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The Reversal of the Disciples’ Decisive Disconfirmation

In my previous post I argued that the crucifixion of Jesus, rather than being the fulfilment of his own and his disciples’ hopes, was the utter and virtually irrefutable destruction of them.  He, and they, had expected that God would intervene in the course of history to bring his good kingdom on earth, destroying the forces of evils – including the ruling powers of the present – and installing Jesus and his followers as rulers of the new order.  Jesus would be the messiah and his followers would be his co-regents.

Instead, Jesus was arrested, tried, humiliated, tortured, and crucified.  This was not an end that ANYONE anticipated for a “messiah.”  And this kind of fate showed conclusively to anyone paying attention that Jesus was not, after all, the messiah.  He was just the opposite of the messiah.  Instead of a figure of grandeur and power who had destroyed the enemies of God, Jesus was a weak and insignificant figure who had been crushed by his enemies.  No greater disconfirmation of his expectations could be imagined.

But that disconfirmation itself came to be reversed.  The followers of Jesus – not long, evidently, after his death – came to believe he had been raised from the dead.  What had been disconfirmed in such a radical and decisive way at his death was reconfirmed in an equally radical and decisive way by his return from the dead.  This belief led the disciples to believe Jesus really was the one they had hoped he would be, but it forced them to reconceptualize what it *meant* to say that Jesus was the messiah.  This reconceptualiziation marks the beginning of Christianity, the religion that forever changed the history of the world.

Why did the early followers come to believe he had been raised from the dead?  I have …

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Does Paul Know about Judas Iscariot?
How the Crucifixion Destroyed Jesus’ Vision of the Future

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  1. Avatar
    godspell  December 8, 2015

    Why would they believe this happened?

    Maybe because Jesus had predicted his own death, and had suggested he would somehow survive it, or overcome it–probably in language that would make it hard to pin down exactly what he was saying, that would be open to interpretation by those who remembered it, and would (in the horribly stressful state Jesus’ followers were in after Jesus’ execution) create the mental states necessary for strange dreams, and even mass hallucinations.

    I still don’t believe Jesus thought he would be an earthly king. And I have a new reason for doubting it–I was thinking about the temptation of Jesus by ‘Satan’ in the desert, briefly mentioned in Mark, given in much greater detail in Matthew and Luke.

    You know where I’m going with this–Satan offers Jesus power over the whole world, in exchange for bowing down and worshiping him (let’s leave aside the obvious fact that this means Satan thinks Jesus is a man, not God). Jesus responds (in Matthew) “Away from me, Satan!” He says it is written that you worship God only.

    Jesus might well have gone on some kind of ‘vision quest’, spent a few days fasting in the desert, and come back with a story to tell his disciples of his being tempted–we can’t know, but it’s not at all unlikely. But the point of his story, self-evidently, was that earthly power is a temptation to be resisted. All power and authority comes from God, and men who aspire to that power will be humbled–only those who reject it shall be exalted.

    Then later, as his death draws near, Jesus predicts he shall be killed–Peter is horrified, even angry–he upbraids Jesus, says this could never happen. Jesus responds as he did to Satan–refers to Peter AS Satan (the parallel is quite obvious, and intentional). He says Peter is thinking about the things of man, not the things of God. He’s tempting Jesus, saying that the Kingdom will come, and they can rule the new world together in God’s name. Jesus rejects this. It is not for him. He is not to rule. He is to die, so that the new world can come. If he asks for anything for himself, he will have failed. Caesar famously rejected a kingly crown, but his rejection was insincere–Jesus has drawn a clear line between that which belongs to Caesar and to God. He is no Caesar.

    Looking through this prism, it all makes sense. Why he would pray for the cup to pass him if possible–meaning that he was tempted, he did let himself think “Maybe I could see the Kingdom with them, have some role in it, without going through this ordeal.” But he is convinced that it is necessary. That it is God’s will he should die, to bring about the change.

    What then? Did he say he would physically rise from the dead? Not really clear. It might seem that way to his followers, retrospectively–but suppose what he meant was he would return as the Son of Man–not Jesus anymore, a new being, humanity burned away from it–to bring down the kingdoms of man–but he would no longer be a man himself, and he would not be ruling alongside them–he would have given the material world up–“The Son of Man has no place to rest his head.” And no crown to put on it.

    Is this necessarily any less likely, based on what we know, than Jesus seeing himself as future king of the world?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2015

      My view is that it is not a matter of speculation but of looking at the surviving evidence and establishing relative probabilities.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 9, 2015

        Understood. Based on Jesus’ reported behavior and speech in the time just before his death, I consider it highly improbable he thought he was just going to stand around waiting for God to come and make him king. And if all we have to establish that is him telling the disciples they will be rulers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (which can’t be said to exist in any distinct sense in Jesus’ time), which is accompanied by several statements where he seems to predict his own death, and was rebuked by Peter for doing so–no. I can’t see it. He was an apocalyptic preacher, yes–and his death was part of the apocalypse he was predicting. That did not happen, but his death did, because he made it happen.

  2. Avatar
    paradoxrocks  December 8, 2015

    Yes, the crucifixion of Jesus dis-confirmed everything that the disciples believed about him. But no, it did not dis-confirm everything that Jesus said about himself and his central message of the kingdom of God… Firstly, Jesus was not a complete and utter idiot, and so as an counter-cultural religious leader and an antagonist of both Rome and the Temple system in a time of heightened messianic expectations, he would have had a pretty good idea about what kind of fate that awaited him, and those like him – esp. from watching what happened to John the Baptist. If we accept that the Temple incident in the last week is historically accurate, it almost seems as if he fearlessly instigated his own arrest. Then there’s the episode of the Unnamed Woman in Mark, who clearly understood that Jesus was about to die and so anointed his body to make him ready for crucifixion – to the confusion of the male disciples (I guess one could argue that this isn’t historical?)…Arguably the most definitive teaching of his entire public ministry “those who save their lives will lost it, those who lose their lives will be saved” points directly to the fact that he would be stripped of everything at the end of his public ministry – he would have to lose his life to save it… But the basic point is that (esp. in Mark) the disciples had some major misunderstandings when it comes to Jesus’ central message of the kingdom of God, there is a dis-junction between how Jesus understood himself and his kingdom mission and how he and his mission was understood by his inner circle of followers…

  3. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  December 8, 2015

    Hello Bart

    in book of act we read that jesus was first killed then crucified on tree

    Acts 5 : 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.

    Acts 10 : 39 And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree:

    Acts 13 : 29 And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre.

    but in the gospels jesus was crucified on the cross alive then he died later on the cross . how do you explain the contradiction

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2015

      I suppose it’s a question of whether those sentences are meant to be taken in strict chronological order. E.g., if I say that candidate X won the election and took 53% of the vote, that would not mean that he took the vote *after* winning the election.

      • Avatar
        Mhamed Errifi  December 9, 2015

        Hello Bart

        but how do you explain hanging on tree it was not Romans method of crufixion but rather jews one if you read Deut21:23. from the book of act
        . it looks to me that jews were the sole responsible of jesus death and Romans had nothing to do with it

        thanks

        • Bart
          Bart  December 11, 2015

          Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution. Deut. 21:23 is referring to the hanging of a corpse on a cross (after death)

  4. Avatar
    dws  December 8, 2015

    The women play a central role as the first discovers that Jesus was resurrected in multiple tellings. Is it likely, then, they were the first (and perhaps the only) people to claim they actually saw Jesus among the first followers of the new Christianity? What do you make of the different stories having so much variety in the details? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2015

      Yes, in my book How Jesus Became God I argue that this account of the women does make sense as a story that some Christians would make up. The differences in detail are because of the oral nature of the traditions, in wide circulation.

  5. Avatar
    gavriel  December 8, 2015

    Some questions:
    Let’s accept that Judas betrayed the secret of Jesus’ royal claim. Then sure Judas would know the outcome of the betrayal?
    Or maybe he just gave a general exposition of his former Masters’s teaching, in the hope of saving his own life, because he feared that they were all in great danger?
    Did he really join the nightly expedition to arrest Jesus, or is that more likely legendary?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2015

      Yes, I assume he realized this would be ultimate trouble for Jesus. I suppose he *was* with the arresting party, but I’m not sure we have any way of knowing for sure.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  December 9, 2015

        I agree we can’t know for sure, but I think it makes sense that he would have been taken along to *identify* Jesus.

  6. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  December 8, 2015

    If, as seems quite plausible, some of Jesus’ followers had visions of him after his death, it also seems plausible that they would join together in prayer and meditation to call specifically for his presence. I was wondering if there is any historical evidence of early Christian groups, or ancient Jewish groups for that matter, that performed some type of séance ritual?

  7. Garrett20
    Garrett20  December 8, 2015

    Even though Paul does not write about the death of Judas, I find it hard to believe he did not know about it being a close companion to Luke, who researched events thoroughly (according to Luke 1:1-4). I simply do not think Paul needed to bring up the death of Judas Iscariot. His epistles are filled with the Gospel message, instruction, encouragement, discipline,etc. and he never really needs to go into a history of who betrayed Jesus. Or perhaps Paul knew Luke had (or would) cover it in his writings? Historically, all we know is that Judas betrayed Jesus and died as a result. However, can we still be dealing with the possibility that he hanged himself and then “burst open” afterwards? After-all, Matthew did not discuss Judas’ death in great length and Luke could possibly be trying to elaborate with his account in Acts. I have read some interesting theories on this.
    Concerning the disciples, I agree with you in that they were very uncertain after Jesus’ death for a time, but what about Luke 24: 44-48 where the resurrected Jesus explained the Scriptures to them concerning himself? I know this then becomes a theological issue and not a historical one, but perhaps he needed to enlighten them as to what the Scriptures taught about him.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2015

      My view is that the author of Acts was not one of Paul’s companions (I give lengthy arguments in my book Forgery and Counterforgery); and Luke 24:44-48 is not a historical record of what Jesus actually taught the disciples. If you accept the infallibility of the Bible, then yes indeed, Paul would have known about Judas and Luke 24 would be historically accurate.

      • Garrett20
        Garrett20  December 9, 2015

        I figured it was more of a theological argument. Do you date Acts around 90-100 A.D.? In believing that he was a close companion to Paul, I tend to lean towards an earlier date. However, I suppose it’s possible Luke wrote it early and it was distributed later…

        • Bart
          Bart  December 11, 2015

          Well, Luke is necessarily after Mark, which is usually dated to 70 CE; I usually put Luke-Acts to 80-85, though a lot of scholars are now arguing for a date in the early second century.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  December 9, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Something I think people in your profession should always have in the back of their minds is the fact the human mind does not like confusion. I don’t mean mystery, which is a different thing. I mean confusion. And by confusion I mean that the human mind does not like being unsettled, and when it is confused the mind quickly takes defensive action to resolved that confusion–by whatever means.

    I bring this up because I’ve noticed that most NT scholars (at least those of which I am familiar) don’t seem to understand or appreciate this quirk of human nature, so they fail to grasp the mode by which legend can develop around a person. In fact, this aversion to confusion becomes even more potent when it is forced out of us by other people.

    The fate of Judas Iscariot is an excellent case in point. Imagine your one of Jesus’ disciples, and Jesus has just recently been executed, and you’re still trying to wrap your head around what has just happened. You weren’t expecting this, but it happened, and now you’re in the position of trying to make sense of it. Like I said, the human mind doesn’t like confusion, and at this point you are thoroughly confused. You have questions and you need answers. So where do you go for answers? You go where any faithful Jew goes for answers. You go to scripture. And in scripture you find passages that might actually answer your questions (e.g. Isaiah 53). That is to say, you have an actual historical event (in this case, the betrayel and crucifixion) but you lack a sense of causation and justification for that event. So you seek an explanation (“Seek and you shall find”), and you find ostensibly plausible explanations in scripture. Then you proceed to retroactively apply the scriptural explanation to past events that appeared to be irrelevant to the current state of affairs.

    Now, I’m sure you already know all this, but here’s where it begins to apply to the story of Judas post betrayel. In all likelihood, after betraying Jesus, Judas got out of Dodge. No one ever saw or spoke to him ever again. But the disciples were still stuck with the question of why. Why did Judas betray Jesus? What happened to Judas? And, this is the most important thing, the people who the disciples were trying to convince were also probably asking what happened to Judas. If Jesus was such a wonderful guy, why did one of his disciples betray him?!?

    But, of course, the disciples couldn’t simply say “we don’t know,” because the last thing you want to say to something who you’re trying to persuade that you have all the answers is “We don’t know.” So the disciples had to find out. But where to go to find out? To scripture, of course. That’s why the Gospels aren’t consistent as to Judas’ story, because the disciples didn’t actually know what happened to Judas! But they couldn’t simply say they didn’t know, so they grasped at straws and came away with what they presumably thought was a plausible answer (or, more precisely, a set of answers).

  9. Avatar
    Dshane  December 9, 2015

    With so many messiahs rising up in this time period, thousands of followers must have been disappointed when their leaders were suddenly killed. I wonder if Jesus’ followers were the only ones to hold the belief that their leader rose from the grave? Perhaps the answer is because Jews didn’t hold that belief and thus wouldn’t picture their dead leader coming back, whereas the stories of Jesus were spread about the Greeks and the idea of Jesus go to the underworld and back wasn’t that far fetched. Just a thought.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 11, 2015

      Many cultures have had the idea of resurrection–the Jews certainly did, and we can find several examples in the Old Testament, mainly relating to Elijah and Elisha, prophets who Jesus seemed to feel a close affinity towards, and he was apparently considered by some to be Elijah returned from the dead while he was still alive.

      But what made Jesus different than other cult leaders was that large numbers of his followers seem to have believed they saw him alive after his death. It’s possible that happened in other cases, and was not recorded for posterity, but probably on a much smaller scale.

      And I can’t help but think Jesus planted the idea of his death and resurrection in their minds before it happened. Not quite a post-hypnotic suggestion, but not entirely unlike it either.

      • Bart
        Bart  December 11, 2015

        I would say there’s a difference between a resuscitation of a body (as in the OT) and a resurrection (to eternal life in the body)

  10. Avatar
    JoeWallack  December 9, 2015

    “In the Gospel stories, and in Paul, of course, the chain of events is relatively straightforward. The followers of Jesus (all of “12” except Judas, and the women who accompanied them) discovered (some of them by personal knowledge) the third day after his death that his tomb was empty; they then – individually and in groups – actually saw the risen Jesus alive. He appeared to them and proved he had been raised from the dead. They believed he had been exalted to heaven to dwell with God.”

    No, that’s not in the original Gospel narrative (saying there was an Empty Tomb in Paul is bad enough).

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2015

      Right, it’s a synopsis. Paul doesn’t have an empty tomb.

  11. Avatar
    willow  December 9, 2015

    As it is written and as you surely know, “but some doubted”.
    I well look forward to your next post.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 9, 2015

    I like the argument that you make from time to time that historians try to find the most probable explanations of events and supernatural explanations are the least likely explanations. Every other explanation is more likely than supernatural explanations or supernatural explanations would not be called “miracles.”

  13. Avatar
    Adam0685  December 9, 2015

    What is perplexing to me is how we get from the reversal their disconfirmation to Christianity becoming a major religion in the Roman Empire. Huge jump. It’s interesting that so many people so early and quickly bought into it, even if the version they were buying into was very different/developed than what Jesus and his early followers thought.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 9, 2015

    I was surprised by your stating – as fact – that Paul didn’t know Jesus had been betrayed by Judas. I’ll be interested in reading the explanation. Very likely in one of your books, and I just don’t remember it!

  15. Avatar
    Jana  December 10, 2015

    I wonder if a parallel development exists between Paul’s conversion after his vision which led to his belief in a resurrected Christ and the “after death” experiences of the disciples quoted in both Luke and John thus also leading to a conversion and the belief in the resurrected Christ? (this is a question 🙂

    Does the following “after death” event meet your criteria as a probable event (vaguely recalling your lectures at the Teaching Company?)

    Luke 24:36-49New International Version (NIV)
    Jesus Appears to the Disciples

    36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

    37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

    40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

    44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

    45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2015

      Yes, formally these do indeed seem to be parallel phenomena.

      • Avatar
        Jana  December 12, 2015

        Then do these two phenomena meet the criteria established and presented in your Teaching Company lectures? (I’m about to revisit the copies I found on the net)

        • Bart
          Bart  December 14, 2015

          The crucifixion definitely passes the criteria. The resurrection itself cannot be established historically. (Which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen)

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 10, 2015

    Still thinking about the unlikelihood (IMHO) of Jesus having envisioned himself as an earthly “King”…

    If one really thinks about it, the “Kingdom” would have been a strange place. Presumed thousands of dead people, from different eras, would have been brought back to life in any one locale. Assuming they’d fit into society – somehow – they’d all need to be given places to live. And if there was no sex (hard to imagine everyone being happy with that), and no children to be raised, men and women wouldn’t be living together as couples. Still more new housing needed.

    How about food and drink for all these people? If they no longer needed to eat and drink, could they be happy without doing so?

    And it’s hard to believe there would never have been a need for new roads, bridges, and aqueducts. Workers to construct them? Taxes to pay for them?

    I can’t help thinking those who expected this new “Kingdom” assumed its administration would be *supernatural/magical*. With the divine “Son of Man,” perhaps, looking on benevolently from above, and simply *willing* everything to fall into place.

  17. Avatar
    Luke9733  December 11, 2015

    I have a question specifically about the idea that the earliest Christians had visions of Jesus after his death. According to Plutarch, a man saw Romulus on a road after his death (apparently dressed in shining and flaming armor). Apollonius of Tyana was seen by a youth in a dream after his death (according to Philostratus). According to Pliny the Younger, a man named Athenodorus saw a ghost in a house in Athens that led him to his bones so that the bones could be buried. And finally, in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ disciples see Moses and Elijah standing with him at the Transfiguration.

    But none of these appearances are taken to be resurrections. It seems that the people during this time period didn’t directly associate seeing someone they thought was dead with a resurrection (it seems they had other ways of interpreting why or how they were seeing the formerly dead figure). What do you think would have, or could have, caused the disciples and apparently also Paul and James (the brother) to by-pass those other interpretations (such as Jesus simply having ascended to heaven and returned as an angel, which was thought briefly about Paul in Acts 12:15). If hearing Peter’s voice at a gate or seeing Moses and Elijah doesn’t mean that they were resurrected, then why would seeing Jesus again have made them think he was resurrected. In my opinion, there would have almost needed to have been something else along with visions (perhaps visions along with an empty tomb – both of which could still have naturalistic explanations). But I don’t think, given what stories we have about similar(ish) situations from that time period, I don’t think visions alone would have triggered this belief. What are your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2015

      The difference is that in all those other instances the people experiencing visions of the dead person were not apocalyptic Jews. It was precisely and *apocalyptic* reaction to say, “RESURRECTION”!!!

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