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True Stories that Didn’t Happen

In my previous post I explained how the term “myth” came to be applied to the miracle stories of the New Testament in the work of David Friedrich Strauss in 1835-36.   This is all background to what happened to me personally – 150 years later!  Before talking about how my views of the Bible changed once I realized many of its stories could not be literally, historically true, I should expand a bit on the very notion that, as Strauss thought, there could be true stories that didn’t happen.  What??  Yup.  Here’s how I explain it in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.


Skipping on to Modern Times

A lot – a very lot – has happened since Strauss published his Life of Jesus in 1836.  Scores of scholars have pored over every detail of the Gospels, thousands of books and articles have been churned out, countless views have been marshaled, debated, believed, and spurned.  And none of that is going to end soon, unless some of the people who think Jesus is coming back next week turn out to be right.

But one thing has remained constant since Strauss.  There continue to be scholars – for most of this century, it’s been the vast majority of critical scholars – who think that he was right, not in all or even most of the specific things he said, but in the general view he propounded.  There are stories in the Gospels that did not happen historically as narrated, but that are meant to convey a truth.  Few scholars today would …

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Would I Be Personally Devastated if the Mythicists Were Right? A Blast From the Past
The Gospels as Myths



  1. Avatar
    godspell  May 26, 2017

    Would it have benefited me as a child to have been told, instead of the story about the cherry tree, the story about how Washington not only kept slaves, but actively tried to recapture former slaves of his who had escaped him?

    It’s unquestionably a fact that this happened. And history must record it. But taken in isolation, it creates a picture of Washington as an evil tyrant. Which he could have become, if he’d wanted to. We owe many of our present-day freedoms (by ‘we’, I mean Americans of all races and creeds) to his refusing to become a tyrant, setting limits on the power of the Presidency, when many urged him not to do so. No doubt he was influenced to do this, in turn, by earlier stories that were not necessarily factual in nature–stories that conveyed a moral. Stories meant to try and instill an idea of right and wrong. Stories that unfortunately were not sufficient to make him sacrifice his personal well-being to do the right thing. But that’s something most of us are guilty of.

    Right and wrong are not facts. Good and evil are not facts. They do not exist in a state of nature. There is surviving and there is not surviving. There is propagation of genes, and the failure to propagate genes.

    Jeffrey Skilling, the Enron executive, said his favorite book was Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. How’d that work out? Dawkins was horrified at how badly he’d been misunderstood (I would say excessively extrapolated, and Dawkins surely read about Social Darwinism at university).

    The fact is, people are always looking for guides to how they should behave–and excuses to behave badly. Evolution does not, in fact, provide a very good model for a civilized technological culture. We need something else.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 26, 2017

    1. It’s been some time since I read “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium,” but, like most of your trade books and textbooks, it had a powerful impact on me. It’s high time I reread it.

    2. Does this theory imply that the Gospel authors knew that they were telling truthful, non-historical “stories” or did these stories get made up and passed along in the culture and repeated so often because of their story, non-historical truths that they eventually seemed historically true and then the Gospel authors also considered them to be historically true as well? Did the early church leaders of the first three centuries consider the Gospel accounts to be non-historical stories telling truths?

    3. It’s still stunning to me how these scholarly views are so different than the views expressed in my childhood church, the church down the street I used to attend, and even in my current, fairly intellectual neighborhood. This is particularly striking because these basic scholarly views have been around for well over 100 years. Even more striking is that few people in my world have any real interest in these scholarly views usually dismissing them as coming from “liberals” who don’t really know Jesus. In other words, those whom you think would have the most interest in learning this stuff, namely devout Christians, seem to be those who have the least interest in learning it. Humans are so confusing and disillusioning.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      2. I don’t think we can have any idea what they were actually thinking when they passed on their stories. I wish we could! But we have zero access to their thoughts. 3. I can’t remember: did you grow up in the South? It would have been very different if you had been raised in a different part of the world….

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  May 28, 2017

      It is ironic that people know very little about a subject so intimately connected to their lives. Why don’t they know about scholarly views? Especially critical scholarly views? My guess is they have no idea such a thing exists or they immediately reject anything that goes against their beliefs. I have a sister who listens to me talk about these things. She has somewhat of an interest for it but not as much as me. My husband acts like he’s in physical pain when I start talking about any of this stuff. As for everyone else, I’m pretty sure they think I’m in a cult.

  3. Avatar
    jhague  May 26, 2017

    The thing in my mind that doesn’t seem to work with the myth idea is that it appears that all the historical Bible characters believed the events to be historically true. And even though we’ve had the Enlightenment and most people today are educated, Christians all believe that the biblical event s are historically true…and they get emotionally angry when someone tries to explain that the stories did not happen. With most other topics, Christians can think reasonably, rationally and logically. But not topics of the Bible!

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 26, 2017

    Question: With regard to the title “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium,” I understand the “Apocalyptic Prophet” part, but am confused by the “New Millennium” portion of the title. I assume this refers to the 1,000 year, yet to come, “new” kingdom mentioned in “Revelation,” but I don’t think the Jesus in the Gospels ever mentions a thousand year period. Could you discuss this title a little more?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      Actually, I was just being cute. The book came out in 1999.

  5. Avatar
    Todd  May 26, 2017

    Bart…when I read these posts about how you lost your “faith” I keep thinking “what faith did you lose?” I have read in numerous places that there are nearly 40,000 different forms of Christianity. Does that mean that there are 40,000 different faiths that you’ve lost? I don’t think so. I can also pretty much guess what faith you lost, but it might be helpful if you include in this posting series an outline of what faith you think you lost. The faith you lost may not be a faith at all. Our illustrious President very recently said, “I am a Christian, and proud of it!” Well, he’s not a humble Christian, but I would like to know what flavor of Christian he is…in detail. If we say we are Christian, we need to know what kind of Christian we are. If we say we “lost our faith” we need to know what kind of faith we lost. Maybe that “faith” needed to be be lost, and replaced with a much better faith.

    Well, I do not think you have lost your faith…you’ve made a shift in your thinking. That faith you lost was likely not much of a faith to begin with. There is also, in my opinion, nothing shameful about being agnostic. We’re all humans, and none of us knows everything. You do great things through this blog and you do them for a purpose…to help those who are in hunger through charitable contributions, and to give us a better knowledge and the tools to understand one of the world’s great religions.

    So, I hope before this series of posts comes to an end, you will give us a bit of a summary of the faith you lost and include a bit of what left in Christianity today for those of us who have lost that faith also, that will help us make this world a better place to live.

    Much thanks from me if you will do that, and much thanks from me for the time you spend writing to us. Blessings. Todd

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      I’ve spent some considerable time already indicating what it was I believed. That’s what I lost.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 28, 2017

      I don’t think Bart ever said he lost faith in everything.

      The word faith can be used in a lot of ways, but to someone of an evangelical background, it tends to have a fairly specific interpretation. And once you’ve lost that kind of faith, you never get it back. You may find other faiths to replace it with. You may even question, as I have, whether that was ever really faith to begin with.

  6. Avatar
    hasankhan  May 26, 2017

    As Muslims, we believe Miracles are only meant to strengthen faith of those who witness it. Since those who do not witness it, have no basis to believe them except to trust the honesty of person narrating it. For this reason Prophets were sent to people of a specific time and specific group of people. And they performed miracles for ‘those’ people to help them believe in the unseen. When Jews rejected Jesus, the job of prophet (Jesus) had ended at that point. His message was not for gentiles or any other nation. Not only Romans corrupted the message but also started propagating and following something that wasn’t meant for them in first place.

    For this reason the last prophet Muhammad (who was meant for all humanity till the end of time) did not do miracles of super natural kind to make people believe in him. His miracle is the scripture itself i.e. Qur’an. Since Qur’an speaks about the future, science, nature, biology, etc that we can verify today and there is no way for him to have known 1400 years ago. Also Qur’an speaks about past that is quoted in Bible and Torah, which he could have not known since he did not know how to read and write and he lived in Arabia which was dominated by pagans. And that history quoted in Qur’an is free of scientific errors and contradictions that are found in Torah and Bible, so he would have to be a scholar to know what is right and what is wrong and only copy that which is right.

    So for Muslims, the existence of God is not proven by super natural events in history that are quoted in scriptures, which could be dismissed today as false by people as they don’t see it happening and normal humans can’t do them. Instead, for Muslims, the existence of God is proven by the Qur’an itself, which is open for everyone to read and reflect upon if this could be work of a human being or is speech of divine being. This is the reason Qur’an is not limited to a specific group of people or specific time in history since we can at anytime witness it’s miracle to become the believers.

    Qur’an (4:82) Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than Allah , they would have found within it much contradiction.

    Qur’an (47:24) Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an, or are there locks upon [their] hearts?

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  June 1, 2017

      hasankhan: Would you be willing to discuss this further in the members forum? I’m particularly curious about how the academic study of the Qur’an is like or unlike critical Biblical scholarship.

      • Avatar
        hasankhan  June 2, 2017

        Sure SidDhartha1953 we can do that. Which thread specifically?

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  June 5, 2017

          I started a new one. It’s called Critical Quranic Study.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  June 3, 2017

      1) i don’t understand, how you can hold that
      “Prophets were sent to people of a specific time and specific group of people. . . .. When Jews rejected Jesus, the job of prophet (Jesus) had ended at that point. “, I assume you hold the same regrading for Moses, Isaiah, etc
      and at the same time
      “Muhammad (who was meant for all humanity till the end of time)”
      Isn’t that inconsistent?
      I suppose something in the Qur’an implies Muhammed is the last prophet for all people, but any similar sayings by Jesus or writings by Paul you don’t accept . . . . I don’t believe that the verse regrading Mohammed as the seal of the prophets implies the above ( at least not to all Muslim scholars)

      2)I believe the Qur’an, like the Bible teaches that the world was created in 6 days, If you accept that part of the Qur’an being valid teaching for all people (regardless of whether your interpretation of the word ‘days’), then wouldn’t the Bible’s exact same teaching be appropriately valid for people besides the Israelites and in different time periods.

      3. I don’t understand Qur’an (4:82) that because book has no contradictions it is from Allah, unless you mean that in some metaphorical manner. Suppose my local phone directory which probably has many more verifiable facts in it and may have no contractions, would that mean that phone directory was authored by Allah?

      no disrespect meant, but I don’t understand your arguments

      • Avatar
        hasankhan  June 5, 2017

        1) The reason Prophet Muhammad was for all the humanity because there is no prophet coming after him. He is the last prophet. It is stated in the quran clearly and also in prophetic narrations (hadith). The small fraction of people who claim to be ‘Muslim’ and believe a new prophet came after Muhammad, are not considered Muslims by mainstream majority of scholars. They are same as mormons w.r.t. Christianity. There theology makes them a different religion.

        2) Qur’an says that universe was created in six periods (the word ‘ayyam’ can mean a day or epoch/period of time)

        3) It says if it was from other than Allah THEN it would have contradiction. That’s simple logic. It does not mean that everything that does not have contradiction is from Allah. It simply means, work of Allah is perfect and cannot have contradiction. And we see that earlier scriptures have mixed content from humans and divine revelation so we see contradictions. And Qur’an has similar stories as previous scriptures but doesn’t have contradictions so it restores the truth.

        • Avatar
          timcragoe  June 6, 2017

          Qur’an contradictions here:

          • Avatar
            hasankhan  June 7, 2017

            If you read that list carefully you’ll see that it is a very bad attempt. Any non-Muslim with common sense will tell you that there is no contradiction there.

            If you’re curious, we can discuss that in the forum if you like.

  7. Avatar
    Salvador Perez  May 26, 2017

    Hello dr Ehrman.
    Can you please explain to me the message of the story of Jesus and the fig tree? I get lots of different faith responses that are very unsatisfactory and make no sense to me, most are “Jesus proving he is God”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      Normally the fig tree is interpreted as being an image for the nation of Israel. It does not bear fruit when it should have done so, and so Jesus curses it and it withers. The passage makes best sense after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

  8. Avatar
    stevenpounders  May 26, 2017

    When scholars contend that a given story from a gospel is myth – i.e. a story that contains truths, but is not literally true – is the contention also that this was the original intent of the story?

    In other words, if the writer/editor of the gospel of Matthew related an untrue tale with mythical truths, was he aware of what he was doing? Did he expect his audience to be aware of what he was doing?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      I suppose different scholars would have different views of that. My own view is that we have no access to an ancient author’s inner thoughts about what he was actually intending to do.

  9. Avatar
    Epaminondas  May 26, 2017

    I wonder what Joseph Campbell thought of all this?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      I’m afraid I don’t know! But I would *suspect* that he would be comfortable with it.

  10. Avatar
    smackemyackem  May 26, 2017

    This is gettin good…

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  May 26, 2017

    Some guy cuts down a tree, then he’s asked who did it and he says he did. Why is that even a story? What else would you expect him to say? Are people so addicted to lying that they have to tell a story about how someone once told the truth? I think this says more about the people telling the story than the person in the story.

  12. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  May 27, 2017

    Obiwan Kenobi had a conversation like this with Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi

  13. Avatar
    nbraith1975  May 27, 2017

    The parables that Jesus told are similar but the characters he used were not real people.

    I believe what you are talking about here is “revisionist” history. A kind of edited version that is propagated to either help or harm a person or group’s agenda. For example: Hillary Clinton’s said that she landed in Bosnia under sniper fire and had to literally run for her life. But that is not what happened at all. Video evidence and eye witnesses prove that the aircraft landed without incident and she was met by dignitaries and children on the tarmac. It’s quite obvious that Hillary was trying to make herself look brave in order to improve her political chances in the future. The Bush administration said there was overwhelming evidence Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. As it turns out, there were none; yet America went to war based mostly on that false narrative. It’s obvious “W” had his mind set on attacking Hussein and needed a “scary” narrative to help move his agenda.

    The irony is that false stories can sometimes have devastating consequences and sometimes be very helpful. For example: Because millions of people believe Jesus is the son of God and is the only way to heaven, churches can leverage that belief into a money making scheme to enrich themselves. This often does great harm to the “Christian” poor who need their money to live on. On the other hand, millions of Christians are encouraged to be charitable and more loving and forgiving toward their fellow man.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 27, 2017

    I’ve never understood your use of the “cherry tree” story.

    If you were talking to a child, would you tell him or her the story, and let the child believe it actually happened?

    Or would you tell the child a person had *made up* this fictional story, as a way of illustrating the (supposed) fact that George Washington was super-honest, even as a boy?

    Whichever you’d say now, is it the same as you told your own children years ago?

    Personally, I’d never tell a child a story like this. If it’s told without the explanation, we’re in “alternative facts” territory! And if it were told *with* the explanation, I’d hope an intelligent child would point out that (a) the person who made up the story was not himself being honest, and (b) the person probably didn’t even *know* whether Washington was honest or dishonest *as a boy*.

    By the way, *are* children actually told this story in school? I’m sure I wasn’t!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      Are you saying that we should tell our children nothing except historically accurate stories? We can’t tell stories? why would that be??? I did tell my children this story because it conveyed an important lesson, not because I was later going to test them on 18th century American history!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 28, 2017

        I think Wilusa is making the point that if we tell children these stories we should make sure to emphasize that these are only stories, meant to convey an important message, even if they’re not accurate history. I, for one, am of the opinion that telling children that Santa Claus is real, only to pull the rug out from under them when they reach the age of reason, is not only dishonest; it’s lazy parenting. There’s enough factual, accurate history and wonder in the world to engage children that we don’t need to lie to them to teach them a valuable lesson. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with teaching children via stories, as long as they understand that it’s only a story.

        • Avatar
          Wilusa  May 29, 2017

          Oh yes, I also oppose having children believe in Santa Claus! When I was a child, I found nothing at all *pleasant* about the “Santa Claus” business. And by about age six, I thought it was unbelievable, but I couldn’t understand why my parents would lie to me!

          There are real problems here, though. I’ve never had children. But I sometimes think about how hard it would be: to tell *your* children there isn’t really a “Santa Claus,” but explain to them why they mustn’t tell *other* children that, if the others are “believers.” And some children might actually resent having been told the truth.

          The same problem, on an even more serious level: how an agnostic/non-theist could explain his or her views about *that* to children. In this case, telling the children that as they grow up, they’ll have to decide for themselves about what they do or don’t believe.

          And since children usually have two parents in the picture, things must be even harder if the *parents* don’t see eye to eye!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 29, 2017

        Of course we can tell “stories,” if we take care to differentiate fiction from fact. But I’ll never agree with your loose definition of “truth”! (“Alternative facts”…)

        I find this strange. I probably didn’t hear the “cherry tree” story until I was an adult. Only learned from *you* that the author is known; I’d always thought of it as a legend. But a *humorous* legend – not meant to convey a serious “meaning”! What had always stuck in my mind was the stilted phrase “Father, I cannot tell a lie.” What a hoot! How could any 20th-century or 21st-century person not laugh out loud at the notion of a boy talking that way?

        Here’s another question for you. Would you – at your present stage in life, knowing and believing the things you do – be willing to tell a child a story like *this*? Without saying it didn’t really happen?

        “The Son of God – a powerful deity! – chose, out of love for humanity, to let himself be born as a human, Jesus. Born in the humblest of circumstances! In a stable…in the little town of Bethlehem…on a cold winter’s night whose date corresponded to our December 25th.

        “God the Father so loved His Son that He couldn’t let that miraculous birth go completely unnoticed. So He sent angels to inform shepherds – tending their flock in the field – that a long-awaited savior had just been born in that stable. The shepherds went there and worshipped him.”

        The story would make a point: that Jesus (as real a person as George Washington) had been willing to make a huge *sacrifice* for the good of humanity, just by being *born*. In preparation for the *second* sacrifice he’d make, by letting himself be *crucified*.

        Hey, you wouldn’t be testing the kid on Palestinian History!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 30, 2017

          Sure. I would tell it as a story. I’m guessing you’re not a fan of the genre of historical fiction!

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  May 30, 2017

            The problem is that you seem willing to use the word “story,” without further elaboration, to refer to different *types* of “stories”! As I see it, there are three types:

            1. A story that’s completely factual.

            2. A story that’s completely fictional.

            3. A story that can be described as “*based on* a true story,” with an acknowledgment that parts of it are fictional, and – if it’s *important* in any way – a brief mention of *which* parts are fictional (such as an invented character).

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  May 28, 2017

      I was told that story in school.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  May 29, 2017

      I just remembered that my daughter dressed up as George Washington for a school presentation a few years ago. We had a discussion about the cherry tree story. I can’t remember if I brought up the fact that it wasn’t a true story of if she read it in a book and asked me. Any school that has current literature about Washington notes that the story is legendary or fabricated. That being said, there’s a lot of schools that don’t have current literature on Washington!

  15. Avatar
    jrhislb  May 27, 2017

    The obvious lesson to draw is that if you did something with dad’s cherry tree but don’t feel guilty you can tell at true story that did not happen about it being someone else’s fault.

  16. Tuskensp
    Tuskensp  May 27, 2017

    If you don’t provide the evidence, could you maybe provide a list of blog entries that go into the evidence of the NT stories that didn’t happen?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      I’m afraid I haven’t really talked about that much! But my next post will try to give an example. I do talk about the matter at some considerable length in my book Jesus Interrupted.

  17. Avatar
    Paul  May 27, 2017

    Professor Erhman,

    There is something twisted about telling a child a lie (Washington cut down the cherry tree) to make the point that Washington was honest.

    I understand your argument that religious myths explain larger truths, but unlike the Washington story I don’t see what larger truths unfold by telling stories about the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other miracles.

    I think it may be helpful to look at Mormonism, a modern religion that is well documented, to see what’s happening here. Joseph Smith found and then lost golden plates containing the Book of Mormon. This story is either literally true as many Mormons believe, a myth explaining a larger religious truth, or a story invented by a huckster. I suspect it’s the latter, and I’m not sure the story of the lost plates is that much different than the above-mentioned biblical stories.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      I don’t share your view about what a “lie” is. Stories are not lies! Even if they are about historical figures. They may simply be a different kind of story from a history lesson.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 29, 2017

        “Alternative facts!”

        Stories about things that never happened are acceptable only if they’re clearly identified as *fiction*.

  18. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  May 28, 2017

    When it comes to associating Jesus as being a miracle worker, I’ve wondered whether the basis for some of the stories derived from him addressing his community’s psychosomatic illnesses rather than true physical ailments. Just about every physical problem has a pseudo equivalent. Unfortunately, poverty and mental disorders are strongly correlated with each other. So when Jesus *healed* the paralytic, it’s possible the person was never paralyzed in the first place. He gave the person his time and attention and voila! The person stood up and walked. My husband (a paramedic) deals with people all the time who claim they’re paralyzed, blind, pretend to be unconscious, pretend to have seizures, pretend to be dying, etc… Most of them (not all but definitely most) are from poverty stricken neighborhoods.
    When Jesus prayed for the sick, that would have included anybody whether it was someone with a physical problem or psychological issue. They may not have been able to tell the difference.

  19. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  May 28, 2017

    Does Bible prophecy for ell the overthrow of Islam and other belief systems such as the Roman Catholic Church?

    Some people have argued this for many decades.

    Some say that there is a “hidden” meaning, a deeper meaning to some of the symbolic language and types and ante-types used in the Bible prophetic books, such as the Bible books of Revelation, Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2017

      No, the Bible’s authors knew nothing about coming Islam or coming RCC.

  20. Avatar
    bigalster  May 28, 2017

    Bart, are you then not saying or insinuating, that some of the Gospel stories(parables,miracles,myths,didactic lessons) may not have historically occurred as narrated by the Gospel writers; If this is so, then how can we ever differentiate which ‘miracles'(The Resurrection,Wedding at Cana etc…)
    actually occurred? Don’t we have to prioritize historically then which “miracles” can be said to have historical weight,while others would seem unreasonable? Most of us believe an historical Christ existed,but making the case for the historicity of the resurrection would seem to me unprovable.
    There is a big difference between believing that Washington never told a lie and the supernatural claim that Jesus rose from the dead. How then can the story of the Resurrection be categorized as a true story that never really happened?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2017

      It could be metaphorically true, saying something about the nature of ultimate reality (good triumphs over evil in the end, e.g.)

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