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The Sheep and the Goats

Jesus’ teaching about the “separation of the sheep and the goats” is found in only one place in the New Testament, Matthew 25:31-46.  It is easily one of my favorite passages of the entire Bible, and as I have pointed out, in my view, it is a teaching of Jesus himself (not something put on his lips by Matthew or by Matthew’s source, M, or by an early Christian story-teller).  I think in fact, it well encapsulates Jesus’ entire proclamation.  There is a judgment day coming and those who have lived in an upright way, loving others, showing compassion on those in need, helping those in dire straits, will be given an eternal reward; those who fail to live in this way will be severely punished.

The passage is sometimes called a “parable,” but I don’t see any strong indication that it is meant to be taken metaphorically.  As far as I can tell, it was meant as a literal description of what would happen at the end of this age when the judge of the earth, the Son of man, determines the fate of all those who have ever lived.

Here are some random observations about the passage and its interpretation:

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Translating the Apostolic Fathers: A Blast from the Past
The Son of Man, Pericopes, and the Complexities of Biblical Scholarship



  1. JoeBTex  October 25, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have read Enoch’s version of the coming of the Son of Man and find it most compelling. When taken with the Daniel reference, it appears that what Jesus was proclaiming does not sound all that original. ( I will exclude my thoughts on the Persian influences ). I have also read that that Enoch may have been tainted by Christian revisionists from the 2nd century. As there were Jews who believed in a resurrected life after death and Son of Man motif, is it possible that Jesus was not a new thought but a physical representation of these prior believes?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Yes, it is hard to say just how “original” he was. My sense is that he could not have been completely unique — or no one would know what he was talking about!

      • anthonygale  October 30, 2017

        What it your thought on the opinion, held by some, that someone other than Jesus (say Paul, a group of early disciples, or early church fathers) ought really to be considered the founder(s) of Christianity? I understand the view that without Jesus there could be no Christianity (except for in the minds of the mythicists), but if Christianity deviates enough from what the historical Jesus taught, then is he really the founder?

        Let’s just say that a group of people, perhaps from the blog, decided to create a religion called Ehrmanism. Some of your best sellers, or fragments of them, are among their sacred texts. The beliefs of the religion include that nothing in the gospels is historical and it is doubtful that Jesus existed. You had nothing to do with it and disagree with it’s creed, having explicitly stated so in many places. Yet the religion is clearly based on things you actually said and did. Are you the founder? Without you it never would have existed!

        • Bart
          Bart  October 30, 2017

          If “Christianity” is defined as a religion based on Jesus’ death and resurrection, then yes, I would have to say that Jesus is not the one who came up with it! (But it happened before Paul)

          • anthonygale  October 30, 2017

            How much debate could “how do you define Christianity” generate?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 31, 2017


    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 27, 2017

      “it appears that what Jesus was proclaiming does not sound all that original”

      The original part of Christianity is what came *after* Jesus, ironically enough.

  2. ajh22  October 25, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, what are your thoughts on the gospels as fiction and not history? There are clear parallels to OT scripture and heroic literature. As you have stated many times before, there are many discrepancies in the gospels and stories that are only cited in particular gospels (sheep and the goats). The gospels are not eyewitnesses and they do not cite sources. It makes way more sense to see the gospels as fiction with each writer expounding on Mark and giving the story their own twist. Even in Daniel it states that the messiah will be put to death and have nothing. There could have been Jewish sects that linked this messiah with the servant/messenger is Isaiah that died to atone for sins. One could come up with the Jesus story from the OT.

    Currently on my fourth book of yours, greatly enjoy your books, thank you!!


    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      My sense is that the Gospels have both historical and non-historical (legendary) material in them; I suppose that’s the common view among critical scholars.

    • godspell  October 27, 2017

      What are your thoughts on Hamilton (the musical) as fiction and not history?

      It is absolutely fiction. And it is absolutely based on history. And Hamilton was not creole. And did not rap.

      The notion that there is some absolute line between reality and fiction is, of course, nonsense. We are a species of storytellers. It is probably the only thing that distinguishes us from other animals. Most of the ancient history we have is partly fictional. But still historical. Much of what we think we know about much more recent historical figures is wrong. But they still existed.

      I think a lot more people are fundamentalists than is commonly believed.

      There’s this digital aspect to their interpretation of texts–“Either this is unequivocally and undoubtedly factual–or it’s a made-up story.” We get hung up on minor inconsistencies in a work of undoubted fiction, because of this insane literalism.

      And this attitude, taken to extremes, makes the study of history impossible, because all history, by definition, is a story.

      And by extension, this attitude makes it impossible for us to understand where we came from, and how we got where we are now.

      And that is a truly disastrous situation to be in. If we can’t understand our past, we’re not going to have much of a future.

      The gospels were not written as either works of history or works of iction. They contain elements of both. And that is obvious.

      • Bart
        Bart  October 29, 2017

        I’m afraid I haven’t seen it, to my regret.

        • godspell  October 30, 2017

          I wasn’t asking you specifically, Bart. And neither have I. I live in Manhattan, and I don’t know anybody who has seen it. Nobody can get tickets. SOMEBODY must be going.

          My point is that you can tell untrue stories about real people, which doesn’t make them any less real. No historical figure of any note has escaped such fabrications, both positive and negative. So it’s a lousy argument to say “This story about Jesus is clearly fake, so Jesus is fake too.”

          History and fiction have been most intimate bedfellows for as long as anyone can remember.

          • dankoh  November 3, 2017

            I did see Hamilton – and it’s worth it! Anyone understands that a Broadway musical is not history (King Mongkut didn’t sing either), but it’s based on history and is great theater.

          • godspell  November 9, 2017

            And so are the gospels based on history. And they have inspired some pretty great musicals as well.

  3. Robert  October 25, 2017

    As mentioned in one of your previous threads, one of your reasons for attributing this parable to Jesus rather than to Matthew or the pre-Matthean tradition is that you note a discrepancy between the teaching of the parable and the Christian faith of Matthew that would supposedly hold that ‘future judgment is based [only] on belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection and not on doing good things for those in need’. You seem to hold that, even though Matthew held to this particular [caricature of] Pauline [sola fide] soteriology, that even he did not recognize the discrepancy between the teaching of the parable and his own Christian faith. Do you really think Matthew held such views? Do you know of many Matthean redaction critics or other scholars who successfully defend such an interpretation of Matthew’s text? I think it is not even a good caricature of Paul’s thought, and I certainly do not see this expressed in Matthew’s text.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Matthew certainly thought that it was Jesus who would “save the world from its sins,” and that it was through his death and resurrection that this would happen. And none of that is in this passage, interestingly.

      • Robert  October 27, 2017

        “Matthew certainly thought that it was Jesus who would “save the world from its sins,” and that it was through his death and resurrection that this would happen. And none of that is in this passage, interestingly.”

        Sure, but is there any good reason to attribute to the author of this gospel some kind of faith vs works dichotomy? Various passages of Paul can be debated, but where do you see sola fide in Matthew? Do prominent Matthean redaction and literary critics defend this position?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2017

          No, Matthew never explicitly states a sola fide doctrine. But he does think that Jesus’ death is what brought salvation.

          • Robert  October 29, 2017

            “No, Matthew never explicitly states a sola fide doctrine. But he does think that Jesus’ death is what brought salvation.”

            Sure, following Mark, but also like Mark, Matthew believes that Jesus’ followers are also to take up their own crosses, sacrifice their own lives, not excuse themselves from self-sacrifice and moral obligations because Jesus had already died for them. Throughout Matthew’s gospel the importance of living a moral life for the good of others is highly stressed, more so than in Mark’s gospel. It’s inconceivable that Matthew thought about Jesus’ death along the lines of a fundamentalist caricature of Luther’s reading of Paul.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 30, 2017

            Yes, that’s right. But without Jesus, it can’t happen. I’m absolutely not saying that Matthew has a Lutheran understanding of Paul!

          • Robert  November 1, 2017

            “I’m absolutely not saying that Matthew has a Lutheran understanding of Paul!”

            It seemed like you were indeed implying it when you used it as part of the criterion of dissimilarity here:

            “What is striking about this story, when considered in view of the criterion of dissimilarity, is that there is nothing distinctively Christian about it. That is to say, the future judgment is not based on belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but on doing good things for those in need. Later Christians—including most notably Paul (see, for example, 1 Thess 4:14–18), but also the writers of the Gospels—maintained that it was belief in Jesus that would bring a person into the coming kingdom.”

          • Bart
            Bart  November 1, 2017

            No, I’m really not implying that. Just about every Christian who lived before and after Luther thought that it was Jesus who brought people into a right standing before God for salvation. The people who did not think that were not Christian. I used Paul as an illustration — and pointed out the Gospels have that same view. Not that they held Paul’s theology; but they agreed that Jesus was the one who brought salvation. That’s what makes the sheep and goats so interesting. Knowing anything about Jesus has no bearing on salvation.

          • Robert  November 1, 2017

            “Just about every Christian who lived before and after Luther thought that it was Jesus who brought people into a right standing before God for salvation. The people who did not think that were not Christian. I used Paul as an illustration — and pointed out the Gospels have that same view. Not that they held Paul’s theology; but they agreed that Jesus was the one who brought salvation.”

            To me that seems to be a caricature, ‘though it is certainly an accurate depiction of the lamentable beliefs of many, especially fundamentalist, Christians. I think Matthew’s views would be better characterized as something like: following the example and teachings of Jesus brings one into a right relationship with God.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 3, 2017

            What Christians are you thinking of, historically, who did not think Jesus was the key to salvation?

          • Robert  November 3, 2017

            “What Christians are you thinking of, historically, who did not think Jesus was the key to salvation?”

            None. I think it is more a matter of *how* Jesus is key to salvation. I think ‘Matthew’ saw salvation in Jesus as occurring through following the example and teachings of Jesus. ‘Matthew’ puts these words on the lips of Jesus at the very end of his gospel: “make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

          • Robert  November 3, 2017

            “I think it is more a matter of how Jesus is key to salvation. I think ‘Matthew’ saw salvation in Jesus as occurring through following the example and teachings of Jesus. ‘Matthew’ puts these words on the lips of Jesus at the very end of his gospel: “make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

            Thus, the implication of the above for me is that there is no real discrepancy for Matthew between the teaching of the parable and his ‘Christian’ faith. As a follower of Jesus’ teachings, he certainly would have held that ‘future judgment is indeed based on doing good things for those in need’. I am not disputing whether or not the parable could date back to the historical Jesus. But in an effort to affirm it as authentic teaching of Jesus, one should not create a false dichotomy between Matthew’s ‘Christian’ faith and his belief in the importance of Jesus’ teachings and commandments, which Matthew emphasizes so much, and the need to help those in need. Nowhere does Matthew say or imply that ‘future judgment is based on belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection and not on doing good things for those in need’.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 5, 2017

            I think the problem with thinking that Matthew understood it was all about listening to Jesus’ teaching and following his example is that he has an extended passion narrative and presents the death and resurrection of Jesus as salvific (e.g., the tearing of the curtain, etc.)

          • Robert  November 5, 2017

            “I think the problem with thinking that Matthew understood it was all about listening to Jesus’ teaching and following his example is that he has an extended passion narrative and presents the death and resurrection of Jesus as salvific (e.g., the tearing of the curtain, etc.)”

            I don’t think and did not mean to imply that Matthew’s view is ALL about following Jesus’ teaching and examples, but it is enough so such that it is a false dichotomy to say that Matthew thought that ‘future judgment is based on belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection and NOT on doing good things for those in need’. Why attribute only one aspect of this dichotomy to Matthew? Why even contend that it is necessarily a dichotomy? The passion narrative, which Matthew inherited from Mark, served multiple functions and was not merely a cipher for some kind of monolithic atonement theology. It seems to me you exaggerate an atonement significance of the temple curtain in Mark, and it is even more suspect to attribute such a dichotomous interpretation to Matthew who built his gospel on that of Mark. Matthew, following Mark, also taught that Christians were to follow Jesus’ example and take up their own crosses, not just believe passively in Jesus’ death on a cross. He spent so much time on Jesus’ moral teachings. Why claim that he only held to one side of this supposed dichotomy?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 6, 2017

            Sorry — I think I must have miscommunicated. I’m decidedly not saying that Matthew thought it was unimportant how one lived one’s life. What we would call ethics was terrifically important to him. But without Jesus, even so, there would be no salvation, and in this passage, salvation comes apart from even knowing who Jesus was.

  4. ddorner
    ddorner  October 25, 2017

    So is the king mentioned in v.34 a separate figure from the Son Of Man? I was under the impression Jesus taught he would be king (at least privately), but if they’re one in the same, wouldn’t Jesus be teaching he was the Son Of Man as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Yes, it’s hard to figure out how he was imagining it all. He also tells his disciples that *they* will be the twelve rulers in the kingdom!

  5. fishician  October 25, 2017

    At what point did salvation become about faith in Jesus rather than good works? Does Paul get the credit (blame?) as faith instead of works was the only way he could make sense of Jesus’ death?

    • fishician  October 26, 2017

      Also, in the previous parable Jesus says the worthless slave will be cast into the outer darkness, but in the sheep-goats story he says “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” which sounds suspiciously like Revelation 20. Any way to know if the statement about eternal fire is original or not, even if the story itself likely does go back to Jesus? Or should I wait for your next book to hear the whole story about afterlife?!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Paul certainly pushes the notion of faith alone, not works of the law — although he means doing the things that make Jews Jewish. But even Paul in places emphasizes the importance of righteous living for salvation (e.g., Romans 2). I wish he were around for us to interview, to find out what he really thought….

  6. Judith  October 25, 2017

    “…don’t be a goat…” Funny!

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  October 25, 2017

    “I don’t know enough about ancient herding practices to know why a shepherd would want to separate the sheep from the goats, or why the sheep would be valued and the goats not.”

    Since goats and sheep are both grazing ruminants a shepherd who has both can graze them together on the same pasture, where, one presumes, they will become mixed up. At the end of the day, however, the shepherd has to separate the sheep from the goats, for two reasons.
    A) All goats have horns, even the females (a doe), while only male sheep (a ram) have horns, so if you leave your does penned up with your ewes over night there’s a possibility that come morning you might find some of your sheep gored.
    B) While they are unable to breed fertile offspring, sheeps and goats do have a tendency to copulate together. And on very rare occasions they do manage to conceive. But the…thing…that they conceive is, for lack of a better term, a monstrosity that is usually miscarried, and if not, dies at or just after birth. Therefore, for the sake of mating, you want your ewes and rams in one enclosure and your does and bucks in another enclosure, to ensure there is no cross-breeding.

    As for why sheep would be more valuable than goats, well, that may be because wool is much more valuable than goat milk, which make sheep much more valuable than goats. Moreover, keeping sheep is much more expensive than goats, because sheep are far more vulnerable to environmental changes than goats. For instance, sheep can die if it’s too hot, while goats can live through a volcanic eruption (not really, but close). Sheep also require good pastures, while a goat can eat and will eat just about anything. For those reasons a farmer may value his sheep over his goats. If he loses a goat, he has to do a cost-benefit analysis before going in search of it. If he loses a sheep, however, he may go to the ends of the earth to get it back. (You’ll notice that the NT often talks about the ends a shepherd will go to to retrieve a lost sheep, but not a lost goat.)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Very interesting.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 27, 2017

        Now take everything I wrote above and replace the words “sheeps” and “goats” with “the righteous” and “the wicked” and you might get a sense of the imagine that Jesus (or whoever is attributing this metaphor to Jesus) is trying to convey. That is, earth is the pasture, on which the sheep (righteous) are mixed up with the goats (wicked). And at the end of the day, the shepherd (God, Son of Man, Messiah, whomever) will come to retrieve his flock (humanity) from the pasture (earth). We will then separate the innocent sheep from the goring goats (righteous from the wicked) before sending them to their respective pens: the sheep pen (paradise on a renewed earth or heaven?) or the goat pen (torment in the lake of fire or total annihilation?). I think that’s the idea this metaphor is supposed to convey.

    • godspell  October 27, 2017

      This is really good stuff–I did not know that sheep and goats could interbreed.

      I would point out that one reason there are few stories goatherds going in search of errant goats is that goats are smart enough to find their way back.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 29, 2017

        Yes, but their offspring are infertile, and often they cannot and do not live long.

        True, sheep are dumb as rocks, while goats are relatively much more clever.

    • SidDhartha1953  October 28, 2017

      Here’s something from Wikipedia on the mouflon, which is considered the most likely ancestor to the domestic sheep. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mouflon#Relation_to_other_sheep
      If I understand the part about splitting chromosomes, then goats and domestic sheep may share a common mouflon ancestor. But Jesus wouldn’t have known that, unless he knew everything! (kidding)

    • J.MarkWorth  November 13, 2017

      I know a farmer who says sheep are a nuisance and he much prefers goats!

  8. Stefan  October 25, 2017

    Why, in your view, would this Son of Man figure be talking about “my brothers and sisters”? Is there a similar notion elsewhere concerning the ‘Son of Man’?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      He literally says “my brothers.” We don’t have other contemporary sources that provide us with information about the Son of Man in relation to those who are to be saved.

    • Robert  October 27, 2017

      Stefan: Why, in your view, would this Son of Man figure be talking about “my brothers and sisters”? Is there a similar notion elsewhere concerning the ‘Son of Man’?”

      If Jesus (or Matthew) were thinking of ‘one like a son of man’ in Dn 7,13 when crafting this parable, he could also be drawing on the interpretation of the vision given to Daniel, in which it is said that ‘the holy ones of the Most High’ would receive the kingdom (Dn 7,18). The author of the book of Daniel could have been thinking of angelic beings or the people of Israel and these could become the brothers of the son of man in the parable.

  9. Skepticalone  October 25, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman ,
    It seems that the writers of the gospel often had Jesus quote from the old testament …for example when Jesus said that He did not come to bring peace but rather a sword for a man’s enemies will be those of his own household which is taken from Micah 7:6 . Is there a similar reference from Jewish writings which allude to a sheep-goats scenario ? I wonder if it is not Ezekiel 34:4 ?
    I am also under the impression that Jesus told Peter to “feed His sheep” though I do not believe this to mean a literal feeding but rather a spiritual feeding much like Christ once told his disciples ” I have meat which you know not of ..my meat is to do my Father’s will …Also , I believe it was one of Noah’s sons who did not cover their father’s nakedness ..literally but maybe spiritually as well ???
    Lastly , it is interesting that many in the early church I am led to believe sold all that they had and gave to every one as had need …not just those in their group….not to ” be saved” but because of compassion .

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Yes, it’s usually linked to the passage in Ezekiel.

      • Tony  October 28, 2017

        Ezekiel 34:17
        “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”

        Three possibilities;
        (1) Jesus quoted strictly coincidentally, and independently, a phrase very similar to Hebrew scripture;
        (2) Jesus remembered a phrase from Hebrew scripture, somehow requoted it, and his followers remembered that a generation later, or;
        (3) The Gospel writer read Ezekiel in the Septuagint and decided to put something similar on the lips of his creation.

        For obvious reasons, I go with (3). But you don’t, and I’m unable to understand why.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2017

          You don’t understand why I think Jesus really gave this saying? I think you don’t understand because you don’t understand how I think Jesus said anything at all — since you don’t think there was a Jesus! But I do, and I think this is something he said. It’s not such a weird view to have!

          • Tony  October 29, 2017

            I don’t think your view is “weird” at all. In fact, I think it’s possible – just not probable. You’re an academic and I don’t have to explain that to you. My concern is that even American secular NT scholarship often appears to be driven by religious remnants, opinion and “settled” ideology. Why shouldn’t NT academia skeptically look at a host of possibilities and determine relative probabilities based on evidence – as in any other academic field?

            The above ezek example does not proof historicity one way or the other. However, in the context of the gospels being full of OT fragments that the authors used as prophecy fulfillment or for other literary applications, I think the third option is reasonable and probable.

            Would you at least be willing to agree that option three is possible?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 30, 2017

            Yes, it’s one of the main options! It either goes back to Jesus, or a later story teller, or Matthew himself. But since its views are unlike those of Matthew elsehwere, the last option seems less likely to me.

          • godspell  November 9, 2017

            And hey, Tony, why not consider the possibility that global warming isn’t manmade?

            Why not consider the possibility that ‘intelligent design’ is behind the mystery of life on earth, that science has yet to solve?

            Because that’s not how serious scholarship works. “I’d like to think this and you can’t absolutely prove me wrong, so…:”

            Here’s a theory–your insistence on believing Jesus didn’t exist is, in fact, a religious belief.

            It is something you cling to, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. You may wish to find evidence of it, but you will believe it with no evidence at all. Because it is a belief essential to your personal view of the universe.

            That’s religion, or the word has no meaning.

  10. Silver  October 25, 2017

    I ask this question with considerable trepidation because I do not wish to appear offensive. Is you own commitment to helping others motivated by this passage (sheep and goats) such that you are hedging your bets i.e. although you now declare yourself to be a nonbeliever you feel that if you are wrong then such charitable works will be judged as acceptable in the final days and you will be safeguarded? Please feel free to dismiss this question if it is not appropriate.

    • Silver  October 25, 2017

      Please remove my question about whether your motivation stems from the sheep and goats pericope. I regret having asked it.

      • Bart
        Bart  October 27, 2017

        Ah sorry — I thought it was a *great* question and wanted to answer it!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Ha! It’s a great question. I sometimes question my own motives as well. So it’s possible! But end of day, I really think that when my brain dies I will have no further existence, and so I don’t do what I do in light of my afterlife options. But, given my background, I have to admit that I’m always hopeful that in case I’m wrong….

      • Silver  October 27, 2017

        Thanks for addressing my question anyway and not taking offence.

      • bwarstler  October 27, 2017

        As my spiritual journey has been very similar to yours, I sometimes have the same thoughts. 🙂 Just curious, when you were a believer, did you believe in eternal security? Or did you think you could lose your salvation.

      • DestinationReign
        DestinationReign  October 27, 2017

        This brings up a great point of ponderance regarding Luke 6:35:

        “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back; and your reward will be great.”

        How might this apply to the “atheist,” who literally expects nothing beyond this earth-construct? Will he be rewarded for his good deeds having expected nothing, or will he be punished for not believing in a higher existence? Christ’s teachings certainly convey that there will be many surprises at the judgment, both pleasant and unpleasant.

        Furthermore, how can one truly “expect NOTHING back,” and still believe that his “reward will be great?” Yet another maddening paradox, of which there are many in the quest for Truth.

  11. caesar  October 25, 2017

    Is there any way for conservative Christians to explain this passage, in a way that doesn’t contradict the doctrine of salvation by faith?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      I guess you could say that people who never heard of Jesus could be saved by him anyway if they live in the ways God wants them to.

      • SidDhartha1953  October 28, 2017

        So, for a conservative Christian who believes that, having heard of Jesus, one is obliged to accept him as lord and savior or face eternal damnation, the compassionate thing might be leave the ignorant alone so they can be saved by their best efforts at goodness.

  12. Jim  October 25, 2017

    I think Pattycake1974 noted earlier that Larry Hurtado considered the phrase “son of man” to be Jesus’ idiolect. To expand/reiterate(?) her question; LH suggests that “Son of man” was not a title for the Messiah or any other eschatological figure during Jesus’ time, and that there is little evidence for the use of “the son of man” as a fixed title for any figure in second-temple Jewish tradition. LH further suggests that the expression as used in the gospel manuscripts likely reflects early Christian reverence for Jesus.

    Do you think that there is good support for the notion that the phrase “Son of man” was a relatively common reference (in Jesus’ time) to an anticipated eschatological figure, or is it possible that the phrase was just a Jesus-ism passed down through oral tradition?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      No, we don’t have evidence that it is used extensively as a title until Jesus did so. But it is a reference to a very well known passage in Daniel, so it would not have seemed very strange, since there were other cosmic figures called by comparable names widely known at the time.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 27, 2017

      In every pre-Jesus (anteyehoshuan? [I think I just invented a new term]) reference to the “son of man” figure (Ezekiel, Daniel, Enoch, etc.), the Son of Man is always (I believe without exception) portrayed as an angelic figure who literally looks human (which is why he’s called כבן אדם or כבר אנש, literally, “like a son of a man” or, figuretively, “he looks like a human being”), which strongly (I believe adequately) suggests that that’s how Jesus himself saw the Son of Man. There’s no reason to think Jesus thought of the Son of Man any differently than any other Jew thought of the Son of Man at that time. Any inconsistancies between this notion of the Son of Man and the Son of Man portrayed in the Gospels appears to be created by later Christians who conflated the Son of Man with the second coming of Jesus. That is, when Jesus was alive, he couldn’t have “come with the clouds and his angels” because he was already here on earth, sans clouds and angels. Therefore, when Daniel talks of the Son of Man coming with clouds and the heavenly host he must be talking about Jesus’ return, right? That’s how the Christians thought of Jesus *after* his death — not before his death, after!

  13. alexius105  October 25, 2017

    Hello, Bart.
    Should not Jesus just forgive his enemies? This does show Jesus was in fact a violent person and not a pacifist?
    He preached something (forgiveness) which He himself won’t be willing to do.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Right — that’s part of the problem even with the whole doctrine of atonement. Why is a sacrifice needed? Can’t God just forgive people? That’s what *we* do!

      • DestinationReign
        DestinationReign  October 28, 2017

        This again is why it’s so important to consider the Gospel/Timeline template, and Luke’s thematic LACK of the blood atonement implication. This of course incudes specific alterations in certain passages where it IS implied in Matthew and Mark. Luke (“light giving”) pertains to this time of the awakening from darkness, when Christianity’s foundational dogmas (and Christianity itself) must be abolished. The age of blood atonement/Jesus crucified is ending. Remember:

        My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? > My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? > Father, into your hands I commit my spirit

  14. godspell  October 25, 2017

    Question–if The Son of Man is going to be King over all in this new order, and Jesus is not him–how then could Jesus have believed he would be a king, with the disciples reigning under him?

    My own opinion, that I’ve given in the past, is that Jesus considered himself the sacrifice to bring about this kingdom (an idea he may have come to until relatively late)–he would, like Moses, not see the Promised Land with his own eyes. I therefore suspect the passage where he says he and the disciples will rule over this kingdom. He who exalts himself shall be humbled. And that would certainly qualify as Jesus exalting himself.

    If I understand correctly, the vision Jewish people had of the afterlife (if they believed in the afterlife at all) was that it was not necessarily a place of torment, but it was a shadow of life as we live it on earth. The way we tend to think about ghosts.

    So even though he would believe his soul would survive in some form, he was still giving something up by dying, in order to bring about the Kingdom.

    Just a supposition, but the challenge is to create something that matches the most credible stories we have about him. And as you say, this is one of the most credible. I really don’t think any of the disciples, or Paul, or the gospel writers, could have come up with the Sheep and Goats. That’s Jesus, speaking across the gulf of time, to all posterity.

    And it still makes sense. Whether it’s true or not.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Yes, it’s hard to figure out how he was imagining it all. Jesus seems to think he will be king; he also tells his disciples that *they* will be the twelve rulers in the kingdom; and the Son of man is the king!

      • godspell  October 27, 2017

        Maybe he didn’t say that.

        Maybe he was misunderstood.

        Maybe he changed his mind.

        Maybe he’d had too much to drink.

        I mean, if you can turn water into wine……


  15. ask21771  October 25, 2017

    When was Satan first portrayed as the devil

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Roughly speaking, when apocalypticism emerged as a movement within Judaism, about 150 years or so before Jesus.

  16. anthonygale  October 25, 2017

    I am aware that Jews had different ideas as to what the messiah would be like: earthly king like David, cosmic judge (not sure if that is interchangeable with son of man or not), or authoritative priest. But among those who thought the messiah would be an earthly king, did they expect there would also be a son of man? Were there different subgroups divided on that question? I ask because believing there will be an earthly king messiah who conquers the enemies on his own, that a cosmic judge will start a kingdom after destroying the enemy, and that a king will be placed on the throne after the son of man clears the way are three (not two) different things. It almost seems like associating the messiah with the son of man diminishes him a bit (or those that expected the cosmic judge exalted him more). In any case, if believing that messiah and son of man are two different people was the minority opinion, that makes it harder to believe Jesus thought he was one but not the other. Let’s just assume Jesus did believe both figures would exist. If he didn’t believe he was the son of man, but this belief was attributed to him by later Christians, why not also question whether he believed he was the messiah? If Christians would have exalted him from self-professed messiah to son of man, why not from apocalypticist expecting to see the messiah to messiah/son of man?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Yes, it’s all very complicated and hard to work out. There are clear reasons for thinking that he called himself the messiah — one of the most important of which is that he was crucified precisely on that charge. The evidence is both different and not nearly as strong for him thinking he was the Son of man: when re speaks of the son of man as the cosmic judge, he gives no indication he is talking about himself.

      • Wilusa  October 27, 2017

        I still think it’s possible to speculate that Jesus never did call himself a future King. That the term “Messiah” had come to refer to a “savior” who, after he’d played that role, would be honored, but not necessarily put in a position of power. If that was the case, either the Temple priests or Judas – wanting to have Jesus executed, for whatever reason – might have chosen to tell the Romans that “Messiah” still had its original meaning of “King.”

        Of course, there is the problem of Jesus’s supposedly having promised his disciples that *they’d* be on *twelve thrones*. Hardly a situation the Roman would have tolerated! But perhaps he didn’t say that.

        • godspell  October 30, 2017

          Well, Peter is now considered the first Pope, and there is such a thing as a Papal throne. Not that Jesus was anticipating such an institution as the Roman Catholic Church, and neither was Peter.

          Jesus spoke in metaphors. A lot. Sometimes he means what he says literally, more often not.

          I don’t believe he thought he would rule the earth, or even Palestine. But he might have believed the disciples would play some important role in the Kingdom, after the Son of Man came. And you know, you have to keep up morale in the ranks.

      • anthonygale  October 27, 2017

        What, if anything, is known/thought regarding the relative roles of messiah and son of man? I never thought much about that before and it raises so many questions. It also makes more seriously consider the possibility that Jesus didn’t think he was the messiah.

        Is the messiah supposed to overthrow and the son of man judge? Does the son of man do both and place the messiah on the throne? If the later, that makes me wonder… What makes one worthy of being the messiah? How is he selected? What is his unique role before the son of man comes? If Jesus didn’t plan on leading a revolt, why would he be perceived as a threat, at least a serious one worthy of execution? I understand why one might worry about someone planning a revolt, but someone thinking that he will somehow summon or make the way for a cosmic army (perhaps even a one-man one)? That seems more likely to generate laughter than fear (in the Romans at least). If that is what Pilate thought Jesus believed, why not simply think he was crazy (like his family is said to have thought), maybe beat him and send him on his way? Perhaps Pilate didn’t have much information and had a low threshold for executing trouble makers. But if that is true, might the temple disturbance have been enough? I realize that Jesus thinking he was the messiah makes sense of many things (e.g. a reason for his execution, his disciples coming to believe he was the messiah, the thing that Judas betrayed). But I’m wondering if there is a bit of circular reasoning there and if there are other explanations. Couldn’t Pilate have executed Jesus for basically any reason? Could the disciples, if they came to believe Jesus was the messiah (perhaps after having hallucinatory visions of him), concluded he was the messiah whether Jesus said it or not? Isn’t one of the suggested explanations for the messianic secret that Jesus never thought he was the messiah?

        If I am to narrow my questions (but please feel free to respond however you are inclined) a bit I would ask: What, if anything, is known/thought about the relative roles of messiah and son of man? Are you aware of any strong cases that have been made (even though you would obviously disagree with them) that the historical Jesus didn’t believe himself to be the messiah?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2017

          The problem is that there wasn’t just one view — different Jewish individuals and groups had different views. Some didn’t hold to the idea of a coming son of man; others thought that the coming son of man was the future messiah; others thought … other things!

      • SidDhartha1953  October 28, 2017

        But messiah is a Jewish concept and you’ve written that the Romans didn’t care what Jews were arguing about — that he was crucified for calling himself a king, which did get the Romans’ back up. If he had stuck exclusively to calling himself the messiah, couldn’t he have escaped Roman prosecution by their assuming he meant it in a religious sense only?
        Also, I’ve read somewhere that the name Judas for Jesus’ betrayer may have been an early Gentile Christian slur against Jews as Christ-killers, since Judean had become synonymous with Jew by the time of Jesus. If so, could the twelve thrones have been intended for Jesus and his eleven closest followers, and the betrayer was given a name and a place as the 12th disciple after Christians decided Jesus was the cosmic judge, not his predictor?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2017

          No, calling yourself the future Jewish king was the same thing as calling yourself the messiah. It wasn’t a “religious” term as opposed to a “political” one.

          • dankoh  November 3, 2017

            Also, in Jewish thinking of that time (and today), it was very bad form to call yourself the messiah.

  17. Rpkruger  October 25, 2017

    Is a cosmic Son of man who rules and judges an alternative idea to a human messiah descended from David, since there does not seem to be room for both? If that’s the case, and you’re right that Jesus expected the arrival of the Son of man who would be someone other than himself, then Jesus apparently did not regard himself as the Davidic messiah, either.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      It seems to be an alternative understanding, but it’s very hard to figure out how different Jewish teachers worked it all out.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 27, 2017

      As the old joke goes: 8 Jews, 9 opinions. Jews in Jesus’ time, just as Jews today, disagree as to what the Messiah would be like, and how and when he would get here. But one thing *all* Jews agree on, today and in ancient times, is that the Messianic Age itself will be wonderful. The actual nature of the Messiah himself (human king, human priest, human descendent of David, cosmic king, cosmic priest, cosmic descendent of David, human descendent of David but cosmic king, human king but cosmic priest, and so on and so forth), those were all details that were up for debate (and, indeed, debate them the Jews did and still do!). But one thing that was never up for debate is that the Messianic Age (the so-called Age-to-come) would be freaking awesome. What we see in early Christianity is essentially this very debate within a new sect of Judaism. That’s why you’ll see Hebrews argue for the human priest descendent of David, while you’ll see Paul argue for the cosmic king descendent of David, while Matthew argues for the human king descendent of David, and so on, etc. They were engaging in the very same debates that the non-Christian Jews were having about the nature of the Messiah at that very same time and place.

  18. Telling
    Telling  October 25, 2017

    I suggest that the end of the age comes at the moment a person dies. The world will certainly have ended and a new age ushers in at that very point. “This generation” at any time in history would live to see it, if we believe in the eternal validity of the soul. The world will be our judge, our rewards and punishments a result of our former actions.

    All who were alive at the time the words were spoken did see the end of times, as Jesus said. All in our generation will too.

  19. Hume  October 25, 2017

    Is there a difference between Lucifer, Satan, and the Dragon in the Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      It depends which passage you’re reading. Lucifer is never called Satan; but the dragon is (REv. 12)

  20. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  October 25, 2017

    Professor Ehrman!

    My favorite professor, I have not forgotten about you. I just want to say thank you for all that you do, once again. I am getting closer to earning my B.A. with emphasis on perfessional communication. Also, the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, (UCCS) has an accelerated B.A. to M.A. program, which I work my M.A. my senior year. At the beginning of my journey of earning a college degree, I truly believed I was unintelligent and unable. Now being a junior in a few semesters, that belief is unhealthy towards my confidence and motivation. Academic perfessionalism and maturity are paramount to my success: I am understanding that more by the day. Hard work and accomplishments give me a sense of meaning: maybe that is my destiny, work hard and let achievements land me where I am supposed to be. You are very inspirational professor, and I would love to keep you updated with my future endeavors.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      It’s great that you’re doing so well. Congratulations!

  21. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  October 26, 2017

    A fascinating and obviously very important topic.

    This is yet another dilemma, or apparent dilemma, that finds a worthy solution through the recurring divine template!

    Recall that through the Biblical lens, the first step toward cosmic glorification is to “believe in Jesus,” or to become “covered in the blood of the Lamb.” But also recall that to remain stagnant there, to believe that is all that is required to enter the Kingdom, is an erroneous tenet. After that comes the wilderness venture – one’s own PERSONAL search for knowledge and Truth. With this trek will come an EVOLVED AND MATURED CONCEPT OF “JESUS.”

    For 2,000 years, Christianity has relegated Him to the historical Jewish guy with the beard, whom they cannot wait to “worship forever at the throne.” But through evolving understanding, we come to progressively de-emphasize Jesus – the Christ – the “Son of Man” – as a historical figure, and to understand that the Christ-presence is intrinsic in all things. (Therein is the symbolism in the necessity of putting “Jesus” to death.)

    Thus, the template exists in a dual representation, both on the grand timelapse scale, and at the INDIVIDUAL journey to spiritual completeness.

    2,000 years ago > Age of Darkness > Dawn of a new day

    Jesus walks as a man in a localized part of the world > Christ absent from the world > Christ returns in power to illuminate the entire world

    Initial belief in “Jesus” > Wilderness/Truth pursuit > Evolved understanding of who and what Christ is

    The guy with the beard in the white robe is a cartoon for tots in Sunday School, and that is just where the Christian mentality has stagnantly remained. But now we come to the dawn of the “third day,” and the resurrection of the dormant Christ WITHIN; even the dormant TRUTH within. This naturally dissolves any “problems” about whether or not “Jesus” is the “Son of Man.” The Jewish guy with the beard does not matter. That paradigm is ending. The HIGHER-DIMENSIONAL universal Christ-presence is now awakening. That presence is the “Judge.”

    Let it be proposed that the teaching in Matthew 25 is primarily referring to the condition within ONE’S OWN SELF that will be experienced when the universal Christ presence “resurrects” within man to illuminate all that has been hidden in darkness. That is to say, self-judgment. The sentence to experience our effects upon what we PERCEIVE as “others.” A crucial element of this is that countless testimonials of Near-Death experiencers have claimed to have experienced exactly that during the “life review” in their NDE. They undergo all of the experiences of “others” that they have affected, both positively and negatively. But as the veil is lifting, the way things are done on the “other side” is merging with our current earth-construct reality. The coming of the Kingdom.

    It is deeply profound subject matter.

  22. RonaldTaska  October 26, 2017

    This is, by far, my favorite Biblical passage as well. I used to consider myself to be a “red-letter” Christian meaning that I discarded most of the Bible except that written in red letters which were the quotes of Jesus. Then, I changed to just being a “sheep and goats” Christian which as you say has nothing to do with belief, only with action. So, thanks for this post.

  23. tompicard
    tompicard  October 26, 2017

    I think you are implying this ‘Son of Man’ is a supernatural being not merely a great/righteous human who rules and judges in accordance to God’s Will.

    Maybe thats right, as he is coming with his angel, and the apocalyptic literary genre can be interpreted that way . ., but maybe not, and think it’s as likely Jesus is referring to a ‘Messiah’ as envisioned earlier prophets like Isaiah.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  October 26, 2017

      a couple of other points if you don’t mind.

      Would the ‘Son of Man’ assuming he were a Cosmic Being refer to God as ‘his Father’?
      Would the ‘Son of Man’ assuming he were a Cosmic Being refer to ‘the least of these’ as ‘his brothers and sisters’?
      Wouldn’t that be kind of unusual? I cant remember an angel calling God his Father nor humans his brothers and sisters.
      On the other hand those phrases would be expected if the ‘Son of Man’ were a regular human being.

  24. turbopro  October 26, 2017

    Prof, perhaps you may clarify why the difference in translation of the “figure” in the referenced Daniel 7:13-14, between the NRSV and the KJV?

    KJV: one like the Son of man

    NRSV: one like a human being

    While the KJV sounds sublime–as it is wont to do, the NRSV sounds quotidian.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      The NRSV is trying to make the term generically inclusive, rather than emphasizing its masculine gender.

      • turbopro  October 27, 2017

        Thanks prof.

        And sorry to press this, but then I should ask: was the term, as written in the Greek(??), generically inclusive?

        Moreover, if the term was not generically inclusive, why would the NRSV try to make it so?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2017

          It’s in Hebrew, and it is masculine. They make it inclusive because they don’t think the author was trying to say something about the figure’s gender, but that he was like a human being.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 27, 2017

      “Son of man,” in both Hebrew and Aramaic, means, in essence, “human being”. Though the NSRV translators were trying to be more politically correct in their translation, they have managed to also be — whether wittingly or not — more accurate as well.

  25. ask21771  October 26, 2017

    What elements in the new testament did not come from the old testament

  26. Stephen  October 26, 2017

    Do you or your fellow NT textual scholars detect any underlying unity within the material from Matthew’s special source, “M”, in the same way that scholars see “Q” or the “signs source” in John? Or is “M” more a loose and disparate collection of pericopes?


  27. jdub3125  October 26, 2017

    Regarding whether Jesus actually spoke various teachings versus the words were put on his lips by the NT authors, how much of the Sermon on the Mount was likely to have been spoken?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      A lot of it is replicated in Luke, and so comes from Q. My sense is that a number of the sayings are things that could actually go back to Jesus, but I don’t have a percentage in mind.

      • Eric  October 27, 2017

        Haven’t you noted elsewhere that a lot of the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount were somewhat commonplaces among certain preachers, rabbis, cynics or whatever? In which case many precede Jesus (or are indiependent, or he quoted someone else, or used a cliche) in the common environment of ideas at the time the Gospels were written?

      • jhague  October 27, 2017

        And the saying weren’t said as a sermon but were put together as one in Matthew and Luke, correct?

  28. CarlWeetabix  October 27, 2017

    I can’t tell you how much I wish, minus the fire and brimstone, that “Christians” took your view here. I find increasingly that I am atheist who is in many ways feels is a follower of Jesus who wants to say, “How dare you question my faith, I am more faithful to Jesus than you are!”

  29. fikile1@hotmail.co.uk  October 27, 2017

    Do you think Jesus believed in an afterlife? Reference: Matthew 22:32, he is not God of the dead but of the living.

  30. evanball  October 27, 2017

    Thanks Dr. Ehrman, Do you think the NT authors have a unified belief in eternal conscious torment? For example, I can see it in Matthew and Revelation, but not so much in Paul. Which authors, if any, do you think subscribe to ETC and which do not?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      I’m not sure it’s in Revelation, is it? But no, I don’t think there is one and only one NT view of the matter.

  31. aaron512  October 28, 2017

    Professor Ehrman, would you say that John 17:5 implies that John thought of Jesus in a Trinitarian sense as “The Son”, and as being subservient to “The Father” (whom Jesus prays to in John 17:5)?

    If not, would you find it strange that John, who apparently considered Jesus to be God, has Jesus praying to The Father/God? Wouldn’t John’s attempt at portraying Jesus as God be undermined by this verse?


    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      I wouldn’t say that the later doctrine of the Trinity is anywhere in the New Testament; but in that later doctrine, the son was *not* subservient to the Father but was fully equal.

  32. Alfred  October 30, 2017

    Re the sheep and goats and why you would separate them. If you were shepherding both sheep and goats, running them together and leading them to green pastures you would almost certainly be shepherding females because the males don’t produce milk, cause trouble and taste bad. You or your neighbour would have one or two males of each kind as stud animals. One a year you would flush your females (give them lots to eat) and then put the ram our (and the billy goat). You have to separate them for this purpose, given the propensity for inter-species encounters that could disrupt the intended mating. I think this is why Jesus ended his metaphors at the point he did.

    • godspell  November 1, 2017

      Sheep are, in general, more biddable than goats, who are notoriously truculent. Sheep flock together, goats are more independent.

      I don’t think Jesus meant his metaphors to be taken literally. He’s speaking in terms the mainly rural folk he’s talking to will understand. Obedience to God’s will is what he’s emphasizing, and he says God wills us to love each other, behave as if we’re all one flock, looking out for each other, instead of going our own way.

      (That being said, wasn’t Jesus himself a goat, in the eyes of most fellow Jews, and authority figures in general? Nobody ever went his own way more emphatically, or famously.)

      I don’t know if they kept herding dogs in Palestine, but I suppose that would have been a decent metaphor for the Son of Man. And, you know, dog spelled backwards…..


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