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Who Invented the Idea of a Suffering Messiah?

For this week’s readers’ mailbag I give a very interesting and important question.



Where did the idea of a Jewish messiah dying for the sins of mankind originate from? OT? Did Jews prior to Jesus’ existence believe this notion of the messiah dying for other’s sins?



I deal with this issue in a couple of my books.  Here is one of my fuller discussion from Did Jesus Exist?, where I talk about the issue in connection with the question of why Paul originally opposed Christians before converting to the faith.


Why, as a highly religious Jew, did Paul originally persecute the Christians before he himself joined their ranks?   It appears to have been for one reason only: the Christians were saying that Jesus was God’s special chosen one, his beloved son, the messiah.  But for the pre-Christian Paul it was quite clear.  Jesus was not anything like God’s chosen one, the one selected to do his will on earth.  He did not enjoy God’s blessing.  Just the opposite.  He was under God’s curse.  Evidence?  He was hung on a tree.

But why would that be a problem?  Wasn’t the messiah supposed to suffer horribly for the sins of others and be raised from the dead?  Not according to ancient Jews.  On the contrary, the messiah was not supposed to be killed at all.  It is at this point that we need to consider what ancient Jews, including the pre-Christian Paul, thought about the messiah.


Ancient Views of the Messiah

The word “messiah” is Hebrew, and literally means “anointed one.”  The Greek translation of the term is “christos,” so that “Jesus Christ” literally means “Jesus the Messiah.”  The origin of the term goes back into the ancient history of Israel, to the time when the nation was ruled by kings, who were said to have been specially favored, “anointed,” by God.  In fact, the king was literally anointed during his inauguration ceremonies, when oil was poured on his head as a way of showing that he was specially favored by God, as seen in such passages as 1 Samuel 10:1 and 2 Samuel 23:1.

Other persons thought …

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Degrees of Punishment and Purgatory
The Unforgivable Sin and Purgatory



  1. Wilusa  April 8, 2018

    Am I right in thinking the concept of a “Messiah” predates the concept of apocalypticism, with its powerful “Son of Man” coming from the clouds? (I sometimes find myself imagining Judas had believed *only* in the “Son of Man,” and was irked by the “Messiah” claims about Jesus – whether it was Jesus himself or some of his disciples who’d begun calling him that.)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      Yes, that’s one of the points I was trying to make. the idea that a future anointed one would come is probably rooted in expectations that a future king like David would appear.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 9, 2018

      The original Jewish notion of the Son of Man probably orginated with Ezekiel’s use of the term, where the prophet is refered to as Ben-Adam (“son of Adam”), which is simply a Hebrew expression for a human being. However, at the start of Ezekiel’s vision, he sees an angelic being that he distinguishes by its human features (hands like “Adam”, face like “Adam”, a likeness of “Adam”, etc.) all in contrast to those angelic beings that look like “animals” (Chayyoth). This human looking angelic being (who Christians would later associate with Jesus) was the precursor to what would become the Son of Man angelic being we find in Daniel. Then at some point after Daniel — i.e. during the Hasmonean period — the Son of Man angelic being became synonymous with the Messiah, and that’s how we get the idea of Jesus being both the Messiah and the Son of Man.

      Does that make sense?

  2. jwesenbe  April 8, 2018

    It is not unlike any other written documents, such as predictions by Nostradamus that seemed to predict the future. If a person has written enough, there will always be writings that seem to correlate or are similar to events that have occurred at a latter date.

  3. Stylites  April 8, 2018

    What changed Paul’s mind? Or is this one of those question for which there is no probable answer?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      His vision of Jesus changed everything for him. I try to explain it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.

      • flyboydh1  April 12, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman, I still cannot comprehend why you believe Paul actually persecuted Christians. What evidence do you have? Just because he said so? Also, how are you so sure he was a highly religious Jew? Again, just because he said so? Paul’s thinking is completely Greek in nature. He may have been born a Jew, but that’s about it. Anyone (and many people have) claimed they have had some kind of supernatural revelation. In fact, you yourself did, Dr. Ehrman. But emotions are powerful, and can effect the way we think. This is called a “born again experience.” Every religion has adherents who make these born again claims, for a variety of reasons. Paul’s born again experience was his own invention, as he saw an opportunity to gain power and influence over people. He was an egomaniac, which is very apparent in his writings. It’s hard to believe a scholar of your caliber would believe Paul just because he said so. You can do better than that, Dr. Ehrman.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 15, 2018

          It’s one of the rare points of agreement between Paul himself and the book of Acts; and it is a tradition found in other later sources, such as the Pseudo-Clementines. What grounds to you have for questioning it?

          • flyboydh1  April 15, 2018

            Dr. Ehrman,

            I apologize for the long reply. The book of Acts is about Paul. So it’s no surprise that Paul’s writing and Acts share similar themes. However, allow me to show you internally using Acts to demonstrate how there is no way Paul could have been persecuting Christians. First, in Acts 5 we hear about Rabbi Gamaliel:

            “But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.””
            ‭‭Acts‬ ‭5:34-39‬ ‭NIV‬‬

            Gamaliel was a Pharisee, and according to Acts 22 Paul was his student. Acts 22 records this:

            ““I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”
            ‭‭Acts‬ ‭22:3-5‬ ‭NIV‬‬

            But we also know from Acts 5 that the High Priest and Sanhedrin were at this point in history Sadducees:

            “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.

            But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.” At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people. When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles.”
            ‭‭Acts‬ ‭5:17, 19-21‬ ‭NIV‬‬

            Ok, so the question that must be answered is, “If Paul was a Pharisee, a student of Gamaliel, who explicitly in Acts 5/22 is a Pharisee himself and tells the Sadducees not to persecute Christians, why would Paul be persecuting Christians?” History tells us that the Pharisees and Sadducees were diametrically at odds with each other for several reasons, most prominently the acceptance of the Oral Torah as part of the Mosaic tradition. The Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah, while the Pharisees accepted it, creating a huge rift between the two groups. Why would Paul, a self proclaimed Pharisee, listen to the Sadducees (who made up the Sanhedrin and priesthood at the time) rather than his own teachers (Gamaliel) when the two groups were at odds with one another? Being a Sadducee was just as heretical as being a Jewish Christian, if not more.

            Secondly, it’s almost laughable that Paul would have the chutzpa to go by himself to persecute Christians, and drag them all over Israel. Plus, the last thing on the Jews minds was persecuting Christians during that time period. The Jews were worried about the Romans destroying Jerusalem. Everything about this story of Paul is unthinkable. It’s simply a ploy to make Paul look credible. Secondly, Paul’s blatant misuse of the Hebrew Bible is readily clear time and again in his own writings. There is zero evidence he ever wrote anything in Hebrew. His thinking is entirely Greek. He wasn’t even from Israel. This man was a pathological liar so engrossed in his own egotistical pursuits he would go to any length to gain control over unsuspecting people who by and large were not Jewish. Learned Jews then and now can see right through Paul’s many lies. As far as extra-biblical sources, it really doesn’t matter. They are Christian sources, which cannot be trusted and were not contemporaneous.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 16, 2018

            There’s no good evidence that hte author of Acts had read any of Paul’s letters. And Paul never says he went “by himself”

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  April 15, 2018

            Not sure of Flyboy’s reasons, but I have seen in mythicist circles where Paul is doubted to have existed, lied about persecuting Christians, lied about meeting Jesus’ brother James, lied about meeting Peter, etc…

          • flyboydh1  April 18, 2018

            Dr. Ehrman hopefully you consider my comments more closely…and they are not “my” comments. This has been part of the Jewish response to Christianity for years…

            I will never understand why you (and Christians) trust Paul…he was a liar. Period.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 18, 2018

            I don’t think history can be done by simply disbelieving everything one or another source says, on principle. I certainly don’t think everything Paul says is “right” — but I do think we need to evaluate sources critically, not simply write them off without applying our critical judgment to them.

    • balivi  April 10, 2018

      What changed Paul’s mind? I think, the revelation. (Gal 1:16)

  4. ajh22  April 8, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, couldn’t some Jews have been reading Daniel 9 as predicting a dying messiah presaging the end of the world? (Daniel 9:24-27) After all, don’t the Dead Sea Scrolls show Daniel 9 was being read as referring to some future events and no longer as a past event? (11Q13) And doesn’t Isaiah 53 say the ‘chosen’ one, which you have in the past admitted was a recognized way of referring to the messiah, will die and then be exalted? And didn’t Talmudic Jews indeed read that verse as predicting the death of the messiah, son of Joseph, who would then be resurrected by the messiah, son of David, and begin the end of the world? You’ve said before that we can’t claim to know what all Jews thought in antiquity, so don’t these things give examples of some Jews actually imagining and expecting a dying messiah? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      They certainly could have. My point is that none of them ever seems to have done.

    • Robert
      Robert  April 9, 2018

      These are interesting points. It is, of course, pretty difficult to date Talmudic traditions. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend reading Jesus in the Talmud and by Peter Schäfer. I think there are both negative and positive references to the Jesus tradition preserved in the Talmud. The negative ones especially are sometimes coded for self-preservation. The Son of Joseph traditions may be fairly transparent on the part of rabbis that were not all that opposed to a positive appropriation of Jesus. Bottom line, they likely do not predate the Jesus tradition.

    • Robert
      Robert  April 9, 2018

      Forgot to mention another book by Peter Schäfer, ie, The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other. This book discusses, among other things, the Messiah Son of Joseph/Ephraim traditions in the Talmud.

  5. Tony  April 8, 2018

    An alternate hypothesis explaining the suffering Messiah is that Christianity had its beginnings as a Jewish-Hellenistic Mystery Religion. This appears to be the earliest documented type of Christianity as per Paul.


    This Jewish mystery cult was based on Hebrew scripture interpretation, as well as direct revelations from a sacrificed celestial son of God called Jesus. That would have been anathema to Paul the Pharisee. However, at some point Paul claimed that he too received visions from Jesus and joined the cult he had previously persecuted.

    • ddorner  April 9, 2018


      There are many reasons to think that theory makes zero sense. If Paul believed Jesus was a purely celestial being then why does he say Jesus was born of a woman? Or why does Paul go out of his way to say he met Jesus’ brother? Or that Jesus was crucified and buried? Saying someone was crucified back then would be like saying someone “died in a car accident”. If it were a celestial event you’d think Paul would differentiate Jesus’ celestial crucifixion from the many hundreds, even thousands of other regular crucifixions under the Roman Empire. But he doesn’t. Why? because everyone knew what it meant to be crucified.

      Not to mention if it was a mystery religion and Jesus was a celestial being, why then did later Christians write a narrative wherein the messiah is crucified on earth? (Which Paul says was the greatest stumbling block for the Jews) It’s because the religion that would become Christianity is best explained as Jesus’ early followers trying to reconcile what they believed about him (he was the messiah) and what they knew happened to him (he was crucified by the Roman Empire.)

      I think that is a much simpler and far more elegant explanation than your alternate hypothesis.

      • Tony  April 12, 2018

        I never got your response by email and only accidentally noticed it on the blog. Yes, there are a few verses that, superficially, seem to indicate an earthly Jesus. But that’s not so. Here’s why:

        “why does he say Jesus was born of a woman?”
        The word translated to born in Gal 4.4 is not about a biological birth, it means “made” or “to become”. For example, Paul uses that to describe the origin of Adam. Paul explains the “woman” to be allegory for a covenant and not a biological woman, Gal 4:24.

        “Or why does Paul go out of his way to say he met Jesus’ brother?”
        Paul’s comment does not say Jesus, he uses the title Lord, and it is in a casual referral to James in Jerusalem, Gal 1:19. James is mentioned four times in Paul’s letters, and only once as the Lord’s brother. Weird, because being the biological brother to the Son of God would have been an important title, why use it only once? The explanation is that rank and file cult members were all considered brothers of the Lord, Romans 8:29. Paul shortens the term to brothers most of the time. The truly strange part is that Paul, while describing his visit to Jerusalem, not once mentions anything about Jesus, who presumably was executed there a couple of decades ago.

        “Or that Jesus was crucified and buried?” Paul writes that he got that information from the scriptures, not from any recent historical event, 1 Cor 15:3-4. Paul never specifies where or when this happened. Paul’s “crucified” does not mean the Roman method. Paul writes about hanged from a tree in Gal 3:13. Hanged from a tree, and the Roman execution method, use the identical Greek word.

        Paul’s religion did not survive. Mark uses Paul’s letters and other inputs to write a story about an earthly Jesus, sometime after the destruction of he Jerusalem temple in 70 AD.

        • VirtualAlex  April 18, 2018

          Where do you see Paul in Mark? I always thought they were pretty much mutually exclusive.

  6. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  April 8, 2018

    If I was a Christian I’d say this was a divine moment! I just got done watching a Hebrew language video on YouTube where they interview Jewish people in Israel and have them read Isaiah 53. Apparently this chapter is “banned” in synagogues. Something like that. The Messianic Jews say it’s because the Rabbis know the truth but are suppressing it in unrighteousness. Most likely, if it is true, they just wanted to avoid confusion and trouble, not because they actually believed it referred to Jesus.

    My comment in the video, based partly on what I’ve learned from you, is that the orginal Gospel writers could very easily have written their life of Jesus (or the first oral legends introduced) with Isaiah 53 in mind. Even Mike Licona in his recent debates with you admits the possibility of this sort of thing as a “literary device” when done in John’s Gospel.

    Anyway I came here to specifically search for a post you might have done on Isaiah 53, addressing this topic and lo and behold you have a brand new post addressing this very topic! I mean I was even here this morning reading and this post wasn’t here. Serendipity!

  7. forthfading  April 8, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Are we to assume that Paul’s theology concerning the suffering messiah was guided and sculpted under the influence of the disciples (i.e Peter, James)?

    Do historians think the disciples played a major part in Paul’s views?

    thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      It’s hard to say. Certainly Paul knew what Christians believed to some extent when he was persecuting them. But he appears not to have met any of the apostles until years later.

      • Iskander Robertson  April 9, 2018

        how would paul have interpreted isaiah 53 pre-conversion ? in isaiah 53, there is not a word about believing in the death of the servant and it does not say in that passage that the servant died as a sin sacrifice.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2018

          Don’t really know. It was often seen as a reference to the suffering of God’s servant, Israel.

          • VirtualAlex  April 18, 2018

            So did the disciples get their idea that the suffering dying Jesus was the messiah, from the scriptures? And Paul came to the same conclusion, later and separately? And yet, it’s not in there, and nobody else ever saw it. That’s odd.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 20, 2018

            I’d say they got the idea from their experience. They came to think Jesus was raised, and that made them try to understand how he could have died, and since God raised him, God must have wanted him killed and … and eventually they come to think that the death according to God’s plan must have been anticipated by God’s prophets, etc.

          • VirtualAlex  April 20, 2018

            ok. Do we know what theological slant the disciples put on the suffering, death and resurrection? That is, to Paul it was what you had to believe in (like most Christians today), he linked it with the sin stuff. Is

          • Bart
            Bart  April 22, 2018

            I’m afraid we don’t have any writings from them. All we have is Paul’s claim that he inherited from others the statement found in 1 Cor. 15:3-5.

      • RG959  February 15, 2019


        Paul states in his own writings Galatians 1:11-12 “ I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I received my message from NO HUMAN source, and no one TAUGHT me. Instead, I received it by DIRECT revelation from Jesus Christ.”

        How in the world could have Paul persecuted Christians prior to seeing the risen Jesus? You can’t persecute a group of people you have no prior knowledge about as Paul has clearly stated.

        I persecuted the Mormons (not literally) because I hated their gospel, what they stood for because they or someone told me what they stood for, I heard their gospel and was taught. You can’t persecute a group you’ve never heard of or have no knowledge about. It’s impossible and makes no sense!

        • Bart
          Bart  February 15, 2019

          Yeah, that can be confusing. Paul in Galatians is not saying he didn’t know what Christians believed about, say, Jesus as the messiah. He is saying that *HIS* gospel message — that gentiles can be among the people of God and saved by Jesus without first becoming Jews — was given him directly by God.

  8. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  April 8, 2018

    If the Psalms of Solomon were considered canonical by Evangelicals I imagine that they would simply (and emphatically) say that the propecy in question is referring to the future Millennial reign of Christ. That he came the first time as a suffering servant, but the second time he will come as a conquering king. In fact that _is_ how they already deal with these two very different images of the Messiah that we get in the OT books.

    Also, they might say, as the NT says, that the reason the Jews never interpreted the passages that way or accepted Jesus is because they were spiritually blind, and that if those passages do not refer to Jesus then why do they bear such a striking resemblance to the way Jesus suffered and died in the Gospels. How would you answer those objections?

  9. godspell  April 8, 2018

    The Messiah is, in a sense, the ultimate prophet. Jesus is connected, in the gospels, with Moses and Elijah, perhaps the most revered Jewish Prophets. But there had been many others, and the one thing they all had in common–at least as far as the books of the Old Testament are concerned–is that none of them were martyred.

    They had setbacks. They had trials. They had human failings (Elisha was sensitive about his baldness). And you have to believe that their real-life equivalents, the preachers whose words and deeds led to the legends that were eventually written down, did in some cases meet bad ends. But the Jewish prophetic tradition is a triumphant one. God will not allow his chosen messengers to be killed by evil men.

    Jesus, however, knew this was not true.

    His teacher, John, who he believed to be as good as a mortal man could be, at least as good a man as himself (“No man born of woman is greater than John the Baptist”), had been killed by Herod.

    So whatever he believed himself to be, whether he thought himself the Messiah or not, he knew he could also suffer and die. He knew that God will allow his messengers to be tormented and killed. But that must mean there is some reason for the suffering. Some purpose to it.

    And how much is faith worth, really, if you know you won’t pay a price for it?

  10. gavriel  April 8, 2018

    Does Paul some place refer to Scriptural depictions of suffering figures as proof of Jesus’ messiahship?

  11. Pegill7  April 8, 2018


    In your answer to my question about the importance of Paul’s letters you said “They (the gospels) were written decades after that happened (faith in Jesus as an option for gentiles) by gentiles [not Jews].” Since we do not know precisely who wrote the gospels, how do we know that they were gentiles and not converted Jews like Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      Because of some of the things they say. Mark, for example, completely misrepresents Jewish practices in Mark 7:3.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  April 9, 2018

        To be fair, the only problem with Mark 7:3 is the phrase καὶ πάντες οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι. That’s the part that betrays Mark’s ignorance. However, if the original version of that verse didn’t have it, the verse would not only still make sense, but it would be accurate.

        οἱ γὰρ Φαρισαῖοι ἐὰν μὴ πυγμῇ νίψωνται τὰς χεῖρας οὐκ ἐσθίουσιν, κρατοῦντες τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν πρεσβυτέρων.

        Is it possible that the phrase “and all the Jews” was, therefore, a later interpolation?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2018

          Yup, that’s the problem. But no, I don’t see any reason to think it’s not Mark’s wording.

  12. jhague  April 8, 2018

    I know Paul speaks about his visions but he certainly must have been convinced of Jesus being the messiah due to others talking to him about it, righ?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      What he indicates is that what he learned from others led him to persecute them; the vision, though, reversed all that.

      • jhague  April 9, 2018

        I understand from an evidence standpoint that what we have from Paul is that his vision reversed his belief. But from a reasonable standpoint, do you think it is most likely that a friend or group of friends had some influence on Paul changing his thinking? My thought is that if he did indeed have a vision as he states, the vision happened due to those trying to convince him.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2018

          I’m afraid there’s no way to know. But he discusses the vision as a revolutionary moment, and so he at least seems to have seen it that way.

          • SidDhartha1953  April 15, 2018

            Like speculations about Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky, could the blinding light Luke reports Paul having seen been a solar halo, or some other rare but natural phenomenon that he took to be an apparition?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 15, 2018

            Sure, it’s possible. So are lots of options!

        • VirtualAlex  April 20, 2018

          Maybe he was just trying to,one-up the disciples. He knew they had all had visions so he thought he had better get in on the act. Validation.

  13. doug  April 8, 2018

    Soon after I moved far away from my parents, I thought I saw my father at a shopping mall. Upon closer examination, it was someone else. Sometimes the wish is father (no pun intended) to the thought. So it’s not hard for me to see how after Jesus died, some of his close followers could have mistakenly believed they saw him.

  14. RonaldTaska  April 8, 2018

    With regard to your recent purgatory articles, Rabbi Gellman in today’s “God Squad” article in the Sunday News and Observer states that “Purgatory is not a belief found in the Hebrew Bible or even in the New Testament. It dates from … the 12th century.”

    Hmm? Maybe Rabbi Gellman has been reading your recent blogs????

    I do like the way Rabbi Gellman addresses questions from adolescents. I wonder how many adolescents read your blog and it would be interesting to see what questions they ask and what you answer.

  15. talmoore
    talmoore  April 8, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, when I put myself into the mindset of Jesus’ disciples right after his crucifixion, I try to imagine the cognitive dissonance required to square that circle. If what you have written is correct (and I think that, for the most part, it is correct — see below), then I have to imagine that up to the point of Jesus’ ignominious death, the idea that the Messiah must suffer, die, resurrect and return would have been just as absurd to his disciples as it was to any other Jew.

    Now let’s say that after the crucifixion the disciples immediately dove into scripture to try to explain and rationalize away the unexpected death of the man who they thought was the Messiah. And they came across Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, etc. So I guess my question to you is this. Let us say that you are correct that the disciples were all “illiterate peasants from rural Galilee.” And let us say that they were wise enough to consult scripture for an explanation. Do they then seek out someone who can read, and assign that reader the task of reading the scripture to look for passages such as Isaiah 53? And then does that person come back to them with a report, listing those passages? And then do they have those passages read to them until they memorize them? And then those illiterate peasants proceed to recite those passages in defense of their knew belief that Jesus as Messiah was supposed to die ignominiously? And at what point does this whole process start to sound absurd?

    I mean, there is an alternate process, and that’s to have Jesus’ illiterate disciples not think to search scripture for answers, but, rather, for them to merely come to their belief via their “visions”. And so only later, after literate men like Paul came to accept the disciples’ theory about Jesus, did they have the ability to search scripture. But then we are forced to consider how long of a gap there was between the disciples’ new belief and the arrival of literate converts who could and would search scripture for them. One month? Two months? Six months? A year? Two years?

    Acts of the Apostles claims that the disciples started preaching the necessity of the death and resurrection of the messianic Jesus within 50 days of the end of Passover (literally at Pentecost/Shavuot). The problem with this idea is that, whichever timeframe we proprose — that the disciples started preaching within two months or within two years — the logical conclusions are equally absurd. Fifty days is too short a time for illiterate men to search scripture. Two years is plenty of time, but up to that point, the disciples look like fools as they try to defend their new belief without having exhausted scripture yet. (Hence why their scriptural knowledge has to be attributed to a miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit.)

    So we are left with two seemingly absurd scenarios. In the first scenario, the illiterate disciples started preaching a gospel of the death and resurrection of the Messiah before they have even had the chance to consult scripture. In the second scenario, the illiterate disciples wait until they acquire someone who can consult scripture before they begin preaching the death and resurrection of the Messiah. At what point does this all start to sound a little ridiculous?

    However, what would you say to the possibility that the disciples didn’t need to exhaustively search scripture for an explanation after Jesus’ death, because they already knew their scripture quite well beforehand. And the reason they already knew their scripture quite well was that they had already spent quite a bit of time studying scripture before that. And they were able to adequately study scripture before Jesus’ death because most, if not all of them were actually literate.

    Now, I already know one thing you’re going to point out: Acts describes Peter and John as “agrammatos”. There are two problems with this passage. For starters, the author of Acts (“Luke”) is getting this information at best second-hand. It’s possible that Peter and John’s illiteracy is greatly exaggerated if not outright fabricated. Second, Luke could simply mean that Peter and John were not formally educated. The context around of Acts 4:13 suggests that, in their appearance, Peter and John did not come across as typical experts in scripture (“scribes”). That’s why the men they are talking to are so thrown for a loop. And, in fact, both explanations are possible. One merely needs to consider why Luke (or any other evangelist) would want to exaggerate Peter and John’s illiteracy. Namely, if Peter and John started out as illiterate nobodies before they met Jesus, it only makes it look all the more miraculous when they started quoting scripture to people after Jesus’ death. In other words, if Peter and John were already literate and fully steeped in scripture before they met Jesus, then one wouldn’t be all that surprised to see them publicly cite scripture in defense of their new beliefs. But if they were illiterate up to that point, well, clearly their new scriptural knowledge is some kind of demonstration of divine power.

    All of this looks awfully suspicious to me. What it looks like to me is that Jesus’ disciples were already literate and well-studied in scripture before they even joined Jesus’ movement. And after Jesus died, they were able to tap into that scriptural knowledge right away, and they used scripture to defend their new beliefs about Jesus. This idea that they were just backwoods bumpkins who wouldn’t know an aleph from taph is, to my mind, bordering on ludicrious.

    Which hypothesis seems more reasonable to you?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      I’m afraid you’ll need to make the options for succinct for me!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  April 9, 2018

        Fair enough. I did put a lot on the table there.

        ~ Option #1: The Disciples were illiterate, so they didn’t think to search scripture for an explanation of Jesus’ unexpected demise, leaving later literate converts like Paul to make the effort. (I find this option to be borderline absurd.)
        ~ Option #2: The Disciples were illiterate, but they knew scripture had the answers they needed to explain Jesus’ unexpected demise, so they sought out literate persons to search scripture for them. (I find this option to be plausible but unrealistic.)
        ~ Option #3: Some or all of the Disciples were not only literate, but well-versed in scripture, allowing them to quickly locate passages (e.g. Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, etc.) that rationalized the unexpected demise of Jesus. And, moreover, it was this use of scripture to justify their new-fangled beliefs that irked critics like Paul and the other Pharisees. (I find this option to be the most plausible and realistic.)
        ~ Other: add your own option here.

        Which option would you choose?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2018

          I go with the “other” option. The disciples were indeed almost illiterate. But that would not at all mean they were unfamiliar with the Scriptures. I think they certainly knew the Scriptures, possibly rather well, as devout Jews. They knew them from constant reading and talking about them from childhood in their synagogues and homes.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  April 10, 2018

            I assume by “reading” you mean that scripture was read to them, seeing as how you’re pretty firm that they were illiterate. And seeing as how in the Semitic languages, the verb for “to read” is the same as the word for “to read aloud” and “to call” it might be possible that the disciples were well-versed in scripture simply from having it read to them their whole lives. However, the addition of the middle man not only seems unnecessary, but — using Occam’s Razor — it seems superfluous. If the disciples were going to spend that much time devoted to learning scripture, why bother having it read to them when they could simply learn how to read it for themselves?

            The scenario is analogous — in my mind — to a catholic boy who wants to learn the Vulgate Bible, so he learns it by having a priest who can read Latin read it to him. If the boy is going to go to that much trouble to learn how to understand Latin, why not simply learn how to read it as well? In the case of the disciples, as they’re listening to the Hebrew scriptures — a language that is similar to, but not mutually intelligible with their native Galilean Aramaic — they’re essentially forced to learn Hebrew at the same time. So if they’re going to make the effort to learn the Hebrew, why not simply learn to read it as well?

            See, this is the problem I have with your option. It sounds unrealistic. Anyone who would go to the trouble to learn to understand Latin that is read to them is probably going to go to the trouble to learn how to read it for themselves. Anyone who would go to the trouble to learn to understand Hebrew read to them is probably going to go to the trouble to learn how to read it for themselves. You, yourself, Dr. Ehrman, know first-hand the dogged determination of the zealous. Your obsession with scripture led you to want to literally memorized entire chunks of the Bible. Is it really so unimaginable that the obsession of the disciples wouldn’t motivate them to learn to read the Bible just like you were motivated to memorize it?

            Just something to think about.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 11, 2018

            In the synagogues the scriptures were not only read (possibly with Aramaic translations) but also discussed, in the native tongue.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  April 11, 2018

            Again, Dr. Ehrman, respectfully, I’m not buying it.

            I’m trying to imagine a group of young, zealous Galilean men, who are desperately seeking a Messianic figure, who will lead them toward the imminent eschaton. Are these guys really just a bunch of ignorant, uneducated bumpkins? I don’t know about that.

            The closest example I can think of to a group of loyal followers following an endtimes prophet is Muhammad’s Ansareen — that is, his first “companions.” For the most part, they were educated men and women from powerful families. Muhammad’s first and most loyal companion, Abu Bakr — who can reasonably be called Muhammad’s Peter — came from a well-to-do family connected with the same ruling Quraysh tribe as Muhammad. Bakr was almost certainly literate, as was Muhammad (though, Muslims like to pretend that Muhammad was illiterate, so as to greater highlight the miracle of his prophecies, not unlike how Christians pretend that Jesus and his disciples were illiterate so as to make their revelations all the more miraculous; noticing a pattern?)

            Anyway, we know a LOT more about Muhammad’s companions (analogous to Jesus’ disciples) than we know about Jesus’ disciples, and what we know about them suggests they weren’t a bunch of ignorant, backwoods rubes. They were highly intelligent men, from well-to-do, well-connected families. Indeed, one of Muhammad’s most loyal companions, Abu Sufyan, was not only the literal leader of Muhammad’s tribe, he was Muhammad’s fiercest enemy all throughout Muhammad’s early career. Sufyan only converted from dogged enemy of Muhammad to devoted Muslims once Muhammad conquered Mecca.

            My point is, when you read ancient documents, like the Gospels, downplaying and minimizing the educational level of the founding members of a movement, you should automatically be suspicious. This is a common tactic for exaggerating the miraculous features of the movement. It is a way of making the movement appear all the more powerful and significant, because it has brought its leader from the bottom up to the top, not unlike how any self-improvement seminar starts off with a testimonial by its founder about how he used to live in his car, but since he started his new revolutionary “program,” he now lives in a $2 million mansion and owns five cars, one of which is a lamborghini.

            Be very wary of anyone selling you a story that seems too good to be true. Because it probably is.

  16. DavidNeale  April 9, 2018

    “We do not have a single Jewish text that interprets the text messianically before Jesus.”

    What about that row between Thom Stark and Richard Carrier about the Targum of Jonathan? Having read Stark’s detailed posts, I can see Stark’s point that the targum doesn’t prove what Carrier says it does. But doesn’t it have a messianic reworking of Isaiah 53? (Albeit that Stark points out that it entirely removes the idea of the suffering servant from the passage, so it doesn’t undermine the point that no one expected a suffering Messiah.)

    (I haven’t read all of Carrier’s posts on the subject: his rudeness, arrogance, and wrongness about many things can be grating. But I digress.)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      The Targum of Jonathan comes from long after the time of JEsus and his apostles. If you want to know about it, look to scholarship by experts, not by someone like Carrier who is not a scholar of ancient Judaism.

      • DavidNeale  April 9, 2018

        Indeed – I had a feeling Carrier was wrong, as he often is. But it’s not my area of expertise.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  April 10, 2018

          I believe Carrier’s PhD is in ancient science if I’m not mistaken.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 11, 2018

            No, ancient history.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  April 11, 2018

          Yes, Bart is right. Carrier’s PhD is in ancient history. His latest book is about ancient science. Brain hiccup.

          • DavidNeale  May 3, 2018

            Carrier seems to think he’s an expert in everything, even things in which he has no qualifications. I remember when he got into a big fight about physics and probability theory with a physicist.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 4, 2018

            Ha! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

          • DavidNeale  May 4, 2018

            As to his PhD, I believe it’s about the history of science in the Roman world (“Attitudes Toward the Natural Philosopher in the Early Roman Empire (100 B.C. to 313 A.D.)”), so you’re both right.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  April 11, 2018

          You can safely assume that Richard Carrier is wrong most of the time. As a Jew and as an Israeli, when I read Carrier’s work, the only thing I can think is “has this man EVER studied ancient Judaism, or ancient Semitic cultures or anything of the sort?” Because he writes some of the most obtuse, confused nonsense I have ever read from a supposed “historian”.

      • VirtualAlex  April 18, 2018

        I’m glad you addressed this issue – i emailed you about it recently, Bart. Carrier also uses Dead Sea Scroll 11Q13 and the Talmud (b.Sanhedrin 98b, b.Sanhedrin 93b and b.Sukkah 52a-b) to construct his theory about other Jewish sects before Jesus expecting a suffering, dying Messiah.

        I assume then, that he has equally mis-used these texts too?

        If so, it kind of puts a huge hole in his evidence for a mythical Jesus. After reading a couple of his books, I seem to remember he depends quite heavily on this theory to support mythical J.

        (Apparently a scholar named David C. Mitchell has written on these texts too using them for a mythical J.)

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2018

          Yup. Using the Talmud is a rookie mistake.

          • VirtualAlex  April 18, 2018

            Because of its post-dating the beginning of Christianity? Well that seems worse than a rookie mistake…

  17. alexius105  April 9, 2018

    How do you, prof. Bart, explain passages such as this one found in Daniel 9?

    //25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One,[f] the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing.//

    Isn’t this about the Messiah being put to death? A prophecy.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      It was apparently never taken that way. Modern critical scholars are fairly unified that it is referring to the high priest Onias III, as referred to in 2 Maccabees 4:23-28. One of the best commentaries on Daniel is the one by John Collins in teh Hermeneia Commentary Series, if you want to read a good critical analysis.

      • ajh22  April 10, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman, don’t the Dead Sea Scrolls show Daniel 9 was being read as referring to some future events and no longer as a past event? (11Q13) How can you assume you know what all other Jews and Jewish sects believed in the first century? Haven’t you said we can’t claim to know what all Jews thought in antiquity, because most of them didn’t leave writings for us to tell by?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2018

          Yes, of course the Qumran community read *all* the Scriptures as referring to their own time. That is what Pesher interpretation is all about. But where do you see a future suffering messiah there?

          • ajh22  April 10, 2018

            All things considered with the dying messiah in Daniel, the suffering servant called the “chosen” one in Isaiah 53, the Pre-Pauline use of “according to the scriptures,” and the gospels containing allegory alluding to the Old Testament, it seems probable to me that a Jewish sect could have come up with a suffering and dying messiah.

            If the Talmudic Jews came up with it, why are we assuming no Jews before did, when we don’t know what most Jews and Jewish sects thought?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 11, 2018

            It’s certainly possible. But we have no evidence of it happening.

    • HawksJ  April 9, 2018

      If it’s a ‘prophecy’ and the ‘Anointed One’ is Jesus, then the whole statement is either true or untrue. When did Jesus have ‘nothing’? If he’s god, then he’s always had everything.

  18. Lev
    Lev  April 9, 2018

    Fascinating insights, Bart – thank you!

    In the NT we read many instances where early Christians have linked certain OT passages to Jesus. Is there a book that you could recommend that has examined these NT references to the OT and what they meant for the 1st-century church?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      Nothing comes to mind set up to deal with just that problem/issue.. But it would be a good book to have!

    • Rthompsonmdog  April 9, 2018

      I don’t know if this book would deal with your question or not. It is on my to read list and I thought of it reading your comment.
      “When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible” by Timothy Michael Law
      Dr. Ehrman, are you familiar with this book?

  19. Silver  April 9, 2018

    An off-post question, please.
    Re your book ‘Jesus before the Gospels.’ Did you have any feedback, either before or after publication, from such ‘Distorted Memory’ experts as Elizabeth Loftus on whose work you draw? Have such experts been happy to see their studies (focused on legal areas [e.g. Loftus] ) applied to your thesis?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      Before sending it to the publisher, I had the book read by Daniel Schacter, the former chair of Psychology at Harvard and the world’ leading expert in “false memory”. He liked it very much and agreed with my synthesis of the scholarship on memory.

  20. toejam  April 9, 2018

    Apparently Robert Price has a book coming out soon titled “Bart Ehrman, Interrupted”. Given that you two appear to be on friendly terms, I’m curious if he’s had you read it in advance of publication, and if so, what are your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2018

      No, he didn’t give it to me to read, but he’s now sent me a copy (prior to its being made public). Nice of him!

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