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Were Jesus’ Followers Crazy? Was He? Mailbag June 4, 2016

I’ll be dealing with two questions in this week’s Readers Mailbag, both dealing, as it turns out, with issues related to psychology and the early Christian movement: one has to do with why the followers of Jesus didn’t simply give up and disband when the end-of-the-world-apocalypse they had been anticipating didn’t happen (so that they were proven to be *wrong*) and the other about whether Jesus was, literally, crazy.   Interesting questions!  If you have one you would like me to address, just ask in a comment on any of my posts.



I get that when the Apocalypse didn’t happen as the apocalyptic Jesus had predicted that a kind of reinterpretation of events including the resurrection took place. But why? Why didn’t the fledgling fringe then Jesus-Jewish (my term) sect simply die out?



Ah, this is a meaty question that someone could write a book about.  In fact, people have written books about it!   I won’t give a definitive answer here, but will instead mention just one book – now a classic – that addresses the issue, and in a very interesting way.

John Gager was for many years a professor of Religious Studies at Princeton University.  He was there the whole time I was doing my graduate work across the street at Princeton Theological Seminary, but, idiot that I was, I never took any classes with him.  I did meet him though, and came to know him a bit later after I was at Chapel Hill

One of his most important books is called Kingdom and Community.  It deals with just this question.  Why didn’t Jesus’ followers disband when they realized that his predictions of the imminent appearance of the kingdom of God simply were not true?  Jesus said the “end” would come within his generation, before the disciples had died (e.g., Mark 9:1; 13:30).  But they died, and it didn’t come.  So why didn’t the earliest Christians just realize that he, and they, had been wrong and revert to their original religious views (whether Jewish or pagan)?

Gager takes a very interesting approach to the question, one that might not occur to you.  He appeals to an intriguing study of modern-day groups who expect the UFO’s to come.

There was a fascinating book, which everyone ought to read, written by Leon Festinger, called When Prophecy Fails.  In it Festinger develops a theory of social-psychology that is called “Cognitive Dissonance.”  Cognitive dissonance refers to a phenomenon that most of us have experienced:  when something we deeply think proves to be completely wrong, rather than admit it, we refuse to think we were completely wrong (for psychological reasons) and argue more strenuously for it to ease the conflict between our views and our reality.

Festinger established the theory by looking at “UFO cults,” that is, groups of people who expected the world to be invaded by UFO’s.   When the UFO’s didn’t appear as expected, what did members of the group do?    Rather than disband, people in these groups typically re-explained the non-event to themselves and then expected it with even *greater* fervor.   And they promoted their views even more vigorously.  The “dissonance” (that is, the fact that reality did not coincide with their expectations) in their “cognition” (their thinking) led them not to reject their views but to affirm them more vehemently by getting others into their movement.  This eased the discomfort of the dissonance because it showed them that others – even more people – shared their views

For cognitive dissonance to work, you need the following situation.  A group of persons has a very firm view about something.  The view is so concrete that reality can, in fact, disconfirm it (show that it’s wrong). Then the view is in fact disconfirmed.  And that’s when cognitive dissonance (the mental confusion that comes when a firmly held belief is disconfirmed) kicks in.  By becoming more evangelistic about the view, people in the group convince others to join them and adopt their views.  The more who join, the more moral support the people of the group receive:  Hey!  All these other people agree with us!  We must be right!

And so if the UFO’s don’t appear on February 3 the way you thought, you say that you made a slight miscalculation – they are supposed to appear on August 28.  And you convince more people.  And the support you get in the group allows you to believe it even more fervently the next time.

Gager applies this theory of cognitive dissonance to the early Christians.  They thought the Kingdom of God would arrive in a cosmic display of divine power within the first generation.  They really thought that.  But it didn’t happen.  Their belief was disconfirmed.  And so what did they do?  To resolve the psychological tension the non-appearance of the kingdom created, they became more fervently missionary, converting others to their cause.  They did so by insisting that the end was still to come “soon” – and they came up with excuses for why it had not happened yet:  for example, some of them might say: God had delayed the end to give people more of a chance to repent.  Or: Jesus hadn’t really meant it would come while his disciples were alive, he meant it would come while their memory was still alive.  Or: when God said it would come “soon” he meant by his divine calendar, not by a merely human calendar.  And so on.

The failure of the kingdom to come, thenk is what led to the growth of the Christian community.  It was all a matter of cognitive dissonance.

I’m not saying I completely agree with this theory.  But I think it is a brilliant take on the early Christian movement.



Long ago, I read Albert Schweitzer’s 1911 classic book entitled “The Psychiatric Study of Jesus.” One of the weaknesses of the book is that psychiatry was in its infancy in 1911 and diagnoses have markedly changed in the past 100 years. My question: Do current scholars ever discuss whether or not Jesus was mentally ill and, if so, who can I read about this matter?


In a sense this question is along a similar line as the one preceding, but now the question is not about the psychological state of Jesus’ followers but of Jesus himself.   Here I’ll give just a very, very brief response:  To my knowledge there aren’t any serious scholars of the historical Jesus who have questioned his sanity.

I suppose one main reason for that is that the vast majority of historical Jesus experts (not quite all) are themselves Christian, and they simply are not going to go there.  But there’s actually a much better reason.  Everyone realizes that the historical Jesus cannot be understood unless you situate him fully within his own historical context, and understand his teachings in light of what people thought and believed in his day.   That makes the most enormous difference to how one evaluates his psychological state.

The reality is that a lot of people today who are predicting the imminent end of the world may have a few screws loose.   But the kinds of expectations that Jesus had about the coming kingdom of God in a cataclysmic display of divine force were not “weird” or “way out there” or “psycho” in his day.  They were fairly common.   Unless you want to say that all apocalyptic Jews were clinically crazy, I don’t think you can say that Jesus was.

But what if he really thought he was God?  Wouldn’t that be crazy?  Yeah, it might well be.  But I don’t think for a second that Jesus thought that about himself.  He did think he had a close relationship with God.  But so do billions of people today (many of them on a first-name basis with Jesus) – but they’re not all crazy.   And he may well have thought (I think he did think) that he would be made the messiah in the future kingdom.  That may have been a rather exalted view of himself, but I don’t think it makes Jesus crazy.  It makes him an unusually confident apocalyptic prophet.  There were others with visions of grandeur at the time.  I don’t think that makes him mentally ill.  It makes him a first-century apocalyptic Jew.

If you belonged to the blog, you could get meaty posts like this 5-6 times a week.  Why not join?  It doesn’t cost much and all the funds go to charity!


Paul’s Own (and Only) Gospel
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  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  June 4, 2016

    You should have on your blog in a predominate place how many thousands of members there are. For the people on the fence on whether to join, it shows just how many people have decided to join already! If they all joined, they might reflect more joining! I’m sure there is a wordpress extention that shows/updates the number of members automatically!

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    marcrm68  June 4, 2016

    Unbelievably fascinating …

  3. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  June 4, 2016

    Dr. Erhman. As you know my educational background is in psychology. I do think the cognitive dissonance theory does carry some weight. However, I want to offer a very simple psychological explanation. It is a type of operant conditioning which is dependent on time spent with the behavior. For example, if someone is waiting for the bus and the bus is late and they’ve been waiting a long time they may not walk away and give up because they think the bus could be here any minute. They have invested so much time waiting, they don’t want to walk away because they fear the bus my arrive just after they walk away,

    We see the same type of behavior in gambling addiction. Someone playing the slot machines may have spent a long time playing a certain machine thinking this next quarter might give the pay off. Even if the disciples waited five years after Jesus’s death for the end of time to arrive that is enough time invested for them to not give up.

    I see this behavior in religious cults which depicts the end of time is imminent. People have usually spent and invested a lot of themselves and time waiting for these apocalyptic events to unfold. So when the date comes and goes and the events don’t happen they think maybe it will be still be coming soon, maybe not now but maybe in a year from now and so it’s difficult for them to extinguish this anticipatory behavior.

    And another simple explanation is that a person’s ego does not like to be wrong, especially when they have publicly expressed a belief. Pride and ego may prevent them from admitting that they were wrong in the face of public ridicule and so they will continue to hold onto specific beliefs system. This, along with cognitive dissonance, is a form of primitive defense mechanism such as denial of distortion and rationalization and justification. These defense mechanisms are the egos defense against being wrong.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2016

      Very interesting!

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 6, 2016

        It is interesting that concerning apocalyptic events, people can see that a date comes and goes but still believe it might be “soon.” In the case of Christianity, “soon” has become over 2,000 years!

      • TWood
        TWood  June 6, 2016

        It seems to me that the theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Concorde Fallacy/Clinical Denial) has problems… I’ll mention two of them here (please correct me if I’m wrong on any point):

        1. It seems the first disciples accepted that Jesus was not the Messiah after he died… therefore they had no expectation of his appearing to them after he died… this is quite different than UFO believers wanting and expecting a UFO to appear… when the UFO doesn’t appear… their cognitive dissonance allows them to continue expecting the UFO… this might explain 2 Peter 3:8… but it doesn’t explain 1 Corinthians 15:5-7… Or am I missing something here?

        2. Paul neither wanted nor expected to see Jesus alive after he was crucified. It seems that cognitive dissonance makes zero sense for Paul. This is doubly true for the clinical denial idea (remember what Feynman said about social science?). Paul clearly denied that Jesus was the risen Messiah before his vision… so how does Cognitive Dissonance or denial apply to Paul’s vision?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 7, 2016

          I don’t think anyone wants to argue that dissonance explains *everything*

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 5, 2016

      This is often called the Sunk Cost theory, which is related to Post-decision Dissonance and Escalation of Commitment. In Sunk Cost theory when a person has devoted a certain amount of time and energy into something they will imbue it with an exaggerate value that is out of proportion to its intrinsic or objective value, simply because we so value the time, money or work we have put into it from the beginning.

      For example, let’s say you have lost a pair of sunglasses that you really liked. You’ve spent at least an hour looking for them and you still haven’t found them. You’ve come to a crossroads where you must make a decision. You can either continue to keep looking or you can go and buy another pair of the same sunglasses. A sensible person would forgo the “sunk cost” of wasting that hour looking for the old sunglasses and simply go to buy another pair, but a person who has succumbed to the sunk cost mindset will believe that the time they have spent looking has imbued those old sunglasses with added value, so they become even more obstinate and devoted to finding them. This, I believe, is what happened to Jesus’ followers following his execution. They had already devoted so much time and energy to this apocalyptic prophet that they were unwilling to accept the sunk cost of abandoning the movement and starting again from zero.

      Dr. Ehrman, if this topic at all interests you I highly suggest reading up on the work of the Israeli psychologists and behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  June 5, 2016

      The bus analogy is a little off, I think, because anyone with experience as a bus rider knows that a bus will eventually come, even if the one they are waiting for has broken down and will not come that day. The next scheduled bus after that will almost certainly come. The gambler analogy actually agues for the insanity of waiting for a prediction to come true, because anyone who has done the math knows that one must lose more than one wins in the long run. The fear of looking foolish by admitting error is a valid explanation, I think. Do either of you believe that scholars and scientists, whose professional ethics demand that they publicly admit when they are wrong, could do more to popularize the notion that it is a good thing to know and admit you have been wrong, because now you are closer to a complete and correct understanding of reality? Christians already do that, in a sense, when they make their public professions of faith, but they seem to think it is only good to do it once in a lifetime.

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      dragonfly  June 5, 2016

      A bit like the gist of 2 Thessalonians – the end will still be coming, just not right now, but soon.

    • Avatar
      Tmanns  July 26, 2016

      Excellent post!

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  June 4, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I think Gager is on the right track with his hypothesis. With just about every movement centered around a messianic figure who, as you say, is disconfirmed, invariably there are members who for some reason or another continue to believe — even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I mentioned Shabbtai Tzvi in a previous comment. One would think that after Tzvi not only failed to become the Messiah but even converted to Islam, that all of his followers would have simply melted away, shame-ridden after realizing they followed a false prophet. But, no, many of his followers instead redoubled their faith. They claimed Tzvi’s conversion to Islam was all part of God’s master plan, and that, eventually, Tzvi’s true messianic nature would be realized (sound familiar?). In fact, these devoted Jewish followers of Tzvi (nominally) converted to Islam themselves and formed a community — called the Donmeh — in Ottoman ruled Thessalonica that lastest for hundreds of years. And some scholars think that there may be as many as tens of thousands of crypto-Donmehs even today, who still hold onto a possible return of Tzvi as messiah!

    So, as you can see, the theory is not at all far-fetched. In fact, as a social scientist I see this sort of steadfast loyalty all the time, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against it. We social scientists see it so often that we have a word for it: Denial. And I don’t mean denial in a colloquial sense, as in “James is in such denial about how ugly his dog is.” I’m talking about clinical denial, when a person actually has a mental break from reality. It becomes too emotionally difficult for the votary to accept that reality has failed to conform with their beliefs, so they will ignore the contrary reality or attempt to rationalize it away, more often than not both. The behavior of the first Christians immediately after Jesus’ death fits this paradigm perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that it’s practically textbook.

    There are basically three stages in this process of denial. Stage one: refuse to accept that the disconfirming event is really a disconfirming event, because acknowledging it is simply too painful — i.e. cognitively and emotionally upsetting. That is to say, they try to find comfort in the belief that what appears to have happened is not what has really happened. In the case of the first followers of Jesus, they simply refused to believe that Jesus’ death was the end. For them, Jesus must still be around somehow, if only in a new, possibly greater form.

    Stage two: work backwards in your memories, looking for signs and episodes that can explain away and rationalize the disconfirming event. This process is heavily influenced by the Semmelweis reflex, i.e. confirmation and hindsight biases. The entire gospel corpus is essentially the first Christians’ attempt to do this. Instead of considering the possibility that Jesus was a false prophet and a fraud, they instead scoured his words and scripture for explanations and justifications for this death.

    Stage three: separate yourself from individuals who try to dissuade you of your denial and instead commune with like-minded individuals who will support and reinforce your denial. The most important aspect of this stage is that it’s an attempt to fully free oneself from notions and facts that are mentally and emotionally disconcerting (e.g. cognitive dissonance) and to put oneself into a welcoming and accepting environment. This is the logic behind support groups, where you are able to commune with others who are going through the same thing you’re going through. You gain comfort in the knowledge that your thoughts and feelings won’t be dismissed or ridiculed within the support group, because everyone there understands what you’re going through.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  June 4, 2016

    The whole idea behind Millennarianism is that The End is Coming–people who gravitate to that kind of belief don’t necessarily want the world to end, but they seem to get something out of believing they know when the end will come. Maybe it gives them a sense of greater control over their lives. We all know the world could end, and will end, someday. We just don’t know when, or how. They do. Okay, they don’t, really. But they just keep resetting the clock, and starting over, and it seems to make them happy.

    The UFO cult thing is interesting, but of course there’s also The Great Disappointment.


    And there have been so many more since. I trust there shall be many more in future. Let us go on being disappointed for as long as we possibly can. 😉

  6. Avatar
    Jana  June 4, 2016

    Wow! Then if Jesus’s followers were “cognitive dissonant” … were they then crazy? technically crazy? Is there another theory which you also agree with (you wrote not completely in agreement BUT … (As an aside after watching Sir David Attenborough and others nature videos about “swarm intelligence/consciousness” … eg. Rome Starlings I’ve been wondering if the same happens within groups including cults?)

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2016

      No, they weren’t crazy. This would make them normal!

      • Avatar
        Jana  June 5, 2016

        Now wait a minute ! lol

        • Avatar
          Jana  June 6, 2016

          So what this boils down to is that a religion was founded because a group of men couldn’t admit that they were wrong! Now why do I find that credulous? lol (teasing)

    • Avatar
      godspell  June 5, 2016

      Basically, by modern standards, everybody was crazy back then–every single person believed to some extent in the supernatural. Maybe a few exceptions, but I rather doubt it. Honestly, I’m not sure anybody today is completely free of superstition (even if they don’t acknowledge it as such).

      Humans are not, never have been, and probably never will be 100% rational beings, and to expect them to be is itself kind of crazy.

      Why would we even want to be? Everything that brings us real joy–art, music, desire, love–has an irrational element to it. We’re not machines. We shouldn’t aspire to be machines. We can allow for our irrationality, and make it work for us. Or we can deny it, try to pretend it is rational, and make it stronger. Those are our choices.

      • Bart
        Bart  June 7, 2016

        I’m not sure believing in the supernatural makes a person crazy. The vast majority of human beings on the planet today believe in the supernatural.

        • Avatar
          godspell  June 7, 2016

          There’s nothing crazy about believing there are things our shared body of factual knowledge can’t currently explain. It would be crazy to think that is NOT the case. The world we live in is too complicated to ever fully explain. You have to leave some room for the uncanny, the inexplicable.

          I think where a rational person should draw the line is where Karl Popper said it should be drawn–don’t rationalize the irrational. Don’t pretend to know what can’t be known.

  7. Avatar
    Dipsao  June 4, 2016

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are a perfect case study in the area of failed prophecies and cognitive dissonance. Both Russell and Rutherford claimed multiple times the world would end or some cosmic event would happen. When events failed to materialize they gave a twist to the story, resulting in more followers and deeper commitments. After Rutherford’s passing and with no charismatic personality at the helm, the Watchtower Society “spiritualized” much of Russell and Rutherford’s prophecies so to claim, yes they came true but not in the way we thought they would. It hasn’t hindered their membership growth, especially when new members aren’t familiar with the history.

  8. Avatar
    jhague  June 4, 2016

    The apocalyptic view certainly seems like a delusional view to me in today’s world. Doesn’t it seem like the majority of the Jewish people in the first century did not agree with this view? In fact, it seems like Jesus’ view was mainly accepted by a few very poor and down on their luck group. Did the majority just ignore them or not even know about them?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2016

      We don’t know percentages, but we do know that a lot, possibly the majority, of Jews in the first century were apocalypticists.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 5, 2016

        Easily a majority. In fact, Josephus goes out of his way to point out that the Sadducees’ lack of believe in the Resurrection was exceptional, not mainstream. One could say that 1st century Palestine was burned over with apocalyptic fever.

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 5, 2016

        Today there are Christian apocalyptics who function normally in society. They have jobs, get married, have families, plan for the future (college, retirement, etc). There are some who think they can pin point an exact day that the end of the world is going to occur and plan their lives around that date which is always wrong. Most of us look at this second group as a little off. John the Baptist, Jesus & his followers and Paul all were in the second group. Were the majority of apocalyptics in the first century in the first group that I described? Believing that the world as they knew it was going to come to an end some day but living their lives in a mostly normal way?

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  June 6, 2016

        I have no doubt that a large percentage of Jews were apocalypticists (sp?), mainly because they thought things couldn’t get much worse, and God would surely save them. And several of the postings have provided useful and realistic explanations. But I don’t think Jesus was a apocalypticist. I think the “historical” Jesus was intensely aware of the sufferings of his people, and he wanted to help lift the yoke of Roman domination. But although he was a deep thinker, he was also a very pragmatic person. He feared there would be a rebellion and he knew the Jews would lose to overwhelming Roman power. He wasn’t trying to save souls, he was trying to save lives. I believe he concluded he had to sacrifice himself to prevent Pilate from using him to precipitate a massacre. I explain that in my historical novel (which Dr. Ehrman refuses to read). Identifying the people who took Jesus’ life and death and re-invented it as “dying for our sins” and then being resurrected is not clear, although Dr. Ehrman’s book is brilliant on the subject. All in all, there is very little correlation between the historical Jesus, his ideas and his goals, and the “new” religion invented in his name. We have seen 2000 years of cognitive dissonance on this subject. Nevertheless, despite all the wars, genocides, assassinations, etc., Christian nations have done the most to advance civilization, commerce, culture and FREEDOM.

  9. Epicurus13
    Epicurus13  June 4, 2016

    Professor Ehrman, I was wondering if I could get your professional opinion on the dating of James ? And if you had any thoughts on Douglas J. Moo and his commentary on James ? I ask because I have been talking with a pastor who is influenced by James White and this is what the pastor said about the date on James. And I quote. ( “I think there is “good evidence” to date James between 45-48 ce. Some believe 60 ce. and still others give it a later date. I feel a later date is from “liberal bent” scholars who want to distance it further from Christ and there by undermining it.” ) I know your a busy man so as simple as you can make it is fine. Thank you sir !

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2016

      In my Forgery and Counterforgery book I argue that James is responding to a misreading of Paul’s writings — that would require him to be writing some time after Paul. Beyond that we can’t really date him. But there’s no reason to date him before 60 or so. I’d think he was near the end of the first century. But early-dating doesn’t help much for anything — he says scarcely anything about Jesus, for example. (and if you think, as many do, that he is reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, then you need to date him some years after Matthew, who almost certainly wasn’t written earlier than 75-80 CE)

  10. Avatar
    JSTMaria  June 4, 2016

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    Perhaps I suffer from cognitive dissonance here,haha!, but didn’t Jesus say that the “Kingdom was not of this world” anyway? And not something that can be observed? Or are these things later corruptions of Scripture? Whenever I hear “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” it always sort of means (to me) that we have the potential right in the here and now to “see” with a higher eye of unity and oneness (by following the teachings of Jesus) as opposed to seeing with two eyes of duality, corruption, judgment, etc… So, the disciples who claimed to see Jesus post-resurrection would technically have ‘seen the Kingdom’ before they tasted death. Or…they were completely nuts! Right?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2016

      Ah, actually, the historical Jesus almost certainly didn’t say that. It’s found in John’s Gospel, where Jesus’ apocalytpic message is being de-apocalypticized (in no small measure because the expected kingdom never came!)

      • Avatar
        JSTMaria  June 6, 2016

        I have a theory! I was wondering what you think about it. Luke echoes the concept of the invisibility of the Kingdom in 17:20 and 17:21 (i.e., it is without observation…it is within you). Paul states in Romans 14:17, “For the Kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” There are numerous parables in essentially all of the gospels that seem to suggest an inner seeking of peace (i.e., the mustard seed, the leaven, the treasure hidden in a field, the man travelling in a far country who called his own servants and then “delivered unto them his goods,” etc.). Pentecost was believed to be, I guess, a delivery of such goods–spiritual goods. Again, I think??? Ask any monk what they are doing in their cells, and they all seem to be pursuing something of a personal Pentecost within and have been for centuries.

        In Luke 16:16 it states about the Kingdom, that every man “presseth” into it (biazo), which seems like an inward “struggle” for the peace of the Kingdom. If the Kingdom is within you, then it is certainly more than at hand. Jesus seems to have been speaking to two types of people: people who “got it” and people who didn’t get it and therefore were given basic parables. This is my theory anyway. SO–when you go out as “fishers of men,” you literally are kind of fishing for those who will hear the more inward message…and you fish out as far as you can looking for the lost sheep of “Israel” (those who wrestle with God–biazo??) and who seek inwardly. It just seems like to me, that the Kingdom not coming is something the more parable-only people would have been hearing and not the closest disciples who ditched everything in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Am I off base to think Jesus had two types of hearers? Since the message is taken in all sorts of directions to this day, it seems there are multiple hearers, but I guess I’m just breaking it down to an inward vs. and outward listener. Your thoughts?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 7, 2016

          I think the very difficult thing is separating out what Paul means about the Kingdom, what Luke thinks about it, and what the historical Jesus thinks about it. My sense is that those are three very different things!

          • Avatar
            Rogers  June 14, 2016

            Bart, the more I’ve followed you (your explanations, expositions) on the apocalyptic Jesus thesis, and then have learned that the Jesus Seminar rejects that thesis, and then there is the political Jesus thesis, and I’ll even mention the mythic Jesus thesis (though the scholarly support of that idea is scant to none); well, the problem is that your favored thesis throws out the verses that go against the Jewish apocalyptic understanding of the Kingdom of God/Heaven, then the Jesus Seminar people throw out the verses that depict an apocalyptic Jesus, the political Jesus guys throw out that which doesn’t support a politically motivated Jesus – the mythicist just dismiss it all and replace all the multi-attestation with various conspiracy theories.

            The problem is that all these different thesis of an historical (or mythical) Jesus resort to filtering out that which is discomforting to respective thesis – even if some of that material is backed by historical critical methods such as multi-attestation.

            It is Jesus’s parables that tend to undercut a pure apocalyptic Jesus thesis (plus his gentle teachings of personal conduct don’t mesh well with the violent apocalyptic Jews that preceded him nor that came after him as described by Josephus). Naturally Luke 17:21 and Gospel of Thomas logion 3 appear to head in that conceptual direction (of some of his parables) as well (and there you have a multi-attestation from two obviously different sources).

            I’m beginning to sense that scholars – despite their protestations that they’re using objective techniques of analysis – at the end of the day are cherry picking to fit their biases. And that all camps are doing so.

            There is no really compelling definitive thesis of an historical Jesus – from where I sit, Jesus has alluded modern scholarship.

            Yes, the apocalyptic Jesus makes a lot of sense but still looks to be incomplete and too simplistic with respect to the data.

            Because I know I went through this myself and know quite a few other folks that did as well (you know some of the very same people), and many people are known in history to have as well (Emanuel Swedenborg et al), I think another avenue to explore is that Jesus was at one time close to the Essenes teachings and then broke from them due to his own inward change of nature. Posit that the Herodians and the Scribes mentioned in the NT refer to the Essenes. We see Jesus saying some of the same things that the Essenes believed, like not swearing an oath by God but let one’s word suffice. Yet he evidently believed in forgiveness and even praying for one’s enemies instead of seeking God’s curse upon them (his teaching about John the Baptist as Elijah in Matthew resembles the Essenes). His inner change of his own nature brought about a schism with the apocalyptic Essenes. So in this thesis everything that can be multi-attested to is accepted and does not require being filtered out in order to cherry pick the data.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 16, 2016

            I really don’t think it’s a matter of cherry picking. It’s a matter of establishing a methodology, explaining it carefully, implementing it cautiously, and drawing the conclusions. I think you’ll see how it all works in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. One of the problems with the Jesus Seminar is that their criteria seem rather loose….

      • TWood
        TWood  June 6, 2016

        “John’s Apocalypse” is from the same general time as “John’s gospel” (90s CE)—I’m not suggesting the same author for both. Yet John’s Apocalypse has no problem emphasizing an imminent apocalypse in the late first century. So maybe there’s a different reason for John’s gospel de-emphasizing an imminent apocalypse (besides the fact that the expected kingdom didn’t come).

        The end of John’s gospel also makes mention of many other (lost?) sources that it doesn’t have the space to document (maybe these sources contained such “not of this world” statements). It seems possible that Jesus made “not of this world” statements that were in concert with his apocalyptic ones (and the Synoptics de-emphasized his “not of this world” statements in order to emphasize his apocalypticism).

        Here’s my question(s): Was Jesus’ teaching so linear that he couldn’t have said “you belong to a spiritual realm now, but it will be an earthly realm in the near future?” Asked another way: Since Jesus was clearly a dynamic teacher (his influence is undeniable), why are you sure that John added statements rather than the Synoptics having left some out?

        I don’t mean verbatim statements… but statements that line up with something like “my kingdom is not (limited) to this world.”

  11. Avatar
    Stephen  June 4, 2016

    In his introduction to the book Festinger does hint at the applicability of his thesis to the early Christian movement but his reticence perhaps reflects the time in which he published and maybe his confidence that his readers would make the connection.

    A work I’ve found compelling is a book of literary criticism by Frank Kermode called “The Sense of an Ending”. He points out that there are so many advantages to a tightly knit group with the apocalyptic mindset that it makes it virtually immune to disconfirmation.

  12. Avatar
    Scott  June 4, 2016

    What about the verse Mark 3:21

    for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

    Is this an indication that Jesus might have been acting “crazy” or possibly an apologetic against later opponents who were claiming that any Gallilean who claims to be the Messiah must be nuts?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2016

      In Mark’s Gospel (the only place it is found) it is being used to show that no one — even his own family — understood who he really was.

      • Avatar
        fred  June 11, 2016

        Doesn’t that suggest it might not be historical, since this suggests the criterion of dissimilarity is not really applicable? Even though it’s not consistent with what early Christians believed, it IS consistent with authorial intent.

        On a related note, some Christians insist that James was “converted” because of his post mortem experience. Isn’t this passage about Jesus’ family the sole basis for thinking James was not a believer at first?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 12, 2016

          The idea that his family did not accept him, includihng his brothers, is in both Mark and John, so it’s multiply attested, and it does seem to pass dissimilarity (especially if James soon became the leader in Jerusalem!)

  13. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 5, 2016

    Cognitive dissonance is another one of those strange things we humans do that is baffling. Another term I’ve seen floating around, too, is “willful ignorance”. I think our brains are hard-wired to these things to an extent. I was observing my daughter and two other children (ages 6, 11, & 12) the other day, and at one point they were all engaging in imaginary play, separately from each other. The older ones were different of course–more involved with music, cheering, “girl stuff,” and the boy was GI Joe or something, but no parent thought anything of it. No one was freaking out because our kids weren’t in reality. It’s normal, and I think as we become adults, our brains have more sophisticated ways of escaping what’s real–religion, movies, sports, vacations–like Disney World! We’ll pay a ridiculous amount of money to have dinner with Cinderella & friends. Hey, but it’s fun.

    I don’t know about other people, but when I came to terms with certain truths, it made the world seem a little less thrilling. I wanted to go back and unlearn the truth at times.

  14. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  June 5, 2016

    The cognitive dissonance theory is a very credible approach indeed. It is also very hard to reject the ‘Argumentum ad Populum’. “If many believe so, it must be true.”

  15. cheito
    cheito  June 5, 2016

    DR Ehrman:


    Why didn’t Jesus’ followers disband when they realized that his predictions of the imminent appearance of the kingdom of God simply were not true? Jesus said the “end” would come within his generation, before the disciples had died (e.g., Mark 9:1; 13:30). But they died, and it didn’t come.


    I believe that the reason why the followers of Jesus ‘didn’t disband’ is because Jesus never said that after His death and resurrection He would return before the disciples would die… Mark, or whoever wrote Mark recorded that Jesus had said that.

    It’s pointless to insist that we know for certain that Jesus said He would return in His own generation when the sources quoting Jesus as stating this are historically unreliable.


    The few questions below all have different answers depending on which gospel you rely on. There are many more questions one can ask…

    Did Jesus Say that John the baptist was Elijah?
    Did Jesus cry out when dying on the cross, “My God, My God why has thou forsaken Me, or did Jesus just say “it’s finished” and gave up his spirit?
    Did Jesus carry his own cross or did some one help him with it?

    As you well know DR Ehrman, there are many quotes attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels that are contradictory. We can’t ascertain Jesus exact words from unreliable sources.

  16. Avatar
    thelad2  June 5, 2016

    Hello Bart. In a similar vein, what do you think about the mental health St.Paul? We do have Paul’s writings, and as I read them with an admittedly modern eye, Paul comes across as a deeply troubled control freak. I understand that those terms would be meaningless to someone from Paul’s time, but his letters reveal a man who, among other things, is often on the verge of losing it. Your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2016

      No, I’m afraid that I don’t think we can psychoanalyze someone 2000 years later with such scant evidence of his internal mental state. Wish we could!

  17. Avatar
    Blackwell  June 5, 2016

    Before Jesus’s crucifixion, his supporters were expecting an imminent apocalypse.
    After his crucifixion, his disciples claimed that they had seen him alive again. Would this not have been taken as additional evidence that the apocalypse was even more imminent than previously thought? Why would his supporters give up their belief in those circumstances? Would they not have become more certain?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2016

      Yes, I think so! And at the time, they absolutely *were* more certain!

  18. Avatar
    flshrP  June 5, 2016

    Resolving cognitive dissonance is really just drinking the Kool-Aid. Different individuals each have their own type of Kool-Aid and take the matter to different extremes, up to and including suicide..

  19. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  June 5, 2016


    Wasn’t this same behavior (cognitive dissonance, denial, rationalization, etc) already manifested among the disciples after the crucifiction?


  20. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  June 5, 2016

    There are many benefits to creating explanations for problems of belief. You can continue to hold the same view of yourself and avoid upset your identity. You can continue to associate with friends and loved ones. You continue to receive social support and reinforcement. You can continue to hold a view of life and the world that makes sense to you. For me it is less surprising that people continue in spite of contrary evidence than that they change even as much as they do.

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