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Who Cares How It All Started?

Once I realized that so much of the scholarship on the Christian accounts of journeys to the realms of heaven and hell was focused almost exclusively on the ultimate question of where this idea of taking an actual trip to the afterlife came from – ancient Greek myths?  Jewish apocalypses? – I was deeply puzzled by it.   Why is the *origin* of an idea the most important or revealing thing about it?   Would any scholar of Victorian English dealing with David Copperfield be concerned *only* with knowing where the idea of writing a novel originated?  It’s an interesting and important question, but is that really the main thing we want to know about the book?

Why would it different with this kind of ancient religious writing?   Why this one focus?  And what was driving the concern?   I immediately realized that it was tied in to lots of other fields of inquiry going on in the 19th century.  Origins seemed to be everywhere.  Scientists were interested in the origins of life, and the origins of humankind (Darwin “The Origin of Species,” 1859!); linguists were interested in the origins of language (what was the “original” language; how do they all go back to common roots); anthropologists were interested in the origins of the “races”; cultural historians were interested in knowing where/when the earliest civilizations were and what they were like; etc. etc.

This kind of interest just seems natural to us.  It’s second nature.  It’s common sense.  Of course this is interesting and important.   But it occurred to me that it is a completely modern obsession.  Throughout most of history …

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The Protestant Obsession with Origins
The Passion for Origins



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 12, 2019

    Reading “God’s Problem.” Two things: a) Thank you for pointing out the obscenity that Job is given new kids as a replacement for those he lost. I wonder if Job was written before people thought resurrection was something God could do. b) If suffering is God’s punishment or part of God’s lesson-plan, we had better be very careful before we alleviate said suffering. We might be interfering with the divine plan. That sounds like it could lead to some repugnant attitudes.

  2. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 12, 2019

    Does your study include angelology? It seems to me there was considerable interest in this part of the spirt world among Jews during the intertestamental period. I’m no expert but it probably goes back to what Jews learned from the Babylonians during the Exile, including the angelic visions the Book of Ezekiel and 2 Isaiah, and developing on into Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, etc. I’d be interested to know if and how this fascination about angelic life in the other world evolved into the Pharisaic idea of ‘resurrection’ and life in the world to come. This in turn must have stimulated Jewish-Christian speculation about it [the letter of Jude refers to the Book of Enoch for example] not to mention Jesus telling the story of Abraham and Lazarus. [Just noticed that “Abraham’s bosom” is equated with “hades” in Luke 16, and sometimes translated as “hell.” Yikes!] Anyway it sounds like a fascinating study.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2019

      Yes, I’ve done a bit — but not a huge amount as an area of focus.

  3. Avatar
    dfogarty1  March 12, 2019

    I think the importance of Origin is directly related to the question as to whether lheavan and hell are real. A dubious or sound origin of the story is important is the very important question as to whether any of the stories should be believed.

  4. Avatar
    Icanoedoyou  March 12, 2019


    Unrelated question. Can you recommend a book that is not too partisan on the existence of God? The audience would be my highly educated son and his fiancee. Plus me! I’ve read The God Delusion and I enjoyed it, but it’s pretty one-sided.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2019

      I’m afraid I’m not up on all that — but there are roughly 683 million books on it, from every perspective possible! Sorry not to have a favorite!

    • Avatar
      Duke12  March 14, 2019

      One among the many options is Frank Schaeffer’s “Why I am an Atheist who believes in God.” Also his “Patience with God.”

  5. Avatar
    flshrP  March 12, 2019

    Other 19th and 20th century “origins” inquiries:
    Fraser’s “The Golden Bough”–comparative study of origins of ancient religions and myths
    Lovejoy’s “The Great Chain of Being” – study in the history of ideas of this ancient myth of the hierarchy of existence
    Tawney’s “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism”- traces Calvanistic influences in politics and economics
    As an undergraduate with a 4-year academic scholarship, I was strongly encouraged/expected to sign up for the Honor’s Program in which, among other things, we spent a few semester hours studying classics like these. I was carrying a full load as a physics major with a math minor, so this was R&R time for me. That time was nearly 60 years ago and I still remember quite a bit about these hours spent with the great books. I still have them on my bookshelf.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2019

      Ah, for those days of education to return…

      • Avatar
        Hormiga  March 14, 2019

        Yeah. I, too was a physics major with a math minor, but my state university very wisely had the physics department in the College of Liberal Arts with its attendant requirements. So I was easily able to indulge my liking for language (Russian, mostly) and took art , literature and world religion courses much to my enjoyment and, I think, profit.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 16, 2019

          We need more universities like that!! They’re all heading in the other direction. Sigh….

  6. Avatar
    Eric  March 12, 2019

    In terms of origins, I believe it may be a universal theme. Chinese, Hindu and Mayan “katabasis” myths or lore seem to exist, too.

  7. Avatar
    bknight  March 12, 2019

    Bart, would you consider St. Helena’s trip to Palestine in 326-328 A.D. a sort of quest for origins?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2019

      Yes indeed — pilgrimage started becoming a huge thing after that.

  8. Avatar
    Seeker1952  March 12, 2019

    Is it correct that Jews at the time of Jesus obtained forgiveness of sins, at least in part, by sacrificing animals in the Temple? If so, is that at least one of the sources of the idea that Jesus’s death obtained forgiveness of humanity’s sins? In other words, it’s one of the ideas that Jesus’s followers used after the fact to interpret and understand Jesus’s unexpected death?

    I also think that this could be a somewhat different understanding of Jesus’s death than as the kind of “substitutionary” atonement we normally think of. It’s not so much that Jesus had to “suffer” in humanity’s place for their sins but simply that a perfect “sacrifice” had to be made for those sins. The emphasis, arguably, should be less on the suffering and more simply on the fact of sacrifice.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  March 12, 2019

    I care. But I’m skeptical we can ever know how anything started. Because history is a long succession of fits and starts, isn’t it? And if we could track a particular historical trend all the way back to the earliest written records–well, there were people thinking and saying and doing things before that, right? Before even the earliest stone tools were made. We know there must have been a first chicken sometime, and before that was the egg–we just don’t quite know how to define the first chicken. And we don’t have the eggshell fragments.

    It’s a good exercise, that often leads to better understanding, and I’m maybe a bit less blasé about it than you make out to be (with tongue firmly in cheek), but I agree that it’s not the be-all and end-all.

    It’s how things finish that really matters, but by the time you know that, what good does it do you? 😉

  10. Avatar
    forthfading  March 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I am interested in how professional scholars interact with one another, especially when they are from different fields. I am a middle school special education teacher with an expertise in learning disabilities. When I have to go to another teacher in another field like math or science, they always find me annoying or intrusive because I don’t “have the necessary knowledge base” and they feel like they are simply teachings an adult vs a kid. What is your experience at the top level of scholarship when you ask for guidance or clarity with a scholar in another field (i.e. classics, medieval history, or other religious fields)?
    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2019

      My sense is that it is largely driven by personality. Some scholars are extremely welcoming and open to learning about other fields and sharing what they themselves know; others are completely territorial and think you’re a complete idiot if you don’t know what they do, and simply dismiss you as a poor specimen of a human being. I don’t hang out with people like that….

  11. Avatar
    Brand3000  March 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you agree with this quote?

    “For Paul, with his Semitic anthropology, a dissociation of body and spirit is unacceptable, and resurrection without a bodily aspect is not realistic. Therefore, “flesh and blood” have to be transformed, because on one hand eternal life is unthinkable without a body, but on the other hand the earthly body is not fit for eternal life….[Another] emphasis in Paul’s argument concerns the corporeality of the resurrection. The repeated… he “was seen” seems to refer to some form of bodily visibility.” “Resurrection in the New Testament” Festschrift for J. Lambrecht (2002)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2019

      Pretty much. (Irrelevant note: when quoting the article, you should indicate the author rather than the name of the person to whom the book is dedicated)

  12. John4
    John4  March 13, 2019

    Well, we also of course have the various origin myths, Bart: Genesis 1, etc.

    Thanks! 🙂

  13. Avatar
    dennislk1  March 13, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have a friend who if one explained the history of the earth and the universe exactly as it happened all the way back to the big bang would then ask “Yes, but what happened before that?”. Some people are able to believe in a God that doesn’t exist and some people aren’t able to believe in anything, even if it is explained and proven (like I believe evolution has been).
    I am fascinated by what seems to be your belief that everything written in the Bible is based on what preceded it? I believe that a religion, a God and a Messiah are the vehicle that is being used to save the world because it fits so well into what humans are able to believe naturally already. Because you seem to be a person who is always thinking and trying to fiorm logical deductions from the evidence available, have you ever tried to look at the Bible through a modern lens or futuristic lens?

    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2019

      I long looked at it from a modern lens; but I’m not sure what a futuristic lens is.

  14. galah
    galah  March 15, 2019

    Doctor Ehrman,
    You say that the stories of Jesus evolved during the stage of the oral tradition, becoming more and more elaborate or mythologized. I know you don’t believe in the miracle stories but, since we’re speaking of origins, do any of these stories contain any kind of inside truths that might be factual? When they’re all weighed together, I’m guessing that the (mythologies) untruths far outweigh the (facts) truths. Could you tell us, among these untruths, which, if any, came close to scholarly consideration? I suppose it would be easier to elaborate on the accepted stories than it would the rejected stories, since they are far fewer in number.
    Is there any legendary story that almost made it into the secular scholar’s canon for some unusual reason?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2019

      Many of the stories are not simply a unit, but convey seceral historical claims all of which need to be evaluated separately. When Jesus feeds the 5000, the story is not just about the miracle. There are other historical claims involved: Jesus is with his disciples. He is teaching others. It is in Galilee. They are in a remote area. It has been going on for a while. People are hungry. Jesus talks to his disciples about it. Etc. Etc. Each of these elements has to be considered in terms of whether they are plausible, and even likely, apart from what one does with the story of the miracle itself.

      • galah
        galah  March 16, 2019

        In saying “plausible, or likely” you mean events that don’t defy the laws of nature. If they’re miraculous claims or claims that can not be replicated or scientifically proven, then they’re never considered plausible for any reason?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 17, 2019

          They miracle itself would never be seen as scientifically plausible, no (but science is flexible and always discovering things that seemed, before, implausible. Think Quantum Physics!) (those things, though, do not apply to the very simply ancient miracle stories — e.g., people walking on water, or flying through the air etc…)


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