to know what those earliest Christians really believed when they thought that Jesus somehow ‘survived’ his death or was ‘resurrected’? Isn’t the testimony that we have (the earliest being Paul?) already quite removed, in time, from the actual events? And isn’t it a bit dubious that we don’t have accounts from the alleged eyewitnesses themselves (although that alone wouldn’t tell us much about the veracity of those texts or the claims made in those texts but at least it would be earlier testimonies!). Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 11, 2012

      Well, Paul knew both Cephas and James, and he claims that he “received” information that they had seen Jesus alive: so I assume they told him (you might think of other options, but I can’t think of any that is more plausible).

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  October 12, 2012

        ‘that they had seen him ALIVE’? Or simply that they ‘had seen’ him? The former seems to imply more than was actually said/written: a ghost, for example, could be seen but one would not call the ghost to be alive, right?

        And speaking of Cephas, what’s your opinion on the theory that ‘Peter’ and ‘Cephas’ were two different people? There’s some evidence for that claim although it’s definitely not rock-solid (pun intended) …

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 12, 2012

          I wrote an article a long time ago arguing that Cephas and Peter were two different people. I think it’s one of the most clever articles I’ve ever written. But, well, I’m not so sure any more. 🙂 “Cephas and Peter,”

            Journal of Biblical Literature

          , 109 (1990) pp. 463-74.

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  October 15, 2012

            Thank you, I will check out that article then! But why aren’t you so sure anymore? Has something changed your opinion then and do you now think that ‘Cephas and Peter’ were the same person after all?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

            Read the article and I’ll tell you what changed my mind.

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  October 16, 2012

            Hi Bart, I’ve bought your article from the JBL and it’s a really interesting read. Especially your analysis of 1 Cor 15:5. And you seem to be quite convinced, in your conclusion, to have made the case for Paul not referring to Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus, when he’s talking about Cephas. So what are you not so sure about then anymore and why? Thank you!

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

            I’ll have to deal with that on the blog at some point! But I will say, it was a *lot* of fun writing the article! (OK, quick answer: the main problem is that neither Cephas nor Peter was a personal name prior to Jesus. What is the chance that two people, one in Aramaic circles and the other in Greek, just *happened* to be given the otherwise unattested knickname at approximately the same time, and that both were Christians, and both were known by Paul? The answer to that probably determines the answer to whether it is plausible that they were two separate people)

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