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The Son of Man, Pericopes, and the Complexities of Biblical Scholarship

I realized anew this morning why it is so difficult for scholars of the NT (or the Hebrew Bible) to explain the results of their results of their research to non-scholars.  Well, one of the reasons.  As is true, I suppose, for most fields of serious intellectual inquiry, the *results* of scholarship are built on other results that are built on other results that are built on… and so it goes.   If the scholar explains his findings without explaining the background – the assumptions based on previous findings that are built on the assumptions based on yet previous findings and so on – then it all sounds very arbitrary and rather easily dismissed.

That’s why it is so easy for a scholar to give an interpretation of a passage based on a detailed analysis that is itself based on careful research only to have a non-scholar “refute” it simply by quoting a verse from somewhere else.   The non-expert simply assumes the scholar doesn’t know about this other verse, or hasn’t thought about it, or taken it into account.  But that is almost always wrong – if we’re talking about a serious scholar.

I’ll give a simple example and then I’ll explain the real, more complicated example, that brought this whole business to mind to me this morning.

Simple example….

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The Sheep and the Goats
The Academic Study of the New Testament



  1. godspell  October 24, 2017

    Let’s try something more modern.

    In Star Wars (1977) we’re told unequivocally that Luke Skywalker’s father was betrayed and murdered by Darth Vader. We’re not told that Princess Leia is his sister, and it is strongly implied there is a sexual rivalry between Luke and Han Solo over her. That’s made much more explicit in the next film. In which we find out Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and he only metaphorically killed Anakin Skywalker, by turning to the Dark Side of the Force. Then in the final film, we learn that Leia is Luke’s sister, which I’ve always found a little creepy, but okay, fine.

    Then there are three prequel films (I hate that word), which try to make all of this make sense, and they really don’t. They do not make any sense.

    Now it’s quite clear (and all experts in this particular field of study agree) that George Lucas was making up the story as he went along. He did not know, when he wrote the film we now call Episode Four: A New Hope, that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. That’s why Obi-Wan addresses Vader as “Darth”, like it’s his first name, when we find out in the prequel films that it’s just a title. Obviously he’d refer to him as Vader, or even better, by his original name–if that had been originally part of the storyteller’s conception. It wasn’t.

    (I’m not even going to get into all the changes Lucas made to films already shot, because I don’t want to start frothing at the mouth).

    This is all fiction (heavily borrowed from earlier fictions). It’s quite obvious that the gospels were not written as fiction. They do not take place “A long time ago”–they took place in the very recent past–that’s what we’re told, and there is independent evidence that is the case. None of the enemies of Christianity ever referred to Jesus as a fictional personage until the 18th century. We have polemics against Christianity from quite early in its development, and they’re saying Jesus was not who his followers say he is–they never say he wasn’t a real person. It’s universally assumed he lived, breathed, and was crucified. If it’s a con, it’s the best one ever perpetrated (and yet, so inconsistent in execution–they keep changing their pitch).

    But some of the same principles apply. You have a story. You expand on it. There are gaps, continuity problems, plot holes (real life often seems to be nothing but plot holes). You try to fix the plot holes. Screenwriters sometimes call this ‘spackle’. It’s also called ‘retconning’ in some geeky circles. Retroactive continuity. You to back and you try to make the story more of a continuous whole. But there’s no copyright. Anybody who can write can tell their own version of the story. And then you have a lot of different versions of the original story to try and rationalize.

    You start by telling one story, but the story keeps changing, mutating, as more and more people get into it, look for their own meanings in it.

    Many different people told the story of Jesus. They used it to express differing opinions, differing visions, and differing facts. They did not agree who Jesus was, or what he meant. And they would each try to retcon the gospel story, to make everyone believe in their ideas. That did not stop with the gospels. It’s still going on today. According to Mel Gibson, Jesus invented the table.

    There was a real person there, under all the accretions of theology and myth. He’d find all of this very baffling. We can make some good guesses about who he was, and what he said. And the one thing we can know about him is that he must have been truly remarkable. A much more interesting character than anyone in Star Wars, you ask me. He feels much more real. Because he is real.

    I sometimes think he’s more real than any of us.

    • Wilusa  October 25, 2017

      I’m afraid I *can’t* “know” that the man himself was “truly remarkable”! I can’t have the mindset of one of the people who would have known him. But I think it’s most likely that if I – my present day-self, somehow transported to that era – were to have met him, without there being any language barrier, I would have disliked him. *Especially* if he’d begun claiming on his own (as Bart believes) that he was the “Messiah,” rather than having been convinced of it by his disciples.

      • godspell  October 27, 2017

        Well, it seems like a lot of people back then didn’t like him. I mean, when they nail you to a piece of wood until you die, that kind of goes without saying. “He was despised. Despised and rejected.” From Handel’s Messiah. See, we even sing songs about how much people didn’t like him. 🙂

        Your emotional prejudices notwithstanding, he’s going to be around a long long time after we’re all dust. Nothing you can do about it. Anymore than the people trying to say Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare will ever get anywhere.

        I’ve seen some pretty convincing arguments Jesus did not say he was Messiah, that this role was forced upon him, but I respect Bart’s opinion, which he would gladly admit is precisely that. If he thought he was the Messiah, wouldn’t that make him greater than any other man born of woman? Then why did he say, after John the Baptist’s death, that no one born of woman was greater than John? The criterion of dissimilarity makes it pretty likely he said that. Since the early Christians desperately wanted him to be the Messiah, the criterion offers us no help there. They would be all too happy to put those words in his mouth.

        You don’t want him to be God, and it’s pretty obvious he never claimed to be.

        But if he wasn’t God, he was human. If he was human, he had flaws.

        And you will hate him for that. And forgive yourself.

        Well, nothing more human than that.

        • Wilusa  October 30, 2017

          I don’t “hate” him. I simply think the real man was – probably – no more interesting, and no more deservedly “important,” than any of the preachers we see on TV today. He just happened to have followers who convinced themselves, and others, that he’d miraculously “risen from the dead.”

          I know Christianity (with believers revering and/or worshipping an idealized “Jesus”) isn’t going to die out in my lifetime. And that’s fine with me. I realize it enriches some people’s lives. But I believe all theistic religions will die out within the next thousand years. Not in any dramatic way; they’ll just have fewer and fewer believers…and finally, none.

          • godspell  October 31, 2017

            You have no basis for thinking any of that. It’s just what you want to believe, because you want to diminish him.

            Why should we think Lincoln was any better than Trump?

            That’s where your kind of thinking leads.

            “Within the next thousand years.” Leaving yourself a bit of leeway, I see.

            The way we’re going, who says there’s going to be any people a thousand years from now?

            I don’t believe in an idealized Jesus. I believe in a flawed man, who saw further than most, and we’re still catching up to him, and a few other great visionaries. And if we don’t, we’re going to destroy ourselves.

            And a secular humanity, I fear, could be even more self-destructive than a religious one. The 20th Century speaks eloquently of how bad things can get when people start believing in nothing but ‘survival of the fittest.’

          • Wilusa  November 2, 2017

            “You have no basis for thinking any of that. It’s just what you want to believe, because you want to diminish him.

            “Why should we think Lincoln was any better than Trump?

            “That’s where your kind of thinking leads.”

            It’s possible to *know* enough about the words and deeds of someone like Lincoln that we can make a reasonably accurate assessment of his character, *and* his uniqueness in his era. That isn’t the case with Jesus.

            There are only a few certainties about Jesus. He existed; he came from Nazareth: he had a group of disciples; he was crucified for having allegedly called himself the future “King of the Jews”; at least some of his disciples came to believe he’d risen from the dead. It’s a *near*-certainty that he was baptized by John the Baptist and was, like John, an apocalypticist.

            We can’t be sure of any of his “words and deeds.” If he did express some profound ideas, *we have no way of knowing whether they were original with him*.

        • Wilusa  November 2, 2017

          “ ‘Within the next thousand years.’ Leaving yourself a bit of leeway, I see.

          “The way we’re going, who says there’s going to be any people a thousand years from now?”

          Considering how long our species has existed, a thousand years is a short period of time. Earth may be habitable for close to another *billion* years! And I’m an optimist. I envision a better future, where our descendants will move beyond this planet – exploring a new “frontier,” making such exciting discoveries that all humans’ old, petty rivalries will be forgotten.

      • dragonfly  October 28, 2017

        The most remarkable thing about Jesus is what his followers did after his death.

        • godspell  October 30, 2017

          Yes, but if he chose those followers, or they chose him, and his death so affected them that they were inspired to do all they did.

          It’s never just one man. That’s not how history works. But some people do have a special knack for inspiring others. That they get turned into more than they were after their deaths doesn’t make them any less remarkable.

  2. tomruda  October 24, 2017

    Bart, I appreciate this Blog and the scholarship you bring. It is very refreshing. Why are goats bad and sheep used as a metaphor for being good in this story? Does it have to do with following, docility vs butting heads or being stubborn or is it something else? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      I wish I knew! I myself much prefer sheep. Goats are always going after me….

      • godspell  October 25, 2017

        Goats are wonderful creatures. They eat pestiferous kudzu, and turn it into delicious milk and cheese.

        They also fed my dog with their somewhat pungent flesh, when he became allergic to chicken and beef.

        They also provided our Lord with his best metaphor.

        Blessed are the goats, for they shall see BAHHHHHH!!!!!!!!


      • anthonygale  October 26, 2017

        I’m not saying this is necessarily relevant, but the easiest way to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat is that the tail of a sheep points down and the tail of a goat points up. Ironically, the sheep are pointing to hell and the goats to heaven!

  3. JonH  October 24, 2017

    But why male models?

    Er, I mean, considering how much the author of Matthew edited the material, why do you think he would have neglected to make an explicit “son of man” reference conform to his own theology or Christology? That seems like a significant item to overlook.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      For him, the Son of Man christology *does* conform with his views. He saw Jesus as the son of man and calls him the son of man; so any saying, in his own literary context, in which Jesus uses the phrase son of man, he is talking about himself.

  4. Steefen  October 24, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, you wrote:
    pronounced “per-i-co-pee”, with the accent on the “i.”
    When a person goes to google and searches “define pericope” the result is
    There is a listen icon.
    Your pronunciation did not put the r before the i and connect the k sound to the end of the i. Just checking if the google pronunciation is how you are pronouncing the word.
    = = =
    You say the author/s who wrote under the name Matthew understood Jesus to be the Son of Man and explicitly wrote that Jesus was the Son of Man, but you are disagreeing with the author. I do not think anyone can tell Mark Twain who Tom Sawyer is.

    Your point seems to be you do not see how Jesus could be transfigured into the Son of Man at another time and at another place where souls would be judged. In this other place and other time or transfigured contemporary place and time [ the kingdom of God was at hand and people would have been weeping and gnashing teeth when long dead prophets would have been transfigured into life–and the Son of Man transfigured into life].

    The New Testament describes life after death for all Hebrew prophets and life after death for the crucified Son of Man Jesus.

    Question: Where else can someone say an author of fiction who is responsible for setting up the fictitious world is incorrect in the world he created?
    Question: Does Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, Acts, Letters of Paul, or Revelation say Jesus was not the Son of Man?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      1. Nowhere 2. Absolutely not.

      • Steefen  November 8, 2017

        Outside of being a Biblicist or for whatever reason Christology has limitations, outside of limitations, Gaius Julius Caesar is the Son of Earth – Son of Man. The fictional Jesus sometimes taught his disciples about Gaius Julius Caesar, the forgiveness of Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s prediction of his destruction, his resurrection and divinization, the Romanization of Judaism from a militant messianism that caused Rome major problems.

    • Sixtus  October 29, 2017

      The way Washington likes to cut around the health care crises perhaps it should be pronounced peri-co-pay!

  5. Pattylt  October 24, 2017

    I have a question that may be better for the reader mailbag as a bit off topic here. I have read and reread the Philippians hymn over and over and from my understanding the hymn seems to be saying that Jesus received the name Jesus at the point of exaltation, not the title Lord. Now I certainly can see where Christians would demand the interpretation of Lord being the name given (it’s a title, not a name) but It seems that every discussion from scholars do too! I assume I am missing something that must be in the Greek or has been determined from past scholarship that shows that the hymn really is saying that the Name above all other names is Lord, not Jesus. Could you please enlighten me since the plain reading isn’t saying that to me! Have any other scholars determined that Jesus was named thus after the exaltation but may have had a different name before? Thanks in advance for any help!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      At least Paul doesn’t think that’s “the name” given at the resurrection, since he uses the name “Jesus” for events that happened prior to the resurrection (e.g. 1 Cor 11:22-24). We do have NT authors who think Jesus received God’s name “Lord” at the resurrection, though (acts 2:36).

      • SidDhartha1953  October 27, 2017

        Lord (adonai) being an epithet for YHWH, your mean? YHWH would be “the name that is above every name” for any Jew, Christian or not. I’ve always been fascinated by the statement in Revelation that everyone who made it into the New Jerusalem would receive a white stone with a secret name written inside, known only to the recipient of that name (and God, I presume). Was that John’s way of saying all the saints would be exalted to the status of divinity, though not the level of YHWH?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 27, 2017

          Yes, just as a messenger comes “in the name of the king” Jesus is given “the name of the king”

  6. HenriettePeterson  October 24, 2017

    Okay, I am a scientist myself (computer science), so I’d say my comment is coming from rather the scholarly perspective. I appreciate that you yourself use the word “probably” a lot in both your books and blogs, however sometimes I miss the “probability” flavour altogether. It seems to me that you imply that these fundamentalists are simply wrong and we scholars are right. There are hundreds of us, we have developed all sorts of methods, we know each other, we peer review our research work, we come to coherent conclusions, therefore we are right. You assume something, then you assume something else, then you assume something else and then you say “well, it’s not the same SON OF MAN because it’s pericopes, and there are all these dating issues and circulating stories issues and all these non-scholars don’t about this therefore they can’t understand why we scholars are right”. What’s the probability that your dating of the gospels is correct, 70%? If just in this case you’re wrong all of your assumption system falls like a house of cards. Because then it is possible that an eyewitness was saying the story to the writer and it was all one pericope and Jesus meant himself. Bam! Many times you argue that “most of the scholars think this or that” and of course that is a healthy reasoning, but in real life sometimes the most improbable things happen and if you go for only what is most probable you can miss the truth altogether. You say Jesus never claimed to be divine because you know all the research, all the methods and all the scholars and you say it with certainty of a child that knows lollipops are sweet. But let’s say someone finds a manuscript of John that almost all scholars would agree was written in the year 50. Then your theory will fall apart like house of cards (sorry for using the phrase twice). What I miss a bit is humility. You’re so sure Jesus never claimed to be divine, but the fact is that you don’t know. You just think he never did, you were not there to hear it. And the fact that you have all these theories and scholars and research (which are all great things!) doesn’t change the fact that you still just think he never did. What I miss is humility and expression of probability. It’s not the same thing to say “WW2 happened” and “Jesus didn’t say he’s God”. Why can’t you say it’s 65% probable to my best knowledge that Jesus never claimed to be divine (or some similar statement)?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      I wasn’t trying to say that critical scholars are definitely right about everything; I was making a much milder comment, that scholars presuppose the results of earlier findings when talking about their conclusions on one point or another, and if you don’t know these presupposed results the conclusions can seem arbitrary.
      The problem with establishing statistical probabilities for historical claims (precise numbers: 65%, e.g.) is that there is no way … to establish them!

      • HenriettePeterson  October 25, 2017

        Thank you. I understand that. I’ll get back to the two statements I already mentioned – “WW2 happened” and “Jesus didn’t say he’s God”. In normal lay language these are equivalent statements and I think many people automatically understand them to be equivalent when they read books written by scholars. However very very very very few people would doubt that “WW2 happened” since we have incredible amount of evidence including living survivors of the event, etc. It’s the same as saying that sky is blue or world is not flat. However, saying that “Jesus didn’t say he’s God” is something entirely different since he lived 2000 years ago and we have tiny tiny tiny tiny fraction of evidence compared to the former statement I mentioned as an example. I’ve ready many of your books and watched many debates. I understand exact statistical formulas can’t be used. However, what I miss is at least language constructions that would mirror the great uncertainty that is present. I’d bet most people understand the phrase “historical Jesus” as the real Jewish guy breathing the air of Galilee. But that is not true. It is just a construct that scholars achieve with research, developed historical methods, peer reviewed stuff etc. “Historical Jesus” is the best historians can come to with their present methods and evidence. To conclude, from a scientific perspective I’d appreciate more of the flavour of “I think, but I can’t be that sure” in the final mix. Sorry if I’m too rude.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 27, 2017

          Yes, I completely agree. Even though some events from the past are certain to our minds (my Tar Heels have one only one football game this season) (sigh…) at the end of the day, *everything* is simply a matter of probabilities (maybe all the media misreported the scores; hey it’s possible. One should always be hopeful). And some things are *far* less “probable” even though they are reasonably probable. For yet other things the probabilities are balanced. And so on.

  7. TBeard  October 24, 2017

    Do you think they should’ve included The Gospel of Thomas in the New Testament canon?

  8. ardeare  October 24, 2017

    And……..there’s also another important factor at work. I read your books, study your material, and belong to your blog. I learn a great many things. I’ve also read the writings of Dale Martin from Yale and listened to his 26 lectures on the New Testament which is available online. While the two of you certainly don’t agree on everything, you agree on a lot. In fact, it was through his series that I learned about your book, “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings” which I’ve since purchased and read. I’ve also read the works of Richard Bauckman of Cambridge and N.T. Wright of Oxford. The latter two don’t agree on everything, but they agree on a lot. Based on academic achievement, we might suspect that team Ehrman/Martin and team Bauckman/Wright would agree on just about everything. Problem is, it’s just the opposite.

    As an independent, lifelong learner, I often compare the texts of the KJV, NIV, and NRSV. But, here’s an important caveat. When studying with Professor Wright, he uses the KNT version of the New Testament to teach. A quote from the cover is, “In The Kingdom New Testament, Wright achieves a closer match to the Scripture’s original Greek.” I mean, this is a profound declaration. Scholars can read the identical piece of ancient Greek and arrive at different translations, which at times, sometimes very *key* times, changes the contextual certainty that the reader relies on to achieve a personal opinion on the passage.

    In synopsis: Scholars don’t always agree on translations, interpretations, historical context, logistics, criteria…….and on and on.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      Yup, that’s a fair assessment of Ehrman/Martin and Bauckham/Wright. Of course, we all know each other, but the differences are very clear.

  9. Wilusa  October 24, 2017

    I understand that, given other things I’ve learned – mostly from you.

    But…doesn’t the contradiction indicate inexcusable sloppiness on the Gospel author’s part? He should have seen that the two passages didn’t jibe!

    I never will buy into the notion that writings like this have any value as *literature*.

  10. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  October 24, 2017

    Son of Man is a fascinating topic. Is it–the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath or the son of man is lord of the Sabbath?

    Hurtado describes the term as Jesus’ idiolect and the use of Daniel 7 was Jesus possibly projecting himself into the scriptures. I believe Vermes doesn’t see any connection between Jesus and Daniel. (I might not have that completely right. It’s not the easiest to follow.)

    Then there’s another perspective (that is over my head and probably way off) for this ideology of an unnamed pre-existing angel that was before or a part of Daniel. Jesus believed in an angelic son of man coming on the clouds to earth and Paul could have picked up on that ideology as well. It may explain why Paul thought Jesus to be an archangel.

    It’s fascinating. I didn’t understand half of what I read, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      In the original saying, it was son of man. For Mark it was Son of Man.

      • SidDhartha1953  October 27, 2017

        To clarify:
        1) The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so,
        2) Man (every son of man) is lord (interpreter/judge) of the sabbath.
        1) The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so,
        2′) The Son of Man (i.e. Jesus) is Lord of (superior to/not bound by) the sabbath.

        Did I get that right?

  11. wostraub  October 24, 2017

    So, Bart, if I understand what you’re saying correctly, the pericope of the goats and sheep was handed to Matthew intact, but then he took the story and had Jesus identify himself as the Son of Man.

    One might then ask why, if Matthew was doing the writing, he just didn’t make the verses gibe to begin with in Mt 25:31, as in “When I come in my glory, and all the angels with me, I will sit on the throne in heavenly glory.”

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      Because he simply assumed/thought the Son of Man was Jesus and didn’t see any problem with leaving the passage as it was.

      • webo112
        webo112  October 25, 2017

        or, as per my comment below, that pericope was deemed “sacred” and Mathew thought of it as direct words from Jesus passed on to him (or Mathew’s boss did) ….possibly given to him in written form, thus combined with your reasoning; and the above- it was left as is. (imo)

        BUT now I know why Bart you always *emphasize* that “we don’t know what the originals said” – its very true, there could have been many edits, omissions etc not only to the original gospel writings, but of course to any written or oral stories before them…regardless of how well a story may appear to have been preserved.

        I think its one of the most significant points you make that often gets overlooked and taken for granted.

  12. mathieu  October 24, 2017

    Wow. I thought I was pretty well steeped in this stuff (I’ve read most of your books and done a lot of thinking) and you are blowing my mind. I love it.

  13. Stephen  October 24, 2017

    “assembled” Now that’s an interesting predicate. Should we draw any conclusions from its usage? For instance that you see the authors of the gospels as primarily redactors rather than composers?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      I see them as both.

      • webo112
        webo112  October 25, 2017

        yes me too

      • Stephen  October 26, 2017

        This is one of the areas that fascinates me most. Could you pencil this subject into your by now voluminous list of discussion topics? The gospel writers (especially Mark) as composers and literary craftsmen. Maybe do some literary criticism?


  14. seahawk41  October 24, 2017

    This is indeed an issue in all (or most) academic disciplines. Consider climate change denialists, anti-evolutionists, etc. They bring up all kinds of “facts” as though the scientists were not aware of such and had not taken them into account in their theories. Science, like Biblical studies, builds on previous work, which was built upon previous work, … Of course, there are those “paradigm shifts” ala Kuhn, where we take a new view of the previous work, but contra Kuhn, that is a new viewpoint, not a negation of the previous work!

  15. anthonygale  October 24, 2017

    Do you ever find, even if only sometimes, that when non Biblical scholars provide their opinions it is helpful to you even from a scholarly perspective?

    Reading this post, as I think how what you discuss relates to my field and probably many others, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes: Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler. Certainly, one is vulnerable to drawing the wrong conclusion if they don’t consider all relevant information (which nobody really has full access to about any subject). I bet it can be frustrating, perhaps even offensive, when a lay person (or anyone) thinks they can refute with a one-liner what you’ve been professionally working hard on for years, as if you haven’t been thinking carefully about it. But at the same time, I think the lay person has at least one advantage compared to the scholar: they don’t have so much information to weigh, some of which might be more confusing than clarifying. If conclusions are drawn based on other conclusions regarding the majority consensus explanation for conflicting pieces of evidence, some of which are still debated, then there are multiple points where errors can be made. It must be tremendously hard to keep track of all that information and decide what to do with it. There is no doubt that scholars make mistakes because they disagree on loads of things and cannot all be right. And, even for scholars who do their best to be objective (some are a bit better than others), I think there is a tendency to get attached to their theories. At the very least, people are unlikely to change their mind about anything they’ve been thinking for years, especially when they have evidence that seems to support it (similar in some respects to many people’s religious beliefs). That being said, I think sometimes having less information can make it easier to see the forest through the trees and accept that a small piece of evidence, no matter how much other evidence that supports a theory, is devastating to that theory. If you don’t see as many trees, you might ignore relevant ones (increasing the chance of an erroneous conclusion) but also ignore irrelevant ones (simplifying an effort to balance conflicting information). No matter how much information supports a theory, one simple fact can prove it all wrong. Did I attend the Dodgers Astros game today? If I have a ticket stub (that I got from a friend), can tell you what happened at the game (because I watched in on TV), have a picture of me sitting in the stadium (that I took last year), and have my friends tell you that I went (because I asked them to lie), would you believe me? It would be pretty convincing. But if court records showed that I was in jail on the other side of the country that night (I wasn’t really), ALL of the other evidence, as convincing and plentiful as it seemed, could be dismissed. It’s easier to dismiss a theory thought if you haven’t held for very long or never did in the first place.

    In regard to the theme of your post (I realize my comments are a bit of an offshoot), I think the “as simple as possible but not simpler” idea also relates to the challenge of explaining your scholarly work to a lay audience. If I remember correctly, when discussing the first time you wrote for a textbook in the introduction to one of your books, you said a teacher told you the hardest part would be to decide what to leave out.

    Getting back to my question, rather than just rant my thoughts triggered by your post (I suppose I thought it important to provide background to my question but wanted to state it up front in case my rantings bored you): Do you ever find, even if only sometimes, that when non Biblical scholars provide their opinions it is helpful to you even from a scholarly perspective? There is no doubt that 99.9% of what I’ve learned in my career field is from teachers, intensive self study, and practical experience. Yet that 0.1%, for me at least, contains a diamond or two.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      YEs, often a non-scholar will make an observation that I think is interesting and worth reflecting on, especially here on the blog.

  16. Jayredinger  October 25, 2017

    Brilliant post. This is a huge problem, especially when speaking to uninformed folk. Very often an insurmountable obstacle.

  17. Alfred  October 25, 2017

    Peh-REE-coe-pee? Or peh-RIH-coe-pee? Short or long ‘i”? I or I: ?

  18. RonaldTaska  October 25, 2017

    These different pericopes remind me of how different versions of stories get spliced together in the Old Testament (the Documentary Hypothesis) and in the different accounts of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts. Thanks for pointing it out in the Gospels.

  19. RVBlake  October 25, 2017

    Bart, I’m not one of your students and I’ve only been on the blog for a couple of months – disclaimers safely aside – What is the refutation to John 8:58? Is it your contention that the Gospel of John is not historically reliable? Fascinating about the pericopes, by the way. I’m learning tons on this blog.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      I”m not sure what you mean by “refutation.” But yes, John’s sayings are widely considered to be historically problematic.

      • RVBlake  October 25, 2017

        I inferred that the student in your example was quoting John 8:58 in order to refute your contention that Jesus did not consider himself to be divine.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 27, 2017

          Ah, right. Yes, my response is that this is not something that jesus himself ever said, like many of the sayings in the Gospel of John.

  20. webo112
    webo112  October 25, 2017

    This further emphasizes for me that (some) of the gospel writers, and perhaps the re-tellers of the oral stories, must have had some sort of “respect” for the original stories that were passed along, especially if they were obtained in written form. As opposed to just ignoring oral traditions passed along to them, and recreating & revising as the writer’s saw fit.

    This seems very evident when one looks at the differences when the author “creates” his own story, and when evidently he doesn’t change much of an apparently *inherited* story…in fact, you see some of this evidence once the stories (of the gospels) were themselves written down – as they too were reproduced with the desire to “respect” the fundamental stories in them – as if they too contained sacred stories of their savior (yet a story may have been invented by the gospel writer). Another similar example/evidence would be Q and how the sayings were “fundamentally” preserved.

    These unique ‘pericopes’ that were perhaps acquired by the gospel writers – that they didn’t change (much?)- must have been viewed as “sacred” and going back to Jesus or his disciples (or at least they thought that). They were preserved through and integrated within the gospel authors’ own fiction/writings.

    So in my opinion, these “sacred” pericopes are further evidence for a historical Jesus. On the basis of ‘uncorrupted transmission from inheritance’, and not just based the other historical criteria used (multiple attestation, criteria of dissimilarity, etc)

    And I would further push (but speculate) that many of these separate oral stories/ pericopes were passed along (at least to the gospel writers) in *written form* – which made them appear more “sacred” and more significant, which gave them more reason to keep them ‘unchanged’ in the gosples.

    Personally I thought you were going to touch on what form (oral or written) were stories passed along (and how pre- gospel stories, Q and the sort may have been *perceived* and *why* they were re-transmitted ) in your book “Jesus before the gospels”

    But of course we don’t have any (existing) narrative/sayings writings pre-gosple (aside from Paul), but I think the way the pericopes have survived are clues to that era AND form of transmission and sacred belief in them

  21. webo112
    webo112  October 25, 2017

    Also Bart, for your comment where you stated that “…that Jesus *did* see himself as the Son of man, as is evident from the very next thing he says. In the next passage, just two verses later, Jesus says that “The Son of man must be handed over to be crucified” (Matt 26:2). So he DID think of himself as that Son of man, obviously.”

    I can definitely understand why you went into the explanation of the pericopes’ , but in *this* particular case, one can also refute the above point by noting that that last verse is historically problematic, when applying the historical criterias etc.
    Which then further shows how the sheep and goat verses are an isolated periscope from this verse (Matt 26:2)
    I know you know this already, just pointing out to complete the loop and apply what I learn.
    (this is fun)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Important point: I’m not saying that *Jesus* (the man himself) saw himself as the son of man, but that Matthew portrays him as seeing himself as that one.

  22. jdub3125  October 25, 2017

    Was Matthew the gospel with the earliest Hebrew written version ?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      There is a Hebrew translation of Matthew from the Middle Ages; I’m not aware of Hebrew versions of the others.

  23. Hormiga  October 25, 2017

    A little late here, but I’m fascinated by the idea, new to me, of pericopes as elements of composition that predated the actual work, making the Gospels something of a patchwork. Is there a list of such pericopes that have been identified as pre-existing elements of, say, Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      I suppose just about every story in the Gospel would count — Mark has skillfully edited them together, but they came to him from the oral tradition. The only exception would be stories that he himself simply made up, but I don’t see much evidence of that sort of thing in his Gospel, or in any of the others.

  24. Hon Wai  October 25, 2017

    “Jesus almost certainly did not consider himself a divine being in any sense.”
    To my limited knowledge of the discipline, this view is the dominant position among biblical scholars. However, Andrew Loke recently published “The Origin of Divine Christology” (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, Cambridge 2017) which argues that Jesus taught he was the literal embodiment of Yahweh. Loke’s specialisation is analytic philosophy of religion and theology of christology. Nonetheless he managed to get published in a leading biblical studies monograph series, and the book got endorsement by Simon Gathercole (Reader in NTS, Cambridge) and Richard Bauckham.
    It will be interesting to see how the book will be received by the scholarly community.

  25. gabilaranjeira  October 25, 2017

    This per-i-co-pee explanation was very didactic. Great post!

  26. ask21771  October 26, 2017

    Is there a chance that the apocalyptic stories that lead to Christianity were dated wrong

  27. HenriettePeterson  October 27, 2017

    “And so even though Matthew himself understood Jesus to be the Son of Man”
    Do you think Luke also “modified/interpreted” the stories he heard and wrote down? From both, Acts and Luke, it seems to me that Jesus is presented as a socialist-like revolutionary figure with extreme emphasis on wealth distribution. The “rich guy” is a d!ck because he doesn’t want to give all his money away. Sapphira and her hubby are killed for money issues. Christians are living in utopian communities, share everything, etc. Do you think it’s possible that Luke simply projected his socialistic ideas on the Jesus figure he learned about and had no problem with the fact that he might actually be “lying” when writing it down his own way?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Yes, Luke definitely altered the stories/sayings he received in light of his own agenda. But that wouldn’t be lying exactly; it would be more like spinning.

      • rburos  October 31, 2017

        In political science we consider three types of “lies”–lies of commission, lies of omission, and spinning (though this is a clear case of mutatis mutandis lol).

    • godspell  October 27, 2017

      Okay, pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever heard a gospel author described as a socialist.

      There are some ‘socialist’ ideas expressed in Paul’s epistles, in Mark’s gospel, in Matthew’s gospel.

      So why blame Luke?

      And Jesus wasn’t a figure. He was a real living person, who chose a life of extreme poverty, and encouraged all around him to do the same. I don’t know if that’s socialism or not. Believe it or not, nobody thought of themselves as ‘left’ or ‘right’ until the 19th century.

      And that term comes from the French revolutionary constituent assembly. Those who sat on the right were a bit more conservative (in that they didn’t want to destroy everything). But far as the European monarchies were concerned, every single person in that assembly was a dangerous radical.

      It’s all relative. But Christianity, in its ideals, reveres poverty, despises wealth. Always has.

      Do Christians live consistently by that ideal? You tell me.

      • HenriettePeterson  October 30, 2017

        I did not use the term ‘socialist’ in the way you described it in your comment. I actually wrote socialist-like. What I meant was ‘a person who wants to achieve social justice with heavy emphasis on wealth distribution’. This later turned into what you describe – glorification of poverty. Now, would you raise your son telling him you want him to have the worst clothes, go to the worst school and eat the worst food? Because that is exactly what glorification of poverty looks like in practice. I think Jesus’ point was to heal the rich guy from his slavery to money. He was trying to teach him to love people use money, not the other way around. On the other hand I think Luke’s point was to make Jesus look like a guy who manipulates every rich person to distribute all his/her wealth among other people (see Acts as well). There is a huge difference between manipulating someone and freeing him from slavery to money while leaving his free will intact. Luke is aggressive, in his story Sapphira is killed for bullshit money. Now where is love your enemies in that? It’s kill people who give less money (and possibly lie about it) if they are not for our cause! Luke’s Jesus is a manipulator, however the real Jesus is unconditional love and does not manipulate. The real Jesus didn’t even manipulate Luke to write his gospel in a certain way!

        • godspell  October 31, 2017

          Jesus’s point was that there would be no money in the Kingdom at all. And how do you enter the Kingdom? By living as if it’s already here. So the more money you have, the more damned you are. You don’t have to agree, but it’s quite consistent. Jesus despised money. He felt that spending your life in the pursuit of wealth was destructive to the soul. He had basically no property other than the clothes on his back. If you could have explained capitalism to him, he’d have hated it with all his being. I don’t think he’d have cared much for Marxism either, but the basic ideas of socialism he probably would have seen some merit in. We should all be equal before God, and we should all treat each other like family. Not merely think about your own children, but all children. And he knows this is not a world where people can do that, so he’s waiting for God to transform that world. He believes it will happen soon. Well, depends on what you mean by ‘soon’.

          We shouldn’t assume any of the gospels, or Paul, give us a 100% accurate picture of Jesus, nor should we assume that about any modern biography written about somebody who died last Tuesday. He would have been a complex man, and some of his beliefs would have been self-contradictory, because it’s impossible to live in this world without contradicting yourself sometimes.

          I don’t think we can blame Luke for making Jesus a proto-socialist. I think that’s one area where Luke simply related what he’d been told. In many other ways he did manipulate the material to some extent. Not about that.

          He would not consider you his follower. I’m sorry if that hurts. He wouldn’t consider me one either.

          • HenriettePeterson  November 3, 2017

            ‘I think that’s one area where Luke simply related what he’d been told.’
            Well, this is what I had believed all my life. That all those people back then would never dare change a single word. That they would never dare change a sentence intentionally, and that God would surely take care of the unintentional changes – in the sense that they would not be allowed to happen.

            The epic discovery that has happened for me is the fact that I was wrong in both matters. People have manipulated texts intentionally and many changes have happened unintentionally and no Deity, angels, Holy Spirit or Virgin Mary stopped them!
            Gospel writers were already interpreting what they had heard and these interpretations are present in the text, furthermore they were later modified by scribes. And no Deity, angels, Holy Spirit or Virgin Mary prevented this from happening. This allows you, me, scholars and everybody else with many questions and uncertainties. I find this liberating. It brings me freedom not anxiety.

  28. wannes  October 27, 2017

    Any suggestions where we can read more about pericopes and the use of different sources in the NT writings? I found the part in “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings” about John an its sources really interesting!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      It depends how seriously you want to dig into scholarship. Maybe you could try reading a more comprehensive Introduction to the New TEstament, like the one written by Raymond Brown?

  29. aaron512  October 28, 2017

    Professor Ehrman, would you say there is evidence of redaction in Proto-Isaiah (which is presumably mostly written by Isaiah himself), possibly by the author of Deutero-Isaiah or later authors?

    Also, would you consider Proto-Isaiah monotheistic or monolatristic?

    Thanks for your time

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      Do you mean First Isaiah? Yes, his work was definitely redacted. And he doesn’t make any monotheistic claims that I can recall.

  30. aaron512  October 28, 2017

    Professor Ehrman, I may be incorrect, but I have noticed that you now seem to estimate a slightly later date for Mark, when compared to your earlier New Testament talks/writings.

    I know you were usually mindful to mention a potential 70CE/post-70CE date in these earlier NT discussions of yours, but you seemed to put more emphasis on a mid-to-late 60’s CE date.

    In contrast, I recall more recent times where you have dated Mark to probably 70 CE. Whether or not it was before 70 CE is probably very important, given 70 CE is the date of Jerusalem’s destruction.

    I apologize if I have misrepresented your earlier views, but it just seems to be my observation.


    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      Yes, I now think that it was written soon after the destruction of the temple.

      • aaron512  October 29, 2017

        If possible, could you please tell me what changed your mind? This is a claim that is disputed my a lot of conservative Christians (not necessarily most conservative Bible scholars).

        • Bart
          Bart  October 30, 2017

          I think Mark 13 presupposes the destruction of the temple.

  31. rburos  October 31, 2017

    You speak about your preference for Schweitzer’s conclusion that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, which provides a possibly satisfactory answer to Judas’ betrayal. You also recommended Nils Dahl here on the blog, and I thought oo–a Norwegian! But I read his fist essay, the Crucified Messiah, and he seems to me to be dismissing Schweitzer for a hypothesis of Jesus as the hoped-for messiah. His enemies then leaped on the expectation and by the time he got to Pilate he wasn’t able to deny the charge without destroying his ministry. This doesn’t, however, help alleviate any of my confusion over the dogma of the Judas-as-betrayer, but it does add meat to Jesus’ last words in Mark. Both authors accentuate his lack of public teaching of himself as the messiah.

    My question isn’t why do you hold to the Schweitzer conclusion, but rather how do you as a professional historian navigate two opposing hypotheses, especially since it’s almost impossible to prove either one. Seems similar to a scientific theory, where you can never prove it but somebody can possibly disprove it.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2017

      Not sure if this answers your question: there is a *lot* that I disagree with Schweitzer on. I think his particular reconstruction of how Jesus imagined himself is wrong. But I do think that Jesus, in some sense, thought of himself as the messiah; and Dahl intimates that as well, when he talks about the grounds for the crucifixion.

  32. tompicard
    tompicard  October 31, 2017

    Dr Ehrman,

    >Matthew himself understood Jesus to be the Son of Man [in addition to the Christ]

    so are you saying you (21st century smart guy) understand Jesus authentic preaching better than Matthew (likely above average 1st century intelligent guy) did?

    I mean wouldn’t Matthew (in addition to other gospel authors) living at that time probably have a better feeling for the term ‘son of Man’ compared to you or I?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2017

      Yes, that’s the claim of all historians doing historical work on any figure. (Modern historians of Jefferson use sources of information, but they use them critically to determine what he *really* was like) If that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t need historians. You would just need collections of texts written in the period.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  November 1, 2017

        sure I can accept that in limited cases,
        for instance that 20th and 21st century historians and scholars understand Jesus authentic teaching better than 1st century author of Gospel of John.

        to me it seems reasonable because
        1) author of John has very very obvious and overriding theological points to make and
        2) we can compare Johns portrayal of Jesus against at least 3 others who portray the man Jesus quite differently

        On the other hand if its the case that Jesus actually preached the ‘son of man’ as a supernatural being, I dont see
        1) a theological reason why Matthew would want to contradict that to present the ‘son of man’ as a human being
        2) Nor are we aware of contemporaries of Matthew who contradict his understanding of the ‘son of man’ as human.

  33. CarlWeetabix  November 1, 2017

    As someone who works in computers I understand the difficulty. Often when talking with senior managers I realize that I’ve made multiple unspoken mental assumptions about knowledge that they wouldn’t necessarily have. It can take quite a bit of backtracking to get everyone on the same page.

    It’s a talent taking ideas that involve considerable prior experience and boil them down so that those outside of your circles can understand. I can’t say I’m always successful, however judging by your books and blog I think you can be pretty proud at your ability to converse at multiple levels.

  34. Luke9733  November 3, 2017

    When I read Jesus’ “Son of Man” sayings (the ones where it sounds like he’s talking about someone else, not him), it seems like he’s referring to the figure as a sort-of Messiah. Like in Matthew 25 when he says: “then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” Or even in Matthew 19 when he says: “when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory”.

    Sitting on a throne in glory sounds like a Messiah figure. But I know your view is Jesus saw himself as the Messiah. Would the Son of Man have been like a judge, but then Jesus would be the final King of God’s Kingdom, higher than the Son of Man? Or could Jesus have envisioned two Messiahs working together?

    I also have an unrelated question: Do you think Jesus began his ministry after John the Baptist was arrested, or before he was arrested? It seems to me like the circumstances that led to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry are maybe even more unclear than the circumstances that led to his arrest and crucifixion.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2017

      I”m not sure precisely *how* Jesus worked out all the complicated relationships between the Son of Man and the Messiah! Or if he even had a consistent view. My *guess* is that Jesus began his own ministry while John was engaged in his, but I think it’s hard to say.

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