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Was Jesus Made Up? A Blast from the Past.

In browsing through some old posts, I came across this one from five years ago, in which I deal with two questions I still today get asked about the “evidence” that Jesus did, or did not, exist.  The post deals with pointed issues raised by my colleague in the field, Ben Witherington.  The answers still seem germane to me today, as the question of Jesus’ existence has simply ratcheted up, all these years later.


Ben Witherington, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, has asked me to respond to a number of questions about my book Did Jesus Exist, especially in light of criticism I have received for it (not, for the most part, from committed Christians!). His blog is widely read by conservative evangelicals, and he has agreed to post the questions and my answers without editing, to give his readers a sense of why I wrote the book, what I hoped to accomplish by it, and what I would like them to know about it. He has graciously agreed to allow me to post my responses here on my blog. The Q’s are obviously his, the A’s mine.


Q. Robert Price’s argument that the stories of Jesus are a giant midrash on OT stories about Moses and others, and so are completely fiction seems to ignore the fact that midrash is a hermeneutical technique used for contemporizing pre-existing stories. Talk briefly about the difference between how stories are shaped in the Gospels and whether they have any historical substance or core or not. (N.B. It appears that Crossan has recently made the same kind of category mistake arguing that since there are parables in the Gospels, that whole stories about Jesus may be parables, pure literary fictions).

A. In Did Jesus Exist? I try to make a major methodological point that there is a very big difference between saying that a story has been shaped in a certain (non-historical) way and saying that the story is completely non-historical. I make this point because authors like Robert Price have claimed that all the stories about Jesus in the Gospels are midrashes on stories found in the OT. By that he means, roughly, that the story of Jesus is shaped in such a way as to reflect a kind of retelling or exposition of stories about persons and events in the Old Testament. For example, the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel shapes the stories about Jesus to make Jesus appear to be a kind of “second Moses.” Like Moses, Jesus is supernaturally protected at his birth when the ruler (Pharaoh/Herod) seeks to destroy him; like Moses he goes down to Egypt as an infant; like Moses he comes up out of Egypt to the promised land; like Moses he passes through the waters (the parting of the Red Sea; the baptism); after which he spends time in the wilderness being “tested” (40 years; 40 days); after which he goes up on the mountain to receive/deliver the Law (Mount Sinai; Sermon on the Mount). The story of Jesus has evidently been “shaped” in light of the author’s knowledge of the story of Moses in order to say something: Jesus is the new Moses.

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The Variety of Views of Suffering in the Bible
An Example of a True Story that Didn’t Happen: Part 1



  1. Avatar
    fishician  June 20, 2017

    As difficult as it is to prove that an ancient person existed, it is virtually impossible to prove that an ancient person did NOT exist! For example, there could be evidence that the Iliad was not written by a single author, but that wouldn’t prove that a poet named Homer did not exist, who was eventually given credit for it. One reason I find it easy to believe in a factual Jesus is that “Messiahs” pop up at least once every generation; we see them today even (often with tragic results). So much easier for me to believe that there was a preacher named Jesus who later had stories expanded or invented about him than to believe the stories were made up and assigned to a mythical man named Jesus. Especially since his crucifixion was a problem for most Jews, and also Gentiles, as Paul himself pointed out (1 Cor. 1:23).

  2. Avatar
    godspell  June 20, 2017

    What distinguishes Jesus most from the Apollonius and many other Divine Men is that his primary attributes are not his purported ability to work miracles. I believe that most if not all of the miracles attributed to him in his lifetime were along the lines of faith-healing. And there’s no reason to think that through personal magnetism alone, he couldn’t have given genuine comfort to some people, perhaps even truly healed them (the mind-body connection–and he himself was known to say that the people he healed had really healed themselves, through believing).

    After his crucifixion, he was said to have risen from the dead, but it’s debatable whether as told, this is a story about a miracle he performed personally, or a miracle of God associated with him (made even muddier by the fact that he always claimed that anyone could perform miracles if he or she believed deeply enough–it was always God performing the miracle through him). But Christians would of course say that his miracles were proof of his divine nature–and then would be confronted with the miracles performed by others, and this is probably one reason Jesus’ miracles became bigger and bigger with the telling, to the point of just making some up out of whole cloth. Not that it’s all one-upmanship–there are points being made with each miracle story. Still, once you’ve started down that road, you tend to keep going.

    It’s Jesus’ sayings, his parables, his unique take on Judaism, the way he dealt with the poor, the dispossessed, the sick, the outcast, and of course women–that makes him special. He wasn’t some cut-rate first-century Middle Eastern equivalent of a glitzy Vegas magician, competing to see who had the best act.

    He did, however, have the best PR team. The New Testament writings are a quantum leap beyond anything we have about Apollonius or any of the other miracle workers. But this is in part because Jesus gave them a stronger foundation to build upon. And because there was something about him, even after his death, that attracted more intellectually and spiritually complex people.

    No doubt science could someday replicate many or all of the miracles attributed to these figures. But what Jesus achieved solely through the power of his mind and personality and passion–that may never be equaled.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  June 9, 2018

      “After his crucifixion, he was said to have risen from the dead,”

      He predicted his death and resurrection and confirmed what He promised.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  June 20, 2017

    It’s possible both that the Gospels are midrashic AND Jesus was an historical figure. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. The fact that Mythicists can’t seem to get this through their heads is terribly frustrating.

    As for the Resurrection, one of the reasons Paul seems to have had such a hard time explaining and convincing Gentiles of the Resurrection was that the idea that human beings would rise up in a new body was such a bizarre and foreign concept to the non-Jewish world. Gentiles could certainly understand and appreciate the notion of the soul living on after the body dies — something Gentile heavyweights like Plato and Aristotle even accepted — but the idea that the soul would re-enter a newly risen body was a little hard to swallow, which is why Paul is constantly trying to explain to and convince his readers that it was possible. So, yeah, suggesting that all Christian ideas are simply borrowed from paganism is objectively untrue.

    Incidentally, Dr. Ehrman, when you read your old post from years ago do you notice a personal evolution? Are there things you wrote back then that you’ve changed your mind about since or have come to understand in a different way?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2017

      Most of the time I don’t remember writing the post at all, but think that it reads better than I would have expected!

    • Avatar
      Tony  June 23, 2017

      Yes, it’s possible, but not very likely. The gospels are mostly midrash with some paganism and real history tossed in, and that included the writers own specific agendas. Exactly what you would expect if a skilled writer set to task to create an earthly Jesus story based on the information Paul provided about his celestial Jesus in his letters.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 23, 2017

        Tony, bro, you are so terribly confused.

        • Avatar
          Tony  June 25, 2017

          And you, my friend, seem to be terribly frustrated. All I’m trying to do is help you out with some clarity.

  4. Avatar
    doug  June 20, 2017

    The existence of followers of Jesus soon after he lived and Paul’s claims to have persecuted those followers (not a feather in his cap) and then saying he had spoken with leaders who knew Jesus personally – those things suggest to me that Jesus existed. And then there are the unflattering stories about Jesus (baptized by John the Baptist, predicting an imminent Kingdom that was highly unlikely to come and which did not come, killed as a criminal, etc.) – those are not the kind of things that would likely be made up if someone wanted to make up a religious leader.

  5. Avatar
    Como  June 20, 2017

    In Greek mythology Danae, mother of Perseus, was a virgin impregnated by the god Zeus without sexual intercourse. According to the story he “came to her in the form of golden rain which streamed in through the roof of the subterranean chamber and down into her womb.”


    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2017

      I guess it depends what it means to have sexual intercourse. Zeus certainly penetrated her in some kind of physical form.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  June 22, 2017

      Another thing with Perseus is that there’s no emphasis on Danae’s virginity. That wasn’t the point to the story.

  6. Avatar
    john76  June 20, 2017

    I don’t think there is anything embarrassing about a crucified messiah. Attis was worshipped as a castrated god, after all. Attis /ˈætɪs/ (Greek: Ἄττις or Ἄττης) was the consort of Cybele in Phrygian and Greek mythology. His priests were eunuchs, the Galli, as explained by origin myths pertaining to Attis and castration. Attis was also a Phrygian god of vegetation, and in his self-mutilation, death, and resurrection he represents the fruits of the earth, which die in winter only to rise again in the spring.

  7. Avatar
    Eskil  June 20, 2017

    There’s no nativity story or bodily resurrection in Mark, the oldest of the gospels. Is there anything unique to Jesus in Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2017

      I would say that there *is* a bodily resurrectoin in Mark. What there is *not* are any appearances to his disciples after the resurrection. And yes, Mark has many distinctive featuers, including his “messianic secret”

      • Rick
        Rick  June 25, 2017

        Dr. Ehrmann,
        Do you see the addition of the nativity stories in Mathew and Luke, as well as their more expansive post resurrection stories (compared to the likely more original Mark up to 16:8), in part at least, as the result of the longer period between the crucifixion and Mathew and Lukes writing? That is, there was a longer period before they were written in which more stories were told and became available for inclusion in the later gospels.

  8. Avatar
    Eskil  June 20, 2017

    Was the shaping of the stories done to gain more followers or to alter the theology or due to something else? What’s your view?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2017

      There were numerous complicated reasons for shapiong stories: including the two you mention! (But just think of all the reasons we ourselves shape stories when we retell them)

  9. Avatar
    James Cotter  June 20, 2017

    have you ever heard the claim that the readers of mark knew the children of Simon of Cyrene, the guy who helped Jesus carry his cross?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2017

      Yes, it’s a standard argument for claiming that Mark got his account from those connnected to eyewitnesses

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  June 20, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, here are 19 points that seem to show shaping the story of Jesus has gone too far.
    One way that can happen is when the same story is told but only the names have changed.
    Then, the original person existed and the person with the changed name did not.

    For you, what would it take for Julius Caesar & Clementia (goddess of clemency, leniency, mercy, forgiveness, penance, redemption, absolution and salvation) shaping the story of Jesus to have done more than that?

    Similarities between Julius Caesar & Clementia and Jesus Christ

    1. Priestly Authority
    2. Went out on the water and reassured men they could cross
    3. Forgiveness and Mercy towards Enemies
    4. Taking Care of the Poor
    5. Enduring Persecutions
    6. Beheaded Mentor
    7. Betrayal by Friend/Friends
    8. Awareness of Impending Death
    9. Does Not Put Up a Fight against the Plot to Take His Life
    10. Desires No Delay When the End Comes
    11. Pierced/stabbed by Longinus
    12. Wreath placed on each of their heads
    13: Both died in the middle of the month in which Passover is recognized.
    14. Both disavowed kingship in the world of the living
    15. Julius Caesar adopts a son, Octavian, Augustus Caesar: Jesus Christ adopts a son, John the Beloved
    16a. Symbol of John the Evangelist is the eagle: Symbol of Octavian, Augustus Caesar is the eagle.
    16b. Symbol of Mark the Evangelist is the lion: Symbol of Mark Antony is the lion.
    17. A Goddess in Polytheism is pleased with Julius Caesar. A Monotheistic God is pleased with Jesus Christ.
    18. Both have an autocratic leadership style and a disdain for governing bodies (leading to their deaths).
    19) For Both, a Person Whose Name Related to Rock Calls Him a Title He Is Shy to Accept

    Lepidus suggested that Julius Caesar be made dictator. Julius Caesar was appointed dictator.
    Lapidis in Latin is stone.
    [Don’t tell people that is my title. I want a different job: consul.]
    Julius Caesar resigned the post of dictator after 11 days and became a consul.

    Jesus asked, who do you say I am?
    Peter answered, you are the Christ.
    Peter, you are the rock.
    Jesus warned, do not tell anyone.
    Mark 8: 29
    Matthew 16: 18
    Mark 8: 30

    • Avatar
      Steefen  June 28, 2017

      Troubled and Distressed, Both Ask Their Friends to Keep Watch and Consulting Jupiter or God through Soothsayer or Prayer Was to No Avail

      Troubled and Distressed, Both Ask Their Friends to Keep Watch

      Gai-us Julius Caesar

      Julius Caesar raised suspicion that he wanted to be king and be a tyrant. When he was seated in front of the Temple Venus Genetrix (Venus Mother), overseeing the construction of his Forum, consuls, praetors (magistrates, judges, below consul), and senators came to deliver a resolution to honor him. He did not get up giving the impression, kings do not rise before these men. Second, after telling someone who greeted him as king that “I am not King, I am Caesar,” he accused Marullus and Caesetius of spreading the hated idea that he be king. As a result, he wanted them removed from the Senate. This had the appearance of being tyrannical.

      When Caesar perceived this, he repented; and reflecting that this was the first severe and arbitrary act that he had done without military authority and in time of peace, it is said that he ordered his friends to protect him [to keep watch].

      From Appian’s Roman History, Volume III, Book II, Chapter 41, 108-109, ps 425-427
      Loeb Classical Library, Translated by Horace White

      Son of Man, Jesus Christ

      Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”
      He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed.
      Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.”
      Mark 14: 32-34

      Consulting Jupiter or God through Soothsayer or Prayer Was to No Avail
      Gaius Julius Caesar

      After the banquet, a certain bodily faintness came over him in the night, and his wife, Calpurnia, had a dream in which she saw him streaming with blood, for which reason she tried to prevent him from going out in the morning.

      When he offered sacrifice, there were many unfavorable signs.

      It was the custom of the magistrates, when about to enter the Senate to take the auspices at the entrance. Here again Caesar’s first victim was without a heart, or, as some say, the upper part of the entrails was wanting. The soothsayer said that this was a sign of death. Caesar, laughing, said that the same thing had happened to him when he was beginning his campaign against Pompeius in Spain.

      The soothsayer replied that he had been in very great danger then and that now the omen was more deadly.

      So, Caesar ordered him to sacrifice again.

      None of the victims were more propitious; but, being ashamed to keep the Senate waiting and being urged by his enemies in the guise of friends, he went on disregarding the omens. For it was fated that Caesar should meet his fate.

      Appian’s Roman History, Volume III, Book II, Chapter 41, 115-116, ps 439-443
      Loeb Classical Library, Translated by Horace White

      Son of Man, Jesus Christ

      35 He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass by him;
      36 he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.”
      39 Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing.
      41 Behold, Gai-us, the Son of Man, is to be handed over to sinners.

      Mark 14: 35-36, 39, 41

      Conspirators Who Wanted Julius Caesar Dead Distributed Bribes (Appian, Civil Wars Bk 2, 120) / Conspirators Who Wanted Jesus Christ Dead Bribed Judas

      The Early Morning after the Betrayal, There Is a Trial

      Julius Caesar
      While these things were taking place [the night of Caesar’s murder], Mark Antony, by means of a notice sent round by night, called the Senate to meet before daybreak [to justify putting Caesar to death].

      [The Senate would meet before daybreak] at the temple of Tellus [Earth Goddess, also Terra Mater], which was very near his own house, because he did not dare to go to the senate-house situated just below the Capitol, where the gladiators were aiding the conspirators, nor did he wish to disturb the city by bring in the army.

      Appian’s Roman History, Chapter 43, 126, p 459-461

      Jesus Christ
      They led Jesus away to the high priest, and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes came together [to put Jesus to death].

      Zealot, Chapter 12: No King But Caesar, p. 157 by Reza Aslan :
      The problem with this scene are too numerous to count. The trial before the Sanhedrin violates nearly every requirement laid down by Jewish Law for a legal proceeding. The Mishnah is adamant on this subject. The Sanhedrin is not permitted to meet at night. It is not permitted to meet during Passover. It is not permitted to meet on the eve of the Sabbath. It is certainly not permitted to meet so casually in the courtyard of the high priest, as Matthew and Mark claim. And it must begin with a detailed list of why the accused is innocent before any witnesses are allowed to come forth.

      CONCLUSION REGARDING ASLAN’S OBJECTION: You are right, the historically accurate early morning trial after the betrayal is not Jesus’ trial but Julius Caesar’s trial.

  11. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 21, 2017

    I don’t see a connection between pagan stories and Jesus other than very generalized concepts. What I have been struggling with lately is who Paul thought Jesus was exactly. Every time I think I’ve pinpointed a place in Paul’s letters that describes Jesus as a human being, I look up the verse in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and find there’s been a possible scribal change. There’s just so many things about Paul’s description of Jesus that is not adding up for me:

    James being Jesus’ brother–very problematic, especially when Luke writes about James in Acts 15 but doesn’t identify him specifically. It’s almost as if Luke doesn’t quite know what to do with him. John is adamant there’s no brothers involved but throws in a sister for Jesus’ mother Mary who has a son named James. Mark has Jesus’ family thinking he’s crazy. If any of these writers knew about a James being a leader, they’re keeping it a secret.

    Apostle Paul–
    Did Peter or someone else start a group and call them the Twelve or did Jesus put them together? It’s hard to tell in Paul’s letters.
    Christ accompanied Moses and the Jews’ ancestors
    Jesus was possibly an angel from the OT who took on human likeness
    Christ is a mystery revealed through prophetic writings
    Ancestry can be traced through David (doesn’t say when or where)
    Paul wrote that the Jews killed the Lord Jesus (recent past? distant past?) and the prophets (distant past?) and drove him out too (present day I’m assuming).
    Born/made/came into being of a woman, under the law; then Paul says they’re all children of the free woman via Abraham’s faith.
    Paul is adamant in saying that he did not receive his gospel through human origin; it’s a revelation
    Most of the time when Paul describes Jesus, he quotes an OT scripture

    Paul spent 15 days with Peter and at least some time with James, but all he could tell us about Jesus was by quoting the OT. I can’t help but think it’s because that’s all he knew. They’re speaking in tongues, prophesying, having visions, and seeing things in scripture they never considered before. (Btw, Josephus described others as having visions of strange things with eyewitness accounts. And Messianic figures going to the wilderness. John the Baptist *appeared* in the wilderness.) I think it’s possible that Paul thought of Jesus in strictly spiritual terms or someone who existed in the distant past.

    I’m not sure how I feel about the Gospels right now. They’re much more fictional that I previously thought.

    As far as mythicism kicking up, it could be because we have access to more information at our fingertips. If there’s 50 critical scholars who agree among themselves that a historical Jesus existed but can’t agree on what part about him is actually historical, maybe it’s inadvertently causing more skepticism.

  12. Avatar
    moose  June 21, 2017

    Mr Ehrman. There is another way of looking at this.
    It is easy to see that the Church fathers truly knew the Old Testament. But as Greek-speaking Jews, they were also fully acquainted with the transcendent God of Plato – A God wholly independent of the material universe and beyond all physical laws. A God who didn’t intervene in human conditions.
    The Jews, on the other hand, believed in a God who wandered and talked with Adam, Who fought with Jacob and even lost, Who wandered and talked with Moses and even regretted when Moses contradicted him. In general; The Jews believed in a Anthropomorphistic God who could talk personal with the prophets in different ways. Example; The Word came to Jeremiah the prophet, the Word came to Isaiah, the Word came to Micah etc. The Jewish God did intervene in human conditions and was far from a transcendent God. This must have been unheard of for the Platonicists.
    A creative response(From the early Christians) to the challenge from the platonists could be to say that … well, it was not God himself who wandered on earth in their Holy writings, but that it was the Son of God. Yes, even the Word that spoke to all the prophets was not God himself, but the Son of God. And so, Problem maybe solved!?
    We find this view especially in the gospel of John; Before Abraham, I AM. And; In the beginning was the Word etc.
    This thought is elaborated in a script called; Theophilus to Autolycus.

    Theophilus to Autolycus, Book II Chapter 22. Why God is Said to Have Walked.

    “You will say, then, to me: You said that God ought not to be contained in a place, and how do you now say that He walked in Paradise? Hear what I say. The God and Father, indeed, of all cannot be contained, and is not found in a place, for there is no place of His rest; but His Word, through whom He made all things, being His power and His wisdom, assuming the person of the Father and Lord of all, went to the garden in the person of God, and conversed with Adam. For the divine writing itself teaches us that Adam said that he had heard the voice. But what else is this voice but the Word of God, who is also His Son? Not as the poets and writers of myths talk of the sons of gods begotten from intercourse [with women], but as truth expounds, the Word, that always exists, residing within the heart of God. For before anything came into being He had Him as a counsellor, being His own mind and thought. But when God wished to make all that He determined on, He begot this Word, uttered, the first-born of all creation, not Himself being emptied of the Word, but having begotten Reason, and always conversing with His Reason. And hence the holy writings teach us, and all the spirit-bearing [inspired] men, one of whom, John, says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, John 1:1 showing that at first God was alone, and the Word in Him. Then he says, The Word was God; all things came into existence through Him; and apart from Him not one thing came into existence. The Word, then, being God, and being naturally produced from God, whenever the Father of the universe wills, He sends Him to any place; and He, coming, is both heard and seen, being sent by Him, and is found in a place”.


    • Avatar
      moose  June 23, 2017

      Just to give an example how this could work out in a midrashic way.
      One of the most important events in the Pentateuch is when Moses comes down from the mountain with the ten commandments, and the Israelites had made a Golden Calf.
      God then turned to Moses and said:“I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them!”
      But Moses rebuked God: “No, no Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?”
      And the Lord regretted and changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
      Here an almighty God could (or should?) just have turned to Moses and said: “Get behind Me, Moses! For you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

      In Mark we find this story slightly changed. Now it is not God who wants to kill the people, but the people who want to kill Jesus:
      “Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead.”
      Jesus spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
      Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

    • Avatar
      moose  June 28, 2017

      Mr. Ehrman. I want to show that the Jews believed in a Anthropomorphistic God, while the Christians believed in a transcendent God(the Father of Jesus).

      John 5:36-39 “For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me.
      37 You(Jews) have never heard His voice nor seen His form(…)[WHAT?! Had the Jews never heard Gods voice or seen His form?! Who spoke to the Jews and led them through the desert, if not God?](…)
      39 You(Jews) study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me”.

      This verse can only be understood if we assume that the Cristians didn’t count Yahweh to be God Himself!

  13. Avatar
    Gary  June 21, 2017

    The concept of the resurrection of a dead body already existed in Jewish thought in the first century, but the concept of a virgin birth, as you say, did not exist anywhere in the first century world. Where do you think this belief came from? Christians will say it came from the fact that this is what really happened. Do you believe that this concept developed as an apologetic invention of the Church itself or that it developed as a legend that became so popular it was eventually incorporated and accepted as fact by the Church?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2017

      My sense is that the early Christian story tellers wanted to insist that Jesus had a miraculous birth, wiht God as his actual father, but they could not take over the pagan stories where a god becomes a human (or some other animal or physical entity) and actually had sex with Mary (the Jewish God was not like that), so their solution was a virgin birth. Based on a pagan notion without the offensive features.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 22, 2017

      “the concept of a virgin birth…Where do you think this belief came from?”

      This is just my personal opinion but Dr. Ehrman may agree with me. (Let’s see if he says anything.)

      I think it happened like this. The early Christians believed that the Book of Isaiah spoke about the Messiah. And they believed Jesus was the Messiah. So they picked apart Isaiah looking for clues about the Messiah/Jesus. They came across Isaiah 7:14, which states a “virgin” will conceive and give birth, and she will name him Emanuel, “God is with us”. (Importantly, it’s only the Greek Septuagint that says the girl is specifically a virgin, i.e. parthenos, while the Hebrew text simply says a “maiden,” i.e. alma, which strongly suggests this idea developed in the Greek-speaking Diaspora.) Meanwhile, the Christians were already calling Jesus “the Son of God” — Ο γιος του Θεού. So they simply put two and two together. Isaiah speaks about the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah. Therefore, Isaiah speaks about Jesus. Isaiah hints that the Messiah will be born to a virgin. The virgin’s child will be called God is with us. Jesus is the Son of God. Ergo, Jesus is a Son of God born to a virgin. But how can a “virgin” give birth? God must have impregnated her with the Holy Spirit, of course — sans penetration, so she remained a virgin even after conception.

      In other words, the legend of the Virgin Birth was created post hoc. It’s not like the Christians already knew that the virgin Mary bore Jesus and only after did they read about it in Isaiah 7:14. No, they read Isaiah 7:14 and then retroactively concluded that Jesus was born to a virgin. The technical term for this storytelling process is retcon, or retroactive continuity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retroactive_continuity

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  June 23, 2017

        I think that’s most likely the way it happened.

        • Rick
          Rick  June 25, 2017

          Any thoughts on Jesus legitimacy (or lack of) influencing the development of the virgin birth narrative? If I understand the use of “ben” versus “ha” in the naming conventions it appears likely Jesus was not accorded the moniker “ben Joseph” and was called” ha Notzri” because he was illegitimate. Since the gospel writers were stuck with him known as Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps they felt compelled to spin away his illegitimacy by making him a demi-god, without resorting, as said, to reducing Yaweh to base instincts….?

          • talmoore
            talmoore  June 26, 2017

            Nah, none of that is necessary. Much of the “illegitimacy” argument was a product of early Jewish polemics against the Christian claim of Jesus’ virgin birth. In the Talmud, Jesus is regularly called a mamzer or “bastard,” not by way of any real evidence so much as from a place of ridicule.

            One way to think about it is as a dialectic — i.e. argument, counter-argument, counter-counter-argument, etc. So the early Christians come across Isaiah 7:14 and conclude Jesus was born a child of a virgin, conceived via the Holy Spirit, and in their minds they’re thinking, “Bingo! See? Jesus really is the Messiah!” And then their Jewish critics would say, well, how do you know Mary wasn’t just a floozy who got knocked up by another guy? So the Christians countered with stories about how Mary’s viriginity was assiduously tested and proven (such as, for example, in the Protoevangelium of James). And so the Jews countered with the tale of Panthera, a Centurion who knocked up Mary on the sly, which not only would make Jesus a bastard but also a Roman (shocker!). And back and forth, back and forth, Jews ever on the offensive, Christians ever on the defensive. And all of this simply because the Christians who interpreted Jesus’ being born of a virgin from Isaiah never thought to consider that it would open up Jesus to accusations of illegitimacy.

            And this isn’t even a unique example of this process in the Gospels. The Empty Tomb story probably came about through the same dialectic process. The first Christians were saying they saw Jesus’ resurrected body. So the Jews would question how the Christians knew it was Jesus’ body. So the Christians countered with the tale that their women went to Jesus’ tomb to annoint the body and it was gone. Of course, that just opened up the Christians to the obvious accusation by the Jews that the body was stolen. So the Christians thought, “Aha! The tomb was sealed and guards were posted!” And the Jews responded, “Well, why haven’t we heard from those guards about Jesus’ body rising from the tomb?” And the Christians answered, “Well, you see…the guards were so frightened that they fainted. Yeah, that’s it. That’s what must have happened.” And the Jews were like, “Hrmm, okay, but why didn’t the women tell us other Jews about it when it happened?” And the Christians were like, “Oh, the women were also too frightened to tell anyone. We didn’t find out ourselves until much later.” And the Jews eyed the Christians back skeptically, “Well, well, well, what a rather convenient answer.” And it’s been back and forth, back and forth ever since. Look up the Medieval Disputations, where Jews and Christians were STILL debating the very same arguments well over a thousand years later!

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        turbopro  June 23, 2017

        Why, I thought this question was settled a few decades ago –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zjz16xjeBAA

        “Excuse me…
        “Are you a virgin?”
        “I BEG your pardon!”
        “Well, if it’s not a personal question: are you a virgin?”
        “If it’s not a personal question! How much more personal can you get! Now, [sod] off!!”
        “I think she is…”

      • Avatar
        bradseggie  July 12, 2017

        I suspect the fact that everybody knew that Jesus was “the Son of Mary” (ie, illegitimate) led the early Christians to try to explain the blemish away. Thus the divine origin, with Isaiah 7:14 adding in virginity via mistranslation.

  14. Avatar
    Stephen  June 21, 2017

    Prof Ehrman

    There is an interesting view at the fringes of Mythicism that the figure of Jesus in the gospels was based on a composite of several ancient persons rather than on a single historical figure. I realize that neither you or most critical scholars take this kind of thing seriously but as a layman I do find myself occasionally fascinated by some of these fringe views. So just as a matter of curiosity do you know the provenance of this idea?


    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2017

      My sense is that it happened fairly naturally. The stories about Jesus have a lot in common with this figure, and that figure, and that other figure, but none of them actually corresponds in more than one or two ways. And so the solution is to say that Jesus is a composite.

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    Tony  June 23, 2017

    Why is the gospel virgin birth such a big deal, and even counts as evidence for historicity? Paul stated that his celestial Jesus was the son of God. Therefore, the gospel writer needed his earthly Jesus to be born from a virgin human mother through some non-sexual process. God can do that, that’s why he is God.
    As luck would have it there was a mistranslation in the LXX resulting in an (unrelated) virgin. Now the story conforms to Paul writing, but not his meaning, and as a bonus there is a psuedo prophesy fulfillment about a virgin birth. The making of a gospel. Not rocket science.

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      Pattycake1974  June 23, 2017

      There’s still issues with the mythicist position. Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 2:8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

      But then he also wrote in 1 Thess. 2:14-15 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.

      I understand that the first scripture sounds a lot like Satan killed the Lord, but what about 1 Thess.?

      There’s also no explanation for why Mark would make up an Aramaic-speaking rabbi who taught in parables.

      • Avatar
        Tony  June 25, 2017

        1 Thess. 2:14-16 has been long recognized by well regarded scholars as an interpolation, ( a later insertion into Paul’s letter by forgers). Paul NEVER blames the Jews for the death of Jesus anywhere else. Moreover, 2:16 ends with: “but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last”. That refers to the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 – when Paul was almost certainly no longer alive.

        The process of turning a deity into a human is called “euhemerization”. It has been done many times. The motives of “Mark” could have been many, but we do not know for sure.

        There are a lot more “issues” with the historical position!

  16. Avatar
    wawawa  June 23, 2017

    Why the authors of the NT never mentioned/talked about the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE?
    Is not it odd to omit such an important event! I can’t figure it out.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2017

      It is often thought that the Gospel writers do refer to it (e.g., Mark 13; Luke 21; etc.). Paul was writing before the event, and the other writers are simply talking about other things for which it wasn’t relevant.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  June 25, 2017

        I suggest that the gospels, which were all written after the destruction (though Mark may have been started before it), have Jesus predict the destruction much like the author of Daniel “predict” some things that had already happened – in order to make his other predictions sound more believable.

        One reason I do not think Jesus ever predicted the destruction of the Temple is that Paul never mentions it, which, given the central place the Temple had among all Jews of whatever persuasion, was something he could not have ignored. In Acts (admittedly not first-hand testimony), there is a scene where he even goes to worship at the Temple, with the full purification rituals. Another piece of evidence, to my mind, is Gos. Thom, which repeats many of Jesus’s saying from the gospels, and adds some others, but never mentions his prediction of its destruction.

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    Pattycake1974  June 23, 2017

    Why do you think Paul used the Aramaic term, “Abba” both in Romans and Galatians?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2017

      It was just a common term used in certain religious contexts, kind of like Hallelujah is still today.

  18. Avatar
    James Cotter  June 23, 2017

    james Cotter June 20, 2017
    have you ever heard the claim that the readers of mark knew the children of Simon of Cyrene, the guy who helped Jesus carry his cross?

    Bart June 22, 2017
    Yes, it’s a standard argument for claiming that Mark got his account from those connnected to eyewitnesses

    have you addressed this in any of your posts on this blog?
    i mean, like you said before, many people have their eyes fixed on jesus because of the gospels account. so they have their camera focused on jesus, but historically jesus would not have had the camera on him so to speak. so how would it be possible for mark readers to even know eyewitnesses in regard to this event?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2017

      No, I’ve never addressed it. My sense is that the datum may go far back in the tradition, OR Mark is using it to provide verisimilitude.

  19. Avatar
    rich-ilm  June 25, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman –
    I just finished reading Burton Mack’s Who Wrote The New Testament? and found it quite interesting, but it made several claims that differ from my current understanding that I would love to get your thoughts on. BTW, I’m not quite sure what to make of Mack – I’ve been following your mythicist posts and watched the Price debate, and have not found the mythicist position particularly convincing, but I wanted to hear it out, so I read Fitzgerald’s Nailed, and when I saw Mack’s book for $3 at a book sale, I thought I’d pick it up. I don’t think he’d call himself a mythicist but I assumed his work in the Jesus Seminar put him somewhere in that spectrum…a website described him as ‘Skeptical of the orthodox position regarding Jesus of Nazareth but not avowedly mythicist nor semi-mythicist,’ which feels about right from my reading.
    1) Q – I’ve always been under the impression that Q was the sayings material in Matthew and Luke, that was not part of Mark. In his Appendix A on page 311, he has Q3 (along with Pronouncement Stories and Miracle Stories) as sources for Mark. (I wasn’t familiar with different layers of Q, but I assume it’s a similar idea to the various levels of D and P in the documentary hypothesis.) Is there any support for Mark being aware of Q?
    2) He thinks that the Johannine community “did go its own way, probably from an early time,” but that some scholars think that John must have known about Mark because his “account of the trial and crucifixion follows Mark so closely that some form of textual dependence is probable…The passion plot was a postwar Markan creation, and it is improbable that John would have come up with the same plot independently.” My impression was that ‘John’ had written independently. Is there any reason to think he might have borrowed from Mark? Or that the passion plot is a post-war Markan creation? (I assume he means the details of the passion story, not the concept of crucifixion/resurrection, since Paul was writing in the 50s and 60s.)
    3) From Chapter 2, page 47, he says, “It is very important to realize that these movements developed as schools of thought, not as religious communities of the kind that gathered in celebration of the Christ myth.” If I understand his premise correctly, he seems to be saying that the earliest Jesus communities were ‘sayings’ communities, in the Q or Gospel of Thomas tradition. He sees Jesus and the schools that developed around him in a cynic/stoic/greek philosopher vein. The ‘Christ myth,’ celebrating death/resurrection, came later… Chapter 3, page 75, “ Beginning somewhere in northern Syria, probably in the city of Antioch, and spreading through Asia Minor into Greece, the Jesus movement underwent a change of historic consequence. It was a change that turned the Jesus movement into a cult of a god called Jesus Christ.” Do you see any merit to this? Is it possible that the earliest communities were ‘teaching’ communities and then quickly (within about 25 years, he says) some started to develop into “Christ myth” communities? Could this help explain some of the gnostic/docetic/adoptionist, etc confusion and debate about who and what Jesus/Christ was? Is it possible that the believers who had visions of Christ appearing to them began to develop and spread this idea to the other communities, who may not have even known about a crucifixion, resurrection, or other Christ elements?
    Sorry for the long questions, but hope they were reasonably clear if not brief.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2017

      This is all very interesting, but I’m afraid it’s far too much for a single comment for me (time constraints!)! How ’bout you pick a single question at a time and I’ll deal with it. Here I’ll deal with your first comment. No, I don’t believe Mack would at all identify with the mythicist position. The Jesus seminar were decidedly and emphatically NOT mythicists!

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        rich-ilm  June 25, 2017

        Sounds good. Many thanks again for all the great blog posts and comments. Your 6/22 and 6/23 posts about your journey were especially enlightening and helpful. They definitely resonated with aspects of my experience and gave me some things to think about in interacting with religious friends and family, so thank you for sharing.
        On the issue of Q, I have long understood that Q was the inferred sayings material in Matthew and Luke that was not in Mark. Mack seems to think that Q was one of the sources for Mark. Is there any evidence that Mark was aware of Q?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 26, 2017

          There are some passages that overlap between Mark and Q, and that make some scholars think Mark knew Q. But more likely they had just heard similar stories.

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    dankoh  June 25, 2017

    Regarding the “virgin birth”: We don’t know everything about the cults and sects of the time, particularly we know next to nothing about Persian sects; possibly there was some similarity there.

    But I think it more likely that this is a case of what Paula Fredriksen called “evangelistic proof-texting” – looking for passages in the OT that can be (mis)used to show it predicted Jesus. Matthew quotes the LXX translation, not the original, and then takes the passage out of context, to show that Isaiah prophesied the (virgin) birth of Jesus.

    And incidentally, I think this shows Matthew either was a native Greek speaker (many Jews were) who didn’t know the Hebrew version, or else he was writing for an audience that didn’t know the Hebrew version – ie, Jews in the Diaspora, God-fearers, or pagans. Any Jew who knew the Hebrew would likely not have accepted his story.

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