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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. 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.

  2. Avatar
    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.

  3. 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.

  4. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

  5. Avatar
    ask21771  October 26, 2017

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

  6. Avatar
    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?


  7. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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?

      • Avatar
        jhague  October 27, 2017

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

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    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!”

  9. Avatar
    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.

  10. Avatar
    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.

  11. Avatar
    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.

  12. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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…..


  13. Avatar
    Luke9733  March 14, 2018

    Would you say that the story of the rich man in Mark 10: 17-22 would pass dissimilarity for the same reason that the story of the sheep and goats does? When I read the quote: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” – It seems as though belief in Jesus isn’t necessary for salvation based on this quote. (And the rich man even knows who Jesus is here!)
    What are your thoughts on that teaching?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2018

      Yes, I think it does pass the criterion for just that reason. (IN that story, faith in Christ is not the key to salvation)

  14. Avatar
    Steve Clark  February 4, 2020

    Quick Question

    Do you think the two passages in the Gospels, one in Matt 24:37 the other in Luke 17:26 (presumably going back to Q) where Jesus compares the coming apocalyptic event to the flood story could be authentic?

    To my ears this sounds like something historical Jesus would certainly have thought – and something powerful enough if he said it outright it would be remembered.

    I’m an old man now and the things I remember from my youth were powerful short impactful statements of some kind like this would have been to the listener.

    Thanks for your time!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      Yes, I think they may well be authentic. They seem to cohere with the parts of his message that can be established otherwise….

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