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Two More Answers from My Pop Quiz

I continue here with some comments about my pop quiz (see: https://ehrmanblog.org/my-faux-pop-quiz-this-semester/ and https://ehrmanblog.org/does-basic-information-about-the-nt-matter-my-pop-quiz/ ), and some of the reasons I ask the questions – that is, what I try to teach from the answers (so that the quiz is not designed to see how much the students know already).  Here are two more of the questions:


  1. In what century were they (the books of the NT) written?

Answer:  First century CE.  I use this question to explain the modern usage, among historians (and others!) of BCE and CE.  Of course all of us (well, all of us my age) grew up with the dating system BC and AD.  Most people don’t actually know what those abbreviations mean.  Nearly everyone gets “BC”: Before Christ.  But I remember – or maybe I misremember – being taught when I was young that A.D. stood for “After Death.”  Well that ain’t right.  And a second’s reflection shows why.  It would mean there would be no dates for the years between Jesus’ birth and his death!  A.D. therefore stands for the Latin phrase Anno Domini, “Year of our Lord.”  I’ve never figured out why one abbreviation is based on English and the other Latin; maybe someone can on the blog can tell us?

In the meantime, here’s something else most people don’t know.  In correct usage…

The rest of this post is only for members.  If you’re not one, there’s no time like the present.  Apart from that being literally true, it’s true for the case in point.  You should join now.  You’ll get tons of benefit, and every penny of your small membership fee goes to help those in need.  So there’s no downside!

In correct usage B.C. follows a date: 567 BC; but if you do use A.D. it is to precede the date.  That’s because you would say “year of our Lord 1996” you would not say “1996 year of our Lord” (since in this case the phrase functions as a modifier [though nominal] and modifiers of substantives typically precede the term they modify in English – “a fast runner” not “a runner fast”).  And so instead of 1996 A.D. you should say A.D. 1996.

That may sound weird, but lots of correct English sounds weird.  It should be “data are” instead of “data is” – since the word data is plural.  (Any word that has a different from for the singular – in this case datum – is plural.)  So the correct phrase is  “the data show this”  not “the data shows this.”  The only reason is sounds strange is that almost no one says it correctly.  There are all sorts of things like this.  For example “I could care less” (as people always say) makes no sense.  If you could care less that means you do care more.  But you’re trying to say you don’t care at all;  and so it has to be “I couldn’t care less.”  OK, there are lots of examples of that kind of thing, many of them my hobbyhorses.

In any event, scholars these days tend not to use B.C. and A.D. because they are distinctively Christian terms.  At least A.D. is. But the calendar in use now is used by everyone, not just Christians, and huge numbers of people among us do not consider Jesus to be their Lord.  So why should they date things according to the year of “our Lord”?

CE and BCE are religiously neutral.  They simply refer to the calendar everyone in our form of civilization uses, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, atheist, whatever.  They stand for “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era.”  Yes, the common era is dated from the birth of Jesus (kind of); but I’m never going to advocate picking some other arbitrary point to divide the ages.  And all things being equal, I’d prefer not starting the calendar at 4004 BCE….

And, as many of you know, the date of the birth of Jesus is not actually the beginning of the Common Era.  The calendar as we have it was devised by the 6th century monk Dionysius Exiguus (a name translated into English, memorably, by Stephen Jay Gould as “Dennis the Short”), who made a rather significant miscalculation.  If the Gospels are right that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great, then we have a problem, since Herod died in 4 BCE.  And so that would mean, in the older designation, Jesus was born four years Before Christ.  Go figure.

The other thing that my students don’t usually realize is that there was/is no year 0.  The calendar goes from 1 BCE to 1 CE.


  1. Name the Gospels of the NT

AnswerWell, this is the one question nearly all my students get right.  If nothing else, they know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  But most of them don’t know who these people are, and so in class I explain that two of them were thought to be Jesus’s disciples (that is, among the Twelve): Matthew the tax collector (named that only in Matthew) and John the Beloved Disciple (the “beloved disciple” only appears in the Gospel of John, but he is not called John there and even more weird, this Gospel is the only one that never mentions the disciple John by name.  Go figure).  Mark and Luke were allegedly close companions of two of the leading apostles: Mark was thought to be the secretary of Peter, Jesus’ right hand man, and Luke was thought to be the companion of the apostle Paul.  So you get Gospels representing writings of two of Jesus’ disciples and of Peter and Paul, the most important figures of earliest Christianity.

As a rule my students do not, know, however, that none of the Gospels actually claim to be written by these people.  They are all anonymous.  For none of them does the author identify himself, and never do they suggest they were disciples of Jesus or companions of his apostles.  There is some question of whether the early second-century church father Papias called the first Gospel Matthew and the second Mark (I think not: I think he was talking about other books; but it’s a debated point).  The first time anyone comes out and names them as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was the heresy-hunter Irenaeus, around 185 CE – so a century or so after they had been in circulation.

And so among the questions we deal with in the class are: Is this old tradition right?  If not, who were the actual authors?  Were they eyewitnesses?  If so, would that mean their accounts were accurate?  If not, how did they get their information?   Interesting questions.  Of course I deal with them a lot on the blog, as well as I class.

I’ll continue with other questions in future posts.

The Calm and Collected Jesus
Does Basic Information about the NT *Matter*? My Pop Quiz



  1. Robert
    Robert  September 2, 2020

    Bart: “I’ve never figured out why one abbreviation is based on English and the other Latin; maybe someone can on the blog can tell us?”

    Because Bede’s ante incarnationis dominicae tempus was just too much of a pain in the ass for English speakers.

    Oh, and just to be a further pain in Latin-English asses, the data don’t ‘show’ anything but rather they may be interpreted. There’s nothing wrong with the passive voice.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2020

      But is BC a modern English invention then? Why not A.I., e.g.? Too much like A.D.? (And why Bede?)

      On data: yup. I’m just tryin’ to explain it’s plural.

    • sschullery
      sschullery  September 5, 2020

      What’s wrong with the data “showing”? I remember in grad school, when I was frequently being aggravated about the results of one of my experiments, a wise post-doc reminding me, “The data have spoken, young Stephen, the data have spoken.”

  2. Avatar
    JKS  September 2, 2020

    It is my understanding that virtually every secular scholar of the New Testament and the life of Jesus rejects Luke’s and Mathew’s nativity accounts as fairytales. The consensus is that Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth at a date both unknown and unknowable. Since the birthdate is unknowable it is perfectly reasonable to assume the Christian calendar assumed date is reasonable. Those who mock the undeniable fact that the birth of Jesus is the zero point of Western/Christian calendar are bigots. It is sheer ignorance to assert that Jesus was born in 6 bc or ad 4 since there isn’t a scintilla of reliable evidence to support the assertion! If the western calendar had originated with the Arabs and used the birth of Mohammed as its zero point, anyone today who substituted abbreviations referring to Mohammed with ce and bce would be condemned as an Islamophobe! And rightfully so. It’s funny that every person that I challenge who uses ce cannot tell me what the devil common era refers to and y it begins with the birth of Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2020

      Yup, and not just secular Jews. Lots of Christian scholars as well.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  September 4, 2020

        Not to belabor this (and unrelated to the calendar Era issues), is there any evidence that Jesus was in his early 30s when crucified? Thank you.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 6, 2020

          There’s evidence, but none particularly convincing. Luke’s Gospel alone says Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry (3:23); so the ministry does not to seem long, hence early 30s. The idea that it lasted three years comes only from John, because Jesus is said to celebrate three different (annual) Passover feasts there.

          • NulliusInVerba
            NulliusInVerba  September 6, 2020

            Thank you.

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 3, 2020

    So would saying first century AD be wrong?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2020

      No, that would be correct. Only if you use a number would it be wrong.

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 3, 2020

    I’ve gotten the impression that the gospels were written in adequate to more than adequate Greek, so the native language of these authors might have been Greek. If not then they were well-schooled in Greek. Disciples, one would think, would have little to no Greek or would have Greek heavily “accented” with Aramaic, which seems to be the case for the John of Revelations. Paul’s Greek has been described as elegant and sophisticated. If this is true, it implies a formal education in Greek or perhaps he was a native speaker of Greek. Both of these alternatives weaken the idea that Paul’s native language would have been the one we’d expect if he had been a garden variety Jew of his time– is that correct or likely? If, for instance Paul had thought in Hebrew, could he have produced the Greek of the epistles? If Paul was fluent in Greek as an acquired language, what inferences can we make about his origin and education?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2020

      Paul gives almost no indication of knowing Hebrew or Aramaic. He grew up in the Diaspora in a Greek-speaking region, and almost certainly Greek was his primary language. He must have been raised and educated outside of Israel.

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  September 4, 2020

        THAT is interesting. I wonder, then, who would have given him the order to persecute the primitive, nascent, groups of Jews who revered Jesus? Or maybe he did it on his own initiative? How would he even have known about such groups? How could he even have found them? Were there “informers”? Or– maybe he lied about his own history. What a witness we have in Paul! A liar! With hallucinations! Or maybe only delusions. Delusions might not be so bad. Maybe I’m too harsh. That’s possible too. But I’m really starting to wonder about that Paul guy…

        • Bart
          Bart  September 6, 2020

          No one did. He didn’t like what he heard and went from there. Probably some folk showed up in his synagogue. We don’t know how he “persecuted” them. Took them out and beat them up?

      • sschullery
        sschullery  September 5, 2020

        Do you mean outside of Israel or outside of Judea?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 6, 2020

          Israel didn’t exist at the time, of coruse; I simply mean the Jewish homeland, comprising both Judea and Galilee.

  5. Avatar
    RRomanchek  September 3, 2020

    Bravo Professsor! The dating info was always a necessary beginning of the year lesson during my 47 years of teaching history in public secondary schools (junior high to community college). I began it by comparing different calendar systems. I also remember having to explain that 5,000 years ago is not 5,000 BCE! And the numbering of centuries, etc., etc. As for the late great Stephen Jay Gould, his baseball analogies helped me understand natural selection.

  6. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  September 3, 2020

    Well, in support of your hobbyhorse, give a second look at “none of the Gospels actually claim to be written by these people.” The pronoun “none” is singular, requiring therefore a verb in the singular: claimS. The verb should match the subject, not the (plural) object of the preposition (Gospels). This is a common grammatical error (like “could care less”), one which you in general avoid.
    17 lashes.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2020

      That’s right — absolutely right. None is singular. And it’s a lesson. Spend more time typing and proof-reading. Well, OK, it ain’t gonna happen. But still….

      • Rick
        Rick  September 5, 2020

        You guys are bringing back images of Mrs. West (9nth grade English) beating her desk with a ruler as we recited sentence diagrams!

        • Bart
          Bart  September 6, 2020

          Yeah, I had an 8th grade teacher who didn’t use the ruler to beat the *desk*….

  7. Avatar
    Matt2239  September 3, 2020

    I thought the issue with “After Death” was not the 33 years after Jesus’s birth and his crucifixion, but the issue of whether Christ is yet alive today. It’s sort of like saying, “Jesus would turn in his grave.”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2020

      Not sure I”ve heard that one. Most Christians certainly think he died, just that he didn’t stay dead. So the dating goes to the year of the crucifixion.

  8. Robert
    Robert  September 3, 2020

    Bart: “But is BC a modern English invention then?”

    Well, it wasn’t invented by the Sumerians.

    “Why not A.I., e.g.? Too much like A.D.? (And why Bede?)”

    Bede, because he was English? Not quite. Although he didn’t invent anno Domini (that was Denis the Short, aka Dionysius Exiguus, modeled on anno Diocletiani), Bede was the one who popularized it. So we are still left with the fact that Bede’s ante incarnationis dominicae tempus was simply too much of a pain in the ass to say. That, and eventually people realized that dating from the Incarnation would create a gap of 9 months between the virginal conception and the birth of Christ. Thus a new phrase was coined, ante Christum natum, which was subsequently shortened to ante Christum, which was adopted by the Germans, English, and only lightly modified by the French,who always have to be different.

    Besides, A.I. would not be too much like A.D. since ante is not comparable to anno, nor does contain any reference to Dominus.

    Sorry you asked?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2020

      Terrific. Where are you getting (or where did you get) all this? By being “too much like” I meant would the abbreviation itself not be distinctive enough. If that wasn’t the problem, why didn’t they use A.I. and A.D.?

      • Robert
        Robert  September 4, 2020

        Bart: “Terrific. Where are you getting (or where did you get) all this?”

        Bill Storey made us read Bede at Notre Dame; you taught me about Dennis the Short; and the rest came from The Oxford Companion to the Year: An exploration of calendar customs and time-reckoning by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. OUP 2000.

    • Rick
      Rick  September 5, 2020

      Maybe also because even the vast majority of us who had a little high school Latin cannot (never could) speak it? Yes I figured out ante incarnationis dominicae tempus after staring at it a bit but if I heard it in a lecture it would have been lost!

  9. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  September 4, 2020

    Interestingly there was a recent article in the British Catholic magazine The Tablet in which one of the writers (having been criticised by readers for using ‘CE’ on the grounds that she was ‘denying Christ’) responded by looking at the whole BCE/CE/BC/AD debate. She also came to the conclusion (like Professor Ehrman) that no-one really knows why we have Latin AD and English BC. I think BC is the most contentious as most people these days (and probably for many years in the past) don’t tend to use AD when it is obvious that it is the AD dates that are being referred to. So the battleground tends to be around BC/BCE as that is necessary for clarity as those dates are less commonly used in general writings/conversation etc. I would argue though that ‘Before Christ’ is slightly less provocative to a non-Christian than ‘In the year of our Lord (AD’).

  10. Avatar
    MS53051  September 4, 2020

    Yes, those of us who say, “The data are…” are becoming rare. Language evolves and it’s the common usage that wins out. “Hopefully” used as a sentence adverb is an example of incorrect usage that has become acceptable. As another example, I suspect that criterion will go the way of datum.

  11. Avatar
    XanderKastan  September 4, 2020

    I strongly disagree with your comment about plural forms and other “incorrect” English usage.. There used to be a distinction between datum and data carried over from the Latin. But many (most?) native English speakers now think of data as a collective noun equivalent to “information”. Also, context matters. If I were writing a paper to be graded by a university professor like you, I would go with “data are”. If I am talking to a friend or writing them an email, I would never refer to data with a plural form. And as I just did, I always refer to a single person of unspecified sex as “they” or “them”. It is very old usage — centuries. So it’s more natural and much preferable to “he or she” or “him or her”. For anyone interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book “Talk on The Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed” (2018) by Lane Greene “Language is the most human invention. Spontaneous, unruly, passionate, and erratic it resists every attempt to discipline or regularize it–a history celebrated here in all its irreverent glory.”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      I notice that Green used subjects and verbs. OK then. I’m not trying to legislate standardization. I’m saying some word usage is more stylish than others. And what’s the argument against that?

      • Avatar
        XanderKastan  September 8, 2020

        I completely agree that some word usage is more stylish or more effective than others and I am pretty sure Greene would too. That’s a principle underlying his job as an editor. My objection is to your claim that “[t]he only reason is [sic] sounds strange is that almost no one says it correctly. There are all sorts of things like this. For example ‘I could care less’ (as people always say) makes no sense….” If almost no one says something “correctly”, that’s good reason to re-evaluate what you think of as “correct”. Predominant usage may not be the only thing that matters, but it should generally count for quite a lot, even more so in informal speech than formal writing. If you go to a dictionary like Miriam Webster for usage advice on each of these two examples, you will find first acceptance of the singular construction with the word data. Second, while “couldn’t care less”, is older than “could care less” and this is a common language peeve, the reality is that these are informal idiomatic expressions and both variants mean exactly the same thing.

  12. Avatar
    clerrance2005  September 6, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    Please, were the four canonized gospels the only ones from the 1st Century or there were others which did not make into the canon of NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2020

      Luke mentions “many” others (1:1-4); so there almost certainly were others. But none of them survives.

  13. Avatar
    Brand3000  September 6, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    1 Corinthians 16:8 “…I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost…” For Paul and others, At this time, was Pentecost still largely thought of as the Jewish festival of Shavuoth, or was it already the Christian festival celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus after his Ascension?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2020

      It was still strictly a Jewish festival. The idea of a “Day of Pentecost” is not attested until decades after Paul (in Acts); I don’t know when Christians devoted a festival to it, but it would have been long after that.

  14. Avatar
    clerrance2005  September 8, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    I am particularly interested in your view on this because you were a Christian and now a Non-Christian, hence your wide appreciation of both spectrums.

    Q1. Please what is your take on the thought that the Bible ought to be read and understood with a spiritual mind (whatever that means) and not the canal mind. Do you hear of such comments and how do you respond to them?

    Q2. Lastly, do your detractors sometimes employ this ‘spiritual intellect’ technique in dismissing some of your views?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2020

      1. I don’t think there is a “spiritual” mind that is different from a “carnal” mind. Your brain is simply your brain. You don’t have two of them. 2. Sure: it’s simply a way of saying that even if my opponent’s views make more sense, I’m not going to accept them.

  15. Avatar
    Philmonomer  September 8, 2020

    With regard to the authorship of the gospels, which book(s) would you recommend for a curious layman interested in “who wrote the gospels” (including arguments for and against “Mathew”, “Mark”, “Luke”, and “John” as the authors)?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2020

      I’ve devoted a number of posts to the matter (look for “authors”?); I talk about it at length in a number of my books, e.g. Jesus interrupted and Forged.

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